Position: Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and Research Director of the Division of Developmental Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital
Background: Nelson’s research interests are broadly concerned with developmental cognitive neuroscience, an interdisciplinary field that requires expertise in developmental neuroscience and developmental psychology. His specific interests are concerned with the effects of early experience on brain and behavioral development, particularly as such experience influences the development of memory and the development of the ability to recognize faces. Nelson studies both typically developing children and children at risk for neurodevelopmental disorders, and he employs behavioral, electrophysiological (ERP), and metabolic (MRI) tools in his research.
The Nelson Laboratory conducts research on a variety of problems in developmental cognitive neuroscience. One line of research concerns typical and atypical memory development. Results collected over the past few years in healthy infants suggest that some forms of explicit memory (subserved by the medial temporal lobe) come “on-line” sometime after six months of life and undergo a reorganization as children approach one year of age. Infants who have suffered a number of pre- or perinatal insults appear to show delayed and/or atypical development. In some cases we continue to follow these infants into childhood; in others we focus on children who experienced early brain injury.
A second theme of the Nelson Lab is concerned with infants’ and children’s ability to recognize faces and facial emotion. Based on the assumption that the neural architecture underlying face processing becomes specialized with experience viewing faces, much of the work being conducted focuses on the role of experience in face processing. We juxtapose our work with typically developing infants and children with infants at risk for developing autism and children who already meet criteria for autism spectrum disorder. As is the case with our research on memory, a subset of our studies on face processing is done in collaboration with colleagues around the Boston area.
A final and dominant theme of the lab is concerned with the role of experience in influencing the course of brain development. Here our work focuses not only on typical experiences but as well, children exposed to early biological and psychosocial adversity. A case in point concerns an ambitious study in Bucharest, Romania, in which we are examining the effects of early institutionalization on brain and behavioral development.
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