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Two Creighton researchers part of NSF grant to study youth brain development

Amy Badura Brack, Ph.D., and Maya Khanna, Ph.D., are part of a National Science Foundation grant studying the developing brain.The collection of vast stores of data that may unlock new information about the development of the brain as it transitions to adolescence from childhood will soon begin for neuroscientists in Nebraska with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Two Creighton University researchers, professor of psychology Amy Badura Brack, Ph.D., and associate professor of psychology, Maya Khanna, Ph.D. are part of a four-year, $6 million National Science Foundation Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) grant. This grant funds exciting state-of-the-art neuroimaging research exploring the developing brains of children aged 9 to 14, and also funds the development of the Nebraska Cognitive Neuroscience Training Program.

The EPSCoR Grant program is an NSF initiative to bring specific research capabilities and funding to areas where that research has been underrepresented. In this case, the grant funds researchers from Nebraska, New Mexico and Louisiana. The grant is led by Tony Wilson, Ph.D., an associate professor of pharmacology and experimental neuroscience at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and will involve research partners at the Mind Research Network at the University of New Mexico and Tulane University in New Orleans.

“We’re very blessed to be a part of this grant,” said Badura Brack, whose particular interests in the grant run to the effects of childhood trauma on brain development. “The science behind this initiative is very exciting. We have an exceptional opportunity to bring together neuroimaging, psychological and genetic data to model the process of brain development in children.”

Using two noninvasive brain imaging tools, genetic modeling and a battery of psychological and behavioral tests measuring IQ, executive function, language and emotional responses in hundreds of children, researchers hope to better understand some of the longest-standing questions about childhood brain development.

With functional MRI, researchers can observe where in the brain blood is flowing during the performance of tasks. Magnetoencephalography (MEG), complements this approach by allowing researchers to determine not only where activity is taking place but also when specific parts of the brain are busy during a task — right down to the millisecond. Combining those approaches in a longitudinal study opens new prospects for research into the developing brain, including deeper study into whether brain structure dictates function or if experiences and associated brain activity drive brain structural development.

“For years, it was always thought structure comes first,” said Khanna, an expert in developmental cognitive neuroscience interested in the effects of lead exposure on the developing brain. “Now, we’re starting to discuss this interplay between structure and function. Maybe function comes along and helps to build structure. It’s very interesting, with significant implications for parents, educators and policymakers.”

Given the amount and the nature of the data being collected, the study could have far-reaching implications for future neuroscience research. Armed with the information, individual researchers have the opportunity to study side projects, which both Badura Brack and Khanna plan to do.

Khanna plans to look more closely at the potential effects of lead exposure in children. She said while studies have examined brain differences in adults exposed to lead as children, very little has been done in the way of looking at the effects of lead exposure on the brains of children and adolescents themselves.

Badura Brack, who has done extensive work in post-traumatic stress disorder, will look at how traumatic childhood experiences and psychological distress affect brain growth. She also plans to study resiliency in children by exploring psychological, neural and genetic factors that protect children faced with adversity.

Badura Brack and Khanna said in addition to the potential for scientific advances and the development of the Nebraska Cognitive Neuroscience Training Program, another major component of the grant will be laying the groundwork for future, well-funded, collaborative research.

Moreover, the project already involves 15 current and former Creighton students who are researching at Creighton, the MEG center at UNMC, and the neurobehavioral research center at Boys Town National Research Hospital. Badura Brack and Khanna said the students will have the opportunity to be involved with groundbreaking research and receive training that will help them become the next generation of neuroscientists.

The study is looking for research subjects. Parents interested in having their children participate can contact Nichole Knott and 402-552-6444. To read more on UNMC’s involvement with the grant, click here.

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