Washington University School of Medicine
Nico Dosenbach is a child neurologist and developmental systems neuroscientist, studying use-driven functional brain network plasticity. The goal of his research is to better understand successful brain network plasticity after injury, in order to improve existing treatments and to develop novel ones. To this end, he is studying the brains of children who suffered brain injury early in life, using structural Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), task-based functional MRI (fMRI) and resting state functional connectivity MRI (rs-fcMRI), a method of functional brain imaging that can be used to evaluate regional interactions that occur when a subject is not performing an explicit task. He focuses on pushing rs-fcMRI and fMRI acquisition and analysis methodology to the level of individual children.
My plans for the fellowship period
The structural and functional organization of the human brain undergoes massive changes from birth until young adulthood. While there are downsides to the prolonged developmental trajectory of humans, it enables our superlative capacity for learning. Skills, personalities, preferences, psychopathologies and coping mechanisms all develop during childhood. Thus, the fulcrum at which our surroundings, parents, peers, teachers, counselors and physicians exert the greatest leverage over the rest of our lives lies at its beginning, in infancy and childhood.
Human abilities such as speaking, planning, multi-tasking, riding a bike or playing piano are not the property of individual brain regions, but emerge from interactions between widely distributed brain regions, organized into so-called functional networks. Newborn brains possess only very crude precursors to functional networks. Thus, the brain’s complex functional network architecture is thought to self-assemble during infancy and childhood. This functional network self-assembly is thought to be partly driven by a child’s activities and experiences. To identify the environmental factors and principles of functional brain organization most critical for successful learning I am studying one of the most extreme example of successful experience-driven functional network development and learning; children who suffered large strokes during birth but developed without any cognitive or emotional deficits.
How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?
Stroke is surprisingly common surrounding a child’s birth, occurring in roughly 1 in 3,000 live births. In contrast to adults with stroke, children who suffered a stroke at birth often only have mild motor deficits, with completely intact intellectual abilities. Thus, stroke in newborns provides a best-case recovery scenario that highlights the brain’s full potential for successful neuroplasticity and learning. Advanced functional brain imaging studies indicate that complex human abilities emerge from the interactions of distant brain regions within distributed functional networks. Thus, cognitive deficits at least partly reflect disruptions of the brain’s functional network architecture. Using a novel high-fidelity functional neuroimaging paradigm for children, we seek to decode how the brains of children organize after early injury to preserve their intellect and ability to learn.
We aim to leverage the border case of children who suffered large strokes at birth to identify the basic brain organization and environmental factors that promote successful neural plasticity and learning in all children. Such knowledge will be instrumental for optimizing child rearing and educational practices for all children on this planet, with or without brain injury.