Neurodevelopment in Early Childhood

Woman Holding Baby, Smiling; Man in Background Looking at Baby and Smiling

How do early experiences shape the developing brain?

In what ways does the family environment impact brain and behavior development in childhood?

How can we translate knowledge about healthy brain development to promote optimal neurodevelopment and mental health across the lifespan? 

These are the questions motivating the important neurodevelopmental studies in Duke Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences. Neurodevelopment concerns the complex ways in which brain maturation leads to behavioral, emotional, social and cognitive developmentā€”and optimal neurodevelopment leads to healthy child development. A better understanding of how neurodevelopment unfolds could lead to innovative interventions that begin early in life and support mental health across generations, for all families.

The building blocks for healthy neurodevelopment begin before birth. Duke Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences researchers seek to understand how best to promote healthy neurodevelopment at the earliest ages. We accomplish this task by identifying modifiable mechanisms that lead to risk for mental health concerns early in life. By developing innovative ways to target these mechanisms in our treatments, we hope to prevent mental health problems from emerging in childhood. 

Representative Studies

  • Measuring the fetal brain to determine how prenatal exposure to stress, parental mental health, and environmental toxins can impact neurodevelopment in early childhood
  • Understanding how experiences a person has had before they become pregnant could affect child neurodevelopment
  • Investigating the long reach that stress in childhood could have on the pregnant person, the fetus, and neurodevelopmental outcomes in early childhood
  • Developing innovative tools for measuring neurodevelopment at birth and across the first year of life; these tools are designed for rapid implementation in health care settings so that young children needing extra support are identified as soon as possible
  • Uncovering how risk for emotional disturbances is transmitted across generations
  • Identifying which newborns are at risk for neurodevelopmental challenges following prenatal opioid exposure