The seeds of neurodevelopmental strength and vulnerability take root before a baby is even born. So do the roots of age-related illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
During those critical first years of life, brain and behavioral development, and family and social experience, play a formative role in determining whether and how children will learn, behave, adapt, and thrive. Early development also shapes a child’s capacity to benefit from later experiences and to lead a healthy, productive life.
As scientists probe the mechanisms that underlie the impact of early development, Northwestern University has launched the first-of-its-kind interdisciplinary Institute for Innovations in Developmental Sciences (DevSci). Directed by Dr. Laurie Wakschlag, a clinical and developmental psychologist who joined Northwestern in 2010, DevSci’s mission is to motivate and lead transformative science to engender a “healthier, earlier” population — beginning even before birth — and continuing throughout life.
“It is clear that many elements of our childhood environment set the stage for disease later in life,” says Rex Chisholm, associate vice president for research and vice dean for scientific affairs and graduate education at the Feinberg School of Medicine. “This institute will expand our understanding of how this happens and explore not just childhood well-being, but how we might optimize adult health, too.”
DevSci is born out of an initiative started five years ago in the Feinberg School’s Department of Medical Social Sciences (MSS) in partnership with leading developmental scientists from the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Communication, and the School of Education and Social Policy (SESP).
The Institute now includes partnerships with the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital, The Graduate School, Northwestern University Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (NUCATS), Northwestern University Library, and the Galter Health Sciences Library.
The DevSci Institute will leverage strong partnerships with other existing Northwestern institutes and catalyze already robust collaborations between biomedical investigators and social scientists on the University’s Chicago and Evanston campuses. It also will create crucial infrastructure to establish Northwestern as a global center of excellence and an international leader in the field.
Having expanded to include more than 125 faculty members, Northwestern’s DevSci community has made numerous pathbreaking discoveries and has garnered nearly $140 million in developmental science research funding during the past three years.
“DevSci is a major realization of our department’s mission to enable transdisciplinary solutions by bringing together faculty from around the University at the intersection of biomedical and social sciences in the developmental arena,” says Dr. David Cella, the Ralph Seal Paffenbarger Chair of Medical Social Sciences. “DevSci coalesces University-wide strengths through outstanding partnerships to create an unparalleled translational research environment.” MSS will serve as the institute’s administrative home.
“There is increasing evidence that the origins of lifespan health and disease reside in very early life,” says Dr. Wakschlag, DevSci director and MSS vice chair for scientific and faculty development. “But the profound potential of this knowledge to optimize lifelong health while reducing the overall population burden of illness has not yet been realized. DevSci will serve as a scientific engine driving actualization of this promise for all children to receive a healthier start in life.”
With the organizing theme of “healthier, earlier,” DevSci will stimulate and enable interdisciplinary scientific and training activities that support young children’s developmental health, learning, and wellbeing. A nexus of this activity will be generating evidence on “when to worry” about young children’s neurodevelopmental vulnerabilities to enable earlier identification and prevention.
“Translation from discovery to application typically takes more than a decade” says Dr. Megan Roberts, communication sciences and disorders, who co-leads DevSci’s research incubation center. “DevSci’s goal is to accelerate the discovery-to-application pipeline for children’s developmental interventions by engendering collaborations of scientists who span the full translational spectrum.”
The DevSci Institute will host an official launch event on June 29 in Chicago. Click here to RSVP for the event or to receive more information about DevSci.