Harvard Set to Embark on Years-Long Brain Development Study

A multi-institution team will study how brains differ, and how they develop.

A $14 million grant will help Harvard researchers explore the mysteries of the human brain.

Given by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the grant will allow researchers to collect MRIs from as many as 1,400 people, in an effort to study both how brains differ across different populations, and how the same brain changes as it develops. The team will recruit volunteers from a wide variety of racial, ethnic, and socio-economic groups, and follow several individuals for years to track changes.

“We’re particularly interested in looking at how a person progresses through development. How do the connections in the brain orchestrate themselves into an adult-like state?” Leah Somerville, Harvard associate professor of psychology and a faculty member of the Harvard Center for Brain Sciences, said in a statement. “We understand some of the fundamental ways brain connectivity exists in an average adult. But how does it get there from the immature brain of a 5-year-old?”

Brain imaging studies are notoriously costly, so the NIH’s grant will open doors for the research team, which includes experts from the University of Washington at St. Louis, the University of Minnesota, UCLA, and Oxford University. Subject recruiting will begin this fall, but the researchers warn that the study will be lengthy, and results will not be published for some time.

Still, the research may be an exciting development in the field of brain science, an arena still largely shrouded in uncertainty. The study hopes to address topics ranging from how, exactly, the brain progresses to adulthood, to which elements of brain development are hormonally versus environmentally driven.

“These are questions we have very little information about, for a variety of reasons,” Somerville said in the statement. “These types of studies are difficult and costly and time-consuming, so this represents a major investment on the part of the NIH to develop foundational data sets to help answer these questions.”