appear to be involved in human behavior or cognition, but many of the diseases associated with these genetic variants are relevant to early childhood.
However, uncovering the environmental factors that contribute to human diseases—much less human behaviors—is much more difficult. Furthermore, changing outcomes for children will involve changing their environments, not their genes. “To understand this complex interaction, we need to understand environment and genetics,” he said.
Geneticists have always assumed that genes influence behavior, but a growing body of evidence indicates that behavior influences genes in ways that were not anticipated. In particular, experiences are able to change genetic activity that once was assumed to be hard-wired. The new field of epigenetics, for example, is examining how experiences act on the configuration and modifications of the DNA molecule to affect the activities of genes. These are “examples of the kinds of things we should be thinking about,” said Guttmacher.
An important focus of research will be to understand individual variation in learning. In the past, geneticists have tended to divide people into categories, but everyone is biologically unique in terms of genome and experiences. This research will include the use of new neuroimaging techniques to explore variation in learning, longitudinal studies of learning that look at the interaction of genetic variation and sociocultural influences, examination of how or if early learning experiences modify the child’s genome through epigenetic modification, and the application of new research knowledge to improve early interventions for individuals with learning disabilities.
Another important research focus will be neural plasticity—how neuronal structure and function change in response to experiences. For example, how are neural circuits reconfigured as a result of experience? What are the environmental experiences necessary for normal or optimal development in various sensitive periods of neurocognitive development? How can the rehabilitation and adaptation of function contribute to recovery from disease or injury?
The Research Agenda at NICHD
NICHD launched a year-long process to identify scientific opportunities over the next decade across the institute’s mission, which includes pediatric health, maternal health, rehabilitation medicine, and many other topics. The aim, said Guttmacher, is to develop a scientific vision that sets an ambitious agenda and inspires the institute, the research community, and the institute’s partners to achieve critical scientific goals and meet pressing public health needs.
NICHD will hold workshops to gather input from external experts,