An unprecedented research project in one Virginia community aims to show how peoples’ genetics, environment, and especially their connection to others contribute to brain development and decisionmaking over a lifetime.
The Roanoke Brain Study, which begins with its first pediatric group of 200 to 300 children this fall, looks at how typically developing individuals and those with cognitive challenges like autism or attention deficit disorders interact with others.
“We’re going to watch children as they grow up in a community and make decisions,” said Sharon Landesman Ramey, who is leading the pediatric portion of the study with her husband, Craig Ramey, both distinguished research scholars at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute in Roanoke, which is conducting the study. “We don’t have a clue about some of the most important things we do as human beings: What we study when we go to college; what we think our occupations will be; how we decide to reach out to help others versus when we withdraw. ”
The project, now being piloted with 200 adults, will include a mind-boggling array of data. As many as 10,000 people of different ages and cognitive abilities will receive multiple functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, scans on both individual and group tasks over several years. For each person, the brain-imaging data will be combined with cognitive and genetic tests, personal and family interviews, and, where possible, health and school-achievement and behavioral data to create comprehensive pictures of individuals, families, and the community over time.
Echoes of Framingham
“The decisions you make about what you eat, lifestyle, who you associate with, risks ... have never been chronicled before,” said P. Read Montague, the director of the Human Neuroimaging Lab at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, commonly known as Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg. “Roanoke is a good-sized place for that. It is big enough for diversity in brains and small enough for committed community engagement.”
Roanoke researchers plan to make the community of nearly 100,000 the brain-science equivalent of Framingham, Mass., where for more than 60 years researchers have tracked the heart health, lifestyle, and environmental characteristics of more than 5,000 people over the course of their lives. That study has helped researchers identify many of the major heart-disease risk factors known today—from high blood pressure and high cholesterol to smoking, diabetes, and lack of exercise—and the Roanoke researchers hope that recording a nationally representative sample of people making decisions throughout their lives will provide similar identifications about cognitive development, risky behaviors, and other areas.
“Watching children will ultimately help us know when a person encounters problems, whether or not these are healthy and necessary to move on to the next phase of development,” said Ms. Ramey, who has conducted several longitudinal studies of early-childhood development. “Many healthy, accomplished people have had some pretty rough periods in their life. I think this Roanoke brain study will help us understand more about the depth of human potential.”
Gauging Social Learning
From a baby cooing in response to a father’s smile to a gang of 3rd graders planning a tree fort or a company president working with a board of directors, humans’ brains develop and learn in connection with other people. Cognitive psychologists have long studied group dynamics using behavioral and economic games, but, typically, brain-imaging studies have examined people’s brains individually.
Mr. Montague has developed a technique called hyperscanning, which connects people online in up to six fMRI machines at a time to monitor brain activity as they take part in behavioral games.
“Some tasks are uniquely social,” although they may correspond to individual characteristics, explained Ann H. Harvey, a research scientist in the Human Neuroimaging Lab and the program director for the Roanoke Brain Study.
For example, one classic behavioral game called “ultimatum” gauges a person’s sense of fairness. One partner is given $20 and can offer to split it with a partner any way—50-50, or 80-20, and so on—but if the partner refuses, neither person gets any money. The task will be formatted in different ways to be appropriate to different ages, and researchers will be able to tell how people’s sense of fairness and cooperation develops.
“We know during puberty a child goes through rapid physical and hormonal changes,” Ms. Harvey said. “During pubescence it really is possible these behavioral and cognitive variables also go through these rapid changes—or even precede them.”
Over multiple years and tests, the research team hopes to develop “cognitive phenotypes” similar to genetic phenotypes that describe how a person with a particular profile is likely to make decisions in different environments.
“We talk about people who are very creative or stubborn, but what do those things really mean when it comes to decisionmaking?” Ms. Ramey said.
If successful, the study could strengthen several areas in the education neuroscience field, according to Dr. Janet N. Zadina, an assistant professor of cognitive and educational neuroscience at the Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans.
The study’s initial sample of 200 adults and the 200 to 300 children expected to be tested next year already make it larger than many brain-imaging studies. If it eventually reaches the goal of 10,000 participants, the study will be the largest longitudinal brain-imaging study ever conducted.
“In the past, most neuroimaging research has focused on unhealthy brains or on deficits and learning disabilities,” Dr. Zadina said. “While this has been very helpful, what has been missing are large databases of information on healthy brains. It is just as important to know what ‘normal’ looks like as to know what is atypical.”
Earlier this year, Alan E. Guttmacher, the director of the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, Md., said his agency also would support more studies on normal cognitive development.
Michael S. Garet, a vice president at the American Institutes for Research and a specialist in large-scale assessments and study methods, said Roanoke’s broad longitudinal approach “is very worthwhile when one is thinking about trajectories of development,” but cautioned that it will be a huge challenge for researchers to keep track of so many children and families over generations.
The hyperscanning technology will allow the study to group people living in different cities, which may help researchers’ ability to follow up with children who move. Ms. Harvey, the study’s director, said the plan is to eventually “franchise” the testing battery and methods to researchers in other cities who can link up online. Partners are already waiting in London, Hong Kong, and Houston.
Yet Ms. Harvey said one of the study’s greatest potential strengths could also be its biggest challenge: “You run the risk of throwing so much data in that you are sifting through a sea of data looking for correlations.”
That said, Ms. Ramey suggests that the data could form the basis of new lines of study that go beyond the research team’s focus on decisionmaking.
“The patterns of development are things I think you can only see when you are doing a longitudinal study like this. I think we’re going to come to a more holistic, functional understanding by studying people from the time they are children through adults and elderly people, and get much more of a sense of how our brains affect our lives.
A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as Brain Study Poised to Break New Ground