The Nelson Laboratory

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Studies in the Nelson laboratory focus on many aspects of infant and child development, including typical development and various developmental disorders such as autism. Through our research, including several collaborations with colleagues in the Boston area, we aim to shed light on the many ways in which a child's experience can shape the developing brain.

One of our main areas of focus is the development of the ability to recognize faces and facial emotion. Faces convey a great deal of information in our everyday lives, and the ability to interpret them successfully is essential to navigating our social world.  In particular, we focus on how these abilities come "on-line" in the first years of life. We also work with infants and children at risk for developing autism and children who have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. Children with autism often process faces differently than typically developing children, and by improving our understanding of these differences we aim to better understand why they often have difficulty navigating their social world.

We also have a longstanding interest in both typical and atypical memory development. Results collected over the past few years in healthy infants suggest that some forms of explicit memory come "on-line" sometime after six months of life and undergo a reorganization as children approach one year of age. Infants who have suffered  certain pre- or perinatal insults--for example, a period of oxygen deprivation at birth--appear to show delayed and/or atypical development of memory. In some cases we continue to follow these infants into childhood; in others we focus on children who experienced early brain injury. Through this line of work we aim to determine whether certain patterns of brain damage are more likely to result in learning and memory problems than others. Doing so would allow for children at risk to be flagged for intervention as early as possible.

A final and dominant theme of our work involves children exposed to early biological and psychosocial adversity, and how such experiences can impact the course of their brain development. A case in point is our Bucharest Early Intervention Project, in which we are examining the effects of early institutionalization on brain and behavioral development.

Thank you for your interest in our lab. Please click on the links to the left to learn more about our current projects.

Romania's Abandoned Children
Deprivation, Brain Development, and the Struggle for Recovery

We are excited to share with you Dr. Nelson's new book about the Bucharest Early Intervention Project: Romania’s Abandoned Children: Deprivation, Brain Development, and the Struggle for Recovery. Published by Harvard University Press, the book presents the full history of the project, our findings from the first eight years, and our recommendations for policy makers, providers, and researchers based on what we've learned thus far.

For more information on the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, click here.

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The future of pediatrics will be forged by thinking differently, breaking paradigms and joining together in a shared vision of tackling the toughest challenges before us.”
- Sandra L. Fenwick, President and CEO