Map of connections in the human brain

The brain, the brain…one of the most complex organs …. And so many people scanning it, studying it, trying to understand what rules its functioning.

Miguel Cordero Vega from the Centre for Research and Intervention in Children and Women, CEANIM organized the workshop “From molecules to human capital: Keys to understand developmental Sciences and programs”. The conference was held at the headquarters of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University in Santiago and virtually. In its first day, most presentations were about the brain and what affects its functioning prenatally and in early infancy. Here a few insights from the presentations:

Juan Montiel (University of Oxford) presented on “Neurotranscriptomics and brain development: insights into neuropathology”…anything more cryptic for an economist than this title? But, funny enough, the presentation was crystal clear… Basically, among other things, he showed that intra-uterine insults (such  as exposure to toxins, or to stress in the womb), are clearly associated with changes in the cerebral cortex, higher levels of depression, lower levels of cognitive functions; and many, many other negative outcomes in adulthood.

Jenny Fiedler (Universidad de Chile) made a presentation on “Epigenetic mechanisms in mental health” showing that lab experiments confirm that there is something called “parental regulation of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis (HPA)”. And what does it mean? It means that for instance, low maternal licking and grooming of baby rats (as opposed to high licking and grooming) is associated with high levels of corticosterone and  anxiety. It also means that “attachment parenting” (defined as mother-reared infant macaques vs. peer-reared infant macaques) reduces the functioning of the HPA axis, therefore leading to lower levels of activity and higher level of negative emotionality and stress reactivity (the latter is a negative outcome, as one would desire stress reactivity to be low in a mentally healthy population).

These findings have very direct implications for poor women in our region. Why? Because we know from studies in various countries in the region that they are more likely to be exposed to high levels of stress in their lives and we also know that poor mothers are less likely to provide stimulation (i.e. less “licking”) to their children.

These are just a few of so many other interesting presentations in the first day. On the second we had the pleasure to listen to ladies such as Paula Bedregal and her evaluation of Chile Crece Contigo, Andrea Repetto on an analysis of Chilean schools; and Emanuela Galasso on results of the evaluation of the Nadie es Perfecto program. I then shared a panel on issues on child development in less developed countries with Marc Bornstein (NIH/NICH) who presented evidence from the UNICEF MICS survey. Finally, Raul Mercer (FLACSO Argentina) and Helia Molina shared their insights on the Implementation of child rights in early childhood in Latin America.

I am sharing a bit of this workshop on the hope that this will inspire some of our readers. I really believe this interdisciplinary approach to understand child development should be mirrored in other countries to take full advantage of all professionals working in this area. Child development is interdisciplinary by nature, and therefore cannot be understood only with medicine or only with psychology or economics (see posting on the comprehensive approach by my colleague Patricia Jara).

Moreover, in the Elluminate virtual room more than 200 participants participated in Santiago, Buenos Aires, Bogota, Boston, Bristol, London and Washington DC. This technology only requested internet, and a computer with microphone and speakers, maybe a webcam as well, which allowed questions and answers with a chat mechanism. This virtual workshop (instead of “live” conferences) should also be a tool to take into account in a globalized world in which time constrains are always more and more binding.

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