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Conference to focus on early brain development, social outcomes

Universitywide initiative explores intersection of neuroscience and societal issues

by Kristina SauerweinSeptember 20, 2017

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In recent years, research has emerged detailing the detrimental effects of poverty and stress on early brain development. Such societal ills can reshape the human brain and cause lifelong problems in behavior, learning, physical health and mental wellbeing.

To explore these connections, Washington University in St. Louis will host a conference from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 26, at the Eric P. Newman Education Center on the Medical Campus. “The Developing Brain: New Directions in Science, Policy and Law” is open to the academic community and the general public. The conference is free, but attendees are asked to register.

The conference represents the kickoff of a universitywide initiative to distill and delve into the relationship between the immature brain and social outcomes such as crime and poverty.

“We want to address topics where the fields of neuroscience intersect with emerging issues in our society,” said Anneliese M. Schaefer, JD, PhD, director of the Office of Neuroscience Research in the Department of Neurology at the School of Medicine. “For example, scientific understanding of brain maturity has been an important consideration in determining the appropriate sentence for convicted juvenile offenders. Likewise, social and neuroscience tools are being applied to determine the relationship between brain development and socio-economic status.”

Led by the Office of Neuroscience Research, the collaboration includes researchers at the School of Medicine, the Brown School, the School of Law, and Arts & Sciences. The project is supported by the Office of the Provost through its Bring Your Own Idea program, which provides grants to interdisciplinary faculty teams focused on meaningful topics.

“We are pleased that this initiative has been a multidisciplinary effort,” Schaefer said. “Neuroscience is a significant strength at Washington University, and we want to take advantage of that. Scientists can benefit by exploring the implications of their research while the public can benefit by learning about current methods, technologies and scientific findings. The goal is that direct conversations across these groups will provide transparency and informed understanding.”

The conference will feature esteemed speakers from the university and other notable institutions, and the panel will include a range of Washington University and other local voices.

“This is an opportunity for the community to gain knowledge about the important work in brain science that is being done both here at Washington University and across the academic field, and how it is relevant to understanding policies in regard to children,” said Deanna Barch, PhD, director of the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences and one of the conference organizers. “Additionally, I hope the conference helps us to imagine further possibilities in terms of the types of work needed to inform key questions about brain development and children’s health and welfare.”

Barch researches the neural and psychological factors that create risk for developing mental health issues.

“The research increasingly points to critical environmental factors including poverty, exposures to stress and adversity, and family environment in either creating those risk factors or helping to reduce the negative impacts of those risk factors,” she said. “Such findings have important public health and policy implications that we would like to start to incorporate in our research.”

For more information about registration as well as the speakers, panelists and conference organizers, please visit

Washington University School of Medicine‘s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient-care institutions in the nation, currently ranked seventh in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.

Kristina covers pediatrics, surgery, medical education and student life. In 2020, she received a gold Robert G. Fenley Writing Award for general staff writing from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), and in 2019, she received the silver award. Kristina is an author and former reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Los Angeles Times, where she was part of a team of journalists that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for breaking news. Additionally, she covered the 2014 Ferguson unrest for TIME magazine and, for eight years, wrote a popular parenting column for