NIH Family Members Giving Back: Rebecca Shlafer

Rebecca Shlafer

Rebecca Shlafer/Credit: Brady Willette

When Rebecca Shlafer clicks on her office lights each morning at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Minneapolis, she usually has a good idea of what to expect from the day ahead as lead of a nine-person research team that studies the effects of incarceration on children and families. It’s her volunteer work that can be unpredictable.

For the past eight years, this developmental child psychologist has donated her free time to serve as a guardian ad litem for abused or neglected children who’ve been removed from their homes and placed under protective supervision of Minnesota’s Fourth Judicial District. In that volunteer capacity, Shlafer advocates in court for the well-being of the child, but doesn’t foster the youngster or provide any day-to-day care.

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How Kids See the World Depends a Lot on Genetics

Baby in eye gaze study

Caption: Child watches video while researchers track his eye movements.
Credit: Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis

From the time we are born, most of us humans closely watch the world around us, paying special attention to people’s faces and expressions. Now, for the first time, an NIH-funded team has shown that the ways in which children look at faces and many other things are strongly influenced by the genes they’ve inherited from their parents.

The findings come from experiments that tracked the eye movements of toddlers watching videos of other kids or adult caregivers. The experiments showed that identical twins—who share the same genes and the same home environment—spend almost precisely the same proportion of time looking at faces, even when watching different videos. And when identical twins watched the same video, they tended to look at the same thing at almost exactly the same time! In contrast, fraternal twins—who shared the same home environment, but, on average, shared just half of their genes—had patterns of eye movement that were far less similar.

Interestingly, the researchers also found that the visual behaviors most affected in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)—attention to another person’s eyes and mouth—were those that also appeared to be the most heavily influenced by genetics. The discovery makes an important connection between two well-known features of ASD: a strong hereditary component and poor eye contact with other people.

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Creative Minds: Helping More Kids Beat Anxiety Disorders

Dylan Gee

Dylan Gee

While earning her Ph.D. in clinical psychology, Dylan Gee often encountered children and adolescents battling phobias, panic attacks, and other anxiety disorders. Most overcame them with the help of psychotherapy. But not all of the kids did, and Gee spent many an hour brainstorming about how to help her tougher cases, often to find that nothing worked.

What Gee noticed was that so many of the interventions she pondered were based on studies in adults. Little was actually known about the dramatic changes that a child’s developing brain undergoes and their implications for coping under stress. Gee, an assistant professor at Yale University, New Haven, CT, decided to dedicate her research career to bridging the gap between basic neuroscience and clinical interventions to treat children and adolescents with persistent anxiety and stress-related disorders.

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LabTV: Curious About Heart Failure in Young Children

Josh Maxwell

Growing up in Pittsburgh, Josh Maxwell enjoyed romping around outdoors. He was an adventurous kid who liked to catch live frogs and snakes, lug them home, and surprise his parents with the latest creepy find. Maxwell rode his curiosity for nature to a bachelor’s degree in biology from Allegheny College, Meadville, PA. He then went on to earn a Ph.D. in cell and molecular physiology from Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

Maxwell, the focus of our latest LabTV video, is now a research scientist in the lab of Michael Davis at Emory University, Atlanta, where he studies pediatric heart failure. Maxwell grows cardiac cells in tissue culture and tries to fix the defects that lie within. What’s driving this important research is that a heart transplant remains the only option to save the lives of many kids born with severe congenital heart problems. In addition to shortages of donated organs, undergoing such a major operation at such a tender age can take a real toll on the children and their families. Maxwell wants to be a part of discovering non-surgical alternatives to regenerate cardiac tissue and one day repair a damaged heart for a lifetime.

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Creative Minds: Lessons from Halfway Around the Globe

Transporting a patient in Nepal

Caption: Duncan Maru (right) and Community Health Director Ashma Baruwal (left) evaluating a patient in rural Nepal.
Credit: Allison Shelley

A decade ago, as a medical student doing volunteer work at a hospital in India’s capital of New Delhi, Duncan Maru saw a young patient who changed the course of his career: a 12-year-old boy in a coma caused by advanced tuberculosis (TB). Although the child had been experiencing TB symptoms for four months, he was simply given routine antibiotics and didn’t receive the right drugs until his parents traveled hundreds of miles at considerable expense to bring him to a major hospital. After five weeks of intensive treatment, the boy regained consciousness and he was able to walk and talk again.

That’s quite an inspiring story. But it’s also a story that haunted Maru because he knew that if this boy had access to good primary care at the local level, his condition probably never would have become so critical. Determined to help other children and families in similar situations, Maru has gone on to dedicate himself to developing innovative ways of providing high-quality, low-cost health care in developing areas of the world. His “lab” for testing these efforts? The South Asian nation of Nepal—specifically, the poverty-stricken, rural district of Achham, which is located several hundred miles west of the national capital of Kathmandu.

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