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Interview with Sarah Durston

The neurobiology of developmental disorders

Some children thrive; others don’t do so well. “I want to understand why risk factors –be it genetic or environmental– cause a developmental disorder in some children and not in others. What are the psychological functions and brain circuits that make the difference?” asks psychologist Sarah Durston.

This illustrates the potential of such new techniques to extend the current diagnostic tools. Children with ADHD –the same goes for other developmental disorders– are not a uniform group: brain circuits that do not function well can differ from one child to the other. “If we can identify the problem in a more precise way, it should also be possible to customize treatment for a particular child,” thinks Durston.

Both genetic factors and the environment in which children grow up are important for brain development. “A clear example of the importance of such environmental influences comes from our own work. Last year we completed a study on children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), looking at their brain with structural neuroimaging techniques. On average, children with ADHD compared to those without have a slightly smaller cerebellum; an area that is important for timing of behavior, something that many children with ADHD find difficult. This was already known, but we showed that ADHD-children whose mother smoked during pregnancy had an even smaller cerebellum.”

Fun to play

“My goal is to use neuroimaging alongside the study of psychological functions, such as a child’s sensitivity to reward or impulsivity. These functions overlap only partly. We use all kinds of games to test children in these behavioral domains. For them it’s fun to play, for us it’s a goldmine of experimental data. Eventually we can use this knowledge to improve early diagnostics and treatment.”

Fun to play

Durston received several personal grants, including an NWO Veni, Vidi and Vici award, to work on neurodevelopmental disorders.I’m driven by curiosity “I’m driven by curiosity. Why does a combination of risk factors cause a brain disorder in one child but not in another? How do these factors impact on brain development? Of course, some of my motivation stems from the potential clinical use of what I find —that we can use my findings to really help the children and their families. But ultimately I simply want to understand how things work.” I’m driven by curiosity. 

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