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McElwain looks at how caregiving impacts brain power

Nancy McElwain, a professor of human development and family studies, examines how caregiving impacts brain development and emotional well-being.

Published on Oct. 16, 2018

Solving problems. Engaging in conversation. Developing confidence. Such important cognitive, social, and emotional milestones start with brainpower. And between infancy and 3 years old, children build plenty of it.

In fact, by a child’s third birthday, the brain will have reached 80 percent of its adult volume and will have processed nearly 1,000 trillion connections between neurons.


Nancy McElwain at ECDL with child doing puzzle


With such a rapid rate of brain development, researchers are examining what factors shape that crucial connectivity during these early years.

One of those researchers is Nancy McElwain, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies and a member of  the Beckman Institute’s Social and Emotional Dimensions of Well-being Group.

“There is tremendous plasticity in the brain in the first years of life, and that brain development is shaped, in part, by the infant’s repeated experiences with parents and other primary caregivers,” McElwain said. “The infant-caregiver

relationship can have lasting effects on infants, and the more we can do early on to support healthy development, the bigger the payoff will be for children and their families.”

A Beckman First

McElwain is conducting a study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health that examines how caregiving impacts brain development and social and emotional well-being. Part of that work includes a first for the Beckman Institute’s Biomedical Imaging Center (BIC)—conducting functional and structural scans of infants during natural sleep.

Why Beckman?
“The Beckman environment allows us to focus on questions that are at the intersection of multiple disciplines, including neuroscience, developmental psychology, signal processing, and material sciences. It brings together many expert minds ready to forge new paths of inquiry and to lend the kind of innovative spirit and support that is integral to research success.”--Nancy McElwain

“We scan infants at 3 months of age and again at 12 months to help us to examine how the brain develops and becomes organized over time,” she said. “We are especially interested in understanding how early caregiving processes shape connectivity among the large-scale networks in the brain by the end of the first year of life.”

It’s one aspect of a project that McElwain is conducting with Eva Telzer, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina. Behavioral interaction is another.

The caregiver and the baby visit the behavior lab four times in the first year at three-month intervals. During the visit, observational data is collected on the interactions between the two during various levels of engagement. Cardiac activity also is measured. Between visits, interaction is monitored by way of a recorder used by the caregiver to capture the baby’s vocalizations and baby-caregiver interactions in the home.

While McElwain is experienced in collecting such behavioral data, she is especially grateful for the imaging expertise Beckman collaborators and BIC staff bring to the work. She said that Brad Sutton, a professor of bioengineering and BIC’s technical director, and Ryan Larsen, a BIC research scientist, who are also co-investigators of the study, “were instrumental in developing the scan protocol and ensuring it would run smoothly. We also relied on the expertise of BIC imaging specialists Nancy Dodge and Holly Tracy to implement the protocol.”

It’s not always easy. “Scanning babies while asleep brings special challenges,” McElwain said. “We worked as a team and learned how best to accomplish the scans and how to put the parents at ease. Educating parents about the imaging process has also been important.”

Data Collection and Innovation

Future steps on this project rely on additional Beckman collaborations. Mark Hasegawa-Johnson, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Harley Johnson, a professor of mechanical science and engineering, are working with McElwain to expand the remote collection of behavioral and physiological data. This part of the project is supported by the Social Science and Behavioral Research Initiative at the University of Illinois.

“With Harley’s expertise, we’re developing a ‘SMART shirt’ that has a built-in recorder and cardiac monitor that we can give parents to collect synchronized ECG and vocalization data in the home,” McElwain said.  “We will pilot it in the fall and aim to collect data from both children and their caregivers.

“Working with Mark and his graduate student, Yijia Xu, we will be able to process the vocalization and cardiac data in a more nuanced way, so that we can measure the emotional signals babies and parents are sending and receiving. By incorporating physiological measurement and brain imaging with behavioral data, we hope to provide a more complete picture of development in the context of infant-caregiver relationships. We hope to follow these families over time to understand how these relationship dynamics contribute to children’s long-term health and well-being.”


In this article

  • Nancy McElwain
    Nancy McElwain's directory photo.