Baby brain expert Chantal Kemner is the principal researcher for YOUth, a large-scale Utrecht University study which monitors the development of children from the prenatal stage until adulthood. Professor Kemner's inaugural lecture was titled Starting small, a theme she has elaborated on with YOUth: 'To understand how people develop, you need to look at how they grow up. A lot has already happened in the life of a ten-year-old. If you want to find out the root cause of certain problems, you need to start small – with babies'.
Chantal Kemner, principal researcher for the YOUth cohort study
‘Investing in children means investing in the future’
The YOUth study does not examine specific disorders, but centres on the development of the brain and behaviour: 'It's about the nuances. Autism, or any other psychiatric disorder, is a gradation. You cannot simply draw a line and say, autism starts here and ends there. People are all different in this respect. A more interesting question is how children's normal development proceeds. YOUth has its origins in this concept.'
The research for YOUth focuses on social skills and self-control: how well can you control your impulses? Kemner: 'Our society is complicated. If either of these areas is underdeveloped, you have a problem. We need to work together frequently, with different types of people. This will be extremely difficult if you are easily irritated, or if you have no idea how to interact with others.'
Some problems are more evident because of the high standards imposed by society: 'You only need to look at all the labels given to children nowadays to notice this – ADHD, autism. The notion that 50% of the Dutch population should be well-educated makes considerable demands. This means that half of the children have to sit still in a classroom for quite a long time until adulthood, and must be able to work together with others in all sorts of projects. This in itself is already rather complicated.'
Kemner shows a photograph of a small Feyenoord football supporter, gesturing with an extended middle finger: 'I wonder whether he's doing this because he comes from a family where this is considered normal behaviour? The family in which he is raised and their financial possibilities for example, are key factors. Or perhaps his behaviour is associated with his genes, an inherited trait. It actually is even more complex than that, because we have learned that a child's life experiences also affect gene activity.
YOUth aims to ultimately create the most complete picture possible of all factors that can influence a child's development. The researchers are collecting biological material in the form of blood, cheek cells and hair. They are observing children's behaviour and the interaction between children and their parents, and are asking questions about the environment in which the child is growing up. They are additionally measuring brain development based on 3D echoes during pregnancy, EEG scans for babies and MRI scans for older children.
Kemner: 'Our focus on brain development is innovative. We are looking not just at the shape and size of the brain components, but are also explicitly examining how the brain functions. The cause of problems is often rooted in highly subtle aspects. The development of different regions of the brain is interrelated; if one region develops in a certain way, this in turn influences another region. This equally applies to hereditary material and your environment: all factors are linked to each other. That's what makes it so complex.'
Researchers from wide-ranging disciplines will ultimately be able to use the data generated by YOUth: 'The data must be accessible to anyone who has good questions on how children grow up, and why they differ so much from each other. Clearly, this is subject to certain conditions. We handle the data with due care and safeguard the privacy of the participants in our research project.'
Our aim is to link up the expertise of the various disciplines. 'We have now taken the initial steps on the pathway towards large-scale examination: how is brain development related to behaviour? I'm extremely keen to find out more. And if you find that a child is slow in developing social skills, could these skills perhaps be trained? This actually already extends beyond the scope of the YOUth study. But understanding how differences between people arise is the first step towards reaching out to help them.'
As a mother and a researcher, Kemner is very well aware that she has struck gold with YOUth: ‘Investing in children means investing in the future. As a parent, you see how vulnerable children can be. If something goes wrong, your heart breaks, And as a principled psychologist, I believe that a lot of the misery in the world is associated with children who have not been raised properly. If you want to make the world a better place, you need to start with children. And that's from my perspective as a world citizen.'
Join YOUth and invest in the future
YOUth is looking for participants that live in or around Utrecht, can understand and read the Dutch language, are less than 18 weeks pregnant or have a son or daughter who is 8, 9 or 10 years of age. You can request more information via the YOUth website (Dutch only).
Research theme Dynamics of Youth
In dealing with social problems, you need to start with the children. Utrecht University invests in resilient youth. Within the research theme Dynamics of Youth, scientists from all fields of expertise work together in order to better understand child development. How can we help young people to grow and thrive in our rapidly changing society?