Research into brain development in young people: figuring out how young people can grow up even better

Meet Hilleke Hulshoff Pol Professor of Neurosciences – Experimental Psychology at Utrecht University, who is conducting research into brain development in young people. She already concluded in her previous research that genes influence the growth and shrinkage of areas in the brain. Building on this, and as part of the Gravitation project ‘Growing Up Together in Society’, she is now researching how young people develop in a fast-changing and complex society. And whether the environment also affects this brain development.

What prompted you to start researching the brain?

“Ever since I was young I’ve been fascinated by how the brain works. During my study of psychology it became possible to chart the brain really well using MRI scanners. So for the first time we were able to measure brain anatomy and later also brain activity. This was a great opportunity to link brain structure and activity to functions, and hence to research how this is influenced by genes and environment during human development.”

What’s your focus of research during the new ‘Growing Up Together in Society, GUTS’ Gravitation programme?

“Gravitation programmes are long-term, national research processes in which various academics participate to carry out fundamental research. As a member of Utrecht University I’m taking part in GUTS as one of the co-grant applicants. Other GUTS researchers are taking part from their home institutions in Amsterdam, Groningen, Leiden, Nijmegen and Rotterdam. The main grant applicant for this Gravitation programme is Eveline Crone, Professor of Developmental Neuroscience in Society at Erasmus University.”

“The ultimate goal of this programme is to research how young people can successfully grow up and contribute to society, in both its present and future forms. In particular we’re seeing how young people develop in the areas of education, social networks and social norms: how a child grows up to become an adult. Very important developments take place in this period – in the brain, too. So this project will be investigating how the social environment influences this. To this end we’ll be examining parent-child relationships, the relationships that young people enter into with peers and the social networks of young people. Especially in today’s society, which is becoming ever more complex and digital. It’s an area we don’t yet know much about.”

I’ll be really happy if ultimately we can provide tools to help young people respond flexibly to their complex environment, so that they can mature as well as possible.

How are you going to approach that task?

“In this project we are monitoring young people aged 8 to 25 in various towns and cities. I and an Utrecht-based research group, together with GUTS researchers, will be investigating individual developments. We aim to identify biomarkers in the development of self-regulation in young people and will research what drives them to become motivated, socially functioning adults. Here we’ll be trying, for instance, to identify combinations of genes that relate to the ability as a young person to gain control of your thoughts, emotions and behaviour, and how this relates to brain development. We’ll first do this in existing groups of young people. One of the existing groups we’ll be researching is the Utrecht YOUth Child and Teenager cohort, which has been built up partly with the help of the CID Gravitation project. But we’ll also be analysing data from other young people, and then we’ll also do this in the new GUTS cohorts. In this way we ultimately aim to establish how a young person’s individual development relates to their social environment.”

Why is it important to specifically research brain development in young people?

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“The brain continues to develop and the changes we measure relate to how we function. Puberty is a very special period. We already know from previous research that major changes take place in the brains of young people. Even though the contents of young people’s heads are in principle fully grown, the ‘wiring’ that connects these various brain areas continues to change and also increases. Moreover we can, for instance, measure a thinning-out of the cerebral cortex, which relates to cognitive functioning. Correspondingly, more intelligent young people have a cerebral cortex that thins out more quickly.”

“The changes in various brain areas experienced by young people take place faster in some and slower in others. This can be hereditary, but it’s also influenced by the environment. That’s why we want to research how we can optimise the social environment to facilitate young people’s development as much as possible.”

What’s your reason for being involved in Dynamics of Youth?

“Dynamics of Youth seeks the answer to crucial questions for future generations. It carries out research into child and youth development – and that’s something I want to contribute to. And it’s precisely the goal of GUTS. Moreover it’s vital to share knowledge gained from research and to be able to conduct multidisciplinary research. Dynamics of Youth focuses on achieving all this. Personally I’ve never regarded a specific field of research as a boundary to science. In fact, these borderline areas are often where relevant new insights are gained. I think it’s hugely positive to look beyond the borders of your own basic discipline.”

What do you hope your research can contribute to the practical field?

“We’re trying to figure out, at the fundamental level, how young people can grow up optimally. So the aim is that this research will contribute to actual changes. This is why we’ve taken a panel of young people on board, who give advice on the design of the research right from the start: it’s called the Neurolab. It’s something I’m very much in favour of, because they can provide us with a lot of knowledge. This makes the project better, as it’s not only for young people but is also being realised with the help of young people.”