Imagine assembling a 250,000-piece puzzle in less than a minute. That’s approximately how fast brain cells grow in babies before they are born.

“From before birth, when brain development is at its fastest pace, and through infancy and adulthood, millions of new nerve cells and connections between them, called synapses, are being generated, and then many are selectively eliminated as the brain matures, adapts, and remodels itself,” said Michael Friedlander, Virginia Tech’s president for health sciences and technology and executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC. “In addition to the intrinsic genetic programs that guide this assembly and refinement, experiences, nutrition, and social interactions all contribute to the brain’s elaboration of its exquisite architecture.”

Experts with the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute will share extraordinary facts about the complex human brain during the research institute’s eighth annual Brain School, “Assembling Baby’s Brain.”

Community lectures and hands-on activities are free and open to the public from 5 to 7 p.m. Monday, March 16, through Thursday, March 19, at 2 Riverside Circle in Roanoke. Brain School lectures start at 6 p.m. each night.

Brain School is held every March as part of Brain Awareness Week, which unites the efforts of organizations worldwide in a weeklong celebration of the brain. It is spearheaded internationally by the Dana Foundation, a private philanthropic organization that supports brain research, and locally by the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute.

Each evening of Brain School begins with refreshments and exhibits in the first-floor atrium from 5 to 6 p.m., followed by an hour-long lecture presented by a leading scientist. Space is limited and advance online registration is encouraged. Free parking is plentiful onsite at 2 Riverside Circle and the Carilion Clinic parking garage at 4 Riverside Circle.

“For biomedical scientists, it is so important to understand how brains develop and what influences healthy growth and what can go wrong, either through genetic causes or environmental insults, so we can improve diagnostics, preventive interventions, and treatments for babies and children,” said Friedlander, who is an elected member of the Dana Brain Alliance. “Our annual Brain School gives us an extraordinary opportunity to share some of the exciting children’s health research we do with our community, and hopefully spark some interest in this fascinating, complex organ that keeps us alive and frames our entire existence.”

2020 Brain School Schedule:

  • Monday, March 16: Healthy Moms, Healthy Infants: Maternal Influences of Brain Development
    Studies show that when expecting and new mothers are stressed, it can affect the baby’s development. Nutrition, feeding habits, sleep, and social interactions can also influence brain development during the first few months of life. Brittany Howell, an assistant professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research, studies how environmental factors and mother-infant bonding might influence early brain development.

  • Tuesday, March 17: Maximizing Abilities After Damage to the Developing Brain
    Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to remodel in response to new information. When a baby’s brain is damaged – due to stroke or a genetic mutation, for example – it can cause a wide range of neurological problems. But scientists like Stephanie DeLuca at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute are finding new ways to help infants and children with cerebral palsy and other movement disorders overcome their impairments. DeLuca, an associate professor and co-director of the Neuromotor Research Clinic, will describe how a new approach to rehabilitation – now in Phase III clinical trials – is yielding life-changing, positive results.

  • Wednesday, March 18: Baby’s Real First Steps: How the Genome Builds a Brain
    Consisting of billions of base pairs, the human genome serves as a blueprint that guides brain development and function. Anthony-Samuel LaMantia, a professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, an acclaimed neurogeneticist, and a leading investigator of DiGeorge syndrome, which has been linked with autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia, will explore how genes regulate brain development.

  • Thursday, March 19: Childhood Epilepsy: Understanding Why Seizures Happen
    Sharon Swanger, an assistant professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, will explain how the brain’s signaling pathways are altered in children who develop epilepsy, and how emerging research could help address devastating seizure disorders, including Dravet Syndrome.
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