Watch the replay of this event held March 23, 2023. (Transcript below.)

Every baby’s brain has a nearly infinite potential to learn and thrive, coupled with an exquisite vulnerability to adverse experiences, starting in utero. By the time a child reaches kindergarten, their brain has more than doubled in size, on average. But, as any parent will tell you, every child reaches such milestones on their own schedule.

On Thursday, March 23, join Knowable Magazine and Annual Reviews for a live, virtual conversation with leading developmental cognitive neuroscientist Damien Fair and Zero to Three’s Miriam Calderón, a national expert in early education policy. Find out what brain scan studies that follow infants from pregnancy to preschool and beyond are revealing about “typical” brain development, as well as neurodivergent conditions like autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This event is for anyone who cares about brain health and wants to know more about how to set kids up for success — from parents to pediatricians, childcare professionals and teachers.

This event is the first in a series of events and articles exploring the brain across the lifespan. “Inside the brain: A lifetime of change,” is supported by a grant from the Dana Foundation.

Register now for the second and third events in the series, “The teen brain: Mysteries and misconceptions,” and “The mature mind: Aging resiliently.” If you can’t attend the live events, please register to receive an email when the replay is available.


Miriam Calderón

Chief Policy Officer, Zero to Three

Miriam Calderón leads federal and state policy development at Zero to Three, a US nonprofit organization that promotes the healthy development of infants and toddlers. Previously, she was deputy assistant secretary for early learning in the Biden administration and advised the Obama administration on early learning policy. Calderón also has served as early learning system director for the state of Oregon, director of early childhood education at District of Columbia Public Schools and associate director of education policy at the UnidosUS (formerly National Council of La Raza), a Hispanic civil rights organization, where she focused on early education policy for Latinx, immigrant and dual-language learner children.

Damien Fair

Cognitive Neuroscientist, University of Minnesota

Damien Fair directs the Masonic Institute of the Developing Brain at UMN, where he uses neuroimaging techniques like fMRI to study how different areas of the brain communicate with each other as babies grow into young children, then teenagers. Fair is interested in how stressors such as inflammation and maternal depression affect the developing brain. In 2012, he was awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, and in 2020 he was named a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellow. Fair serves on the editorial board of the Annual Review of Psychology.


Emily Underwood

Science Content Producer, Knowable Magazine

Emily Underwood has been covering science for over a decade, including as a neuroscience reporter for Science. She has a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University, and her reporting has won national awards, including a 2018 National Academies Keck Futures Initiatives Communication Award for magazine writing.


This event is part of an ongoing series of live events and science journalism from Knowable Magazine and Annual Reviews, a nonprofit publisher dedicated to synthesizing and integrating knowledge for the progress of science and the benefit of society.

The Dana Foundation is a private philanthropic organization dedicated to advancing neuroscience and society.


More from Knowable Magazine

Related Annual Reviews articles

Other online resources


Emily Underwood: “Hi everyone. Welcome. I’m your host, Emily Underwood. On behalf of Knowable Magazine and Annual Reviews, I’m so thrilled to have you all here. Today we are going to be talking about babies and baby brains, and what scientists are learning about their brains, and how all of us can help babies thrive. It is so wonderful to be here with all of you. I have been watching the chat and I see grandparents, and I see teachers and scientists who study babies, and people who work with babies, and I just want to say how cool it is to be part of this community of curious people. Thank you so much to our guests for joining us, and also thank you to the Dana Foundation for helping to make this series possible.

“A few housekeeping items before I introduce our speakers. We’ll be recording a transcript of this, a video and a transcript, and posting it later. Please share it with your friends and also on social media. You can see our social handles in the chat. I think our trusty colleague Katie Fleeman’s going to post our handles for Instagram and Twitter. Do also sign up for our newsletter if you haven’t already. Of course, we’d love for you also to donate to Knowable Magazine if you enjoy today’s event. So please check out the links to do that.

“OK, if you can’t hear the audio, please refresh your browser. Make sure the mute button is off. Same thing if one of the speaker tiles goes black. You’ll want to refresh your browser. Put your questions in the box with the little question mark in it at the bottom right of the screen. Everybody see that? Maybe it’s a little higher up. Could be different for your screen.

“You’re also going to want to look at the poll button here. Everybody see that? That is a poll that we would love for you to fill out. And for the question box, after about 40 minutes, our editors are going to pick from the list of questions and we will answer as many as we can. One last thing: At the end of the event, please fill out the survey that we’re going to post in the chat. OK, enough from me. Let’s meet our speakers.

“First, I would like to introduce Miriam Calderón, who is chief policy officer for the US nonprofit Zero to Three. Hi, Miriam. So, Zero to Three, in case you’re not familiar with their work, they translate the neuroscience of early brain development into policies that support babies and their families.

“Miriam is in Portland and she’s led some really interesting work to expand access to early childcare in Oregon, but that’s a small part of her bigger-picture career. Before that, she served as deputy assistant secretary for early learning at the US Department of Education, the Biden administration. She also advised the Obama administration on early learning, and she led Head Start and pre-K programs in DC. So this is all to say, Miriam, you have a really unique perspective, not only on how individuals can give babies the best start in life, but what we can all do as a society to support healthy brain development. Welcome, Miriam.”

Miriam Calderón: “Thanks, Emily. So excited to be here.”

Emily Underwood: “Me, too. Glad you’re here. OK, so let’s go ahead and bring Damien Fair onto the stage. Damien is the director of the Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain at the University of Minnesota. Damien has earned national recognition for his research on brain development, including a MacArthur genius fellowship. He studies how different parts of the brain communicate with each other, and he has found unique fingerprints of neural activity that could help scientists better understand how conditions like ADHD and autism arise. I also have to mention that Damien recently joined the editorial committee of the Annual Review of Psychology and he has written some wonderful papers, including one in the Annual Review of Developmental Psychology that’s very relevant to this conversation. You’ll find links to it in the chat. So welcome, Damien.”

Damien Fair: “Thank you for having me.”

Emily Underwood: “Glad to have you both here. My first question, and we’re going to start with you, Damien, is to unpack something that a lot of people in the audience may already be familiar with, and that’s the idea that the first 1,000 days, about the first two and a half years of a baby’s life are the most important for brain development. So, Damien, I would like you to talk about why that’s the case. What happens in this period of time? Is it true that it’s the most important? Can you kick us off with an overview?”

Damien Fair: “Sure. So, the first 1,000 days is indeed an extremely important and very dynamic period of our life. It’s the fastest period of brain growth. It’s the time when you’ll have most of the synapses or the connections in your life and in your brain. And outside of just a couple of small brain areas, it’s the time when all of the neurons or brain cells that you’ll have in your entire life will have been born and migrate to their final resting place.

“Now, this last part is actually shocking for many folks, and certainly for kids when you tell them that they have way more brain cells than their parents. But the reason why this is so important is because we often think about our brain as building up, like we would build a house, but it actually develops more like a sculpture, where you have starting a very large rock or foundation that is sculpted over time to make the masterpiece of who you are.

“In the brain, we have trillions and trillions of connections that slowly prune and sculpt away into the adult self that you are, in a coordinated manner, that’s all based on our experiences. And so in that context, this starting place is extremely important ... for our brain growth development in the health throughout your entire lifespan. So these first thousand days are extremely important.”

Emily Underwood: “When you say start, what do you mean ‘start’? As a neuroscientist, when does it begin and when does this really explosive, dynamic time end, wrap up, peter out? What’s the timing?”

Damien Fair: “Yeah, so the first 1,000 days gets you to that sculpture, and then during pregnancy and the prenatal period is when that base rock is being all put together, right? So really we’re talking from pregnancy all the way through these first 1,000 days.”

Emily Underwood: “OK. So much more to unpack there, but I think we’ll get into more detail later. So Miriam, this next question is for you and it’s this question about plasticity. We hear the word ‘plasticity’ a lot. What does it mean to you?”

Miriam Calderón: “Yeah, so I’m just going to say I’m cognizant that I’m going to explain plasticity in the presence of a neuroscientist. So I think this is probably going to be maybe the version you’d hear at a dinner party, but I think as Damien said, the earliest years of life, our brains are forming neural connections rapidly, really more than any other period. And some people in the field, we talk about it as the hard-wiring, or the architecture is getting set and all that’s true, but it’s also true that neural pathways are going to continue to develop beyond the thousand days, albeit maybe not as rapidly, and plasticity is about the rewiring that can happen with new experiences.

“Basically the idea is to say that the brain has a tremendous potential to adapt, to keep building on that sculpture or architecture, as Damien talked about. And so for me, the idea of plasticity is so important for families, caregivers, educators and policymakers to understand because while we want everyone to know and act on the importance of the first thousand days, we also know that if a child’s development gets off to a shaky start, that we can provide the support that helps the child as the brain adapts and sort of builds on that stronger wiring.

“So for babies that encounter experiences that can undermine their development early on, we don’t want the situation to seem hopeless ever, least of all for their families. And for policymakers, we want them to know that we need to invest in the policies that promote healthy births and children thriving by 3. And that’s really prevention and that we also need to have interventions, right? This idea of plasticity when there is adversity.”

Emily Underwood: “So we’re going to talk about policies and interventions in a lot more depth, but I want to stay in the basic stuff for a minute. Is the plasticity that we talk about for babies the same as it is, say, for a teenager or somebody like me, in my late 30s? Or does the nature of that plasticity change over time? Damien, do you want to take that?”

Damien Fair: “Sure. Well, first of all, I’d say there are lots of similarities of the brain from babies through adolescents, through to adults. And it’s related very much to the levels of plasticity. Now, we’ve learned over the years, probably from a 10,000-foot view, that the brain is organized in a relatively small number of correlated and distributed brain systems. It was a principle that was predicted many, many years ago, but with new technologies like functional MRI and things of this nature, we can actually see that all of this is actually true. Now these systems look to be well in place very early in development. The general structure of specific areas in the brain are in place very early in development. They are indeed likely the same very much in adults and in babies. So often how I think about the difference in children, in adolescents, in adults is that as we’re developing, they’re set up essentially to do a lot more things than we could ever imagine.

“But the role is not to be experts or anything like that out of the womb, but to experience the world that they live in, and as opposed to the world that their parents lived in when they were growing up. And then we can take that in the plasticity about sculpting the brain that provides the maximal fitness for them based on that particular experience. And it actually reminds me of some work that I used to read as a student by this famous psychologist named Endel Tulving, who talked about the development of short-term memory.

“So if you give an adolescent and a child that could remember a bunch of numbers, the adolescent does better than a younger child. But if you ask them and the adolescent to say, OK, tell me how you did that experiment and then you give that information to the child, they do just as well. And so the brain doesn’t just suddenly, automatically mature. What it means is that it has the capacity to do all types of things that you wouldn’t ever think, but its role is not that, it’s to experience the world and try things out and do things a little bit different so they can grow in that type of environment.”

Emily Underwood: “And my sense has been that each stage of brain development is really uniquely adapted in some ways to the place that the kid is at. So prenatal brain development in the womb has features that are very different from even late toddlerhood or adolescents, but that they are really set up for laying down the foundation for the rest of life. So can you talk a little bit more, Miriam, about Zero to Three’s focus on 0 to 3. Does that include prenatal care and support?”

Miriam Calderón: “Yeah, absolutely. We talk a lot about perinatal health, and policies that support that, during pregnancy and the period of time after pregnancy. And we talk about the interconnectedness of the maternal health, the well-being of the mom, and even looking up some of the research that can go so far back as saying the underlying health of the mom well before pregnancy is also playing a role in the development of the baby during that time. So it is inextricably linked.

“In general, we know that the well-being and the wellness of the family, particularly the mother, the most important adults in a baby’s life, have a huge impact on their development. And that is absolutely happening in the prenatal period. And that’s something we need to take into account as we think about what kinds of services and supports and policies need to be in place for families.”

Emily Underwood: “Yeah. So from a parent’s perspective, I imagine that a big question from the very get-go is, how much does what I’m doing affect the long-term health and well-being of my child? So we know that the baby brain is really malleable and sensitive to the environment, and to both positive and to negative experiences. So what I would like to start with along those lines is, Damien, how much do we really know about what typical brain development looks like? What’s a normal developing brain look like?”

Damien Fair: “Oh, yeah. So we know quite a bit actually about typical brain development, some of which I’ve already described. I think one of the most important things, and it’s very clear, is that the brain varies in unique ways from person to person and it develops in very unique ways from person to person. And that variation is an important principle in really understanding brain development.

“So back in 2014, we’ve highlighted and characterized how measurements with MRI can act like almost a functional fingerprint of the brain, that with this type of imaging we have the resolution, the ability to map the individuality of the connections of the brain, the uniqueness of our systems and how our brains are organized such that it’s a, so it’s like a fingerprint. But that has actually told us ... that the variability of typical brain development can take many, many forms, what we call the heterogeneity problem, where you have different paths, different organization that has very important implications to how we think about atypical brain development and typical brain development.”

Emily Underwood: “I do find this to be a bit of a brain bender that you can find these very distinct patterns of connectivity in, it’s not just babies, you see it across the lifespan, and that you can use these to actually identify an individual person. Is that right?”

Damien Fair: “That’s absolutely right. Just like a fingerprint. Yeah.”

Emily Underwood: “So, first of all, that’s amazing. And second of all, how could that be useful? That’s all. How can you use that?”

Damien Fair: “Oh, yeah. So it’s very useful in many ways. One is that I was beginning to describe is that it could help you understand the different types of paths over the course of development. So you might imagine someone that may come in the clinic may have symptoms of a mental health disorder like ADHD, for example. But the reason why you have ADHD may be quite a bit different than the reason why I have it. And that’s very important for trying to think through how do you treat somebody or help somebody that has a specific type of ailment. There are other aspects of this that are extremely important. So now we have all these new types of techniques to modulate the brain with things like magnetic stimulation and things of that nature. But in order for us to know that I need, to go here to help you with the neuromodulation for me, and over here for you, that you need that type of information of the brain to be able to really apply these types of new technologies. And there’s tons of work that’s coming out in that arena right now actually.”

Emily Underwood: “Yeah. So it sounds like on the one hand you have targeting interventions for the individual in a way that reflects their brain anatomy and their connectivity, which develops. But if you are looking back, if you’re tracing how a person got to that point, there are many, many paths to get to similar outcomes. Am I hearing you right?”

Damien Fair: “That’s exactly right.”

Emily Underwood: “OK. So if we’re talking about the beginning and the types of things that can influence brain development in a typical or atypical way, how much do we know about that? That’s a follow-up for you, Damien, just in terms of establishing that cause and effect. So how we know if a child’s exposure to one of the many, many risk factors that we know from population studies make some difference in their outcome — how do you figure that out? That just seems really, really complicated and hard.”

Damien Fair: “Well, it definitely is very complicated and hard. So you can think of, it’s somewhat related to the question on related to resilience. And what it means is that at a population level, you might have some type of exposure, like some type of early life stress that you can see across the population, that is not a good thing to experience very early in life because that has consequences for your trajectory moving on. But doesn’t mean that every single person who has early life stress is going to going impact the brain or trajectory, because it depends on your brain, your other circumstances, and the brain is extremely resilient at stressors. So it’s kind of like breaking those two things down. In fact, when I started my career, I did a lot of work in perinatal stroke. What that is, where around the time of birth, either through an ischemic event or through a bleed, it happens about one in a hundred births where you have a stroke in an infant, but very much different than what you’ve seen in adults.

“Oftentimes these kids don’t even know they ever had it. In fact, there’s this really amazing, really great piece that just came out by my colleagues that watched you, Nico Dosenbach and Tim Laumann, you might have seen it in the Washington Post, where this kid is a starting pitcher on his baseball team, came into the clinic, had some headaches and was wondering what was going on. They did some brain images that he had these massive strokes in his brain that took out more than a third of his brain, but the brain is so resilient at this period of time that he didn’t even know it happened, because of the reorganization, of the plasticity. So nothing’s determined, you know, that’s number one. But what we try to avoid is making it harder for the brain to maximize its potential.”

Emily Underwood: “Yeah. Miriam, I’m guessing you also encountered this question a lot. If a parent has been learning about risks for brain development, it’s easy to slip into that deterministic way of talking about it. If a single misstep or trauma or an environmental exposure, does this spell doom for my child? It makes parenting, I think, pretty stressful. How do you respond to parents who are worried that their first 1,000 days of their baby’s life didn’t go as planned or weren’t ideal?”

Miriam Calderón: “Sure. Well, I start with even my own personal story, and my own lived experience. I had a very difficult pregnancy, carrying twins. I was on restrictive bedrest. I managed a lot of stress in those first three months. I worried that I was going to lose my babies, that I wasn’t going to get to meet them. They were born low birthweight, 3 pounds and 4 pounds, 10 ounces, six weeks early, had an 18-day NICU stay. I work in the field, I know all the research. It shows, a lot of it, I should say, that preterm, low birthweight babies have increased prevalence of developmental delays, neurological disabilities, chronic health issues later in life, among other things. But my babies just turned 17 last week. These experiences don’t define them, nor do they predetermine their health or school outcomes. So I think as Damien was saying, we don’t want parents to carry a burden of adversity being permanent.

“Right back as he was talking about to the idea of plasticity, to the idea that even with prolonged exposure to stress, children heal brains, are adaptable, resilient, they overcome challenges. So we want families to feel empowered by the knowledge of brain development, not burdened by it. We want them to be excited about how wondrous this period of human development is, excited about what they can do to support that healthy development, and to know that if there is something that is off-track, there is some detrimental experience, that there are supports and resources available and that they are resilient.”

Emily Underwood: “So in the spirit of supporting that resiliency, how do you think about supporting families who are stressed, and maybe because they live in a dangerous neighborhood or they can’t access health care or healthy food, or something that a lot of new families just went through, they have their babies during the middle of a global pandemic? I realize that’s a way too big of an ... we could spend hours talking about this, but I’d like to hear a few highlights of how you think about taking some of that burden off of individual families and parents, and setting things up for success on a societal level.”

Miriam Calderón: “Yeah. Well, I think again, the understanding ... is lifting up the importance of the resiliency. When there is adversity and the ways in which we need to be able then to connect to the right resources, right supports, right time. I think the second thing I would note about some of those issues that you talked about is really being able to remind parents about the importance of their own well-being, mental wellness, the need for them to be able to get support in managing their own stress, because we know that that stress can affect healthy development and learning of the baby. We’ve seen actually very powerful data about this during the pandemic from some of our partners at the Stanford Center for Early Childhood. They have this rapid EC project where they have been surveying parents weekly since the start of the pandemic.

“A consistent finding from their work shows that there’s a hardship chain reaction, meaning that financial strain, material hardship increases the stress of families brought about by the pandemic that negatively affected their caregiver well-being, which in turn adversely affected the emotional health of their babies and young children. The work that we’re doing at Zero to Three, we hear this all the time for families, we spend a lot of time listening to them. Just a couple of weeks ago, we released a federal policy agenda for the new Congress. It is all framed around the messages that families want Congress to hear. The actual title of it is ‘Fight for Our Families.’ This is a direct quote from a parent who wants Congress to do more to help families right now. And that would be my final point. It doesn’t have to be this way. These issues of unsafe neighborhoods, food insecurity, unaffordable childcare, full-time work that doesn’t always add up to being able to afford health care or a stable home, these are policy choices that we make.

“In many respects, they’re rooted in legacies of racial and economic injustice, sexism. We can make different choices, and that’s the work that we do at Zero to Three, is to try to find those broad-based policy solutions to address these persistent systemic challenges that existed pre-Covid and were exacerbated. And a great example of that is the child tax credit. During the pandemic, we had an expanded refundable tax credit available to support all families with children, even more support for families with younger children in the early childhood period. We have data to show that that lifted millions of children out of poverty. Congress let that lapse, and we’ve seen children fall back into poverty, millions of children. So we need these policy changes to be able to capitalize on the power of the first thousand days. We know how to do it, and we need to be all committed to being able to bring about the kind of changes and supports for families so that all of our babies can thrive, not just survive.”

Emily Underwood: “And this is a question for both of you really, but I’ll ask Miriam just to follow up quickly. How we solve these problems can get really political, right? Is there anything that you find that both sides of the political spectrum can really agree on in your work, or is it sticky all the way?”

Miriam Calderón: “Yeah, I mean, I’m happy to start. Eager to hear what Damien says. I mean, I really believe that a lot of the policies that we advocate for at Zero to Three — maternal health supports, infant mental health supports, affordable childcare and early education, paid leave — these are policies that are really supported by people across the political spectrum, both political party voters, red states, blue states, Republicans, Democrats, and when we bring information like the brain science and we can talk about the remarkable period of the first thousand days, and really also bring data and evidence about what works to capitalize on this period of time, I think that there is support for it.

“I think the hard part can get into the how — how do you set these policies? I think another big barrier is how much resource we need to actually invest as a nation and as a country. So, the cost — how will we afford this? Which, again, we have great answers to. We spend it later in interventions that are more costly and less likely to be effective. So we’re just talking about putting it earlier, during the period of time where we know we can get the best rate of return.”

Emily Underwood: “So, Miriam, you talk about the evidence for these types of interventions, and Damien, I would like to hear your thoughts on where the science stands at this point. Are there policies or interventions that are kind of like, the data’s there, we don’t need to do more research, we can just act? And are there areas where, boy, it would be really nice to have more answers about this. And I realize please don’t try to be comprehensive, but a few examples if there’s any that come to mind, would be helpful.”

Damien Fair: “Well, first of all, and then the last question, in the sciences, we try not to be too political about what we think about the data. But I completely agree that this particular topic about our children and brain health and our future tend to be really consistent across the spectrum. Relatedly, I feel like one of the things that we know well — and it’s really been one of the main purposes of why we’ve all gathered here today — is the importance of this early stage of development. I mean, it is so important. We tend to invest most in our kids at the start of school age. But really these early periods, is really critical to success and maximizing the brain health of all our youth. And we need to invest early in providing optimal experiences and support for our youth and family during this period. I think that’s fairly clear by the data.”

Emily Underwood: “Yeah. When it comes to the conditions that you study in a lot of depth like autism, ADHD, are there types of early interventions that you would expect to see benefits from at the population level? Or is that really a different question?”

Damien Fair: “Well, first of all, what I would say is that there’s a lot of unknowns about some of these mental health disorders like ADHD and autism. But what I can say, and this has been the focus on, particularly in autism for a lot of the field, is to begin to identify the presence of the disorder as early as possible. Why? Because the impact from the intervention is most successful the earlier you identify it. So again, there’s nothing deterministic, but the earlier you can figure it out, the more effective some of our interventions are, which again begets the reason why we’re here, why this first 1,000 days are so important for both typical and neurological development.”

Emily Underwood: “Do you think we’re getting to the point where we might be able to diagnose or see activity patterns in the fetal brain, for example, that are a signal to maybe start certain types of therapies earlier? Or is that the future that we’re going towards?”

Damien Fair: “Well, the early identification’s really important. We always have to be careful when we talk about, particularly in mental health, the disorders. What I was describing very earlier is that we tend to talk about them as there it is one big thing, like ADHD or autism or depression, but it really doesn’t work that way. These are multiple different paths that you might get to the same type of phenotype. So we’re probably quite a ways away from taking a fetal fMRI scan, which is possible, and there’s lots of work on that that’s currently being done, to intervening in a specific way. But I would say that identifying these types of patterns, things to look out for long-term trajectories, that research is currently underway.”

Emily Underwood: “I meant that also to be raised as an equity question of, let’s say that we could detect autism much earlier with fetal fMRI or infinite fMRI, it’s going to be hard to scan everybody. Not everybody’s going to have access to that type of diagnostic, although I understand it’s getting more affordable and more convenient to do. Miriam, when you think about … there’s this tension between the fact that the neuroscience is showing how heterogeneous our brains are, how wonderfully individual they are, but policy by its very nature is broad. You have to come up with ideas and solutions that can be applied to big groups of people. So is this something you’ve given thought to in terms of the early education work that you’ve done?”

Miriam Calderón: “Yeah, I really appreciate this question. I mean, I do think that that tension is very real. And one that I’ve seen and encountered and worked on ... at the federal, state, really community level. So one size doesn’t fit and when you’re setting policy at the federal level, which is the 30,000-foot view, we’re down at the classroom level. Even when we say we’re basing our policy decisions and choices on data and evidence, context matters, culture matters, all the points that Damien was making about the individuality of the brain. So I think maybe one good example of this tension in action is the Build Back Better Act passed the US House of Representatives and the US Senate, and came close to passing in the US Senate, I should say, last year, would’ve established near-universal childcare for our nation.

“The policy goals in that bill were about helping families afford care, improving the compensation of early educators, childcare educators, ensuring children were cared for. And what we often talk about a lot in our field is high-quality environments. So we have a lot of research to inform that policy about what does ‘high-quality environment’ mean. We know parents care deeply about ensuring that their children are in a safe space, a nurturing space, a space that is going to support their learning and development when they’re not in their care.

“And we know things about that research too, about what kinds of experiences they should have if they’re an emergent bilingual child, if they’re a child with unique or different learning needs or diverse abilities. So we think about that at the very broad level then, is that we have to leave the flexibility in the policy, not being overly prescriptive for families to take into account the preferences and individual needs of families’ community context.

“We have to think about how we empower educators to be able to make decisions in the classroom level, about the individual needs of children. So that can look like you don’t prescribe a curriculum. It looks like you make sure that that early educators get a lot of professional learning, that their own wellness is supported, which by the way, in our nation, we do not do. The younger the child, the greater the pay penalty is, and the less ideal the working conditions are for people providing education to our youngest children. So there’s a lot to say, but I’m going to wrap and leave you with this point about that tension and what I’ve seen work.”

Emily Underwood: “OK.”

Miriam Calderón: “Is that when you design the policy around those for whom the existing systems are working the least well, so a solve for that, the families and communities that have been the most marginalized, the situations around not typical development, I think the closer you get to being at a policy that will work at broad scale. You include the voices of the people closest to the work in shaping that policy and you marry that with the research and the evidence. That’s how we approach it at Zero to Three, listening a lot to professionals working in the system, getting families at the table and their voices, other community partners influencing the policy.”

Emily Underwood: “That’s just the perfect segue to my question for Damien. This is going to be our last question, because we’re at 40 minutes and I want to make sure we get to the audience. Damien, your team does something unusual in that they actually go into the community and they ask hundreds of community organizations what they need and what they’re interested in getting from neuroscience research. I hope I’m explaining that correctly, but what have you heard, what have you learned from that?”

Damien Fair: “Yeah, we’re still growing in that domain as well, I would say. And a lot of this is led by our community engagement education leader, Anita Randolph, who’s a community organizer, neuroscientist, just extraordinary personality altogether. But we hear a lot — the needs of the families really come from all walks of life and they’re often very big. For many developmental health issues, we don’t have great treatments. For example, adolescent depression is now at an all-time high. Nearly one in five kids have thought about attempting suicide, and that was in 2019, before the pandemic. So, first and foremost, a lot of times families want better solutions to handle some of the changing mental health landscape. With that said, even when we have solutions, navigating our health systems is often an extreme challenge. So that’s the big need we hear about.

“With that said, even though when we feel comfortable about navigating the system, getting access to care, it seems to be a huge challenge that we hear. With that said, even when you have the resources to get access, there are not enough providers to see you, with enormous wait lists and not enough providers in your specific areas. So we get calls from people from everywhere to come to our new institute. And there are many, I’d say, marginalized communities who are unable to take advantage of many of the new systems simply because of the lack of trust. We really have a checkered history in many respects with regard to our health and research in this country. So there are many steps we need to take to rebuild the relationships between science and our health systems and much of the population we’re trying to reach. There are so many issues.

“And so at our institute, the Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain, we’re trying to do this all-hands-on-deck model that brings together the community, the scientists, the clinicians, the engineers, the informaticists, the service lines and insurance companies, the teachers, the policymakers, bring them all into one roof to speed up our progress and tackling many of the issues and getting some of the science, making sure we’re asking the right questions and then getting it into the hands of the people as fast as we can.”

Emily Underwood: “Great. Well, I wish we had more time because I have many, many more questions, but I know our audience is going to have great questions too. So, real quick, if you’re enjoying this and you want to join future events, please sign up for the newsletter, follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Don’t forget to fill out the five-question survey at the end.

“So I also want to remind you that this is the first of three events. Our next event is on April 26th on the teenage brain. We’re going to have neuroscientist BJ Casey, who I know, Damien, you’ve done work with before. And we’ll also have a youth mental health advocate, Diana Chao, who does really cool work, peer-to-peer support with teens who are having mental health struggles. So that’s on May 17th. Oh, I’m sorry, that’s on April 26th. And then the next one, on the aging brain, is May 17th. And you can sign up for all of these on our website, Knowable Magazine, “Inside the brain: A lifetime of change” series — hoping that Katie will put that in the chat. Thank you. OK.

“While I bring up our audience questions, do you have any... Let’s see, is there a question that... Sorry, it’s taking a second for this to load. OK. I’m going to start with a question from Jayeson Shaffer, this looks like it’s about in utero birth development. And the question is, ‘I once saw a brief video of a baby rat with a camera inside its brain as the neurons were first exposed to the environment. It showed how quickly neurons were stimulated to make sure their connections were given exposure to an out-of-the womb environment. If this is accurate, what’s it like for a human at the moment of birth? Is it possible to have a miniature camera to see this miraculous event?’ Oh, I really love this question. So I’m going to take my own twist on it and simplify it a little bit, which is how can we see, Damien, what is happening in a baby’s brain as its neurons interact with the environment? How do we do that?”

Damien Fair: “OK, so I think probably what he’s likely describing is this technique of imaging called calcium imaging, where you can essentially look ... like a camera in that you’re looking at directly at the neurons in animal models. You cannot do that in humans, but there are several new techniques now that use light, of course, that use MRI, like magnets, that are capable of looking inside the brain and looking at function non-invasively as early as in utero, but typically right about the time of birth. And so it’s hard to know.

“The brain is a fascinating thing, right? It’s not like a muscle, where a muscle is, you’re either flexing it or you’re not flexing it and it’s kind of flaccid, right? Well, the brain is essentially flexed all the time. It’s always working your entire life and the little tiny extra energy that’s taken up when you’re actually doing something like reading words or something, that’s very small relative to the total.

“So when we look at the brain activity, particularly at that age, it’s hard to know whether the activity you’re seeing is something intrinsic that’s just happening because it’s always working, or if it’s related to the outside world, which is what the question was about. So we have the techniques, but we’re going to need a little bit more time to figure out how to differentiate some of those things.”

Emily Underwood: “And when you talk about the background, it’s almost background noise of the brain, and then experience shapes it. Am I getting that right?”

Damien Fair: “That’s right. Well, yeah. So a lot of what we call background noise in the brain is not really noise-noise at all. So our brains are, they’re like ChatGPT on steroids. They’re essentially just probability detectors. So the amount of information that enters your brain essentially, even from your vision, that you can see in the world, is very small. If you actually considered it in terms of a TV, it would look like, you wouldn’t even be able to see it; it looked like an old videophone like from the prior war ... But the experience of our world looks amazingly clear, and that’s because we have this stimulus that sits on top of the spontaneous noise that’s going on in the background, and then we predict what we’re seeing, and that’s why it makes it look so good, even though the information that’s getting in there is very small.

“It’s why magicians have jobs, because they essentially can trigger things inside your brain that make it feel like you’re seeing something that you’re really not. So that’s what that background noise is. That’s just an example of what it’s doing, along with helping with memories and all types of other important functions.”

Emily Underwood: “Our brains can do so much with so little.”

Damien Fair: “That’s right.”

Emily Underwood: “So this is the next question about education that I think maybe, Miriam, if you want to take this first crack on, which is how to enhance parental education. How to help parents learn about fetal development and the proactive prevention of potential learning challenges. What do parents need to know? What is the best way to spread the word?”

Miriam Calderón: “Yeah, absolutely. I think we have, and we’re seeing a lot more of this, to take a real public health approach to understanding the power of the first thousand days. All of the information we’ve been talking about today about brain development in this period of time. And what does that mean? That means it’s population level. It’s like this is information we all need to have, we all have to learn. So it’s almost like early brain development in all policies, in all programs, in all systems. It means how do you learn it in high school or middle school and how do we get it into our public education system? At Zero to Three, we do this work and we have programs like Healthy Steps, where we’re trying to infuse this information into the pediatric practices, places where parents with young children are spending tons of time when their babies are first born and making sure that there’s an expert in early childhood development there.

“Even connecting with OB, obstetricians and those experts and making sure, sometimes this isn’t part of their training either. And so it’s really how do we both get those experts in? How do we go upstream and get more people trained? Another program we have is Safe Babies where we work in the child welfare system. When you think about that system, that is the families that end up there are families that are struggling. One of the biggest reasons that we see from the data of why a family is interacting with that system is material hardship, not being able to meet basic needs, the stress around that in parenting. So we do work to train judges and all the actors in those systems about early childhood brain development. We put people like we do in the pediatrician’s office in those systems and those child welfare agencies that can connect those families to those resources, because we want families to be able to stay together as an outcome of that system and really promote their health and well-being.

“So we take early educators, childcare providers — the learning is happening in development in a range of environments where children are cared for. Parents make very different choices and sometimes it depends on the age, what you might want for early education and care for your 4-month-old looks very different than what you want for your 18-month-old or your 4-year-old. So it’s about really making sure that all of that training and that information is there. And through those experiences we’re always, always focused on how do we partner with families around that information? How do we support them? How do we use all those doors that families are interacting with, home visiting programs, all of those things to really get this information out.”

Emily Underwood: “So we have so many good audience questions, but I’m going to stick one follow-up to that, which is how new... I mean, a lot of what you’re talking about, I think, it feels intuitive, if some of the stuff might seem like common sense but wasn’t common sense even 10 years ago. So I’m curious — and Damien, if you have thoughts on this, I’d like to hear you respond — are there any big changes that have happened because of neuroscience in how we think about child development and care that stand out to you?”

Damien Fair: “Well, yes. I mean, there have been quite a bit. Like I was trying to say earlier, I think even just when I was a graduate student, we had a lot of theories and ideas about how the brain was organized and how it developed over time, but we weren’t sure, and we didn’t know for sure. And I think that some of these non-invasive techniques that have now been developed and have been maturing over the last two decades have provided us with the real clarity on how the system’s organized and how it changes over time, what periods are specific needs in, and what needs are bending the curve, so to speak. And that has major implications for timing and how you think about policies. And like I said, the idea, you can see these different paths, it reminds me of how you think about a policy, most of our policies are based on the average.

“You take some average big population, but really based on what we’re seeing, it needs to be a little bit more thoughtful. I’m on the National Scientific Council for the Developing Child, and I was just giving this example about a month ago, about when fighter pilot seats were first being built, they took the average height and arm length and leg length of all the pilots and they made a seat that would fit. And then it fit essentially nobody, because nobody’s actually average, right? Because they all have something different. And that’s how the same levers you have in your car and the same levers that you have to adjust based on the specifics of the individual, even though it’s not based on the average, it’s a very fine tune that allows it to essentially fit everybody.

“And you think about it in terms of that. I think a lot of what we’ve learned in brain development has told us, ‘Oh, we need to be thinking through a lot more of our policies and interventions in terms of the levers and less than trying to think about the average,’ and all this information about how the brain’s changing the different paths, how individualized everybody is making that extremely, extremely clear.”

Emily Underwood: “So I love this question from Howard Owens and it’s very relevant to what you’re just talking about. Are any researchers tracking connections between earliest experience and teenage mental health, which is now such an issue and I know that you’re one of them, right? Damien, can you talk about that?”

Damien Fair: “Absolutely. Yeah. Right now there’s two very, very big initiatives in the US that are tracking kids from starting, the one’s called the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development Study starting at 9 and then following those kids until they’re young adults, doing imaging and assessments and everything all the way through high school and all those new experiences. And following that, those trajectories over time, that’s about seven years in. And we’re learning just an enormous amount of information that we just never had at our fingertips. That is being followed by another study that we just started called the Healthy Brain and Child Development Study.

“Most of these are sponsored by the NIH and in particular NIDA, and which is starting in the second period, or second trimester of pregnancy and then doing the same type of thing till to these kids are nine or 10 years old, so you should look them up. There is an enormous effort to really, truly map brain trajectories aligned with experiences and all of the variable experiences across the entire United States. That’s currently ongoing that’s already provided a ton of information, but is certainly going to provide a lot more product in the future.”

Emily Underwood: “So it sounds like we have research we can act on now. And also you can’t know too much about the developing brain. There’s so much complexity and so many mysteries to solve that we’re really at the beginning. We’re really close to needing to wrap up, which breaks my heart. But I would like to take one more audience question. Is that OK with you guys? Just one more audience question. OK. And that is, let’s see, oh yeah, this is another brain anatomy question, which is, ‘Can we regrow some regions that we lost during the sculpting process?’ Miriam, do you want to start with that? And then Damien, you want to add…”

Miriam Calderón: “Oh, I think I got to let Damien go first on that one.”

Damien Fair: “The answer is for the most part, no. When we’re born and by the time in those first 1,000 days, like I was trying to say earlier, the 80 billion neurons, you are going to have all of them in place and in their final resting place when you’re born. There’s a few exceptions to that. One place is called the hippocampus, where we probably maybe have heard about, where a lot of our memories and things are formed. And there’s one other location, what’s called the cerebellum in the back of your brain that helps, that’s important for lots of things, but for the most part the answer is no. Which is one of the reasons why getting this right upfront is really, really important. But again, even though that’s true, it doesn’t mean that our brains are not developing, right? It’s just a different way, it’s not an intuitive way at which it develops, it provides lots of paths to real optimal developmental trajectories.”

Emily Underwood: “OK, I did the thing where I say the fake last question, because there is one more question, and I have to ask it and I have to ask it of both of you. And it is, you are both parents and I would love to hear your top three, one, however many, some tips for parents themselves on how to support their own babies’ healthy brain development. Miriam, can you take that away?”

Miriam Calderón: “Oh, sure. Well, I think I would say focus on the magic of everyday moments. We say this a lot in our field: You are your child’s first and most important teacher. So there’s a lot that you can do. We get marketed with a lot of bells and whistles, but really it’s about those interactions, that nurturing, that bond, that loving relationship that creates the safety and security for them to explore the world. And I would say something that also, I think Damien will back me up here on this, maybe this is a topic for another show, but is particular to families who are coming from homes — myself, English isn’t my first language, it was Spanish — bilingualism. I think some in our education system say it’s a risk factor when you start out learning, it’s hearing another language than our dominant language of English in the United States.

“And we know a lot about the incredible potential of an impact on brain development of being multilingual, bilingual, something that I’ve always prioritized. And so I always really want to put a very positive strength-based frame: That is an asset if you can teach your child another language, or help them develop another language, or keep your home language in those early years.”

Emily Underwood: “Love it. Thank you. Damien, what about you?”

Damien Fair: “Well, it’s funny. I mean, so one thing I would say is some of this is just as much about me being a parent as me being a scientist, but read — read, read, read as early as you can. Help them learn how to read as early as possible — the capacity for that is extremely high. And again, this is much more about me being a parent as being a scientist, but I think it’s extremely important. And then the other aspect is maximizing the types of experience your children have. We learn by our experiences, and our flexibility and ability to navigate our ever-changing world is based on experience. So maximize those experiences. And with that said, it’s not necessarily only just a parent and caregiver thing, but really a society thing, so that everybody has the opportunity to provide these types of things.

“And the last thing I’d say is probably, you always have to remember that sometimes your impulses as a parent and your experiences as an adult are not necessarily the right thing for your kids. And I have this split brain with, as a parent, as a scientist, but also as a parent all the time. I mean I have teenagers — I have one teenager who just loves to sleep. He’s just sleeping all the time, and my parent brain is, it’s noon on a Saturday and I’m like, ‘Get out of bed!’ But then my scientist brain is saying, ‘You know, this is kind of what he’s supposed to do at this age.’ This is how the brain… this maximizes their development. It’s related to a lot of policies around early school times and early sports times. So my experience as an adult doesn’t necessarily, the right thing for our kids. So that’s a hard thing to remember sometimes. And so I just want to throw that out there, that it’s important to recognize that sometimes as a parent.”

Miriam Calderón: “I so identify with that split brain and parenting teens. So I’ll be tuning in to the next session on the teenage brain as well.”

Emily Underwood: “Please. Yeah, I hope everybody here will — we all have teenagers in our lives, whether we are their parents or not. Thank you. Thank you both so much. This has been a pleasure and I was going to give you time to ask each other questions. So if you would like to do that now, you could. But otherwise I’m going to wrap us up. Is there a question that you have for Miriam, Damien? Or Miriam, that you have for Damien?”

Miriam Calderón: “I mean, I have one. I think it’s very a big one, but I think I’ve been struck even in the course of this conversation by we know so much about the importance of this period in brain development, and we’ve worked to put that in front of policymakers and we haven’t seen it translate into big bold policy change. So Damien, is there anything coming down the road at all that you think is going to be more of a breakthrough? Because I’ll give you an example. Early Head Start is coming up on its 30th anniversary. It came out of the big period in the ’90s and the explosion of the brain science, it still only reaches 11 percent of infants and toddlers in poverty, coming up on 30 years later. Anything, you got anything for us coming up?”

Damien Fair: “Well, we have a lot of things for you coming up. The question is, can it translate into policy? And that’s definitely always the struggle. And I’ve been thinking about this at our institute MIDB for a while now, and in fact I was noting this earlier before our call, is that, as scientists, we do a lot of things that have lots of implications for our policies, but we just tend to be not very good communicators. We just struggle communicating the science in a way that’s digestible and meaningful. So I think in order to change that dynamic, is probably less about all the discoveries.

“I think even just in the last several years going through the pandemic, you can realize how hard it is to communicate some of the science to the general public — it’s to get more folks like me in a room with more folks like you, Miriam, so we can figure out how to change some of that dynamic, so we can communicate some of the things we know to be true, and in a way that’s digestible by the policymakers and the folks who are putting the path as far as our society is moving in terms of our laws.”

Miriam Calderón: “Love that. Yep. Look forward to that.”

Emily Underwood: “Damien, do you have a question for Miriam or are we good? You can follow up later. If you guys actually have that meeting, will you let me know? Because that will be like my work here is done.”

Damien Fair: “We’ve already made plans. We’re definitely needing to follow up. We got a lot of things to talk about, that’s for sure.”

Emily Underwood: “Well, thank you both so much, and thank you to our audience who have hung in here with us and I hope that you enjoyed it. I hope you filled out the survey. I hope that if you did enjoy it and you want to support us, that you will donate to Thank you again to the Dana Foundation for their support. As a reminder, this whole conversation is going to be posted on the Knowable website and we’re going to also include some additional resources for you — so links to articles we’ve mentioned. Maybe I will get Damien and Miriam to send me some required or recommended reading for you all who came, and we’ll see you at our next event on Wednesday, April 26th. So thank you and have a wonderful afternoon everyone. Thanks, Damien. Thanks, Miriam.”