Brains on the rise
Eveline Crone (1975) was appointed as professor in neurocognitive developmental psychology at Leiden University in March 2009. She started the Brain and Development Laboratory at the section Developmental Psychology in 2005. Before Crone joined Leiden University, she received her PhD at the University of Amsterdam in 2003 and she had a post doc position at the Center for Mind and Brain and the University of California in Davis for 2 years. But it was much earlier that her interest in brain function started. For her master degree, she spent one year at the University of Pittsburgh where the first neuroimaging studies were performed that included young children. This is where and when her fascination for brain research started.
Crone’s fascination for human behavior was always there, and she was interested in learning more about how human behavior developed over time. Therefore, developmental psychology was an obvious choice for her specialization. The way by which she investigated developmental questions followed different routes, you could say that this is how her interdisciplinary interest started; Crone still likes to combine different research methods. When Crone was a master student at the University of Pittsburgh, the way brain imaging research was done was still in its early stages. Actually, the first fMRI study (a neuroimaging method which allows for the investigation of the brain in action) in which Crone participated was done by a group of researchers each handling different computers, and one person who gave a “1-2-3-start” signal to get a synchronized signal. In recent years, technological advances allow for a much better and more precise way to study brain function, and still technology is getting better and more precise each day. Even though this method was then still in its infancy, Crone realized in Pittsburgh that she was in a special place and that brain imaging research in children would take big steps in the upcoming years. Before learning this technique in more detail, Crone completed her PhD focusing on self-regulation and decision-making in children and adolescents using experimental and physiological methods. For her post doc training, she went back to the United States to get a two-year training in a neuroscience center, specialized in developmental neuroimaging.
In the brain and development laboratory, a team of post docs, PhD students and research assistants tries to tackle the question hoe the development of cognitive control and social decision-making is related to the development of the human brain. Since recently, the lab welcomed Berna Guroglu as a new assistant professor, and Crone and Guroglu together supervise different research projects. The overarching question that Crone's lab tries to investigate is simple: How do humans make complex decisions in daily life and how does this capacity emerge? The ways to investigate this question are more complicated. Crone believes that an interdisplinary approach is necessary to make significant progress. It is only when we combine different perspectives and disciplines that we can really get new insights and see old problems in new ways. Each discipline has its own unique advantage and combining them can make a difference. ‘It is also much fun to collaborate with scientists from different backgrounds’, Crone says. In her own research she mainly works with experimental tasks, which she combines with physiological measurements. She works mainly with heart rate and fMRI measurements, but also skin conductance and EEG are sometimes used in her research. Brain imaging research seems to attract much attention lately. Sometimes people ask her why all of a sudden you hear so much about the brain. Obviously, the interest in the brain dates back from a long time ago, but it is the technological advancement that has made the difference. The way we are now able to study the brain in healthy individuals, even children, is revolutionary. The classic developmental psychologist Jean Piaget who developed his theories in the early fifties and sixties thought about the brain, theorized about the brain, but was not able to actually study the brain. Since approximately 15 years we can now add this method to study the questions that scientists have puzzled about for decades. ‘The Dutch are very good in cognitive neuroscience research, I think we can be very proud of the things we achieve in the Netherlands’, Crone says.
One of the most important discoveries of Crone and her research team is the finding that different brain regions develop at different rates, not only in terms of brain structure, but also in brain function when participants are performing a challenging task. These changes are particularly large during early development, but continue into adolescence. The fascinating aspect of this discovery is that in early development, these changes are mainly reflected in additional brain regions that come into play when children get more successful in solving a task. In contrast, in adolescence all the brain regions seem to be capable of contributing to mental function, but the balance between these brain regions is not optimal. That is, in adolescence the brain regions that respond to basic emotions (such as sensation seeking) are not always in balance with brain regions which are important for reasoning (such as thinking about long-term consequences). It is still too early to use these findings right away in the class room. However, the new insights into the way brain development is related to the way children think, reason, play and are sensitive to social relations, may increase our understanding for this special phase in development.
In her future research, Crone would like to follow children and adolescents over longer periods of time. It is now well known that using snap shot methods, it is possible to investigate developmental differences between individuals of different age groups. However, eventually, it is most interesting to learn more about the changes that happen within an individual over time. To study these changes, it is necessary to have children come to the lab multiple times. Another exciting research line is the study of relations between people. This is research that Crone does in collaboration with Guroglu, who is an expert in the field of peer relations. Since December 2010 Crone is also appointed professor at the University of Amsterdam. The reason for this additional appointment is Crone’s belief that her research line, and the field in general, benefits from cross talk between scientists and research labs. Crone also took the initiative for the new scientific network LIBC-Junior, a network in which 7 research labs from Leiden interested in brain development in children join forces. For Crone, interdisciplinary research is her inspiration for the future.