May 25, 2007

Levitt takes part in child health summit

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Pat Levitt, Ph.D.

Levitt takes part in child health summit

Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Director Pat Levitt, Ph.D., was a featured speaker Tuesday in Washington, D.C., during the National Summit on America's Children.

Levitt, who was invited to address the group by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, kicked off the event in the Cannon House Office Building with remarks as a panelist on the “Science of Early Childhood Development.”

Speaking from his role as a developmental neuroscientist, Levitt provided a short synopsis of what has been uncovered through research by brain scientists at Vanderbilt and across the country over the past several years.

He said researchers are working every day to better understand the neuroscience behind the “remarkable abilities that children develop,” and to identify the influences responsible for skill development and productivity over a lifetime.

“All behavior, from learning and memory to our mood and our emotions, is mediated through the brain,” said Levitt. “You don't use your liver to learn, and you don't use your heart to fall in love.”

Levitt said research shows that both genes and environment play an enormous role in building brain architecture. Genes lay the foundation for early brain development, somewhat like the basic plans for a house, and are influenced by the health and nutrition of the mother.

“The experiences of a child, as he or she grows and develops, greatly influence the assembly process that is initiated prenatally,” he said. “The remarkable interaction of a child with his or her environment is responsible in large part for the continued process of developing more and more complex abilities and skills.”

One clear principle of brain development is that providing the right environmental experiences, and reducing those that may be detrimental, will be the most effective and least costly means for promoting healthy brain architecure and early childhood development, he said.

Other panel topics included “Early Learning,” “Health and Mental Health,” and “Income and Family Support.”