Neuroethics Society Meeting: Environmental Factors Impacting the Developing Brain

It’s not just genetics, it’s not just diet—many factors contribute to healthy brain development in people, which continues until about 25 years of age. At yesterday’s International Neuroethics Society (INS) panel, “The Brain in Context,” three neuroscientists talked about different aspects of the physical and social environments that can affect the developing brain.

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Even before a baby is born, in utero processes can have long-term effects on brain development. Panelist Moriah Thomason of Wayne State University uses fMRI to study how the different regions of the fetal brain communicate with each other. In a longitudinal, Detroit-based study, she and her colleagues found that babies born pre-term show less brain connectivity than those born full-term. Of particular note, a small area on the left side of the brain associated with language processing showed weaker connectivity with other brain areas.

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Does it smell as sweet to you?

Thanks to a stuffy nose, I’m not smelling much of anything right now (and based on the sneezes I hear on the subway, I’m not the only one). But when I’m not congested, the odors I like and don’t like are somewhat off-kilter: Gas stations smell really good to me, while lilies smell like death.

An article from Scientific American explains a possible reason for my skewed aroma preferences: The many genetic combinations that code our olfactory receptors differ markedly from one person to the next. One person may not even be able to detect a scent, while another may find it particularly intense.

Experience may play a large role, as well. In 2009, Andreas Keller, one of the scientists quoted in the article, reported on research into the variability of odor memories for Current Biology. Scientists from the Weizmann Institute of Science determined that the hippocampus, a memory center of the brain, likely plays a role in the formation of strong associations between scent and memory. Early associations—even those formed in utero and while breastfeeding—will persist, while later ones will not be as strong. This may be one reason for strongly held cultural scent and food preferences

Dr. Keller is one of several researchers now studying the inability of people with schizophrenia to identify some common scents; this dysfunction is likely due to the brain regions impacted by the disorder, which are also connected to the ability to process smells. Like those with schizophrenia, people with bipolar disorder also appear to have difficulty identifying odors, rating scents as being more pleasant that people without the disorder.

Want to know more about how well people smell? My colleague, Ann Whitman, wrote about the topic for this blog last year. You can also check out a 2001 Cerebrum story on olfaction, which explains why some people like the smell of skunks.

–Johanna Goldberg

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