UW News

December 14, 2000

New $35.5 million Center for Mind, Brain and Learning created at UW

A Center for Mind, Brain and Learning to conduct innovative research on early brain and behavioral development has been created at the University of Washington with a $35.5 million pledge from the Seattle-based Talaris Research Institute.

The center will work jointly with Talaris, which was established in August, to promote new discoveries about the developing human mind and to disseminate the results of this research to help parents, educators and policymakers improve the lives of young children.

Patricia Kuhl, UW speech and hearing sciences professor, and Andrew Meltzoff, UW psychology professor, have been named co-directors of the interdisciplinary center. Kuhl and Meltzoff are inter- nationally known for their research on child development and the brain mechanisms underlying learning.

Talaris has committed the $35.5 million to the UW both directly and through joint-development efforts to advance the research of the center. One million dollars already has been provided to launch the center and the balance will be contributed over the next five years. John Medina, a former UW developmental molecular biologist, is the director of Talaris and Sam Smith, former president of Washington State University, is the president of the institute’s board of directors. Bruce and Jolene McCaw are the primary financial benefactors of Talaris.

“The University of Washington has long been in the forefront of research on learning,” said UW President Richard L. McCormick. “With this significant financial support from the Talaris Research Institute and with our partnership to ensure that our research developments are quickly made available to the practitioner community, the University will continue as a path breaker in assuring practical and effective uses for our discoveries. We are extremely excited to join in partnership to further this important field.”

“Research on the developing mind is one of the next great scientific frontiers,” said Kuhl. “Like genetics, biotechnology and informatics, great strides are expected in the next decade, and we are poised to contribute substantially to this effort.”

Meltzoff added: “This center is unique in focusing on the important brain and behavioral changes in the first five years of life. That’s where the mother lode is. It is the foundation for later development.”

The new center will assemble an interdisciplinary team of faculty members in developmental psychology, brain plasticity, education, computer science and molecular biology. Once assembled, the researchers will explore five major themes:

  •  Milestones of development – Basic principles of human development, including early cognitive, linguistic and social-emotional growth, will be examined with the focus on identifying crucial behavioral milestones and how they are influenced by the environment and the culture.
  •  Brain plasticity and mechanisms of developmental change – In many domains young children learn more quickly and efficiently than adults, demonstrating “windows of opportunity” for learning. Scientists will look at the brain mechanisms underlying the opening and closing of these windows. Increased knowledge of brain plasticity and mechanisms of change has profound long-range potential for lifelong adult education in such areas as learning a second language.
  •  Brain-behavior links – A basic goal in neuroscience is to link mind and brain, connecting changes in behavior with changes in the brain. Advanced brain mapping technology will permit noninvasive measures across the life span that will be linked to state-of-the-art behavioral measures. This will permit brain and behavior measurements in the same individual and across time.
  •  Nature-nurture – Advances in genetics and behavioral science will allow the interweaving of nature and nurture in human development to be examined in new ways. A critical question for society is whether the abilities shown by infants and young children predict anything about their future outcomes. Scientists will investigate continuity and predictability between early and later life.
  •  Computer vs. biological learning – Human brains are wonderful learning machines. They are wired to learn in interaction with the world and reprogram themselves over time. Computers do not readily learn by experience. Center researchers will use models of human learning to design machines that learn more efficiently, and artificial intelligence will be used to illuminate human learning.

Talaris’ Medina is excited by the creation of the new center. “This is a major step toward our charge of bringing together people from a wide variety of disciplines to do research in one space and to disseminate findings to the public.”

Talaris is located on the former site of the Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratories in Seattle near the UW campus. Plans are under way to design and build a new research facility to support the institute’s activities. Experimental programs, including a child-care nursery and a preschool, are being developed to examine and apply scientific discoveries to early learning. In total, an investment of more than $150 million for learning and brain research is planned over the next five years.

For more information, contact Kuhl and Meltzoff at (206) 221-6473. Kuhl’s e-mail is pkkuhl@u.washington.edu. Meltzoff’s is meltzoff@u.washington.edu. 

Who’s who at the Center for Mind, Brain and Learning

Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the center, is a professor of speech and hearing sciences at the University of Washington and the William P. and Ruth Gerberding University Professor. She is one of the world’s leading authorities on speech and language development. Kuhl’s work focuses on the development of language and speech and how language information is stored in the brain. Her research has played a significant role in demonstrating how early exposure to language alters the mechanisms of perception, changing a person’s ability to hear certain distinctions in speech. Kuhl’s work also has shown how infants’ early auditory experience plays a critical role in the acquisition of language during the first year of life. Kuhl is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is the co-author of the 1999 book “The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains and How Children Learn.” She was one of six scientists invited to present her research at the 1997 White House Conference on Early Learning and the Brain.

Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the center, is a professor of psychology at the University of Washington and an internationally recognized expert in cognitive science. His discoveries showing how a child’s mind develops have been a major contribution to psychological research. His studies focus on the development of memory and the capacity of babies to learn by imitating adults and other children. The work reveals that young infants are more attentive and remember more than was previously believed, with implications for brain development. Meltzoff’s research establishes that early experience is important for infants because they watch what people do, remember it, and use adults’ actions as a model for their own behavior. Meltzoff is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is a recipient of the National Institute of Health’s MERIT awards for outstanding scientific research. Meltzoff is a prolific writer and is the author of more than 100 articles and the co-author of two books, “Words, Thoughts and Theories” and “The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains and How Children Learn.”