Parents with young children are familiar with the almost frantic pressure to exposure their developing minds to music, culture and foreign languages as soon as possible. The idea that we can shape children’s minds to cultivate intelligence and creativity early in life is rooted in the research of Peter Huttenlocher, MD, professor emeritus and former section chief of pediatric neurology at the University of Chicago Medicine, who died in Chicago of pneumonia and complications of Parkinson’s disease on Aug. 15, 2013. He was 82.
Huttenlocher’s work established the concept of “neural plasticity,” that the brain is an adaptive organ that can change over time. His research focused on the rapid development of connections between neurons in a child’s brain and the acquisition of cognitive skills, an idea that has had broad implications for everything from what kinds of books we should read to our kids to how using the internet shapes our attention span.
John Easton has more on Dr. Huttenlocher’s life and work in our Newsroom:
“It would be hard to think of another discovery that is so central to our understanding of pediatric neurology,” said his friend and colleague, 2000 Nobel laureate Eric Kandel, MD, the University Professor and Kavli Professor of Brain Science in the Department of Neuroscience at Columbia University and senior investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
“There was the suggestion, based on animal studies, that humans might assemble these connections between neurons after birth. But no one was thinking about young children subsequently losing those connections,” Kandel said. “We now know how absolutely crucial synaptic pruning is to mental development and that defects in this system can lead to severe cognitive deficits.”
The New York Times also ran an obituary for Dr. Huttenlocher in yesterday’s edition.