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J Can Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2010 August; 19(3): 232–233.
PMCID: PMC2938760

Human Behavior, Learning, and the Developing Brain: Atypical Development

Reviewed by Harry Bawden, PhD

Human Behavior, Learning, and the Developing Brain: Atypical Development.
Donna Coch, editor. ,  Geraldine Dawson, editor. &  Kurt W. Fischer, editor. (editors).  The Guilford Press:  New York, NY,  2007.  378 pages.  $50 (US). 

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This collaborative book contains research reviews describing various aspects of brain functioning and their relationship to behaviour and cognitive processes. The authors summarize a variety of investigative methods, including evoked potentials and functional neuroimaging studies, used by researchers from several disciplines, mainly cognitive neuroscientists and psychologists. The focus of this book is on atypical development, as a companion volume on typical development has also been published. The relevance of the described findings to treatment or educational initiatives is often discussed explicitly here.

One contributor (Nelson) describes event-related potentials and their use in studying cognitive development. Using a longitudinal perspective, he studied infants of diabetic mothers who are at risk for developmental brain abnormalities because of their adverse biochemical environment. Cognitive processes studied included recognition of mother’s voice or face as well as a unique way of studying recognition memory. Infants of diabetic mothers were at risk for memory problems, possibly due to perturbations in development of the hippocampus. An interesting question that arises is whether or not these memory problems persist and can be documented when children are school aged.

Dawson and Bernier review the social impairments in autism: social orienting, joint attention, attention to others’ emotions, motor imitation, and face processing. The authors speculate about the neural and genetic basis of social impairments, and the brain regions thought to be involved in social perception deficits in autism are further discussed by Pelphrey and Carter.

Information on the functioning of individuals with Williams syndrome has provided useful insights into brain-behaviour relationships. Tager-Flusberg and Skwerer describe the visual-spatial and social cognitive deficits including brain imaging findings in this fascinating condition. The importance of this model system in elucidating the effects of a genetic deletion on behaviour and brain development is clearly laid out.

Grigorenko describes hypotheses of the etiological bases of developmental dyslexia, especially genetic hypotheses. A speculative discussion follows on the genetic influences on developmental dyslexia. Particularly useful in understanding the influence of genetic factors is the illustrative examples of the genetic bases of Alzheimer’s disease.

Goswami provides a section on cross-cultural examples of trajectories of reading acquisition and developmental dyslexia across different languages, focusing on the important processes of phonological awareness and phonological-orthographic mapping. This chapter seems anomalous in this volume, given its lack of emphasis on brain-behaviour relationships.

Liegeois, Morgan, and Vargha-Khadem provide a very interesting chapter on a kindred with verbal and orofacial dyspraxia with a known genetic basis. The phenotype is compared with developmental verbal dyspraxia and aphasia in adults, with the neural basis and hypotheses about pathophysiology described.

The Molfese family provides a description of a very useful programmatic series of research studies demonstrating that event-related potentials found in response to speech sounds recorded at birth were predictive of language and reading performance in young children.

A core deficit in number sense or impaired connections between symbolic and nonsymbolic representations is hypothesized by Wilson and Dehaene to be the cause of dyscalculia. The characteristics and possible subtypes of this neglected condition are described, and the limited neural evidence reviewed.

Gatzke-Kopp and Beauchaine review here the dopaminergic systems, and structural and imaging studies, and their relevance to Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder, and to a lesser extent comorbid externalizing behaviour disorders.

The physiology and ontogenesis of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is described by Adam, Klimes-Dougan, and Gunnar, and social influences on the HPA axis in different stages of development are described. HPA axis activity in children exposed to abnormal social environments and in individuals with internalizing or externalizing psychopathology is discussed, along with a complex model of social and nonsocial influences on HPA axis functioning.

The important concept of alternative developmental pathways taken by maltreated children was presented by Ayoub and Rappolt-Schlichtmann. They offer hypotheses about memory and behavioural inhibition in relation to hippocampal functioning, negative behaviour, and alterations in the amygdala and cerebellum, and aspects of maltreated children’s behaviour in relation to brain changes.

The last chapter by Benes is a review of corticolimbic circuitry and anatomy, including its ontogenesis, highlighting the role of the cingulate cortex and other brain regions in the integration of emotion, attention, and motivation. The material didn’t seem to fit thematically with previous topics.

This book would have benefitted from chapters on limitations and advantages of the various brain research methods that were reviewed. The theme of the book might have been better illustrated by including discussions of further examples of atypical development (e.g., Tourette syndrome) while eliminating some chapters. A series of colour plates are included but are not immediately apparent when first mentioned. Overall, this book provides a useful description of research describing brain-behaviour relationships in individuals with certain specific developmental disorders.

Articles from Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry are provided here courtesy of Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry