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Developmental cognitive neuroscience is an interdisciplinary scientific field that is situated at the boundaries of neuroscience, psychology, social neuroscience, developmental science, and cognitive science.

Origins of the discipline

The scientific interface between cognitive neuroscience and human development has evoked considerable interest in recent years, as technological advances make it possible to map in detail the changes in brain structure that take place during development. The early developmental theories of Lev Vygotsky and Jean Piaget are increasingly coming to be understood in a neuronally realistic way.

Tools and techniques employed

Researchers have a variety of different tools available to them:

  • One set of tools relates to brain imaging - the generation of "functional" maps of brain activity based on either changes in cerebral metabolism, blood flow, or electrical activity.
  • Another methodological advance is related to the emergence of techniques for formal computational modelling of neural networks and cognitive processes. Such models allow us to begin to bridge data on developmental neuroanatomy to data on behavioral changes associated with development.
  • A third methodological innovation is the increasing trend for studying groups of developmental disorders (such as autism and Williams syndrome) together alongside typical development. Thus, rather than each syndrome being studied in isolation, comparisons between different typical and atypical trajectories of development are helping to reveal the extent and limits of cortical plasticity.

Major contributors to the field

  • Jean Decety who studies empathy, sympathy, and implicit moral reasoning in typically developing children as well as children with social and cognitive disorders.[1][2]
  • Mark Johnson, whose book Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience[3] played a part in giving the field its name. Johnson specializes in the development of the social brain in infancy[4] and has proposed the Interactive Specialization hypothesis of brain development.
  • Annette Karmiloff-Smith who specializes in developmental disorders, particularly Williams syndrome.
  • Patricia K. Kuhl, who investigates language and brain development in young children.[5][6]
  • Yuko Munakata, who builds computational models of development. She specializes in the early emergence of executive function.
  • Adele Diamond, who performs mainly behavioral testing, specializes in the development of executive function.
  • Barbara Landau, who studies cognitive development, focusing on the development of spatial language. Like Karmiloff-Smith, Landau specializes in the development of people with Williams Syndrome.
  • Philip David Zelazo studies the development and neural bases of executive function, or the conscious control of thought, action, and emotion.[7][8]

Notable books

  • Beyond Modularity[9] by Annette Karmiloff-Smith. A ground-breaking book when it was published in 1992, Karmiloff considers how the modules proposed, amongst others, by Jerry Fodor might be implemented in the brain. She argues that modules emerge as a result of brain development, and makes intriguing connections with developmental theories proposed by Jean Piaget.
  • Rethinking Innateness[10] by Jeffrey Elman and colleagues. This influential book has received more than 1,000 citations,[11] and has been nominated for the "One hundred most influential works in cognitive science from the 20th Century" (Minnesota Millennium Project).[12] Published in 1996, it contests claims made by hard psychological Nativists (such as Steven Pinker) on the grounds that they are not biologically plausible.
  • Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience (2nd Ed. - 2005)[3], a textbook that helped give birth to the field.
  • Neuroconstructivism[13] by Denis Mareschal and colleagues. Vol 1 is a theoretical work, arguing that it is essential to take constraints from the brain, body and environment seriously when assessing cognitive development. Vol 2 contains a selection of conceptually interesting neural network models.
  • Handbook of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience
  • The Handbook of Developmental Social Neuroscience. New York: Guilford Publications.

DCN research centers

See also


  1. Decety, J., & Meyer, M. (2008). From emotion resonance to empathic understanding: A social developmental neuroscience account. Development and Psychopathology, 20, 1053-1080.
  2. Decety, J., Michalska, K.J., & Akitsuki, Y. (2008). Who caused the pain? A functional MRI investigation of empathy and intentionality in children. Neuropsychologia, 46, 2607-2614.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Johnson, MH (2000). Functional brain development in infants: Elements of an interactive specialization framework. Child Development 71 (1): 75–81.
  4. Grossmann T, Johnson MH (2007). The development of the social brain in human infancy. European Journal of Neuroscience 25 (4): 909–919.
  5. Kuhl, PK & Rivera-Gaxiola, M (2008). Neural substrates of early language acquisition. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 31, 511-534.
  6. Kuhl, PK, Conboy, BT, Coffey-Corina, S, Padden, D, Rivera-Gaxiola, M & Nelson, T (2008). Phonetic learning as a pathway to language: new data and native language magnet theory expanded ( NLM-e). Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 363, 979-1000.
  7. Lamm, C, Zelazo, PD, & Lewis, MD (2006). Neural correlates of cognitive control in childhood and adolescence: Disentangling the contributions of age and executive function. Neuropsychologia, 44, 2139-2148.
  8. Zelazo, PD (2004). The development of conscious control in childhood. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8, 12-17.
  9. Karmiloff-Smith, Annette (1996). Beyond Modularity: A Developmental Perspective on Cognitive Science, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  10. Elman, Jeffrey (1996). Rethinking Innateness: A Connectionist Perspective on Development, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  11. The Scopus Citation Tracker
  13. Mareschal, Denis; et al. (2007). Neuroconstructivism: Volumes I & II (Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience), Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.