Terry Jernigan, Ph.D.: Vital Part of CHD / TDLC Collaborations

Dr. Jernigan, a member of TDLC's Social Interaction Network, is Professor of Cognitive Science, Psychiatry, & Radiology at UC San Diego, where she teaches courses on cognitive neuroscience, brain development, and brain imaging and supervises graduate students, interns, residents, and postdoctoral fellows. Dr. Jernigan’s primary interest today, as the recently appointed Director of the UCSD Center for Human Development (CHD) and a new member of TDLC, is brain development, the timing of brain development, and the implications of behavioral differences.

Dr. Terry JerniganExciting new projects are underway in a collaborative effort between CHD and TDLC. These projects explore the origins of individual differences in behavioral characteristics, and the effects of genetic factors and experience on the developing brain. Dr. Jernigan explains, “We don’t know much about how biological development relates to cognitive/social/emotional
development in people. We are beginning to see a correlation between developing mental and social functions, and biological development in brain tract fibers. What is driving the biological changes – activity in the fibers, genetics, environmental factors?”


Today, for the first time, we can examine these areas, using new neuroimaging methods– such as diffusion MR imaging for examining fiber tracts– and neurophysiological methods. Researchers are finding that brain connectivity continues to develop throughout childhood, and that brain fiber tracts exhibit a protracted course of biological development throughout the school-age years. Little is known about differences in brain development among similar-aged children. These differences might affect children’s responses to formal education. An understanding of these interactions may lead to better methods for improving learning.

In previous research, investigators used their data to construct a model of the development of the “average” child. But that approach is based on the assumption that development follows a relatively fixed course, and that schools should develop an
“optimal,” standardized curriculum geared to the “average” child. But what if this standard model is wrong, and if children rarely follow this “average” course of development? All children may not respond to experiences in the same way, due to the interaction between genetic variability, experience and brain development. What if imposing the “ideal” conditions can actually be harmful to some children?

Dr. Jernigan, an orchid enthusiast, gives a powerful analogy: “A gardener might try to determine the optimal amount of water/fertilizer/sunlight for a garden. But this gardener fails to understand that there are differences between plants, and each has its own needs. Not all plants will do well with the ‘optimal’ level” (e.g. some thrive in shade, some love sun). “What makes a skillful, intelligent gardener is an understanding of the difference between plants – only then will he be able to maximize the beauty of a garden.”

This approach has strong implications for the field of education: If children are not all the same, and each responds to experiences in a different way, then understanding the differences between children and how these differences affect their response to education, is a crucial area of study. Does tailoring educational interventions to each child change his emotional response to a topic, his motivation, or even his neurodevelopment?

Research has shown that the best motivation for learning occurs when a child is at the edge of what he does and does not know – he feels challenged, but not frustrated. Any more or less could negatively affect a child’s motivation or expectation of success. That child is then in danger of never reaching his potential. Concurrently, if a curriculum is adapted to a child (using “intelligent technologies that track a child’s status of learning), it raises the possibility that the student will become more motivated, will approach learning with a more positive emotion and will develop a better self-image and expectation of what he is capable of achieving in the classroom.

“We need intelligence based on empirical knowledge,” Dr. Jernigan explains. “We need to measure brain development, patterns of timing and connectivity, cognitive development, genetic abilities, behavior/motivation/emotions, academic skills, different teaching methods as they affect learning, and how all of these factors interact.” Ultimately, we want to determine: “What works best, when, and for whom” – to do the research and get the word out.

As her comments reveal, Dr. Jernigan brings sincere passion, as well as tremendous experience and talent to TDLC. One would never guess that this down-to-earth, dedicated researcher, who loves traveling, walking, blues guitar, and raising her 16-year-old son, has published over 125 articles and book chapters. Nor the fact that in addition to all of her roles above, she is the Imaging Section Editor for the journal Neurobiology of Aging and serves on the editorial boards of four other journals.

But Dr. Jernigan’s main focus at TDLC is helping to develop a more complete model of brain development and its role in education. Ultimately, she hopes this model will lead to improved educational practices and technologies, which would give children a better chance of success in school, and ultimately in life.