Featured Researcher — Eric Nelson, PhD

Featured Researcher — Eric Nelson, PhD 150 150 Katie Brind'Amour, PhD, MS, CHES

Eric Nelson, PhD, is a principal investigator in the Center for Biobehavioral Health in the Abigail Wexner Research Institute (AWRI) at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. His work centers around how the brain develops, particularly during adolescence, as well as how it changes (or doesn’t) during periods of mental health symptoms, crises or therapeutic interventions. He collaborates heavily with clinical neurologists and psychiatrists at Nationwide Children’s to provide neuroimaging (primarily magnetic resonance imaging or MRI) that can offer insight into the goings-on in the brains of patients experiencing a variety of conditions and whether they differ from the brain activity of other children the same age.

Studio portrait of Eric Nelson, PhD

One such project Dr. Nelson has recently undertaken examines brain activity during first-episode psychosis in adolescents. The neuroimaging will be aligned with a broad series of cognitive assessments and symptom reports, as well as some blood metabolite evaluation. By investigating the brain state during the acute period and again after treatment, Dr. Nelson and his clinical colleagues aim to determine whether and how the brain responds to therapy. The project compliments Dr. Nelson’s long-time focus on brain-based risk factors for developing depression among high-risk children.

Dr. Nelson’s research now also extends into the study of acquired demyelinating disorders that attack the white matter in the brain. These neuroinflammatory conditions cause flare-ups of debilitating symptoms and are often treated with steroids. Dr. Nelson’s neuroimaging follows adolescents with these brain lesions into young adulthood to determine whether medical treatments alter their brain development during such an influential time of tissue and neural network formation and stabilization. Another recent grant will allow Dr. Nelson to explore a similar concept: whether hormone therapy to temporarily suppress puberty in transgender youth impacts brain development in the short term, although he is also eager to continue to observe potential neurodevelopmental consequences from gender-affirming hormones as they age into adulthood.

Despite the variety of projects, the overarching goal of Dr. Nelson’s research is clear: understand the developing brain and its activity during crucial developmental stages, particularly under circumstances that result in stress or therapeutic intervention, so that clinicians, parents and patients can be better informed about the brain during a child’s growth.

Read on to learn more about Dr. Nelson and his work.

Why did you decide to pursue a career in this field?

When I entered college, my plan was to pursue a career in psychology so I could become a psychotherapist. However, I found myself drawn much more strongly toward mechanistic biology than models of therapy. I was transfixed by the concept that intangible psychological properties like emotion and memory actually have physical components — chemistry and anatomy — that could be measured.

After graduating from college with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Wisconsin, I spent two years working as a research assistant in a psychiatry laboratory in Baltimore and measuring neurotransmitter levels in rat brains. I was fully embedded in the academic work environment that transformed ideas into talks and papers and grants. I loved it, so I decided to go to graduate school.

In graduate school at Bowling Green State University, I learned how to work in the academic environment myself. I decided that my primary focus would be on the changes that occur in the nervous system in childhood and adolescence. I went to graduate school for five years and studied the neurochemistry of mother-directed behavior in infant rats and social play behavior in juvenile rats.

What was your path to your current role?

I took quite a winding route to my current position. After graduate school, I accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at Indiana University and continued to study the neurobiology of mother-infant interactions. I did a second postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Wisconsin and studied the neurobiology of emotions in humans and learned how to do functional neuroimaging. After that, I secured a more permanent job as a psychologist and staff scientist in the Intramural Research Program of the National Institute of Mental Health. I spent 15 years there studying anxiety, depression and typical emotional development in adolescents using functional MRI.

Fun Facts About Dr. Nelson

What fictional character would you most like to meet and why?

Saul Goodman, the lawyer from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. I love Saul because he is a genuinely good and likeable person, but he is flawed in interesting and complicated ways — like all people are.

What’s your favorite word, and why?

Discombobulated —  it is fun to say, and I relate to it in so many ways. Rapscallion is a close runner up.

What’s your favorite food?

Probably lobster.

Favorite band/genre/artist?

I like all kinds of music, especially the old crooners like Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, as well as some very different artists like Nirvana and Tom Waits.

Favorite thing you’ve bought this year?

Flaming Squirrel Bird Seed Hot Sauce. After years of trying all kinds of tricks, this is the only thing that has effectively kept the darn squirrels out of my bird feeders.

Eventually, I felt I needed to move on from NIMH, and I began to look for new opportunities. I heard from a friend that Nationwide Children’s was looking to hire someone to jumpstart a neuroimaging research program, and I thought it sounded like a great opportunity.

Over the past six years in this position, I have been able to build on my own research interests, expand them into new areas and think in different ways. This has been a challenging and exciting time in my life.

Why did you decide to pursue your work at Nationwide Children’s?

Nationwide Children’s is a busy pediatric hospital, so it offered me the opportunity to work with children from a variety of different medical backgrounds. My research focuses on how the brain changes during adolescence to foster independence, learning and healthy socio-emotional functioning in adulthood. Prior to coming here, my work concentrated on children and adolescents with mood and anxiety disorders.

Coming to Nationwide Children’s offered me the opportunity to learn how the developmental changes of adolescence are both similar and different in children from a variety of different populations — such as children who are transgender, have epilepsy or were born prematurely.

The second thing that motivated me to come here was the opportunity to build a new research community from the ground up. Tremendous technical advances have been made in neuroimaging methods over the last 15-20 years that have improved our ability to understand how network-level communications occur in the brain. Very little of this knowledge has been applied to neurological development in pediatrics, so building a neuroimaging research infrastructure here at Nationwide Children’s enables us to begin understanding these networks in young people.

What is your favorite part of your job?

There are many things I like about my job: I like working with large and diverse teams of talented people over extended periods of time to accomplish shared project goals, learning new things about the brain and medicine, and watching others learn and grow along with me. I also like asking new questions and designing experimental protocols that help answer those questions.

But I think my favorite part of my job is working to develop the narrative of my projects. This, I think, is the real craft of being a scientist. The narrative emerges in studying the patterns of data acquired and integrating those findings with existing literature. It also emerges when writing or giving talks, which force you to summarize findings with words and highlight the most important effects with graphs and tables.

How does your research serve our patients and our community?

The brain shapes our experience of the world. The brain, in turn, is also shaped by the experiences that we have. This interactive and iterative process is particularly dynamic in development. By studying the brain and behavior across development, we can gain a better understanding of how this interplay might differ across groups of people and medical conditions. Ultimately, I would hope that the collective research done by developmental cognitive neuroscientists like me can optimize developmental experiences and outcomes for all children.

What’s next? 

In the coming years, I hope to continue my work with transgender adolescents. This is a very vulnerable group facing many challenges that very much needs the support of the scientific and medical communities. I also hope to build on recent projects examining brain development in children who are suffering from or at risk of psychiatric conditions like depression or schizophrenia.

I am hoping to expand my collaborations with neurologists, neuroimmunologists and injury physicians to understand how brain-related illness interfaces with development to confer both resilience and risk for neurological outcome.

About the author

Katherine (Katie) Brind’Amour is a freelance medical and health science writer based in Pennsylvania. She has written about nearly every therapeutic area for patients, doctors and the general public. Dr. Brind’Amour specializes in health literacy and patient education. She completed her BS and MS degrees in Biology at Arizona State University and her PhD in Health Services Management and Policy at The Ohio State University. She is a Certified Health Education Specialist and is interested in health promotion via health programs and the communication of medical information.