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Brain Development, Plasticity and Learning  

Natalia Caporale This course provides an overview of brain structure and function, with a focus in how it develops and changes through-out our life. We will explore how pre-natal maternal and paternal behavior can affect early brain development; the significance of critical periods; how experiences during childhood influence brain structure and behavior; the changes and challenges that take place during adolescence, and finally the modifications that take place in the brain as we continue to age into our golden years. Furthermore, as we explore the effect of experience in our brain development, we will also discuss how other factors such as exercise, nutrition and emotional wellbeing can play key roles in promoting long-lasting brain health. Week 1: Introduction to the Course and Study of Brain Function • Why do we want to study brain and cognitive development? • Overview of the anatomy of the nervous system. • Introduction to techniques used to study brain function in humans and animal models. Week 2: Overview of Organismal Development and Prenatal Brain Development • Overview of general developmental stages of the brain and nervous system. • Maternal regulation of brain development. • Importance of diet and environment in pre-natal nervous system development. • Genetic contributions and epigenetics in CNS development. Week 3: Postnatal Brain Development – From Infancy to pre-Adolescence • The Developmental Milestones of Infants and Early Children. • Sensitive / Critical periods for the development of specific cognitive functions. • Concept of experience-dependent plasticity. • Early life adversity and its effects on brain development. Maternal separation in rodents as an animal model of early life adversity. Week 4: The Adolescent and Adult Brain • Neurodevelopmental changes during adolescence. • Importance of prefrontal cortex for self-regulation and impulse control and its development through adolescence. • Why is there increased risk taking in adolescence? • Development of goal-oriented behavior. • Brief discussion of behavioral characteristics of adults with frontal lobe lesions and comparison and contrast to adolescent behavior. Week 5: The Aging Brain • Anatomical and functional changes in the aging brain. • Evidence of continuous plasticity in the aging brain. • Contribution of genes and environment to characteristics of the nervous systems in the elderly. • Discussion of evidence of the contributions of diet, social activity, exercise and emotional wellbeing to healthy brain aging. Example: Intellectual engagement and Alzheimer’s. Week 6: Wrap-Up • On this last week we will finish any topics that may have been left undiscussed (We do have a very ambitious list of topics to discuss in our first 5 weeks!) • Yet, if we have additional time, we will discuss Developmental Brain Disorders such as Autism Disorders. Natalia Caporale., PhD is an Assistant Teaching Professor (LPSOE) at UC Davis in the Department of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior. Originally from Argentina, she obtained her Doctorate in Neuroscience at UC Berkeley. She conducted her postdoctoral research at UC Berkeley and UCSF and then became an adjunct lecturer at SFSU and UC Berkeley, as well as teaching science classes at OLLI. She is a CAMPOS scholar at UC Davis, committed to the success of women in science in academics and her current research focuses on the assessment of neuroscience-based and pedagogically rooted strategies to improve student self-efficacy and success in college, with a focus on minority students, students with mental health issues and transfer students.


  • Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at San Francisco State University
    835 Market Street, Sixth Floor, San Francisco, CA 94103
    Phone: (415) 817-4243 Website: