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Q&A: New Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain will help Minnesota address childhood mental health and development challenges

M Health Fairview Neonatologist Michael Georgieff, MD, will serve as co-director of the Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain, a joint clinic and research facility that opens to patients this fall.

  • July 08, 2021
  • By Staff Writer

Opening this fall, the Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain (MIDB) comes at a critical time for Minnesota families. Though reported childhood developmental and mental health concerns are increasing statewide, it takes almost two decades on average for scientific discoveries to transform clinical care.

As a joint clinic and research facility, MIDB is designed to bridge this gap and bring new research to patients and families faster. Developed through a partnership between M Health Fairview and the University of Minnesota, the facility is the first of its kind in Minnesota. It will advance both knowledge and treatment of brain development and mental health disorders in childhood and adolescence.

Longtime M Health Fairview Neonatologist Michael Georgieff, MD, will help lead the institute alongside Damien Fair, PhD. Georgieff also serves as a professor and the Martin Lenz Harrison Land Grant Chair in Pediatrics at University of Minnesota Medical School. We asked him about his involvement and what the institute – which opens to patients Nov. 1 – means for Minnesota families.

Why were you chosen to help lead the Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain (MIDB)?

My involvement with MIDB grew out of my work in the Center for Neurobehavioral Development. CNBD is a multidisciplinary research facility run by University of Minnesota Medical School and the College of Education and Human Development. It involves 12 departments and five schools across the university.

Currently, CNBD houses over 35 studies on children’s brain development and functioning. We aim to better understand how early development impacts how people think, learn, and express emotions into adulthood. I’ve led CNBD since it was founded in 2000.

One of the exciting things about MIDB is that it will combine a leading-edge research facility with an M Health Fairview clinic that serves children, teens, and their families.

In recent years, what trends have you seen in childhood brain development and mental health?

New tools in brain imaging, analysis, and behavioral testing have allowed us to assess brain health at a much younger age. MIDB houses equipment and testing capabilities that are uniquely able to assess brain health during early childhood and adolescence. Our experts will be able to administer these in both the clinic and research settings. Early childhood is the best opportunity to positively influence brain development. These new tools are key to accurate assessment and earlier intervention.

I would say three areas of focus with MIDB will be the increased rate of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis, the large amount of stress currently found in society, and the consequences of maternal drug addiction on a fetus and newborn’s brain.

How are our clinical practices evolving with the opening of MIDB to meet these needs?

MIDB takes a totally unique approach, bringing together four groups of clinicians under one roof. All four specialties are focused on assessing and treating brain health concerns. These four groups are:

  • Child and adolescent psychiatrists
  • Developmental pediatricians
  • Neuropsychologists
  • Pediatric neurologists

Each takes a different approach to neurobehavioral and mental health concerns.

Our philosophy is that these disciplines should work together, rather than separately. They can optimize individual treatment plans for each child based on assessments by the entire team. Our clinical and research teams also focus on educating the family. We empower them to assist their child at home, because we know that so much of healthcare happens outside clinic walls.

Given the increase in reported mental health and developmental needs, what is the need for a joint clinic and research facility like MIDB? Why now?

The timing couldn’t be better. As Damien Fair points out: it takes an average of 17 years for a scientific discovery to impact clinical practice. This is far too long – especially in these stressful times that are challenging our children’s brain development and mental health.

MIDB’s mission is to translate scientific discoveries into clinical care much quicker. This is best done by housing research and patient care under one roof. We’re also combining it with educational and policy organizations like the Institute for Community Integration, which advocates for people with developmental disabilities at a state and national level.

In addition to MIDB’s unique testing capabilities and joint clinic-research facility, what else sets the institute apart?

Our approach is based on the developmental origins of health and disease. This concept says there are certain periods in the brain’s development when positive or negative influences have their greatest impact. These periods include a child’s first 1,000 days following birth, and adolescence. Our scientists are gaining a better understanding of how early life events physically affect long-term brain health, and these discoveries are being translated into better interventions and treatments.

On the treatment side, MIDB will offer unique, leading-edge therapies. One example is neuromodulation, which uses stimuli to retrain the brain. This can be effective in treating children with severe depression, which affects their ability to learn and socialize. Innovative treatments like neuromodulation provide families with more options, in addition to therapy and medication.

What impact will MIDB have on children and families across Minnesota?

As a partnership between M Health Fairview and the University of Minnesota, we have an obligation and mission to serve all children in the state. Our community outreach team is partnering with area leaders and the University of Minnesota Extension program. Our goal is to put in place assessment tools and treatment centers across Minnesota, in addition to our flagship institute in Minneapolis.

Our partnership with the community must be a two-way street. We need to understand the needs in the diverse communities that we serve and address each in an individualized way. New data collection tools at our clinic and all M Health Fairview locations will help in this effort.