Annette Karmiloff-Smith obituary

By: Jeffrey Elman and Lorraine Tyler | Annette Karmiloff-Smith obituary | Neuroscience | The Guardian

Neuroscientist who provided fresh insights into our development as individuals

What is the origin of the unique and complex behaviours that our species are capable of? Is it nature or nurture? How is human cognition – our memory, language, numerical abilities – organised? How do developmental disorders occur? These age-old questions have puzzled – and deeply divided – scientists for hundreds of years. Over the course of more than four decades, research by the developmental neuroscientist Annette Karmiloff-Smith, who has died aged 78, provided key insights that challenged the traditional answers, and led to a new understanding of how genetic and environmental factors interact to give rise to different outcomes in individuals.

She argued that developmental disorders should not be understood as “normal minus something broken”, but as developmental trajectories that take very different paths from the typical. When one sees what appears to be the same behaviour in both typical and atypical populations, that behaviour may actually be supported by processes that are quite different in each population. Annette’s work in this area involved individuals with Down’s syndrome, Fragile X syndrome and Williams syndrome, among others.

Related: Could Down’s syndrome point the way to preventing Alzheimer’s disease?

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