Adele Diamond

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Adele Diamond is one of the founders of the field of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience. She holds the Canada Research Chair Tier 1 Professorship in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Vancouver. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

She is one of the world's leading researchers on the development of the cognitive functions (called “executive functions,” “self-regulation,” or “cognitive control”) that depend on prefrontal cortex. Since 1980, she has studied these functions from their earliest beginnings in infancy, throughout the lifespan in clinical and “normal” populations. These abilities include inhibition (effortful or self-control), cognitive flexibility, working memory, directed attention, and reasoning. Her lab examines fundamental questions about the development, neuroanatomical and neurochemical bases, and genetic and environmental modulation of those abilities.

Her research on the genetic disorder, PKU (phenylketonuria), demonstrating selective deficits in these prefrontal cognitive abilities in PKU children who were supposedly well-treated, changed medical guidelines worldwide, changes that markedly improved children's lives.

Her 2005 paper on the fundamental neurobiological and clinical differences between the inattentive-type ADHD and those ADHD types in which hyperactivity is present resonated deeply with patients and clinicians. Many patients felt heard and understood for the first time. The number of websites devoted to ADHD of the inattentive type increased from four before her 2005 paper to several thousand by 2009.

Her recent research on the Tools of the Mind curriculum, including a paper in the journal, Science, is affecting education practices around the world. This research demonstrates:

  • executive functions can be improved in regular classrooms by regular teachers without expensive high-tech equipment.
  • play is an important part of improving executive functions and school achievement, rather than play taking time away from the important task of improving academic achievement.
  • executive functions can be improved very early (in children only 4–5 years of age) - critical in heading off problems before they develop.

Much of her work has started with a “YES, YOU CAN” premise: even though a child may appear incapable of doing or understanding something, if we pose the question differently or teach the concept in new ways, the child can succeed. Diamond illustrated this approach first with infants’ understanding of the concept of contiguity (Diamond & Gilbert, 1989; Diamond & Lee, 2000), then with their ability to grasp abstract concepts (Diamond et al., 1999; Diamond et al., 2003; Diamond, 2006), and next with children’s ability to succeed on a Stroop-like task requiring memory and inhibition (Diamond et al., 2002),

In dozens of recent talks and on the NPR show, On Being with Krista Tippett, Adele Diamond points out there is a reason dance, play, storytelling, art, and music have been part of human life for tens of thousands of years and are found ubiquitously in every culture, that perhaps we have discarded the wisdoms of past generations too lightly. She has suggested that the dearth of these in many North American children’s experience today may be one reason children’s executive functions are worse now than in the past.

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