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Rogier Kievit appointed Professor of Developmental Neuroscience

Date of news: 25 August 2020

Rogier Kievit has been appointed Professor of Developmental Neuroscience at Radboud University. He will start on 1 September as a researcher at the Donders Institute and the Radboudumc. His research focuses on the development of cognitive skills during the life of human beings.

Rogier KievitChildren rapidly develop skills such as reading, memory, arithmetic and reasoning. At an older age, these cognitive abilities often decline. In these same phases of life, rapid changes take place in the brain. Rogier Kievit wants to know how cognitive change originates, and how this relates to changes in brain structure and function.

That links between cognitive skills and the structure of the brain exist has long been known. "Problems with brain structure, for example in the case of brain damage after an accident, often have consequences for cognitive skills," Kievit explains. "But we know much less about that association in the typical, lifespan development of the brain."

Young and old

How is it possible that children learn a language very quickly in a certain period of time, without much intervention by parents? According to Kievit, the answer to this question is not so easy to answer based on the biological development of the brain. "The volume of grey matter starts to decrease around the age of eighth, and yet a lot of cognitive improvement happens after that time. In fact, skills such as vocabulary and general knowledge often improve until people reach the age of seventy or eighty. In other words, the association between neural and cognitive development is much more complex and fascinating."

His research covers the entire lifespan, with a special emphasis on periods of rapid change: progress in children and young people and decline at an older age. The latter is particularly interesting because people age in very different ways. While some people manage to stay physically and mentally active in old age, others experience problems much earlier.

Research into childhood and old age may reveal important knowledge for society. Knowledge of the rapid progress of children can help us to identify and solve problems at an earlier stage. The study of ageing ties in with geriatric disciplines such as Alzheimer's research. Kievit: "We also want to know how healthy ageing works. What are the factors that make us age healthily? If we can better understand the underlying mechanisms, we can act accordingly."


In his studies, Kievit uses behavioural tasks, such as reasoning and memory tasks, and MRI data, which maps brain structure such as white and grey matter. In order to monitor the development over a period of several years, large datasets are needed. "If we want to understand the development of the brain through the lifespan, we will need a more ambitious approach. We need to repeatedly scan and test larger groups of children and adults so that we can better understand how cognitive changes are interrelated. This requires a new, ‘team science’ approach: instead of individual, small studies, we need to join forces."

The professor makes use of existing, public datasets and is a Principal investigator on several large studies, which are also shared publicly. One of his areas of expertise is the development and application of innovative methodology for understanding the changes within people and differences between people with statistical models. He hopes to introduce these types of models to the Donders Institute.

Brain research from young to old age

In addition, he wants to bring the two phases of life together. According to Kievit, his new working environment is organised perfectly for this. "Often, especially internationally, childhood development and ageing research share little overlap in terms of approaches or journals, even though they can learn a lot from each other. Within the Donders Institute, expertise is present throughout the entire lifecycle, from childhood to aging. The combination of datasets, techniques, a team science approach and interdisciplinary research is something that really appeals to me at the Donders Institute."

Looking into thousands of brains

As the descendant of two scientists, Kievit always had a passion for knowledge. Nature or nurture, curiosity is one of his primary characteristics. "I find a lot interesting. There are so many fascinating fields of science that also attract me, such as biology, physics, palaeontology and more. But I find my own field of research the most challenging, precisely because it brings so many disciplines together. It is a wonderful privilege to be allowed to study thousands of brains using cutting edge technology in order to better understand how we fit together as humans."

It was his father's bookcase where he became acquainted with the brain. There, at the age of fifteen, he borrowed The mind's I by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett, a series of stories about the relationship between the brain and the self. "I found that so fascinating. How is it possible that 1.5 litres of jelly in our heads allow us to have such a wide range of abilities, thoughts and feelings? Shortly afterwards, I attended a guest lecture during an open day in Amsterdam, where we learned how to remember groups of numbers very easily during a memory experiment. From that moment I was totally captivated."

After studying psychology, Kievit obtained his PhD cum laude at the University of Amsterdam in 2014. He then worked at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge University, where he made the transition from visiting PhD student to programme leader.