Welcome to the Van Haren Lab

Metabolic resilience & vulnerability in blood & brain

Our lab elucidates factors that confer metabolic resilience and vulnerability in the developing human brain and immune system. Our goal is to help more children safely surmount the neurometabolic hurdle of childhood.

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What we do

We investigate fundamental questions relating to metabolism of human blood and brain by centering our investigations around structured human trials. We employ and harmonize an innovative mix of experimental models that yield complementary clinical, radiologic, and multi-omic data. 

The first decade of human life is defined by the metabolic demands of the brain.

The brain of a human toddler consumes more than 60% of the body’s energy, a measure that is 3-times that of adult humans (~20%) and more than 10-times that of the average vertebrate (e.g. mice ~5%). Incredibly, the mechanisms underpinning this singular feat of metabolic resilience remain almost entirely undefined. 

Some children fail to clear this neurometabolic hurdle of childhood. For these children, many of whom have rare genetic variants, this metabolic failure causes neurologic injury or death. Elucidating the factors that confer vulnerability to these tragic events holds the potential for both personalized and generalized therapeutic strategies. Such knowledge also stands to reveal more about what makes the human brain and our behavior so spectacularly unique in the natural world. 

We view the immune system as a potential lever in the neurometabolic vulnerability/resilience paradigm.

The immune system both heals and protects us, but it provides these services at a steep metabolic cost and with a degree of volatility that poses periodic risks to the competing energy needs of the brain. For some children, this delicate balancing act fails in tragic fashion, resulting in serious neurologic injury in the form of infection, autoimmunity, or classical metabolic failure.

Our lab gleans insights from well-characterized childhood neurologic disorders.

We are broadly interested in childhood neuroinflammatory and neurometabolic disorders. Two distinct inflammatory demyelinating disorders serve as our primary disease models: adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD) & multiple sclerosis (MS). These two disorders offer complementary perspectives on metabolism and inflammation in the developing and mature brain.

Our lab is pioneering new strategies to enable human research that is both biologically and ethically rigorous.

We center our inquiries around structured clinical frameworks (e.g. clinical trials, natural history studies) of children and adults with neurometabolic or neuroinflammatory disorders. We employ a multi-faceted approach (e.g. multi-omic analyses, customized MRI sequences) targeting deep mechanistic insights into uniquely human phenomena that may be accessible via non-human biological models.

Our Lab’s Core Principles

Science is humanity’s largest and most important non-zero sum endeavor. And for those who enjoy puzzles, it also happens to be enormously fun. Accordingly, our lab is committed to the principles of rigor, reproducibility, collaborative data-sharing, and an appreciation for the joy of scientific discovery.