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Top 10 Q&A about Child’s Brain Development — Brain Health Series Part 1

A child’s brain is a per­fect exam­ple of neu­ro­plas­tic­ity: As the child learns basic and com­plex skills, his or her brain changes, con­nec­tions between neu­rons are strength­ened or eliminated.

Here are 10 top ques­tions and answers to explore the devel­op­ing brain and get a bet­ter win­dow on young minds. Fol­low­ing the Q&A find related rel­e­vant resources (links, doc­u­men­taries, and books) to go further.

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10 ques­tions and answers about a child’s brain devel­op­ment

Q: Does brain devel­op­ment depend only on genes?

A: No, brain devel­op­ment is the result of a com­plex inter­ac­tion between both genes and envi­ron­ment. Brain devel­op­ment begins in utero. Bil­lions of neu­rons are gen­er­ated. They migrate from their birth­place in the embryo to their final posi­tions. Axons and den­drites grow and con­nec­tions (synapses) between neu­rons are formed. These mech­a­nisms are believed to be hard­wired, that is deter­mined by genet­ics. Once con­nec­tions are formed, activity-dependent mech­a­nisms come into play. Whether a con­nec­tion is strength­ened or elim­i­nated will be deter­mined by the activ­ity of this con­nec­tion, that is, it will depend on the expe­ri­ences of the baby/child.  (Click here for a refresher on Brain basics: What is a neu­ron, a synapse, etc.)

An exam­ple of how the envi­ron­ment can influ­ence brain devel­op­ment: Rut­ter et al. (1998) stud­ied Roman­ian orphans brought to Eng­land and adopted before age two (some before 6 months). When assessed on arrival, the babies were shown to be severely devel­op­men­tally impaired and mal­nour­ished. When tested again after sev­eral years in the adop­tive envi­ron­ment (at age 4), the chil­dren showed great phys­i­cal and devel­op­men­tal progress, espe­cially those adopted before 6 months.

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Q: So, can a child out­smart his/her genes?
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A: Yes, that can be done says Richard Nis­bett author of “Intel­li­gence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cul­tures Count”. In this inter­view, Nis­bett explores the inter­ac­tion between genes, school and intel­li­gence: “If our genes largely deter­mine our IQ, which in turn under­lies our per­for­mance through­out our lives, then what is the role of school?”

In this other inter­view, ex-child prodigy Joshua Waitzkin’s, Amer­i­can chess player, mar­tial arts com­peti­tor, and author, explains how a lot depends on learn­ing about learn­ing.

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Q: Are babies born with more or with less neu­rons and synapses than adults?

A: Babies are born with more neu­rons and thus synapses than adults. In a study con­ducted in 2007, Abitz, Damgaard et al. com­pared 8 new­born human brains with those of 8 adult brains and showed that on aver­age, adult neu­ron esti­mates were 41% lower than those of the new­born. What hap­pens to these extra neu­rons and con­nec­tions then? The answer is synap­tic prun­ing (or neu­ron pruning).

Synap­tic prun­ing is a reg­u­la­tory process that reduces the over­all num­ber of over­pro­duced neu­rons by “weed­ing out” the weaker synapses. A weak synapse is a synapse that is not used much, which shows that expe­ri­ence is an essen­tial part of brain development.

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Q:  Is under 5 THE ONLY crit­i­cal period for brain development?

A: No. Brain devel­op­ment is a con­tin­uum from birth to age 20 or so. A “crit­i­cal period” in devel­op­ment is a time, in the early stages of an organism’s life, dur­ing which the organ­ism shows a very high sen­si­tiv­ity to some stim­uli in the envi­ron­ment. If the stim­uli in the envi­ron­ment are present, the organ­ism will develop in a spe­cific way. If the stim­uli are not present dur­ing the crit­i­cal period, it may be dif­fi­cult, or some­times impos­si­ble, to develop some func­tions. For exam­ple, if an infant does not see light dur­ing the first few months of life (at least 6 months), nerves and neu­rons pro­cess­ing visual input will degen­er­ate and even­tu­ally die.

The most well-know exam­ple of crit­i­cal period comes from the Crit­i­cal Period Hypoth­e­sis (Lenneberg, 1967), which states that the first few years of life con­sti­tute the time dur­ing which lan­guage devel­ops eas­ily. After that learn­ing a lan­guage is more dif­fi­cult and usu­ally less successful.

Is it the case how­ever that “every­thing hap­pens before age 5″? Would age 0–5 be a crit­i­cal period for all major cog­ni­tive skills? No. Devel­op­ment is more a tra­jec­tory, a con­tin­uum. Brain imag­ing stud­ies and other research show that the brain is not fully devel­oped until age 18 to 20. In par­tic­u­lar, the frontal lobes of the brain — the part involved in judg­ment, orga­ni­za­tion, plan­ning and strate­giz­ing – are the last ones to be wired to func­tion like an adult.

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Q: What does play­ing bring to a child?

A: Research has shown that play is cru­cial to phys­i­cal, intel­lec­tual, and social-emotional devel­op­ment at all ages. This is espe­cially true of the purest form of play: the unstruc­tured, self-motivated, imag­i­na­tive, inde­pen­dent kind, where chil­dren ini­ti­ate their own games and even invent their own rules. In other words, play­ing is a pow­er­ful method of cog­ni­tive and emo­tional devel­op­ment, for chil­dren and adults alike.
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Q: Can a child with ADHD be trained to con­trol attention?
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A: Yes. In par­tic­u­lar, train­ing work­ing mem­ory has an indi­rect effect on atten­tion. Many stud­ies have shown that such train­ing can be ben­e­fi­cial to chil­dren with atten­tional prob­lems. More gen­er­ally, as Michael Pos­ner, a promi­nent sci­en­tist in the field of cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science, explains atten­tion con­trol is com­plex but can be trained.
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Q: Can a child con­trol his/her own emo­tions?
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A: Par­ents and teach­ers tell kids count­less times to “calm down” or “pay atten­tion.” But the nat­ural course of a child’s devel­op­ment means that the brain’s cir­cuitry for calm­ing and focus­ing is a work in progress. Luck­ily there are ways to help chil­dren: Mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion train­ing seems to be a very suc­cess­ful tool in help­ing chil­dren man­age and boost their emo­tional intel­li­gence.
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Q: Can the arts boost a child’s aca­d­e­mic performance?
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A: Some stud­ies sug­gest that the arts can boost stu­dents’ test scores, although the results are not always causal in nature. For instance, psy­chol­o­gist Michael Pos­ner observed the brain activ­ity of chil­dren four to seven years old while they worked on com­put­er­ized exer­cises intended to mimic the attention–focusing qual­i­ties of engag­ing in art. The researchers con­cluded that the arts can train children’s atten­tion, which in turn improves cognition.
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Q: What is the effect of music on a child’s brain?

A: Does lis­ten­ing to Mozart make chil­dren smarter? It turns out that in spite of the pub­lic­ity it received the so-called Mozart effect is sup­ported by very lit­tle sci­en­tific evi­dence. How­ever learn­ing how to make music can have pos­i­tive long-term changes on the brain. Music instruc­tion may boost spe­cific skills that are directly related to music such as fine motor skill but also increase more gen­eral skills such as work­ing mem­ory. (See What is work­ing mem­ory? for more infor­ma­tion on this cog­ni­tive skill.)

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Q: What is the effect of video games on a child’s brain?

A: For years, video games have been linked to aggres­sion and vio­lence, with researchers and media reports sug­gest­ing that vio­lent games have inspired or even caused vio­lent acts. How­ever not all games are the same. Some games may boost a child’s visual abil­i­ties such as the abil­ity to pick out rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion from a rapid sequence of visual events, or the abil­ity to resolve small details or see faint pat­terns. Other video games may even boost higher-level brain func­tions such as empa­thy: Indeed, video games with pos­i­tive objec­tives can actu­ally inspire peo­ple to per­form acts of altruism.
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To go fur­ther in under­stand­ing a child’ brain:

Resources

Books

The Sci­en­tist in the Crib: What Early Learn­ing Tells Us About the Mind by Ali­son Gop­nik, Andrew N. Melt­zoff and Patri­cia K. Kuhl (2000). Harpers Paperbracks.

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What’s Going on in There? : How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life by Lise Elliot (2000). Ban­tam Books.

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A Child’s Brain. The Need for Nur­ture by Dr. Robert Sylwester’s (2010). Corwin.

Read an excerpt here

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Keep learn­ing in the sec­ond part of our series: The Ado­les­cent Brain (to be pub­lished in Decem­ber). Do not miss it: Sub­scribe to our free monthly Brain Fit­ness e-newsletter!

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