Building strong foundations for healthy brain development
Neuroscience has transformed our understanding of child development, providing new insights into how the developing brain underpins learning, behaviour and lifelong health. We now know that stressful events and impoverished environments can affect the physical structure and function of a child’s brain. This is valuable information for those trying to work out how to best support children and intervene in times of adversity.
Rosemarie Perry, a developmental psycho-biologist who recently visited Perth to speak at a Telethon Kids Institute research seminar, emphasises that while a child’s brain begins forming in the womb, development is still rapidly occurring after birth. In fact, it doubles in size in the first year as millions of neural connections are formed Early life experiences, particularly the quality of a child’s relationship with their caregiver, are critically important in shaping brain development postnatally. When a child was faced with adversity, however, the development of these systems can be compromised. “In other words, you are building the foundations in early life and it is hard to build a strong home if you have a shaky foundation,” said Dr Perry, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Department of Applied Psychology at New York University. “If you are responding to a lot of stressors in early life, how you respond to a threat, how your body releases stress hormones for example, can become altered. It is hard then to develop regions that are then going to appropriately regulate that system.” These stressors include exposure to trauma that might involve physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, and separation from a parent or caregiver. Poverty and growing up in high risk environments can also have a negative effect.
While a child with strong, secure and positive relationships can be resilient in the face of adversity, children without those supports might not, and that is when trauma can change the physical and biological structures of the brain. “When we look at these cases of prolonged exposure to multiple types of risks … that’s when you really see the risk for altered brain development and altered cognitive and social and emotional outcomes, becomes massively increased,” Dr Perry said. “There are plenty of examples where a child will have a traumatic experience and they can overcome that and be just fine, and then there are plenty of examples where a child has a more disadvantaged upbringing and faces risks from multiple facets of their life and when the protective supports in a child’s whole world, broadly speaking, break down, is when we see the worst outcomes.” However, another important insight gifted by neuroscience is the fact that some areas of the brain have a more protracted development – challenging the idea that after the first three years brain development is all but complete. The pre-frontal cortex which guides memory, decision-making and self-regulation, for example, does not fully develop until age 25.
“So, although a lot of interventions are focused on early life, and that’s important, it doesn’t mean that if you don’t intervene in those years that you have completely missed the mark,” Dr Perry explained. “We are learning more and more from neuroscience research that the brain remains moldable or plastic longer than we ever thought before.” This is good news for those interested in child development and supporting children through difficult circumstances because it means there was greater scope to help over a longer time. “I predict we will see more and more later life interventions that are more and more effective and targeted and based on the developmental understanding of the brain at that time. It is kind of a way of personalising treatment in terms of biology and the stage of development.” But there is still much to learn, according to Dr Perry, because most findings are based on association rather than causation due to the technical and ethical limitations of neuroscience research. To help overcome this, Dr Perry combines human research and animal research. “We can identify really meaningful hypotheses with our human dataset and then figure out how to model it in the animals to test if it holds up. And also, we can go a little deeper to understand neurobiological mechanisms.” She believes technological advances as well as more large-scale, longitudinal studies that include measures of brain structure and function at multiple time points will be key to understanding how experiences over time influence brain development.
In the meantime, support and education should be offered to parents and the broader community to promote the understanding that warm, supportive, consistent and loving interactions with children helps build strong foundations for later life. Dr Perry said a child’s development, including their brain development, was in part shaped by the context in which they were being raised and the old African proverb that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ rang true. She believes that everyone in the community, not just parents, should consider themselves ‘brain builders’ and that we all have a critical responsibility to ensure young children receive the best start in life.