Sunday, September 21, 2008

Brain development and the first weeks of life

A new grandchild!

My daughter Louise and her husband Jonathan had their second child this week, a little girl who they have named Evelyne Adel (that's her on the right 1 say old with the doll her Nanna Carmen has made for her). She is our 5th grandchild. Little Evelyne has been born like other children with the most amazing brain of all living creatures. But this week her little brain is made up of cells with enormous potential that are undergoing massive change. The genes she has inherited from her family will have some impact on the number of brain cells, their initial arrangement and their potential (far too early for me to take much credit!), but her environment will also have a huge impact on her brain’s development. On Monday (15th September) when she was born, her brain contained about 100 billion neurons (i.e. as many nerve cells as astronomers tell us there are stars in the Milky Way).

Early development of the brain

Before birth, the brain produces many more neurons (probably double) and connections between the cells (“synapses”) than are needed. Every neuron has an output fibre (an “axon) that sends impulses to other neurons. Each neuron in turn has many hair-like input fibres (“dendrites”) that receive impulses from other neurons. As Evelyne grows the number of neurons will remain relatively stable but each cell will grow and become bigger, mostly because of the massive growth in dendrites that branch out like flourishing trees. It is these dendrites that will be stimulated when her parents (and her Grandad!) play with her, talk to her, show her new things, as she listens to new sounds or old familiar ones, as we cuddle her and care for her. As she encounters her world in her first year of life Evelyne’s brain will undergo huge change, it has already undergone great change since Monday!
Above: Image courtesy of University of Maine Cooperative Extension

But what Evelyne has been born with is just the beginning; it is a framework for development and learning. The environment that she lives in will have a big impact on how her brain cells will be connected or “wired” to each other. Her experiences, sensory stimulation, interaction with others, language, the love and care she receives and so on, will all have a huge impact on development.

During the first days, weeks and years of life, her brain will undergo a series of extraordinary changes. The biggest change will be in the connections between her brain cells. There will be constant growth in new connections and the loss of those that are rarely or never used.

Scientists tell us that that there are key times, critical periods, when specific forms of learning take place and with it brain development and change. We also know from research that if children are deprived of a stimulating environment the development of their brains suffer. For example, researchers at Baylor College of Medicine, have found that children who experience little play or who are rarely touched develop brains that are 20% to 30% smaller than is normal. So we know that stimulation is critical and it started for Evelyne on Monday. She started attending to her world on day 1.

The importance of stimulation

We have known for a long time that early stimulation establishes the foundations for children’s later learning. It has an influence on how children will learn, and how effectively they will learn. Recent research has taught us new things and has underlined just how important the first days, weeks and years of life are for learning. The early experiences of the child (whether good or bad) have an influence on the development of their brain and the ‘wiring’ of their nervous system. We know that loving interactions with caring adults stimulate brain development, strengthening connections between brain cells and causing new synapses to grow. Those connections that are used become permanent, whereas a lack of stimulation will retard the development of synapses and as a result, the brain will have fewer connections.

The child’s emotional stability and emotional security is also very important. More recent research on human stress-sensitive systems shows that early stress has an impact on brain development. Physical or emotional stress and trauma can lead to the release of the hormone cortisol and higher levels of cortisol reduces connections and can lead to the death of brain cells. So babies with good emotional bonds with their parents or caregivers will have lower cortisol levels in their brains and hence a better chance of good brain development.

So, as Evelyne’s grandad I’m already on the job with my 5th grandchild (and so is her Nanna). I’ve been talking to her, trying to gain her eye contact, stimulating her senses, cuddling her, patting her and making those soothing sounds that only parents (or grandparents can make), those sounds that let the small child know that someone is there, that they are loved and that they are safe. I’ll bombard little Evelyne with stimulation (sensory stimulation of all kinds), I’ll get her far too excited (sorry Lou) and give her experiences that will make her squeal and search for words to express her joy and happiness. I'll also cuddle when she's hurt or sad and talk to her about important stuff as she grows. And as I do this I’ll be helping her amazing brain to reach its potential. I thank God for the wonder of life and the precious gift of families and children.

Above: Mum Louise with brother Samuel doing his bit for brain development when Evelyne was 1 hour old

Other resources

I've written a lot about play and other ways to stimulate children in the early years. The labels on the sidebar of the blog will help to find these, but you can access a series of three posts I did on play here.

For a more detailed discussion of the brain's development as well as problems with development, there is an interesting introduction in Time magazine that I found helpful.
J. Madeleine Nash, "Fertile Minds", Time magazine, Feb 3, 1997.

A basic introductory article from the University of Maine might also be of interest (this draws on the above).

Dr Kim Oates gave a series of three public lectures that I hosted at New College in 2006 that might also be of interest, especially the first talk titled "The amazing early years of life" that can be downloaded as a pod cast here. I also found these very helpful.


Baddelim said...

Congratulations on another little grandchild!

Thanks for this great blog. It is useful and interesting, as well as being well written. Thank you for the effort and energy that goes into communicating clearly and researching all of this. It is something of great value.

And the photos are just gorgeous.

In Christ,
Jennie Baddeley

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks Jennie, I appreciate the feedback and encouragement.