10 January 2017

Let’s Build a Better Brain for young children! Let’s do it today!

Story by: Tanaporn Perapate

I wanted to find some information on the factors that influence human brain development.  I wanted to know whether human intelligence is pre-determined in a person’s genes or are there things that can change how the brain develops. I did a quick search online and I came cross UNICEF blog post on brain development and on some of the answers that the leading neuroscience, biology, epigenetics, psychiatry, nutrition, chemistry and child development, provided on the subject.

Through the blog, I found a booklet called “Build Better Brains: New Frontiers in Early Childhood Development”, which is now available in English and Thai.  It emphasises the same as many of the books and knowledge products say: that the first three years of a child’s life provide a “Window of Opportunity” to establish the foundation of the child’s ability to learn and develop, including brain stimulation, and physical, emotional and cognitive characteristics.  This critical time provides a great opportunity for quality nurturing to influence brain development, to provide the appropriate nutrition and stimulation that allow a child to develop physically and cognitively.

During this time, the brain grows at a faster pace than at any other time. Neurons in a newborn’s brain form new connections at a pace of around 700 to 1,000 per second. By the age of three, a child’s brain is twice as active as an adult brain and it weighs 87% of its full final weight.

The booklet highlights the outcomes and key messages from this new frontier in the development of children in their first months and years of life. It provides new insight on how parents and other caregivers and stakeholders can achieve results for children.  The four key messages I find state that:
  • The role of nature and nurture both play roles in how our brains develop. The two parts are constantly interacting to affect a child’s brain development and its future.  Genes provide the blueprint for brain development, but the environment shapes it.  
  • The timing of brain development is critical.  The best time for a brain to develop starts from when the child is conceived, and then when it is born. The brain is complex and develops most rapidly in the first few years of life. This is the window of opportunity.  So building a good foundation at this early stage is critical to helping children develop higher order thinking and imagination, these influence learning ability, ability to adapt to change, and the development of psychological resilience in adulthood.  

  • Stress is a key obstacle to brain development. Toxic stress is the most dangerous factor because it produces a stress hormone called “Cortisol” that disrupts the process of brain development. Children who face the adversity (these include vulnerable children suffering from social problems, experiencing violence, abuse, and neglect; those who do not receive sufficient nutrition; children at risk of harm or experiencing fear; children who do not receive sufficient stimulation) are the most at-risk.  To help these children, early interventions are critical. Social investment in these early interventions will be highly cost-effective in the long-run, with increased learning and earning potential of individuals in adulthood, and the accompanying reduction in the strain on health, justice, child and social protection systems; as well as a significantly reduced opportunity cost of low productivity.

  • The brain is not homogeneous but it is interconnected.  When we try to stimulate one part of the brain, this stimulates another part.  Likewise, if one part of a child’s brain is damaged, other parts will also be damaged. Some research suggests that meditation, stimulation in play, reading for young children or singing, can all reduce the level of Cortisol.  This means that parents and caregivers need to place a great deal of attention on providing good nutrition and stimulation to their young children.

These messages echo the economic analysis by Professor James Heckman (Noble Laureate and Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago) who advocates that “early interventions promote economic efficiency and reduce lifetime inequality.” (Heckman, J., 2008a)  He also points out that “investment in early education for disadvantaged children from birth to age 5 helps reduce the achievement gap, reduce the need for special education, increase the likelihood of healthier lifestyles, lower the crime rate, and reduce overall social costs.  In fact, every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood education produces a 7 to 10 percent per annum return to investment.” (Heckman, J., 2011)

The Heckman Curve illustrates Return to a Unit Dollar Invested at Different Ages.
You can see that the investment during 0-3 years old yield the highest return.

In summary, here’s what I found out: Both genetics and environmental factors play important parts in the development of the human brain, and experiences affect how genes are expressed.  Genes are not at all the sole factor in determining human intelligence.  Rather, the quality of the nurture and positive stimulation provided to children during the early months and years of a child’s life are critical.  But not all children are lucky enough to get the best opportunities and experiences.  If a child has negative experiences and suffers from toxic stress, this can have an irreversible, lifelong impact on a childs brain development.  Building a good foundation for every child from the start, on the other hand, will bring life-long benefits to the individual child and to society at large.  The bright future of young children is in parents’ and caretakers’ hands.  We are the ones who can ensure that children receive the support they need during their first years to help them become everything they can become.

Let’s Build a Better Brain for young children! Let’s do it today!


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