Learning Before Age Five Can be Seen in the Brain Forty Years Later

Learning Before Age Five Can be Seen in the Brain Forty Years Later

Quick Hits
Daily brief research updates from the cognitive sciences

learning education brain

Education before age five leaves structural changes to the brain, identifiable forty years later — impressive! This is the beauty of long-term longitudinal studies (the negative side is you have to wait decades to get the results).

Abecedarian Project was an early education randomised controlled trial that has followed development since 1971 in North Carolina in the USA. In this project there was a control group (of 18) and an educational group (of 29) in groups of high-risk infants i.e. from socially under-privileged children. Both groups received extra health care, nutrition, and family support services. The education group received in addition, five years of high quality educational support (from 6 weeks old!), five days a week, 50 weeks a year.

Therefore this gives us a good control with similar situations and similar levels of support and the biggest difference being the education given in the first five years of life.

In the meantime neuroscientific advances have now enabled deep insight into what has actually happened in these individual’s brains, unthinkable when this started in the 1970’s, and the results are dramatic.

Specifically, the brain as a whole was on average larger with greater cortical thickness — and five regions associated with language ability, cognitive control and memory also increased size.

That’s pretty impressive.

“This has exciting implications for the basic science of brain development, as well as for theories of social stratification and social policy,” — Martha Farah

“We have demonstrated that in vulnerable children who received stimulating and emotionally supportive learning experiences, statistically significant changes in brain structure appear in middle age.” — Craig Ramey

This is, of course, also in line with the positive behavioural differences that have been recorded over the years.

Of interest is that these differences in brain structures were larger in men than women but they did not seem to differ on behavioural measures. The reasons for that are unclear. But what we can say is that investing in early education, very early, particularly in under-privileged areas, is a good thing for society because of its life-long benefits

Andy Habermacher

Andy Habermacher

Andy is author of leading brains Review, Neuroleadership, and multiple other books. He has been intensively involved in writing and research into neuroleadership and is considered one of Europe’s leading experts. He is also a well-known public speaker speaking on the brain and human behaviour.

Andy is also a masters athlete (middle distance running) and competes regularly at international competitions (and holds a few national records in his age category).

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Reference

Martha J. Farah, Saul Sternberg, Thomas A. Nichols, Jeffrey T. Duda, Terry Lohrenz, Yi Luo, Libbie Sonnier, Sharon L. Ramey, Read Montague, Craig T. Ramey. 
Randomized Manipulation of Early Cognitive Experience Impacts Adult Brain Structure.
 Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 2021; 33 (6): 1197
DOI: 10.1162/jocn_a_01709

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Exercise in Childhood Predicts Healthy Brains (into Adulthood)

Exercise in Childhood Predicts Healthy Brains (into Adulthood)

Quick Hits
Daily brief research updates from the cognitive sciences

brain development children

Ok, we all know by now that exercise is good for you. Many of you may also be more than aware that exercise is a potent stimulator for the brain encouraging brain growth and effective functioning. Read my article on brain health here.

Two pieces of research have recently been published which show, however, that not just exercise is good for you, but the timing is essential. Specifically, that exercise in pre-teens predicted the fitness of their brains later and also, by another piece of research, that exercise in childhood predicted healthy adult brains!

So, first off, the study from Boston Children’s Hospital shows that physical activity helps to organise developing brains. This study analysed brain imaging data from almost 6’000 9- to 10-year-olds and found that physical activity was associated with brains that were:

  • More efficiently organised
  • More robust
  • Had more flexible networks

Basically giving kids fitter brains all round and better able to adapt to whatever challenges and cognitive functions come at them. Of note is that it didn’t matter what kind of activity — any physical activity is good.

Skylar Brooks, Boston Children’s Hospital)

This then leads us to separate recent study, nicely linking to the above, which looked at childhood pre-teen exercise and cognitive function in later life mapped to MRI data (214 participants aged between 26 and 69). This was conducted by a research group with Professor MATSUDA Tetsuya of Tamagawa University’s Brain Science Institute and Assistant Professor ISHIHARA Toru from Kobe University’s Graduate School of Human Development and Environment.

The results showed that

  • People who are physically active during childhood (up to 12 years of age) have higher cognitive functions in later life.
  • The positive association between childhood exercise and cognitive function could be seen in the modular segregation of brain networks, strengthened inter-hemispheric connectivity, greater cortical thickness, lower levels of dendritic arborisation and decreased density.

During early childhood the brain is at its most plastic and it seems that exercise optimises the networks and structures that are later used for multiple cognitive functions.

That’s good news, or maybe bad news. Bad news because they couldn’t find an association with cognitive functions and post-childhood physical activity. This is a surprise because there is a lot of research on the positive benefits of exercise — but it could be that these changes are only mild compared to the impacts on a developing child brain which set it up for life.

Got kids? Well, get them exercising!

Andy Habermacher

Andy Habermacher

Andy is author of leading brains Review, Neuroleadership, and multiple other books. He has been intensively involved in writing and research into neuroleadership and is considered one of Europe’s leading experts. He is also a well-known public speaker speaking on the brain and human behaviour.

Andy is also a masters athlete (middle distance running) and competes regularly at international competitions (and holds a few national records in his age category).

twitter / LinkedIn

Reference

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Look Within Yourself

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