Poverty shrinks babies’ brains

Poverty shrinks babies’ brains

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Daily brief research updates from the cognitive sciences

baby brain

A couple of studies have just been released which look at the brains of newborns and young babies. The results are worrying for any society.

Brain scans of newborn babies from mothers in poverty showed lower brain volumes across all regions of the brain, suggesting less maturity, but also, just as worryingly, that the folds in the brain were fewer and shallower also suggesting a less developed brain and potential functional impairment. This is in comparison to babies born to mothers with higher household incomes.

This is another one to show how poverty can have dramatic consequences and damage society, which can then be perpetuated.

A second paper from the same dataset of 399 mothers showed that the brain of newborns with mothers from areas with high crime rates showed weaker connectivity across multiple regions in the brain in the first few weeks of life.

This shows that poverty and exposure to crime and its stresses can have dramatic impacts on the brains of babies – how long this lasts is not clear but it is obviously a bad start to life for an innocent baby.

Public policies that effect this critical period of life – pregnancy – is therefore a very good idea for society!

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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Regina L. Triplett, Rachel E. Lean, Amisha Parikh, et al.
Association of Prenatal Exposure to Early-Life Adversity With Neonatal Brain Volumes at Birth.
JAMA Network Open, 2022; 5 (4): e227045
DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.7045

Rebecca G. Brady, Cynthia E. Rogers, Trinidi Prochaska, et al.
The Effects of Prenatal Exposure to Neighborhood Crime on Neonatal Functional Connectivity.
Biological Psychiatry, 2022
DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2022.01.020

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Babies born with five from seven functional brain networks

Babies born with five from seven functional brain networks

baby brain

In the 1950s the blank slate theory was the most prominent theory ascribed to babies. They are born blank slates and then their experiences allow them to develop their networks thoughts, associations, etc., and just about everything else. Though this theory is long since dead, to an extent — to what extent has not been known.

In comes this research hot off the presses which shows just how much. The researchers around Fiona Molloy of Ohio State University analysed data from 267 newborns whose brains were scanned one week after birth, while they were asleep. Even though these babies were sleeping the brain still communicates with itself and reacts to the outside world, and by focusing at the micro level they could identify which networks were active in these brains.

They found that five of the seven major networks were already active showing that we are born with these circuits already active and functioning. The two that weren’t were the control network and limbic network associated with cognitive control and emotions respectively.

So, babies can’t exert emotional control — no surprise there. We also know this control network doesn’t actually fully mature until after 20 years old. What was also interesting is that the attention network showed the most variability suggesting that there are individual differences that are inborn and this attention network is related to behaviour and different disorders such as the obvious ADHD.

All in, another piece of critical evidence showing what is already happening in newborns’ brains.

M. Fiona Molloy, Zeynep M. Saygin.
Individual variability in functional organization of the neonatal brain.
NeuroImage, 2022; 253: 119101
DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2022.119101

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Your brain on near-death experiences

Your brain on near-death experiences

brain near-death

Near-death experiences have fascinated many people ever since they have been reported. And these experiences guide our view of how we die: the memories of your life passing in front of your eyes, the tunnel of light, the floating movement towards a bright light.

However, this has been difficult to research. The nature of being near to death, or briefly dead, means different things may happen in the brain that can cause hallucinations. For example, Olaf Blanke showed that out of body experiences can be induced in healthy individuals by activating and deactivating different parts of the brain.

Enter this case whereby a team of researchers around Dr. Ajmal Zemmar, a neurosurgeon based at the University of Louisville, actually managed to get EEG recordings of a person as they died. 

No this was not a bizarre experiment, which is difficult to run, and would have many moral implications. They had wired up this 87 year-old who was having a severe epileptic seizure, which could be fatal, to try and see what was happening — however this individual had a DNR (do not resuscitate) status and after consulting with the family the patient passed away. This provided the only known example of a person with a quality EEG recording during death.

Obviously, it is a case of only one person who has just had a major epileptic seizure but provides the first glimpse of what is happening in the brain during death. So, you may want to know whether your life’s memories pass in front of your eyes?

Well, they did see a spike in gamma brain wave activity, and gamma waves are also associated with memory recall, shortly before death. However, a gamma spike could also mean many other things. They also noticed enhanced neuronal coherence and coupling — basically showing coordinated activity across the brain.

This case study of one person is therefore interesting, but as a population of one, difficult to draw any conclusions. However, it is a start to get the neural signature of death. What they did note however, is that death is not a sudden thing but much more drawn out than you might expect with cells and processes shutting down over minutes, and hours.

On the same topic another group of researchers around Sam Parnia have also issued a position statement on death and also near-death experiences — this summarises the research but also calls for more structured research around this to pull together these strands of evidence and give greater clarity as to how and in what form death happens and the experiences that accompany this — including those near-death experiences.

I’ll certainly be watching this space with interest.


Vicente Raul, Rizzuto Michael, Sarica Can, et al.
Enhanced Interplay of Neuronal Coherence and Coupling in the Dying Human Brain
Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience: 14; 2022 

Sam Parnia, Stephen G. Post, Matthew T. Lee, et al. 
Guidelines and standards for the study of death and recalled experiences of death — a multidisciplinary consensus statement and proposed future directions
Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2022
DOI: 10.1111/nyas.14740

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Social networks grow your brain

Social networks grow your brain

social brain

The headline is a bit “click baity” but it is what a group of researchers found. To be more specific they found in macaques (cute monkeys) in the wild that having more grooming partners grew different regions of the brain. Grooming is the primate version of having a heart-to-heart with a friend, or cuddle with your family or romantic partner.

What is interesting in this research is that it tracked this over time and hence also the growth and development of brain regions over time. Previously we have only been able to associate regions of the brain in animal models and human beings that correlate with sociality.

This is all good and well but it doesn’t give us an indication of causation, a chicken or egg problem: are those with enlarged social regions in the brain more social, or does socialising increase the size of these regions?

These researchers have shown for the first time that grooming, which is an intense form of socialising in macaques does actually grow these regions. And what do these regions do?

Well, the regions that grew were those that are specifically associated with social decision-making and empathy (mid-superior temporal sulcus and ventral-dysgranular insula, if you’re interested).

So, in short, or a more correct headline, is that socialising grows the regions of your brain that are involved in social decision making and empathy.

Probably no bad thing to have!

Camille Testard, Lauren J. N. Brent, Jesper Andersson, et al.
Social connections predict brain structure in a multidimensional free-ranging primate society.
Science Advances, 2022; 8 (15)
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abl5794

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What do creative brains look like?

What do creative brains look like?

creative brains

We’d probably all be happy to be a bit more creative — though research into our own opinions show that many people do actually consider themselves to be above average in creativity. An obvious self-bias.

This is where scientists who study creativity come in and find and research people who are truly creative — though creativity has long been studied there is relatively little research into the brains of creative people (and it is much harder and much more expensive to conduct).

In come UCLA Health scientists who have just published a study into the brain of creative people — known as big C creatives. The brain scanning was done on people who had been nominated by others in the creative industries as being particularly creative. What the researcher found is that:

    • Exceptional creativity is associated with more random connectivity in the brain on the global scale
    • Exceptional creativity therefore seems to use less efficient paths but connects distant brain regions through alternative if less efficient routes
    • Exceptional creativity is however associated with higher efficiency local processing at rest

This suggests that the brains of those who are exceptionally creative as being wired differently or being used differently — of note is that it does not occur to me how this can be changed or learned (some other aspects of creativity can be learned). This suggest that being exceptionally creative is a natural predisposition.

I wonder if my brain is that creative? Probably not. I wouldn’t be writing summaries of scientific articles if it were. Alas!

Ariana Anderson, Kevin Japardi, Kendra S. Knudsen, Susan Y. Bookheimer, Dara G. Ghahremani, Robert M. Bilder. 
Big-C creativity in artists and scientists is associated with more random global but less random local fMRI functional connectivity.
Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 2022
DOI: 10.1037/aca0000463

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