An enhanced learning environment in the first five years of life shapes the brain in an apparent way four decades later, say scientists at Virginia Tech and the University of Pennsylvania in the June edition of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

The researchers used structural brain imaging to detect the developmental effects of linguistic and cognitive stimulation starting at six weeks of age in infants. The influence of an enriched environment on brain structure had previously been demonstrated in animal studies, but this is the first experimental study to find a similar result in humans.

“Our research shows a relationship between the structure of the brain and five years of high-quality educational and social experiences,” said Craig Ramey, professor and distinguished researcher at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and principal investigator of the study. “We have shown that in vulnerable children who have received stimulating and emotional learning experiences, statistically significant changes in brain structure appear in middle age.

The results support the idea that the early environment influences the brain structure of individuals growing up with multi-risk socio-economic challenges, said Martha Farah, director of the Center for Neuroscience and Society at Penn and the study’s first author.

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

The study follows children who have continuously participated in Project Abecedarian, an early intervention program started by Ramey in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1971 to study the effects of educational, social, health, and family services on infants. at high risk.

The comparison and treatment groups received additional health care, nutrition and family support services; however, starting at six weeks of age, the treatment group also received five years of high quality educational support, five days a week, 50 weeks a year.

When scanned, participants in the Abecedarian study were in their late 30s and early 40s, giving researchers a unique look at how childhood factors affect the adult brain.

“People are generally aware of the potentially significant benefits of early education for children with very limited resources,” said Sharon Landesman Ramey, co-author, professor and eminent researcher at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. “The new findings reveal that biological effects accompany the many behavioral, social, health, and economic benefits reported in the Abecedarian Project. This confirms the idea that positive early childhood experiences contribute to subsequent positive adjustment through a combination of behavior, social and cerebral pathways. “

During follow-up exams, structural brain MRI scans of 47 study participants were performed in the human neuroimaging laboratory of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. Of these, 29 people were part of the group that received the educational enrichment focused on the promotion of language, cognition and interactive learning.

The other 18 people received the same strong health, nutrition and social service supports provided to the educational treatment group, and regardless of community child care or other learning offered by their parents. The two groups were well matched on a variety of factors such as preschool education, head circumference at birth, and age at scan.

Analyzing the scans, the researchers looked at the size of the brain as a whole, including the cortex, the outermost layer of the brain, as well as five regions selected for their expected link with stimulation of speech and language intervention. cognitive development of children.

These included the left inferior frontal gyrus and the left superior temporal gyrus, which may be relevant for language, and the right inferior frontal gyrus and bilateral anterior cingulate cortex, relevant for cognitive control. A fifth, the bilateral hippocampus, was added because its size is frequently associated with adversity and socioeconomic status early in life.

The researchers determined that those in the early education treatment group had an increased size of the entire brain, including the cortex.

Several specific cortical regions also appeared larger, according to study co-authors Read Montague, professor and director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory and Computational Psychiatry Unit at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, and Terry Lohrenz, Research assistant professor and member of the Institute of Human Neuroimaging Laboratory.

Scientists noted that the results of group intervention treatment for the brain were significantly higher for men than for women. The reasons for this are not known and are surprising, as boys and girls have shown generally comparable positive behavioral and educational effects of their enriched early education. The current study cannot properly explain the differences between the sexes.

“When we started this project in the 1970s, the field knew more about how to assess behavior than how to assess brain structure,” said Craig Ramey. “Thanks to advances in neuroimaging technology and thanks to strong interdisciplinary collaborations, we have been able to measure the structural features of the brain. The prefrontal cortex and areas associated with language have been permanently affected; and to our knowledge, this is of the first experimental evidence on a link between known early educational experiences and long-term changes in humans. “

“We believe these findings merit careful consideration and further support the value of positive learning and socio-emotional support for all children – especially for improving outcomes for children who are vulnerable to stimulation and to. inadequate care in the first years of life. Said Craig Ramey.

The study was funded by a Principal Research Fellowship from the Wellcome Trust, Virginia Tech, the School of Arts and Sciences Research Fund at the University of Pennsylvania, and the William N. Sternberg Fund for Human Information-Processing Research.

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