Scientists say active early learning shapes the adult brain

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A teacher guides a student through a task in this historical photo of the Alphabet Project, a randomized controlled trial of early education that began at the University of North Carolina and has been followed by participants since 1971. Now, researchers of Virginia Tech, including Craig Ramey, Sharon Landesman Ramey, and Read Montague have revealed findings about the lasting effects of this early education on brain structure. Credit: Virginia Tech

An improved learning environment during the first five years of life shapes the brain in ways that are evident four decades later, say scientists at Virginia Tech and the University of Pennsylvania, who wrote in the June issue of Journal of Cognitive Neurosciences.

The researchers used structural images to detect the effects of the development of linguistic and cognitive stimulation from six weeks of age in infants. The influence of an enriched environment in it had previously been shown in animal studies, but this is the first experimental study to find a similar result in humans.

“Our research shows a relationship between brain structure and five years of education and quality “Said Craig Ramey, Distinguished Professor and Researcher at Fralin’s Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and lead researcher on the study.” We have shown that a who received stimulating learning experiences and emotional support, appear statistically significant changes in brain structure in the Middle Ages. “

The results support the idea that the early environment influences the brain structure of people growing up at high risk socioeconomic challenges, said Martha Farah, director of the Penn Center for Neuroscience and Society and lead author of the study. .

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

The study follows children who have been continuously involved in the Alphabet Project, an early intervention program initiated by Ramey in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1971 to study the effects of educational, social, health, and family support services on high risk babies.

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

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

“People generally know the potentially great benefits of early childhood education in circumstances of very low resources,” said co-author Sharon Landesman Ramey, a distinguished professor and researcher at the Fralin Institute for Biomedical Research. “The new results reveal that the biological effects accompany the numerous behavioral, social, health, and economic benefits reported in the Alphabet Project. This affirms the idea that positive early life experiences contribute to a later positive adjustment through a combination of behavior, social and brain pathways “.

During follow-up examinations, structural MRI scans of the brain of 47 participants in the study were performed in the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. Of these, 29 individuals had been in the group that received the educational enrichment focused on language promotion, cognition, and interactive learning.

The other 18 individuals received the same health, nutrition, and social services offered to the educational treatment group, and whatever community care or any other learning provided by their parents. The two groups agreed well on several factors, such as maternal education, head circumference at birth, and age during exploration.

Analyzing the scans, the researchers examined overall brain size, including the cortex, the outermost layer of the brain, as well as five regions selected for their expected connection to the stimulation of language intervention and cognitive development. of children.

These include the left and upper left temporal circumference, which may be relevant for language, and lower right frontal circumference and bilateral anterior cingulate cortex, relevant for cognitive control. A fifth, the bilateral hippocampus, was added because its volume is often associated with adversity and socioeconomic status in early life.

The researchers determined that those in the early education treatment group had increased the 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, assistant professor of research and member of the Human Neuroimaging of the institute. Laboratories.

The scientists noted that the results of group intervention treatment for the brain were substantially greater for men than for women. The reasons for this are unknown and were surprising, as both boys and girls showed positive educational and behavioral effects compared to their first enriched education. The current study cannot adequately explain gender differences.

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

“We believe these findings warrant careful consideration and further support the value of ensuring positive learning and social-emotional support for all children, in particular to improve outcomes for children vulnerable to inadequate stimulation and attention during the first few years of life, ”Craig Ramey said.


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More information:
Martha J. Farah et al, Random manipulation of impacts of early cognitive experience on adult brain structure, Journal of Cognitive Neurosciences (2021). DOI: 10.1162 / jocn_a_01709

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