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The Little Ones; Brain Development, Nurturing Are Vital to Child's Future

By Leslie Sowers

Photographs by Ben DeSoto
Houston Chronicle

THE brain of a child is a precious thing, finely attuned to absorb its surroundings, to transform reality into the complex, intricate entity that we call the mind.

Each brain takes its own steps, but along a route that varies little. One stage of development follows and depends upon the last. Genes orchestrate the production of proteins that forge the matrix on which the outside world is mapped.

Like the heart or the liver, the brain is subject to diseases, both genetic and infectious. And just as environmental stress can strain a heart or a liver, the outside world can take a physical toll on the brain. The brain becomes ill, and when it does, its changes affect emotions, behavior and personality.

With all the recent scientific discoveries about the brain and the genes that impose their limits on it, parents might begin to feel that their child-rearing efforts aren't terribly important.

Don't believe it. The more we find out about nature, the more important nurture becomes.

Genes play a tremendous role in shaping a baby's intelligence, temperament and even some behavioral patterns. They appear to have the determining role in certain mental illnesses. A parent could follow every rule from Spock to Brazelton and still not forestall the development of schizophrenia, if the genetic influence is strong enough.

But recent research has demonstrated that the creation of the baby's mind depends greatly on nurturing and attention from parents and other caregivers. To navigate the stages of brain development successfully, a baby needs emotional links with a loving nurturer.

The cooching and cooing that takes place when a baby still smells sweet and isn't mobile enough to cause too much trouble sets the stage for a lifetime of good experiences. It creates attachment, a secure and safe platform from which the baby, toddler, child and even adult can dive into the world.

The need for attachment makes intuitive sense. And now scientists can provide physical measurements, through brain imaging and measures of stress hormones, that nurturing relationships are as vital as anyone might have suspected.

Attachment isn't just a touchy-feely thing. Bonding experiences stimulate the formation of synapses that set the stage for a host of mental and emotional functions. Attachment has been linked to good school performance, a strong immune system and resistance to stress. Good, secure attachment allows a child to develop the emotional means to weather many a storm throughout a lifetime.

Just as a nurturing environment has beneficial effects on a developing brain, the stress of being abused can change the balance of neurotransmitters and stress hormones, making a child forever more vulnerable to depression.
In other words, a baby's brain development and subsequent mental health depend on the interplay of her genes and early life experiences, many researchers say.

"Rethinking the Brain," a report from the Families and Work Institute, lays it out in a fairly comprehensible form. It describes the complex and amazingly rapid mechanics of brain development.

Different parts of the brain develop at different times in a predictable sequence, with optimal periods of development for each. Billions of nerve cells called neurons produce message-carrying neurotransmitters that can leap across tiny voids called synapses. At birth, the brain contains few synapses. More are formed as the child experiences the world. The outside stimulation creates new connections, a lifelong process.

Each stimulation of a neural pathway reinforces its synapses. With enough repetition, that connection becomes your child's for life.

That's why you want those early experiences to be so positive. They set the stage for later life experiences.

You'd think the brain would get ever denser as each stimulation creates new pathways among neurons. It does, but the number of connections maxes out at age 3 at around 3 trillion. After age 10, synapses that don't get much use seem to disappear.
You can always hope the synapses for whining will disappear, but don't count on it.

An extraordinarily patient scientist actually counted these synapses. If you look in the right books, you can see photographs of a young child's tangled, weedy-looking synapses. By the time a child reaches 14, the photo will look as though someone had pruned the patch.

The scientist who counted the synapses has a theory about the disappearances. He believes the high number of synapses early in life allows for a great deal of flexibility so that an infant can fit into almost any environment.

A related concept is that of critical periods, which suggests that the brain doesn't develop willy-nilly. When the language portion of the brain is primed to go, babies need to hear voices and sounds. When the vision portion is developing, sights are required. A researcher looking at cats learned that if kittens were to receive no visual stimulation during the period when the visual cortex was developing, their vision was never normal, even though their eyes were undamaged.

This holds true in the development of the visual cortex in humans. Without visual stimulation, the part of the brain that "sees" doesn't develop. Now that this is known, doctors no longer wait until infants are older to remove cataracts or other visual impediments.

Researchers have also noted that sensory deprivation in orphans who aren't cuddled and stimulated can lead to visible changes in their brains. Anxious parents might feel they need to sing more lullabies or provide constant entertainment, but normal, responsive care will do.

Zealous early-childhood educators have proposed schemes to capitalize on young children's potential - vastly superior to adults' - for learning languages and math. This has led to television specials on small prodigies crammed with such knowledge.

Marketers have even produced videotapes to teach babies in the crib.

Is this a good idea?

It may help to know that part of learning capacity depends on a child's emotional development. Overloading the cognitive at the expense of the emotional has the potential for great harm.

Steven Hyman, the director of the National Institute for Mental Health, said playing Beethoven to a baby in utero or overscheduling a child's after-school enrichment activities indicates a poor understanding of development.

Children need time for creative play on their own, he said. That's what stimulates curiosity and fosters emotional development. What if you realize that your baby needs good experiences and doesn't need traumas but your spouse up and left you, you got depressed, and for a while there you were cranky when you meant to be nurturing?

Depending on the circumstances, that could be trouble. Babies can be affected by the depression of those around them. Among other effects, studies have shown reduced brain activity in 40 percent of babies with depressed mothers.

The good news is that biological markers returned to normal when the mothers got treatment. So if you, the parent, are experiencing prolonged depression, the best help you can give your child is to seek treatment.

Saddest of all, of course, is the impact of abuse, neglect or trauma on the brain of a young child. These can seriously impair the development of areas of the brain that regulate emotion and basic functions such as heart rate.

In many ways, the biological terminology - the synapses, the neural pathways, the cortex - makes it all concrete. You can measure heart rates and look at trauma on a scan.

Does it tell you anything you didn't already know?

You, as a parent, make all the difference in the world to the future life of your child.

Children: Brain development at risk
Scientists are discovering that they can make healthy brains out of ones that otherwise would have been stunted. Through the stimulation of the senses - vision, taste, smell, touch, sound - the brain can be literall reshaped to increase brain cell connections. These increased connections greatly increase the brain's power to learn and remember, often boosting IQ beyond what it may have been.

  • Newborn children need touch of another human being in order to grow. Without it, DNA synthesis decreases in those who receive little or not physical contact and stress hormones are released to subdue the body's needs for nourishment.
  • The quality of the environment and the kind of experiences children have may critically affect brain structure and intellectual performance in ways that, by as early as age 5, may be irreversible.

Checklist for brain development
1. Encouragement to explore and gather information.

2. Guidance by a trusted adult in developing basic skills, such as labeling, sorting, sequencing, comparing and emphasizing relationship between cause and effect.

3. Reinforcement and celebration of developmental accomplishments.

4. Guided rehearsal and practice of newly acquired skills.

5. Protection from inappropriate disapproval, teasing or punishment for those behaviors that are normal for learning about their surroundings.

6. A rich and responsive language environment that is both verbal and written.

Reprinted with permission of the Houston Chronicle, copyright 1998

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