Brain growth and cognitive skills can apparently be stimulated by books and educational toys in children’s early lives, according to a paper recently presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans. These initial findings suggest that parents should start the learning process sooner rather than later.
In the research, University of Pennsylvania neuroscientists studied 64 children from low-income families from birth to late adolescence. The researchers visited their homes at ages 4 and 8 to evaluate factors such as the number of books and educational toys visible as well as whether the children lived in a nurturing environment. At about age 18, each of the 64 received an MRI brain scan.
The results, according to ScienceNOW, were as follows:
“[Researchers] found that the level of mental stimulation a child receives in the home at age 4 predicted the thickness of two regions of the cortex in late adolescence, such that more stimulation was associated with a thinner cortex. One region, the lateral inferior temporal gyrus, is involved in complex visual skills such as word recognition … The findings suggest that mental stimulation in early life increases the extent to which synaptic pruning occurs in the lateral temporal lobe … This makes the cortex thinner, but it also makes information processing more efficient. “
The home environment at age 8 seemed to have a lesser impact on brain development, however, the study suggested.
In describing the outcome of the study, neuroscientist Martha Farah, one of the principal investigators, explained:
“This is a first look at how nurture influences brain structure later in life. As with all observational studies, we can’t really speak about causality, but it seems likely that cognitive stimulation experienced early in life led to changes in cortical thickness.”
Dr. Farah acknowledged, however, that follow-up studies need to be conducted to determine more precisely “how early life experiences impact brain structure and function.”