How Early Childhood Experiences Affect Cognitive Development

September is National School Success month. One of the most important criteria for students to be successful in the classroom is their development of cognitive skills like learning, memory and attention. With schools back in full swing around the country, there is no better time to talk about my research in hopes of helping parents and teachers promote healthy brain development.

Like any component of early childhood development, cognitive function is often influenced by specific life experiences. Our work in the Cognitive Development and Neuroimaging Lab has focused on the ways in which brain development supports cognitive development and the ways in which early experiences may influence the development of cognitive skills later in life.

Diabetic Pregnancies and Memory Issues

One early childhood experience we studied was infants who were born of diabetic pregnancies, which can lead to prenatal iron deficiency. We wanted to know whether this impacted brain development. First we used behavioral measures to gauge memory such as showing pictures on a screen and observing how long infants looked at it. The more babies recognized the picture, the less time they were likely to spend looking at it. We also measured electrical activity in the brain.

Our results suggested that diabetic pregnancies, whether gestational only or insulin dependent, are one risk factor for prenatal iron deficiency, and prenatal iron deficiency altered infant memory function. We didn’t know if the brain was just delayed in developing the memory system or if the function was permanently impaired. We followed these infants throughout the first five years of life and again at 10 years of age. Memory function was altered throughout early childhood. By 10 years of age, they did not show behavioral memory problems, but even though their memory performance was equivalent to other children, their brain pattern was different. These children born from diabetic pregnancies were accomplishing the same task with different brain circuitry.

This means our brain is very flexible early on, and we are able to develop an alternate route to something critically important like memory. Some skills don’t catch up so easily. Interestingly enough, this same iron deficiency, which was known to affect the hippocampus where memory function is performed, also led to disruptive patterns in the prefrontal cortex where executive function skills take place.

Premature Babies Fall Behind in Executive Function

Our later research has focused more on attention and executive function, our higher order of cognitive skills such as avoiding distractions, switching back and forth between two different tasks, planning for the future, etc. We studied this to understand normal brain changes with age, but also in populations at risk such as children with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and children who are born prematurely. We know that kids who are born 2-3 months early tend to have problems with learning and attention later in school, sometimes even during preschool years, but we were interested in studying kids who are born just 4-6 weeks early and who were otherwise healthy with no major risk factors at the time of birth (ventilators, extra care, etc.).

One of our studies has examined executive function in four-year-olds that were born 4-6 weeks early. Our findings showed their performance was slightly worse in executive function. It wasn’t a huge impact, but it was significant. This effect was much larger when extra demands were added to their cognitive system, like a very rewarding treat.

Brain Size and Orphanage Rearing

My colleague Megan Gunnar and I have also studied children who have been adopted from international orphanage care into Minnesota families. All of these kids spent time in a deprived environment before being adopted into a more ideal one. What do we see in the brain that might reflect that deprived environment? While adopted kids are able to catch up quickly in a lot of ways, some trouble spots can linger such as attention and emotion.

What we found was rather surprising. It didn’t matter how long the child spent in a particular orphanage; his or her brain was smaller than children living with a biological family. You might be wondering if size matters. When you compare children who are the same age and going through the same developmental stages, smaller brain size is generally associated with poorer function. However, one part of typical development is for some regions of our brain to become smaller and more efficient. In our study, when we look at brain function and activity during a cognitive task that requires high-level control and regulation, the children who were adopted later are activating their brains more while children who were adopted earlier are activating less. What does this mean? Efficiency in a given task leads to activating your brain less, so kids who were removed from an orphanage earlier generally had more typical brain activity.

Finally, my colleagues and I are also working with Dante Cicchetti and Mt. Hope Family Center in Rochester, New York to study maltreated children. We are interested in whether or not we can identify brain differences in individuals who have been abused versus those who have not. We’re anticipating preliminary results to be available by spring of 2015.

4 Tips for Promoting Healthy Brain Development

We have studied these different populations to not only see how the brain and our behavior are connected, but how flexible and adaptable the brain is. Consider these four tips to promote healthy brain development at home and in the classroom for children and adults.

  1. Provide a variety of experiences. One of the main things we know from neuroscience is that enriched environments can enhance brain development. It makes the brain more open to change. Expose your child to different stimuli, whether that is toys and things they can play with at home, topics in school or simply the activities you do with your child. This could be anything from exploring the outdoors to spending time at a museum.
  2. Provide sensitive and responsive caregiving. We have a common idea of “good enough” parenting, but if we really want to promote brain development and flexibility in thinking skills, parents need to be sensitive to their child’s developmental level and emotional state. Of course this is harder than it sounds. It’s equally important not to be overly rigid, as we want kids to learn independence and explore their own skills.
  3. Practice, practice, practice. Certain games, media outlets, etc. can build upon executive function skills. Of course I wouldn’t recommend having your child play video games or sit in front of the TV all day, but it’s important to provide contexts where kids can practice focusing their attention and ignoring distractions. Even activities like yoga and Tae Kwon Do can train the brain to become more calm and regulated.
  4. Exercise and get plenty of sleep. Research has shown that regular sleep and physical activity can enhance brain development. This does not mean parents need to put their kids in a sport that requires intense training, but staying active is always going to be a good thing.
Kathleen M. Thomas

About the Author

Kathleen M. Thomas, Ph.D.

  • Professor
  • Institute of Child Development
  • College of Education and Human Development

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