All in the brain

All in the brain
11 July 2011

The study of brain development and biology of adversity in early childhood represents a revolution in the way we can intervene to support healthy child development, said Professor Jack Shonkoff giving this year’s Annual Lecture of the Dartington Social Research Unit.

Shonkoff, director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University and chair of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, said: “At birth we have most of the brain cells we’ll have for the rest of our lives, but that the neural connections must be wired and consolidated.” Early childhood experiences shape the formation and strength of these connections, he added.

“Language-rich environments and ‘serve and return’ parent-child interactions help build strong neural connections in the areas of the brain responsible for infant language development and comprehension” explained Shonkoff. The greater the stimulation, the stronger and faster these connections become. Conversely, less stimulation may lead to weaker connections or ‘neural pruning’, the process whereby neural connections become broken.

Thus, as Shonkoff explained, early experiences may literally change the architecture of the brain, for better or for worse. Stress, he said, was one powerful influence on the developing brain.

Some forms of stress in early childhood are positive and adaptive: brief activations of the physiological stress response, caused, for example, by being taught how to take turns or being punished for misbehavior. Shonkoff argued that these positive stress responses may help lay strong neural connections and support learning and healthy development.

What the speaker called “toxic stress” may be harmful and damage the developing brain. Such stress leads to an individual’s physiological stress response system becoming over-activated. This may occur through repeated and lasting exposure to harmful environmental stimuli, such as violence, abuse or poverty. Exposure to toxic can impede the neural pathways in the developing brain and stop them from connecting or they may become damaged. Children’s physical, cognitive and social development may be impaired.

While children’s developing brains are particularly susceptible to damage in the early years, the good news, explained Shonkoff, is that they are also remarkably flexible and amenable to intervention.

He said: “This is particularly true in the early years when the brain has the greatest ‘neural plasticity’ - the ability to change, forge new neural connections and repair damage. The older children get, the more established and ‘hard-wired’ neural connections become, the more resistant they are to change, and the greater the cost and effort of intervention.

“But it’s never too late to intervene, even well into adulthood the brain retains its remarkable ability to change and adapt, it just takes more work”.

It is these developments in neuroscience and our growing understanding of the developing brain that, according to Shonkoff, offer a compelling new theory of change for intervention efforts.

“Neuroscience used to warn of us of the consequences of not intervening”, he said, “but now the science has taken us further and is pointing us in the direction of how to intervene”.

Current models of intervention in the early years, argued Shonkoff, typically revolve around supporting positive parent-child relationships through home visitation or parenting training, or by creating stimulating environments at home or at pre-school services such as HeadStart or SureStart. “While these forms of intervention are unequivocally beneficial up to a point, the effectiveness of them may be limited by the negative effects of early childhood experiences”, he claimed.

For Shonkoff, the future of early childhood policy and practice is about harnessing the learning from neuroscience to protect children’s developing brains from the pernicious effects of environmentally induced biological adversity. This will in turn help existing intervention efforts realize their potential and foster innovation in services for children and families.

Shonkoff saw the future of intervention as lying in promoting the mental health of parents and enhancing economic stability. These, he said, “represent two critical ways in which policy and practice may reduce exposure to toxic stress in early childhood and promote healthy brain development”.

He also argued that interventions should support children to develop the capacities to effectively deal with toxic stress if exposed.

He said: “One highly promising area for service and policy development is around enhancing children’s executive functioning- the capacity and skills necessary for children to pay attention, filter distractions, regulate their emotions and switch cognitive gears.”

These executive functioning skills are critical if children are to develop and function effectively in a fast-paced, dynamic and changing social world.

Neuroscience has pointed us in this direction, and it is now the responsibility of policy makers, prevention scientists and practitioners to harness this knowledge to equip children with the best possible start in life.



Jack Shonkoff

Jack P. Shonkoff is the Director of the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University. He is a pediatrician and an expert on early childhood research, service delivery, and social policy. He was Principal Investigator of the Early Intervention Collaborative Study, Co-Editor of the classic "Handbook of Early Childhood Intervention, Chair of the Board on Children," Youth, and Families of the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council, and Chair of the IOM/NRC Committee that produced the landmark report entitled “From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development.” Dr. Shonkoff has been very influential in negotiating the boundaries among scholarship, policy, and practice focused on young children and their families.

Executive Functioning

is a set of cognitive skills responsible for organizing, planning and reacting appropriately. Executive functioning comprises three inter-related dimensions: working memory (the ability to hold and manipulate information in your mind for short periods of time); inhibitory control (the ability to stop and think before acting); and cognitive flexibility (the ability to change thoughts or courses of action as necessary as the context changes). These skills gradually develop during early childhood, particularly during three to seven years, and through to early adulthood.

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child

Established in 2003, the the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child builds on the 2000 report From Neurons to Neighborhoods and the MacArthur Research Network on Early Experience and Brain Development. The Council seeks to connect the expanding knowledge base to decisions about supporting the health and development of young children. From Neurons to Neighborhoods, a review of current knowledge on early childhood, was prepared by 17 leading authorities on human development and neuroscience. An eight-year effort similarly involving leading neuroscientists and child development experts, the MacArthur Research Network on Early Experience and Brain Development conducted wide-ranging research on the effects of early experience.

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