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New Brain Research: What Does It Mean?, The

by Lorraine Wallach

It’s on the covers of Time and Newsweek. There are specials on TV. There was even a conference at the White House. It’s hard to miss all the recent publicity about new and exciting research on the brain. The information is complex, however. Let’s take a look at some of the most important points.

The development of the brain begins in utero. At birth, the brain contains 100 billion neurons, which are the building blocks of the brain. Although the brain has all the neurons it will ever have, the way they are wired is yet to take place. At this point, the external environment becomes important because an infant’s sensory experiences are instrumental in refining the pattern that will take shape. Connections between neurons are made and reinforced by the baby’s experiences. Those connections that are not reinforced disappear.

After birth, the external environment plays an increasingly important part in how the brain develops. The right kind of stimulation provides the means for the neurons to migrate to their correct place in the brain and to form connections (synapses) with other neurons.

Stimulation for infants, toddlers and preschoolers begins with sensory stimulation and includes language, motor and cognitive activities that incite the neurons to connect to other neurons (synapses). In fact, the brain makes many more synapses than it can use and, starting at about age 10, it prunes the synapses that it cannot use, leaving behind a mind that is unique in the way it thinks and feels.

Stimulation such as touching, speaking, expressing love and playing, are vital to the healthy development of the brain, beginning at birth. If proper stimulation is not available, children’s brains do not grow to their full potential. Then the complexity of the neuron connections is reduced and that, in turn, influences intelligence.

As different regions of the brain mature at different times, there are "windows of opportunity" that make specific kinds of learning more available. These windows of opportunity are times when a baby or child is most impressionable for certain kinds of learning or when particular development takes place. Proper stimulation from the environment is necessary to set these activities in motion. For example, the development of sight must be supported by the availability of light. Babies born with cataracts do not develop normal vision unless their cataracts are removed.

Children who learn a second language early--approximately before the age of ten--have a better chance of speaking that language well. Many adults learn a new language when they move to a new country, but they may never speak like a native.

Because brain development begins before birth, it is important that the intrauterine environment is a healthy one. Pregnant women must furnish a healthy environment by eating well, not smoking, and avoiding alcohol and drugs.

After a baby is born, the external environment plays an increasingly important role in stimulating continued brain development. Proper stimulation is key. Both understimulation and overstimulation can be detrimental. Parents and caregivers who are in tune with the baby and can respond to his or her cues provide the best environment.

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