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Studies: Childhood Experiences Affect Brain Development

Early-childhood education advocates focus on the importance of increasing access to quality child care and early learning to make sure that kids get the best chance at success in school and life.

But advocates may do well to pay attention to the findings of several studies that shed more light on how childhood experiences and environment can affect brain development and spark changes that can last into adulthood.

The studies, based on human and animal research, were presented at Neuroscience 2012, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience held this week in New Orleans. More than 32,000 neuroscientists from around the world were expected to attend, presenting more than 16,000 new discoveries in science and health.

The studies delved into several influences on brain behavior and growth. But the most interesting to us were those that found that children's brain size may be affected by their parents' education and income and that childhood poverty is associated with changes in adults' working memory and attention span.

In the study on children's brain size, 60 kids ages 5 to 17 were studied to determine whether socioeconomic factors might affect brain size with age. Researcher Suzanne Houston of the University of Southern California noted that that "socioeconomic disparities in childhood are associated with remarkable differences in cognitive and socio-emotional development during a time when dramatic changes are occurring in the brain."

So Houston set out to determine whether the size of the areas of the brain that control cognitive and socio-emotional development is also affected by socio-economic factors. She found "highly significant" differences in the brain volume of the children's hippocampus (which helps regulate emotion, learning, and memory) and amygdala (which controls stress, fear, and aggression). In short, higher parent incomes resulted in less volume in kids' amygdala while higher parent education levels resulted in larger volume of the hippocampus.

Houston didn't make any judgments as to whether the size differences ultimately impacted kids' brain development; just that differences did exist based on socioeconomic factors.

Houston noted that the results couldn't be explained by differences in race, gender, or IQ; exposure to stress and language use at home could be greater influences.

The study involving child poverty conducted by the University of Oregon's Eric Pakulak found that adults who grew up in greater poverty had more problems with working memory, paying attention, and processing language than those of different backgrounds.

But Patulak noted that an eight-week training program focused on working with low-income families to reduce stress in the home and training children in paying attention did succeed in improving kids' brain function.

"In many countries, including the United States, a child's academic prospects are strongly predicted by parental income, occupation, and level of education," Pakulak said in the study abstract. "The academic disparities associated with [socioeconomic status] are increasing, yet we have now shown they are not written in stone. We are finding that effective training can enhance brain function in children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds."

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