The Developing Brain
Introduction to Brain Architecture
The brain architecture comprises millions of connections, which allow for high-speed communication across neurons that focus on different brain functions. However, because the first few years are the most active in developing these new neural connections, caregivers must provide adequate care so the child can form a strong foundation for essential skills later in life.
Did you know that the first three years after birth are the most critical years of your child's brain development? Let us excite you with a little bit of science. Your child's mind is forming more than 1 million new neural connections every second, yes, every single second. Can you imagine that! We indeed find it hard too! They are essentially little scientists. So basically, in these years, the brain develops simple circuits, which will become more complex and more robust if they are used, and the ones that are not used will be demolished through a process known as pruning. But what does this mean? Basically, during these years, your child's brain focuses on developing a few skills and abilities - motor skills, behavioral control, language skills, improving memory, visual skills, and emotions. These then form the basis for all further growth and development to become whatever they want to become when they grow up, how they interact with others, their resilience, and even how healthy they are. So, we could go far to say, the future of human-kind, animals, and the whole planet depends on this. Okay, maybe we became a little too philosophical here. Back to business - the two critical ingredients to enhancing the circuitry are (1) experiences and (2) serve & return. More on serve and return in a blog coming up.
What about the interaction between genes and experiences in shaping the brain?
Although genes indeed form the blueprint for constructing these connections, it is the experiences that shape the brain for the future. This is because circuits are reinforced with repeated us and thus provide a foundation for the future. One of the main inputs to healthy brain development is a process called to serve and return. When this response is absent, unreliable, or inappropriate, brain architecture can be disrupted and develop abnormally. Thus, genes and experiences work together to construct a healthy brain. As illustrated in the graph below, it is much easier to establish robust brain circuits earlier than fix them later in life.
Stress vs. Toxic Stress
Experiencing stress and subsequent activation of these stress responses produces physiological reactions to the body to deal with threats and is a normal part of development. The issues arise with prolonged activation of the stress response coupled with absence of supportive relationships. Research shows that prolonged stress can cause impairment in developing neural connections, particularly in areas devoted to higher-order skills.
*Information from Centre of Developing Child - Harvard University: https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/brain-architecture/