Active Learning Environment Until 5 Years Old Found to Shape the Brain 4 Decades Later

The development children have until 5 years old is an especially important time of brain development.

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An enhanced learning environment during the first five years of life shapes the brain in ways that are apparent four decades later, say Virginia Tech and University of Pennsylvania scientists writing in the June edition of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

The researchers used structural brain imaging to detect the developmental effects of linguistic and cognitive stimulation starting at six weeks of age in infants. The influence of an enriched environment on brain structure had formerly been demonstrated in animal studies, but this is the first experimental study to find a similar result in humans.

“Our research shows a relationship between brain structure and five years of high-quality, educational and social experiences,” said Craig Ramey, professor and distinguished research scholar with Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and principal investigator of the study. “We have demonstrated that in vulnerable children who received stimulating and emotionally supportive learning experiences, statistically significant changes in brain structure appear in middle age.”

The results support the idea that early environment influences the brain structure of individuals growing up with multi-risk socioeconomic challenges, said Martha Farah, director of the Center for Neuroscience and Society at Penn and first author of the study.

“This has exciting implications for the basic science of brain development, as well as for theories of social stratification and social policy,” Farah said.

The study follows children who have continuously participated in the Abecedarian Project, an early intervention program initiated by Ramey in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1971 to study the effects of educational, social, health, and family support services on high-risk infants.

Both the comparison and treatment groups received extra health care, nutrition, and family support services; however, beginning at six weeks of age, the treatment group also received five years of high quality educational support, five days a week, 50 weeks a year.

When scanned, the Abecedarian study participants were in their late 30s to early 40s, offering the researchers a unique look at how childhood factors affect the adult brain.

“People generally know about the potentially large benefits of early education for children from very low resource circumstances,” said co-author Sharon Landesman Ramey, professor and distinguished research scholar at Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. “The new results reveal that biological effects accompany the many behavioral, social, health, and economic benefits reported in the Abecedarian Project. This affirms the idea that positive early life experiences contribute to later positive adjustment through a combination of behavioral, social, and brain pathways.”

During follow-up examinations, structural MRI scans of the brains of 47 study participants were conducted at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute Human Neuroimaging Lab. Of those, 29 individuals had been in the group that received the educational enrichment focused on promoting language, cognition, and interactive learning.

The other 18 individuals received the same robust health, nutritional, and social services supports provided to the educational treatment group, and whatever community childcare or other learning their parents provided. The two groups were well matched on a variety of factors such as maternal education, head circumference at birth and age at scanning.

Analyzing the scans, the researchers looked at brain size as a whole, including the cortex, the brain’s outermost layer, as well as five regions selected for their expected connection to the intervention’s stimulation of children’s language and cognitive development.

Those included the left inferior frontal gyrus and left superior temporal gyrus, which may be relevant to language, and the right inferior frontal gyrus and bilateral anterior cingulate cortex, relevant to cognitive control. A fifth, the bilateral hippocampus, was added because its volume is frequently associated with early life adversity and socioeconomic status.

The researchers determined that those in the early education treatment group had increased size of the whole brain, including the cortex.

Several specific cortical regions also appeared larger, according to study co-authors Read Montague, professor and director of the Human Neuroimaging Lab and Computational Psychiatry Unit at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, and Terry Lohrenz, research assistant professor and member of the institute’s Human Neuroimaging Laboratory.

The scientists noted the group intervention treatment results for the brain were substantially greater for males than for females. The reasons for this are not known, and were surprising, since both the boys and girls showed generally comparable positive behavioral and educational effects from their early enriched education. The current study cannot adequately explain the sex differences.

“When we launched this project in the 1970s, the field knew more about how to assess behavior than it knew about how to assess brain structure,” Craig Ramey said. “Because of advances in neuroimaging technology and through strong interdisciplinary collaborations, we were able to measure structural features of the brain. The prefrontal cortex and areas associated with language were definitely affected; and to our knowledge, this is the first experimental evidence on a link between known early educational experiences and long-term changes in humans.”

“We believe that these findings warrant careful consideration and lend further support to the value of ensuring positive learning and social-emotional support for all children — particularly to improve outcomes for children who are vulnerable to inadequate stimulation and care in the early years of life,” Craig Ramey said.

The Importance of Using Different Language for Political Messaging Effectiveness

Language can be used as a method of influencing or controlling thought. I have my disagreements with the cognitive linguist Lakoff, but he does present a useful analysis on why it’s important to use different language to defeat the extreme right-wing in political messaging. One example is that he tells progressives to avoid the phrase “death tax” when referring to the estate tax, instead recommending the counter be the “billionaire’s tax” since less than 0.002% of people will have to pay it. According to Lakoff, this is how the negative connotation to taxing extreme wealth can be countered.

Without knowing it, many Democrats, progressives and members of the news media help Donald Trump every day. The way they help him is simple: they spread his message.

Think about it: every time Trump issues a mean tweet or utters a shocking statement, millions of people begin to obsess over his words. Reporters make it the top headline. Cable TV panels talk about it for hours. Horrified Democrats and progressives share the stories online, making sure to repeat the nastiest statements in order to refute them. While this response is understandable, it works in favor of Trump.

When you repeat Trump, you help Trump. You do this by spreading his message wide and far.

Nobody knows this better than Trump. Trump, as a media master, knows how to frame a debate. When he picks a fight, he does so deliberately. He tweets or says outrageous things, knowing they will be repeated millions and millions of times. When the news media and Democrats repeat Trump’s frames, they are strengthening those frames by ensuring that tens of millions of Americans hear them repeated over and over again.

Quick: don’t think of an elephant. Now, what do you see? The bulkiness, the grayness, the trunkiness of an elephant. You can’t block the picture — the frame — from being accessed by your unconscious mind. As a professor of brain science, this is the first lesson I give my students. It’s also the title of my book on the science of framing political debates.

The key lesson: when we negate a frame, we evoke the frame. When President Richard Nixon addressed the country during Watergate and used the phrase “I am not a crook,” he coupled his image with that of a crook. He established what he was denying by repeating his opponents’ message.

This illustrates one of the most important principles of framing a debate: When arguing against the other side, don’t use their language because it evokes their frame and not the frame you seek to establish. Never repeat their charges! Instead, use your own words and values to reframe the conversation.

Brain’s Window for Easy Language Learning Open a Decade Longer Than Previously Thought

Various educational systems may now be changed as a result of this research.
In a study of nearly 700,000 English speakers, researchers from Boston College, MIT and Harvard have discovered the optimal years to learn a second language extend to the cusp of adulthood, the team reports today in the online edition of the journal Cognition.

It has long been known that children learn language more easily than adults, but determining exactly when that ability declines has been something of a mystery.

Benefitting from a massive study population and new research methods that allowed them to separate interconnected factors in language acquisition, the team reports that the window for language learning is open approximately a decade longer than previously thought — until the age of 17.4 years of age.

The new findings hold implications for neuroscience, linguistics, developmental psychology and public policy, according to the co-authors of the report, titled “A Critical Period for Second Language Acquisition: Evidence from 2/3 Million English Speakers.”

“What we’ve found gives us a dramatically different understanding about why children learn a new language more efficiently and completely than adults,” said Boston College Assistant Professor of Psychology Joshua K. Hartshorne, a co-author of the study with MIT Professor Joshua B. Tenenbaum and Harvard Professor Steven Pinker.

The findings are the first to estimate how long humans can learn grammar and how that ability changes with age. The ability extends to early adulthood before it begins to decline, the researchers found. This proved so for both “easy” and “difficult” syntaxes the team used in their study.

The findings define a clear “critical period for language acquisition” that lasts much longer than previously thought.

“Explaining this ‘critical period for language acquisition’ is crucial not only for understanding why humans, but not animals or machines, learn language, but also for research questions on neural development and plasticity, bilingual education, foreign language education, treatment of disorders that affect language, and early childhood stimulation,” Hartshorne said.

Tens of thousands of respondents from around the world took the survey through a quiz the researchers offered online through the site http://www.gameswithwords.org, Hartshorne said.

He added that earlier studies focused on how much language a seven-year-old could expect to eventually learn, rather than how quickly a seven-year-old learns language.