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.

Research: Everyone has Unique Brain Anatomy

Apparently this wasn’t thought much 30 years ago. It is also a bit surprising that some of the differences are driven primarily by repeated experiences.

Like with fingerprints, no two people have the same brain anatomy, a study by researchers of the University of Zurich has shown. This uniqueness is the result of a combination of genetic factors and individual life experiences.

The fingerprint is unique in every individual: As no two fingerprints are the same, they have become the go-to method of identity verification for police, immigration authorities and smartphone producers alike. But what about the central switchboard inside our heads? Is it possible to find out who a brain belongs to from certain anatomical features? This is the question posed by the group working with Lutz Jäncke, UZH professor of neuropsychology. In earlier studies, Jäncke had already been able to demonstrate that individual experiences and life circumstances influence the anatomy of the brain.

Experiences make their mark on the brain

Professional musicians, golfers or chess players, for example, have particular characteristics in the regions of the brain which they use the most for their skilled activity. However, events of shorter duration can also leave behind traces in the brain: If, for example, the right arm is kept still for two weeks, the thickness of the brain’s cortex in the areas responsible for controlling the immobilized arm is reduced. “We suspected that those experiences having an effect on the brain interact with the genetic make-up so that over the course of years every person develops a completely individual brain anatomy,” explains Jäncke.

Magnetic resonance imaging provides basis for calculations

To investigate their hypothesis, Jäncke and his research team examined the brains of nearly 200 healthy older people using magnetic resonance imaging three times over a period of two years. Over 450 brain anatomical features were assessed, including very general ones such as total volume of the brain, thickness of the cortex, and volumes of grey and white matter. For each of the 191 people, the researchers were able to identify an individual combination of specific brain anatomical characteristics, whereby the identification accuracy, even for the very general brain anatomical characteristics, was over 90 percent.

Combination of circumstances and genetics

“With our study we were able to confirm that the structure of people’s brains is very individual,” says Lutz Jäncke on the findings. “The combination of genetic and non-genetic influences clearly affects not only the functioning of the brain, but also its anatomy.” The replacement of fingerprint sensors with MRI scans in the future is unlikely, however. MRIs are too expensive and time-consuming in comparison to the proven and simple method of taking fingerprints.

Progress in neuroscience

An important aspect of the study’s findings for Jäncke is that they reflect the great developments made in the field in recent years: “Just 30 years ago we thought that the human brain had few or no individual characteristics. Personal identification through brain anatomical characteristics was unimaginable.”

Almost 1000 New Genes Related to Intelligence Found

The deeper understanding of intelligence allows for it to be recreated, utilized and optimized more effectively. There are certainly more than enough problems in the world — more intelligence could be very helpful in solving them.

Researchers have identified over 1,016 specific genes associated with intelligence, the vast majority of which are unknown to science.

An international team conducted a large-scale genetic association study of intelligence and discovered 190 new genomic loci and 939 new genes linked with intelligence, significantly expanding our understanding of the genetic bases of cognitive function.

Led by statistical geneticist Danielle Posthuma from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands, the researchers performed a genome-wide association study (GWAS) of almost 270,000 people from 14 independent cohorts of European ancestry.

All these people took part in neurocognitive tests that measured their intelligence, and when researchers contrast their scores with variations in the participants’ DNA – called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) – you can see which mutations are associated with high intelligence.

From over 9 million mutations detected in the sample, Posthuma’s team identified 205 regions in DNA code linked with intelligence (only 15 of which had been isolated before), and 1,016 specific genes (77 of which had already been discovered).

According to the team, the genes that make for smartness also look to confer a protective effect to overall cognitive health, with the analysis finding a negative correlation with Alzheimer’s disease, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, depressive symptoms, and schizophrenia.

The intelligence genes were however correlated with increased instances of autism, and also longevity, suggesting people with these genetic underpinnings of high intelligence are more likely to live longer.

“Our results indicate overlap in the genetic processes involved in both cognitive functioning and neurological and psychiatric traits and provide suggestive evidence of causal associations that may drive these correlations,” the researchers write.

“These results are important for understanding the biological underpinnings of cognitive functioning and contribute to understanding of related neurological and psychiatric disorders.”

Study: Leg Exercise is Crucial to Brain and Nervous System Health

The relation between having both a strong mind and body is shown again, this time with reasoning as to why leg day shouldn’t be skipped at the gym.

Groundbreaking research shows that neurological health depends as much on signals sent by the body’s large, leg muscles to the brain as it does on directives from the brain to the muscles. Published today in Frontiers in Neuroscience, the study fundamentally alters brain and nervous system medicine — giving doctors new clues as to why patients with motor neuron disease, multiple sclerosis, spinal muscular atrophy and other neurological diseases often rapidly decline when their movement becomes limited.

“Our study supports the notion that people who are unable to do load-bearing exercises — such as patients who are bed-ridden, or even astronauts on extended travel — not only lose muscle mass, but their body chemistry is altered at the cellular level and even their nervous system is adversely impacted,” says Dr. Raffaella Adami from the Università degli Studi di Milano, Italy.

The study involved restricting mice from using their hind legs, but not their front legs, over a period of 28 days. The mice continued to eat and groom normally and did not exhibit stress. At the end of the trial, the researchers examined an area of the brain called the sub-ventricular zone, which in many mammals has the role of maintaining nerve cell health. It is also the area where neural stem cells produce new neurons.

Limiting physical activity decreased the number of neural stem cells by 70 percent compared to a control group of mice, which were allowed to roam. Furthermore, both neurons and oligodendrocytes — specialized cells that support and insulate nerve cells — didn’t fully mature when exercise was severely reduced.

The research shows that using the legs, particularly in weight-bearing exercise, sends signals to the brain that are vital for the production of healthy neural cells, essential for the brain and nervous system. Cutting back on exercise makes it difficult for the body to produce new nerve cells — some of the very building blocks that allow us to handle stress and adapt to challenge in our lives.

“It is no accident that we are meant to be active: to walk, run, crouch to sit, and use our leg muscles to lift things,” says Adami. “Neurological health is not a one-way street with the brain telling the muscles ‘lift,’ ‘walk,’ and so on.”

The researchers gained more insight by analyzing individual cells. They found that restricting exercise lowers the amount of oxygen in the body, which creates an anaerobic environment and alters metabolism. Reducing exercise also seems to impact two genes, one of which, CDK5Rap1, is very important for the health of mitochondria — the cellular powerhouse that releases energy the body can then use. This represents another feedback loop.

These results shed light on several important health issues, ranging from concerns about cardio-vascular impacts as a result of sedentary lifestyles to insight into devastating diseases, such as spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), multiple sclerosis, and motor neuron disease, among others.

Memory Transferred Through Snails Using RNA Injection

Memory is one of the most important aspects of creatures with higher intelligence, and it was recently found that animals can mentally replay past events. Altering the processes that control memory could be enormously useful — as in restoring positive memories — or enormously harmful — as in deleting memories of events that were vital to learning. That’s technology’s lack of a moral imperative though — the outcome depends on how it’s used.

UCLA biologists report they have transferred a memory from one marine snail to another, creating an artificial memory, by injecting RNA from one to another. This research could lead to new ways to lessen the trauma of painful memories with RNA and to restore lost memories.

“I think in the not-too-distant future, we could potentially use RNA to ameliorate the effects of Alzheimer’s disease or post-traumatic stress disorder,” said David Glanzman, senior author of the study and a UCLA professor of integrative biology and physiology and of neurobiology. The team’s research is published May 14 in eNeuro, the online journal of the Society for Neuroscience.

RNA, or ribonucleic acid, has been widely known as a cellular messenger that makes proteins and carries out DNA’s instructions to other parts of the cell. It is now understood to have other important functions besides protein coding, including regulation of a variety of cellular processes involved in development and disease.

The researchers gave mild electric shocks to the tails of a species of marine snail called Aplysia. The snails received five tail shocks, one every 20 minutes, and then five more 24 hours later. The shocks enhance the snail’s defensive withdrawal reflex, a response it displays for protection from potential harm. When the researchers subsequently tapped the snails, they found those that had been given the shocks displayed a defensive contraction that lasted an average of 50 seconds, a simple type of learning known as “sensitization.” Those that had not been given the shocks contracted for only about one second.

The life scientists extracted RNA from the nervous systems of marine snails that received the tail shocks the day after the second series of shocks, and also from marine snails that did not receive any shocks. Then the RNA from the first (sensitized) group was injected into seven marine snails that had not received any shocks, and the RNA from the second group was injected into a control group of seven other snails that also had not received any shocks.

Remarkably, the scientists found that the seven that received the RNA from snails that were given the shocks behaved as if they themselves had received the tail shocks: They displayed a defensive contraction that lasted an average of about 40 seconds.

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Scientists know more about the cell biology of this simple form of learning in this animal than any other form of learning in any other organism, Glanzman said. The cellular and molecular processes seem to be very similar between the marine snail and humans, even though the snail has about 20,000 neurons in its central nervous system and humans are thought to have about 100 billion.

In the future, Glanzman said, it is possible that RNA can be used to awaken and restore memories that have gone dormant in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. He and his colleagues published research in the journal eLife in 2014 indicating that lost memories can be restored.