An illustration of a brain

Early brain development: How it works and why it’s important

Dr Judy Cameron
Dr. Judy Cameron is a noted early brain development researcher and co-developer of the Brain Architecture Game.

People are born with virtually all the brain cells they are ever going to have. According to noted early brain development researcher Dr. Judy Cameron, that’s incredibly important in understanding brain development. We were so struck by this fact that we felt compelled to reach out and talk to her about her work. See the Q&A below to learn the science behind how early life experiences and supports impact resiliency.

1. This might be impossible, but can you sum up the work you do in one paragraph?
My research is centered on how early life experiences impact the developing brain. I have focused on this topic using young monkeys as an experimental model. My work has shown early life stresses can change the structure of the developing brain (i.e., how brain cells connect to each other), as well as change what genes are expressed by brain cells (i.e., what genes direct the function of brain cells). It is not surprising early life stresses can have a long-term impact on behaviours of an individual.

My work, in particular, has shown the timing of the stress experience governs the long-term changes in the brain and behavior. Monkeys experiencing stresses very early in life do not learn how to read normal social signals and thus have trouble throughout life understanding social cues. They spend less time interacting with others. Monkeys experiencing stresses later in infancy become very attentive to social cues and strongly seek social interaction their whole life.

We believe parts of the brain that are rapidly developing during the period when stress occurs are most affected by the stress.

2. How can children’s brains become “stressed” during early childhood?
There are different kinds of stress children experience. These include physical abuse, verbal abuse and neglect. By far and away the most common form of stress is neglect—not being there physically, mentally or emotionally to support children as they face normal everyday life experiences. This occurs because of problems such as maternal depression and drug abuse. Parents are tied up with other issues and don’t pay attention to their children.

A supportive, caring adult plays a huge role in facilitating a child using brain circuits that support learning, reasoning and problem solving over and over again so brain circuits remain available to the child to support a lifetime of healthy living and achievement.

Without such a caring adult to encourage a child to do these activities and support their efforts, children worry, learn to cry and get attention and the brain circuits that underlie worrying and crying get strengthened rather than those that underlie problem-solving skills.

3. What are the best things parents and teachers can do for children during early childhood to help with brain development?
The best thing parents and other caring adults can do is referred to as “serve and return” interactions. This involves watching to see what a child is interested in and being attentive to the interests a child “serves.” The caring adult then “returns” the child’s serve and encourages them to be interested in that situation and learn more about it. A good example of this is if a child shows an interest in trucks. A caring adult then suggests reading books about trucks and thus uses the child’s intrinsic interests to get them to read, think and talk about trucks. The neural circuits that underlie reading, reasoning and expressing oneself will be strengthened because that caring adult realizes the child is interested in trucks and builds on this interest.

4.  What is The Brain Game that you co-developed?
The Brain Game is designed to teach how early life experiences and social supports interact to shape the development of each child’s brain.

In the Brain Game, life experience cards are drawn that determine a child’s early life experiences. Varying amounts of social support are also provided. Players make decisions about how to build the developing brain, based on the cards drawn and the social supports available. Their goal is to build the tallest brain (height representing intelligence), but also the strongest brain possible, to allow the brain to continue to stand even when later life stresses are experienced.

Stresses influence what neural circuits are used in a child’s brain. A key thing to understand about brain development is that people are born with virtually all of the brain cells they are ever going to have. What changes in the early years of life is that the cells in the brain become more connected to each other. Genes direct brain cells to reach out extensions and connect with other brain cells. Thus, in early development a huge number of connections form in the brain.

But all connections do not last, only some connections last into later childhood and adulthood. Experiences govern which connections last and which are “pruned” during brain development. Connections that are used a lot last, while those that don’t get used much are at greater risk of being pruned. Thus, stressful early life experiences cause children to do some things and not others and thus shape the developing brain by affecting what neural circuits get used.

However, it is important to realize children do not grow up in a vacuum—they are strongly affected by the environment of relationships they grow up in. Positive, supportive relationships help buffer stresses for a child and comfort them so they can continue to focus their attention on things that will eventually build strong brain circuits for activities like reading, thinking, problems solving and reasoning. Social supports thus play key roles in children’s brain development.