Books and educational toys can make a child smarter, but they also influence how the brain grows. The findings point to a “sensitive period” early in life during which the developing brain is strongly influenced by environmental factors.
Scientists visited 64 children’s homes at 4 and 8 years of age to evaluate their environment, noting factors such as the number of books and educational toys in their houses, and how much warmth and support they received from their parents.
More than 10 years after the second home visit, the researchers used MRI to obtain detailed images of the participants’ brains. They found that the level of mental stimulation a child receives in the home at age 4 predicted the thickness of two regions of the cortex in late adolescence, such that more stimulation was associated with a thinner cortex.
Home environment at age 8 had a smaller impact on development of these brain regions, whereas other factors, such as the mother’s intelligence and the degree and quality of her care, had no such effect.
Previous work has shown that adverse experiences, such as childhood neglect, abuse, and poverty, can stunt the growth of the brain. The new findings highlight the sensitivity of the growing brain to environmental factors and provide strong evidence that subtle variations in early life experience can affect the brain throughout life. Learn more here.