The learning environment children experience in the first five years of their lives can affect their brains well into middle-age.
Researchers from Virginia Tech and the University of Pennsylvania used structural brain imaging to detect the developmental effects of linguistic and cognitive stimulation starting at six weeks of age in infants from vulnerable or disadvantaged backgrounds.
In the June edition of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, they write that increased educational and social experiences in the first years of life influenced the shape of brain structures decades later.
"Our research shows a relationship between brain structure and five years of high-quality, educational and social experiences," said Craig Ramey, the 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."
Their research followed children who have participated in the Abecedarian Project, an early intervention program started by Ramey in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1971 to study the effects of educational, social, health, and family support services on children with high-risk socioeconomic backgrounds.
Both a comparison and treatment group received extra healthcare, nutrition, and family support services, while from six weeks of age, the treatment group also received an additional five years of high-quality educational support, five days a week, 50 weeks a year.
The researchers determined that those in the early education treatment group had an increased brain size by the time they reached their 30s and 40s. Specific areas of the brain were also enlarged, while the scientists also noted the group intervention treatment had a greater impact on males rather than females. The reasons for this are not yet known.
Ramey added that he hopes the study will influence social policy and advice to help the parents of all young children.
"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," he explained.