Early Childhood Education Shapes the Adult Brain

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Early Childhood Education Shapes the Adult Brain

Jim Windell

              We’ve known since the first results from the Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Michigan some 50 years ago that high-quality education for preschoolers reaps multiple benefits for kids – especially those at high risk. Preschool children who were in the Perry Preschool Project, which lasted only from 1962 to 1967, performed better in school and were less likely to be involved in crime later on in life.

             Other early childhood education programs have been shown to be beneficial for children. But what effects are there in the adult brain when preschool children are exposed to a high-quality educational program?

            A study recently published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience provides an answer to that question. The study follows children who have continuously participated in the Abecedarian Project, an early intervention program initiated by Craig Ramey in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, since 1971. The idea of the program has been to learn more about the effects of educational, social, health, and family support services on high-risk infants.

           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 the overall brain size, 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 regions 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 region, the bilateral hippocampus, was added because its volume is frequently associated with early life adversity and socioeconomic status.

           After analyzing the scans, 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. The scientists, which Craig Ramey, professor and distinguished research scholar with Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at Virginia Technical College, and 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. 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.

           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. "Our research shows a relationship between brain structure and five years of high-quality, educational and social experiences," said Craig Ramey, 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 the University of Pennsylvania 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.

           "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."

           "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.

           To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Martha J. Farah, Saul Sternberg, Thomas A. Nichols, Jeffrey T. Duda, Terry Lohrenz, Yi Luo, Libbie Sonnier, Sharon L. Ramey, Read Montague, Craig T. Ramey. Randomized Manipulation of Early Cognitive Experience Impacts Adult Brain Structure. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 2021; 33 (6): 1197 DOI: 10.1162/jocn_a_01709



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