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Early learning experiences shape the adult brain, study shows

A stimulating learning environment during the first five years of life shapes the brain in ways that are visible four decades later, say Virginia Tech and University of Pennsylvania scientists writing in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, as Science Daily reported.

The researchers used structural brain imaging to detect the developmental effects of linguistic and cognitive stimulation beginning in infancy. While the impact of an enriched environment on the brain had already been shown in animals, experts say this is the first 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 Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine 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 study followed children who have continuously participated in the Abecedarian Project, an early intervention program Ramey began 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, starting at six weeks of age, the treatment group also received five years of high-quality educational support.

Later, in their late 30s to early 40s, participants took MRI scans that gave researchers a unique look at how childhood experiences clearly shape 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.”

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