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The developing brain is a fascinating thing

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Posted on April 20, 2015 |
By Dr. Jody Brakeley



Editor’s note: This is the first in a series about early brain development and how conditions in very early life, beginning in pregnancy, can affect individuals far into adulthood.

By DR. JODY BRAKELEY

In the past two decades we have learned a great deal about how brains develop. Numerous research studies have created an urgent message for how we can and must support the youngest members of our communities to secure our future.

While I am not generally interested in numbers, there are a couple that capture my interest. 1) During the first three months of pregnancy 250,000 brain cells form per minute, and that number doubles by the 5th month when 500,000 new brain cells form per minute. 2) In toddler-age children, brain cells form 700-1,000 new connections each and every second.

To really appreciate the enormity of those numbers it helps to review your knowledge of brain science (called neurobiology). This is actually easier to understand than it may seem. In appreciation of the Vermont maple sugar season we will use the official state tree of Vermont, the sugar maple, to represent a single brain cell. The tree “trunk” (the scientific name is axon) can be very long, or short depending on where it is going (e.g. long if it is headed for your big toe). The trunk branches into tinier branches and ends in thousands of “leaves” that can be thought of as satellite receivers (called dendrites).

In the ground, the roots of our maple tree example divide and spread and end in thousands of rootlets that can be thought of as “transmission towers” (called terminal buttons). Keeping the maple tree visual in mind, brain development happens by creating connections (called synapses) between the extensive root system (transmission stations) of one cell and the tiny upper leaves (satellite receivers) of a nearby brain cell. When signals pass repeatedly from one brain cell to another, strong fibers, connections and circuits are created.

“Learning” is the result of making these connections over and over. It is how babies learn to roll over, sit, walk, talk and learn to read, and play games or musical instruments. Learning is a lot of work! Think of any elite athlete, musician or student.

Now, consider our numbers again. New individual brain cells form at an astonishing rate even before a baby is born. Moreover, new brain connections develop more rapidly than one can even imagine.

But there is a catch. Brains can only grow and develop in this way if the conditions are right. “If the conditions are right” is the operative phrase. Research studies repeatedly show that children need stable, responsive, nurturing relationships with consistent, protective, interactive adults. To develop fully, all children need back and forth relationships; this is referred to as “serve and return” (like tennis, ping pong or badminton). For example, the baby coos and his mother coos. The baby smiles and her father smiles. This “dance” between loving, present caregivers is an essential element for normal, healthy brain development to occur. Every child needs a “partner” in this dance.

Sometimes children do not have this type of environment. When families experience stresses such as physical and mental health challenges, drug or alcohol issues, poverty, food insecurity, homelessness, domestic violence, unemployment and so on, parents may not be available to engage in the “serve and return dance.”

Elegant brain imaging studies have clearly demonstrated the impact that significant, chronic, “toxic” stress, without the benefit of at least one caring adult has on brain development (we will examine different kinds of stress another time). When brain cells are not used or stimulated in healthy ways, and when they are exposed to high levels of stress hormones, connections are not made; in fact, brain cells shrink and die away. The overall size of the brain decreases.

Luckily, there are two organizations that are focused on healthy brain growth and development: Building Bright Futures and Let’s Grow Kids. Locally, the Addison Building Bright Futures is part of the Building Bright Futures’ (BBF) statewide network. BBF is the only statewide nonprofit, public-private partnership organization focused solely on improving the well-being of young children and families by improving the system that serves them. Addison Building Bright Futures partners with Let’s Grow Kids, a privately funded, statewide public education campaign to raise awareness about the importance of quality early experiences for every child so the brains of Vermont children can develop to their fullest potential.

The goal is to create positive lasting change that will allow all Vermont Children to succeed in life.

Summary: You have just added five (5) words and concepts to your vocabulary. You are well on your way to becoming a brain scientist (neurobiologist)!

Dr. Johana “Jody” Brakeley has lived and worked in Middlebury for more than 35 years. Formerly a general pediatrician, she is now a developmental-behavioral pediatrician. This story was produced by the Addison County Building Bright Futures/Early Childhood Council, Let’s Grow Kids.

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