Information

Does the brain's architecture change while growing up?

Does the brain's architecture change while growing up?

If we are somehow able to record and store all the neural connection in the brain of a child and also the brain of the same individual when he is old will there be difference between the two ?

Is the brain capable to destroy and create neural networks (neurons) on its own, namely to store, process and retrieve memories? Or does it uses a fixed network instead, i.e., the network which each individual is born with )?

If the brain does create new networks, can you please provide a link to the resource where I can read this from ?


Short answer
The brain is a highly dynamic organ that changes constantly through life. During adulthood, there is a general decline in the number of cells. Memory formation is generally thought to be regulated through synaptic connections rather than at the whole-neuron level.

Background
First of all, aging results in a steady decline of the number of nerve cells, so the 'architecture' of the brain changes dramatically regardless its function.

Secondly, memories and other dynamic processes in the brain are typically controlled by altering synaptic connectivity and not so much at the level of the whole-neuron.

Thirdly, neuronal regeneration is confined to but a few areas in the brain, for example the hippocampus where it may, or may not be directly involved in memory formation.

But yes, the brain does dynamically control the synaptic connectivity and notably the synaptic strength of synapses. As Fizz here correctly states, that is called neuroplasticity. Intensive use of certain synaptic connections may result in synaptic strengthening,for example by long-term potentiation (Lynch, 2004). Reversely, abandoned connections may be downregulated through long-term depression.

A general reference work best suited for your basic question would really be a general Neuroscience text book, such as the following online work:

- Purves et al. (eds). Neuroscience. 2nd ed. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001.

Or for something more up-to-date, yet not online, the bible of Neuroscience:

- Kandel et al. (eds.). Principles of Neural Science

Reference
- Lynch, Physiol Rev (2004); 84(1): 87-136


The brain continues to reorganize throughout life. The process is called neuroplasticity. Among other things (and as proof) it is what allows people to recover from stroke (or traumatic brain injury). Neuroplasticity does slow down in the really old age, which also makes recovery from stroke more difficult for the elderly.

For even more details (than the prvious link) see "Old Dogs Learning New Tricks: Neuroplasticity Beyond the Juvenile Period"


Where belief is born

Belief can make people do the strangest things. At one level, it provides a moral framework, sets preferences and steers relationships. On another, it can be devastating. Belief can manifest itself as prejudice or persuade someone to blow up themselves and others in the name of a political cause.

"Belief has been a most powerful component of human nature that has somewhat been neglected," says Peter Halligan, a psychologist at Cardiff University. "But it has been capitalised on by marketing agents, politics and religion for the best part of two millennia."

That is changing. Once the preserve of philosophers alone, belief is quickly becoming the subject of choice for many psychologists and neuroscientists. Their goal is to create a neurological model of how beliefs are formed, how they affect people and what can manipulate them.

And the latest steps in the research might just help to understand a little more about why the world is so fraught with political and social tension. Matthew Lieberman, a psychologist at the University of California, recently showed how beliefs help people's brains categorise others and view objects as good or bad, largely unconsciously. He demonstrated that beliefs (in this case prejudice or fear) are most likely to be learned from the prevailing culture.

When Lieberman showed a group of people photographs of expressionless black faces, he was surprised to find that the amygdala - the brain's panic button - was triggered in almost two-thirds of cases. There was no difference in the response between black and white people.

The amygdala is responsible for the body's fight or flight response, setting off a chain of biological changes that prepare the body to respond to danger well before the brain is conscious of any threat. Lieberman suggests that people are likely to pick up on stereotypes, regardless of whether their family or community agrees with them.

The work, published last month in Nature Neuroscience, is the latest in a rapidly growing field of research called "social neuroscience", a wide arena which draws together psychologists, neuroscientists and anthropologists all studying the neural basis for the social interaction between humans.

Traditionally, cognitive neuroscientists focused on scanning the brains of people doing specific tasks such as eating or listening to music, while social psychologists and social scientists concentrated on groups of people and the interactions between them. To understand how the brain makes sense of the world, it was inevitable that these two groups would have to get together.

"In the West, most of our physical needs are provided for. We have a level of luxury and civilisation that is pretty much unparalleled," says Kathleen Taylor, a neuroscientist at Oxford University. "That leaves us with a lot more leisure and more space in our heads for thinking."

Beliefs and ideas therefore become our currency, says Taylor. Society is no longer a question of simple survival it is about choice of companions and views, pressures, ideas, options and preferences.

"It is quite an exciting development but for people outside the field, a very obvious one," says Halligan.

Understanding belief is not a trivial task, even for the seemingly simplest of human interactions. Take a conversation between two people. When one talks, the other's brain is processing information through their auditory system at a phenomenal rate. That person's beliefs act as filters for the deluge of sensory information and guide the brain's response.

Lieberman's recent work echoed parts of earlier research by Joel Winston of the University of London's Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience. Winston found that when he presented people with pictures of faces and asked them to rate the trustworthiness of each, the amygdalas showed a greater response to pictures of people who were specifically chosen to represent untrustworthiness. And it did not matter what each person actually said about the pictured faces.

"Even people who believe to their core that they do not have prejudices may still have negative associations that are not conscious," says Lieberman.

Beliefs also provide stability. When a new piece of sensory information comes in, it is assessed against these knowledge units before the brain works out whether or not it should be incorporated. People do it when they test the credibility of a politician or hear about a paranormal event.

Physically speaking, then, how does a belief exist in the brain? "My own position is to think of beliefs and memories as very similar," says Taylor. Memories are formed in the brain as networks of neurons that fire when stimulated by an event. The more times the network is employed, the more it fires and the stronger the memory becomes.

Halligan says that belief takes the concept of memory a step further. "A belief is a mental architecture of how we interpret the world," he says. "We have lots of fluid things moving by - perceptions and so forth - but at the level of who our friends are and so on, those things are consolidated in crystallised knowledge units. If we did not have those, every time we woke up, how would we know who we are?"

These knowledge units help to assess threats - via the amygdala - based on experience. Ralph Adolphs, a neurologist at the University of Iowa, found that if the amygdala was damaged, the ability of a person to recognise expressions of fear was impaired. A separate study by Adolphs with Simon Baron-Cohen at Cambridge University showed that amygdala damage had a bigger negative impact on the brain's ability to recognise social emotions, while more basic emotions seemed unaffected.

This work on the amygdala shows it is a key part of the threat-assessment response and, in no small part, in the formation of beliefs. Damage to this alarm bell - and subsequent inability to judge when a situation might be dangerous - can be life-threatening. In hunter-gatherer days, beliefs may have been fundamental to human survival.

Neuroscientists have long looked at brains that do not function properly to understand how healthy ones work. Researchers of belief formation do the same thing, albeit with a twist. "You look at people who have delusions," says Halligan. "The assumption is that a delusion is a false belief. That is saying that the content of it is wrong, but it still has the construct of a belief."

In people suffering from prosopagnosia, for example, parts of the brain are damaged so that the person can no longer recognise faces. In the Cotard delusion, people believe they are dead. Fregoli delusion is the belief that the sufferer is constantly being followed around by people in disguise. Capgras' delusion, named after its discoverer, the French psychiatrist Jean Marie Joseph Capgras, is a belief that someone emotionally close has been replaced by an identical impostor.

Until recently, these conditions were regarded as psychiatric problems. But closer study reveals that, in the case of Capgras' delusion for example, a significant proportion of sufferers had lesions in their brain, typically in the right hemisphere.

"There are studies indicating that some people who have suffered brain damage retain some of their religious or political beliefs," says Halligan. "That's interesting because whatever beliefs are, they must be held in memory."

Another route to understanding how beliefs form is to look at how they can be manipulated. In her book on the history of brainwashing, Taylor describes how everyone from the Chinese thought reform camps of the last century to religious cults have used systematic methods to persuade people to change their ideas, sometimes radically.

The first step is to isolate a person and control what information they receive. Their former beliefs need to be challenged by creating uncertainty. New messages need to be repeated endlessly. And the whole thing needs to be done in a pressured, emotional environment.

"Beliefs are mental objects in the sense that they are embedded in the brain," says Taylor. "If you challenge them by contradiction, or just by cutting them off from the stimuli that make you think about them, then they are going to weaken slightly. If that is combined with very strong reinforcement of new beliefs, then you're going to get a shift in emphasis from one to the other."

The mechanism Taylor describes is similar to the way the brain learns normally. In brainwashing though, the new beliefs are inserted through a much more intensified version of that process.

This manipulation of belief happens every day. Politics is a fertile arena, especially in times of anxiety.

"Stress affects the brain such that it makes people more likely to fall back on things they know well - stereotypes and simple ways of thinking," says Taylor.

"It is very easy to want to do that when everything you hold dear is being challenged. In a sense, it was after 9/11."

The stress of the terror attacks on the US in 2001 changed the way many Americans viewed the world, and Taylor argues that it left the population open to tricks of belief manipulation. A recent survey, for example, found that more than half of Americans thought Iraqis were involved in the attacks, despite the fact that nobody had come out and said it.

This method of association uses the brain against itself. If an event stimulates two sets of neurons, then the links between them get stronger. If one of them activates, it is more likely that the second set will also fire. In the real world, those two memories may have little to do with each other, but in the brain, they get associated.

Taylor cites an example from a recent manifesto by the British National Party, which argues that asylum seekers have been dumped on Britain and that they should be made to clear up rubbish from the streets. "What they are trying to do is to link the notion of asylum seekers with all the negative emotions you get from reading about garbage, [but] they are not actually coming out and saying asylum seekers are garbage," she says.

The 9/11 attacks highlight another extreme in the power of beliefs. "Belief could drive people to agree to premeditate something like that in the full knowledge that they would all die," says Halligan of the hijacker pilots.

It is unlikely that beliefs as wide-ranging as justice, religion, prejudice or politics are simply waiting to be found in the brain as discrete networks of neurons, each encoding for something different. "There's probably a whole combination of things that go together," says Halligan.

And depending on the level of significance of a belief, there could be several networks at play. Someone with strong religious beliefs, for example, might find that they are more emotionally drawn into certain discussions because they have a large number of neural networks feeding into that belief.

"If you happen to have a predisposition, racism for example, then it may be that you see things in a certain way and you will explain it in a certain way," says Halligan.

He argues that the reductionist approach of social neuroscience will alter the way people study society. "If you are brain scanning, what are the implications for privacy in terms of knowing another's thoughts? And being able to use those, as some governments are implying, in terms of being able to detect terrorists and things like that," he says. "If you move down the line in terms of potential uses for these things, you have potential uses for education and for treatments being used as cognitive enhancers."

So far, social neuroscience has provided more questions than answers. Ralph Adolphs of the University of Iowa looked to the future in a review paper for Nature. "How can causal networks explain the many correlations between brain and behaviour that we are discovering? Can large-scale social behaviour, as studied by political science and economics, be understood by studying social cognition in individual subjects? Finally, what power will insights from cognitive neuroscience give us to influence social behaviour, and hence society? And to what extent would such pursuit be morally defensible?"

The answers to those questions may well shape people's understanding of what it really means to believe.


The hidden ways that architecture affects how you feel

More than 70 years on, he would doubtless be pleased to learn that neuroscientists and psychologists have found plenty of evidence to back him up.

Urban metropolises, like Tokyo, juggle layout design, access to greenery, and visual appeal - all of which have psychological effects on residents. (Credit: Alamy Stock Photo)

We now know, for example, that buildings and cities can affect our mood and well-being, and that specialised cells in the hippocampal region of our brains are attuned to the geometry and arrangement of the spaces we inhabit.

Yet urban architects have often paid scant attention to the potential cognitive effects of their creations on a city’s inhabitants. The imperative to design something unique and individual tends to override considerations of how it might shape the behaviours of those who will live with it. That could be about to change.

“There are some really good [evidence-based] guidelines out there” on how to design user-friendly buildings, says Ruth Dalton, who studies both architecture and cognitive science at Northumbria University in Newcastle. “A lot of architects choose to ignore them. Why is that?”

Today, thanks to psychological studies, we have a much better idea of the kind of urban environments that people like or find stimulating

Last month, the Conscious Cities Conference in London considered how cognitive scientists might make their discoveries more accessible to architects. The conference brought together architects, designers, engineers, neuroscientists and psychologists, all of whom increasingly cross paths at an academic level, but still rarely in practice.

One of the conference speakers, Alison Brooks, an architect who specialises in housing and social design, told BBC Future that psychology-based insights could change how cities are built. “If science could help the design profession justify the value of good design and craftsmanship, it would be a very powerful tool and quite possibly transform the quality of the built environment,” she says.

Researchers have begun monitoring how urban structures, like skyscrapers, physiologically affect citizens, their mental states, and moods. (Credit: Alamy Stock Photo)

Greater interaction across the disciplines would, for example, reduce the chances of repeating such architectural horror stories as the 1950s Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St Louis, Missouri, whose 33 featureless apartment blocks – designed by Minoru Yamasaki, also responsible for the World Trade Center – quickly became notorious for their crime, squalor and social dysfunction. Critics argued that the wide open spaces between the blocks of modernist high-rises discouraged a sense of community, particularly as crime rates started to rise. They were eventually demolished in 1972.

Pruitt-Igoe was not an outlier. The lack of behavioural insight behind the modernist housing projects of that era, with their sense of isolation from the wider community and ill-conceived public spaces, made many of them feel, in the words of British grime artist Tinie Tempah, who grew up in one, as if they’d been “designed for you not to succeed”.

Today, thanks to psychological studies, we have a much better idea of the kind of urban environments that people like or find stimulating. Some of these studies have attempted to measure subjects’ physiological responses in situ, using wearable devices such as bracelets that monitor skin conductance (a marker of physiological arousal), smartphone apps that ask subjects about their emotional state, and electroencephalogram (EEG) headsets that measure brain activity relating to mental states and mood.

The design of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complexes in St Louis was criticised for alienating communities and stoking racial segregation. (Credit: Alamy Stock Photo)

This adds a layer of information that is otherwise difficult to get at,” said Colin Ellard, who researches the psychological impact of design at the University of Waterloo in Canada. “When we ask people about their stress they say it’s no big deal, yet when we measure their physiology we discover that their responses are off the charts. The difficulty is that your physiological state is the one that impacts your health.” Taking a closer look at these physiological states could shed light on how city design affects our bodies.

One of Ellard’s most consistent findings is that people are strongly affected by building façades. If the façade is complex and interesting, it affects people in a positive way negatively if it is simple and monotonous. For example, when he walked a group of subjects past the long, smoked-glass frontage of a Whole Foods store in Lower Manhattan, their arousal and mood states took a dive, according to the wristband readings and on-the-spot emotion surveys. They also quickened their pace as if to hurry out of the dead zone. They picked up considerably when they reached a stretch of restaurants and stores, where (not surprisingly) they reported feeling a lot more lively and engaged.

The writer and urban specialist Charles Montgomery, who collaborated with Ellard on his Manhattan study, has said this points to “an emerging disaster in street psychology”. In his book Happy City, he warns: “As suburban retailers begin to colonise central cities, block after block of bric-a-brac and mom-and-pop-scale buildings and shops are being replaced by blank, cold spaces that effectively bleach street edges of conviviality.”

Urban living can change brain biology in some people

Another oft-replicated finding is that having access to green space such as woodland or a park can offset some of the stress of city living.

Cities like Vancouver, whose design and building policies accommodate nearby natural greenery, are often surveyed as popular places to live. (Credit: Alamy Stock Photo)

Vancouver, which surveys consistently rate as one of the most popular cities to live in, has made a virtue of this, with its downtown building policies geared towards ensuring that residents have a decent view of the mountains, forest and ocean to the north and west. As well as being restorative, green space appears to improve health. A study of the population of England in 2008 found that the health effects of inequality, which tends to increase the risk of circulatory disease among those lower down the socioeconomic scale, are far less pronounced in greener areas.

How so? One theory is that the visual complexity of natural environments acts as a kind of mental balm. That would fit with Ellard’s findings in downtown Manhattan, and also with a 2013 virtual reality experiment in Iceland in which participants viewed various residential street scenes and found the ones with the most architectural variation the most mentally engaging. Another VR study, published this year, concluded that most people feel better in rooms with curved edges and rounded contours than in sharp-edged rectangular rooms – though (tellingly perhaps) the design students among the participants preferred the opposite.

The importance of urban design goes far beyond feel-good aesthetics. A number of studies have shown that growing up in a city doubles the chances of someone developing schizophrenia, and increases the risk for other mental disorders such as depression and chronic anxiety.

The main trigger appears to be what researchers call “social stress” – the lack of social bonding and cohesion in neighbourhoods. Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg at the University of Heidelberg has shown that urban living can change brain biology in some people, resulting in reduced gray matter in the right dosolateral prefrontal cortex and the perigenual anterior cingulate cortex, two areas where changes have previously been linked to early-life stressful experiences.

It sounds counterintuitive: surely the sheer number of people makes social interaction more likely. While this may be true superficially, the kind of meaningful social interactions that are crucial for mental health do not come easily in cities. Social isolation is now recognised by urban authorities as a major risk factor for many illnesses. Is it possible to design against it, to build in a way that encourages connection?

One of the first to try was the sociologist William Whyte, who advised urban planners to arrange objects and artefacts in public spaces in ways that nudged people physically closer together and made it more likely they would talk to each other, a process he called “triangulation”.

Visual complexity of natural environments acts as a kind of mental balm

In 1975, the Project for Public Spaces, founded by one of Whyte’s colleagues, transformed the way people used the Rockefeller Center in New York City by placing benches alongside the yew trees in its basement concourse (instead of the people-repelling spikes the management had originally wanted). The architectural firm Snohetta has followed a similar principle in Times Square, introducing long sculpted granite benches to emphasise that the iconic space, once clogged with cars, is now a haven for pedestrians.

Enriching public spaces will not banish loneliness from cities, but it could help by making residents feel more engaged and comfortable with their surroundings. “Living among millions of strangers is a very unnatural state of affairs for a human being,” says Ellard. “One of the jobs of a city is to accommodate that problem. How do you build a society where people treat each other kindly in that kind of setting? That is more likely to happen when people feel good. If you feel positive you’re more likely to speak to a stranger.”

One thing that is guaranteed to make people feel negative about living in a city is a constant sense of being lost or disorientated. Some cities are easier to navigate than others – New York’s grid-like street pattern makes it relatively straightforward, whereas London, with its hotchpotch of neighbourhoods all orientated differently and the Thames meandering through the middle, is notoriously confusing. At the Conscious Cities conference, Kate Jeffery, a behavioural neuroscientist at University College London who studies navigation in rats and other animals, made the point that to feel connected to a place you need to know how things relate to each other spatially. In other words, you need a sense of direction. Places with rotational symmetry, which look the same whichever direction you look at them from – Piccadilly Circus, for example – are a “nightmare” for orientation, she said.

One thing that is guaranteed to make people feel negative about living in a city is a constant sense of being lost or disorientated

A sense of direction is equally important inside buildings. One of the most notoriously disorientating buildings is the Seattle Central Library, which has won multiple awards for its architecture. Northumbria University’s Dalton, who has studied the building for several years and has edited a book about it, says she finds it fascinating that a place so “universally admired by architects … can be so dysfunctional”.

The Seattle Public Library has won architecture awards, but some visitors have said it is confusing, proving interiors should facilitate a sense of direction. (Credit: Alamy)

One of the issues with the library is the huge one-way escalators that sweep visitors from the ground floor into the upper reaches with no obvious means of descent. “I think there was a desire by the architects to try and thwart expectations and be a bit edgy,” says Dalton. “Unfortunately when it comes to navigation, our expectations are there for a good reason. There are very few situations in the real world where you can go from A to B via one route and you’re forced to take a different route from B back to A. That really confuses people.” On an online forum, one of the library’s users commented that she had “left the building as soon as I could figure out how to get out, hoping I wouldn’t have an anxiety attack first.’’

But that’s the thing about cities: people who live in them do a good job of making them feel like them home despite all the design and architectural obstacles that may confront them, be it in a byzantine library or a sprawling park.

A visible manifestation of this are the “desire lines” that wend their way across grassy curbs and parks marking people’s preferred paths across the city. They represent a kind of mass rebellion against the prescribed routes of architects and planners. Dalton sees them as part of a city’s “distributed consciousness” – a shared knowledge of where others have been and where they might go in the future – and imagines how it might affect our behaviour if desire lines (or “social trails” as she calls them) could be generated digitally on pavements and streets.

She is getting at a point that architects, neuroscientists and psychologists all seem to agree on: that successful design is not so much about how our buildings can shape us, as Churchill had it, but about making people feel they have some control over their environment. Or as Jeffery put it at Conscious Cities, that we’re “creatures of the place we’re in”. Welcome to the new era of neuro-architecture.


Brain Development: Conception to Age 3

Decades of research show that the environment of a child’s earliest years can have effects that last a lifetime. The biological embedding of early experience in brain development is supported by numerous studies. 1 Thanks to recent advances in studying the brain, we have a clearer understanding of how these effects are related to building early brain architecture. Neuroscientists can now identify patterns of brain activity that are associated with various types of toxic stress, such as growing up in poverty. 2

Although the dangers of early toxic stress, like poverty, neglect and maltreatment, have long been recognized, we can now ‘see’ their effects using brain scanning technology. Scientists continue to do research to determine exactly how experiences affect development, and exciting advances continue to enhance intervention and prevention efforts. 3

The architecture of a child’s brain is affected by early experiences.

Specialized brain cells called neurons send and receive information by forming connections with one another. The connection is called a ‘synapse’. The newborn brain continues to add neurons over the first few years of life and grows at an amazing rate. It doubles in size in the first year, and by age three it reaches 80 percent of its adult volume. 4-6 This growth is due mostly to neuron growth and new synapses being made.

Even more importantly, connections are formed at a faster rate during these years than at any other time. In fact, the brain creates many more connections than it needs: at age two or three, the brain has up to twice as many connections as it will have in adulthood (FIGURE 1). The experiences of a child play a big role in determining which surplus connections are gradually eliminated throughout childhood and adolescence, a process sometimes referred to as pruning. 7

The growth and pruning of connections responsible for specific functions like vision, language or learning, occur at different rates.

Senses like hearing, vision and touch mature rapidly and are especially responsive to early external input during early infancy. The connections that are important for language development and social interactions mature over a longer period of time, but are particularly sensitive in toddlers (FIGURE 2).

For these skills, the first 3 years is the period when the brain can “capture” experience more efficiently than it will be able to later, when the pruning of unused connections is underway. 7

Genetic and environmental factors work together to shape early brain development.

Although the first stages of brain development are strongly affected by genetic factors, genes do not design the brain completely. 8,9 Instead, when and where genes are used is fine-tuned according to the input they receive from the environment – this happens even during pregnancy when maternal nutrition and stress can influence the early phases of brain architecture. These gene-environment relations allow for each child to adapt to their surroundings more readily and more quickly than they could if genes alone determined the brain’s wiring. 10 There are two major ways that genes and environment work together to sculpt the brain.

One is through inheriting certain forms of genes that can have very different interactions with the environment. 11 The second is through environmental influences that can alter the read-out of genes without changes to the genes themselves. This second process is becoming better understood thanks to recent research in a relatively new scientific field called epigenetics .

The field of epigenetics has changed our understanding of how the environment interacts with our genes and how genes interact with the environment.

Epigenetics (meaning ‘above’ genetics) is the study of enduring changes in gene activity that do not change the DNA code itself, but through chemical changes, do influence how the code is used. Many environmental factors and experiences result in chemical ‘marks’ on certain parts of genes, and these epigenetic changes can influence the activity, or ‘expression’, of the gene. 12

You can think of the epigenetic processes as the software that directs the functioning of a gene’s DNA hardware. Because the development of all cells, tissues, and organs is affected by when and how specific genes are expressed, epigenetic processes can be a powerful influence on health and well-being.

Animal research shows that epigenetic changes can be long-lasting and even can be passed from one generation to the next.

So far, much of what we know about epigenetics comes from research on animals. Numerous studies now show how genetic activity can be altered by exposure to different foods, toxins, and powerful experiences. One remarkable illustration of how potent epigenetics can be was done in genetically identical pregnant mice (like identical twins). The mothers all carried genetic information that gave rise to a yellow coat color, obesity, and vulnerability to disease. Half of the pregnant mothers received a normal diet while the other half was fed a diet high in compounds that can result in modified DNA through epigenetic mechanisms. Interestingly, the offspring of the ‘normal’ diet group resembled their mothers in coat and weight and health outcomes. The offspring from the second diet group were more likely to have brown fur, normal weight, and no increased disease risk (FIGURE 3). But like their mothers, all of the offspring in both groups had identical DNA sequences. The differences in color, weight, and health were due to differences in how genes were expressed following epigenetic changes to a specific gene. This resulted in dramatic changes in terms of how the mice appeared and even their improved health outlook. In distinction to this positive outcome, research now tells us that there are a number of external factors that occur prenatally, such as exposure to alcohol or environmental toxins that lead to negative alterations in the DNA changes and negative health outcomes.

Remarkably, the healthier female offspring eventually became pregnant and gave birth to babies that showed the same traits—brown fur, normal weight, and low disease risk—even though this third generation went back to receiving a normal diet. This experiment, and others like it, shows how influential the environment can be on epigenetics, which can have effects from one generation to the next.

Source: Illustration by Bill Day adapted from Waterland, RA., Jirtle, RL. Transposable elements: Target for early nutritional effects on epigenetic gene regulation. Molecular and Cellular Biology. 2003 23(15):5293–5300

In another series of experiments, adult mice that had received generous amounts of licking and grooming from their mothers as pups were less anxious and had lower levels of stress hormones than those raised by mothers who showed anxious behavior and were not as nurturing. How can the differences in mother-pup interactions result in long-lasting changes in stress responses? A second phase of research was done to show that it wasn’t due to genetic differences between the different moms. To show this, pups from higher care moms were switched at birth to be with the lower care moms. The scientists also did the opposite – switch the pups from lower care moms to be with the higher care moms.

The results showed the powerful impact of early experience. Babies born to high-nurturing mothers, but switched to be raised by low-nurturing mothers grew up to express increased levels of anxious behavior similar to their foster moms. Remarkably, the mouse pups born to low-nurturing mothers but raised by high-nurturing mothers showed less anxiety. The studies also showed that a specific gene that controls stress response was expressed more highly in the mice raised by higher care moms, compared to those raised by lower care moms. 13

Epigenetics is strongly related to early brain development.

We know that children’s experiences during the first years of life are strongly associated with long-term cognitive, emotional, and social outcomes. 14 And we know that the quality of a child’s early experiences affects the development and function of the growing brain. But discovering how these processes occur has been challenging. The growing body of research on epigenetic processes, which are especially active early in development, 15 is likely to provide new answers to how adversity threatens optimal development.

For ethical and practical reasons, it is harder to study the gene/ environment relationship in humans than in animals. Still, scientists have already found convincing evidence of epigenetic effects in human development. In one study, women who were pregnant during a severe famine tended to give birth to underweight infants. When these babies grew up and became parents themselves, they also tended to have underweight children, even though their own food intake since birth had not been affected by the famine. 16 Other studies have found that childhood abuse is associated with lifelong decreased activation of a gene that protects against high levels of stress hormones. 12 Recent research has found that experiences during a child’s early life can result in epigenetic changes that are apparent even when the child reaches adolescence. 11,17

Studies show that high stress and low nurturing in the first stages of life impair the development of healthy brain architecture. These effects are especially dramatic in brain areas related to memory, learning, and social and emotional adjustment. 13

Epigenetic research supports the importance of a preventive approach to child health and well-being.

Epigenetic processes indicate that development is remarkably flexible. But in the absence of prevention or interventions, epigenetic changes – and their effects on behavior and health – can be stable once they occur. Moreover, research tells us that such changes can be transmitted from generation to generation. 18 Whether they can become permanent is not yet known, but even when the conditions that created an epigenetic mark no longer exist, it is likely to take several generations before it begins to fade. 12

In other words, epigenetics makes a strong argument that prevention is the best policy approach for protecting young children from the effects of toxic stress. Early exposure to chronic stressors, such as regularly witnessing violence, caregiver neglect or abuse, poor nutrition, and other environmental hazards can have long-lasting and powerful effects on adult physical and mental well-being. Research is giving us a better understanding of epigenetic changes that occur due to early adverse experiences, which will lead to the development of more effective intervention and prevention programs to protect young children from adverse experiences in the first years of life. 19,20


NEURONS THAT FIRE TOGETHER WIRE TOGETHER

The adult brain is much more changeable and modifiable than had previously been believed. There is now a large amount of evidence to show that damaged neural (brain) circuitry resulting from severe childhood trauma can be corrected, reshaping our brain anatomy and consequent behavior, with the right kind of therapeutic interventions. In other words, it is now clear that brain architecture continues to change throughout adulthood, and this can be manipulated in highly beneficial directions.

Many people who suffer extreme childhood trauma go on to develop personality disorders as adults one hallmark of these disorders is rigid, destructive behavioral patterns. Research is now showing, however, that certain therapeutic interventions, due to neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change itself), can change those behaviors to become more flexible and adaptive (helpful in creating a more successful life).

The brain is arguably the most fascinating and impressive organ in the human body. Medical and scientific professionals alike are only beginning to mine its vast complexities. Of particular interest to those involved in the field of trauma recovery is the area of neuroplasticity. This refers to how the brain is wired and its extraordinary capacity to rewire neuro pathways.

Here is how it works: as a young person, probably around the age of 15 or 16, you learned to drive a car this took a great deal of intentional thought and effort. Remember how you gripped the steering wheel and carefully executed every action? Now, you hop into the driver’s seat without giving it a second thought. This is because your brain laid down a neuro pathway for the completion of this task from start to finish, a set of synapses occur to complete the action.
In trauma, a similar pathway is set down it can even be additionally engrained due to shock or intensity. Therefore, when a single trigger or set of triggers occur, the emotions associated with the trauma are revisited.

But, due to neuroplasticity, this does not always have to be the case. New pathways can be created through changes in behavior, environment and neuro processes. Not only is the brain capable of creating new pathways, it is designed to do so. The brain is highly resilient and desires flexibility. The brain functions at its best when it is limber and rich with options. The incredible thing is that the human brain has a very real desire to heal itself.

Creating new pathways necessitates a great deal of awareness, mindfulness and acknowledgment of the present. Yet, in time, these new pathways will eclipse the old, thus allowing trauma survivors.

REWIRING

Your brain is constantly adapting and rewiring itself. Your thoughts and behaviors influence this process. If certain thoughts and behaviors are repeated often enough, a strong connection, also known as a neural pathway, is created.

Just think of your brain as a dynamic, connected power grid, with billions of roads and pathways lighting up every time you think, feel or do something. Some of these roads are well travelled. These are your habits your established ways of thinking, feeling and doing. Every time you think in a certain way, practice a particular task, or feel a specific emotion, you strengthen this road, and it becomes easier for your brain to travel this pathway.

A ROAD LESS TRAVELLED

When you think about something differently, learn a new task, or choose a different emotion, you are carving out a new road. If you keep traveling that road, your brain begins to use this pathway more and this new way of thinking. Feeling and doing becomes second nature. The old pathway becomes used less and less and it weakens. This process of rewiring your brain by forming new connections and weakening old ones is neuroplasticity in action.

One reason why it is so difficult to change the way you think, feel, and behave is that your beliefs and corresponding neural pathways have been formed early in life. They have been reinforced and strengthened, over and over again. In other words, your brain activity has carved out a deep and well traveled road. If that road remains and no new roads are built and strengthened, it is very difficult to change your ways, and you will easily fall back into old patterns. Creating and strengthening new, positive neural pathways is an essential part of achieving lasting change.

The good news is that we all have the ability to learn and change by rewiring our brains. If you have ever changed a bad habit, or thought about something differently, you have carved a new pathway in your brain, experiencing neuroplasticity firsthand. With repeated and directed attention towards your desired change, you can effectively rewire your brain to move forward and live a healthy, abundant life.


Childhood stress can leave changes in the adult brain

Kids younger than six who experience abuse or other stresses can end up with brain changes that may never go away.

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September 17, 2015 at 6:00 am

The brain is a remarkable organ. It’s responsible for thoughts and feelings. It tells your muscles to move. It even can grow or shrink depending on what’s happening in your environment. Now a new study finds that going through tough times as a kid also can have an impact. That stress can change the size and shape of the brain.

The adult brains of people who lived through lots of stress before the age of six — and then became depressed or anxious as teenagers — were different than in adults who had an easier childhood. It seems that teens changed the shape of their brains by internalizing the stresses experienced years earlier — replaying those events in the mind and bottling up the emotions they triggered.

Researchers already knew that the shape and size of a child’s brain can change in response to lots of stress. They also knew that adults were more likely to be depressed if, as kids, they’d been abused, lived in poverty or faced other hard times. Some studies showed that these depressed adults had unusual changes in their brain shape. But no one had tested if the early stress and later brain changes were linked.

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Scientists in England studied almost 500 boys from birth until the ages of 18 to 21. Throughout those years, the boys’ moms answered questions about different types of stress their children had been experiencing. Had a parent died? Was the mother being abused? Was the family poor? Did the family pack up its belongings and move a lot? Once the boys reached adolescence, the list of questions began to also ask about whether the boys seemed sad, depressed or anxious.

Later, when the guys reached young adulthood, the research team created pictures of the structures in their brains using a technology known as MRI, for magnetic resonance imaging. The brain is mostly made up of white matter and gray matter. White matter acts like the brain’s subway system it connects different areas of gray matter to each other, helping messages travel quickly. Gray matter is what covers the brain’s surface. It’s gray in color and partly made of special cells called neurons. Gray matter helps process information in the brain, such as telling your muscles to pull your hand away if it touches a hot surface. The scientists focused on the amount of gray matter present.

Boys who’d had really tough lives before the age of six were more likely to be depressed or withdrawn as teenagers, the surveys showed. Those boys also were more likely to grow up with gray-matter changes, compared with others who had much less stressful childhoods. In some regions of the brain, the volume of gray matter appeared to have shrunk. Another brain area showed what seemed to be a bonus amount of that gray matter.

And these changes weren’t random.

The superior frontal gyrus (JY-rus) is a part of the brain that some studies have linked with depression. In the new study, young men who had survived a stressful childhood and then later became very depressed or anxious as teenagers had less gray matter in this area. Or at least they had less compared with the men whose early years had been more peaceful. The fact that the teenagers had internalized their emotions had been key, the researchers concluded.

But a different part of the brain had more gray matter than usual in the men who experienced early stress. Called the precuneus (pre-KEW-nee-us), this area has been linked to processing abuse and other harsh experiences. The scientists now wonder whether excess gray matter in the precuneus might be evidence of the brain trying to cope with that stress and abuse.

Learning from the new data

Sarah Jensen, one of the new study’s authors, works at King’s College London in England. There, she is studying to be a psychologist. The precuneus is involved in the brain’s “default mode,” she notes. In healthy people, this default mode becomes active during daydreaming, mind wandering and self-reflection. But when the default mode isn’t working right, she says, it can be linked to depression.

Almost all of the boys her team studied experienced some hard times as kids. And, she concludes, “This is not necessarily harmful.” To some extent, that’s just life. What can be dangerous, she says, is when children experience too many forms of adversity. Her team’s new data suggest that the tougher the childhood, the stronger the impact on the brain might be.

Experiencing stress and internalizing problems have both been linked with having less gray matter, notes Ted Barker. He is a developmental psychologist at King’s College London. He also worked on the new study. His team’s analyses now point to how important it is for kids to talk to others if they’re feeling blue.

“I would say that if you feel that you have problems, you’re very anxious or have a lot of depressive-type thinking, that it’s good to talk to people,” Barker says. Indeed, he says, don’t keep problems bottled up inside.

What’s happening in the world around us relates to how we feel, he says. His team linked more childhood stress to more depression-like symptoms in young adulthood. Still, he notes, it’s possible that if you find support for anxiety or depression, you might be able to prevent the gray-matter changes seen here.

“If you can change the environment, you can change the course of things,” Barker says. So, he recommends, if teens develop anxiety or depression, “It’s good to ask for help.”

His team’s study appeared August 17 in JAMA Pediatrics.

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

anterior cingulate cortex A part deep inside the brain located right between the eyes. This strip of neurons (nerve cells) surrounds a large white ridge in the center of the brain. The anterior cingulate cortex is important in many functions, including helping to regulate your blood pressure. But it also plays cognitive roles too, helping us with decision-making, controlling impulses, regulating emotions and the intensity of our feelings for other people.

anxiety (adj. anxious) A nervous disorder causing excessive uneasiness and apprehension. People with anxiety may even develop panic attacks.

depression (adj. depressive) A mental illness characterized by persistent sadness and apathy. Although these feelings can be triggered by events, such as the death of a loved one or the move to a new city, that isn’t typically considered an “illness” — unless the symptoms are prolonged and harm an individual’s ability to perform normal daily tasks (such as working, sleeping or interacting with others). People suffering from depression often feel they lack the energy needed to get anything done. They may have difficulty concentrating on things or showing an interest in normal events. Many times, these feelings seem to be triggered by nothing they can appear out of nowhere.

development (adj. developmental) The growth of an organism from conception through adulthood, often undergoing changes in chemistry, size and sometimes even shape.

gray matter One of two main types of tissue found in the brain and spinal cord. It consists mainly of nerve cell bodies.

internalize (in psychology) To hold thoughts or emotions inside and not talk about them. To ruminate over the bad things, such as the loneliness, the fears or the sad feelings one has.

magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) An imaging technique to visualize soft, internal organs, like the brain, muscles, heart and cancerous tumors. MRI uses strong magnetic fields to record the activity of individual atoms.

neuron or nerve cell Any of the impulse-conducting cells that make up the brain, spinal column and nervous system. These specialized cells transmit information to other neurons in the form of electrical signals.

organ (in biology) Various parts of an organism that perform one or more particular functions. For instance, an ovary is an organ that makes eggs, the brain is an organ that interprets nerve signals and a plant’s roots are organs that take in nutrients and moisture.

precuneus This is a part of the brain located towards the back and just to either side of the big central part that runs beneath the top of your scalp from front to back. It’s between our major sensory cortex (which processes touch) and our main visual cortex (which processes sight). The precuneus is involved in many important things including consciousness, memory and even our sense of self.

psychology The study of the human mind, especially in relation to actions and behavior. Scientists and mental-health professionals who work in this field are known as psychologists.

stress (in biology) A factor, such as unusual temperatures, moisture or pollution, that affects the health of a species or ecosystem. (in psychology) A mental, physical, emotional, or behavioral reaction to an event or circumstance, or stressor, that disturbs a person or animal’s usual state of being or places increased demands on a person or animal psychological stress can be either positive or negative.

superior frontal gyrus This is a part of the brain located behind the forehead. It’s involved in higher-level thinking, memory and laughter.

white matter One of the two main tissue types found in the brain and spinal cord. It consists mainly of bundles of nerve fibers.

Citations

S. Ornes. “Back off, bullies!”Science News for Students. May 12, 2015.

A. Pearce Stevens. “Stress for success.” Science News for Students. March 20, 2015.

H. Westrup. “Loneliness can breed disease.” Science News for Students. April 19, 2014.

L. Sanders. “Inheriting fear.” Science News for Students. December 7, 2013.

S. Ornes. “Baby’s stress can last decades.” Science News for Students. December 4, 2012.

Original Journal Source: Jensen et al. Effect of early adversity and childhood internalizing symptoms on brain structure in young men. JAMA Pediatrics. Published online August 17, 2015. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.1486.

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How Your Brain Changes with Age

Like the rest of your body, your brain changes with each passing year. From the time we are infants, our brains are adapting, learning, making memories and more. We become smarter and sharper, earning the wisdom that truly only comes with life experience. The less desirable effects of the march of time can certainly be felt, too. You may recognize them: An ever-lost set of keys, a to-do that never seems to stay top of mind, a name that’s on the tip of your tongue.

Once we hit our late twenties, the brain’s aging process begins and we begin losing neurons—the cells that make up the brain and nervous system. By our sixties, our brains have literally begun to shrink. Though these brain changes may sound a bit scary, the process is natural and it happens to everyone.

Learn how your brain changes as you age to get a better handle on what is happening in this magical part of your body. Then, review some of the things that you can do to help preserve brain health. Though some change is inevitable, some can be warded off with a healthy lifestyle. Here’s how you can take an active role in slowing negative effects and working to stay sharper, longer.

Birth to Toddler Years
You are born with basic survival skills, reflexes and most of the 100 billion neurons that you’ll have for the duration of your life. The brain grows incredibly rapidly during these early years: Neurons get bigger, work more efficiently and—as a result of environmental input and stimuli—make trillions of connections that fine-tune everything from hearing to vision. By two years old, your brain is about 80 percent of its adult size.

Early to Middle Childhood
About 85 percent of brain development has occurred by now, including intellect, personality and motor and social skills. A child’s brain has twice as many synapses as an adult’s brain. In a process called pruning, the neural connections that are used and reinforced most often—like those used for language—are strengthened, while the ones that are not utilized as much fizzle and die. (That’s why parents are often encouraged to repeat certain activities, like reading books, with their kids every day.)

Teens
At this point the brain reaches its adult weight of about three pounds. Increased activity in the frontal lobes allows a teenager to compare several concepts at once.

20s
The regions in the frontal lobe that are responsible for judgment, planning, weighing risks and decision-making finally finish developing. A twenty-something’s brain has reached its peak in terms of performance.

Late 20s to Early 30s
Reasoning, spatial skills and speed of thought begin to decline around now. As you age, your brain goes through changes that can slow down your thinking: It loses volume, the cortex becomes thinner, the myelin sheath surrounding the fibers of your neurons begins to degrade, and your brain receptors don’t fire as quickly.

Mid 30s
What was that woman’s name, again? In your 30s, memory begins to slip as the number of neurons in the brain decreases. It may take longer to learn new things or memorize words or names. This process continues in the decades ahead.

40s and 50s
From your mid 40s to late 50s, your reasoning skills slow. In a group of people who were first tested on various mental abilities when they were 45–49 years old, reasoning skills declined by 3.6 percent over 10 years, according to research in the British Medical Journal. The middle-age participants also experienced fading sharpness in memory and verbal fluency—the ability to say words quickly in a specific category. On the upside, other measures of cognition—such as moral decision-making, regulating emotions and reading social situations—have been shown to improve beginning with middle age. Experts suspect that simply living life and gaining experience deserves some of the credit. (Bonus fact: Starting at around age 40, people tend to remember positive images more than negative ones—a trend that continues until at least age 80.)

60s
The brain has begun to shrink in size and, after a lifetime of gaining accumulated knowledge, it becomes less efficient at accessing that knowledge and adding to it. The greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s is advancing age, and most individuals with the disease are 65 or older. Surprisingly, when Alzheimer’s hits people in their 60s and 70s, they show faster rates of brain tissue loss and cognitive decline compared to patients 80 years and older, according to researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. Researchers aren’t sure why Alzheimer’s is more aggressive in younger patients, but suspect that people who develop symptoms later in life may have milder cases—or cases that that take longer to reveal themselves.

70s and 80s
Your risk of developing Alzheimer’s increases with age, reaching 50 percent by age 85. Researchers aren’t sure why the risk jumps so dramatically as we get older, but it’s possible the disease is linked to inflammation, a natural part of aging that can lead to a build-up of deposits in areas like the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for forming new memories. These deposits may also interfere with long-term memory. Along with aging, many experts think that genes and lifestyle contribute to the majority of Alzheimer’s and dementia cases.

Proven Brain Boosters

Even the healthiest among us cannot stop our brains from changing with time. That being said, certain behaviors can help your brain stay as sharp as possible:

  • Break a Sweat. Exercise pumps blood to the brain and encourages the growth of new brain cells—and you don’t have to spend hours at the gym to get the positive effects. Research shows that regular aerobic exercise, like walking or cycling, for 30 minutes a day reduces brain cell loss. (Regular physical activity can also significantly reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes and more.)
  • Challenge Yourself. Studies show that mentally stimulating activities may help reverse cognitive decline. Just as lifting dumbbells strengthens your muscles, keeping your mind engaged seems to increase the brain’s vitality and may build its reserves of brain cells and connections. Do stimulating activities that you enjoy: Read, write, put together a jigsaw puzzle, work on crosswords…it all counts.
  • Listen to Music. A study in the journal Neuron showed that listening to music may sharpen the brain’s ability to anticipate events and stay focused. Researchers took an MRI of people’s brains while they were listening to symphony music, and then when they weren’t. When music played, the areas of the brain involved with paying attention, making predictions and accessing memories were engaged the same couldn’t be said when it was quiet.
  • Nurture Your Relationships. Invest in your bonds with friends and loved ones. Experts suspect that social interaction requires you to engage the areas of the brain involved in memory and attention, the same mental processes that are used in many cognitive tasks. Furthermore, one study revealed that activities that combine social interaction with physical and mental activity may help prevent dementia. Sign up for a dance class, which allows you to spend time with pals, get moving and challenge your brain as it works to keep up with all those tricky steps.
  • Eat Wisely. Certain foods are rich in vitamins and other nutrients that can help thwart threats to your brain health. For example, regularly eating vibrantly-hued fruits and vegetables, which have high levels of disease-fighting antioxidants, will help counteract disease-causing free radicals throughout the body, including the brain. Cook meals with ingredients containing mono- and polyunsaturated fats, which can improve levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol and—according to research—may help protect brain cells.
  • Drink in Moderation. While we do not recommend taking up drinking alcoholic beverages, you might be surprised to learn that drinking alcohol sparingly may be beneficial to your brain. At least five studies have linked low-dose alcohol consumption—a drink a day for women, two for men—with a reduced risk of dementia in older adults. Be careful not to go outside those limits: Heavy alcohol use has been linked to an increased risk of dementia and cognitive decline, among other health concerns.
  • Stay Smoke-Free. Smoking can affect your body’s ability to deliver to the brain oxygen and nutrients that help keep it healthy, and some studies have indicated that it can even speed up the brain’s natural aging process. Smoking can also lead to the formulation of plaques that can contribute to dementia.
  • Protect Your Head. Experts think that there may be a connection between serious head injury and Alzheimer’s disease, especially when trauma occurs repeatedly or involves loss of consciousness. Protect your brain by wearing a seatbelt, using a helmet when participating in sports and fall-proofing your home.

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Being an Only Child Can Actually Change The Structure of Your Brain

Scientists have discovered that being an only child doesn't just lead to behavioural differences that can set kids apart from those with siblings - it actually affects a child's brain development, too.

A new study comparing brain scans of only children and others who grew up with siblings has revealed significant differences in the participants' grey matter volume, and researchers say it's the first neurological evidence in this area linking changes in brain structure to differing behaviours.

To investigate if only children demonstrated neurological differences from their peers who grew up with brothers and sisters, researchers at Southwest University in China recruited 303 college-age students.

The mix of young people in China offers a broad pool of candidates for this area of research, owing to the nation's long-lasting one-child policy, which limited many but not all families to only raising a single child in between 1979 and 2015.

The common stereotype about being an only child is that growing up without siblings influences an individual's behaviour and personality traits, making them more selfish and less likely to share with their peers.

Previous research has borne some of this conventional wisdom out - but also demonstrated that only children can receive cognitive benefits as a result of their solo upbringing.

The participants in this latest study were approximately half only children (and half children with siblings), and were given cognitive tests designed to measure their intelligence, creativity, and personality, in addition to scanning their brains with MRI machines.

Although the results didn't demonstrate any difference in terms of intelligence between the two groups, they did reveal that only children exhibited greater flexibility in their thinking - a key marker of creativity per the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking.

While only children showed greater flexibility, they also demonstrated less agreeableness in personality tests under what's called the Revised NEO Personality Inventory. Agreeableness is one of the five chief measures tested under the system, with the other four being extraversion, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience.

But more importantly than the behavioural data - which have been the focus of many other studies - the MRI results actually demonstrated neurological differences in the participants' grey matter volume (GMV) as a result of their upbringing.

In particular, the results showed that only children showed greater supramarginal gyrus volumes - a portion of the parietal lobe thought to be associated with language perception and processing, and which in the study correlated to the only children's greater flexibility.

By contrast, the brains of only children revealed less volume in other areas, including the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) - associated with emotional regulation, such as personality and social behaviours - which the team found to be correlated with their lower scores on agreeableness.

While the researchers aren't drawing firm conclusions on why only children exhibit these differences, they suggest it's possible that parents may foster greater creativity in only children by devoting more time to them - and possibly placing greater expectations on them.

Meanwhile, they hypothesise that only children's lesser agreeableness could result from excessive attention from family members, less exposure to external social groups, and more focus on solitary activities while growing up.

It's important to note that there are some limitations to the study - first off, all the participants were highly educated young people taken from a specific part of the world, and the results only reflect testing from one point in time.

That said, the researchers say it's the first evidence that differences in the anatomical structures of the brain are linked to differing behaviour in terms of flexibility and agreeableness.

"Additionally, our results contribute to the understanding of the neuroanatomical basis of the differences in cognitive function and personality between only-children and non-only-children," the authors write in their study.

While there's still a lot we don't understand about what's going on here, it's clear that there's a link between our family environments and the way our brain structure develops, and it'll be fascinating to see where this direction of research takes us in the future.


Most kids grow dramatically during the adolescent and teen years. Their young brains, particularly the prefrontal cortex that is used to make decisions, are growing and developing, until their mid-20’s.

Long-term drug use causes brain changes that can set people up for addiction and other problems. Once a young person is addicted, his or her brain changes so that drugs are now the top priority. He or she will compulsively seek and use drugs even though doing so brings devastating consequences to his or her life, and for those who care about him.

Alcohol can interfere with developmental processes occurring in the brain. For weeks or months after a teen stops drinking heavily, parts of the brain still struggle to work correctly. Drinking at a young age is also associated with the development of alcohol dependence later in life.

What is Addiction?

No one plans to become addicted to a drug. Instead, it begins with a single use, which can lead to abuse, which can lead to addiction.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as:

A chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. Addiction is a brain disease because drugs change the brain’s structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long lasting, and lead to harmful behaviors seen in people who abuse drugs.

The good news is that addiction is treatable. The treatment approach to substance abuse depends on several factors, including a child’s temperament and willingness to change. It may take several attempts at treatment before a child remains drug-free. For those teens who are treated for addiction, will have a life of recovery. For more information on addiction go to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

The Addiction Series

How does drug addiction change someone's brain?Why do some people get addicted and others don't?"The Addiction Series," created by the Addiction Policy Forum, explores the answers to these questions and much much more.


Types of Learning

In addition to the kinds of learning that occur on a day-to-day basis, there are a number of other experiences that can play a major role in shaping a child's development.

Parents and Caregivers

The experiences that parents and other caregivers provide during the earliest years of a child's life can be some of the most crucial.

While some children might receive enriched childhood experiences from parents who are responsive, caring and attentive, other children might receive less attention and their parents might be distracted by worrying about money, work, or relationship issues.

As you might imagine, such varying experiences can have a dramatic impact on how these children develop.

Children raised in nurturing environments might be more secure, confident, and capable of dealing with later challenges, while those raised in less enriched settings might feel anxious and unable to cope with life's difficulties.

Peers

While a child's early social experiences may be centered on family members, this soon expands to other kids at the playground, in the neighborhood, and at school. Because children spend so much time interacting with peers in school, it may come as no surprise that other children have a major influence on a child's psychology and development.

Children are very influenced by their peers, and these social experiences help shape a child's values and personality. Peer relationships can have a significant effect on development, both in positive and negative ways. Bullying, in particular, can have an enormously detrimental effect on a child's experience of growing up.

Education

School makes up an enormous part of a child's life. Teachers and classmates play a major role in making up a child's experiences, and academics and learning also leave their mark on development.  

Remember that genetics and the environment are always interacting in a dynamic way. A child's genetic background will influence his ability to learn, but good educational experiences can enhance these abilities.

Some kids might struggle with learning disabilities influenced by genetics, but quality educational interventions can help kids learn and do well in school.  

Culture

There are many different influences that can play a role in how a child grows and the person they eventually become. The culture that a child lives in adds yet another element to this already complex mix.

For example, parents raising kids in individualistic cultures might focus on helping their kids develop autonomy and self-esteem, while parents in collectivist cultures are more likely to stress the importance of community, family, and society.

Even within the same culture, variations in things like social status, income, and educational background can have an impact on how kids are raised. High-income parents might be more concerned with getting their kids into the best private schools, while low-income parents spend more time worrying about whether their children's most basic needs are met. Such disparities can lead to dramatic differences in experience, which can, in turn, have a powerful impact on how kids develop.


NEURONS THAT FIRE TOGETHER WIRE TOGETHER

The adult brain is much more changeable and modifiable than had previously been believed. There is now a large amount of evidence to show that damaged neural (brain) circuitry resulting from severe childhood trauma can be corrected, reshaping our brain anatomy and consequent behavior, with the right kind of therapeutic interventions. In other words, it is now clear that brain architecture continues to change throughout adulthood, and this can be manipulated in highly beneficial directions.

Many people who suffer extreme childhood trauma go on to develop personality disorders as adults one hallmark of these disorders is rigid, destructive behavioral patterns. Research is now showing, however, that certain therapeutic interventions, due to neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change itself), can change those behaviors to become more flexible and adaptive (helpful in creating a more successful life).

The brain is arguably the most fascinating and impressive organ in the human body. Medical and scientific professionals alike are only beginning to mine its vast complexities. Of particular interest to those involved in the field of trauma recovery is the area of neuroplasticity. This refers to how the brain is wired and its extraordinary capacity to rewire neuro pathways.

Here is how it works: as a young person, probably around the age of 15 or 16, you learned to drive a car this took a great deal of intentional thought and effort. Remember how you gripped the steering wheel and carefully executed every action? Now, you hop into the driver’s seat without giving it a second thought. This is because your brain laid down a neuro pathway for the completion of this task from start to finish, a set of synapses occur to complete the action.
In trauma, a similar pathway is set down it can even be additionally engrained due to shock or intensity. Therefore, when a single trigger or set of triggers occur, the emotions associated with the trauma are revisited.

But, due to neuroplasticity, this does not always have to be the case. New pathways can be created through changes in behavior, environment and neuro processes. Not only is the brain capable of creating new pathways, it is designed to do so. The brain is highly resilient and desires flexibility. The brain functions at its best when it is limber and rich with options. The incredible thing is that the human brain has a very real desire to heal itself.

Creating new pathways necessitates a great deal of awareness, mindfulness and acknowledgment of the present. Yet, in time, these new pathways will eclipse the old, thus allowing trauma survivors.

REWIRING

Your brain is constantly adapting and rewiring itself. Your thoughts and behaviors influence this process. If certain thoughts and behaviors are repeated often enough, a strong connection, also known as a neural pathway, is created.

Just think of your brain as a dynamic, connected power grid, with billions of roads and pathways lighting up every time you think, feel or do something. Some of these roads are well travelled. These are your habits your established ways of thinking, feeling and doing. Every time you think in a certain way, practice a particular task, or feel a specific emotion, you strengthen this road, and it becomes easier for your brain to travel this pathway.

A ROAD LESS TRAVELLED

When you think about something differently, learn a new task, or choose a different emotion, you are carving out a new road. If you keep traveling that road, your brain begins to use this pathway more and this new way of thinking. Feeling and doing becomes second nature. The old pathway becomes used less and less and it weakens. This process of rewiring your brain by forming new connections and weakening old ones is neuroplasticity in action.

One reason why it is so difficult to change the way you think, feel, and behave is that your beliefs and corresponding neural pathways have been formed early in life. They have been reinforced and strengthened, over and over again. In other words, your brain activity has carved out a deep and well traveled road. If that road remains and no new roads are built and strengthened, it is very difficult to change your ways, and you will easily fall back into old patterns. Creating and strengthening new, positive neural pathways is an essential part of achieving lasting change.

The good news is that we all have the ability to learn and change by rewiring our brains. If you have ever changed a bad habit, or thought about something differently, you have carved a new pathway in your brain, experiencing neuroplasticity firsthand. With repeated and directed attention towards your desired change, you can effectively rewire your brain to move forward and live a healthy, abundant life.


How Your Brain Changes with Age

Like the rest of your body, your brain changes with each passing year. From the time we are infants, our brains are adapting, learning, making memories and more. We become smarter and sharper, earning the wisdom that truly only comes with life experience. The less desirable effects of the march of time can certainly be felt, too. You may recognize them: An ever-lost set of keys, a to-do that never seems to stay top of mind, a name that’s on the tip of your tongue.

Once we hit our late twenties, the brain’s aging process begins and we begin losing neurons—the cells that make up the brain and nervous system. By our sixties, our brains have literally begun to shrink. Though these brain changes may sound a bit scary, the process is natural and it happens to everyone.

Learn how your brain changes as you age to get a better handle on what is happening in this magical part of your body. Then, review some of the things that you can do to help preserve brain health. Though some change is inevitable, some can be warded off with a healthy lifestyle. Here’s how you can take an active role in slowing negative effects and working to stay sharper, longer.

Birth to Toddler Years
You are born with basic survival skills, reflexes and most of the 100 billion neurons that you’ll have for the duration of your life. The brain grows incredibly rapidly during these early years: Neurons get bigger, work more efficiently and—as a result of environmental input and stimuli—make trillions of connections that fine-tune everything from hearing to vision. By two years old, your brain is about 80 percent of its adult size.

Early to Middle Childhood
About 85 percent of brain development has occurred by now, including intellect, personality and motor and social skills. A child’s brain has twice as many synapses as an adult’s brain. In a process called pruning, the neural connections that are used and reinforced most often—like those used for language—are strengthened, while the ones that are not utilized as much fizzle and die. (That’s why parents are often encouraged to repeat certain activities, like reading books, with their kids every day.)

Teens
At this point the brain reaches its adult weight of about three pounds. Increased activity in the frontal lobes allows a teenager to compare several concepts at once.

20s
The regions in the frontal lobe that are responsible for judgment, planning, weighing risks and decision-making finally finish developing. A twenty-something’s brain has reached its peak in terms of performance.

Late 20s to Early 30s
Reasoning, spatial skills and speed of thought begin to decline around now. As you age, your brain goes through changes that can slow down your thinking: It loses volume, the cortex becomes thinner, the myelin sheath surrounding the fibers of your neurons begins to degrade, and your brain receptors don’t fire as quickly.

Mid 30s
What was that woman’s name, again? In your 30s, memory begins to slip as the number of neurons in the brain decreases. It may take longer to learn new things or memorize words or names. This process continues in the decades ahead.

40s and 50s
From your mid 40s to late 50s, your reasoning skills slow. In a group of people who were first tested on various mental abilities when they were 45–49 years old, reasoning skills declined by 3.6 percent over 10 years, according to research in the British Medical Journal. The middle-age participants also experienced fading sharpness in memory and verbal fluency—the ability to say words quickly in a specific category. On the upside, other measures of cognition—such as moral decision-making, regulating emotions and reading social situations—have been shown to improve beginning with middle age. Experts suspect that simply living life and gaining experience deserves some of the credit. (Bonus fact: Starting at around age 40, people tend to remember positive images more than negative ones—a trend that continues until at least age 80.)

60s
The brain has begun to shrink in size and, after a lifetime of gaining accumulated knowledge, it becomes less efficient at accessing that knowledge and adding to it. The greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s is advancing age, and most individuals with the disease are 65 or older. Surprisingly, when Alzheimer’s hits people in their 60s and 70s, they show faster rates of brain tissue loss and cognitive decline compared to patients 80 years and older, according to researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. Researchers aren’t sure why Alzheimer’s is more aggressive in younger patients, but suspect that people who develop symptoms later in life may have milder cases—or cases that that take longer to reveal themselves.

70s and 80s
Your risk of developing Alzheimer’s increases with age, reaching 50 percent by age 85. Researchers aren’t sure why the risk jumps so dramatically as we get older, but it’s possible the disease is linked to inflammation, a natural part of aging that can lead to a build-up of deposits in areas like the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for forming new memories. These deposits may also interfere with long-term memory. Along with aging, many experts think that genes and lifestyle contribute to the majority of Alzheimer’s and dementia cases.

Proven Brain Boosters

Even the healthiest among us cannot stop our brains from changing with time. That being said, certain behaviors can help your brain stay as sharp as possible:

  • Break a Sweat. Exercise pumps blood to the brain and encourages the growth of new brain cells—and you don’t have to spend hours at the gym to get the positive effects. Research shows that regular aerobic exercise, like walking or cycling, for 30 minutes a day reduces brain cell loss. (Regular physical activity can also significantly reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes and more.)
  • Challenge Yourself. Studies show that mentally stimulating activities may help reverse cognitive decline. Just as lifting dumbbells strengthens your muscles, keeping your mind engaged seems to increase the brain’s vitality and may build its reserves of brain cells and connections. Do stimulating activities that you enjoy: Read, write, put together a jigsaw puzzle, work on crosswords…it all counts.
  • Listen to Music. A study in the journal Neuron showed that listening to music may sharpen the brain’s ability to anticipate events and stay focused. Researchers took an MRI of people’s brains while they were listening to symphony music, and then when they weren’t. When music played, the areas of the brain involved with paying attention, making predictions and accessing memories were engaged the same couldn’t be said when it was quiet.
  • Nurture Your Relationships. Invest in your bonds with friends and loved ones. Experts suspect that social interaction requires you to engage the areas of the brain involved in memory and attention, the same mental processes that are used in many cognitive tasks. Furthermore, one study revealed that activities that combine social interaction with physical and mental activity may help prevent dementia. Sign up for a dance class, which allows you to spend time with pals, get moving and challenge your brain as it works to keep up with all those tricky steps.
  • Eat Wisely. Certain foods are rich in vitamins and other nutrients that can help thwart threats to your brain health. For example, regularly eating vibrantly-hued fruits and vegetables, which have high levels of disease-fighting antioxidants, will help counteract disease-causing free radicals throughout the body, including the brain. Cook meals with ingredients containing mono- and polyunsaturated fats, which can improve levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol and—according to research—may help protect brain cells.
  • Drink in Moderation. While we do not recommend taking up drinking alcoholic beverages, you might be surprised to learn that drinking alcohol sparingly may be beneficial to your brain. At least five studies have linked low-dose alcohol consumption—a drink a day for women, two for men—with a reduced risk of dementia in older adults. Be careful not to go outside those limits: Heavy alcohol use has been linked to an increased risk of dementia and cognitive decline, among other health concerns.
  • Stay Smoke-Free. Smoking can affect your body’s ability to deliver to the brain oxygen and nutrients that help keep it healthy, and some studies have indicated that it can even speed up the brain’s natural aging process. Smoking can also lead to the formulation of plaques that can contribute to dementia.
  • Protect Your Head. Experts think that there may be a connection between serious head injury and Alzheimer’s disease, especially when trauma occurs repeatedly or involves loss of consciousness. Protect your brain by wearing a seatbelt, using a helmet when participating in sports and fall-proofing your home.

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Where belief is born

Belief can make people do the strangest things. At one level, it provides a moral framework, sets preferences and steers relationships. On another, it can be devastating. Belief can manifest itself as prejudice or persuade someone to blow up themselves and others in the name of a political cause.

"Belief has been a most powerful component of human nature that has somewhat been neglected," says Peter Halligan, a psychologist at Cardiff University. "But it has been capitalised on by marketing agents, politics and religion for the best part of two millennia."

That is changing. Once the preserve of philosophers alone, belief is quickly becoming the subject of choice for many psychologists and neuroscientists. Their goal is to create a neurological model of how beliefs are formed, how they affect people and what can manipulate them.

And the latest steps in the research might just help to understand a little more about why the world is so fraught with political and social tension. Matthew Lieberman, a psychologist at the University of California, recently showed how beliefs help people's brains categorise others and view objects as good or bad, largely unconsciously. He demonstrated that beliefs (in this case prejudice or fear) are most likely to be learned from the prevailing culture.

When Lieberman showed a group of people photographs of expressionless black faces, he was surprised to find that the amygdala - the brain's panic button - was triggered in almost two-thirds of cases. There was no difference in the response between black and white people.

The amygdala is responsible for the body's fight or flight response, setting off a chain of biological changes that prepare the body to respond to danger well before the brain is conscious of any threat. Lieberman suggests that people are likely to pick up on stereotypes, regardless of whether their family or community agrees with them.

The work, published last month in Nature Neuroscience, is the latest in a rapidly growing field of research called "social neuroscience", a wide arena which draws together psychologists, neuroscientists and anthropologists all studying the neural basis for the social interaction between humans.

Traditionally, cognitive neuroscientists focused on scanning the brains of people doing specific tasks such as eating or listening to music, while social psychologists and social scientists concentrated on groups of people and the interactions between them. To understand how the brain makes sense of the world, it was inevitable that these two groups would have to get together.

"In the West, most of our physical needs are provided for. We have a level of luxury and civilisation that is pretty much unparalleled," says Kathleen Taylor, a neuroscientist at Oxford University. "That leaves us with a lot more leisure and more space in our heads for thinking."

Beliefs and ideas therefore become our currency, says Taylor. Society is no longer a question of simple survival it is about choice of companions and views, pressures, ideas, options and preferences.

"It is quite an exciting development but for people outside the field, a very obvious one," says Halligan.

Understanding belief is not a trivial task, even for the seemingly simplest of human interactions. Take a conversation between two people. When one talks, the other's brain is processing information through their auditory system at a phenomenal rate. That person's beliefs act as filters for the deluge of sensory information and guide the brain's response.

Lieberman's recent work echoed parts of earlier research by Joel Winston of the University of London's Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience. Winston found that when he presented people with pictures of faces and asked them to rate the trustworthiness of each, the amygdalas showed a greater response to pictures of people who were specifically chosen to represent untrustworthiness. And it did not matter what each person actually said about the pictured faces.

"Even people who believe to their core that they do not have prejudices may still have negative associations that are not conscious," says Lieberman.

Beliefs also provide stability. When a new piece of sensory information comes in, it is assessed against these knowledge units before the brain works out whether or not it should be incorporated. People do it when they test the credibility of a politician or hear about a paranormal event.

Physically speaking, then, how does a belief exist in the brain? "My own position is to think of beliefs and memories as very similar," says Taylor. Memories are formed in the brain as networks of neurons that fire when stimulated by an event. The more times the network is employed, the more it fires and the stronger the memory becomes.

Halligan says that belief takes the concept of memory a step further. "A belief is a mental architecture of how we interpret the world," he says. "We have lots of fluid things moving by - perceptions and so forth - but at the level of who our friends are and so on, those things are consolidated in crystallised knowledge units. If we did not have those, every time we woke up, how would we know who we are?"

These knowledge units help to assess threats - via the amygdala - based on experience. Ralph Adolphs, a neurologist at the University of Iowa, found that if the amygdala was damaged, the ability of a person to recognise expressions of fear was impaired. A separate study by Adolphs with Simon Baron-Cohen at Cambridge University showed that amygdala damage had a bigger negative impact on the brain's ability to recognise social emotions, while more basic emotions seemed unaffected.

This work on the amygdala shows it is a key part of the threat-assessment response and, in no small part, in the formation of beliefs. Damage to this alarm bell - and subsequent inability to judge when a situation might be dangerous - can be life-threatening. In hunter-gatherer days, beliefs may have been fundamental to human survival.

Neuroscientists have long looked at brains that do not function properly to understand how healthy ones work. Researchers of belief formation do the same thing, albeit with a twist. "You look at people who have delusions," says Halligan. "The assumption is that a delusion is a false belief. That is saying that the content of it is wrong, but it still has the construct of a belief."

In people suffering from prosopagnosia, for example, parts of the brain are damaged so that the person can no longer recognise faces. In the Cotard delusion, people believe they are dead. Fregoli delusion is the belief that the sufferer is constantly being followed around by people in disguise. Capgras' delusion, named after its discoverer, the French psychiatrist Jean Marie Joseph Capgras, is a belief that someone emotionally close has been replaced by an identical impostor.

Until recently, these conditions were regarded as psychiatric problems. But closer study reveals that, in the case of Capgras' delusion for example, a significant proportion of sufferers had lesions in their brain, typically in the right hemisphere.

"There are studies indicating that some people who have suffered brain damage retain some of their religious or political beliefs," says Halligan. "That's interesting because whatever beliefs are, they must be held in memory."

Another route to understanding how beliefs form is to look at how they can be manipulated. In her book on the history of brainwashing, Taylor describes how everyone from the Chinese thought reform camps of the last century to religious cults have used systematic methods to persuade people to change their ideas, sometimes radically.

The first step is to isolate a person and control what information they receive. Their former beliefs need to be challenged by creating uncertainty. New messages need to be repeated endlessly. And the whole thing needs to be done in a pressured, emotional environment.

"Beliefs are mental objects in the sense that they are embedded in the brain," says Taylor. "If you challenge them by contradiction, or just by cutting them off from the stimuli that make you think about them, then they are going to weaken slightly. If that is combined with very strong reinforcement of new beliefs, then you're going to get a shift in emphasis from one to the other."

The mechanism Taylor describes is similar to the way the brain learns normally. In brainwashing though, the new beliefs are inserted through a much more intensified version of that process.

This manipulation of belief happens every day. Politics is a fertile arena, especially in times of anxiety.

"Stress affects the brain such that it makes people more likely to fall back on things they know well - stereotypes and simple ways of thinking," says Taylor.

"It is very easy to want to do that when everything you hold dear is being challenged. In a sense, it was after 9/11."

The stress of the terror attacks on the US in 2001 changed the way many Americans viewed the world, and Taylor argues that it left the population open to tricks of belief manipulation. A recent survey, for example, found that more than half of Americans thought Iraqis were involved in the attacks, despite the fact that nobody had come out and said it.

This method of association uses the brain against itself. If an event stimulates two sets of neurons, then the links between them get stronger. If one of them activates, it is more likely that the second set will also fire. In the real world, those two memories may have little to do with each other, but in the brain, they get associated.

Taylor cites an example from a recent manifesto by the British National Party, which argues that asylum seekers have been dumped on Britain and that they should be made to clear up rubbish from the streets. "What they are trying to do is to link the notion of asylum seekers with all the negative emotions you get from reading about garbage, [but] they are not actually coming out and saying asylum seekers are garbage," she says.

The 9/11 attacks highlight another extreme in the power of beliefs. "Belief could drive people to agree to premeditate something like that in the full knowledge that they would all die," says Halligan of the hijacker pilots.

It is unlikely that beliefs as wide-ranging as justice, religion, prejudice or politics are simply waiting to be found in the brain as discrete networks of neurons, each encoding for something different. "There's probably a whole combination of things that go together," says Halligan.

And depending on the level of significance of a belief, there could be several networks at play. Someone with strong religious beliefs, for example, might find that they are more emotionally drawn into certain discussions because they have a large number of neural networks feeding into that belief.

"If you happen to have a predisposition, racism for example, then it may be that you see things in a certain way and you will explain it in a certain way," says Halligan.

He argues that the reductionist approach of social neuroscience will alter the way people study society. "If you are brain scanning, what are the implications for privacy in terms of knowing another's thoughts? And being able to use those, as some governments are implying, in terms of being able to detect terrorists and things like that," he says. "If you move down the line in terms of potential uses for these things, you have potential uses for education and for treatments being used as cognitive enhancers."

So far, social neuroscience has provided more questions than answers. Ralph Adolphs of the University of Iowa looked to the future in a review paper for Nature. "How can causal networks explain the many correlations between brain and behaviour that we are discovering? Can large-scale social behaviour, as studied by political science and economics, be understood by studying social cognition in individual subjects? Finally, what power will insights from cognitive neuroscience give us to influence social behaviour, and hence society? And to what extent would such pursuit be morally defensible?"

The answers to those questions may well shape people's understanding of what it really means to believe.


The hidden ways that architecture affects how you feel

More than 70 years on, he would doubtless be pleased to learn that neuroscientists and psychologists have found plenty of evidence to back him up.

Urban metropolises, like Tokyo, juggle layout design, access to greenery, and visual appeal - all of which have psychological effects on residents. (Credit: Alamy Stock Photo)

We now know, for example, that buildings and cities can affect our mood and well-being, and that specialised cells in the hippocampal region of our brains are attuned to the geometry and arrangement of the spaces we inhabit.

Yet urban architects have often paid scant attention to the potential cognitive effects of their creations on a city’s inhabitants. The imperative to design something unique and individual tends to override considerations of how it might shape the behaviours of those who will live with it. That could be about to change.

“There are some really good [evidence-based] guidelines out there” on how to design user-friendly buildings, says Ruth Dalton, who studies both architecture and cognitive science at Northumbria University in Newcastle. “A lot of architects choose to ignore them. Why is that?”

Today, thanks to psychological studies, we have a much better idea of the kind of urban environments that people like or find stimulating

Last month, the Conscious Cities Conference in London considered how cognitive scientists might make their discoveries more accessible to architects. The conference brought together architects, designers, engineers, neuroscientists and psychologists, all of whom increasingly cross paths at an academic level, but still rarely in practice.

One of the conference speakers, Alison Brooks, an architect who specialises in housing and social design, told BBC Future that psychology-based insights could change how cities are built. “If science could help the design profession justify the value of good design and craftsmanship, it would be a very powerful tool and quite possibly transform the quality of the built environment,” she says.

Researchers have begun monitoring how urban structures, like skyscrapers, physiologically affect citizens, their mental states, and moods. (Credit: Alamy Stock Photo)

Greater interaction across the disciplines would, for example, reduce the chances of repeating such architectural horror stories as the 1950s Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St Louis, Missouri, whose 33 featureless apartment blocks – designed by Minoru Yamasaki, also responsible for the World Trade Center – quickly became notorious for their crime, squalor and social dysfunction. Critics argued that the wide open spaces between the blocks of modernist high-rises discouraged a sense of community, particularly as crime rates started to rise. They were eventually demolished in 1972.

Pruitt-Igoe was not an outlier. The lack of behavioural insight behind the modernist housing projects of that era, with their sense of isolation from the wider community and ill-conceived public spaces, made many of them feel, in the words of British grime artist Tinie Tempah, who grew up in one, as if they’d been “designed for you not to succeed”.

Today, thanks to psychological studies, we have a much better idea of the kind of urban environments that people like or find stimulating. Some of these studies have attempted to measure subjects’ physiological responses in situ, using wearable devices such as bracelets that monitor skin conductance (a marker of physiological arousal), smartphone apps that ask subjects about their emotional state, and electroencephalogram (EEG) headsets that measure brain activity relating to mental states and mood.

The design of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complexes in St Louis was criticised for alienating communities and stoking racial segregation. (Credit: Alamy Stock Photo)

This adds a layer of information that is otherwise difficult to get at,” said Colin Ellard, who researches the psychological impact of design at the University of Waterloo in Canada. “When we ask people about their stress they say it’s no big deal, yet when we measure their physiology we discover that their responses are off the charts. The difficulty is that your physiological state is the one that impacts your health.” Taking a closer look at these physiological states could shed light on how city design affects our bodies.

One of Ellard’s most consistent findings is that people are strongly affected by building façades. If the façade is complex and interesting, it affects people in a positive way negatively if it is simple and monotonous. For example, when he walked a group of subjects past the long, smoked-glass frontage of a Whole Foods store in Lower Manhattan, their arousal and mood states took a dive, according to the wristband readings and on-the-spot emotion surveys. They also quickened their pace as if to hurry out of the dead zone. They picked up considerably when they reached a stretch of restaurants and stores, where (not surprisingly) they reported feeling a lot more lively and engaged.

The writer and urban specialist Charles Montgomery, who collaborated with Ellard on his Manhattan study, has said this points to “an emerging disaster in street psychology”. In his book Happy City, he warns: “As suburban retailers begin to colonise central cities, block after block of bric-a-brac and mom-and-pop-scale buildings and shops are being replaced by blank, cold spaces that effectively bleach street edges of conviviality.”

Urban living can change brain biology in some people

Another oft-replicated finding is that having access to green space such as woodland or a park can offset some of the stress of city living.

Cities like Vancouver, whose design and building policies accommodate nearby natural greenery, are often surveyed as popular places to live. (Credit: Alamy Stock Photo)

Vancouver, which surveys consistently rate as one of the most popular cities to live in, has made a virtue of this, with its downtown building policies geared towards ensuring that residents have a decent view of the mountains, forest and ocean to the north and west. As well as being restorative, green space appears to improve health. A study of the population of England in 2008 found that the health effects of inequality, which tends to increase the risk of circulatory disease among those lower down the socioeconomic scale, are far less pronounced in greener areas.

How so? One theory is that the visual complexity of natural environments acts as a kind of mental balm. That would fit with Ellard’s findings in downtown Manhattan, and also with a 2013 virtual reality experiment in Iceland in which participants viewed various residential street scenes and found the ones with the most architectural variation the most mentally engaging. Another VR study, published this year, concluded that most people feel better in rooms with curved edges and rounded contours than in sharp-edged rectangular rooms – though (tellingly perhaps) the design students among the participants preferred the opposite.

The importance of urban design goes far beyond feel-good aesthetics. A number of studies have shown that growing up in a city doubles the chances of someone developing schizophrenia, and increases the risk for other mental disorders such as depression and chronic anxiety.

The main trigger appears to be what researchers call “social stress” – the lack of social bonding and cohesion in neighbourhoods. Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg at the University of Heidelberg has shown that urban living can change brain biology in some people, resulting in reduced gray matter in the right dosolateral prefrontal cortex and the perigenual anterior cingulate cortex, two areas where changes have previously been linked to early-life stressful experiences.

It sounds counterintuitive: surely the sheer number of people makes social interaction more likely. While this may be true superficially, the kind of meaningful social interactions that are crucial for mental health do not come easily in cities. Social isolation is now recognised by urban authorities as a major risk factor for many illnesses. Is it possible to design against it, to build in a way that encourages connection?

One of the first to try was the sociologist William Whyte, who advised urban planners to arrange objects and artefacts in public spaces in ways that nudged people physically closer together and made it more likely they would talk to each other, a process he called “triangulation”.

Visual complexity of natural environments acts as a kind of mental balm

In 1975, the Project for Public Spaces, founded by one of Whyte’s colleagues, transformed the way people used the Rockefeller Center in New York City by placing benches alongside the yew trees in its basement concourse (instead of the people-repelling spikes the management had originally wanted). The architectural firm Snohetta has followed a similar principle in Times Square, introducing long sculpted granite benches to emphasise that the iconic space, once clogged with cars, is now a haven for pedestrians.

Enriching public spaces will not banish loneliness from cities, but it could help by making residents feel more engaged and comfortable with their surroundings. “Living among millions of strangers is a very unnatural state of affairs for a human being,” says Ellard. “One of the jobs of a city is to accommodate that problem. How do you build a society where people treat each other kindly in that kind of setting? That is more likely to happen when people feel good. If you feel positive you’re more likely to speak to a stranger.”

One thing that is guaranteed to make people feel negative about living in a city is a constant sense of being lost or disorientated. Some cities are easier to navigate than others – New York’s grid-like street pattern makes it relatively straightforward, whereas London, with its hotchpotch of neighbourhoods all orientated differently and the Thames meandering through the middle, is notoriously confusing. At the Conscious Cities conference, Kate Jeffery, a behavioural neuroscientist at University College London who studies navigation in rats and other animals, made the point that to feel connected to a place you need to know how things relate to each other spatially. In other words, you need a sense of direction. Places with rotational symmetry, which look the same whichever direction you look at them from – Piccadilly Circus, for example – are a “nightmare” for orientation, she said.

One thing that is guaranteed to make people feel negative about living in a city is a constant sense of being lost or disorientated

A sense of direction is equally important inside buildings. One of the most notoriously disorientating buildings is the Seattle Central Library, which has won multiple awards for its architecture. Northumbria University’s Dalton, who has studied the building for several years and has edited a book about it, says she finds it fascinating that a place so “universally admired by architects … can be so dysfunctional”.

The Seattle Public Library has won architecture awards, but some visitors have said it is confusing, proving interiors should facilitate a sense of direction. (Credit: Alamy)

One of the issues with the library is the huge one-way escalators that sweep visitors from the ground floor into the upper reaches with no obvious means of descent. “I think there was a desire by the architects to try and thwart expectations and be a bit edgy,” says Dalton. “Unfortunately when it comes to navigation, our expectations are there for a good reason. There are very few situations in the real world where you can go from A to B via one route and you’re forced to take a different route from B back to A. That really confuses people.” On an online forum, one of the library’s users commented that she had “left the building as soon as I could figure out how to get out, hoping I wouldn’t have an anxiety attack first.’’

But that’s the thing about cities: people who live in them do a good job of making them feel like them home despite all the design and architectural obstacles that may confront them, be it in a byzantine library or a sprawling park.

A visible manifestation of this are the “desire lines” that wend their way across grassy curbs and parks marking people’s preferred paths across the city. They represent a kind of mass rebellion against the prescribed routes of architects and planners. Dalton sees them as part of a city’s “distributed consciousness” – a shared knowledge of where others have been and where they might go in the future – and imagines how it might affect our behaviour if desire lines (or “social trails” as she calls them) could be generated digitally on pavements and streets.

She is getting at a point that architects, neuroscientists and psychologists all seem to agree on: that successful design is not so much about how our buildings can shape us, as Churchill had it, but about making people feel they have some control over their environment. Or as Jeffery put it at Conscious Cities, that we’re “creatures of the place we’re in”. Welcome to the new era of neuro-architecture.


Childhood stress can leave changes in the adult brain

Kids younger than six who experience abuse or other stresses can end up with brain changes that may never go away.

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September 17, 2015 at 6:00 am

The brain is a remarkable organ. It’s responsible for thoughts and feelings. It tells your muscles to move. It even can grow or shrink depending on what’s happening in your environment. Now a new study finds that going through tough times as a kid also can have an impact. That stress can change the size and shape of the brain.

The adult brains of people who lived through lots of stress before the age of six — and then became depressed or anxious as teenagers — were different than in adults who had an easier childhood. It seems that teens changed the shape of their brains by internalizing the stresses experienced years earlier — replaying those events in the mind and bottling up the emotions they triggered.

Researchers already knew that the shape and size of a child’s brain can change in response to lots of stress. They also knew that adults were more likely to be depressed if, as kids, they’d been abused, lived in poverty or faced other hard times. Some studies showed that these depressed adults had unusual changes in their brain shape. But no one had tested if the early stress and later brain changes were linked.

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Scientists in England studied almost 500 boys from birth until the ages of 18 to 21. Throughout those years, the boys’ moms answered questions about different types of stress their children had been experiencing. Had a parent died? Was the mother being abused? Was the family poor? Did the family pack up its belongings and move a lot? Once the boys reached adolescence, the list of questions began to also ask about whether the boys seemed sad, depressed or anxious.

Later, when the guys reached young adulthood, the research team created pictures of the structures in their brains using a technology known as MRI, for magnetic resonance imaging. The brain is mostly made up of white matter and gray matter. White matter acts like the brain’s subway system it connects different areas of gray matter to each other, helping messages travel quickly. Gray matter is what covers the brain’s surface. It’s gray in color and partly made of special cells called neurons. Gray matter helps process information in the brain, such as telling your muscles to pull your hand away if it touches a hot surface. The scientists focused on the amount of gray matter present.

Boys who’d had really tough lives before the age of six were more likely to be depressed or withdrawn as teenagers, the surveys showed. Those boys also were more likely to grow up with gray-matter changes, compared with others who had much less stressful childhoods. In some regions of the brain, the volume of gray matter appeared to have shrunk. Another brain area showed what seemed to be a bonus amount of that gray matter.

And these changes weren’t random.

The superior frontal gyrus (JY-rus) is a part of the brain that some studies have linked with depression. In the new study, young men who had survived a stressful childhood and then later became very depressed or anxious as teenagers had less gray matter in this area. Or at least they had less compared with the men whose early years had been more peaceful. The fact that the teenagers had internalized their emotions had been key, the researchers concluded.

But a different part of the brain had more gray matter than usual in the men who experienced early stress. Called the precuneus (pre-KEW-nee-us), this area has been linked to processing abuse and other harsh experiences. The scientists now wonder whether excess gray matter in the precuneus might be evidence of the brain trying to cope with that stress and abuse.

Learning from the new data

Sarah Jensen, one of the new study’s authors, works at King’s College London in England. There, she is studying to be a psychologist. The precuneus is involved in the brain’s “default mode,” she notes. In healthy people, this default mode becomes active during daydreaming, mind wandering and self-reflection. But when the default mode isn’t working right, she says, it can be linked to depression.

Almost all of the boys her team studied experienced some hard times as kids. And, she concludes, “This is not necessarily harmful.” To some extent, that’s just life. What can be dangerous, she says, is when children experience too many forms of adversity. Her team’s new data suggest that the tougher the childhood, the stronger the impact on the brain might be.

Experiencing stress and internalizing problems have both been linked with having less gray matter, notes Ted Barker. He is a developmental psychologist at King’s College London. He also worked on the new study. His team’s analyses now point to how important it is for kids to talk to others if they’re feeling blue.

“I would say that if you feel that you have problems, you’re very anxious or have a lot of depressive-type thinking, that it’s good to talk to people,” Barker says. Indeed, he says, don’t keep problems bottled up inside.

What’s happening in the world around us relates to how we feel, he says. His team linked more childhood stress to more depression-like symptoms in young adulthood. Still, he notes, it’s possible that if you find support for anxiety or depression, you might be able to prevent the gray-matter changes seen here.

“If you can change the environment, you can change the course of things,” Barker says. So, he recommends, if teens develop anxiety or depression, “It’s good to ask for help.”

His team’s study appeared August 17 in JAMA Pediatrics.

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

anterior cingulate cortex A part deep inside the brain located right between the eyes. This strip of neurons (nerve cells) surrounds a large white ridge in the center of the brain. The anterior cingulate cortex is important in many functions, including helping to regulate your blood pressure. But it also plays cognitive roles too, helping us with decision-making, controlling impulses, regulating emotions and the intensity of our feelings for other people.

anxiety (adj. anxious) A nervous disorder causing excessive uneasiness and apprehension. People with anxiety may even develop panic attacks.

depression (adj. depressive) A mental illness characterized by persistent sadness and apathy. Although these feelings can be triggered by events, such as the death of a loved one or the move to a new city, that isn’t typically considered an “illness” — unless the symptoms are prolonged and harm an individual’s ability to perform normal daily tasks (such as working, sleeping or interacting with others). People suffering from depression often feel they lack the energy needed to get anything done. They may have difficulty concentrating on things or showing an interest in normal events. Many times, these feelings seem to be triggered by nothing they can appear out of nowhere.

development (adj. developmental) The growth of an organism from conception through adulthood, often undergoing changes in chemistry, size and sometimes even shape.

gray matter One of two main types of tissue found in the brain and spinal cord. It consists mainly of nerve cell bodies.

internalize (in psychology) To hold thoughts or emotions inside and not talk about them. To ruminate over the bad things, such as the loneliness, the fears or the sad feelings one has.

magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) An imaging technique to visualize soft, internal organs, like the brain, muscles, heart and cancerous tumors. MRI uses strong magnetic fields to record the activity of individual atoms.

neuron or nerve cell Any of the impulse-conducting cells that make up the brain, spinal column and nervous system. These specialized cells transmit information to other neurons in the form of electrical signals.

organ (in biology) Various parts of an organism that perform one or more particular functions. For instance, an ovary is an organ that makes eggs, the brain is an organ that interprets nerve signals and a plant’s roots are organs that take in nutrients and moisture.

precuneus This is a part of the brain located towards the back and just to either side of the big central part that runs beneath the top of your scalp from front to back. It’s between our major sensory cortex (which processes touch) and our main visual cortex (which processes sight). The precuneus is involved in many important things including consciousness, memory and even our sense of self.

psychology The study of the human mind, especially in relation to actions and behavior. Scientists and mental-health professionals who work in this field are known as psychologists.

stress (in biology) A factor, such as unusual temperatures, moisture or pollution, that affects the health of a species or ecosystem. (in psychology) A mental, physical, emotional, or behavioral reaction to an event or circumstance, or stressor, that disturbs a person or animal’s usual state of being or places increased demands on a person or animal psychological stress can be either positive or negative.

superior frontal gyrus This is a part of the brain located behind the forehead. It’s involved in higher-level thinking, memory and laughter.

white matter One of the two main tissue types found in the brain and spinal cord. It consists mainly of bundles of nerve fibers.

Citations

S. Ornes. “Back off, bullies!”Science News for Students. May 12, 2015.

A. Pearce Stevens. “Stress for success.” Science News for Students. March 20, 2015.

H. Westrup. “Loneliness can breed disease.” Science News for Students. April 19, 2014.

L. Sanders. “Inheriting fear.” Science News for Students. December 7, 2013.

S. Ornes. “Baby’s stress can last decades.” Science News for Students. December 4, 2012.

Original Journal Source: Jensen et al. Effect of early adversity and childhood internalizing symptoms on brain structure in young men. JAMA Pediatrics. Published online August 17, 2015. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.1486.

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Being an Only Child Can Actually Change The Structure of Your Brain

Scientists have discovered that being an only child doesn't just lead to behavioural differences that can set kids apart from those with siblings - it actually affects a child's brain development, too.

A new study comparing brain scans of only children and others who grew up with siblings has revealed significant differences in the participants' grey matter volume, and researchers say it's the first neurological evidence in this area linking changes in brain structure to differing behaviours.

To investigate if only children demonstrated neurological differences from their peers who grew up with brothers and sisters, researchers at Southwest University in China recruited 303 college-age students.

The mix of young people in China offers a broad pool of candidates for this area of research, owing to the nation's long-lasting one-child policy, which limited many but not all families to only raising a single child in between 1979 and 2015.

The common stereotype about being an only child is that growing up without siblings influences an individual's behaviour and personality traits, making them more selfish and less likely to share with their peers.

Previous research has borne some of this conventional wisdom out - but also demonstrated that only children can receive cognitive benefits as a result of their solo upbringing.

The participants in this latest study were approximately half only children (and half children with siblings), and were given cognitive tests designed to measure their intelligence, creativity, and personality, in addition to scanning their brains with MRI machines.

Although the results didn't demonstrate any difference in terms of intelligence between the two groups, they did reveal that only children exhibited greater flexibility in their thinking - a key marker of creativity per the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking.

While only children showed greater flexibility, they also demonstrated less agreeableness in personality tests under what's called the Revised NEO Personality Inventory. Agreeableness is one of the five chief measures tested under the system, with the other four being extraversion, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience.

But more importantly than the behavioural data - which have been the focus of many other studies - the MRI results actually demonstrated neurological differences in the participants' grey matter volume (GMV) as a result of their upbringing.

In particular, the results showed that only children showed greater supramarginal gyrus volumes - a portion of the parietal lobe thought to be associated with language perception and processing, and which in the study correlated to the only children's greater flexibility.

By contrast, the brains of only children revealed less volume in other areas, including the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) - associated with emotional regulation, such as personality and social behaviours - which the team found to be correlated with their lower scores on agreeableness.

While the researchers aren't drawing firm conclusions on why only children exhibit these differences, they suggest it's possible that parents may foster greater creativity in only children by devoting more time to them - and possibly placing greater expectations on them.

Meanwhile, they hypothesise that only children's lesser agreeableness could result from excessive attention from family members, less exposure to external social groups, and more focus on solitary activities while growing up.

It's important to note that there are some limitations to the study - first off, all the participants were highly educated young people taken from a specific part of the world, and the results only reflect testing from one point in time.

That said, the researchers say it's the first evidence that differences in the anatomical structures of the brain are linked to differing behaviour in terms of flexibility and agreeableness.

"Additionally, our results contribute to the understanding of the neuroanatomical basis of the differences in cognitive function and personality between only-children and non-only-children," the authors write in their study.

While there's still a lot we don't understand about what's going on here, it's clear that there's a link between our family environments and the way our brain structure develops, and it'll be fascinating to see where this direction of research takes us in the future.


Brain Development: Conception to Age 3

Decades of research show that the environment of a child’s earliest years can have effects that last a lifetime. The biological embedding of early experience in brain development is supported by numerous studies. 1 Thanks to recent advances in studying the brain, we have a clearer understanding of how these effects are related to building early brain architecture. Neuroscientists can now identify patterns of brain activity that are associated with various types of toxic stress, such as growing up in poverty. 2

Although the dangers of early toxic stress, like poverty, neglect and maltreatment, have long been recognized, we can now ‘see’ their effects using brain scanning technology. Scientists continue to do research to determine exactly how experiences affect development, and exciting advances continue to enhance intervention and prevention efforts. 3

The architecture of a child’s brain is affected by early experiences.

Specialized brain cells called neurons send and receive information by forming connections with one another. The connection is called a ‘synapse’. The newborn brain continues to add neurons over the first few years of life and grows at an amazing rate. It doubles in size in the first year, and by age three it reaches 80 percent of its adult volume. 4-6 This growth is due mostly to neuron growth and new synapses being made.

Even more importantly, connections are formed at a faster rate during these years than at any other time. In fact, the brain creates many more connections than it needs: at age two or three, the brain has up to twice as many connections as it will have in adulthood (FIGURE 1). The experiences of a child play a big role in determining which surplus connections are gradually eliminated throughout childhood and adolescence, a process sometimes referred to as pruning. 7

The growth and pruning of connections responsible for specific functions like vision, language or learning, occur at different rates.

Senses like hearing, vision and touch mature rapidly and are especially responsive to early external input during early infancy. The connections that are important for language development and social interactions mature over a longer period of time, but are particularly sensitive in toddlers (FIGURE 2).

For these skills, the first 3 years is the period when the brain can “capture” experience more efficiently than it will be able to later, when the pruning of unused connections is underway. 7

Genetic and environmental factors work together to shape early brain development.

Although the first stages of brain development are strongly affected by genetic factors, genes do not design the brain completely. 8,9 Instead, when and where genes are used is fine-tuned according to the input they receive from the environment – this happens even during pregnancy when maternal nutrition and stress can influence the early phases of brain architecture. These gene-environment relations allow for each child to adapt to their surroundings more readily and more quickly than they could if genes alone determined the brain’s wiring. 10 There are two major ways that genes and environment work together to sculpt the brain.

One is through inheriting certain forms of genes that can have very different interactions with the environment. 11 The second is through environmental influences that can alter the read-out of genes without changes to the genes themselves. This second process is becoming better understood thanks to recent research in a relatively new scientific field called epigenetics .

The field of epigenetics has changed our understanding of how the environment interacts with our genes and how genes interact with the environment.

Epigenetics (meaning ‘above’ genetics) is the study of enduring changes in gene activity that do not change the DNA code itself, but through chemical changes, do influence how the code is used. Many environmental factors and experiences result in chemical ‘marks’ on certain parts of genes, and these epigenetic changes can influence the activity, or ‘expression’, of the gene. 12

You can think of the epigenetic processes as the software that directs the functioning of a gene’s DNA hardware. Because the development of all cells, tissues, and organs is affected by when and how specific genes are expressed, epigenetic processes can be a powerful influence on health and well-being.

Animal research shows that epigenetic changes can be long-lasting and even can be passed from one generation to the next.

So far, much of what we know about epigenetics comes from research on animals. Numerous studies now show how genetic activity can be altered by exposure to different foods, toxins, and powerful experiences. One remarkable illustration of how potent epigenetics can be was done in genetically identical pregnant mice (like identical twins). The mothers all carried genetic information that gave rise to a yellow coat color, obesity, and vulnerability to disease. Half of the pregnant mothers received a normal diet while the other half was fed a diet high in compounds that can result in modified DNA through epigenetic mechanisms. Interestingly, the offspring of the ‘normal’ diet group resembled their mothers in coat and weight and health outcomes. The offspring from the second diet group were more likely to have brown fur, normal weight, and no increased disease risk (FIGURE 3). But like their mothers, all of the offspring in both groups had identical DNA sequences. The differences in color, weight, and health were due to differences in how genes were expressed following epigenetic changes to a specific gene. This resulted in dramatic changes in terms of how the mice appeared and even their improved health outlook. In distinction to this positive outcome, research now tells us that there are a number of external factors that occur prenatally, such as exposure to alcohol or environmental toxins that lead to negative alterations in the DNA changes and negative health outcomes.

Remarkably, the healthier female offspring eventually became pregnant and gave birth to babies that showed the same traits—brown fur, normal weight, and low disease risk—even though this third generation went back to receiving a normal diet. This experiment, and others like it, shows how influential the environment can be on epigenetics, which can have effects from one generation to the next.

Source: Illustration by Bill Day adapted from Waterland, RA., Jirtle, RL. Transposable elements: Target for early nutritional effects on epigenetic gene regulation. Molecular and Cellular Biology. 2003 23(15):5293–5300

In another series of experiments, adult mice that had received generous amounts of licking and grooming from their mothers as pups were less anxious and had lower levels of stress hormones than those raised by mothers who showed anxious behavior and were not as nurturing. How can the differences in mother-pup interactions result in long-lasting changes in stress responses? A second phase of research was done to show that it wasn’t due to genetic differences between the different moms. To show this, pups from higher care moms were switched at birth to be with the lower care moms. The scientists also did the opposite – switch the pups from lower care moms to be with the higher care moms.

The results showed the powerful impact of early experience. Babies born to high-nurturing mothers, but switched to be raised by low-nurturing mothers grew up to express increased levels of anxious behavior similar to their foster moms. Remarkably, the mouse pups born to low-nurturing mothers but raised by high-nurturing mothers showed less anxiety. The studies also showed that a specific gene that controls stress response was expressed more highly in the mice raised by higher care moms, compared to those raised by lower care moms. 13

Epigenetics is strongly related to early brain development.

We know that children’s experiences during the first years of life are strongly associated with long-term cognitive, emotional, and social outcomes. 14 And we know that the quality of a child’s early experiences affects the development and function of the growing brain. But discovering how these processes occur has been challenging. The growing body of research on epigenetic processes, which are especially active early in development, 15 is likely to provide new answers to how adversity threatens optimal development.

For ethical and practical reasons, it is harder to study the gene/ environment relationship in humans than in animals. Still, scientists have already found convincing evidence of epigenetic effects in human development. In one study, women who were pregnant during a severe famine tended to give birth to underweight infants. When these babies grew up and became parents themselves, they also tended to have underweight children, even though their own food intake since birth had not been affected by the famine. 16 Other studies have found that childhood abuse is associated with lifelong decreased activation of a gene that protects against high levels of stress hormones. 12 Recent research has found that experiences during a child’s early life can result in epigenetic changes that are apparent even when the child reaches adolescence. 11,17

Studies show that high stress and low nurturing in the first stages of life impair the development of healthy brain architecture. These effects are especially dramatic in brain areas related to memory, learning, and social and emotional adjustment. 13

Epigenetic research supports the importance of a preventive approach to child health and well-being.

Epigenetic processes indicate that development is remarkably flexible. But in the absence of prevention or interventions, epigenetic changes – and their effects on behavior and health – can be stable once they occur. Moreover, research tells us that such changes can be transmitted from generation to generation. 18 Whether they can become permanent is not yet known, but even when the conditions that created an epigenetic mark no longer exist, it is likely to take several generations before it begins to fade. 12

In other words, epigenetics makes a strong argument that prevention is the best policy approach for protecting young children from the effects of toxic stress. Early exposure to chronic stressors, such as regularly witnessing violence, caregiver neglect or abuse, poor nutrition, and other environmental hazards can have long-lasting and powerful effects on adult physical and mental well-being. Research is giving us a better understanding of epigenetic changes that occur due to early adverse experiences, which will lead to the development of more effective intervention and prevention programs to protect young children from adverse experiences in the first years of life. 19,20


Types of Learning

In addition to the kinds of learning that occur on a day-to-day basis, there are a number of other experiences that can play a major role in shaping a child's development.

Parents and Caregivers

The experiences that parents and other caregivers provide during the earliest years of a child's life can be some of the most crucial.

While some children might receive enriched childhood experiences from parents who are responsive, caring and attentive, other children might receive less attention and their parents might be distracted by worrying about money, work, or relationship issues.

As you might imagine, such varying experiences can have a dramatic impact on how these children develop.

Children raised in nurturing environments might be more secure, confident, and capable of dealing with later challenges, while those raised in less enriched settings might feel anxious and unable to cope with life's difficulties.

Peers

While a child's early social experiences may be centered on family members, this soon expands to other kids at the playground, in the neighborhood, and at school. Because children spend so much time interacting with peers in school, it may come as no surprise that other children have a major influence on a child's psychology and development.

Children are very influenced by their peers, and these social experiences help shape a child's values and personality. Peer relationships can have a significant effect on development, both in positive and negative ways. Bullying, in particular, can have an enormously detrimental effect on a child's experience of growing up.

Education

School makes up an enormous part of a child's life. Teachers and classmates play a major role in making up a child's experiences, and academics and learning also leave their mark on development.  

Remember that genetics and the environment are always interacting in a dynamic way. A child's genetic background will influence his ability to learn, but good educational experiences can enhance these abilities.

Some kids might struggle with learning disabilities influenced by genetics, but quality educational interventions can help kids learn and do well in school.  

Culture

There are many different influences that can play a role in how a child grows and the person they eventually become. The culture that a child lives in adds yet another element to this already complex mix.

For example, parents raising kids in individualistic cultures might focus on helping their kids develop autonomy and self-esteem, while parents in collectivist cultures are more likely to stress the importance of community, family, and society.

Even within the same culture, variations in things like social status, income, and educational background can have an impact on how kids are raised. High-income parents might be more concerned with getting their kids into the best private schools, while low-income parents spend more time worrying about whether their children's most basic needs are met. Such disparities can lead to dramatic differences in experience, which can, in turn, have a powerful impact on how kids develop.


Most kids grow dramatically during the adolescent and teen years. Their young brains, particularly the prefrontal cortex that is used to make decisions, are growing and developing, until their mid-20’s.

Long-term drug use causes brain changes that can set people up for addiction and other problems. Once a young person is addicted, his or her brain changes so that drugs are now the top priority. He or she will compulsively seek and use drugs even though doing so brings devastating consequences to his or her life, and for those who care about him.

Alcohol can interfere with developmental processes occurring in the brain. For weeks or months after a teen stops drinking heavily, parts of the brain still struggle to work correctly. Drinking at a young age is also associated with the development of alcohol dependence later in life.

What is Addiction?

No one plans to become addicted to a drug. Instead, it begins with a single use, which can lead to abuse, which can lead to addiction.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as:

A chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences. Addiction is a brain disease because drugs change the brain’s structure and how it works. These brain changes can be long lasting, and lead to harmful behaviors seen in people who abuse drugs.

The good news is that addiction is treatable. The treatment approach to substance abuse depends on several factors, including a child’s temperament and willingness to change. It may take several attempts at treatment before a child remains drug-free. For those teens who are treated for addiction, will have a life of recovery. For more information on addiction go to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

The Addiction Series

How does drug addiction change someone's brain?Why do some people get addicted and others don't?"The Addiction Series," created by the Addiction Policy Forum, explores the answers to these questions and much much more.


Watch the video: Korskirken - Herlev - animation. arkitekt: insitu arkitekter maa (January 2022).