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Brain Development: Critical Periods

During the development of the brain there are certain critical periods. These have have a great influence on further development. Read more here...

The building and refining of the network of neurons that constitutes the brain in mammals, including humans, continues well after birth. The numerous neuronal connections are fine-tuned by constant interactions with the organisms surroundings.

Critical Periods

During critical periods, changes occur in the wiring of the complex network that is the brain. These critical periods are windows of time during development during which the nervous system has to obtain certain critical experiences, such as sensory, movement or emotional input in order to develop properly.

After such a critical period, the number of connections diminishes and they are less subject to change, but those connections that remain, are stronger, more reliable, and more precise. Injury and social or sensory deprivation occurring at a certain stage in postnatal development may affect an aspect of development, while a similar injury or form of deprivation at a different period in the life of the organism might possibly affect a completely different aspect.

A (Rather Sad) Example

In one example, often used to illustrate the concept of critical periods during brain development, a monkey is raised from birth to an age of six months with one eyelid permanently closed. Because of this diminished use of the eye, the animal permanently loses useful vision in that specific eye. One could call it a cellular viewpoint on the saying ‘use it or lose it’. The loss of vision ensuing from the sensory deprivation in the early life of the monkey is caused by the actual loss of functional connections between that eye and the corresponding neurons in the visual cortex of the brain. This finding has led to an earlier and better treatment for the eye disorders of congenital cataracts and ‘crossed eyes’ in children.

Environmental Enrichment

Several studies have convincingly shown that enriched environments can bolster brain development in early periods of postnatal life. For example, studies have shown that animals brought up in an environment filled with different kind of toys have more branches on their neurons and more connections between neurons than animals brought up in isolation. In a relatively recent study, scientists have found that enriched environments resulted in more neurons in a brain area that is greatly involved in the working and capacity of the memory.

Further Research

Scientists are hoping that new insights into brain development will lead to treatments for those with learning disabilities, brain damage and neurodegenerative disorder, as well as helping us understand the process of aging.

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