Brain development has been studied extensively and the work continues today. Our brain’s ability to change and shape itself was once thought to occur only in childhood. Today, we know more than ever about the intricate workings of the brain and that not only does brain development continue into later years, but the brain has the capacity to heal damaged parts and create new pathways throughout our entire lifetime.
Researchers at Yale University conducted a study to look at gene activity in the cerebral neurocortex, a thin layered structure that surrounds the mammalian brain and is associated with perception, behavior and cognition. The study looked at the gene activity in this region during different stages of life: before birth, during childhood and before the teen years. What they found is that gene activity is very high during the first six months after conception, but then in the third trimester, most of the genes associated with the neurocortex are quieted. During childhood, the brain spends time connecting various regions within itself and then, in early adolescence, genetic activity resumes and the brain actually takes shape and begins more complex tasks. Previous research shows that several neural connections that were formed during childhood undergo a sort of “pruning”, removing unnecessary connections to make room for growth. Researchers went on to explain that the human brain is more like a community than a single building and spends more time making connections to various “neighborhoods” before undertaking more complex missions. The neighborhoods are made quickly and then everything slows down so the neocortex can focus solely on developing connections, like an electrical grid.
As we understand more about these inner workings of brain development, we also learn more about how environment and overall health at a young age affects overall health at later stages in life. Good health lays the groundwork for sturdy brain architecture and a broad range of learning abilities. The flip side of that being that the effects of adversity early in life can be serious and long lasting, affecting many different things in the body from metabolism to heart health and the ability to fight off infection and disease. Reducing stress in early life is critical for optimal health in our adult years. Harvard researchers have named three foundations necessary for healthy development: stable, responsive relationships, safe and supportive environments and appropriate nutrition. The state of these foundations has been shown to influence lifelong outcomes in health, learning and behavior.
However, even for the healthiest among us, there are factors that can lead to injury or changes to the brain. Stroke, traumatic brain injury, and several medical conditions can all lead to the need for rehabilitation starting with the brain. Up until as recent as the 1960’s, many researchers believed that changes in the brain were only possible in childhood and that by early adulthood, our brain’s physical structure was permanent. Modern research has shown that the brain continues to create new pathways and alter existing pathways to continue learning and create new memories. This ability, or neuroplasticity, is also how our brain works to rehabilitate the brain and body when injury to the brain has occurred, opening new doors to treatment for many conditions including strokes, traumatic brain injury, chronic pain, even phantom limb pain, never thought possible before. As research into this fascinating area of study continues, more and more success stories are being heard from patients working with their doctors to harness the power of the brain as a drug-free and non-invasive treatment plan.