Neuroethics Society Meeting: Environmental Factors Impacting the Developing Brain

It’s not just genetics, it’s not just diet—many factors contribute to healthy brain development in people, which continues until about 25 years of age. At yesterday’s International Neuroethics Society (INS) panel, “The Brain in Context,” three neuroscientists talked about different aspects of the physical and social environments that can affect the developing brain.

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Even before a baby is born, in utero processes can have long-term effects on brain development. Panelist Moriah Thomason of Wayne State University uses fMRI to study how the different regions of the fetal brain communicate with each other. In a longitudinal, Detroit-based study, she and her colleagues found that babies born pre-term show less brain connectivity than those born full-term. Of particular note, a small area on the left side of the brain associated with language processing showed weaker connectivity with other brain areas.

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Music and the Arts Promote Heathy Cognitive Function

A session entitled “Arts, Music, and the Brain: How the Arts Influence Us from Youth to Maturity” drew a standing room only crowd in a late afternoon session on Tuesday at the Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego.

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Credit: Shutterstock

Four speakers came at the topic from slightly different angles. The common denominator: In addition to anecdotal evidence and common sense, improved imaging and sound wave technology has helped neuroscientists demonstrate that arts and music boost cognitive function across social economic class, age, gender, and ethnicity.

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Baby Brains

Babies know more about the world around them than you may think. The process of cognitive learning begins from infancy through adulthood, and Elizabeth Spelke, Ph.D., is exploring what infants understand about social groups and social expectations.

Spelke, a cognitive psychologist and Dana Foundation grantee, is working with infants and testing their functions to see just how much they know at a young age. In a New York Times article published earlier this week, Spelke said, “All this time I’ve been giving infants objects to hold, or spinning them around in a room to see how they navigate, when what they really wanted to do was engage with other people!”

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A convergence of science and Supernanny

I admit it: I watch Supernanny. And the British parenting coach now has yet another reason to tell parents to stop spanking and instead have their kids spend some
time alone in the naughty chair.

A new
article from Scientific American
details an American Psychological Association (APA) task
force’s recommendations against physical punishment for children.

“Psychologist Sandra
A. Graham-Bermann of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, who chairs the
task force, announced the recom­mendation in August at the APA’s annual
meeting,” the article reads. “In a presentation, she explained that the group
of 15 experts in child development and psychology found correlations between
physical punishment and an increase in childhood anxiety and depression, an
increase in behavioral problems, including aggression, and impaired cognitive
development—even when the child’s prepunishment behavior and development were
taken into consideration.”

The conclusion wasn’t
unanimous, and the APA is currently reviewing both sides of the argument before
issuing a final recommendation. But Graham-Bermann’s conclusions make sense:
Several studies have shown that parenting styles can have a significant impact
on the physiology of the brain.

Michael
Meaney
of McGill University has studied the
mothering styles of rats, discovering that pups of
rats that frequently licked them were less anxious and more curious. These pups
“had higher concentrations of ‘glucocorticoid receptors,’ the molecular locks
that trigger a compensatory braking action by the hippocampus. The more of
these receptors the rat pups had in the hippocampus, the more efficient was
their regulation of the stress response,” we report in a news article on
the research
.

In humans, too,
parental behavior seems to alter genes that impact the brain. A 2008 study led by Cathi Propper of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill found
that infants who carry a gene for a dopamine receptor related to risky
behaviors later in life showed a showed a typical heart rate increase in
stressful situations by the time they were a year old when they had “sensitive
mothers.” Those with “insensitive mothers,” however, showed a muted response.

These studies suggest
that even something as seemingly temporary as a stinging bottom can have
dramatic and long-lasting effects on the brains of infants. What seem like
innocuous decisions made by new parents can continue to affect their children
for decades.

No wonder parenting is
often called “the world’s hardest job.”

-Johanna Goldberg

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