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National Research Council (US) and Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development; Shonkoff JP, Phillips DA, editors. From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2000.


National Research Council (US) and Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development; Shonkoff JP, Phillips DA, editors.

The brain is the ultimate organ of adaptation. It takes in information and orchestrates complex behavioral repertoires that allow human beings to act in sometimes marvelous, sometimes terrible ways. Most of what people think of as the “self”—what we think, what we remember, what we can do, how we feel—is acquired by the brain from the experiences that occur after birth. Some of this information is acquired during critical or sensitive periods of development, when the brain appears uniquely ready to take in certain kinds of information, while other information can be acquired across broad swaths of development that can extend into adulthood. This spectrum of possibilities is well captured by coinciding evidence of both the remarkably rapid brain development that characterizes the early childhood period and the brain"s lifelong capacity for growth and change. The balance between the enduring significance of early brain development and its impressive continuing plasticity lies at the heart of the current controversy about the effects on the brain of early experience.

The past 20 years have seen unprecedented progress in understanding how the brain develops and, in particular, the phenomenal changes in both its circuitry and neurochemistry that occur during prenatal and early postnatal development. As discussed in Chapter 2, knowledge of the ways in which genes and the environment interact to affect the maturation of the brain has expanded by leaps and bounds. The years ahead will bring even more breathtaking progress as, for example, knowledge of the human genome is increasingly transformed into knowledge about how genes are expressed in the brain. This promises a dramatic expansion in the ability to understand the interweaving of genetic and environmental influences as they affect both brain and behavioral development (see Nelson and Bloom, 1997).

Growth in brain knowledge naturally leads to questions about what it means for raising children and, specifically, for improving their development. Accordingly, efforts to translate this emerging knowledge for public consumption have proliferated in recent years. Some of this information has been portrayed well and accurately, but some has not. The challenge of deciphering what this information means for what parents, guardians, and teachers of young children should do is enormous. There are actually few neuroscience studies of very young children, and those that exist have not usually focused on the brain regions that affect cognition, emotions, and other complex developmental tasks.

Much of the fundamental knowledge about brain development is based on experimental studies of animals. The translation of this information from basic neuroscience into rules for application to humans can be quite straightforward when the mechanisms involved are very similar in humans and animals, as is the case with the developing visual system. But the interpretation of other data from animals, or even some data from humans (such as estimates of the density of synapses in various brain regions at various ages), can be extraordinarily complex or inappropriate when the brain mechanisms of cognition, language, and social-emotional development are addressed. In this context, it is essential to balance excitement about all the new learning with caution about the limits of what is understood today.

This chapter about the developing brain focuses on the role of experience in early brain development. Following a brief discussion of how to study the developing brain is an overview of early brain development from conception through the early childhood years. We then turn to a discussion of how early experiences contribute to brain development. Four themes run throughout this section:


Developmental neuroscience research says a great deal about the conditions that pose dangers to the developing brain and from which young children need to be protected. It says virtually nothing about what to do to create enhanced or accelerated brain development.


The developing brain is open to influential experiences across broad periods of development. This openness to experience is part of what accounts for the remarkable adaptability of the developing mind. Although there are a few aspects of brain growth that require particular kinds of experience at particular times, as far as we know at present, this is more the exception than the norm for human brain growth.


The kinds of early experiences on which healthy brain development depends are ubiquitous in typical early human experience—just as nature intended. This means, however, that concern should be devoted to children who, for reasons of visual impairment, auditory processing problems, major perceptual-motor delays, and other basic deficits cannot obtain these experiences on which the developing nervous system depends.


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Abusive or neglectful care, growing up in a dangerous or toxic environment, and related conditions are manifest risks for healthy brain development. Beyond these extremes, the nature and boundaries of the environmental conditions necessary for healthy brain growth are less well known, partly owing to the complexity and the cumulative achievements of cognitive, language, and socioemotional growth. Exploration in this area is cutting-edge research.