Enhanced early years environments affect life four decades later, researchers find
The Sector > Research > Understanding Children > Enhanced early years environments affect life four decades later, researchers find

Enhanced early years environments affect life four decades later, researchers find

by Freya Lucas

June 03, 2021

An enhanced learning environment during the first five years of life shapes the brain in ways that are apparent four decades later, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Virginia Tech have found. 


Sharing their findings in the June edition of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, the researchers outlined how structural brain imaging was used to detect the developmental effects of linguistic and cognitive stimulation starting at six weeks of age in infants. The influence of an enriched environment on brain structure had formerly been demonstrated in animal studies, they said, but this is the first experimental study to find a similar result in humans.


“Our research shows a relationship between brain structure and five years of high-quality educational and social experiences,” Professor Craig Ramey, principal investigator of the study said. 

“We have demonstrated that in vulnerable children who received stimulating and emotionally supportive learning experiences, statistically significant changes in brain structure appear in middle age.”

The findings, first author Martha Farah said, support the idea that early environment influences the brain structure of individuals growing up with multirisk socioeconomic challenges, something “which has exciting implications for the basic science of brain development, as well as for theories of social stratification and social policy.”


Researchers used information attained during the Abecedarian Project, an early intervention program initiated by Ramey in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1971. 


Both the comparison and treatment groups in the study received extra health care, nutrition, and family support services; however, beginning at six weeks of age, the treatment group also received five years of high quality educational support, five days a week, for 50 weeks a year.


When scanned, the Abecedarian study participants were in their late 30s to early 40s, offering the researchers a unique look at how childhood factors affect the adult brain.


“People generally know about the potentially large benefits of early education for children from very low resource circumstances,” co-author Professor Sharon Landesman Ramey of the Virginia Tech College of Science said. 

“The new results reveal that biological effects accompany the many behavioural, social, health, and economic benefits reported in the Abecedarian Project. This affirms the idea that positive early life experiences contribute to later positive adjustment through a combination of behavioral, social, and brain pathways.”

During follow-up examinations, structural MRI scans of the brains of 47 study participants were conducted at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute Human Neuroimaging Lab. Of those, 29 individuals had been in the group that received the educational enrichment focused on promoting language, cognition, and interactive learning. 


The other 18 individuals received the same robust health, nutritional, and social services supports provided to the educational treatment group, and whatever community childcare or other learning their parents provided. The two groups were well matched on a variety of factors such as maternal education, head circumference at birth, and age at scanning.


Analyzing the scans, the researchers looked at brain size as a whole, including the cortex, the brain’s outermost layer, as well as five regions selected for their expected connection to the intervention’s stimulation of children’s language and cognitive development. 

The researchers determined that those in the early education treatment group had increased size of the whole brain, including the cortex, and that the group intervention treatment results for the brain were substantially greater for males than for females. 

The reasons for this are not known, and were surprising, they continued, since both the boys and girls showed generally comparable positive behavioral and educational effects from their early enriched education. The current study cannot adequately explain the sex differences.  


“When we launched this project in the 1970s, the field knew more about how to assess behavior than it knew about how to assess brain structure,” Professor Ramey said. 


“Because of advances in neuroimaging technology and through strong interdisciplinary collaborations, we were able to measure structural features of the brain. The prefrontal cortex and areas associated with language were definitely affected; and to our knowledge, this is the first experimental evidence on a link between known early educational experiences and long-term changes in humans.”


The findings, he continued, “warrant careful consideration and lend further support to the value of ensuring positive learning and social-emotional support for all children – particularly to improve outcomes for children who are vulnerable to inadequate stimulation and care in the early years of life.” 


To access the research in full, please see here.

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