10 Intriguing Studies About Early Brain Development September 19 2011

Using the latest technology, including brain imaging, researchers try to paint a clearer picture of the developing brain. In the process, common wisdom is challenged, sometimes contradicted, and often confirmed.

Debunking the Mythic Mozart Effect

Classical music fans and parents hoping to give their kids an academic advantage will be disappointed by findings that

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contradict a supposed link between Mozart-listening and spatial reasoning proposed by earlier research that spawned such dubious legislation as enforced classical music in Florida daycare facilities and free CDs for Georgia newborns. Examining the results of dozens of studies on the subject, University of Vienna researchers concluded there is no basis for the “Mozart Effect” posited by Frances Rauscher in 1993.

Accented Wails

Practically from birth, infant cries reflect the tell-tale lilt of their native tongue, according to a study of French and German newborns that suggests not only hearing but actual learning takes place within the womb. Research from The Center for Pre-Speech Development and Developmental Disorders in Germany found that infants mimic the distinct melodic sound characteristic of their mother language - a more complex skill than merely recognizing a mother’s voice, for instance.

More than Mere Child’s Play

The cutback in scheduled school day playtime - including recess, P.E. and creative arts - to make room for strictly academic subjects is a dangerous trend, according to author and researcher Stuart Brown, who makes play the focus of serious study as the founder of The National Institute for Play. In addition to the increasingly apparent connection to rising childhood obesity rates, Brown’s research suggests a link between lack of typical child play and a propensity for future violence and recklessness, as indicated by studies of males with records of homicide and felony drunk driving.

Turn off the TV

Joint research by the Universities of Montreal and Michigan looked at TV-viewing rates of youngsters at 29 and 53 months, then assessed those same kids at age 10 in terms of academic performance, daily habits and body mass index. While overall viewing habits of the children studied fell within the accepted range established by the American Academy of Pediatrics, negative effects were nonetheless apparent; even an hour of daily TV time lowered math scores, physical activity and learning engagement levels, while it raised the incidence of video-gameplay and even the risk of being bullied.

A Clue to the Autistic Brain

University of North Carolina research determined that a region of the brain responsible for registering and interpreting faces and emotions was significantly enlarged in autistic children, based on MRI brain scans of toddlers at age 2 and again at age 4. Integral to the cognitive function known as “joint attention”, the amygdala apparently starts growing at a greater than normal rate before the age of 1 in kids with autism, a condition that is increasing in incidence in the US faster than any other major developmental disability.

Unlocking the Dyslexic Brain

Research at Stanford University School of Medicine using MRI brain scans to compare kids with and without dyslexia discovered a distinct difference in dyslexics who demonstrated the greatest progress in reading skills over the 2 ½ years the study covered. In those showing improvement, heightened activity and connectivity in the brain’s right hemisphere suggests that subjects compensate by using a part of the brain not normally relied on for the task of reading, since language skills are typically the role of the left hemisphere.

Making a Map of Brain Growth

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Brain development follows a distinctive pattern, with the frontal region undergoing a growth spurt from ages 3 to 6, shifting to development toward the back of the brain, where language skills are the focus, from ages 6 to 13, according to a UCLA study using brain scans on “normal” kids. Researchers expecting to find consistent overall brain growth were unprepared for the discovery of a wavelike growth pattern; their findings suggest key periods exist for learning different types of skills, pointing to age 6 to 13 as the prime time for acquiring a second language, for instance.

Better to be Bilingual

A panel of researchers recently concluded that kids who speak two languages right from the start possess an edge that carries over into performing nonverbal tasks, applying the same talent for switching between languages to transitioning between tasks, blocking distractions, and resolving contradictions. In addition to the benefits of bilingualism in an increasingly global society, there is speculation that it could actually serve as a safeguard against the onset of Alzheimers.

Eating for Two

Pregnant women are already advised to abstain from alcohol to avoid Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, while more recent studies show a link between influenza during pregnancy and a proclivity for children to develop schizophrenia, as well as findings that a high-fat diet in pregnancy can increase the incidence of childhood obesity. Now, research on primates (closer human cousins than the rats previously studied) suggests that restricted diets in the early stages of pregnancy could have long-range negative impacts, including a decrease in IQ and a tendency for behavioral issues; most vulnerable are teen moms, older women who conceive, and pregnancies complicated by conditions that compromise the delivery of nutrients to the child in utero.

The Sweetest Sound

Researchers recently tapped into the brains of sleeping newborns, recording electrical impulses that showed a response within the left hemisphere solely when exposed to the sound of the mother’s voice, confirming the existence and significance of “Motherese” as the primary driver of language acquisition. In contrast, exposure to the sound of any other voice triggered only the voice recognition center in the brain’s right hemisphere - even if the voice closely resembled that of the baby‘s own mom.

This article was written by Natalie Schunk, staff writer for Teacher Certification Degrees, a career site for future teachers that provides information on becoming a teacher including how to earn an early childhood education degree.