How children’s brains develop – new insights

On April 16th, a remarkable, and probably the first-of-its-kind meeting took place at UNICEF New York. Sixteen (no coincidence with the date) neuroscientists discussed and debated the influence of early experience on brain development and function. These scientists, who represent the super specialized fields of neuroscience, biology, epigenetics, psychiatry, nutrition, chemistry and child development, provided answers and insights into why early childhood development is so important for individual and societal development, and how this science could influence UNICEF’s approach to achieve results for children.

And what happened when biology walked through the front door? It delivered 3 key messages to UNICEF.

Brain Development conference at UNICEF Headquarters in New York
Enriching the Brain: insights from Dr. Saul Cypel, Dr. Mohamed Mikati, Dr. Zulfiqar Bhutta and Dr. Stephen Porges. The main insights from the different sessions at brain development meeting were captured creatively in these panels by Image Think. (c) Ray Stubblebine

Message 1: The relationship between genes and environment is closer than we ever imagined. Genes predict our brain development but it is experience that sculpts it
The argument between nature and nurture is over. We are in the midst of a revolutionary shift in the way we think about brain development, emphasizing the paradigm shift regarding the role nature and nurture play in how our brains are shaped. The constant interplay between our experiences and genetics shapes our brains, and thus early experiences (as early as the womb and even before conception) are built into our brain. Because the brain is a social organ, its development is dependent on social interactions. The brain needs and relies on experience.

The complexity of the brain lies not only in the genes, but also in the interaction with the outside world, which shapes the brain accordingly. Aside from genetic predispositions, a child’s brain grows based on the experiences and opportunities that the brain is afforded to shape itself as the child grows.

Brain Development conference at UNICEF Headquarters in New York
The Three Pound Universe: insights from Dr. Jack Shonkoff, Dr. Suzana Herculano-Houzel, Dr. Sue Carter and Dr. Stephen Matthews. (c) Ray Stubblebine

Message 2: The brain is complex because it is not a homogenous organ but a highly inter-related and integrated organ
The human brain, a mere 3 pounds (1.36 kgs), is a highly complex system that has evolved over millions of years, and differentiates humans as a unique species. Different regions of the brain have distinct roles and the functions develop in a hierarchical manner.

The oldest brain structures are the brainstem and cerebellum – that control our body’s vital functions of heart rate and breathing. The limbic brain, consisting of the hippocampus, amygdala and hypothalamus, is responsible for emotions, values and other unique functions that control so much of our human behavior. The cerebral cortex, the vast majority of which is the neocortex, and the newest area of the brain (in terms of our evolution), but also includes the pre-frontal cortex, is responsible for language, cognition, executive function, consciousness – in other words higher other thinking and imagination that influence individual learning and the development of culture and society more broadly.

Brain Development conference at UNICEF Headquarters in New York
Building Better Brains: insights from Dr. Frank Oberklaid, Dr. Andrea Danese, Dr. Francesco Branca, and Dr. Judy Cameron. (c) Ray Stubblebine

Message 3: Early Intervention is the answer: it becomes progressively harder to fix problems
Brain development occurs shortly after conception and progresses at a very rapid pace in the first few years of life, where neurons form new connections at the astounding rate of 700-1000 per second. These early synaptic connections form the basis of a person’s lifelong capacity to learn, adapt to change, have resilience in case of unexpected circumstances, as well physical and mental health. While brain development can continue through life, it is most rapid before birth and through the early childhood period of life. As the brain develops the amount of neurons and synapses peak, and then go through a process of pruning and specialization.

When our brain fails to get what it expects and needs, especially in certain critical or sensitive time periods, then the amount of effort required to set it back on track is enormous and optimal outcomes are less likely. For example, in the case of care and early stimulation, Charles Nelson’s research from the Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP), has shown that when the placement of a child into a family (or “placement into high quality foster care”) occurred before two years of age, children more closely resembled typically developing children, but when placement occurred after 24 months, then placement into a family did not create positive outcomes.

Early brain development and function is fascinating. This meeting only touched the tip of the ice-berg in what we have to learn and could use to improve the effectiveness of our programmes for young children around the world. After this meeting, there is one guest who is always welcome at UNICEF – biology!

Pia Britto is the Senior Adviser on Early Childhood Development based in UNICEF’s headquarters in New York.

Brain Development conference at UNICEF Headquarters in New York
Wrenching the Brain: insights from Dr. Charles Nelson, Steve Soumi, Dr. Barak Morgan and Dr. Michael Georgieff. (c) Ray Stubblebine


Watch interviews with some of the experts from the meeting on brain development in children:

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  1. i’m happy to all your help,you help the childrens in the diffult times,that’s truthly good, continue to do that and help them.i thank you,and i’m happy to that.

    1. thank you Jacques for offering to help – we need all hands on deck to make a difference

  2. […] How children's brains develop – new insights These scientists, who represent the super specialized fields of neuroscience, biology, epigenetics, psychiatry, nutrition, chemistry and child development, provided answers and insights into why early childhood development is so important for … Read more on UNICEF Connect (blog) […]

    1. So much information to be given out that can make such a difference in a life and how to get that message out. We didn’t know what we didn’t know. I think back and wonder how so many of us have even survived with all of the things that could and can go wrong.

  3. Greetings.
    This is fascinating and extremely well-timed. Working as a storyteller, poet & narrative coach, the impact of this article, provides additional evidence to support the craft; and reinforces the reason that this work has become my purpose. The 700-1000 synapses being formed at such a young age simply reinforces the fact that the arts is a must. Critical to the healthy, mental, physical and spiritual well-being if the human-being. I deliver a lecture on The Power of Story, I hope I may in someway use this excellent work, in the hope that others will listen.Stay blessed. OL.

    1. EDUCATION at the high school level and in college of the importance for raising your children and the RESPONSIBILITY that you will have in raising an infant into a healthy adult. The most important job in all of the world and we do not educate on the role of being a PARENT.

  4. Great example of what a blog can do. I think you have created a good template for blogging about the kind of evidence based reflection and consultation that goes on in UNICEF and many other effective development agencies around the world. I wonder if you could add by post here links to some of the key writing/research or presentations from this meeting?

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    Pia, I found this a fascinating and convincing argument to support why it is so crucial to leave no child behind–at any age, but particularly, among the youngest. So much of the current neuroscience findings suggests that the development of “heart coherence” is also crucial—something that can actually be measured through the shape of brain waves. (Google “The Heart Math Institute” for more explanation.) This is why it is crucial for children to experience play, affection, joy, positive feelings at early ages, not to mention human bonding, to ensure that these templates of neurons are formed and fulfilled. UNICEF’s photo of the week (March 27, 2014) is a beautiful reflection of this bonding template that stays in our subconscious for life. Click back and see this photo and check out how that tiny, infinitesimal infant is looking at the mother!

    1. Pamela thanks for this compelling reply. I could not agree with you more, getting it right at the beginning of life’s journey is vital. thanks for the information about goole’s math heart institute. will check it out

  6. This is terrific and I also wonder if there should be a fourth key mesSage: we now know how to create the conditions in which optimal brain development occurs and with that knowledge comes a responsibility to advocate for this for every child

  7. Pia great article. I am a certified infant toddler specialist who focuses on 0-3 years old and I also do classes for caregivers of infants/toddlers. It is critical the children are given cognitive, social and emotional school readiness before age 3.

    1. I agree and now we need get this information out to others in the practice and policy communities

  8. thank you and do use this as a way to weave stories for the youngest children. keep up your great work!

  9. HI Pia,
    This is a great way to connect the missing link. These are the main reasons why we need to have play, social connectedness, physical activity, sensory experiences so that the brain fully develops. Cutting back recess, not having enough time to play, not enabling children to experience things (climbing a tree, going down the slide, seesaw, etc.) stunts their sensory repertoire, thus, crippling them (in my professional opinion). As a pediatric occupational therapist, it saddens me that there is not enough support in child’s growth & development, emotional regulation, sensory experiences, & cognitive encouragement. This is insight is truly amazing and supports the occupation of being a child.
    I would like to cite this on my project, it that is alright with you and Unicef.
    Thank you!

    1. Play in so many areas is a thing of the past. We think we need to raise little adults. Many areas are also raising children with lack of nutrition and the fight for survival every day is the only reason they wake up is so they do not die where the are sleeping if they have slept at all. The only brain connections being made is the fight or flight connections and it is almost as if they are on steroids and the ones for speaking, metacognition, empathy,and other higher evolved thinking skills will not get the chance to be developed and honed.

  10. I would have to say the genes and environment are causes of development. Studies and MRI scans show that when infants are positioned or supported (with human support) within view of objects, the visual exposure triggers the neurological network growth. This will continue until the brain continues to be stimulated with visuals. But the brain has plasticity and will stop development if the network is not used. For example, when babies creep or crawl the electrical connections in the brain develops rapidly, but once crawling is mastered and the child starts to walk, those electrons stop or disappear and new neural networks are built. The dynamic interplay of genes and environment also shape our cognitive development. Early experiences help create thoughts, perceptions, memories and will later define who we will become later in life. With that said, every early childcare teacher MUST understand about brain/neurological development for their own self development and for the sake of caring for children correctly.

  11. Children’s care holistically should be the responsibility of all. This will make a better place for them in the world we live in. This blog is very informative. Absolutely rich!