May 29, 1997
Recent scientific studies have found that the human brain does much of its development in a child's first three years of life. These findings could have a significant impact on the way children are raised and how childcare is funded. Lee Hochberg of Oregon Public Television reports.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, another medical story: the brain and how it develops. Scientific studies of babies' brains have begun to influence parents and policy makers. Lee Hochberg of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.
LEE HOCHBERG: The facial expressions 16-month-old Joey Munson show in this laboratory experiment are not unusual. He's happy when his mom plays with him--but distraught when she leaves the room.
MOTHER: Mama's going to go bye-bye. (baby crying)
LEE HOCHBERG: What's interesting to University of Washington psychologist Geraldine Dawson, watching in the next room, is what's going on behind Joey's facial expressions, inside his young brain. Scientists have found that a baby's experiences--whether he's happy, whether he hears lots of music or speech, gets hugs and eye contact--actually change the physiological development of his brain--the quality and quantity of the electrical wiring between cells. And the better they're wired, the better his life will likely be.
GERALDINE DAWSON, Psychologist: What we're learning is that very early in life there are these periods when certain parts of the brain are being wired and that later in life that then these patterns will be very difficult to change.
LEE HOCHBERG: Scientists had thought the brain's wiring was complete at birth. But neurobiologists now believe this crackling noise inside the brains of infants is the sound of some 10 billion nerve cells connecting with each other, as in this animation; they're making the synapses that promote thought, emotion, and physical movement. Scientists now say the capability of those neural connections depends on whether the young child receives proper stimulation. It's a scientific confirmation of what seems like common sense. It's important what the baby sees, what the baby hears, even, says psychologist Dawson, whether the emotions he repeatedly feels are happy or unhappy.
GERALD DAWSON: What we believe is that by experiencing different emotions that you're stimulating different parts of the brain and that this then leads to connections between the synapses.
LEE HOCHBERG: Dawson studied the difference between the brains of infants whose mothers are happy and the brains of those whose mothers are depressed and unlikely to project happiness. She found that in the children of happy mothers the region of the brain specialized for joy showed considerable neural activity. But the brains of children with depressed mothers looked different.
GERALD DAWSON: What we found was that the area of the brain that was specialized for positive emotion showed less activity and the area of the brain that specialized for negative emotion showed more brain activity. In later life an individual like this will be more apt to respond negatively when they're stressed or they experience a negative event. They'll be less likely to feel positive about positive events in their environment.
LEE HOCHBERG: With language too the new science points to key periods when the infant's brain is being wired and needs the right kind of stimulation. University of Washington neuroscientist Pat Kuhl.
PAT KUHL, Neuroscientist: We used to think language began at the one year stage when kids started producing their first words and they started to understand words. Now what we're learning is well before the stage at which babies understand or produce any words at all, their hearing systems are beginning to be sculpted by language input.
LEE HOCHBERG: In a study, Kuhl sought to determine at exactly what age children's brains are being connected to learn language. She exposed infants to a "Ra" sound, and trained them to turn their heads when it changed to "La" American and Japanese children recognized the difference between "Ra" and "La" at the age of six months. When Kuhl repeated the experiment six months later, the Japanese children no longer could do so. She theorizes that between the ages of six and twelve months they had been exposed to Japanese, a language that doesn't distinguish between "Ra" and "La," so their brains had simply discarded the neural connections that had earlier helped them tell the two apart.
PAT KUHL: The baby's organizing; the brain is pruning some connections, maintaining others, and pruning some--this early period babies are learning, something's going on, the brain is being sculpted and prepared for a particular language; it makes us pay attention to what goes on in that period.
LEE HOCHBERG: Kuhl says her findings suggest adults should talk frequently to their infants and test them early for hearing difficulties. As the infant's brain is being wired for language and emotion, connections also are being made for vision, also for mathematics and music and motor skills. The new insights have profound implications for parents and for policy makers. In April, the White House convened a conference on early child development.
HILLARY CLINTON: These experiences can determine whether children will grow up to be peaceful or violent citizens, focused or undisciplined workers, attentive or detached parents, themselves.
LEE HOCHBERG: First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton asked physicians to suggest parents read to their young children, and she called for a greater investment in children aged zero to three. At the local level, some childcare centers have begun to structure their curricula around the new research. The school day for these two and three year olds at the Creative Children's Center in suburban Portland, Oregon, is jam-packed with sensory stimulation. Teacher Lucy Chaille says each activity is designed to stimulate a key area of children's brains.
LUCY CHAILLE, Preschool Teacher: If you can present color, music, sounds, textures, the brain is going to be making connections. The dendrites in the brain are just continuing to grow and thrive, and as you hear music in the environment, whether it's children singing, dancing, those things help the child, actually with patterning, puzzling, geometry, and it's just an exciting way, I think, of seeing the interconnections again in the brain and how it works.
LEE HOCHBERG: But child development experts note many children aren't fortunate enough to be in such attentive environments.
BOBBIE WEBER, Child Care Advocate: We also have a lot of very, very inadequate care, where children are kept in facilities that are close to sterile, where the numbers of children per adult are way too high.
LEE HOCHBERG: Bobbie Weber of the Oregon's Child Campaign, a collaborative public education effort of state and non-profit agencies, says good infant child care is rare and often cost prohibitive. She says even most working parents are unable to provide the stimulation that the brain research indicates is necessary.
BOBBIE WEBER: They don't have enough time; they don't have enough energy. The vast majority of families are trying to do what they know they need to do, and what the research tells us they need to do, but they're struggling, because the conditions for their success do not exist in their community.
LEE HOCHBERG: The state of Oregon is trying to help. It's integrating the brain research into its $8 million Healthy Start program in which social workers offer new moms and dads tips on good parenting.
MARY-OLIVIA CALLOW: There's activities that you can do to help stimulate the brain development.
PAULA BLAKE: There's all kinds of things I wanted to know; like when he was in my womb, I heard the different things you could do, but I didn't know quite where to start.
MARY-OLIVIA CALLOW: So are you singing to him and talking to him?
PAULA BLAKE: Well, the singing part, not much.
MARY-OLIVIA CALLOW: Actually they say some of the research in the first three years of life is the more you're talking to them, they're actually--it is enhancing their math skills.
PAULA BLAKE: Really?
MARY-OLIVIA CALLOW: Believe it or not. Yeah.
LEE HOCHBERG: Social worker Mary-Olivia Callow says some new parents are skeptical of the new research. But this mother wishes it had been developed when she was an infant.
PAULA BLAKE, Mother: I know there's a lot of potential that I have in me still and I wished that as a child that I would have--somebody would have developed it better for me, helped me pursue it more. I could be, you know, an artist or something. Who knows?
LEE HOCHBERG: The state education campaign also gathers parents together to watch a recent television special about brain research. Even private companies have gotten involved. One pizza chain on the Oregon coast is distributing fliers about the new research with its pizza deliveries. The Oregon legislature is considering a $52 million a year package of bills for early childhood services that includes a child care tax credit for the working poor, required training for child care workers, and expansion of the state-funded Healthy Start and pre-kindergarten programs. And the governors of Florida and Minnesota have requested up to $150 million in new funding in their states. They say the new brain research should strengthen their case for increased public investment in early childhood services.