Children’s brains are a work in progress

How children's brains develop is related to experiences they have in their early years.

Michigan State University Extension offers a program by Dr. Stephen Bavolek that educates about the importance of brain development in children. Children’s brains are a work in progress. How they develop is related to experiences in their early years, the genes they are born with, how they interact in the experiences they encounter and nature and nurture.

According to Dr. Stephen Bavolek’s Nurturing Parenting Curriculum the brain is made up of five parts: Brainstem, cerebellum, midbrain, limbic system and cortex.

Brainstem

The brainstem is fully developed at birth. It is responsible for survival functions such as:

  • Blood pressure
  • Heart rate
  • Body temperature

Cerebellum

Controls a person’s automatic movements and balance such as:

  • Dancing.
  • Kicking a football
  • Bringing a cup to the lips to drink

Midbrain

  • Sleep
  • Arousal responses
  • Appetite
  • Motor movements such as running and skipping

Limbic system

The limbic system Controls emotions and long-term memories. The limbic system can override rational thoughts and parts of the brain controlled by the brainstem, such as blood pressure. Stress will cause blood pressure to go up.

  • A part of the limbic system is involved in attaching emotions to memory. Every time we remember an event, the emotion comes along with it.
  • Another part of the limbic system converts information from learning and working into long term memory. It checks new information against stored experiences in order to establish meaning.

The cortex is the “executive branch” of the brain

It regulates decision making and makes judgments about incoming information. The different regions of the cortex are responsible for processing:

  • Vision
  • Touch
  • Hearing
  • Speech
  • Language development
  • Problem solving

The cortex allows us to plan and rehearse future actions.

Each child is born with about 100 billion brain cells, which is 10 times the number of stars in the entire Milky Way. At birth, the connections between the cells are not very fast. But, the more the brain is stimulated, the faster and stronger these connections become. These connections then become a part of the permanent structure of the brain. If the brain is not stimulated, the connections between the cells dry up. The more connections between brain cells the better. These connections are forming the structures that will allow a child to learn.

In the past, neuroscientist assumed that by the time a baby was born, the structure of their brains had been genetically determined. Today, scientists know that the brain of a baby is still forming connections responsible for feeling, learning and remembering. At birth, the brain’s 100 billion neurons form more than 50 trillion synapses or connections. Most of the synapses that are crucial to learning form after birth. Genes have already determined the brain’s basic wiring and have formed the connections in the brain stem that will make the heart beat and the lungs breath. In the first months of life, the number of synapses will increase to more than 1,000 trillion. It is through the development of these synapses that the brain develops a functional architecture. Without this, there would be no habits, no thoughts, no consciousness, no memories and no mind. Experiences from the outside world create the architecture of the brain, allowing the brain to create or modify existing connections.

Neuroscientists are now recognizing brain damage can be caused by abusive experiences. Abusive experiences can increase the risk of developing behaviors ranging from:

  • Aggression
  • Failure
  • Language
  • Depression
  • Mental disorders
  • Diabetes
  • Asthma
  • Epilepsy
  • High blood pressure
  • Immune system dysfunction

Abusive experiences organize the millions of constantly active connections between brain cells into diseased networks. Bad experiences affect the brain primarily through stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline.

These stress hormones are designed to respond to psychological or physical danger and prepare the body to fight or flight. Normally, the transition is smooth and the brain and body go back to an even keel when the danger is over.

This video First Impressions reminds us about fragile our children really are. To learn more about children’s brain development or to attend a Nurturing Parenting class near you visit www.msue.msu.edu/county or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464).

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