What role do early childhood experiences in nearby nature play in the formation of brain architecture? It’s time for science to ask that question.
In January, 2012, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof reported on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ “landmark warning that toxic stress can harm children for life.” This was, he wrote, a “’policy statement’ from the premier association of pediatricians, based on two decades of scientific research,” and he added that the statement “has revolutionary implications for medicine and for how we can more effectively chip away at poverty and crime.”
Understanding the “plasticity” of the brain is a key to this relatively new approach. While genetics are responsible for the brain’s basic foundation, its architecture – structure and connections – can literally be shaped by factors outside the body.
From conception through early childhood, brain architecture is particularly malleable and influenced by environment and relationships with primary caregivers, including toxic stress caused by abuse or chronic neglect. By interfering with healthy brain development, such stress can undermine the cognitive skills and health of a child, leading to learning difficulty and behavior problems, as well as psychological and behavior problems, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other physical ailments later in life.
“We’re beginning to get a pretty compelling biological model of why kids who have experienced adversity have trouble learning,” according to Jack Shonkoff, a pediatrician and director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard. “You can modify behavior later, but…
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