NEWS

How Early Learning Can Impact the Brain Throughout Adulthood

African American man and his young son read a book on the couch

10'000 Hours / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Cognitive and linguistic stimulation from early infancy has an impact on brain structure in mid-life, based on MRI scans.
  • Gender mediated this, as greater volume increases and positive differences in the surface area were found in the brains of men.

Learning has long been a topic of interest at all levels of society. A recently published study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience found that early cognitive and linguistic stimulation has lasting impacts on brain structure.

Especially with the shift to remote school options that had to be navigated during the pandemic, proven strategies for maximizing learning were high on many priority lists, especially for the parents of young children.

As individuals become increasingly aware of the disparities that have existed across the U.S. for centuries, this research highlights the need for more programs for children to ensure that learning is equitably accessible.

The Study

This study surveyed 112 primarily Black participants of low income and maternal education, and risk factors such as paternal absence and welfare receipt. From the age of 3–21 weeks old until the age of 5 years old, participants engaged in a cognitively and linguistically stimulating intervention program, in comparison to a control group.

Four decades following this enhanced cognitive and linguistic intervention, participants from both groups completed structural MRI scans to measure the volumes, surface areas, and thicknesses of all their brain areas.

The small sample size must be noted as a limitation, as well as only having images from one stage of life long after the conclusion of the intervention, and the inability of an MRI scan to detect changes at the cellular level.

Learning from Infancy

Licensed psychologist and founder of Atlas Psychology, Amy Nasamran, PhD, says, "Early language stimulation is related to cognitive development and that early intervention is effective for a variety of populations, including neurotypical and neurodiverse children, children from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and children of different racial groups."

Amy Nasamran, PhD

It is important for people to know that it is not necessary for a baby to come from a high SES background to make language and cognitive gains and succeed as an adult.

— Amy Nasamran, PhD

When it comes to incorporating language-based activities into the daily lives of infants, Nasamran encourages parents to talk to babies, read books with babies, and engage babies in everyday activities using language. "The more we use language around infants and toddlers, the more language they will learn, also stimulating their cognitive development," she says.

Nasamran says, "It is important for people to know that it is not necessary for a baby to come from a high SES background to make language and cognitive gains and succeed as an adult. There are resources that are available to families to facilitate early learning, such as Head Start preschool programs. We can provide resources and education to the community, helping families from diverse backgrounds understand how to engage babies and toddlers in early language learning activities."

Early Learning Impacts Brain Development

Pediatric neuropsychologist and executive director of Brain Behavior Bridge, Sarah Allen, PhD, CBIS, says, "Remember that all brains still grow. Just talking to your kids, reading them books, and asking them questions helps! If you can't afford a preschool or do not have access to one, work on engaging your child and participating in reciprocal play and talk."

Sarah Allen, PhD, CBIS

As someone who's experienced personal loss on a number of levels, remember that little brains are adaptable and moldable.

— Sarah Allen, PhD, CBIS

While early interventions have long been promoted for a variety of situations, Allen highlights how this research demonstrates that these early learning experiences change the brain. "This study shows objective changes that are not dependent on SES. It also further supports the idea that there is an effect of nurture or environment on the brain," she says.

Allen says, "As someone who's experienced personal loss on a number of levels, remember that little brains are adaptable and moldable. They will grow and learn with every experience you give them. It's our job to turn these experiences into teachable moments that enhance growth."

What This Means For You

As this research demonstrates, early learning can be instrumental for brain development, which impacts one's outcomes in adulthood. It is why Namasran says, "Early intervention is key to future development." As the US attempts to recover from the economic turmoil of the pandemic, these findings highlight the need for increased programming to support young children with equitable learning.

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  1. Farah MJ, Sternberg S, Nichols TA, et al. Randomized manipulation of early cognitive experience impacts adult brain structureJ Cogn Neurosci. 2021;33(6):1197-1209. doi:10.1162/jocn_a_01709