The formation of the brain is more thanan expression of parents’ genes. Theemerging brain is also shaped by what ababy experiences before birth.
Bryan Kolb, a professor in theDepartment of Neuroscience at theUniversity of Lethbridge, says thedevelopment of the prenatal brainreflects a complex interplay of genes andexperiences.
“There’s no strict genetic blueprint
on how to build a brain,” says the
neuroscientist. “Brains exposed to
different environmental events such as
sensory stimuli, drugs, diet, hormones
or stress may develop in very different
Brain cells, or neurons, begin to form
about a month after conception and peak
in the fourth month at 250,000 neurons a
minute, Kolb says.
During pregnancy, newly formedcells rapidly sculpt the brain’s circuitryin stages. Within the first six monthsof pregnancy, basic sensory and motorregions of the brain begin to function,and by the last trimester an unborn babyis capable of simple forms of learning.
What a baby experiences whileconnections are forming betweendifferent regions of the brain couldsignificantly alter the wiring of cells andoverall brain development.
It’s well-known that a mother’s use ofalcohol or nicotine while pregnant candisrupt brain growth and lead to visionor hearing problems, brain damage,learning disabilities or birth defects.
If a mother is very depressed, heremotional state could have a negativeand lasting effect on her child. Streetdrugs and certain prescription drugs canalso affect a fetus, Kolb says.
Creating a responsive maternalenvironment is one way to influencebabies’ brain development, saysRobbin Gibb, associate professor inthe Department of Neuroscience at theUniversity of Lethbridge and researcherat the Canadian Centre for BehaviouralNeuroscience. For example, readingaloud will improve a baby’s literacyand make the brain more adaptableand better able to deal with stresseslater in life.
“As a parent, you have a profoundeffect on your baby and you have thepower to make the choices that help putthis baby on the right track,” Gibb says.
After birth, a child’s brain continues todevelop through adulthood. Some of themost intense and important developmentoccurs from birth to six years old andduring the teen years.
Within the first six months of life, ourlanguage skills begin to develop and werecognize the spoken word and peoplearound us. By the time we’re toddlers,we’re using words and can walk.
Our higher thinking functions, suchas reasoning and planning, developnext. Over the next few years, we beginmaking more complex connectionsbetween different parts of the brain.
“Any experience a child has—whetherhe’s exposed to violence or supportivecare, or has enough to eat or has toys toplay with—plays a role in determiningthe circuitry of his brain,” says DeborahDewey, a professor in the departmentsof Pediatrics and Community HealthSciences at the University of Calgary.
Positive serve-and-return experiences,
such as cuddling or reading to a
baby, can stimulate the brains cells
responsible for language, sensory, motor
and social skills.
For sturdy brain development in the
early years, Dewey says a child needs
nurturing and stable relationships with
caregivers. Communities can pitch in,
too, by offering parenting resources, and
by helping families get some downtime
and connect with one another. |a
BUILDING BABY’S BRAIN
Dr. Robbin Gibb, an associateprofessor in the Department ofNeuroscience at the University ofLethbridge and researcher at theCanadian Centre for BehaviouralNeuroscience, offers thesetips for healthy prenatal braindevelopment.
For expectant moms
• Eat well to nourish yourself and
• Get enough sleep. This helpsbaby rest, too
• Rest, sing or play music to yourbaby
• Keep stress levels down.Moderate exercise such aswalking or yoga will help.
For expectant dads
• Create positive bondingexperiences by gentlymassaging and talking to“the bump.” A newborn canrecognize his dad’s voice rightafter birth if the dad has beentalking to his unborn child. Andgently rubbing mom’s skin willproduce a protein that helpsbaby’s brain development.