If there’s one phrase that sums up what we now know about the brain over the human lifespan, it’s “use it or lose it.” From the early childhood years on through old age, scientists have learned that the brain adapts itself to the challenges facing it and discards connections which are not reinforced through mental activity. Learning how to effectively stimulate brain growth — which continues all through adulthood — can enable you to make the most of your gray matter and effectively get smarter as you age.
Dr. Richard Restak, a clinical professor of neurology at George Washington University’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences and the author of 20 books about the brain, agreed to help Brain World chart the brain’s evolution at each stage of life and the factors that can affect how well it functions. His book, “Think Smart: A Neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Your Brain’s Performance,” outlines a science-based program for enhancing cognition.
Brain development begins almost as soon as a baby is conceived. Brain tissue is recognizable by the third week of gestation. During the third month of pregnancy, fetal brain cells are forming at an astonishing rate of 250,000 per minute. Recent research conducted at Bispebjerg University Hospital in Copenhagen, Denmark, demonstrated that newborn brains actually have far more neurons than those of adults — some 11.2 million, compared to about 6.4 million in adult brains.
By age 2, the brain starts letting go of some of that excess baggage in a process known as “synaptic pruning.”
“You have, from the earliest time, the elimination of cells that are not used — the so-called ‘use it or lose it’ principle,” Restak observes. Because the brain only keeps connections that have been reinforced through use, it is crucial for children’s emotional development that they be loved and nurtured from the start. “Children that are raised in loving, caring, supportive environments grow better and do better in school.”
Even if children spend much of the day in childcare, interactions with their parents — rather than with other caregivers — are the more significant predictors of cognitive development, according to a long-term study organized by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
In addition to loving words from mom and dad, hugs and kisses actually help to build the brain. “Touch plays a crucial part in development, because sensory input is a very important part of the person getting their own identity and the ability to access their emotions,” Restak explains. “When a baby is touched and kissed and held, they are reaffirmed. This helps the brain develop.”
Childhood is also a period of remarkable neuroplasticity. Cognitive abilities such as language learning are much easier for children than adults. Talking, reading, and singing with children are all good ways to help their brains grow, but the large number of early-learning products on the market can make parents feel pressured to try to speed their child’s mental development. Restak’s advice is to skip the videos and flashcards.
“There’s no proof any of that works,” he says. “The brain has to be developed to a point that it can process the input, otherwise it’s just distracting. You would probably do best to let the brain mature at its natural rate and give the child the kind of love and cognitive challenges that are appropriate to his or her age.”
Instead of drilling children with brain exercises, he says to let them do what kids do best: play. “Play is important because it teaches socialization,” he says. “It teaches things like intuitive readings of other people. You learn that people’s feelings are not just a matter of what they say.”
Ensuring a healthy, balanced diet that includes iron and zinc, both important nutrients for brain development, also helps to give children a smart start. Conversely, exposure to neurotoxins like lead, nicotine and alcohol, even in small amounts that are not harmful to adults, has been shown to have adverse affects on brain development.
If your teenager’s impulsive, irrational behavior is driving you up the wall, it may help to know there’s a neurological explanation.
“The adolescent brain is immature in the frontal lobes and prefrontal areas that have to do with inhibition and judgment,” explains Restak. These areas of the brain, which control functions like long-range planning, decision-making and anticipating consequences, don’t complete their development until well into adulthood.
So what can help these irrational creatures reign in their impulses?
“Good role models,” Restak says, echoing the age-old wisdom that while kids won’t do what you say, they will do what you do. He also stresses the need for “good teaching in schools where there is an emphasis on disciplining the mind, building up memory, and building concentration.”
One modern challenge to such development is the high-speed information stream that most teenagers are constantly channeling through television, computers, and cell phones.
“There are many indicators that there is an inverse relationship, unfortunately, between the amount of information taken in and the ability to concentrate,” he says.
Research at University College London confirms that when young people search for information online, they tend to skim, skip, and speed through the process, printing out longer passages but not actually going back to read them.
While your teenager is likely to argue that there’s no need for any deeper absorption of knowledge when the Internet has answers so readily available, Restak explains that there will always be situations that call for information to be accessible from memory.
“I wouldn’t want to be in an operating room having a surgeon operating on my brain, or anything else, who took that attitude in medical school,” he says. Building up knowledge, whether it’s about anatomy, music theory, or flying airplanes, “enables you to improvise and to know what to do in times that are not predictable.”
As with children, adolescent brains are also vulnerable to long-term neurological damage from exposure to harmful substances. Research at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center demonstrated that adolescents with chronic alcohol abuse disorders had reduced growth in the hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with memory and spatial orientation. Unfortunately, the cultural pressures that encourage adolescents to abuse alcohol put them at risk.