Recent Research on the Brain and Early Childhood Development

As research in neuroscience advances, our understanding of the brain and healthy brain development continues to change. The following are some recent reports and news releases highlighting cutting-edge research related to the brain and child development. Examples of recent brain research are also highlighted on the BBB Home Page.

Brain Development

Brain Development and Reasoning

Building structural connections in a young child’s developing brain is essential for higher-order brain functioning.

Brain Development, Memory, and Inference Making

The brain activity patterns of adults and children are different when making inferences. While adults create new memories with inferences built into them, children instead create memories separately to use in future inference making.

Deliberate Practice of New Skills

Research shows that children as young as age 6 understand what practice is and deliberately practice for the future.

Early Memory and the Hippocampus

Even though children cannot actively remember life events before the age of 3 or 4, recent research shows that babies begin using the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center, as young as 3 months old.

Genetics and Attention to the World

Research with twins suggests that genetics heavily influence gaze patterns, which contribute to children’s attention and interaction with the environment.

Glial Cells Play a Role in Memory

Glial cells, the support cells that help neurons function, also play a role in learning and memory in mice.

Growth Mindset

Children who believe their intelligence can grow are more likely to learn from their mistakes than children who think their intelligence is fixed.

Logical Thinking in Infants

New research suggests that infants may make rational deductions, showing surprise when an unexpected outcome occurred.

Math Education and Brain Plasticity

In a sample of teenagers, students who did not take math classes had lowered amounts of chemicals important for brain plasticity.

Mood and Infant Memory

A baby’s memory can depend on their mood. Babies who learned something while in one mood, such as happy, recalled it better when they were happy again later.

Prenatal Mindfulness Improves Infant Stress Response

When mothers participate in a mindfulness program during pregnancy, their infants showed signs of healthier stress responses at 6 months old.

Spanking May Affect Children’s Brain Development

Children who are spanked show greater activity in brain regions that respond to threats.

Brain Disorders and Disabilities

Abuse Changes the Brain

Researchers have discovered that child abuse changes the thickness of the myelin coating of axons in the brain. These changes could have long-lasting negative effects on emotion regulation and attachment.

Autism Spectrum Disorder in Boys and Girls

Recent research has found that some areas of the brain differ between boys and girls diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Drinking Alcohol During Pregnancy Can Affect Future Generations

Mothers who drink even small amounts of alcohol during pregnancy can increase the risk of alcoholism in the next three generations.

Parents’ Trauma May Contribute to Children’s Behavior Issues

Parents who faced severe stress or trauma as children are more likely to have children with ADHD and mental health issues.

Prematurity and Brain Development

Developmental differences in late-preterm babies may not show up until after age 2.

School Success in Premature Babies

Many parents of premature babies fear that their child will have later difficulties in school, but research shows that most babies born prematurely are ready for kindergarten on time and achieve similar academic outcomes to full-term babies.

Differences in Brain Structures in Children with Autism

Recent research has found brain structures differ between girls and boys with autism.

Autism Genes and Brain Development

There are different autism genes that have been identified, but all of them have the same impact on brain development.

Language Development

Babies’ Brains Are Equipped to Recognize Words

The visual word form area (VWFA) in the language center of the brain is prewired to see words and letters beginning at birth.

Background Noise and Language Learning

Toddlers in noisy environments may have more difficulty learning new words.

Benefits of Reading with Infants

Regularly reading out loud to children, beginning in infancy, can increase vocabulary and reading skills even before they enter school.

New Insights about Early Language Development

What does toddlers’ use of “a” and “the” tell us about their language development?

Stuttering and the Brain

People who stutter have less blood flow to Broca’s area, which controls productive language in the brain.

Exercise and Language Development

Increasing children’s aerobic exercise can help with children’s vocabulary growth.

Children Use Both Brain Hemispheres to Understand Language

Unlike adults, babies and young children use both sides of their brains to process language.

Physical Well-Being

Adolescent Sleep and Mental Health

Researchers have found a significant relationship between poor sleep in adolescence and later mental health issues. Teens who experience very poor sleep are more likely to experience poor mental health in later life.

Brain Activity During Babies’ Sleep

Babies’ brains are more active in sleep than previously thought. The twitching of limbs during REM sleep helps babies control motor movements when awake. A recent study found this twitching also occurs during a new sleep stage called “quiet sleep.”

Breastfeeding Matters

Any amount of breastfeeding can be beneficial for baby. Even babies who had only been breastfed for a few days had lower blood pressure as toddlers compared to their peers who had not been breastfed at all.

Infants’ Sleep Patterns

Even though many parents expect their babies to sleep through the night by 6 months, sleep patterns vary greatly from baby to baby, and even from night to night in the same baby.

Motor Skill Development and School Readiness

Preschoolers with better fine and gross motor skills perform better on kindergarten readiness measures.

Physical Activity Improves Cognition in Some Children

Do physical activity interventions lead to improved cognitive skills in children? Researchers who re-analyzed data from 3 studies found that regular exercise improves cognition more in children with poor cognitive performance before the intervention.

Sleep and Obesity in Babies May Be Related

Recent research has found that infants who sleep longer and wake up fewer times during the night are not as likely to be overweight.

Starting Solid Foods

Researchers have discovered that many infants begin eating complementary foods too soon. Current recommendations suggest introducing solid foods to infants at 6 months of age.

Attachment, Relationships, and Social-Emotional Development

Developing Empathy

Research suggests that both older and younger siblings contribute to the development of empathy in each other.

Parenting and Brain Development

Harsh parenting practices can have long-term impacts on brain development. Increased hitting, shaking, yelling, and anger are related to smaller brain structures in adolescence.

Prosocial Behavior in Toddlers

Research suggests that infants learn prosocial behavior through imitation. When they observe helping behavior, they are more likely to be helpful.

Very Young Children Notice Race

Children notice race years before many adults want to talk about it. Parents believe children should be at least 5 before they bring up the conversation of race, but infants and preschoolers may already be aware of race.

The Importance of Play-Based Learning

Learning through guided play with an adult can be just as beneficial, if not more, compared to traditional classroom instruction.

Play and Socioemotional Development

The use of pretend play has been found to help aid in children’s socioemotional development.

Recess Quality and Socioemotional Development

Research shows the quality of time spent in recess matters just as much as the amount of time spent outside. Having meaningful opportunities for play at school away from the classroom impacts a child’s socioemotional development.

Play and Music

Benefits of Music Training

Music training positively changes children’s brain structure, leading to lasting benefits.

Playing Music Changes Brain Activity

Recent research studying the brains of secondary school students found different brain activity patterns in children who had been playing music from a young age. A link between the music and language processing areas of the brain was also discovered.

Music and Infant Development

Infant-directed song may have evolved as a way for adults to signal to infants that their needs are being met.

Guided Play Promotes Long-term Learning in Young Children

A recent study found that playful educational opportunities led by adults were just as, if not more, effective as classroom instruction in promoting literacy, numeracy and social skills.

Consistency and Stress

Caregivers Communicate Stress to Children

Researchers using an experimental model of a newborn brain damaged by oxygen deprivation at birth have discovered that an enriched environment – with increased opportunities for physical activity, socialization and exploring novel stimuli – helped lessen the brain’s deficits.

Childhood Abuse Can Increase Risk of Early Death

Child abuse and neglect may be related to life expectancy. People who experience sexual abuse are at higher risk for dying in middle age.

Childhood Trauma Can Age the Brain and Body

Children who experience abuse or other traumatic experiences at an earlier age show markers of rapid biological aging.

Children, COVID-19, and Control

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone’s life, children are especially struggling because their agency, or ability to control and make choices within adult-imposed limits, has been reduced. As children return to school and other everyday activities, giving them time for play—and setting up chances to exercise reasonable ‘agency’ during this transition—are two key ways to support their well-being.

Pregnancy Stress and Lifetime Disease Risk

Mothers’ stress levels during pregnancy can increase their child’s risk of developing disease throughout their lifetime by altering the developing baby’s mitochondrial DNA.

Regular Routines Reduce Obesity Risk

Regular bedtimes, mealtimes, and other routines help preschoolers regulate emotions, which may help reduce obesity risk later in life.

Teacher Burnout and Child Stress

Elementary students whose teachers are experiencing burnout tend to have higher cortisol levels, indicating more stress.

COVID-19 Social Isolation and Early Child Development

The social isolation resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic may affect children’s language acquisition and levels of screen time.

Domestic Violence Exposure in Infants

Infants in homes with domestic violence have been found to have poorer academic outcomes because of developmental delays in the brain.

Childhood Poverty and Brain Development

Childhood poverty can have lasting impacts on brain development as adults who grew up impoverished were found to have smaller subcortical brain regions.