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Neuroscience of Early Childhood Development- Part 1

If you are here, we are sure you have heard that the first 1000 days in the life of the child are very crucial, there are approximately a million neural synaptic connections forming every second which means that this period is that unique window of opportunity to lay a strong foundation of optimal health, mental growth, and neurodevelopment for the entire lifespan.

Talking about brain anatomy to parents might sound a little too much for some but we believe one needs to understand the reason behind everything before grasping the pointers that we will talk about in the following article.

Therefore, in this article about Neuroscience of the Early Childhood Development we are going to talk about:

  • The Architecture of the Brain- Part 1
  • The Functions of various parts of the brain (Discussing just what is important to parents)- Part 1
  • Why it is important for “US” as parents to understand this technical but very important part of the human body –Part 2

The brain is all about forming connections and the development of the brain is all about forming connections the right way. The basic brain architecture is an ongoing process that starts from the 7th week of the first trimester of pregnancy and continues into adulthood and beyond. Our genes provide the basic schematic layout while the experiences mold how and in what fashion the genes are enunciated. The experiences and genes together lay the blueprint of the brain architecture.

According to the Triune Brain Model, developed by American Neuroscientist Paul McLean, the brain is organized into a hierarchy with three distinct regions:

Reptilian or Primal Brain (Basal Ganglia) was acquired first and is in charge of all our primal instincts and controls the body’s vital functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature, and balance. The major behavior patterns that are included are somewhat like a defense of self and family, and personal belongings, physical communication, and socially approved actions, such as handshakes, head nods, and bowing. This part of the brain includes the main structures found in a reptile’s brain: the brainstem and the cerebellum. It tends to be a part that is reliable but is somewhat rigid and compulsive.

Paleomammalian or Emotional Brain (Limbic System) The limbic brain first emerged in mammals. This is the part of the brain that records memories of experiences whether agreeable and disagreeable behaviors and situations, so it is in charge of all the emotions in human beings and is responsible for all the often subconscious value judgments that we make and influences our general behavior. Research has linked the limbic system to the feelings of reward, motivation, addiction, learning, memory, the fight or flight response, hunger, thirst, and the production of hormones that help regulate the autonomic nervous system. There are 3 major structures of the limbic brain that we will discuss here as they are important for understanding the behavior patterns in children as well as adults;

a) The Hippocampus plays a critical role in the formation, organization, and consolidation of new short-term memories to the conversion of these short-term memories to long-term memories and in spatial memory that enables navigation as well as connecting various sensations and emotions to these memories. A very common example would be “Have you ever noticed how a particular scent might trigger a strong memory? It is the hippocampus that plays a role in this connection”.

b) The Amygdala, the part of the brain known as “the threat detector” and responsible for the “fight or flight” response. It performs a primary role in the processing of memory, decision making, and emotional responses (including fear, anxiety, and aggression). The amygdalae are also involved in appetitive (positive) conditioning, it seems that it can distinct neural response to positive and negative stimuli. Also, there may be certain maltreatment in childhood that can constitute a greater volume of the amygdala reflecting hindrance in the development as the amygdala is vulnerable to stress-dependent disruptions in neural development, and

c) The Hypothalamus is a very small but important part lying in the center of the brain that links the nervous system to the endocrine system via the pituitary gland to maintain the state of “homeostasis”. Homeostasis is a state of maintaining the body’s internal balance i.e., heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, appetite, body weight, and sleep cycle, etc. For doing so i.e., to maintain the state of homeostasis the hypothalamus is responsible for creating or controlling many hormones in the body

3) Neomammalian or Rational Brain (Neocortex) is thought to be responsible for rational or objective thought. The neocortex is a complex brain structure that commands higher functions, such as sensory perception, emotion, and cognition. Information processing in the neocortex is facilitated by numerous functional columns, the basic unit of the neocortex, in which a vertical ensemble of neurons is assembled into functional microcircuits by specific synaptic connections.

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