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, 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.

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.

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.

High-Quality Early Education Connected to Success in STEM

Children who attend high-quality early care and education programs in infancy and early childhood perform better in science, technology, engineering, and math classes, even in high school. The link between high-quality ECE and STEM success is even stronger for children from low-income families.

Increased Surface Area in the Neocortex Contributes to Human Intelligence

Scientists have discovered how the brain evolved to expand the surface area of the neocortex in order to make humans more intelligent, and how intellectual disabilities and autism spectrum disorders develop when this process does not occur as expected.

Live Performances Are Better!

Babies who watched a live performance of a baby opera were significantly more engaged than babies who watched a recording of the same show. The interactions of the musicians with the audience and the experience of being in a crowd engaged babies more than a recorded performance.

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.

Working Memory in Synapses

When we keep information in working memory, that information is stored in connections among multiple synapses.

Brain Disorders and Disabilities

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).

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.

Pregnant Mothers’ Environments Can Affect Newborns’ Brains

A recent MRI study found the brains of newborn babies to be smaller if their mother experienced poverty and lived in a neighborhood with high crime rates.

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.

Children Actively Influence Language Development

Researchers have discovered that adults talk more to toddlers who are already talking, regardless of gender. This suggests that young children play an active role in influencing their own language development.

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.

Word Learning in Young Children

A new study found a link between vocabulary and looking at objects. Children who knew more words tended to look toward objects when they heard a new word. Children with smaller vocabularies tended to take longer to process new words and looked back and forth between objects. These findings could help identify children who need language support early in their development.

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.

Air Pollution and Development

Researchers have found more evidence that being exposed to air pollution is associated with poorer cognitive performance in children.

Air Quality Affects Brain Development

New research shows that poor air quality could be causing cognitive problems in babies and toddlers. Children living in areas with poor air quality may experience long-term negative effects on brain development.

Alcohol Consumption During Pregnancy

Researchers using MRI technology have found that babies whose moms consume even low or moderate amounts of alcohol during pregnancy are at higher risk of delayed brain development and changed brain structure.

Benefits of Outdoor Time for the Brain

Spending time outdoors in the fresh air can have positive effects on general well-being and brain structure, a new research study shows.

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.

Breast Milk Reduces Allergies

Researchers have found that small molecules in human milk may reduce the chance of developing allergic conditions, including food allergies, in babies who are breastfed.

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.

Longer Breastfeeding Reduces Asthma Risk

A new study shows that a longer period of exclusive breastfeeding was associated with decreased odds of current asthma.

New Research on Soothing Babies to Sleep

Most parents have experienced frustration when their infants cry excessively and refuse to sleep. Scientists have found that the best strategy to calm them down is by holding and walking with them for five minutes. Other strategies, like being held while sitting, were less effective.

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.

Preschool Napping and Brain Development

Why do some 4- and 5-year-olds still nap every afternoon, while others start giving up afternoon naps at age 3? Sleep scientists have a new theory that transitioning out of naps is not about age as much as brain development.

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

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.

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.

Pain and Preterm Infants

Researchers have found that babies born prematurely do not habituate to repeated pain the way full-term infants do.

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.

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.