Let’s Talk Brains: How Your Childhood Influences Adult Brain Development

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Nim Tottenham talking about the late development of the prefrontal cortex.

Tuesday Daily Vivian Zhou really considered staying at home to watch the live stream of this event from her bed because there was a snowstorm outside and she didn’t want to walk one block to the Columbia Journalism School. But she sucked it up and walked there and did not regret a single second of it. 

Freud may be the anti-christ of the psychology community, but some of his claims aren’t completely wrong. Our behavior is heavily influenced by our childhoods, but not in the way that Freud thought. Something that I talk about a lot during my weekly Tuesday therapy sessions is how I’ve noticed that a lot of my personality traits can be traced back to my childhood, and same can be said about my friends and other people who definitely aren’t my friends. Imagine my excitement when I found out that there is actual scientific research to back up my beliefs.

The Zuckerman Institute of Columbia University put together a research talk by Nim Tottenham sponsored by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, focusing primarily on how neuroscience and psychology can assist education and development, translating science to our everyday lives. When one thinks of scientific applications in real life, usually we think of the medical aspect, but there is a lot of research that can impact everyday social lives such as education in schools and societal organization. The primary question in Tottenham’s research is: how do we explain the link between early experiences and behavior later on in adulthood?

Tottenham’s research is primarily focused on the development of the amygdala and its connections with the prefrontal cortex in early childhood and how that impacts its functions later in life. The amygdala, as many know it, is the center for fear and aggression, but it also helps us direct emotional attention to what’s important, such as emotional learning of the environment. In childhood, it’s very important in identifying threatening and dangerous situations. The prefrontal cortex collects information from different parts of the brain to help regulate and dampen the over-arousal of the amygdala. The prefrontal cortex can be described as a control center for the amygdala. Both the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex guide us in avoiding threat and regulating anxiety.

In the first part of her research, Tottenham examines the period of time before adolescence– the sensitive period when interactions with the environment has a large impact on how the brain develops. A sensitive period is defined as a moment in development where there is hyperplasticity– or easily-influenced changes in brain structure and function– to the environment. In Tottenham’s research, she used  45 test subjects aged 4-22 and exposed them to images of people making faces of fear. The participants were then examined in an MRI scanner and it was found that amygdala response declines with age. This was expected because when you’re younger, it’s more important that you learn about the safety of your environment. After 2 years, the same participants were tested again and it was shown that the responses to the first test for the adolescents were predictive of the responses in adulthood.

In the second part of her research, Tottenham uses specific music from the participants’ childhood to activate prefrontal cortex activity and reduce amygdala activity and thus reduce stress. This was done to identify that the sensitive period does exist and the time period in which it exists in. Using Backstreet Boys and Justin Bieber, it was found that during an SAT math exam, students under stress preferred the Backstreet Boys, which is music from their childhood. The results were emphasized to not be due to the preference of the Backstreet Boys, but more of a gravitational pull to nostalgic childhood music during periods of physiological stress.

The third part of the research tackles the idea that human beings spend a lot of metabolic energy and time on caregiving compared to other animals. Is the energy spent on caregiving worth the result? Caregiving gives the human brain the luxury of immaturity, and thus an increased period of plasticity when we can learn. The research was conducted by asking children to come in and prepare for a public speaking event to elevate cortisol, a stress hormone. While preparing, the child was sitting next to either a stranger or a parent– it was found that when the child prepared next to a parent, the cortisol response was buffered. In adolescence, the different treatments had no effect because the brain has less plasticity. Children were also tested in a human Y maze by conditioning one shape (a triangle, for example) with an annoying sound (nails scratching on a chalkboard) and another shape with no sound. It was found that children who learned these shapes in the presence of a parent figure actually had a preference for the shape that comes with an annoying sound. This shows that for young children, strategies for survival such as flight or fight under threatening conditions are useless, and rather, their survival strategy is attachment to a parental figure.

The implications in Tottenham’s research are huge in terms of the upbringing of children. Since parental care can influence the future development of children’s brains to such a great extent, the question now is: how do we support families of different socioeconomic status with enough resources to raise their children properly? How do we restructure our education systems and schools so that children are affected properly in sensitive periods? How do we support parents with mental illnesses so that they can properly care for and avoid mirrored behaviors and disorders in their children?

Photo via Vivian

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1 Comment

  1. Anonymous

    The Zuckerman MBBI is the number one neuroscience institute in the world.

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