What Neuroscience Tells Us About A Child’s First Years: Q&A with Dr. Martha J. Farah

This is the second in our series of blogs on some of the latest issues in early childhood education, leading up to the release of our new and improved early childhood donor toolkit, Invest in a Strong Start for Children, in early April.  

Dr. Martha J Farah

What does science tell us about brain development in early childhood, and how can this inform better philanthropic giving? We interviewed Dr. Martha J. Farah to help donors find out.

Martha J. Farah, PhD, is a cognitive neuroscientist and the Walter Annenberg Professor of Natural Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.  She has written extensively on the effects of childhood poverty on brain development and has helped to create a new field known as “neuroethics,” the ethical, legal and societal implications of neuroscience.

Question #1: What is one thing you would like donors interested in early childhood to know about brain development during this time?

Early childhood is indeed the most important developmental period in life, and this is true because of the brain development that goes on during those years.  The brains of infants, toddlers and preschoolers are particularly receptive to experience, more so than for adults or even older children and teens. Early childhood experience helps “wire up” the brain for life, in a way that shapes a child’s whole developmental trajectory.

Future cognitive development and emotional development are both heavily influenced by environmental influences in these early years.  In our lab we have seen long lasting effects of the early childhood environment on brain structure and function related to everything from attention and problem solving to the regulation of stress responses.

I don’t want to say that by five years old a person has missed the boat and cannot benefit cognitively and emotionally from an improved environment, such as less stress and more added age-appropriate cognitive stimulation.  But what we know about brain development is consistent with what psychologists and parents know in other ways: the early years are especially consequential.

Question #2:  Are there any common confusions or misperceptions about the role of neuroscience in early childhood programs?

The biggest misperception I see is the view that neuroscience completely understands human brain development and has all the answers for how to improve the life chances of poor children.  Neuroscience is “in” right now, and I sometimes fear that people don’t appreciate how much of a work-in-progress our science is.

For example, stress physiology is incredibly complicated, and what’s true of a rat pup isn’t always true of human children. There are important individual differences in how the environment affects human brain development, which geneticists are only beginning to understand.  Language, especially the conversation between parent and child, plays an important role in brain development but, for obvious reasons, we are stuck without the benefit of animal research to understand it.

Neuroscience has much to contribute to understanding and ameliorating the effects of poverty on human development. But please don’t expect ready-made solutions tomorrow.  The neuroscience of brain development in poverty is just beginning to translate from the science lab to the real world.

Over the next few years, neuroscience will continue to uncover basic principles of how early experience shapes brain development, the nature and timing of those experiential effects, and the scope of their lifelong consequences.  In addition, these insights will begin to relate more directly to the real-world experiences of real kids growing up in different socioeconomic strata of our society.  For example, we were recently able to relate the specific childhood experiences of inner city children, observed in their homes when they were 4 and 8 years old, to their brain structure in late adolescence.  We found that the amount of cognitive stimulation available at age 4 affected cortical thickness when we brought them into the scanner many years later.  And, consistent with the importance of early experience, cognitive stimulation at age 8 did not show these same effects.

Question #3:  Do you have additional advice for donors who care about having a positive impact on children’s development early on, and might be choosing between supporting different early childhood programs?

There are many different types of intervention and enrichment programs, focusing on different ages, for different durations, in home or daycare settings, sometimes focusing on parents as much as the children themselves.  It is common sense that some programs are more effective than others, but in many cases we do not yet have enough evidence concerning their effects to make meaningful comparisons among programs.  Furthermore, most programs combine numerous elements, from nutrition to pre-academic skills, so if the program is successful we do not necessarily know which are the “active ingredients.”

While comparisons may still be difficult, the good news is there are lots of programs that have at least some evidence of effectiveness and the rationale for investing in early childhood is very strong.   I would also urge philanthropists to be especially supportive of programs that have a well-designed evaluation component.  Evaluation is not easy to do well, and it does take some resources from direct service to the kids, but it is a vital long-term investment in the life-chances of children in need.

Further strengthening the evidence base for what works best when and how in early childhood is also an area in which neuroscience can help.  Over the next few years, we will begin to see the integration of neuroscience approaches into the research and evaluation component of intervention programs.  Adding brain measures to more familiar behavioral measures of intervention effectiveness is the next step, in my view.  It will give us potentially more sensitive indications of the programs’ effects, a better understanding of why the programs are effective, and it will also improve our understanding of the brain measures themselves, to hone our method for future work in this area.