Story Posted: 2019-01-04

Early Childhood Experience Affects Brain Development

November 27, 2018 – The impact of childhood experiences on brain development was explored at the 2018 W.F. Mitchell Bioethics Seminar. Approximately fifty people attended in person alongside a number of telehealth sites to hear guest speaker Dr. Nicole Sherren, the Scientific Director and Senior Program Operator with the Palix Foundation, present on the topic, “The Effect of Early Experience on Brain Development, Learning and Health.”

Brain development, explained Dr. Sherren, lasts from the early stages of fetal development into a person’s 20’s. As a child grows, the brain creates many pathways and circuits. “The use of the circuit ends up dictating which of those connections stay and which get pruned away,” stated Dr. Sherren. By early adolescence the brain has already been shaped by the experience of the child.

Social interaction is critical for brain development, as interactions with adults either support on inhibit a child’s ability to develop appropriate emotional responses and coping mechanisms. This sets the foundation for future behaviours.

Looking at the impact of early childhood stress on adult behaviours, Dr. Sherren cited three factors that can lead to negative outcomes: genetic predisposition, behavior learned from role models, and toxic stress caused by adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as neglect or abuse. “People who have a lot of toxic stress in childhood are also going to have hyperactive stress response systems, they’re not going to problem solve very well themselves, and that also makes them vulnerable to problems later on.” These problems include such issues as substance misuse, smoking, obesity, mental health concerns, etc.

Dr. Sherren also provided hope for persons who have experienced ACEs and their caregivers, saying that resilience can be built overtime, although it does require more effort in adults than in children. “It’s never too late to make change in terms of the skills and abilities in our brain.”

The W.F. Mitchell endowment was created in memory of W.F. Mitchell, a Saskatoon businessman who was committed to ethics. The full 2018 W.F. Bioethics Seminar is available below.

 

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