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The 3-Pound Universe of your Child's Brain

The human brain, a mere three pounds (1.36 kg), is a highly complex system that has evolved over millions of years. A child’s brain is like a huge block of raw material with an infinite number of brain cells and connections. If these young brains are nurtured in an optimised environment, their full potential can be achieved. Let's sculpt those brains!

By Tan Ai Peng

Child Brain

They say that no two snowflakes are alike, but with trillions falling every year, is that even possible? The simple answer is 'yes'. And the same is true for each unique child. The human brain, a mere three pounds (1.36 kg), is a highly complex system that has evolved over millions of years. It has roughly the same number of brain cells as there are billions of stars in the Milky Way. Fifty factors in different combinations would give us a figure of 3.04140932 × 1064. The permutations and combinations of all the brain connections in our children’s brain may reach to the infinite. And yes..that is how complex the brain is.

Twenty years ago language skills were believed to be a function of the brain’s left hemisphere. Advanced functional brain imaging now shows that language “lights” up areas all over the brain, and it is different for every person. In short, each child’s brain is unique and no two children are the same; each with a personal set of developmental needs. Studying the complex connections within the brain will provide us with unparalleled insights into how young brains process information and direct behaviour – in short, how brains work. Progressive advancements in scientific methods and computational capabilities have now made it possible for us to MAP THE HUMAN BRAIN. This is crucial to enable us to shape new interventions from our "updated" understanding of our children’s brain.

There is no such thing as a bad child, or a lazy child, or a stupid child. They just have different learning staples and needs. More importantly, children are natural-born learners and experimenters, with great degree of brain plasticity – the remarkable property of brain cells to change their structure and function in response to experience. Given the optimum environment and support, each unique child will be able to reach their full potential. When our brain fails to get what it expects and needs, especially in certain critical or sensitive time periods, then the amount of effort required to set it back on track is enormous and optimal outcomes are less likely.

Children’s brains can absorb information at a massive speed during the critical phase of brain development; between the ages of two and seven. Two-year-olds have twice as many brain connections as adults. Because these connections between brain cells are where learning occurs, twice as many connections enable the brain to learn twice as fast. If intelligence is defined as the ability to learn, children in this age range may be the most intelligent humans on the planet. The early childhood period presents us with an opportunity to optimise the infinite connections within the brain and to optimise the learning outcome of each unique child in the long term. When Albert Einstein was a child, few people – if any – anticipated the remarkable contributions he would make to science. Einstein had dyslexia and those around him feared he would never learn. How did this child go from potential developmental delays to becoming, well, Einstein? In his case, it was two gifts from his parents that challenged Einstein’s brain in distinctive ways at just the right time.

The argument between nature and nurture is over. What actually shapes our brain is the constant interplay between our experiences and our genes (‘the basic blueprint of the brain’). A child’s brain is like a huge block of raw material with an infinite number of brain cells and connections. If these young brains are nurtured in an optimised environment, their full potential can be achieved. The brain interacts and learns from its environment during the early years of life (as early as in the womb and even before conception) to lay down the foundation that determines a person’s lifelong capacity to learn. To put it simply, the environment can put "tags" on DNA that will affect brain development.

During this crucial period of brain development, a stimulating learning environment, good nutrition and good parental care are extremely important. Because the brain is a social organ, its development is dependent on social interactions. Breastfeeding and play for instance are neuro-exercises for an infant's brain while infant TV exposure has a negative impact on brain development. Also, an infant’s brain is very expensive in regards to energy consumption and hence nutrition is extremely important for optimum brain development.


ABOUT DR TAN AI PENG

Dr Tan Ai Peng is a principal investigator with SICS and a senior consultant neuroradiologist at the Department of Diagnostic Imaging, National University Hospital and National University Cancer Institute Singapore. Her subspecialty is in the field of paediatric neuroradiology, with special interests in foetal and neonatal neuroimaging, radiogenomics, oncologic imaging and craniofacial malformations.