Encourage children's brains

Encourage children's brains
Marian C. Diamond

This morning I got up at 5:00 to look at some new data and found something brand new and had just the same thrill that I did when we did our first experiments 30 years ago.  The thrill of discovery can last a lifetime and that's one of the greatest things we can teach children, to seek new knowledge, to retain curiosity, to keep asking questions.

Advice for pregnant mothers

Advice for pregnant mothers
Advice for pregnant mothers

Keep a healthy body and keep a healthy mind as much as you can during this period.  With our own work, protein in the diet is terribly important, Vitamin B is important for the development of the brain, exercise to keep the placental circulation active, stay away from stress if possible.  The Japanese have said it for 2000 years, Tykio, think pleasant thoughts.  It's not always possible but recognize that what you are doing will influence the development of your infant.  And as much loving care between parents as possible.

D: Keep a healthy body and keep a healthy mind as much as you can during this period.  With our own work, protein in the diet is terribly important, Vitamin B is important for the development of the brain, exercise to keep the placental circulation active, stay away from stress if possible.  The Japanese have said it for 2000 years, Tykio, think pleasant thoughts.  It's not always possible but recognize that what you are doing will influence the development of your infant.  And as much loving care between parents as possible, and with your child as it is developing, even if it is in utero.

M: I experience bonding with my own child as a heightened sensitivity to what's going on in them, with how their feeling.  It's also been quite clear that my child was participating in my emotional states, not necessarily my thought but the total ambiance I was creating.  It seemed that they were sensitive to things that were happening beyond a physical touching.  Is there any model for this in current brain research?

D: I think it comes into the electro magnetism of the bodies and some give off more of a positive essence than others.  Animals pick it up, children can pick it up.  We don't understand how to measure it.  We were talking about this at lunch today, about how to measure these kinds of things that we're giving off, and thought waves as well.  We don't have the apparatus to pick these up yet, but our children sense them.  We know as adults which person we want to interact with.  There is a lot of room for discovery ahead and instrumentation will be refined so that we can measure these things in the future.  We know they're there, but how and in what quantities and how they're received, we don't know.

M: This is related to issues of parenting and the impact of role models. Can children develop beyond the model and environment that they are given?

D: I think that children can go beyond the role model that they're given.  As I always tell my students, I say see what's good out there, take what's good from everything that you see and combine it in yourself to be the person you want to be.  I firmly believe that you can bring in many different patterns through a life time.  At each stage as we go along, we see different kinds of role models, and if we don't see them, then we imagine them and make them up for ourselves as to what we want to be.

M: The word imagine adds a new dimension to this question.

D: I asked Issac Assamoff once, how he got the idea I found in one of his books.  He said, "Much more can come out of a brain than goes into a brain. " We have certain parts that are talking to each other, the right and left sides are talking to each other, so once we get information up there, the potential to interact is tremendous.  And that's the thrill. But that is the one area we can't measure very well.  But we do show, again with our rats, that with a nerve cell, different branches are receiving different information from different parts. Some are receiving sub-cortically, some intra-cortically, and we find with enriched environments that the branches that are receiving information intra-cortically are growing more that the branches that are receiving sub-cortically. So, once the information gets up there, it is having a lot more fun (integrating and crating) than simply information coming in.

Stress, trauma and memory

Stress, trauma and memory
Marian C. Diamond

Learning is natural. Children are learning all the time. there is a difference between natural learning and training, conditioning.

M: If we are hurt, physically or psychologically, we tend to defend against being hurt again.  If there a defensive posture built into the neurological patterning as we grow older do we tend to repeat those same things over and over again?

D: I think that it comes to how the impact is laid down in the brain. Because we know, for example if we're in an automobile accident, we never forget it.  The adrenaline is high, somehow the adrenaline embedding that memory is stronger than if we have something very mild in contrast.  So the more stress that's related to the experience seems to allow it to embed for longer periods and for stronger periods of time than with something more modest and mild.

Let me again speak about my rats. If we put little rats in the enriched environments with their mothers before their eyes are open, but yea they have access to toys to play with, we are not forcing them to interact with those toys to play with, they have the freedom to explore them on their own, we can accelerate maturation by doing this, even tho0ught they don’t see them. So yes, giving them the opportunity – but the ‘teaching’ and ‘prenatal dominance, that comes in is another matter. Is that brain ready to receive that additional stimulation? At that time? That, we are not certain. But I can say when given the free opportunity to pick these things up – maybe the mother is playing the piano off in the background and the child wants to come and play, climbs up on the stool and is taught vs. the parent forcing it – there are two different responsibilities to that brain.

Impoverished environments

Impoverished environments
Marian C. Diamond

Nobody really thinks about brains.  They don't think where behavior comes from. I think the more we understand about brains, the more we'll understand each other as a same sex, as different sexes, and working together and people who have different sexual preferences.

Nobody really thinks about brains.  They don't think where behavior comes from. I think the more we understand about brains, the more we'll understand each other as a same sex, as different sexes, and working together and people who have different sexual preferences.

M: Are you saying that if we have an impoverished maternal environment may have life long implications for the child.

D: I think that an impoverished environment during the development of the fetus is very detrimental to the brain for a life time.  If we don't form the nerve cells appropriately, they're not making the right connections early, and then when we try to educate and work with them, we don't have the basic material to stimulate. This has been shown very clearly with protein deficient diets, to say nothing of cocaine, alcohol, other much more abusive substances that are reaching these brains and these are the children will be educating in the future. Good prenatal care is critical if we want to give these infants a good chance.

M: I remember reading in some of your work also that there's some evidence that boy brains and girl brains are different.  What the significant differences you have found and how do these relate to child rearing?

D: Nobody really thinks about brains.  They don't think where behavior comes from. I think the more we understand about brains, the more we'll understand each other as a same sex, as different sexes, and working together and people who have different sexual preferences.  For example, researchers at Brigham Young University, stressed the pregnant female rat. Those male pups at birth, baby rats are called pups, did not have the normal right greater than left.  They had the female pattern.  And when those baby rats grew up, they behaved more female like, sexually.  There's a biological basis for our preferences and how people cry out to be understood.  Why the little boy prefers other little boys and keeps it quiet because he doesn't know why.  But the more we learn about sex differences in the brain, the more we can understand all of our types of human interactions and behaviors.

Every unique on this earth is unique

Every unique on this earth is unique
Marian C. Diamond

If we're putting hundreds of millions of dollars into Head Start which begins 3, 4, 5 years of age, and haven't developed the appropriate brain to receive that education, it will be a waste of money. 

D: We are a total human being. We've evolved with many systems of the body, each one dependent on the other.  We talk about the brain so much because it is this phenomenal structure that is unique to each individual. I can get a liver transplant and survive.  I can get a heart transplant, but if I get a brain transplant I'm no longer myself.  It's one of the best lessons in self-respect for anyone to realize that his or her brain is unique on this Earth.  We talk about a central nervous system which is the brain and the spinal cord, but for this unit to talk to the rest of the body we have a peripheral nervous system going out to the limbs and the rest of the body, all are working together.  We have an autonomic nervous system which is keeping my heart going while I'm talking, or my breathing taking place and things I don't have to think about. At all times, these are integrated and it is terribly important appreciate that if you damage one, it influences the function of the other.

M: I once asked Ashley Mnontagu about the physical development of the fetus.  He pointed out that there were different systems developing at different stages of pregnancy and that stress or trauma to the mother at that stage can physically impact the fetus.

D: There's evidence from UCLA that shows that in adult schizophrenics have an abnormal appearance of nerve cells in this hippocampal region deep within the temporal lobe.  As one goes back to development, those cells normally migrate into position during the second trimester.  There is evidence from a Finnish study to show that women who had a certain virus during that second trimester had more cases of schizophrenia.  This is giving some credence to the fact that such a disease as schizophrenia may be due to abnormal embryological development. I'm very interested in the prenatal diet.  When we were teaching in Africa, the mothers did not want to eat protein while they were pregnant because they did not want to have large babies, birth was too difficult.  After doing experiments with rats, one can show that if during pregnancy the mother has a low protein diet, those little brains that are formed do not respond to enriched environments.  If we're putting hundreds of millions of dollars into Headstart which begins 3, 4, 5 years of age, and haven't developed the appropriate brain to receive that education, it will be a waste of money.  It is important to be sure that the brain has developed well in-uteral. So when you start with the education, you have the nerve cells and the dendrites to respond to that marvelous education.

What is enough stimulation?

What is enough stimulation?
Marian C. Diamond

We have measured increases in the brains of rats whose mothers had been living in enriched environments.  So we've shown a prenatal increase, an early postnatal, young adult, middle-aged, and very nicely extremely old age equivalent to 90 year old people.

M: The brain only grows if it's challenged, but over challenging it causes it to close down and atrophy as well.  Can you help me understand how you came to that?

D: The question we've asked for many years is what is enough stimulation and does the brain have a ceiling?  Will it continue to grow with stimulation or will it stop?  We designed an experiment where we changed the toys for our rats much more frequently than normal and we found that their brains didn't continue to increase.  The rats just didn't interact with the toys as much when we were changing so frequently.  I think it's the same with children.  When you get too much going on in a room they shut down and don't really interact with much of anything.  You give them one or two things to explore, they're hungry, they're curious, but then they play with it for a while and get bored and want something else.  So I think our rat work has taught us a great deal in how the brain changes in response to the amount of stimulation.

M: It has been suggested that brain growth spurts occur periodically and at relatively regular intervals throughout one's life.  What does this mean?

D: It has been suggested that the brain grows and then it stops for a while and then it grows again and stops for a while.  I can say that we have measured the growth of a rat brain in various environments where one can make very precise measurements and we do not see these growth spurts. We see a steady incline, very rapid right after birth, slows down a little bit but continues on and then reaches a peak and then starts to go down. What is most important is to recognize how important this rapid continuous growth is during these early periods.

M: Part of your work empathized that the brains capacity to learn transcends age.

D: We have measured increases in the brains of rats whose mothers had been living in enriched environments.  So we've shown a prenatal increase, an early postnatal, young adult, middle-aged, and very nicely extremely old age equivalent to 90 year old people.  900 day old rats are very old rats, but we've still shown if we put them in enriched environments, roughly in middle-age, and then follow them to equivalent to 90 year old people that we can change that brain. We're saying try so hard for your full 100+ years because the brain has the capacity providing it's healthy.  We're not talking about diseased brains, that's another story.

M: We have this tradition dividing the body and brain into different parts when it may be more accurate to say that each part is interdependent on the other.  We area living system.

Parts of the brain are extremely plastic and changeable

Parts of the brain are extremely plastic and changeable
Marian C. Diamond

The higher cognitive processing is taking place in the newer mass and that's where we find we can change so readily.

M: The idea of nature/nurture has been around for centuries.  What impact does your research have on the balance between our innate potentials and the external stimulus needed to trigger those into unfolding?

D: We've found certain parts of the brain to be extremely plastic and changeable.  Other parts are not.  Many of the older parts of the brain stem do not change.  They're closer to what you call hard wired.  We've taken all the brain into 15 different parts to see what's moving and what's not and these older areas don't move as readily as do the more recently evolved, such as the cerebral cortex.  It seems to be the most plastic of all.

M: The brain has been described as having three primary structures, the old or moving / maintenance brain, the middle or feeling brain and the new or thinking brain. Is this still the prevailing model?

D: It's true when the brain evolved it developed up from the spinal cord into a brain stem.  Onto this brain stem we've added these massive hemispheres which account for 85% of your brain.  And it is these hemispheres which we find most changeable.  We do not find this basic brain stem to be very changeable.  It's dealing with fundamental functions such as appetite, thirst, sexual behavior, temperature regulation, heart regulation, respiration.  But the higher cognitive processing is taking place in the newer mass and that's where we find we can change so readily. We can change this cerebral cortex structurally in our rats and measure the increase in dendrites in just four days.

M: We used to think of the brain is fixed and static and that it would take centuries for the brain structure itself to change.

D: We have measured physical increases in the brain in as little as four days, but it will also come down very quickly with disuse.  So one has to stress the importance of use versus disuse.  What is use?  Pediatricians are concerned that the modern mother is giving too much stimulation to the children and that they are closing down as a result. The brain needs time for assimilation. Children and adults need time to associate.  When I teach I always write on the board.  When I say something the students may hear me, but they don't have time to put it into their association cortex.  By writing on the board, it slows the process down, they can think and at the end of the lecture they know what you said.

The constantly adapting brain

The constantly adapting brain
Marian C. Diamond

When we first presented our work way back in 1964, I remember one man stood up and said, "I'm sorry, but the brain cannot change."  And I said, "I'm sorry but we've been able to show that it does." Now, in the scientific world, most people say yes, the brains like a muscle.  When you use it, it develops larger nerve cells and that includes the cell body and all of its branches and connections.

M: Your work implies that the brain and nervous system is physically molding (adapting) itself to the environment moment to moment.  What does that mean?

D: One can say that the brain is responding to the external environment and to the internal environment at all times.  The nerve cells are designed to receive stimuli, store information and transmit information.  Every cell receives input from both the internal and the external environment at all times.  And we've shown that we can (physically) change the brain by changing the internal and external environments at any age. Admittedly the brain is growing most rapidly right after birth.  This explosive development of fibers receives stimuli and grows branches.  And this is what is happening in those first years after birth, the development of the branches which are the main receptive portion of the cell, and forming connections with other cells.

M: The number of potential connections are vast.

D: There are a hundred billion nerve cells in a brain and many of those nerve cell can make connections with thousands of others.  A single nerve cell can receive as much input from about 20,000 other cells, so you think of the computation that goes on in a single cell before it fires. The interaction of the environment with this system is extremely dynamic and important.

M: What is the relationship between the development of these connections and what we call learning?

D: Learning is essentially the formation of these new connections.  We know that protein synthesis takes place during learning and nerve cells are made of protein. So we are growing these branches while we're learning. We've been able to show this in the laboratory with rats learning to solve mazes.  We measure the cells afterwards and find more branches on those cells that have been challenged and are learning, versus those cells that are inactive.

M: One of the things that seemed rather startling about your work is the implication that changing environmental conditions associated with childhood can and do alter the physical development of the brain. This was a major emphasis of the Book Endangered Minds, by Jane Healy.

D: She's expressing some of our concerns with the modern day child who sits in front of a television for hours. Even though we know some learning is taking place, it's the passivity for most children that is so detrimental.  In the laboratory it's been shown that only the rats that are playing show changes in the brain that we can measure.  The rats that are sitting and watching the others play, their brains don't change.  We think it's a total activity of the body, both physical and mental, that bring about these changes.

M: Most of us think that we are born with a brain and that its capacities are, more or less hard wired and fixed.

D: When we first presented our work way back in 1964, I remember one man stood up and said, "I'm sorry, but the brain cannot change."  And I said, "I'm sorry but we've been able to show that it does." Now, in the scientific world, most people say yes, the brains like a muscle.  When you use it, it develops larger nerve cells and that includes the cell body and all of its branches and connections.

M: What are the implications of your research when we look at the unprecedented changes that are occurring in childhood today?

D: We live in a multi-sensory environment and the brain is designed to receive many types of sensations.  When it is developing so fast, we should be giving it the opportunity to utilize this kind of input, rather than single tract.  I think it's very important, as we watch modern technology coming in, that might focus children in single channels, that we develop whole factions.  We have taste, we have sight, hearing, multi-sensory, and we need this whole cortex to grow and develop so that it's ready to handle the problems of this complex world, rather than give them narrow focused learning.

Marian C. Diamond, PhD -The Constantly Adapting Brain

Author: 
Marian C. Diamond

Marian C. Diamond, Ph.D, a neuroscientist did research at U.C Berkeley on the neuroanatomy of the forebrain, notably the impact of the environment on brain development, published under the title Enriching Heredity: The Impact of the Environment on the Anatomy of the Brain. Marian describes how rich interaction with the environment literally grows and shapes the brain lifelong.

The Developing Brain Part Three

Feelings, the very core of the mind – with Jaak Panksepp, PhD

In the current featured interview recorded at the recent APPPAH congress, Jaak Panksepp, PhD, describes how in 1965, “there was no conversation about the nature of emotions at that time, certainly not in the sense of understanding affective feelings deeply at the neuroscience level.” So he gradually started developing the field, which is now called Affective Neuroscience, which has deep implications for understanding ourselves as creatures of the world and what we share with the other creatures. Obvious to some but shocking to many, human beings and animals share more than most imagine. “Many people, including myself, have argued that the fundamental mental processes are shared by all mammals, because of their neural similarities. Then one might ask what is at the very core of the mind? What was the first form of mind and experience that existed on the face of the earth? I would say it’s feelings.”

Themes: 
brain
brain development
emotions

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