Let’s Build Brains Better! Brain Science-Inspired Policies for the Future

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In order to face the rapidly changing, increasingly complex, and globally connected world, we need to focus on the importance of early brain and child development.

COMMENTARY

“What if a game of peek-a-boo could change the world?” Seven-year-old Molly Wright, one of the youngest-ever TED speakers, posed this profound question in her July 2021 viral video.1 Why peek-a-boo? Because, as Molly so clearly articulated in her UNICEF and Minderoo Foundation-supported talk, this simple game captures the essence of what we know about young children’s healthy brain development: All of the everyday, back-and-forth interactions between caring responsive adults and babies serve to stimulate their senses, build social interaction skills, foster language development, and teach object permanence. These are all foundational brain-based skills.

Games like peek-a-boo are thus invaluable when it comes to brain building and supporting strategies that will help prepare today’s children to navigate a rapidly changing, increasingly complex, and globally connected world. With respect to the developing brain, early childhood is a time of particularly rapid change, with up to 90% of brain growth taking place by age 5. In other words, when it comes to strategic brain- and skill-building, these early years are critical for lifelong learning and well-being.

Building Young Brains

Building brains in the very earliest stage of life may ultimately be the best way to brace our societies for and empower our children to face a panoply of future challenges. Complex issues already impacting our societies today only stand to become more difficult as our children grow older.

Presently, rates of stress, depression, and anxiety are spiking due to the vicissitudes of COVID-19 (which still seems to have no end in sight for the globe).2 Further, COVID-19 seems to have exacerbated advanced cognitive skill deserts—areas characterized by low scores in standardized tests and poor educational infrastructure.3 This is concerning given that jobs are becoming increasingly knowledge-intense as automation subsumes lower-skilled roles. Current and future challenges related to climate change present issues to where we live, work, play, and eat. Taking action to tackle these issues is harder due to misinformation propagation, a global phenomenon spreading virally and accelerating radical and radicalizing conspiracy theories.4 Political and social divisions are increasingly stark and volatile. All in all, we have a collision of issues which, at their core, seem to be worsened by the overwhelming, overloading, or dysfunction of our brains and minds.

Of course, in the immediate term, one of the best strategies for ensuring the conditions needed for healthy early childhood brain development is rapid, global, vaccine-based herd immunity from COVID-19. This would allow economies, families, and communities to return to a normal life where, among other things, the mental health and safety of both young children and their caregivers is protected. But it is imperative that we are prepared to address what many predict will be the long-term detrimental impacts of COVID-19 on our children, adolescents, and their families as well.

We are buoyed by the US President’s planned human infrastructure agenda, which both recognizes the importance of and provides supports for the boosting of brain-based skill development in early childhood.5 These proposed investments include childhood poverty reduction, universal pre-kindergarten, a child tax credit for low- and middle-income families, and a national paid leave program. If funded and executed well, these large-scale programs will facilitate early childhood brain development. We hope other policymakers and politicians around the world take note of these ambitious plans.

Poverty Reduction

Aligned with the planned human infrastructure agenda, poverty reduction is of the utmost value to early child brain development. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are associated with alterations in psychological, cognitive, and neurobiological development. From a brain-based skills perspective, executive function skills (encompassing skills such as cognitive flexibility and critical thinking), are clearly recognized to be of lifelong importance. Given that their most rapid rate of development occurs between the ages of 3 and 5, it is particularly concerning, but no surprise, that poverty has been found to increase the risk for executive functioning difficulties.6 Thus, efforts to better brain health go hand in hand with strategic investments in early childhood and measures to reduce childhood poverty, as well as other ACEs.

In considering the interplay between mental health, adversity, and early brain development further, research on the neural mechanisms underlying emotional processing in individuals of differing socioeconomic status (SES) point towards differences in brain structure and function as a link between mental health and SES.7 Innovative studies like the NIH- and philanthropically-funded Baby’s First Year Study aim to understand the impact of monthly, unconditional cash transfers to low-income mothers and their children in the first 3 years of the child’s life.8 Currently underway, the Baby’s First Year Study is examining how poverty reduction affects early childhood development and the family processes known to support children’s healthy development.

Highlighting the cross-sector nature of this work, others suggest the need for social work to critically engage with the first 3 years, shifting focus from the individual and family to a more systems-level community and public health focus. Based on the old but sturdy Bronfenbrenner concept of socioecological influences on child development, we believe it is important to build skills at all levels: individual, family, community, service provision, policy, and systems. Targeting multiple levels of influence fosters mutually reinforcing positives effects on child development.

In addition to poverty reduction, interactional behaviors like serve-and-return (well demonstrated in a game of peek-a-boo), conversational turn-taking (see Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child), and child-directed speech are particularly important in early life. These early relational health behaviors build core life skills such as executive function/self-regulation, self-efficacy, trust, and resilience that serve to help buffer against adversity and better equip children (and their brains) to take advantage of future learning opportunities.9 It is worth noting that parenting behaviors like serve and return do not happen in a vacuum. Studies show that social and structural factors affect parental behaviors. We know that ongoing stress makes it difficult for parents to strengthen and use the executive function skills so central to providing nurturing, responsive, safe, and stimulating environments in which children and adolescents can thrive.10 In contrast, we also know that the presence of a caring responsive adult stands to serve as a protective buffer against the neurotoxic (and other harmful) effects of poverty.11

Addressing Postpartum Depression

Given the significant importance of the caregiver to early relational health, adequately addressing postpartum depression is also critically important. Simply put, better prevention, identification, and treatment of postpartum depression is key to boosting baby’s brain health and development. Not doing so proves to be both economically and individually quite costly. A recent study found that the state of Texas alone is losing $2.2 billion by not treating mothers’ mental health from pregnancy through their child’s first 5 years.12 Postpartum depression has also been found to have both maternal and infant consequences, including negatively affecting physical health, sleep, motor, cognitive, language, emotional, social, and behavioral development in the infant.13

Early Childhood Learning

The impact of healthy brain development during the early years applies not only to physical and mental health, but early learning as well. Early childhood sets individuals up for lifelong learning. With converging accelerations in technology, globalization, and climate, lifelong learning is no longer desirable, lifelong learning is essential.14 The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) recently released the OECD Skills Outlook 2021: Learning for Life.15 This report noted that lifelong learning starts in childhood and youth, continuing throughout adulthood and old age. It encompasses formal learning in settings such as schools and training centers, informal and nonformal learning derived from colleagues and workplace trainers, and unintentional learning stemming from spontaneous social interactions.

In recognizing the impact of the early years to what ultimately becomes lifelong learning, the Minderoo Foundation’s Thrive by Five program engages with government, research institutes, and other stakeholders to advocate for effective policy and investment in early learning systems.16 This representative program has initial activities in Australia, with global ambitions. And while little formal research has been done to understand the effects of different parenting styles such as free range, helicopter, authoritative, or permissive parenting on brain development, in the brain-building context of early relational health and serve-and-return interactions, what is increasingly clear is that interactions shape brain development, and parents stand to serve as chief architects. With this in mind, The Minderoo Foundation’s Thrive by Five program also recently launched a new parenting app which leverages ground-breaking research into the early years to assist parents in developing their child’s life skills while going about their daily routines.17

Though there is also an intrinsic link between education and early childhood brain development, more research is needed to better understand, build, and optimize education innovations that may bolster development. For example, German forest schools, known as waldkindergarten or waldkitas, began in 1960 and encourage children to play, explore, and learn in a forest environment where adults assist rather than lead.18 The forest school model has spread to many locations around the world. Though research has elucidated the benefits of this model of education,19 little has been studied on the neurological affects.

The Montessori Method

Similarly, the Montessori method, developed in the 1900s by prominent psychiatrist and pediatrician Maria Montessori, MD, promotes independence through self-directed activities in a specially prepared environment and discourages conventional measures of achievement like tests and grades.20 Extensive connections between the Montessori method and early childhood brain development have been described and theorized, and research points towards many benefits of this model of education.21 However, more research is needed to understand the neuroscientific grounds of the Montessori method and how education can better facilitate brain development.

Neuroscience Guidance

Better understanding is also needed for high-tech approaches to brain development in childhood. For example, leading baby-brain researcher Patricia Kuhl, PhD, demonstrates, through her research, how neuroscience can better inform our understanding of brain development, how children learn, and the way children are taught. One of her studies made use of magnetoencephaography (MEG) scans to monitor sensory and motor-sensory brain activation in infants from English-speaking families who were exposed to Mandarin.22 Interestingly, babies showed quick adaptability in Mandarin only when they were exposed to the novel language in live interaction, but not from television or audio-listening. This study suggests that neuroscience can guide us—both as to how and when technology should (or should not) be leveraged in education, and with respect to important aspects of foundational language development and bilingualism.

The value of investing in early childhood is unequivocal. Led by Nobel laureate and economist James Heckman, PhD, “The Lifecycle Benefits of an Influential Childhood Program” determined that high quality birth-to-5 programs for disadvantaged children can deliver as much as a 13% per year return on investment.23 Significant gains were realized for both children and mothers through better outcomes in education, health, IQ, crime reduction, social behaviors, future earnings, and employment.24 These early childhood programs work, in part, because they provide children with the skills they need to learn and socialize in primary school.

Developing transformative neuroscience insights which can generate new ways to understand, screen, diagnose, and treat brain disorders is also key. In this regard, we applaud new projects such as Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), which is a large-scale effort to accelerate medical innovation in areas such as autism.25 Another of ARPA-H’s first 3 focus areas is Alzheimers disease—further exploration is needed into the value of starting dementia prevention strategies in childhood, which emerging evidence points to as promising.26

Concluding Thoughts

Now more than ever, as nations across the globe are looking to build back better in a world facing globally complex challenges—from COVID-19 to climate change and beyond—it is important that we do so strategically. According to International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva, PhD, the best investment in times of rapid change are investments in human capital.27 We agree. Based on all that the neuroscience now tells us about the importance of early brain and child development, we believe that achieving the goal of building back better must therefore include investments in child human capital. Actually, make that our children’s brain capital.28

Erin Smith is a director at the PRODEO Institute, an Atlantic Fellow in Brain Health Equity at the Global Brain Health Institute (GBHI) at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and a Thiel Fellow at Stanford University. Dr Hynes is a senior advisor to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) Secretary General, head of the New Approaches to Economic Challenges Unit (NAEC), and co-lead of the OECD-PRODEO Institute Neuroscience-inspired Policy Initiative (NIPI). Jorge Jraissati is an economist, researcher at the IESE Business School, and president of the Venezuelan Alliance. Michael Hogan is Paul Ramsay Foundation Fellow and Adjunct Professor, Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and convenor, Thriving Qld Kids Partnership. Lori Rubenstein is an advisor to ARACY (Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth) and convener of the Brains Builders Alliance.Dr Fu is a venture capital investor and adjunct professor in engineering at Stanford University. Dr Storch is professor and head of psychology at Baylor College of Medicine. Dr Sobowale is a child and adolescent psychiatry fellow at UCLA. Dr Jana is a pediatrician and professor with the Penn State Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center. Dr Berk is Alfred Deakin Professor of Psychiatry at Deakin University and director of IMPACT at Deakin University (Institute for Mental and Physical Health and Clinical Translation). Dr Eyre is cofounder of the PRODEO Institute, co-lead of the OECD NIPI, and holds adjuncts roles with IMPACT at Deakin University, BrainLat, GBHI at UCSF and Baylor College of Medicine.

References

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