• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Monday 25th February, 2008

Time to put more brain power into Head Start?

Poor kids’ stressful lives can be toxic to their brains. A group of US researchers presenting at the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science explained why.Children’s genetic make up combined with their experiences in the first few years of life provide either a sturdy or fragile foundation for subsequent learning and behavior, according to Jack Shonkoff, director of the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child and one of the speakers at the meeting. Strong and prolonged activation of the body’s stress management systems early in life can lead to elevated cortisol levels, which, in turn, can impair cell growth and interfere with the formation of healthy neural circuits.The circuitry of the brain develops over time, beginning with the “wiring” needed for basic knowledge and functioning and progressing to more complex thinking and tasks. These higher neural circuits are more difficult to develop if the lower circuits are not wired properly, according to Shonkoff. Moreover, there appears to be a window of opportunity, early in life, to develop adequate wiring. As we age, the circuits stabilize making them increasingly difficult to alter. So Shonkoff argues that it is more efficient – both biologically and economically speaking – to create environments conducive to good wiring when children are quite young.Thus researchers like Shonkoff – and Courtney Stevens from the University of Oregon who also presented at the meeting – have called for more focused interventions than efforts like Head Start and Sure Start that aim to prepare poor children for school. Stevens showed encouraging preliminary results from a study on a program that helps families to de-stress by communicating and controlling their behavior better. [See Parental intervention boosts education of kids at high risk of failure.]While Shonkoff advocates for such programs, he also notes in a Financial Times article, Poverty mars formation of infant brains, that “the only way to remove the ‘toxic’ impact of poverty on young brains is to abolish poverty itself".• For Jack Shonkoff’s podcast and Power Point presentation on the effects of stress on early brain development, see: The Science of Early Childhood Development: Closing the Gap between What We Know and What We Do

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