Science & Tech

Early childhood stress affects developing brain

4 min read

Impacts real and long lasting

It is now clear that creating a sustained, reliable, compassionate and widespread system that cares for tiny children born into troubled families is needed in this nation, said Jack P. Shonkoff, Director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

Speaking today during a symposium at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Shonkoff declared “there are no magic bullets” that will rid America of a continuing legacy of illness, mental health problems, crime and low achievement spawned by neglect of very young children.

The message of science is clear, Shonkoff said: decades of research have shown that bad experiences in stressful homes breeds lifelong problems in vulnerable children. If action isn’t taken in the first few months and years of life, children can be harmed irreparably and are unlikely to recover.

“Positive relationships and quality living experiences are like money in the bank” in terms of avoiding the costs to society so long associated with being born into poverty, poor education, drug abuse, beatings and similar experiences children live through in some homes, he explained.

Shonkoff and his colleagues made it clear a vital part of child development – the making of connections within the developing brain – occurs during the first few years after birth, driven in part by mutual interactions with care-givers, like “serve-and return” contacts, with loving parents.  In families where there is neglect, frequent fighting or other types of turmoil, the tiny children cannot grow up appropriately. Later efforts to ameliorate the damage usually do little good, he said.

After the bad, stressful experiences which Shonkoff called “toxic stress,” the small children “never get back to normal” because of “a violent environment with no stable, predictable sources of support. It damages the brain’s circuitry, leading to lifelong problems with learning, behavior, physiological health and mental health.”

Shonkoff lamented, too, that speaking to government policy-makers has been essentially fruitless. “There is no sympathy for studying stress. People think it’s character-building, it makes you stronger. Nobody cares about stress,” even though it’s now clear that early neglect leads has negative neurological impact on the developing brain and leads to lifelong deficits.

The Julius B. Richmond FAMRI Professor in Child Health and Development at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Shonkoff also noted that trying to intervene on the cheap – sending a nice person around carrying toys once a week – is too little, too late. A sustained effort to reach children at risk and give them the brain-building experiences they need is the true answer, something the U.S. military has demonstrated for decades. Although day-care centers offer some help, there are often chronic problems with employee turnover, forcing young children to make attachments with a changing cast of care-givers.

“The best system we have is with the military, the children of military people,” he explained. “The military knows it is investing in its future workforce,” and takes pains to insure that the children of service personnel get a healthy upbringing.

These conclusions, Shonkoff said, “are rock-solid. Brains are built over time. At birth they already have most of their cells, but very little of the circuitry (the wire-like connections) has been built. This happens from the bottom up,” with more fundamental circuits connected first, then more advanced circuits are built depending, in part, on the infant’s experiences.

“This is the critical period,” essentially the first four years, as “the circuits come in on a very strict schedule. And how these circuits get established is highly influenced by by experience. It never goes back to re-wire,” he said. “If it builds healthy circuits, you’re all set. But any faults are built-in for life. So it’s an interaction between the genes and experience” the leads to a mature brain. A good home can make a huge difference.