child development

Being short of sleep may harm brain development

  • Brain scans of children with sleep apnea have found extensive reductions in gray matter.
  • Recordings of brain activity show that children's brains respond to sleep deprivation differently than adults’ brains do, and that this is linked to myelination of nerves in a specific area.
  • Sleep assessment from birth to age 7 has found that children getting less than the recommended levels of sleep at age 3 and after, were more likely to have cognitive and behavioral problems at age 7.

Untreated sleep apnea in children shrinks brain & may slow development

Brain scans of children who have moderate or severe obstructive sleep apnea have found significant reductions of gray matter across the brain.

The study compared brain scans from 16 children (aged 7-11) with obstructive sleep apnea to those from nine healthy children of the same age, gender, ethnicity and weight, who did not have apnea. The scans were also compared to 191 MRI scans of children who were part of an existing database.

The brains of those children with OSA showed reduced gray matter in multiple brain regions, including the frontal, prefrontal, and parietal cortices, temporal lobe, and the brainstem.

Sleep apnea is known to affect cognition in adults, but it may be that it is even more damaging in brains that are still developing. However, adult studies have also shown that treating sleep apnea reverses gray matter loss and improves cognition. This finding therefore emphasizes the importance of treating children's sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea affects up to 5% of all children (and we can only assume that this will get more common, if childhood obesity continues to rise).

Developing brain regions in children are hardest hit by sleep deprivation

Another study of sleep deprivation in children gives weight to the idea that it is particularly important for proper brain development that children get good sleep.

The study measured the brain activity in 13 healthy five to 12-year-olds as they slept. On the first occasion, the children went to bed at their normal bedtime; the second time, they stayed awake until late and thus received exactly half the normal amount of sleep.

The results indicate that children's brains respond to sleep deprivation differently than adults’ brains do. In adults, being deprived of sleep creates a greater need for deep sleep, which is manifested in greater slow-wave activation in the prefrontal cortex. In the children's brains, this slow-wave increase occurred in the back regions of the brain, in the parietal and occipital lobes. This suggests that these areas might be especially vulnerable to sleep deprivation.

Moreover, this difference was linked to levels of myelin in part of the visual system. Myelin increases as the brain matures. Those with higher levels of myelin in certain nerve fibers in the visual system displayed slow-wave activation that was more similar to that of adults.

The researchers conclude that adequate sleep is important for neuronal connections to develop properly.

Poor sleep in early childhood may lead to cognitive, behavioral problems in later years

A study involving 1,046 children whose sleep was assessed at various points in their first seven years has found that children who didn’t get enough sleep in their preschool and early school years were more likely to have problems with attention, emotional control and peer relationships at age seven.

Sleep was assessed through interviews with the mothers when their children were around 6 months, 3 years and 7 years old, and from questionnaires completed when the children were ages 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6. Mothers and teachers filled out questionnaires evaluating each child's executive function and behavioral issues at around 7.

Children living in homes with lower household incomes and whose mothers had lower education levels were more likely to sleep less than nine hours at ages 5 to 7. Other factors associated with insufficient sleep include more television viewing, a higher body mass index, and being African American.

Insufficient sleep was defined as being less than the recommended amount of sleep at specific age categories:

  • 12 hours or longer at ages 6 months to 2 years
  • 11 hours or longer at ages 3 to 4 years
  • 10 hours or longer at 5 to 7 years.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-03/uocm-usa031517.php

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-10/uoz-dbr100416.php

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-11/f-hkb112816.php

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-03/mgh-psi030917.php

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Childhood concussions impair brain function two years later

  • A small study found children who had experienced a sports-related concussion two years earlier still showed cognitive impairments, with younger children showing greater deficits.

A study involving 30 children (aged 8-10), of whom 15 had experienced a sports-related concussion two years earlier, and all of whom were athletically active, found that those with a history of concussion performed worse on tests of working memory, attention and impulse control, compared to the controls. This impaired performance was also reflected in differences in brain activity. Additionally, those who were injured at a younger age had the largest cognitive deficits.

All of this points to a need for focused and perhaps prolonged interventions, especially for younger children.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-12/uoia-scc121815.php

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Children with Alzheimer's gene may be more vulnerable to brain damage from smog

A small study involving 50 children and teens living in Mexico City (aged 13.4 ± 4.8 years) has found that those with the 'Alzheimer's gene' APOEε4 (22 of the 50) were more vulnerable to the effects of air pollution on cognition. Those with the gene variant had a reduced NAA/Cr ratio in the right frontal white matter (as those with Alzheimer's do), poorer attention and short-term memory, and below-average scores in Verbal and Full Scale IQ (>10 points), compared to those with the 'normal' ε3 variant. They also had problems with odor detection, also typical of those developing Alzheimer's.

The study is small and lacks a proper control group, but while other studies have found some signs of early brain differences in those carrying the ε4 variant, they have not been nearly as marked as this. The finding certainly warrants concern and further study.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-02/tuom-usf021115.php

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-02/ip-dis020215.php

Reference: 

Calderón-Garcidueñas, L. et al. 2015. Decreases in Short Term Memory, IQ, and Altered Brain Metabolic Ratios in Urban Apolipoprotein ε4 Children Exposed to Air Pollution. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, 45(3)

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Prenatal exposure to common chemicals linked with drop in child IQ

Following a previous study linking higher maternal levels of two common chemicals with slower mental and motor development in preschoolers, a new study has found that this effect continues into school age.

The study involved 328 inner-city mothers and their children. The mothers' levels of prenatal urinary metabolites of di-n-butyl phthalate (DnBP), butylbenzyl phthalate (BBzP), di-isobutyl phthalate (DiBP), di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate and diethyl phthalate were measured in late pregnancy. IQ tests were given to the children at age 7.

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One Alzheimer's risk gene may begin to affect brains from childhood

A gene linked to Alzheimer's has been linked to brain changes in childhood. This gene, SORL1, has two connections to Alzheimer’s: it carries the code for the sortilin-like receptor, which is involved in recycling some molecules before they develop into amyloid-beta; it is also involved in lipid metabolism, putting it at the heart of the vascular risk pathway.

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Higher levels of omega-3 in diet associated with better sleep

A study involving 362 children with reading problems has found that 16 weeks of daily 600 mg supplements of omega-3 DHA from algal sources improved their sleep. According to a sleep questionnaire filled out by parents, 40% of these children had significant sleep problems. Monitoring of 43 of the poor sleepers found that children taking daily supplements of omega-3 had nearly one hour (58 minutes) more sleep and seven fewer waking episodes per night compared with children taking a placebo.

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Long-lasting effects of early-childhood brain injuries

January, 2012

A 10 year follow-up of children hospitalized for brain injuries in early childhood suggests that young brains are not as resilient as we thought.

I recently discussed some of the implications of head injuries and how even mild concussions can have serious and long-term consequences. A follow-up study looking at the effects of childhood traumatic brain injury ten years after the event has found that even those with mild TBI showed some measurable effects, while those with severe TBI had markedly poorer performance on a number of cognitive measures.

The study involved 40 children who were admitted to hospital with TBI in early childhood (between 2 to 7 years; average just under 5), and 16 healthy controls. The children’s cognitive functions were assessed at the time of accident, and again at 12 and 30 months and 10 years later. Of the 40 with TBIs, 7 had mild injuries, 20 had moderate, and 13 severe.

Unsurprisingly, children with severe TBI had the poorest outcomes. This group was significantly poorer (compared to controls) on full scale IQ; performance IQ; verbal IQ; verbal comprehension; perceptual organization, processing speed. Those who had moderate TBI were significantly poorer on full scale IQ and verbal comprehension only, and those with mild TBI performed more poorly than the controls on verbal comprehension only. Note the size of these effects: the average scores of the group with severe TBI were 18-26 points lower than the control group. In comparison, those with moderate TBI were around 10 points lower on the two significant measures.

These findings are in contrast to research involving adults and older children, where IQ tends to remain intact.

They also contradict the belief that young brains have greater ability to ‘bounce back’ from injury.

Interestingly, the recovery trajectory wasn’t significantly affected by severity of injury — all the groups followed a similar pattern and they all tended to plateau from 5 to 10 years after injury. In general, the findings paint a picture of a long period of disrupted development immediately after the injury, lasting perhaps as long as 30 months, before the brain has recovered sufficiently to progress relatively normally. In other words, intervention may be helpful even years after the injury.

One weakness in the study is the small number of mild TBI cases. It should also be noted that the IQ of the control group was surprisingly high (113). However, given that they had similar IQ levels to the TBI groups prior to injury, it is possible that this reflects a practice effect (but remember that all groups got the same amount of practice).

One thing I wonder about, given recent research pointing to the value of schooling in raising IQ, is the extent to which some of this is due to loss of education that may have resulted from severe injury.

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Ability to remember memories' origin develops slowly

October, 2011

A study comparing the brains of children, adolescents, and young adults has found that the ability to remember the origin of memories is slow to mature. As with older adults, impaired source memory increases susceptibility to false memories.

In the study, 18 children (aged 7-8), 20 adolescents (13-14), and 20 young adults (20-29) were shown pictures and asked to decide whether it was a new picture or one they had seen earlier. Some of the pictures were of known objects and others were fanciful figures (this was in order to measure the effects of novelty in general). After a 10-minute break, they resumed the task — with the twist that any pictures that had appeared in the first session should be judged “new” if that was the first appearance in the second session. EEG measurements (event-related potentials — ERPs) were taken during the sessions.

ERPs at the onset of a test stimulus (each picture) are different for new and old (repeated) stimuli. Previous studies have established various old/new effects that reflect item and source memory in adults. In the case of item memory, recognition is thought to be based on two processes — familiarity and recollection — which are reflected in ERPs of different timings and location (familiarity: mid-frontal at 300-500 msec; recollection: parietal at 400-70 msec). Familiarity is seen as a fast assessment of similarity, while recollection varies according to the amount of retrieved information.

Source memory appears to require control processes that involve the prefrontal cortex. Given that this region is the slowest to mature, it would not be surprising if source memory is a problematic memory task for the young. And indeed, previous research has found that children do have particular difficulty in sourcing memories when the sources are highly similar.

In the present study, children performed more poorly than adolescents and adults on both item memory and source memory. Adolescents performed more poorly than adults on item memory but not on source memory. Children performed more poorly on source memory than item memory, but adolescents and adults showed no difference between the two tasks.

All groups responded faster to new items than old, and ERP responses to general novelty were similar across the groups — although children showed a left-frontal focus that may reflect the transition from analytic to a more holistic processing approach.

ERPs to old items, however, showed a difference: for adults, they were especially pronounced at frontal sites, and occurred at around 350-450 msec; for children and adolescents they were most pronounced at posterior sites, occurring at 600-800 msec for children and 400-600 msec for adolescents. Only adults showed the early midfrontal response that is assumed to reflect familiarity processing. On the other hand, the late old/new effect occurring at parietal sites and thought to reflect recollection, was similar across all age groups. The early old/new effect seen in children and adolescents at central and parietal regions is thought to reflect early recollection.

In other words, only adults showed the brain responses typical of familiarity as well as recollection. Now, some research has found evidence of familiarity processing in children, so this shouldn’t be taken as proof against familiarity processing in the young. What seems most likely is that children are less likely to use such processing. Clearly the next step is to find out the factors that affect this.

Another interesting point is the early recollective response shown by children and adolescents. It’s speculated that these groups may have used more retrieval cues — conceptual as well as perceptual — that facilitated recollection. I’m reminded of a couple of studies I reported on some years ago, that found that young children were better than adults on a recognition task in some circumstances — because children were using a similarity-based process and adults a categorization-based one. In these cases, it had more to do with knowledge than development.

It’s also worth noting that, in adults, the recollective response was accentuated in the right-frontal area. This suggests that recollection was overlapping with post-retrieval monitoring. It’s speculated that adults’ greater use of familiarity produces a greater need for monitoring, because of the greater uncertainty.

What all this suggests is that preadolescent children are less able to strategically recollect source information, and that strategic recollection undergoes an important step in early adolescence that is probably related to improvements in cognitive control. But this process is still being refined in adolescents, in particular as regards monitoring and coping with uncertainty.

Interestingly, source memory is also one of the areas affected early in old age.

Failure to remember the source of a memory has many practical implications, in particular in the way it renders people more vulnerable to false memories.

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Brain continues to develop well into our 20s

October, 2011

A new study shows that the wiring that connects the frontal lobes to other parts of the cerebral cortex continues to develop well into young adulthood — except for a small minority that show degradation.

Brain imaging data from 103 healthy people aged 5-32, each of whom was scanned at least twice, has demonstrated that wiring to the frontal lobe continues to develop after adolescence.

The brain scans focused on 10 major white matter tracts. Significant changes in white matter tracts occurred in the vast majority of children and early adolescents, and these changes were mostly complete by late adolescence for projection and commissural tracts (projection tracts project from the cortex to non-cortical areas, such as the senses and the muscles, or from the thalamus to the cortex; commissural tracts cross from one hemisphere to the other). But association tracts (which connect regions within the same hemisphere) kept developing after adolescence.

This was particularly so for the inferior and superior longitudinal and fronto-occipital fascicule (the inferior longitudinal fasciculus connects the temporal and occipital lobes; the superior longitudinal fasciculus connects the frontal lobe to the occipital lobe and parts of the temporal and parietal lobes). These frontal connections are needed for complex cognitive tasks such as inhibition, executive functioning, and attention.

The researchers speculated that this continuing development may be due to the many life experiences in young adulthood, such as pursing post-secondary education, starting a career, independence and developing new social and family relationships.

But this continuing development wasn’t seen in everyone. Indeed, in some people, there was evidence of reductions, rather than growth, in white matter integrity. It may be that this is connected with the development of psychiatric disorders that typically develop in adolescence or young adulthood — perhaps directly, or because such degradation increases vulnerability to other factors (e.g., to drug use). This is speculative at the moment, but it opens up a new avenue to research.

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Childhood amnesia shifts with time

August, 2011

A new study finds that the earliest memories children can recall shifts with time, providing support for the theory that children’s memories don’t consolidate in the way adults’ memories do.

Childhood amnesia — our inability to remember almost everything that happened to us when very young — is always interesting. It’s not as simple as an inability to form long-term memories. Most adults can’t remember events earlier than 3-4 years (there is both individual and cultural variability), even though 2-year-olds are perfectly capable of remembering past events (side-note: memory durability increases from about a day to a year from age six months to two years). Additionally, research has shown that young children (6-8) can recall events that happened 4-6 years previously.

Given that the ability to form durable memories is in place, what governs which memories are retained? The earliest memories adults retain tend to be of events that have aroused emotions. Nothing surprising about that. More interesting is research suggesting that children can only describe memories of events using words they knew when the experience occurred — the study of young children (27, 33 or 39 months) found that, when asked about the experimental situation (involving a "magic shrinking machine") six months later, the children easily remembered how to operate the device, but were only able to describe the machine in words they knew when they first learned how to operate it.

Put another way this isn’t so surprising: our memories depend on how we encode them at the time. So two things may well be in play in early childhood amnesia: limited encoding abilities (influenced but not restricted to language) may mean the memories made are poor in quality (whatever that might mean); the development of encoding abilities means that later attempts to retrieve the memory may be far from matching the original memory. Or as one researcher put it, the format is different.

A new study about childhood amnesia looks at a different question: does the boundary move? 140 children (aged 4-13) were asked to describe their three earliest memories, and then asked again two years later (not all could provide as many as three early memories; the likelihood improved with age).

While more than a third of the 10- to 13-year-olds described the same memory as their very earliest on both occasions, children between 4 and 7 at the first interview showed very little overlap between the memories (only 2 of the 27 4-5 year-olds, and 3 of the 23 6-7 year-olds). There was a clear difference between the overlap seen in this youngest group (4-7) and the oldest (10-13), with the in-between group (8-9) being placed squarely between the two (20.7% compared to 10% and 36%).

Moreover, children under 8 at the first interview mostly had no overlap between any of the memories they provided at the two interviews, while those who were at least 8 years old did. For the oldest groups (10-13), more than half of all the memories they provided were the same.

The children were also given recall cues for memories they hadn’t spontaneously recalled. That is, they were told synopses of memories belonging to both their own earlier memories, and other children’s earlier memories. Almost all of the false memories were correctly rejected (the exceptions mostly occurred with the youngest group, those initially aged 4-5). However, the youngest children didn’t recognize over a third of their own memories, while almost all the oldest children’s memories were recognized (90% by 8-11 year-olds; all but one by 12-13 year-olds). Their age at the time of the event didn’t seem to affect the oldest or the very youngest groups, but 6-9 year-olds were more likely to recall after cuing events that happened at least a year later than those events that weren’t recalled after cuing.

In general, the earliest memories were several months later at the follow-up than they had been previously. The average age at the time of the earliest memory was 32 months, and 39.6 months on the follow-up interview. This shift in time occurred across all ages. Moreover, for the very earliest memory, the time-shift was even greater: a whole year.

In connection with the earlier study I mentioned, regarding the importance of language and encoding, it is worth noting that by and large, when the same memories were recalled, the same amount of information was recalled.

There was no difference between the genders.

The findings don’t rule out theories of the role of language. It seems clear to me that more than one thing is going on in childhood amnesia. These findings bear on another aspect: the forgetting curve.

It has been suggested that forgetting in children reflects a different function than forgetting in adults. Forgetting in adults matches a power function, reflecting the fact that forgetting slows over time (as is often quoted, most forgetting occurs in the first 24 hours; the longer you remember something, the more likely you are to remember it forever). However, there is some evidence that forgetting in children is best modeled in an exponential function, reflecting the continued vulnerability of memories. It seems they are not being consolidated in the way adults’ memories are. This may be because children don’t yet have the cognitive structures in place that allow them to embed new memories in a dense network.

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