child development

Aerobic fitness & motor ability counteracts dangers of obesity for developing children’s brains

  • Brain imaging has revealed that aerobic fitness and motor speed/agility in overweight children, but not strength, is associated with greater gray matter in some brain regions, some of which are also associated with better academic performance.

A Spanish study involving 101 overweight/obese children (aged 8-11) has found that aerobic capacity and motor ability is associated with a greater volume of gray matter in several cortical and subcortical brain regions.

Aerobic capacity was associated with greater gray matter volume in the premotor cortex, supplementary motor cortex, hippocampus, caudate nucleus, inferior temporal gyrus, parahippocampal gyrus, and the calcarine cortex. Three of these regions (premotor cortex, supplementary motor cortex and hippocampus) were also related to better academic performance.

Motor ability (speed and agility) was associated with a greater gray matter volume in two regions essential for language processing and reading: the inferior frontal gyrus and the superior temporal gyrus. Both of these were also associated with better academic performance.

Muscular strength showed no independent association with gray matter volume in any brain region.

The researchers suggest that increases in cardiorespiratory fitness and “speed-agility” may counteract the known harmful effect of obesity on brain structure and academic performance during childhood.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-11/uog-tbo112217.php

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Air pollution exposure walking to school linked to slower growth of working memory

  • A large study has found higher levels of traffic-related air pollution, still within the EU safe limits, are associated with slower growth in working memory capacity in primary/elementary school children.

A Spanish study investigating the effects of traffic-related air pollution on children walking to school has found higher levels of particulate matter and black carbon were associated with decreased growth in working memory capacity. Working memory capacity grows during childhood (and tends to fall in old age).

The study involved 1,234 children aged 7-10, from 39 schools across the city of Barcelona. The children were tested four times over a year to establish their developmental trajectories in working memory and inattentiveness. Average particulate matter, black carbon, and nitrogen dioxide, were estimated for the children’s walking routes using standard measures.

None of the pollutants were associated with inattentiveness. The effect of NO2 on working memory was inconclusive. However, increased concentrations of particulate matter and black carbon were associated with a reduction in the annual growth of working memory of 4.6% and 3.9%, respectively. Boys were more affected than girls.

The study followed an earlier study showing that exposure to traffic-related pollutants in schools was associated with slower cognitive development. Research has previously shown that 20% of a child's daily dose of black carbon (which is directly related to traffic) is inhaled during urban commutes.

The finding emphasizes that even “short exposures to very high concentrations of pollutants can have a disproportionately high impact on health”, and this may be especially true for children, with their smaller lung capacity and higher breathing rate.

The researchers emphasize that the solution for parents is not to stop children walking to school, since those who commute by car or public transport are also exposed to the pollution. Rather, the aim should be to try and find (or make) less polluted, low-traffic paths to school.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-10/bifg-ape100517.php

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Air pollution during pregnancy linked to cognitive impairment in children

  • A largish study involving school-age children not at any particular risk has found that higher levels of air pollution experienced by the mother during pregnancy are linked to less gray matter in some brain regions.

Research using data from a population-based birth cohort from Rotterdam, in The Netherlands, has found that children exposed to higher levels of air pollution when they were in womb had significantly thinner cortex in several brain regions. Some of this appeared to be related to impaired inhibitory control.

The study involved 783 children aged 6 to 10, who were given brain imaging and cognitive tests. Levels of air pollution in the mother’s environment during pregnancy were estimated using a standardized procedure. Mean fine particle levels were 20.2 μg/m3, and nitrogen dioxide levels were 39.3μg/m3. Note that the EU limit for mean fine particles is actually above that (25μg/m3), while the NO2 level is at the EU limit (40μg/m3), with 45% of the Dutch population experiencing higher levels. The World Health Organization sets a much lower level for fine particles: 10 μg/m3.

Children whose mothers were smokers were excluded from the study, as were children from areas where pollution measures weren’t available. Children included tended to be from a higher socio-economic position compared to those not included. Moreover, children with ADHD, or developmental or behavioral problems, were also excluded.

Global brain volume was not affected by fetal exposure. However, several brain regions showed significantly thinner cortex — in particular, the precuneus and rostral middle frontal regions, which partially accounted for the observed association between fetal exposure to fine particles and impaired inhibitory control (the ability to control your own behavior, especially impulsive behavior). This sort of cognitive impairment at early ages could have significant long-term consequences in academic achievement, later career success, and even in risk of mental disorders.

The findings are consistent with other studies linking acceptable air pollution levels with problems including cognitive impairment and child development.

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-03/e-apl030818.php

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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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