Scientists say active early learning shapes the adult brain

Through the Abecedarian Project, an early education, randomized controlled trial that has followed children since 1971, Penn and Virginia Tech researchers reveal new discoveries about brain structure decades later.

An enhanced learning environment during the first five years of life shapes the brain in ways that are apparent four decades later, according to University of Pennsylvania and Virginia Tech scientists writing in the June edition of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

The researchers used structural brain imaging to detect the developmental effects of linguistic and cognitive stimulation starting at six weeks of age in infants. The influence of an enriched environment on brain structure had formerly been demonstrated in animal studies, but this is the first experimental study to find a similar result in humans.

Person sitting at a table with blurry people in front and a screen hanging on the wall behind, which reads, "Experiential effects on brain development."
Martha J. Farah, the Annenberg Professor of Natural Sciences, is director of the Center for Neuroscience & Society at Penn. (Pre-pandemic image: Courtesy Martha Farah) 

“Our research shows a relationship between brain structure and five years of high-quality educational and social experiences,” says Craig Ramey of Virginia Tech, principal investigator of the study. “We have demonstrated that in vulnerable children who received stimulating and emotionally supportive learning experiences, statistically significant changes in brain structure appear in middle age.”

The results support the idea that early environment influences the brain structure of individuals growing up with multirisk socioeconomic challenges, says Martha J. Farah, director of the Center for Neuroscience & Society at Penn and first author of the study. 

“This has exciting implications for the basic science of brain development, as well as for theories of social stratification and social policy,” Farah says. 

The study follows children who have continuously participated in the Abecedarian Project, an early intervention program initiated by Ramey in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1971 to study the effects of educational, social, health, and family support services on high-risk infants. 

Both the comparison and treatment groups received extra health care, nutrition, and family support services. However, beginning at six weeks of age, the treatment group also received five years of high-quality educational support, five days a week for 50 weeks a year. The Abecedarian study participants were in their late-30s to early-40s when scanned most recently, offering the researchers a unique look at how childhood factors affect the adult brain.

“People generally know about the potentially large benefits of early education for children from very low resource circumstances,” says co-author Sharon Landesman Ramey of Virginia Tech. “The new results reveal that biological effects accompany the many behavioral, social, health, and economic benefits reported in the Abecedarian Project. This affirms the idea that positive early-life experiences contribute to later positive adjustment through a combination of behavioral, social, and brain pathways.”

This has exciting implications for the basic science of brain development, as well as for theories of social stratification and social policy. Penn neuroscientist Martha J. Farah

During followup examinations, structural MRI scans of the brains of 47 study participants were conducted at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute Human Neuroimaging Lab. Of those, 29 had been in the group that received the educational enrichment focused on promoting language, cognition, and interactive learning. 

The other 18 individuals received the same robust health, nutritional, and social service supports provided to the educational treatment group and whatever community child care or other learning their parents provided. The two groups were well-matched on a variety of factors, including maternal education, head circumference at birth, and age at scanning.

Analyzing the scans, the researchers looked at brain size as a whole, including the cortex, the brain’s outermost layer, as well as five regions selected for their expected connection to the intervention’s stimulation of children’s language and cognitive development. 

Those included the left inferior frontal gyrus and left superior temporal gyrus, which may be relevant to language, and the right inferior frontal gyrus and bilateral anterior cingulate cortex, relevant to cognitive control. A fifth, the bilateral hippocampus, was added because its volume is frequently associated with early-life adversity and socioeconomic status.

The researchers determined that those in the early education treatment group had increased size of the whole brain, including the cortex. Several specific cortical regions also appeared larger, according to study co-authors Read Montague and Terry Lohrenz of Virginia Tech. 

A black-and-white image of an adult sitting on a carpeted floor with a young child. Between them are two toys. Behind them is a plastic chair and some images on the wall.
A teacher guides a student through a task in this historical photo of the Abecedarian Project, an early education, randomized controlled trial that has followed participants since 1971. Now researchers from Penn and Virginia Tech have discovered the lasting effects of that early education on brain structure. (Pre-pandemic image: Courtesy Virginia Tech)

The scientists noted the group intervention treatment results for the brain were substantially greater for males than for females. The reasons for this are not known and were surprising, since both boys and girls showed generally comparable positive behavioral and educational effects from early enriched education. The current study cannot adequately explain the sex differences.  

“When we launched this project in the 1970s, the field knew more about how to assess behavior than it knew about how to assess brain structure,” C. Ramey says. “Because of advances in neuroimaging technology and through strong interdisciplinary collaborations, we were able to measure structural features of the brain. The prefrontal cortex and areas associated with language were definitely affected; to our knowledge, this is the first experimental evidence of a link between known early educational experiences and long-term changes in humans.”

“We believe that these findings warrant careful consideration and lend further support to the value of ensuring positive learning and social-emotional support for all children,” he says, “particularly to improve outcomes for children who are vulnerable to inadequate stimulation and care in the early years of life.” 

Funding for this research came from the Wellcome Trust, Virginia Tech, Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences Research Fund, and the William N. Sternberg Fund for Human Information-Processing Research.

Martha J. Farah is Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Natural Sciences in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, founding director of Penn’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, and director of the Center for Neuroscience & Society at Penn.

Other researchers contributing to this work included Saul Sternberg, a professor in Penn’s Department of Psychology, and from Virginia Tech, Read Montague, Virginia Tech Carilion Vernon Mountcastle Research Professor; Sharon Landesman Ramey, research professor and distinguished research scholar; and Craig Ramey, research professor and distinguished research scholar of human development. All are primary faculty members of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute with appointments in the Virginia Tech College of Science.