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Prev Med. 1998 Mar-Apr;27(2):168-71.

How a child builds its brain: some lessons from animal studies of neural plasticity.

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Department of Psychiatry, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 61801, USA.


Although the potential vulnerability of children's brain development is generally recognized, relatively little is known about the timing, resiliency, or mechanisms involved. While animal research should be applied only cautiously to human policy, some findings do have important clinical implications. This paper briefly reviews animal studies demonstrating the effects of experience on brain structure. Contemporary theories emphasize the self-organizing potential of brain structure, particularly regions that seem to have evolved for the purpose of storing information. We emphasize three major findings: (1) many regions of the brain are responsive to experience, but they differ in the types of information stored and in their developmental timing. (2) One type of plasticity is typically embedded in a developmental program, and it requires appropriate timing and quality of the information stored for the animal's development to be normal. (3) Another category of plasticity stores information that is idiosyncratic and unpredictable, but is often useful for species such as humans that learn throughout their life span. We therefore expect that some aspects of human brain development use the first type of plasticity and that abnormal experience or deprivation may cause lasting harm to brain and behavior. However, because the other type of plasticity lasts a lifetime, efforts such as psychotherapy or social interventions may help heal a wounded brain.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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