Brain plasticity and early intervention

Plasticity is the brain’s ability to learn, i.e., to change as a result of its interaction with the environment, for instance by creating new synapses or by specialising its initial structures. Brain’s plasticity is higher during the first years of life, making the brain considerably sensitive to damaging factors but also significantly able to acquire missing features (as for example occurs with children with developmental disorders). In contrast to what scientists believed in the past, the brain remains plastic for life and the degree of this plasticity depends on several factors, such as the skill area targeted for development.

For health and education professionals who design rehabilitation programs, the concept of plasticity is significantly important, since we know early intervention that benefits from maximum plasticity brings optimal results. For example, a study conducted with children with Autism in 2012 showed that early (starting before the age of 3 years) behavioural intervention was responsible for the normalisation of brain activity. It is also important to highlight that environmental stimuli account for changes in the brain that differ depending on the person’s age (Kolb & Gibb, 2011). Another study (Temple, Deutsch, Poldrack, Milleri, Tallali, Merzenichi, & Gabrieli, 2003) conducted with school age children with learning disorders (dyslexia) also showed that a behavioural remediation program improved significantly brain functions related with phonological awareness, oral language and reading while other areas of the brain were also positively influenced.

Enriching the environment in which the child is developing with stimuli that address all senses and using behavioural science to establish and increase a variety of skills in relation to these stimuli as early in life as possible seems to be one of the determining factors for children’s future development, especially for children who present developmental disorders such as Autism. Scientific results arising from behavioural neuroscience up to date strongly support early intervention for children with developmental disorders (e.g., Autism, communication disorders) and it is important that parents seek expert advice as early as possible.

Brain plasticity Autism

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