3. Learning from the immature brain

“Despite having a small, immature brain, children are great learners,” says Ghislaine Dehaene-Lambertz, head of the Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory (France). In order to understand the human brain, we must know both how it works and how it develops. Thanks to new non-invasive examination techniques, neuroscientists can study the brains of children, babies and even unborn fetuses.

It has been shown that prenatal development is equally or more important than postnatal development, and that the brain is highly sensitive to alterations in its environment in utero. According to Elisenda Eixarch, of the Fetal Medicine Research Center (Barcelona), “Two out of three cases of intellectual disability have prenatal origins.”

This scientist analyzes the cerebral consequences of the delay in intrauterine growth that occurs when a fetus doesn’t get enough oxygen and nutrients from the placenta during pregnancy. It has been said that this phenomenon is associated with a lower IQ, learning difficulties and inferior job conditions. Eixarch and her team are working on postnatal interventions to reverse some of these consequences.

Another field of interest in developmental neuroscience is learning how human beings acquire language. Janet Werker, professor at the University of British Columbia (Canada), believes there are critical periods in infant development when the brain is most sensitive. “As babies grow, they become less sensitive to unknown sounds and more sensitive to those they recognize,” she says. Werker believes that attention should focus on how to control these periods, keeping them opening, closing them or even reopening them.