The Importance of Research on Early Brain Development

Over the past ten to fifteen years, there has been a great deal of research on early brain development. Some studies have looked at prenatal brain development, but the majority of research has focused on babies brain development. There have also been some excellent recent studies done on teenage brain development.

This new interest in human brain development occurred primarily as a result of medical technology. For the first time researchers now have the ability to see into the brain via brain scans and MRI, to watch how it fires up, how the synapses connect, and which areas of the brain are being activated at any given time. The 1990s became known as the ‘decade of the brain’ in some research circles.

This new area of study has been of particular interest to those of us who work with infants and young children, and who are concerned with and involved in the attachment process between infants and caregivers, and it’s relationship to early brain development.

As a parent educator I have believed in and taught Adlerian principles for many years. One of Adler’s core theories has to do with the importance of belonging and significance. Adler believed that infants and young children are watching and learning from the moment of birth…they are attempting to make sense of who they are, how the world works, and how they fit into it. They are making decisions in these early days, weeks and months, about what they need to do in order to thrive or survive.

I believe that the research on early brain development, now scientifically supports these theories. Infants’ brains are connecting with caregivers’ brains in a kind of relationship dance, and foundational building blocks of human brain development are being built.

An infant whose primary caregivers are attentive and responsive to their needs, both physical and emotional, begins to develop a picture of the world as safe and predictable, begins to see himself as important and having some control over his world, and perceives others as caring and nurturing. This is his ‘blueprint’ for relationships and the world.

Research on early brain development now tells us that the foundational building blocks of this child’s early brain development will very likely lead this infant to develop good cognitive and emotional skills and abilities. This infant will be able to make thoughtful decisions, will be able to think critically, and will develop empathy, and the ability to share emotions with others.

For physically abused children, or those who have been neglected or suffered other chronic trauma, the picture of early brain development looks much different. When infants’ needs are not met, or met sporadically, or when abuse or violence is a part of early relationships, the ‘blueprint’ that develops is one in which the infant feels no control, no power to get her needs met. She learns the world is unpredictable, and that caregivers are not nurturing and supportive, or worse, that they are hurtful. The foundational building blocks of this infant’s brain are compromised in some very dramatic ways, often resulting in difficulties with cognitive skills, little or no trust in caregivers and the world, and inability to develop healthy relationships.

These factors have led to the understanding of the importance of early intervention for young children – helping new parents to nurture, removing children or intervening quickly for children in abusive or neglectful families. The ideal, of course, is to provide the services to birth families that will allow children to grow and thrive, but if this is not possible, then removal of children to relatives, or into the foster care system, with a permanency plan in place as soon as possible is advisable.

For more information regarding research on early brain development and how this related to attachment, please refer to the page on Attachment.