Thriving early environments boost brain and cognitive development in children

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In a recent study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, researchers evaluated how fundamental environmental supports, encapsulated as a thrive factor (T-factor), during the first year of life significantly influences brain, cognitive, and socioemotional development by age 3.

Study: Basic Environmental Supports for Positive Brain and Cognitive Development in the First Year of Life. Image Credit: Monkey Business Images / ShutterstockStudy: Basic Environmental Supports for Positive Brain and Cognitive Development in the First Year of Life. Image Credit: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

Background 

Nearly half of the world's children under 5 in lower-income countries fail to reach developmental milestones due to the poverty situation aggravated in the United States (US), where child poverty worsened after the Child Tax Credit discontinuation in 2023. Research highlights the need for environmental and psychosocial support for infants' healthy brain and cognitive development, including safe shelter, supportive caregivers, and adequate nutrition. Further research is needed to explore the mitigation potential of psychosocial supports in early childhood, aiming to counteract the significant developmental setbacks caused by poverty and provide a foundation for global policy improvements in child development.

About the study 

The present study involved mother-infant pairs, part of the Early Life Adversity Biological Embedding and Risk for Developmental Precursors of Mental Disorders (eLABE) project, a longitudinal investigation into how early life adversity affects neurodevelopment and the risk of mental disorders. These pairs were selected during pregnancy from a cohort within the Prematurity Research Center at Washington University in St. Louis. Eligible participants were those pregnant women who, despite exposure to adversities, did not use alcohol or substances other than tobacco or marijuana during pregnancy and had no known complications or congenital issues affecting their pregnancy. This recruitment led to 395 pregnant women joining the study, resulting in 399 singleton births, with four women having two singleton births across the study period.

The study focused on English-speaking women over 18 who were expecting a single child. Exclusions were made for congenital infections in the mother and known fetal abnormalities. Consent was obtained from all participating mothers, with the study receiving approval from the Washington University institutional review board and adhering to Enhancing the Quality and Transparency Of Health Research (EQUATOR) guidelines.

The study quantified prenatal social disadvantage (PSD) and the impact of a T-factor -including environmental stimulation, nutrition, safety, caregiving, and sleep- on children's neurodevelopment and mental health. Cognitive, language, and behavioral outcomes were evaluated using the Bayley Scales of Infant Development and behavior assessments, considering variables like infant sex, birth weight, gestational age, and maternal cognitive abilities. 

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans were conducted at 24 and 36 months to examine brain volumes and cortical folding, aiming to identify structural correlates of the environmental influences captured by the T-factor. The study used multiple imputations to handle missing data and applied stepwise linear regression to explore the relationships between the T-factor, PSD, and child development outcomes, including cognitive abilities, psychopathology, and brain structure. 

Study results 

In the study, researchers revealed that PSD and the T-factor, a composite measure reflecting key environmental supports, showed a strong negative correlation, suggesting that higher levels of social disadvantage were associated with lower levels of environmental support, yet each maintained unique contributions to the models.

Cognitive abilities and language development at age 3 showed significant positive associations with the T-factor, even after accounting for factors like child sex, birth weight, and PSD. These associations indicate environmental supports' critical role in early cognitive and language development. Interestingly, the impact of the T-factor on cognitive and language abilities was found to be dependent upon the level of PSD, with positive effects diminishing as social disadvantage increased.

Socioemotional outcomes, specifically externalizing and internalizing symptoms, were inversely related to the T-factor. This relationship suggests that better environmental supports can reduce negative socioemotional symptoms in children, a finding particularly pronounced for internalizing symptoms in contexts of higher PSD.

In terms of brain structure, the study found a significant positive association between the T-factor and cortical gray matter volume, underscoring the influence of early environmental conditions on brain development. This association persisted even when controlling for PSD, highlighting the T-factor's independent contribution to brain structure.

Mediation models further clarified these relationships, showing that the T-factor mediated the impact of PSD on cognitive abilities, socioemotional outcomes, and cortical gray matter volume. These findings suggest that enhancing environmental supports could buffer the adverse effects of social disadvantage on child development.

Conclusions 

To summarize, the study highlights that early environmental quality, measured by the T-factor, significantly influences early childhood development, enhancing cognitive, emotional, and brain outcomes. The T-factor's positive effects on development extend beyond the impact of PSD, particularly benefiting cognitive and language skills in children with lower PSD levels. Conversely, it effectively reduces internalizing symptoms in highly disadvantaged settings. These findings suggest the critical role of enriching environments in early development and advocate for interventions that enhance environmental quality, especially for children facing adversity, to improve overall developmental trajectories and reduce the risks of early psychopathology.

Journal reference:
Vijay Kumar Malesu

Written by

Vijay Kumar Malesu

Vijay holds a Ph.D. in Biotechnology and possesses a deep passion for microbiology. His academic journey has allowed him to delve deeper into understanding the intricate world of microorganisms. Through his research and studies, he has gained expertise in various aspects of microbiology, which includes microbial genetics, microbial physiology, and microbial ecology. Vijay has six years of scientific research experience at renowned research institutes such as the Indian Council for Agricultural Research and KIIT University. He has worked on diverse projects in microbiology, biopolymers, and drug delivery. His contributions to these areas have provided him with a comprehensive understanding of the subject matter and the ability to tackle complex research challenges.    

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