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Early learning leaves lasting changes in brain, Stanford owl study shows

als held on to their learning. They thought that the neurons might make new connections that remained intact in adult animals. They turned out to be right.

Neurons in the mapping part of the brain form connections with a completely new group of neurons in the brain region that links those noises with the visual world. Adult owls that had learned to work with the glasses as youths had both the normal connections and the shifted connections. Those extra connections meant that the animals could easily relearn, even as adults, to work with the glasses.

Knudsen said different parts of the brain lose the ability to make large-scale changes in connections at different rates. "It's a trade-off between reliability and flexibility," he said. Areas of the brain that need to be reliable in adults, such as the ability to analyze the world or find prey, stop making major structural changes early in life, leaving the adult with a stable map. Other parts of the brain, such as those involved in learning and memory, remain more open to changes throughout life.

This work shows that it's not just the ability to do math or read books that can help a child when they grow up. Those brain regions that help sense and interpret the world are most affected by early childhood experiences. "These have a huge impact on higher functions in later life," Knudsen said.

Toys that beep, crinkle, feel soft, look interesting or require poking and prodding are all part of shaping a child's brain for future work.


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Contact: Amy Adams
amyadams@stanford.edu
650-723-3900
Stanford University Medical Center
19-Dec-2004


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