Our brains shape and reshape themselves based on our experiences and on how we use them. This is particularly so for infants and children, whose neural systems are developing at a phenomenal rate.
A child’s environment plays a big role in their development. Exposure to different forms of activities that exercise the analytical and creative sides of the brain are important. Growing in a safe and happy environment is also crucial for your child’s long-term development. The more exposure to these activities, the better developed your child’s brain and neural systems will be in coping with what life has to offer.
Key words: Kids Intelligent, IQShield, brain development, nerve development, child development, nutrition for children, child health
Brain and neural system
The brain operates on the "use it or lose it" rule. With the establishment of new connections with each other through the formation of new synapses, the brain also ‘prunes’ away neural connections that are not used. This can lead to ‘over-pruning’. When a child is deprived of normally expected experiences in the early years, this situation may occur, causing a child to struggle to do what would have come more naturally in a better environment. Some areas of the brain, such as those which help us see clearly, become less "plastic" or changeable when the pruning is over. This has led to tremendous concern about providing what the brain needs to prune and organize itself correctly before the "windows of opportunity" close.
For example, surgeons now remove congenital cataracts as early in infancy as possible. A delay can interfere with the development of neural connections between his eyes and brain, preventing the child's ability to see. Ongoing research is investigating the secrets of how the brain turns on and off its ability to alter these neural connections.
The power of early experiences
Our brains shape and reshape themselves in ways that depend on how we use them. Learning a language is a nice example of how experiences contribute to each person’s unique pattern of brain development. The ability to speak and to understand speech requires minimal exposure to a language. However, which language a child learns to speak depends on the language he/she experiences, and their brain will adapt to this specific language. When an infant is 3 months old, their brain can distinguish several hundred different spoken sounds. This is substantially more than are present in any language. Over the next several months, however, the brain will organize itself more efficiently so that it only recognizes those spoken sounds that are part of the language that he/she regularly hears. For example, a one-year-old Japanese baby will not recognize that "la" is different from "ra," because the former sound is not used in Japanese. During early childhood, the brain retains the ability to re-learn sounds it has discarded, so young children typically learn new languages easily and without an accent. When a child is 10 years or older, plasticity for this function is greatly diminished; therefore, most people find it difficult to learn to speak a foreign language as well as a native speaker if they only begin to learn it in adolescence or adulthood. More importantly, early experiences can determine how proficient a child becomes in his or her native language. Researchers found that when mothers frequently spoke to their infants, their children learned almost 300 more words by age 2 than did their peers whose mothers rarely spoke to them.
Infants need to interact directly with other human beings. They need people to talk to them about what they are seeing and experiencing, for them to develop optimal language skills. Unfortunately, many parents are under the mistaken impression that talking to babies is not very important because they are too young to understand what is being said. To ensure that disadvantaged children obtain experiences that support optimal development, a new consensus is emerging about the importance of intervening with families in the first months and years of a child's life. Psychologists have long known that children of poorly educated, low-income parents often don’t reach the same intellectual levels as children of well-educated, wealthy parents. Studies have provided new insights into why this is so. Parents who are preoccupied with a daily struggle to ensure that their children have enough to eat and are safe from harm may not have the resources, information, or time they need to provide the stimulating experiences that foster optimal brain development. Infants and children who are rarely spoken to, who are exposed to few toys, and who have little opportunity to explore and experiment with their environment may fail to fully develop the neural connections and pathways that facilitate later learning. Despite their normal genetic endowment, these children are at a significant intellectual disadvantage. Fortunately, intervention programs that start working with children and their families at birth or even prenatally can help prevent this.
Emotional development and the infant brain
One of the most fundamental tasks an infant undertakes is determining whether their needs are being met, and if not being met, then how these needs may be met. Infants constantly assess whether their cries for food and comfort are ignored or lovingly answered, whether they are powerless or can influence what adults do. If the adults in their life respond predictably to crying and provide for their needs, the infant will be more likely to use these adults as sources of safety and security. With his/her safety taken care of, he/she can focus their attention on exploring, taking in all the wonders of the world around them. If, however, their needs are met only sporadically and pleas for comfort are usually ignored or met with harsh words and rough handling, the infant will focus their energies on ensuring that his or her needs are met. They will have more and more difficulty interacting with people and objects in their environment, and their brain will shut out the stimulation it needs to develop healthy cognitive and social skills.
Children who receive sensitive, responsive care from their parents and other caregivers in the first years of life enjoy an important head start toward success in their lives. The secure relationships they develop with the important adults in their lives lay the foundation for emotional development and help protect them from the many stresses they may face as they grow. Researchers who have examined the lives of children who have succeeded despite many challenges in their lives consistently found that these people have had at least one stable, supportive relationship with an adult (usually a parent, relative, or teacher) beginning early in life.
Supporting healthy brain development
It is now clear that what a child experiences in the first years of life, profoundly influences how their brain will develop and how he/she will interact with the world throughout life. Parents play the most important role in providing the nurturing and stimulation that children require, but they need information and support to develop good parenting skills. In the past, extended family members were often close by, offering good advice and acting as role models for inexperienced parents. Young families today often live far away from grandparents and other family members and rely more on community resources for information and support in parenting. There is much that communities can do to help families promote their children’s healthy brain development.
Exercise and neural development
More evidence is coming to light suggesting that physical activity, in particular aerobic exercise, may provide a beneficial influence on selective aspects of brain function. Studies suggest that aerobic exercise can improve a number of aspects of cognition and performance. Exercise might not only improve the physical health of children, but also improve their academic performance. The positive effects of aerobic physical activity on cognition and brain function have been demonstrated at the molecular, cellular, organ system and behavioural levels, indicating that physical exercise is a lifestyle factor that might lead to increased physical and mental health development during childhood and throughout life.
Exercise targets many aspects of brain function with broad effects on overall brain health. The benefits of exercise have been best defined for learning and memory, neuroprotection and alleviation of depression. Exercise strengthens and reinforces the underlying systems that support plasticity including neurogenesis, metabolism and vascular function, thereby increasing synaptic plasticity by directly affecting synaptic structure and neural connectivity. Such exercise-induced structural and functional change has been documented in various brain regions but has been best-studied in the hippocampus, which is considered the memory centre. A key mechanism mediating these broad benefits of exercise on the brain is induction of central and peripheral growth factors which lead to structural and functional change. Additionally, exercise benefits brain development, maintenance and function through reducing peripheral risk factors such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease, conditions which can lead to brain dysfunction and neurodegeneration. A common mechanism underlying the central and peripheral effects of exercise might be related to inflammation, which can impair growth factor signaling both systemically and in the brain.
So, through growth factor regulation and reducing peripheral and central risk factors, exercise assists successful brain development and function through childhood, and throughout life.
Music and neural development
Although still controversial, studies suggest that music therapy can be effective in assisting children in stressful situations, decreasing anxiety, blood pressure, heart rate and changes in plasma stress hormone levels. While music therapy has been found to be useful in a wide range of clinical settings, similar learning mechanisms are involved in learning music and languages.
The structure of music is complex, consisting of a small set of elements that are combined to form a structure according to grammatical rules. As with language, different systems use different elements and rules for combination. It has been suggested that everyday exposure to music may create, culture-specific brain structures and representations. With this in mind, it is possible that exposure to music and music training may lead to increased cortical tissue development, assisting language acquisition, as well as encouraging skills such as attention and executive functioning.
Because vision plays such a crucial role in many facets of our daily lives, the consequences of eye problems can be quite debilitating for the affected person and those around them. While many of the following factors are not necessarily relevant to children early on, these are factors that should be limited throughout life.
Many eye problems are symptoms of conditions found in other parts of the body. This can result from a dietary deficiency, environmental factor(s), or a combination. For instance, itching and teary eyes are a common symptom if your child suffers from hay fever. And the severity of hay fever can vary depending on the quality of your child’s diet.
What’s more, eye complications are often experienced by people with cardiovascular problems. Changes in blood composition or blood vessel structure, such as those occurring in people with diabetes and/or high blood pressure, could reduce the blood supply to your eyes and damage your retina.
The environment in which our children grow could also be potentially dangerous for their eyes. Eye fatigue can be experienced if too much time is spent in front of the television or computer. Children are also more at risk of their eyes coming into contact with foreign objects, often as they play, such as dirt and bacteria.
And this is also true for adults. Office workers often experience eye fatigue due to prolonged use of computers. Small particles such as wood chips, fibre dusts, and metal fragments generated from mechanical and engineering work could become potentially dangerous if they come in contact with your eyes. Similarly, some chemicals used in industries are irritants if splashed accidentally into the eyes. Repeated exposure to very bright lights, like those used in welding, as well as UV rays and radioactivity over long periods of time is another cause of eye damage. It is usually best to take preventative measures to minimise eye injury at work.
Many eye problems are age related however the best eye health from the beginning may limit or reduce the risk of contracting some of these issues. As we age, we tend to lose some of our ability to focus on near objects, a condition known as presbyopia. In addition, with age we face increased risk of developing age-related macular degeneration (where the light-sensitive cells of the retina fail), and cataract (the lens becomes opaque – is no longer transparent). Both age-related macular degeneration and cataract reduces the ability to see. As with the brain, increasing amount of research has shown that the risk of developing these eye problems could be lowered by some dietary factors, such as with increased intake of omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins and minerals that possess antioxidant properties including carotenoids (beta-carotene, lutein), vitamin A, B and C vitamins, and zinc and selenium. Taking care to protect our eyes from harmful ultraviolet rays and other factors can also reduce the risk of contracting eye problems later in life.
Have you ever known people who never appear to get sick? Everybody around them can come down with a “bug”, “cold” or “flu”, yet these people seem to be impervious to infection? Here are some ways how your children (and you) can improve their constitution and lower their risk of contracting infections and disease.
Like other cells, our body, our immune system also requires oxygen and nutrients to function. Regular exercise improves blood circulation, providing essential nourishment for our immune cells. Exercise also reduces stress, a major cause of a weakened immune system.
An important point to remember is that moderation is the key. Too much exercise can over stress the body, and as with mental or emotional forms of stress, too much physical stress can actually be bad for the immune system. Especially when pushed to its limits, the body is using up energy and nutrients that it may otherwise use in maintaining other body systems, including the immune system. Research has shown that professional athletes and those who train intensively have a weakened immunity, while moderate exercise on a regular basis can improve the performance and efficiency of the immune system, leading to better detection and destruction of invading microbes.
Minimise stress and learn to relax
When we are under stress (emotional or physical), our bodies respond by releasing cortisol and adrenaline, which can depress the activity of immune cells. Not surprisingly, we are more likely to become sick during times of stress or immediately after, when the level of stress dissipates.
Learning how to relax assists in coping with stress. Many of the relaxation techniques are fairly simple to do, and will go a long way if practiced regularly. Some common techniques include:
• Listening to favourite music
• And as mentioned, moderate exercise
Maintain a positive outlook
In many ways, our immune system (and the rest of our body) is heavily influenced by our emotions and thoughts. Research has shown that people who are optimistic develop better immunity in response to vaccines, and are more likely to live longer, happier and healthier than people who are negative and moody. That said, it can be difficult to change a person’s personality if they are pessimistic by nature. But you could begin by reaching out to those around you, your spouse, your children, other family, and friends, and share your thoughts with them. Some people keep a journal or a diary as an outlet for any emotions that are too personal to share. You can encourage your child to do this. Finally, encourage laughter. Laughter not only boosts immune function at the molecular level, it also improves blood circulation, helps with digestion, and reduces muscle tension.
Having a good night’s sleep is a sure way to kick-start your day, but how does this help our immunity?
The brain produces a chemical called melatonin, which controls immunity, reducing the risk of viral and bacterial infections. Melatonin is also a powerful antioxidant. You could promote melatonin production (and a good night’s sleep!) by making sure that the bedroom is as dark as possible, because light (even very dim light) detected by your retina is known to switch off melatonin production.
When the immune system can get it wrong
Our immune system is remarkable in that it is able to recognise a large number of foreign invaders and destroy them accordingly. However like all surveillance systems, sometimes our immune system can malfunction. Failure of the immune system can be broadly categorised as immunodeficiencies, or autoimmunities.
Immunodeficiency occurs when one or more components of your immune system do not work well, reducing the ability to fight off infections.
Immunodeficiency could be the result of a genetic disease, but more often it is the result of environmental factors. Obesity, alcohol, smoking and illicit drug abuse can lead to diminished immunity. Obviously, malnutrition is a major cause of immunodeficiency in some countries. Diets that are low in protein, zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid, vitamins A, C, E, and B6 can lead to problems such as poor immune cell function and low antibody production.
Immunodeficiency can occur as a result of disease, or medication. Some examples include HIV, some cancers, and anti-inflammatory steroids.
It is also important to keep in mind that low immunity can occur at some stages of our lives. Children are more susceptible to infections than adults, because it takes time for their adaptive immune system to mature. Also, as we age we go through a process called “immunosenescence”, where our immune competence gradually declines.
If low immunity can lead to problems, so can an overactive immune system. As they develop and mature, our immune cells normally learn to distinguish between our own body tissue, and any foreign materials that can harm us, such as disease-causing bacteria. Most of the time, this ability serves to protect us from illness. Sometimes, however, the immune system may function inappropriately, leading to discomfort and diseases. Autoimmunity occurs when the immune system mistakenly thinks that your own tissue is foreign, and in the process attempts to destroy it. At other times, your immune system reacts against foreign material that is relatively harmless, such as dust and pollens. This is known as an allergic response.
Autoimmunity can lead to autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, type I diabetes, lupus, and Grave’s disease. The cause of many autoimmune disorders is due to genetic factors, and tends to affect women more than men.
Although defects of our immune system may have a genetic component, many are also influenced by environmental factors.
There are some simple steps you can take to look after your immunity. Scientific studies over the past few decades have consistently demonstrated that nutrition, environmental and lifestyle factors are critical for the immune system, including both the innate and adaptive systems, to function.
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