Your child’s neural (nerve) development

Abstract: Your child’s brain develops and restructures itself based on their experiences. This is particularly so for infants and young children, whose neural systems are developing at a phenomenal rate.

Both neural systems develop in concert (the central nervous system consisting of the brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system (that consists of the peripheral nerves outside the central nervous system). The continued development and support of these systems is crucial to your child’s health and their ability to achieve.

Key words: Kids Intelligent, IQShield, nutrition for children, child health, brain development, nerve development, child development


Central Nervous System

The brain controls behaviour and thought processes. The brain is part of our central nervous system (CNS), and along with the spinal cord, co-ordinates a range of activities from breathing and body movements, to emotion.

The brain is very complex, containing billions of neural cells, or “neurons”, with billions more supporting cells. Each neuron has stick-like projections called dendrites, which are involved in communicating with other neurons. Neurons are what make up the ‘grey matter’ of a brain.

Neurons communicate with each other by sending electrical impulses down these dendrites. These impulses are generated by charged particles present inside and outside the neurons. Just as all the electrical wires and cables we use around our houses are covered by a non-conducting coating made of plastic, neurons also have a non-conducting coating called myelin, which is made up of fats. Myelin not only prevents “short-circuits” as electrical impulses travel along the neuron, but it also speeds up the impulses, making communication between neurons that much faster. Myelin makes up the ‘white matter’ of the brain.

The point of contact between two neurons is called a synapse, which is a hub of many molecular activities. Because of these synapses, electrical impulses cannot directly travel between neurons. This is where a group of molecules called neurotransmitters have the job of relaying signals between neurons. When an electrical impulse reaches the end of one neuron (dendrite), it triggers the release of neurotransmitters, which bind to other neurons, initiating electrical impulses in these neurons. This is how recreational drugs work, causing increased levels of neurotransmitters in synapses that in turn stimulate brain neurons.

The formation of synapses in our brain is the cellular basis of our behaviour and thoughts. Each neuron can synapse to many other neurons. Every new experience that we encounter, skills that we learn, memories that we have…occurs because our neurons are establishing new connections with each other through the formation of new synapses. It follows that the more connections our neurons have, the better our brain functions. Babies are born with billions of neurons, but they are not yet fully interconnected. That’s partly why it takes some time for a baby to learn to walk and talk. The other reason is that at birth, your baby’s brain will have little or no myelin. As the baby develops into a child, and later as an adult, the brain increases in size not due to an increase in nerve cells, but rather due to myelin production. As myelination and neural interconnectivity occurs with growth, neural impulses speed up, enabling faster thought processes and coordinated movements. This is where the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and in particular, DHA are involved. DHA is incorporated into 60% of brain tissue, making up part of brain cell membranes and assisting neural function.

Average brain weights (BW) at different times of development
Age Brain Weight – Male (g) Brain Weight – Female (g)
Newborn 380 360
1 year 970 940
2 years 1,120 1,040
3 years 1,270 1,090
10-55 years 1,440-1,450 1,260-1,310
56-85 years 1,370-1,310 1,250-1,170
Adapted from: Dekaban, A.S. and Sadowsky, D. Changes in brain weights during the span of human life: relation of brain weights to body heights and body weights, Ann. Neurology, 4:345-356, 1978)

 

Peripheral Nervous System

While the focus is on brain development, the peripheral nervous system (PNS) is also important, encompassing the body’s neural network outside of the brain and spinal cord. The PNS is divided into the somatic nervous system , autonomic nervous system and the enteric nervous system. The somatic nervous system is responsible for coordinating body movements, and for receiving external stimuli. It is the system that regulates activities that are under conscious or voluntary control. The autonomic nervous system is involved in maintaining the body’s mostly involuntary or subconscious functions. These incorporate the sympathetic division, parasympathetic division, and enteric division. The sympathetic nervous system responds to impending danger or stress, and is responsible for the increase of one's heartbeat and blood pressure, among other physiological changes, along with the sense of excitement one feels due to the increase of adrenaline in the system. The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is evident when a person is resting and feels relaxed, and is responsible for such things as the constriction of the pupil, the slowing of the heart, the dilation of the blood vessels, and the stimulation of the digestive and genitourinary systems. The role of the enteric nervous system is to manage every aspect of digestion, from the esophagus to the stomach, small intestine and colon.

These systems undergo similar developmental changes like the brain and spinal cord involving the process of myelination which increases the speed of neural signaling. The myelination process takes up to around the age of 12 years to complete, after which time, remyelination occurs. This explains how as children grow, they become more coordinated and faster in their ability to sense different stimuli and perform movements. Reflex processes and movements can be refined and with practice. While the CNS is limited in its ability to recover from serious injury, the PNS does have this ability.

Reference

  1. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
  2. Calderone, MA. (July 2006). Mental Workout: Do you use more energy when you're thinking really hard?

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