Important research into childhood brain development

Published on Wednesday, 13 October 2021
Last updated on Monday, 11 October 2021

Article hero image

Ninety per cent of a child’s brain develops in their first five years, and in their first three years, there’s rapid development of the little grey cells as genes and environment interact to shape a youngster’s brain.

Positive relationships, optimal environments, and protection from toxic stress all help to support brain development in ages zero to three, and it’s exciting to see that Auckland University has been awarded its largest ever single research contract to improve early brain screening methods and bring about better outcomes for kids.

Today, we see what this multi-million dollar, multi-year contract means for young minds.

Who’s funding this contract, and why?

The money for this project has come from Wellcome LEAP, which is a global advanced research projects agency for health (backed by the Wellcome charitable foundation).

LEAP builds big, bold programs that aim to deliver breakthroughs in human health over a relatively short time frame.

Their 1kD program is centred on promoting healthy brain networks in a child’s first 1,000 days, with a focus on critical cognitive abilities, like executive function and self-regulation.

Executive function is the crucial set of brain functions which allow people to plan, pay attention, learn and self-regulate, and LEAP explains that well-developed executive function:

  • Improves a child’s chances for lifelong physical, neural and mental health
  • Reduces the speed of ageing, and
  • Underpins greater productivity and prosperity.

Conversely, underdeveloped executive function at the age of three can lead to downsides later in life.

Specifically, LEAP explains that three-year-olds with underdeveloped executive function account for 20 per cent of the population, but make up nearly 80 per cent of adults who are, ‘Likely to require some form of societal or economic assistance.’

In response, they want to find a way to accurately predict and improve executive function outcomes in children in the precious few months and years before they turn three. By doing this, it’s hoped they can:

  • Reduce the risk of childhood obesity
  • Reduce the risk of accelerated ageing, and
  • Potentially reduce the risk of ‘encounters of crime’ later in life.

Where does Auckland University come in?

1kD is a $45 million program, with ‘performers’ chosen from around the world to work towards the program’s goals, and Auckland University’s Professor Sir Peter Gluckman is one of them!

He’s leading an international consortium (from New Zealand, Singapore, Boston and Bangladesh) to study the development of executive function and self-regulation in the first three years of life.

This project aims to develop accurate, scalable early screening methods to predict executive function and responses to intervention.

It’s hoped that more precise screening methods will enable earlier identification of kids who require intervention, and will result in better outcomes once they get the intervention they need.

What advanced brain studies will the research team conduct?

To study children’s brain development, Professor Gluckman’s consortium will:

  • Use advanced brain electrophysiology and related measures for early screening and prediction
  • Use a variety of nutritional, educational and parental support interventions
  • Explore different factors which impact the vulnerability of infants to impaired executive function (including social and nutritional factors and the gut microbiome), and
  • Build on current New Zealand studies (also supported by LEAP) which explore new ways to identify children who will respond to interventions.

Professor Gluckman’s consortium will work closely with the other 1kD performers, and here’s hoping they can find ways to improve children’s executive function in the first 1,000 days to benefit them in all the days after.

Professor Gluckman says executive functions are, ‘The most important functions in determining success in schooling and in life. As children approach their third birthday, their level of executive functioning will greatly contribute to how successful they will be in negotiating the opportunities and obstacles they face in life,’ so with all this at stake, it’s exciting to see great minds working together to improve littlies’ outcomes.

Additional reference

NZ Doctor

Related Articles

Article image

Up skill and exercise your brain with a free online course

Free online courses that can be undertaken in an educator’s own time and at their own pace offering invaluable new skills.

Article image

Brain food for toddlers

13 nutrients that are essential for the health and wellbeing of children along with sources and recommended serving sizes.

Article image

Brain-building activities for under fives

10 brain building activities to try with your child that will support their interest in STEM and help them make a successful transition to big school. These ideas were supplied by VROOM, a global program of the Bezos Family Foundation.