The astounding changes occurring in your child’s brain during school-age years set the stage for lifetime brain performance. During each moment of your child’s life, new connections between brain cells are forming based on his experiences. These connections, called synapses, form the fundamental units of learning.
During gestation, your child’s brain cells were connecting at the incredible rate of 1.8 million per second. This process continues lifelong. But there’s an important difference between prenatal and postnatal synapse formation. Before your child is born, much of this process is driven by genetics. No doubt some of the connections are formed in response to environmental effects such as sound and movement. However, following birth, the playing field changes dramatically.
Following birth, a virtual flood of information bombards your child’s brain. Brain connections are continuing at the same rate as before birth, but the main difference now is that your baby’s experiences play a far greater role in how those connections manifest. To use the computer analogy, your child’s brain, prior to birth, was operating more from the hard drive as opposed to after birth, when he or she begins to load software.
This is where we as parents play a pivotal role. It becomes our job to select experiences that create the most positive learning foundations for our kids.
Of course, the process of synapse formation, which again is fundamental for learning, is under the direction of specific genes. There are, in fact, “smart genes” that function to enhance the process of synapse formation.
Leading-edge research has recently revealed that one of these genes in particular is under our direct control. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is basically like growth hormone for the brain. We now understand that two factors dramatically enhance the production of BDNF and lead to heightened learning.
Physical activity has been shown to significantly increase the production of BDNF. This is another reason why it’s crucial for children to be physically active. The other fundamental stimulant of BDNF production is the critical brain nutrient DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid. In fact, DHA is considered perhaps the most important brain nutrient throughout a person’s lifetime. Not only does it stimulate the genes to create a better brain, but also it represents a full 25 percent of the brain’s fat content.
When nursing mothers consume fish or take a DHA supplement, their breast milk is enhanced in terms of DHA content. Human breast milk is the richest source of this nutrient. However, when children are weaned from breast milk, or possibly, if they have a vegetarian diet, DHA levels can plummet, creating a less-than-favorable environment for brain development. Likewise, it’s important to maintain DHA in the diets of children, and adults for that matter, as part of a program to maintain brain health and enhance performance. In the clinic where I work, we utilize DHA derived from marine algae as this source assures that it is free of any PCB or mercury contamination. This is the source of DHA that’s used for more than 99 percent of infant formulas manufactured in the country.
When the brain is adequately primed for learning with plenty of DHA, we create a fertile ground for our children to develop the acquisition of information to serve them for the rest of their lives. When the smart genes are primed and activated, the lessons learned through mental engagement become more indelible. But these learning activities should extend far beyond simply reading, writing, and arithmetic.
One of the most important areas of brain development that may be overlooked when considering mental engagement is creativity. Ultimately in life, problem solving draws on our basic skills of communication and calculation. Yet, it is the creative synthesis of information gained through interactions that allows success in finding solutions. Playtime is not wasted time. When children play, changes and connections happen in their brains that are life changing. While factual information is important, what children learn in terms of social interaction and role-playing at an early age serves them profoundly forever.