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Brain adaptations to stressful childhood environments

November 24th, 2015 No comments

Childhood_AdversityImagine a boy who grew up never knowing where his next meal would come from or when it would come. Now imagine a boy who had everything handed to him.

Who do you predict will have higher cognitive functioning, which consists of processes such as pattern recognition, memory, attention, and language? If you guessed the second boy, you are correct. Childhood adversity has been shown to negatively impact important cognitive functions, such as language development, sustained attention, and memory, which result in poor reading and math abilities, lower IQs and academic achievement (Fernald, Weber, Galasso & Ratsifandrihamanana, 2011). To figure out why this is the case, we must consider an important characteristic of our brains—their plasticity, or ability to change!

So, why is plasticity an important characteristic of our brains? What are the advantages of our cognitive functioning being susceptible to change? Adaptation! Adaptation got Mittal, Griskevicius, Simpson, Sung, and Young (2015) thinking about the universality of the negative impact on cognitive functions that childhood adversity has been shown to have. If the brains of those who grow up in stressful environments can be negatively affected by their experiences shouldn’t that mean that they could also be positively affected? The work of Mittal et al. (2015) tells us the answer!

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