May 01, 2000 6 min read

Brain research has been getting a lot of attention these days. Newsmagazines have made celebrities of neuroscientists, popularizing their studies with glossy feature treatments and slick, authoritative-looking CT scans. Politicians and advocates of early childhood education, meanwhile, are trumpeting brain studies as justification for new policies and funding.

While this fanfare may feed the egos of brain researchers, it worries them, too. According to some scientists, brain research is being oversimplified, misinterpreted, and, most troubling, misapplied. In particular, they are concerned that far too much has been made of their tentative findings about the importance of brain growth during the first three years of life. Though these early years are certainly vital to a child’s development, the latest research indicates that the brain continues to develop in critical ways throughout childhood and into early adolescence.

An important study published recently in the journal Nature hammered home this point. Using magnetic resonance imaging to examine brain development, scientists from the University of California at Los Angeles, the National Institute of Mental Health, and McGill University in Montreal found that the brain continues to change structurally through age 15. During the early years, from ages 3 to 6, most brain growth occurs in the “frontal circuits,” an area related to organization and planning. But as children get older, the researchers say, growth continues in the rear of the brain, which has been linked to language learning and spatial understanding.

Experts say the study underscores their concern about the hype over the early brain research: Contrary to what the media have suggested, the early years are not the only “window of opportunity” for brain development. “The brain grows not as one piece but in differential fits and starts for diverse regions,” says Kurt Fischer, a professor of education at Harvard and director of the university’s new Mind, Brain, and Education graduate program. “The Nature article shows the complexity of these growth patterns.”

Given the public’s general confusion over brain research to date, many knowledgeable observers have begun to urge the research community to make basic neuroscience findings accessible and useful to parents, educators, and others. “It’s time to step back and say, ‘What do we really know? What are the implications for training and for delivering services?’ ” says Jack Shonkoff, dean of the Heller Graduate School at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Shonkoff, a pediatrician, heads a National Research Council committee that is attempting to compile what scientists from various disciplines know about early childhood development. The 17-member panel, which has spent a year and a half distilling research from such fields as psychology, education, and neuroscience, plans to release a formal scientific report later this year. The group then hopes to prepare a layman’s account of its findings—what Shonkoff refers to as a “consumers’ guide to neuroscience”—that would help educators and the public better understand what scientists know about child development.

Meanwhile, another team of researchers, a group formally known as the Research Network on Early Experience and Brain Development, is doing similar work. With support from the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the St. Louis-based James S. McDonnell Foundation, network participants met recently in Chicago to discuss their research—topics ranged from a study of Rhesus monkeys separated from their mothers at different ages to one on Romanian orphans. The scientists also discussed the possibility of a formal link between their group and Shonkoff’s NRC committee. The goal: to provide accurate updates to the public about advancements in brain research.

In addition to these projects, a number of smaller ventures have been launched specifically to help educators make use of brain research. This is a principal goal of the Mind, Brain, and Education program run by Fischer at Harvard. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a doctoral candidate who has taught 7th grade science and high school French, signed up for the Harvard program to study children’s brain activity as they learn to use language. “We teach our kids by talking to them,” she says. “But what teachers think they are conveying may not be what the kid is getting.”

Also bridging the worlds of neuroscience and education is Public Information Resources, a Boston-based company that organizes meetings and workshops. Within the past couple of years, the firm has held three brain-focused conferences attended by hundreds of teachers, administrators, school psychologists, and other education professionals. Company vice president Kelly Williams says that both scientists and educators benefit from these sessions. “The educators get a greater understanding of what we are learning about the brain,” Williams explains, “and the neuroscientists think about what educators really want to know.”

Last year, Stanley DeJarnett, an assistant superintendent with the 2,950- student Morgan County public school system in Georgia, took 18 district employees—most of them teachers—to a PIR conference. Afterward, the educators tested a variety of ideas at the district’s four schools. Among other things, they reduced classroom interruptions and gave students a say in planning assignments. Teachers have already noticed a difference. Students are completing their homework more often, they report, and showing greater interest in subjects outside the classroom.

DeJarnett says the conference helped make him and his colleagues “smarter about why good teaching has a profound effect on kids.” Still, the administrator has been careful not to characterize the district’s reforms as “brain based.” The term, he says, has been overused and now has little meaning.

Several years ago, Georgia Governor Zell Miller became the butt of many jokes when he suggested, based on some brain research, that the state give new mothers cassettes of classical music to play for their babies.

“If that’s the worst thing that happened, that’s not so bad,” says Judy Bray of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. Despite concerns among neuroscientists that their findings are being taken out of context and misapplied, Bray says she is unaware of new education initiatives specifically linked to brain research.

Over the past three years, the ECS has organized workshops in some 35 states for scientists to give teachers, administrators, and policymakers a better understanding of brain development. “People are realizing how complicated it is,” she says.

Matthew Melmed, executive director of Zero to Three, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group focusing on services for infants and toddlers, learned this lesson the hard way. His organization helped popularize the notion that the first three years of life were the critical period for brain development. These days, Melmed is more circumspect. He emphasizes the need for policymakers and educators to look for consensus among scientists and not base policies and classroom practices on the findings of just one or two studies.

“We were initially intrigued by what some neuroscientists were reporting, and our excitement level was maybe higher than it should have been,” he says. “That was a sorting-out process that we had to go through.”

The “Research” section is underwritten by a grant from the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation.