What are the long-term effects of childhood experience on brain development? Research with animals shows that the quality of environmental stimulation and parental nurturance both play important roles in shaping lifelong brain structure and function. Human research has so far been limited to the effects of abnormal experience and pathological development. Using a unique longitudinal dataset of in-home measures of childhood experience at ages 4 and 8 and MRI acquired in late adolescence, we were able to relate normal variation in childhood experience to later life cortical thickness. Environmental stimulation at age 4 predicted cortical thickness in a set of automatically derived regions in temporal and prefrontal cortex. In contrast, age 8 experience was not predictive. Parental nurturance was not predictive at either age. This work reveals an association between childhood experience and later brain structure that is specific relative to aspects of experience, regions of brain, and timing.
Avants, B. B., Hackman, D. A., Betancourt, L. M., Lawson, G. M., Hurt, H., & Farah, M. J. (2015). Relation of childhood home environment to cortical thickness in late adolescence: Specificity of experience and timing. PLoS ONE, 10(10). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0138217