The neuroplasticity of children’s brains has been well established. Children’s brains are able to reorganise themselves so that for instance if a young child suffers a brain injury to a part of the brain responsible for language another part of the brain will take over that function. The same does not occur in adulthood, and depending on which part of the brain is damaged, the adult may lose all or some language functions, while the child’s will be relatively spared.
Plasticity is greatest in the first few years of life because it is during this time that the brain is ‘wiring’ itself, working out which connections (or synapses) within the brain should be strengthened and which should be pruned. Anyone who has been exposed to a foreign language as a young child can attest to the effortless learning that occurs during this period, especially compared to the much more effortful process of learning a language as an adult.
The neuroplasticity of children’s brains has led to significant debate in the neuropsychological field about whether the outcomes of brain injury are better for children than adults. The example given above of the brain reorganising itself has been put forward as evidence supporting this view. However, there are several reasons why, depending on the severity of the injury, children actually tend to have worse outcomes than adults following brain injury.
Ironically, one reason is related to the process of brain wiring and forming synapses that contributes to neuroplasticity. During childhood there are certain ‘critical periods’ for development during which if a child is exposed to a certain experience or information they will benefit most from it. Some critical periods are essential (for example aspects of perception); and if a child does not receive the right stimulus during this period they will not develop the ability, for others learning is possible after the critical period but more difficult. Children who suffer brain injury may spend long periods of time recovering and not have the opportunity to be exposed to the appropriate experience or information during these critical periods.
Another reason is that different aspects of cognition develop at different rates. During infancy and early childhood basic processes such as perception and attention undergo rapid development whereas in later childhood and adolescence higher order linguistic and spatial functions are primary. Executive functions develop in late adolescence and early adulthood. The cognitive processes are hierarchical, so the higher order processes depend on the lower level ones. If a brain injury occurs in early childhood this may not only affect the processes developing at the time of the injury but also the development of higher level processes later in childhood.
Rehabilitation that occurs as soon as is possible after the injury is the best way to minimise the impact of the injury, for children and adults. The first step in any brain rehabilitation program is a thorough neuropsychological assessment.
If you’d like more information about Advanced Neuropsychological Treatment Services assessment and rehabilitation services please contact us.
Sparrow, S.S., & Davis, S. (2000). Recent advances in the assessment of intelligence and cognition. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 41(1), 117-131.
Anderson, V., Northam, E., Hendy, J., & Wrennall, J. (2001). Developmental neuropsychology: A clinical approach. East Sussex: Psychology Press.