Toys May Have Lasting Effect on Infant Brains

Toys that make noise, encourage poking, or present the world in a new way may leave a lasting impact on the brain, according to a new animal study.

Researchers say the findings show that educational toys that foster the development of new learning skills may leave a permanent mark on young brains that can help them adapt as adults.

"This work shows the importance of investing in childhood experiences," says researcher Eric Knudsen, PhD, a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, in a news release. "Early learning can have long-lasting effects on the architecture of the brain.”

Early Learning Produces Lasting Effects

In the study, which appears in the Dec. 19 online edition of Nature Neuroscience, researchers looked at the impact of early learning in a region of the brain that owls use to create spatial maps based on sounds, such as the squeak of a mouse or rustling of leaves. The owls then use these maps to locate their prey.

Researchers outfitted a group of young owls with special goggles that shifted the world to one side. When the owls peered through the goggles, a sound coming from the left appeared to be straight ahead, which confused the owl and allowed its prey to escape.

Eventually the young owls learned to create new auditory maps that matched the shifted map to successfully capture their prey. When the goggles were removed, the owls shifted back to their original maps.

After the human equivalent of many years, researchers tested the owls again with the goggles and found that those who had used the goggles as young owls were able to once again adjust to the shift. But those who hadn’t used the goggles were baffled.

Researchers say that brain cells in the mapping part of the brain in the owls that had used the goggles had formed connections with a completely new group of cells in the brain that links noises with the visual world. Having those extra connections allowed the animals to easily readapt to the goggles as adults.

Knudsen says the results indicate that brain regions that help children sense and interpret the world are dramatically affected by early childhood experiences, and educational toys that stimulate young minds and encourage them to explore the world in a new way may help build their brain for future tasks.

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson, MD

SOURCES: Linkenhoker, B. Nature Neuroscience, Dec. 19, 2004 online edition. News release, Stanford University School of Medicine.