Monday, March 13, 2000

Get smart

A new study reports that children's brains continue gaining gray matter right up through the teen years. This is news because it had previously been believed that you pretty much had all the brain cells you were going to get by the age of five, and so lack of stimulation during those early years pretty much meant you'd lost your chance. The discovery that the brain keeps growing and changing and developing for so long after that is heartening indeed to those of us who've adopted children outside that magic early-development window. Where it once seemed impossible to ever make up that lost time, it now appears that the brain may still have a few tricks up its sleeve.

We adopted our daughter at age 4.5, and have been attempting to stuff her head full of knowledge ever since. She had some brain damage from birth, and the consensus has always been that even if the impairments could have been remediated in her first few years if she'd been in a stimulating family environment instead of an understimulating orphanage one, by the age of 5 her abilities were pretty much set. Yet she does seem to be making progress, slowly, but surprisingly to many people. Connections are being made that weren't made before. Information is being retained and interpreted in new ways every day. There's some major action going on in those little lobes. And it's nice to have scientific confirmation that anything's possible.

One of the first books I read after bringing our two neurologically challenged children home was Oliver Sacks' An Anthropologist on Mars, and I remember marveling at the many ways in which the brain could adapt itself to conditions that seemed on the surface to be so entirely unacceptable. It was an encouraging message to receive as I watched my two little organisms adapt to their new environment. This new study seems to be further proof that it's unwise ever to take that organ for granted, or to assume that it can't do anything more. The brain is always working, restructuring, reinventing itself, and I doubt that that really abruptly ends at any age.

Myself, for example, I know that my brain has recently entirely restructured itself in such a way that I can't remember a darn thing, and am in a constant state of panic and confusion. I can only hope that when this phase of construction is done, I will still be a little smarter than my rapidly brain-expanding kids.

No comments: