A study published in the journal Neuron, illustrates the effect of environmental inputs (epigentics) on the developing brain’s neuroplasticity. Exposure to just 20 minutes of intensive visual stimulation during development led to enhanced visual acuity and higher sensitivity to finer and smaller visual targets than non-conditioned controls.

Employing time-lapse imaging to chart changes in brain circuitry during development, researchers studied developing brain neuronal circuitry, the network of connections between nerve cells (wiring), found the brain’s dynamic neuronal connections are plastic, changing and adapting to the demands of the environment (neuroplasticity). Many brain diseases are thought to result from errors in brain wiring due to a disruption of the complex interactions between genetic and epigenetic environmental influences during neuroplastic brain development.

In the developing brain from birth to about 3-5 years of age, there is an initial overproduction of imprecise connections between nerve cells. During development and learning, these connections are pruned, leaving only those that are appropriately strong and more specific.

For example, hearing spoken language from birth stimulates neuronal connections for correct pronunciation. Adult language learners speaking with an accent do so because their developing brains cannot hear and say ‘foreign’ sounds easily. That’s why teaching a languages before the age of 5 is so effective. This study focused on environmental stimulation from intense visual stimulation on refinement and enhancement of neuronal receptivity for visual acuity (clearness of vision due to sharpness of retinal focus).

Sensory experience during development leads to rapid production of key proteins (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, or BDNF) which play a major role in the plasticity of neurons. BDNF has two forms: proBDNF (prunes poor connections) and mature BDNF (strengthens effective connections).

In the developing visual system, nerve cells from the retina at the back of the eye connect with very specific points within the visual part of the brain, the tectum, in order to ensure that the retina is properly represented in the brain and able to relay accurate visual signals using a highly sophisticated guidance cue system. This process was analyzed by the researchers in making their conclusions.

Research such as this is advancing knowledge about neuroplasticity (changes in networks) and epigenetics (effects of environmental factors) on how the brain develops and is vital to finding advanced therapies, treatments and even early intervention.

Additional research seeking advanced treatments for brain injuries from traumatic brain injury and stroke as well as therapies for developmental disorders such as autism and attention deficit disorder (ADD) is ongoing.