Infants achieve remarkable functions during the first year of life. Dendrites and synaptic connections grow and subcortical myelination takes place. In recent years, we have witnessed remarkable progress in the field of neuroscience. It has become clear that the human brain shows maximal plasticity in infancy and early childhood. This plasticity provides a golden window of opportunity to maximize human development. Excess synaptic connections are eliminated during late childhood, a phenomenon that appears to be influenced at least to some extent by the environment. In many years of clinical practice as a pediatrician, I have observed the growth and development of both normal children and those challenged with developmental disabilities. Parents need to spend time responding to and playing with their young children. The plasticity of the human brain in early life is not only an opportunity; it is also responsibility. We must provide all children with the optimal environment for both intellectual and psychological development. It seems that sensitive and sympathetic responses from caretakers are of critical importance. Physicians and basic investigators have the responsibility of further elucidating brain function, as means of discovering how to optimize the environment for development of the human brain.
“Nurturing the Brain” is a new research field aiming at facilitating development and maintenance of healthy brains and keeping their learning capabilities at full display throughout life. It is based on recent remarkable progress in developmental neuroscience and non-invasive technologies for visualizing brain activities in humans, even infants and children. “Nurturing the Brain” research will help us to cure or prevent various types of developmental disorders such as ADHD and autism. It will also help us in choosing an appropriate timing for child care and education on the basis of new knowledge of the critical period of development for various brain functions.
We studied the development of the brain of ducklings and rat pups. The results of the experiments highlighted the essential importance of nurturing human brains: 1. Human relationship and communication are essential factors for survival. 2. New-born babies are tightly linked to signals from their mothers and surroundings, which are converted into the information for survival in their later development. 3. The brain is self-organized according to two genetically determined principles: output-driven operationand memory-based architecture.
From a biological viewpoint, learning and education are closely related to brain development because the brain is an adaptable information processor open to the environment. Stimuli from the environment cause new neuronal connections. Therefore, learning is the process in which the brain reacts to stimuli by making neuronal connections that act as an information processing circuit and provide information storage similar to a database. On the other hand, education is a process that should guide and inspire the construction of the basic architecture of brain information processing by preparing and controlling the input stimuli to the brain.
With regards to education, there are various problems, which have repeatedly been investigated and discussed by many commissions and committees. The conclusions drawn from these efforts have, however, swung back and forth over time, like a pendulum. Apart from finding symptomatic solutions, pediatric neurologists in the 21st century should drastically re-evaluate “the view of children” by virtue of brain science that has been rapidly advancing. From this aspect, I would like to make a proposal for the establishment of new developmental neurology.
Students with school phobia have two major clinical problems in common: 1) easy fatigability and 2) disturbed learning and memory functions. In the last 15 years, we studied these cases using various medical and physiological methods, by evaluating clinical autonomic nervous system functions, circadian rhythms such as hormonal secretion, deep body temperature, and sleep-wake. Most of them showed autonomic nervous system dysfunction and circadian rhythm disturbances quite similar to “jet lag”. We suggest that this kind of circadian rhythm disturbances are quite prevalent among children in the world and cause memory and learning disabilities.