Invisible disability: Building Great Britons

A report was published on Wednesday by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Conception to Age 2 – the First 1001 days. It’s called Building Great Britons.
The thrust of the report is similar to Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens (2008) and Early Intervention: The Next Steps (2011) from MPs Graham Allen and Iain Duncan Smith. Building Great Britons sets out a policy framework aimed at preventing the social problems believed to originate in adverse experiences between conception and a child’s second birthday.

Breaking the cycle

The conceptual model underpinning the report is a familiar one. Neglect, maltreatment and insecure relationships in early childhood are assumed to be a primary cause of mental health problems and antisocial and criminal behaviour. Parents who had such experiences during childhood tend to adopt the same child-rearing strategies as their parents, setting up a damaging (and costly) self-perpetuating intergenerational cycle.

Like the Early Intervention reports, Building Great Britons argues that preventing child neglect, maltreatment and insecure attachment will save money and result in a flourishing society due to the emergence of well-rounded citizens who are “physically and mentally healthy, well educated, empathic, prosocial, hardworking and contributing to the costs of society” (p.3). As Tim Loughton, Co-Chair of the APPG says “the economic value of breaking these cycles will be enormous” (p.4).

“This” it’s claimed, “is not ‘rocket science.’ Technically it is ‘neuro-science’” (p.3).
The basis for that claim seems to reside in repeated references to brain development, although there’s no detail about how brain development is involved. The association between early adverse experiences and long-term unwanted outcomes is well established, but there are some problems with the model.

what causes what?
The first is that just because two things are correlated, it’s not safe to assume that one causes the other. They might both be caused by something else, or be totally unrelated. So parents might neglect, maltreat or form poor attachments with their children because their parents did, or because the family has a genetic predisposition towards severe post-natal depression, or because they are grappling with challenging life circumstances.

multiple causes
The second problem is that even if we could predict with certainty that all neglected, maltreated, chaotically attached children will develop mental health problems or anti-social behaviour in later life, the causal chain doesn’t always hold in the opposite direction because mental health problems and anti-social behaviour have other causes such as poor physical health, adverse life events or peer pressure.

looking back vs looking forward
A third problem is that retrospective surveys linking adverse childhood experience with later health and social problems, such as the ACE study referred to in Building Great Britons (p.14), tend to rely on self-reports – not always the most reliable sources of information, especially about early life. Prospective assessments that track children through their life course such as the Dunedin and Cambridge studies tend to be more reliable. They have also found correlations between adverse childhood experiences and problems in later life but that the emerging patterns are quite complex.

When reading through the research findings, I was struck by how often researchers expressed surprise at the frequency of adverse childhood experiences. The ACE study was prompted by the unexpectedly high incidence of sexual abuse in childhood reported by people dropping out of a weight loss programme. The Dunedin study began as a small-scale follow-up assessment of perinatal risk. Its scope was broadened after researchers found a higher incidence than they expected of accidental injury and impairments to sensory function, development and behaviour in 4/5 year olds. The implication wasn’t that the children had been neglected or maltreated (although some might have been), but that developmental impairments in the general population were more frequent than had been previously thought.

children with disabilities: noticeable by their absence

This brings me to a glaring omission in Building Great Britons. One group of children is especially susceptible to social, emotional and behavioural problems and is at increased risk of poor physical and mental health in later life. They are children with disabilities. But the only mention of disability that I could find in Building Great Britons was of children with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, caused by a mother’s excessive alcohol intake during pregnancy.

Childhood disabilities can be caused by neglect or maltreatment but they can also be caused by factors such as;

• inherited genetic conditions
• spontaneous genetic variations at or before conception
• mother’s illness during pregnancy
• environmental damage during gestation (e.g. exposure to toxins)
• childhood infections
• accidental injury.

Whether you think disability is caused by a ‘functional impairment’ or by the way society responds to that functional impairment, for administrative and legal purposes a clear-cut distinction is usually made between someone who’s deemed disabled and someone who isn’t. But from a biological perspective the boundary is rather blurred. As the Dunedin study found, a significant proportion of children has some sort of developmental impairment; currently in the USA it’s 15%. In the UK, only 6% of children are classified as disabled, but that figure rises with age. Around 16% of the working-age population has a disability.

Not all disabilities are obvious, and some are difficult to detect. The average age at which autism is diagnosed, for example, is 5.5 years, and diagnosis is often much later than that. Autistic children have unusual attachment patterns and autism is so frequently confused with attachment disorder that Heather Moran, a consultant clinical psychologist, devised the Coventry Grid to help professionals distinguish between them.

There’s little doubt that neglect, maltreatment or poor attachment in childhood can, and does, lead to social, emotional and behavioural problems and to impaired physical and mental health. But what Building Great Britons does is to frame the causes of those problems solely in terms of neglect, maltreatment or poor attachment, and more specifically in terms of the ‘troubled families’ who are deemed to be the source of these societal ills (pp.3-4).

When I was delving into the thinking behind the Early Intervention reports, I asked a few researchers who’d been actively involved how some obviously erroneous claims about brain function had crept in. None had had a say in the final content of the reports, but one told me that it was sometimes necessary to present data in a way that was most likely to persuade government to come up with funding. I take his point; but I couldn’t see how that justified presenting the data in a way that was misleading.

What the data on social, emotional, behavioural, physical and mental health problems tell us is that children by definition are vulnerable, and parenting by definition is challenging. They also tell us that we are all, at all times, at risk from unforseen life events that could trigger social, emotional, behavioural, physical or mental health problems that result in us needing help from the community. That’s why in the developed world we have education, health and social care services.

It’s true that a minority of families cause a disproportionate number of problems, for themselves and others. There are good reasons why early intervention is appropriate for them. But because all children are vulnerable and all parenting is challenging, there are good reasons why early intervention should be available to all families. We shouldn’t have to justify it in terms of ‘good citizenship’ or the financial costs for ‘society’ – which at one time we were told didn’t exist.

Nor should reports produced by Members of Parliament about vulnerable children and challenged parents look right past one of the most vulnerable groups of children and one of the most challenged groups of parents. In the total of 351 pages that make up the two Early Intervention reports and Building Great Britons, childhood disability is mentioned, in passing, only five times – and three of those references are to Foetal Alcohol Syndrome.

When I contacted @first1001days, the Twitter account for http://www.1001criticaldays.co.uk/ to point out the omission, I got a prompt response inviting me to write some supplementary material. Within an hour, another parent and I had responded with a paragraph summarising the main issues, and notified @first1001days. I wasn’t surprised not to get an immediate reply, as the report was being launched that morning. But we’re still waiting…

Disabled people are still invisible, it seems.

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the myth of the first three years

Reading John Bruer’s book The Myth of the First Three Years was like watching the past few months of my life flash before my eyes. That’s because, gratifyingly, Bruer comes to similar conclusions about the basis of child development theories currently influencing public policy. My one reservation about his book is its title and the repeated references to the ‘myth’ in the text. Technically Bruer is right to use this word for the cluster of popular ideas about the first three years because myths often have some basis in fact, but I think it’s a bit misleading because the word ‘myth’ is also widely used to mean something that has no basis in fact. The myth of the first three years conforms closely to the OECD definition of a ‘neuromyth’ – a “misconception generated by a misunderstanding, a misreading or a misquoting of facts scientifically established (by brain research) to make a case for the use of brain research in education and other contexts”. Other people have other reservations about Bruer’s work. One Amazon.com reviewer complained that the book jacket reveals he’s ‘not even a doctor!’ She obviously missed the significance of Bruer’s presidency of the James McConnell Foundation that awards grants for biomedical and educational research.

Bruer’s book deals with three aspects of what I’ll call the first three years model. He describes how the model migrated from research findings to public policy and the changes it underwent en route. He then explains what the research findings actually were, and what they mean for parents. Although the book was published over a decade ago, the first three years model has, as is traditional, taken a decade to cross the Atlantic, so is now very relevant to the coalition government’s social policy in the UK.

How the first three years model evolved

Bruer cites the developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan’s view that infant determinism – the idea that early experiences have a lasting effect on development – dates from a folk belief in 18th century Europe popularised by writers such as Rousseau. I think that the origins are more likely to be as old as parenthood. Like many of my contemporaries I was brought up on Biblical wisdom and was familiar with sayings such as; “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes” (Proverbs 13:24). The book of Proverbs dates from around 900 BC – the origins of the proverbs are likely to be much older.

Infant determinism was a theme explored by Freud and further developed by figures such as John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, Harry Harlow, Rene Spitz and Benjamin Bloom. During this period, as Bruer points out, the study of the brain and the study of behaviour, despite being seen as complementary in the late 19th century, have followed largely independent paths. It’s only since the implications of brain research for human behaviour have become clearer that the two paths have begun to cross more frequently. From the 1970s onwards, fields such as education and child development began to co-opt findings from neuroscience into their own theoretical models. Bruer traces the way neuroscience has been interwoven with child development theories from, for example, the Clinical Infant Development Project that began in the 1970s and developed into Zero to Three: The National Centre for Infants, Toddlers and Families. And from the 1979 book Education and the Brain, through to the I Am Your Child campaign that began in the mid-1990s, and on into public policy.

Research findings

Bruer identifies three key areas of neuroscience research that underpin the first three years model; neural connections, critical periods and the effects of enriched or complex environments. To illustrate how misconceptions about research have arisen, I’ll summarise the findings he discusses and what they might tell us about child development.

Neural connections Neurons are the cells in the brain that transmit information. They are formed – around 100 billion of them – by the second trimester of gestation, and soon after birth will have migrated to their final destinations in the brain. Neurons are nerve cells and in order to transmit information between each other, they need to be connected. The connections aren’t direct however, they are via synapses – points where the axon terminal of one neuron is close enough to the dendrite of another for chemical or electrical signals to pass from one to the other (see figure). In humans, synapse formation begins a couple of months before birth and peaks at 2-3 years after birth, when the number of synapses is many times greater than it is in adults.

synapse

At the same time, two other processes are going on – apoptosis and synaptic pruning. Apoptosis is cell death, and many neurons, like other cells in the body, do die off during normal development. During synaptic pruning the neurons don’t die, but the number of connections the neuron has with other neurons decreases. Between early childhood and puberty, the number of synapses in the brain gradually declines but remains above adult levels. Between puberty and adulthood, synaptic pruning increases rapidly.

Critical periods In early research into the functioning of the visual cortex of the cat, Torsten Hubel and David Wiesel found that if kittens were deprived of visual input from one eye during the first few weeks of life, they remained blind in that eye. It’s long been known that children with congenital cataracts usually develop normal vision if the cataract is removed within the first year after birth. If cataract removal is delayed, vision may never be normal. We know that children can learn to speak a second language like a native if they acquire that language before their teens – if not, the language can still be learned, but with a noticeable accent. So there are critical periods in child development when certain sensory input is necessary for typical development to take place.

Enriched or complex environments
Charles Darwin had noted that animals reared in the wild tended to have larger brains than their domesticated offspring. Harlow’s famous experiments demonstrated that baby monkeys reared in isolation showed severe behavioural abnormalities. And experiments in the 1970s conducted by Greenough and colleagues showed that rats reared in complex environments had a greater density of synapses than those raised in solitary conditions. It was clear that the environment has a significant impact on brain development.

Applying the research findings to child development

The model of the first three years has arisen partly because research findings have been misunderstood. Several factors need to be borne in mind before applying the findings to children.

1. Many of the research findings relate to animals, notably rats and monkeys that are often used in research because they are small, easy to handle and have relatively short life-cycles. Rats and monkeys are also social, problem-solving mammals, which means they have a lot in common with humans. Although their brains are very likely to function in similar ways to human brains, there might be species-specific differences. One of the differences is that they develop at different rates; rats are sexually mature by about six weeks of age, and macaques at around five years, so extrapolating findings to humans relies on estimates for the ages at which children reach similar developmental stages.

2. Many of the research findings are estimations. It’s impossible to count the number of synapses or neurons in a brain, so proxy measures are used such as the density of synapses in a small portion of the cortex. But different techniques have been used to arrive at those measures; one group of scientists calculated density of synapses in whole human cortical tissue and found that density peaked at three years of age; others used a different method to calculate the synaptic density in monkeys and estimated that density would peak at seven months in humans. These differences were resolved, but demonstrate that research findings need to be interpreted carefully.

3. Many research findings apply to specific locations in the brain. Huttenlocher, for example, has reported the density of synapses in the human brain peaking at around three months after birth in the auditory cortex, at 8-12 months in the visual cortex but not until 3.5 years in the frontal area. Similarly, synaptic pruning in auditory and visual areas reduces synapse densities to adult levels by 11-12 years of age, but not in frontal areas until several years later.

4. It’s not always clear whether developmental changes in the brain are determined by biological factors, by environmental factors, or by both. Clearly biology would have more influence than environment on the migration of brain cells before birth, but work on synapse formation suggests it is triggered by novel learning experiences. Novel experiences tend to diminish as children get older, and familiar experiences are by definition experienced repeatedly, suggesting a cause for synaptic pruning. However, the increased rate of synaptic pruning after puberty implies that some biological control might be involved.

Common misunderstandings

It’s easy to see how the first three years model came into being. There are differences between the brains of toddlers, older children and adults. It’s tempting to assume that the rapid synapse formation and rapid learning that take place during the first three years of life offer a now-or-never window of developmental opportunity. Synaptic pruning, viewed from a ‘use it or lose it’ perspective, makes it look as if this opportunity soon runs out, despite clear evidence that older children, adolescents and adults can learn a great many things that toddlers can’t. This misconception underpins the current vogue for early interventions. The idea of critical periods has resulted in a tendency for governments (at least in the US and UK) to front-load the education system because of an assumption that the earlier learning takes place the better. What the evidence indicates is that critical periods tend to involve low-level processing of sensory information and that broader ‘sensitive periods’ (e.g. for language acquistion) are not clear-cut. With regard to enriched or complex environments, the enriched environment enjoyed by Greenough’s lab rats was probably a lot less stimulating than the environment experienced by wild rats. Lab rats, however well cared for, tend not to lead a very exciting existence. In other words, children would need to be pretty deprived to experience the kind of environment that resulted in a reduced synapse density.

Chinese whispers

The transformation of a tentative conclusion based on findings from rats or monkeys into public policy that lacks a sound evidence-base appears to have begun in one of two ways;

• Journalists have accurately summarised research findings but their reports have been misinterpreted by some readers
• Journalists have misunderstood research findings and have inadvertently misled readers.

Casual readers of newspapers or magazines can be forgiven for getting hold of the wrong end of the stick; they often don’t have the time or inclination to check the original data. Policy-makers, in my view, have no such excuse. Governments have enormous resources at their disposal, and academics, however busy, are usually only too keen to explain their findings to willing listeners. There is no good reason why public policy shouldn’t be based on sound evidence.

The first three years model fits easily into our pre-existing mental models. Infant determinism has been seen as the key to solving problems such as poor educational and health outcomes, addiction, anti-social behaviour and criminal activity that preoccupy policy makers – it’s simpler to blame parents for bringing up their children badly than to trace back the complex causes of ‘problem’ behaviours and address them all. The model has also played to the anxieties of parents who understandably want to do the best for their children. The acceptance of the first three years model by parents and policy-makers has resulted in a proliferation of early interventions. So what effect have they had?

The outcomes of early interventions

Evidence from the evaluation of early interventions cited by Bruer, and from studies tracking changes in people’s lives over time suggests that;

• the best predictor of a child’s school performance is mother’s IQ or educational attainment
• good quality childcare improves school performance for children from ‘deprived’ environments (but not from less deprived ones)
• early interventions that focus on verbal skills improve children’s school performance up to about the age of eight – enough to reduce the number of children who repeat the first few school years
• early interventions that focus on verbal skills result in a marginal improvement in school performance, in the length of time spent in education, and in slightly later parenthood
• people tend to settle down as they get older
• chance events play a big part in lifetime achievement.

The pattern that emerges from these evaluations – and this speculative because I don’t have access to raw data – appears to centre on two factors; children’s language skills when they start school, and the way schools educate children. I think these factors have two implications for early interventions.

Firstly, children who are behind their peers with verbal skills when they start school are clearly at a disadvantage, but only because schools use language as the primary medium for education. Language is one of the things that distinguishes homo sapiens from other species. Spoken and written language allow us to communicate vast amounts of information to each other, so it’s obviously desirable that as many children as possible develop good skills in spoken and written language. But being skilled in spoken and written language is not synonymous with learning; children can also learn through practical experience, watching plays or listening to stories. Language skills, although an important component of the school curriculum, shouldn’t be made an obstacle to learning.

Secondly, although some early interventions have had positive outcomes, the effects have tended to be small. Politicians in favour of these programmes would doubtless argue that any positive outcomes are worth it, but given the importance of verbal skills, it might be more cost effective to improve access to speech and language therapy, especially since so many developmental disorders involve speech and language deficits.

What should parents do?

When I was expecting my first child, a friend gave me a book that advocated a ‘best odds’ approach to pregnancy – the author pointed out that nothing can guarantee that a baby will be completely healthy, but there are things that mothers can do that increase the odds in their baby’s favour. It’s a sensible and realistic approach. Bruer’s conclusion is that most parents are doing fine with their children and that we already know what children need and what’s bad for them. He advises parents to interact with their babies, fix known problems – especially visual, auditory and language ones – as soon as possible, and as neuroscientist Steve Petersen put it “Don’t raise your children in a closet, starve them or hit them in the head with a frying pan”.

References
Bruer, John T., (1999). The myth of the first three years, New York: The Free Press.

Green, E.J., Greenough, W.T. & Schlumpf, B.E. (1983). Effects of complex or isolated environments on cortical dendrites of middle-aged rats, Brain Research, 264,, 233–240.

Huttenlocher, P.R, de Courtena, C., Garey, L.J. & Van der Loosa, H. (1982). Synaptogenesis in human visual cortex — evidence for synapse elimination during normal development, Neuroscience Letters, 33, 247–252.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2007) Understanding the brain: the birth of a learning science: The Birth of a New Learning Science: v. 2, OECD.

Image of synapses from Wikipedia.

policy makers on the brain

Findings from neurobiology research are presented as ‘medical evidence’ by politicians Graham Allen and Iain Duncan Smith to support their proposals for early intervention programmes for children from deprived backgrounds. Before looking in detail at what they have to say about brain development, it might be helpful if I summarise my understanding of the process. It squares with the account cited by Munro here [1]; so I’m assuming I’m on the right track.

Brain development

Brain development is an outcome of the interaction between four factors [2];

• genetic
• epigenetic (the impact of the environment on gene expression)
• environmental (from nutrition to the behaviour of others)
• behavioural (the impact of the child’s own behaviour)

The relative impact of the different factors varies between individuals and at different stages of development.

The number, formation and location of brain cells (neurons) is almost entirely genetically determined, although it can be affected by environmental factors. A baby has a full complement of neurons at birth, although some neurogenesis occurs in some areas of the brain in adults.

Interconnections between neurons are formed by synapses.

diagram of synapse

The evidence suggests that the role of synapses in learning is essentially a three-stage process.

Novel patterns of sensory input result in new synapses being formed (synaptogenesis). The number of synapses in the brain increases dramatically in the first three years after birth, running into trillions – far more than are found in adult brains.

If the same patterns of sensory input are repeated, some neuronal connections are reinforced and others weakened by synapses dying off (synaptic pruning), resulting in the formation of efficient information-processing pathways.

A third stage, myelination, takes place when neuronal pathways that are used repeatedly develop a fatty myelin sheath that greatly increases the speed of transmission of electrical impulses along the neurons. This makes some processes very fast and they are experienced as ‘automatic’.

Learning also appears to be kick-started by genetically-controlled factors such as the underlying structure of the brain and reflex responses. Reflexes are automatic, unconscious motor responses to stimuli [3], ranging from tongue protrusion to the step-reflex that forms the basis for later walking [4].

When DNA divides during the formation of gametes (eggs and sperm), and then recombines at conception, it is susceptible to the deletion, duplication and transposition of genetic material. Because of these genetic variations, and the impact of epigenetic factors during development, each human being is genetically unique. This means that due to genes alone, one would expect to find a wide range in abilities, behaviours and personalities across a large population. This variation would increase through interaction with environmental factors.

The second chapters of the papers by Allen and Duncan Smith are about brain development and particularly about how maltreatment and neglect can affect it. Although I can see what these chapters are getting at, my impression is that they include a number of misunderstandings, over-simplifications, assumptions and statements that are simply incorrect. This is a long post – I’ve detailed several examples.

Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens

Graham Allen MP

Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith MP

1. “Human infants arrive ready to be programmed by adults. From our first moments of life we are tuned into the facial expressions of those around us, as can be seen from the infant reflex to mimic.” (p.56)

Although there’s no doubt that children are influenced by adults, I think many parents and teachers would question whether they can be ‘programmed’; if that were the case, children with good parents would consistently display exemplary behaviour.

It’s not clear what is meant by a ‘reflex to mimic’. A reflex is an automatic response to a stimulus. Mimicry (in humans) involves copying an action made by someone else. Newborns do appear to mimic some facial movements such as mouth opening and tongue protrusion, although it’s not clear whether this is a reflex response (e.g. tongue protrusion occurring in response to objects moving toward the baby’s face [5]) or active mimicry. In addition, there is the question of which adult behaviours children mimic, since they clearly don’t mimic all of them, which suggests that mimicry isn’t a reflex. Newborns are indeed tuned in to facial expressions, but whether that’s because the infant visual system is good at pattern-matching and adult faces are a frequently encountered visual pattern, or whether infants have an inbuilt preference for faces is still unclear.

2. “The problem is that this wonderful advantage turns into a disadvantage when it is met by the longterm lack of positive expression on the nearest face, that of the primary caregiver. When this most basic need for a positive response is not met, and when a tiny child does not feel secure, attached and loved, the effect can be lifelong. Neuroscience can now explain why early conditions are so crucial: effectively, our brains are largely formed by what we experience in early life.” pp.(56-57)

This statement assumes that from the ‘first moments of life’ a baby recognizes a positive facial expression, is capable of feeling security, attachment and love, and that the absence of these feelings can have a lifelong effect. There’s no doubt that what a newborn experiences affects brain development, but no evidence is cited for a basic ‘need’ in newborns for any particular facial expression or affect state.

Neuroscience does not claim that ‘our brains are largely formed by what we experience in early life’. Quite the contrary; what it claims is that our brains are formed by the interaction between genetic expression and experience. In the first moments of life genetic factors are disproportionately predominant because the child has had very little experience.

3. “As synapses are also strengthened and reinforced by experience, early life defines which of them live and which die. Synapses become ‘hard-wired’, or protected, by repeated use, enabling very rapid learning via early life experience. Conversely, just as a memory will fade if it is hardly ever accessed, unused synapses wither away in what is called ‘pruning’. In computer terms what takes place is the software (programming by the caregiver) becomes the hardware (the child’s fully-grown brain). The whole process has the effect of making early learned behaviour resistant to change.” (p.57)

If this model were correct, adults would be unable to learn anything. They wouldn’t be able to correct early misconceptions because the relevant synapses would be ‘protected’, nor would they be able to develop new skills because the relevant synapses would have ‘withered away’ through early lack of use. The term ‘hard-wired’ is usually used to refer to biologically determined connections in the brain (those that don’t rely on information from the environment), not to neural pathways developed via experience. Training in the armed forces and emergency services demonstrates that well-established patterns of what’s normally considered instinctive behaviour (panic, aggression etc.) can be over-ridden, provided enough rehearsal of new behaviours takes place. And the Cambridge delinquency study shows that violent and aggressive behaviour in young males falls off rapidly as they get older indicating that behaviour patterns are not set in stone.

In addition, the passage allocates all experience to ‘programming by the caregiver’ as if children receive no other environmental input. This might be the case for a child kept in a sound-proofed, darkened room, but for most children, however deprived, the caregiver’s ‘programming’ forms only a part of the input from the environment.

4. “To summarise: scientific discoveries suggest it is nurture rather than nature that plays the lead role in creating the human personality.” (p.57)

What scientific discoveries actually suggest is that nature and nurture play an approximately equal role in influencing human behaviour and that their relative contributions vary throughout the lifespan. Much of the environmental variation is due to chance events in later life rather than early experience [6].

5. “The more positive stimuli a baby is given, the more brain cells and synapses it will be able to develop”. (p.57)

The number of brain cells is almost completely genetically determined; neurons are not formed in response to positive stimuli and the baby has a full complement at birth. What the research suggests is that connections between brain cells (synapses) are formed in response to novel sensory information (‘positive’ or otherwise) and are then pruned when those stimuli are repeated, to create robust pathways for processing information that is handled repeatedly. And that synaptic pruning is what is critical for making information processing efficient. People whose synapses are not pruned at the typical rate often have significant learning difficulties [7].

6. “Trauma also confuses the neurotransmitter signals that play key roles in directing the paths of growing neurons and therefore hinders brain development.” (p.60)

Some neurotransmitters are involved in neuronal migration but no evidence is presented as to how trauma confuses their signals or what deficits occur as a result. The primary role of neurotransmitters is to activate or inhibit neighbouring neurons across synapses.

7. “ To the best of current knowledge, the sensitive window for emotional sensitivity and empathy lies within the first 18 months of life, and these ‘skills’ are shaped by the prime caregiver”. (p.60)

This assertion appears to be based on work by Schore [8] although there is no attribution in this section. There’s a debate over sensitive or critical periods; they certainly exist for basic visual and auditory processing skills, but windows for other more complex skills are less clear-cut. If there is a sensitive window for emotional development within the first 18 months of life, how is the success of emotional literacy programmes explained and how could early interventions up to the age of 3 years be effective?

8. “Because the infant’s cortical and hippocampal emotional circuits require significant time and experience to mature, the child must regulate its inner world primarily through attachment relationships with primary caregivers. It accomplishes this through aligning its state of mind with that of the caregiver, by establishing a conduit of empathic attunement, functioning as an emotional umbilical chord.

Babies who are healthily attached to their carer can regulate their emotions as they mature because the cortex, which exercises rational thought and control, has developed properly. However, when early conditions result in underdevelopment of the cortex, the child lacks an ‘emotional guardian’.”(pp.61-62)

I think what this passage is trying to say is that prior to the maturation of frontal cortex which plays a significant role in controlling behaviour, infants regulate their behaviour in response to what primary caregivers do. What the passage does say is open to question. It’s unclear what is meant by ‘emotional circuits’; there’s no mention of the significant role of the amygdala in emotional processing; no evidence is cited to support the idea that a child needs to ‘regulate its inner world’ as if through some form of emotional homeostasis, nor to support the idea that a child can do so only via an attachment relationship with a primary caregiver. What exactly is meant by a child ‘aligning its state of mind’ or ‘a conduit of empathetic attunement’ isn’t clear.

9. “Following a 10-year immersion in thousands of scientific papers on neurobiology, psychology and infant development, Alan Schore concluded:

The child’s first relationship, the one with the mother, acts as a template that permanently moulds the individual’s capacity to enter into all later emotional relationships’

We glimpse this in the way small children look to a parent’s facial expressions and other non-verbal signals to determine how to respond (and feel) in a strange or ambiguous situation.” (p.62)

Dr Schore has done some impressive work on brain development and emotion, but this statement doesn’t reflect the wide range of factors known to impact on emotional relationships. In fact, all the neurobiological findings cited in Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens appear to have been filtered through a psychodynamic model of child development, notably attachment theory. The paper also relies heavily on a small number of sources; Bruce Perry, for example, gets 17 mentions (and 11 in Early Intervention: The Next Steps). It’s difficult to avoid the impression that the paper started out with a thesis and then selected evidence to support it.

Now for;

Early Intervention: The Next Steps

10. The cover image

Cover image from “Early intervention: The next steps”

The caption for this image says the right hand scan is from a series of three children, but the original source (a paper by Bruce Perry) [9] says it’s from one child in a group of 40 identified as having suffered global neglect (defined as ‘relative sensory deprivation in more than one domain…e.g. minimal exposure to language, touch and social interactions’). MRI or CT scans were available for 17 of those children, of which 11 were deemed abnormal. It isn’t clear what variation there was within the group, or whether possible genetic causes or environmental causes other than sensory deprivation were investigated. Perry’s team found ‘dramatic differences’ from the average in head circumference. There was ‘some recovery of function and relative brain-size’ after a year in foster care. There were no marked differences between neglected and control groups in the much more common ‘chaotic neglect’ (physical, emotional, social or cognitive).

I don’t doubt that children with minimal exposure to language, touch and social interactions have brains that differ from the norm, nor that they improve in foster care. However, Perry’s analysis raises a number of questions. Healthy, non-neglected children don’t have identical brains (the healthy brain was on the 50th percentile), so why not compare the neglected brain with one at the lower end of the normal range? What type of neglect had the child suffered? Were genetic disorders taken into account? Or diet? Or disease? Does the rate of increase of head circumference change with age? Does it vary between individuals? Although striking, all this particular image actually tells us is that one child who suffered global neglect also had abnormal brain development.

11. “Our responses to situations are not pre-set at birth. The nature/nurture debate has moved on, as was demonstrated in ‘Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens’.” (p.13)

The nature/nurture debate has indeed moved on, but not quite in the way Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens thinks. See point 3 above.

12. “ Children are born with an instinct to engage socially and emotionally, especially with their mothers. They communicate with the voice, face and hands. They express a curiosity about both the world and their need for comfort and security.” (p. 14)

See points 1 & 2 above.

13. “Recent research also shows insecure attachment is linked to a higher risk for a number of health conditions, including strokes, heart attacks and high blood pressure, and suffering pain, for example from headaches and arthritis. Secure attachment was not linked to any health problems that have been studied.” (p.15)

The validity of attachment theory appears to have been accepted without question. Like many constructs used in psychiatry, ‘attachment’ is loosely defined and difficult to operationalise. Not all children develop patterns of attachment that fit neatly into Ainsworth’s categories, nor are patterns of attachment solely determined by parental behaviour [10].

I’m also concerned about the conflation of correlation with causation. A correlation between insecure attachment and heart disease, smoking etc. does not mean that they are necessarily linked, or even if they are, it doesn’t follow that insecure attachment is the cause of heart disease, smoking or reckless driving. It could equally well be the case that inherited characteristics that predispose people to heart disease, addictions or risk-taking, via low dopamine levels for example [11], could also contribute to inadequate parenting.

14. “Although poor parenting practices can cause damage to children of all ages, the worst and deepest damage is done to children when their brains are being formed during their earliest months and years. The most serious damage takes place before birth and during the first 18 months of life when formation of the part of the brain governing emotional development has been identified to be taking place.” (p.15)

The second sentence appears on p.71 of the Munro Review of Child Protection: Final Report, and is attributed to a Royal Society publication Brain Waves Module 2: Neuroscience implications for education and lifelong learning (Munro reference 95) which contains no such statement. Munro’s reference 94 is to Early Intervention: The Next Steps, so the attribution is obviously a typo, but nonetheless the assertion that poor parenting causes ‘brain damage’ is presented here as a matter of fact without any supporting evidence.

15. “Different parts of the brain (governing, for example, sight, hearing, etc) develop in different sensitive windows of time. The estimated prime window for emotional development is up to 18 months, by which time the foundation of this has been shaped by the way in which the prime carer interacts with the child.” (p.16)

See point 7 above. Presumably this claim is based on the same source, but no sources are cited here.

16. “Infants of severely depressed mothers show reduced left lobe activity (associated with being happy, joyful and interested) and increased right lobe activity (associated with negative feelings)19” (p.16)

The Dawson et al. paper (reference 19) is behind a paywall so I couldn’t clarify what is meant by left and right ‘lobes’ and their supposed functions. Presumably this refers to work that suggests the left and right frontal lobes respectively have specialized functions, but this isn’t made clear. Nor is it clear whether the levels of activity in the ‘lobes’ is due to the mothers’ depression or whether mothers and babies share biologically inherited activity patterns.

17. “One result is significantly fewer synapses (or connections). Specialists viewing CAT scans of the key emotional areas in the brains of abused or neglected children have likened the experience to looking at a black hole. In extreme cases the brains of abused children are significantly smaller than the norm, and the limbic system (which governs the emotions) may be 20–30 per cent smaller and contain fewer synapses.” (p.16)

According to Sue Gerhardt in Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes A Baby’s Brain (her presentation to the Quality of Childhood Group in the European Parliament in December 2009) the ‘black hole’ quote comes from Harry Chugani [12], and refers to the development of medial prefrontal cortex (MPC) in the brains of Romanian orphans. Here, Gerhardt is talking about the development of the ‘social brain’ (MPC):

The less attention a baby receives, the less this part of the brain connects up. In the worst cases, like some of the most damaged Romanian orphans, this area of the brain was virtually a black hole according to one researcher, Harry Chugani.” (Gerhardt, p.89)

and illustrates the point using Perry’s image – the one that’s on the cover of the Allen report (Gerhardt, p.88). Although MPC is involved in emotional regulation, it is also involved in risk assessment and decision-making using information from many parts of the brain. It’s not clear whether MPC in the orphans was permanently or temporarily abnormal, or what had caused the abnormality. Genetic, nutritional or infective factors don’t appear to have been controlled for. And a small brain isn’t a bad thing per se; autistic children tend to have larger brains than average, for example. Chugani et al were investigating glucose metabolism in the brain, but Gerhardt doesn’t mention this, so it would be all too easy for people unfamiliar with the technical problems associated with interpreting brain scans to go away with the impression that neglect causes children to develop holes in their brains.

18. “Schore has spoken of ‘the child’s first relationship, the one with the mother, acts as a template … [that] permanently moulds the individual’s capacity to enter into all later emotional relationships’25. ”

To attune to a child means responding to their emotional needs, resulting in the child’s sense of being understood, cared for and valued. Empathy begins with the sense of oneness with the other created in this process of attunement. The quality of empathy – the ability to feel for and with another – is not only key to building sound emotional stability, it is also a key inhibitor of the development of a propensity to violence. Conversely, empathy fails to develop when prime carers fail to attune to infants in the first 18 months of life. Absence of such parental attunement, combined with harsh discipline, is a recipe for violent, antisocial offspring. Empathy is influenced very early in life by observed parental reactions to another’s suffering. Even in their first year, children already show signs of whether their reaction to the suffering of another is empathy, indifference or downright hostility.” (p.17)

The quotation from Schore also appears on page 62 of Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens and is widely cited on the internet, but I couldn’t locate the source; I couldn’t find it in note 25, Schore’s account of the right hemisphere’s role in emotion regulation. There is no question that a child’s early relationships are significant; but no evidence is provided that the relationship with the mother forms a template for all other relationships.

Conclusion

Both Allen and Allen & Duncan Smith papers are about Early Intervention Programmes – the brain development chapters are simply there to add weight to their arguments in favour of the programmes. I haven’t discussed the interventions themselves because I was primarily concerned about the material on brain development. There’s little question that many of the interventions will do some children some good; whether they will address the social problems they are meant to address is another matter. One of the difficulties with social problems is that they are often caused by complex interactions between many factors – so interventions aimed at one or two factors are likely to have only a small effect overall. For example, an evaluation of the Carolina Abecedarian project [13] shows that mean mental test scores for children improved by less than 10 percentage points and that early gains reduced markedly over time – there was little difference at age 21. Age at the birth of a first child was 19 in the treatment group compared to 17.5 yrs in controls. Differences in academic achievement were larger and were maintained – possibly due to the early language support in the programme leading to improved reading. In short, the programme had a beneficial effect, but whether it made significant inroads into ‘social problems’ is debatable.

What concerned me most about Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens and Early Intervention: The Next Steps is that neither is based on a systematic evaluation of neurobiological data, with the data themselves providing information about what could be done to reduce social problems. Instead, both papers start from a Freudian framework for child development, without questioning its fundamental assumptions; Allan Schore [8] is explicit about the direct descent of this framework from Freud via Bowlby’s attachment theory, and I’ve already drawn attention to the shortcomings of attachment theory.

Instead of drawing on our wide range of knowledge about child development as a whole, both papers focus on just one facet of it; emotional development. Furthermore, they focus on one facet of emotional development – attachment; and on one facet of attachment – the child’s relationship with the primary caregiver. The primary caregiver is often implicitly assumed to be the parent, and more specifically the child’s mother – even though fathers, grandparents and siblings are often primary carers and many children have more than one primary carer. This narrow model of child development is supported with often over-simplified and misunderstood neurobiological findings, selected, it appears, because they support the assumptions that the model makes. Findings that do not support these assumptions are simply omitted.

It could be argued, with good reason, that an in-depth analysis of the neurobiological evidence would be beyond the scope of policy papers like these. However, the omission of aspects of child development other than attachment to the primary caregiver is a serious one. It implies that interventions are being proposed on the basis of a belief that they will be effective, rather than on the basis of an evaluation of research evidence across all areas of child development. This introduces a significant risk of interventions failing to eliminate social problems and being abandoned despite some beneficial outcomes for the children involved. A better approach might have been to enlist the help of a developmental neurobiologist for the evaluation of neurobiological evidence, to identify all the reasons why young people fail to reach their potential and to look at interventions which address each reason, including taking a critical look at the efficacy of current healthcare, education and social support systems.

References

1. National Research Council (2000), From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development (Chapter 8), Washington D.C. (available online at http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309069882)
2. Mareschal, D., Johnson, M., Sirois, S., Spratling, M., Thomas, M. & Westermann, G. (2007). Neuroconstructivism: How the Brain Constructs Cognition, vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
3. See e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_reflexes_%28alphabetical%29
4. Thelen, E. & Fisher, D. M. (1982). Newborn stepping: An explanation for a “disappearing” reflex. Developmental Psychology, 18, (5), 760-775.
5. Chen, X., Striano, T. & Rakoczy, H. (2004). Auditory–oral matching behavior in newborns, Developmental Science, 7, (1) 42–47.
6. Pinker, Steven (2002). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature, Penguin.
7. Cohen, I.L. (2007). A neural network model of autism: implications for theory and treatment. In D. Mareschal, S. Sirois, G. Westermann & M. Johnson (2007). Neuroconstructivism: Perspectives and Prospects, vol. 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
8. Schore, A. (2000). Attachment and the regulation of the right brain, Attachment & Human Development, 2 (1), 23–47.
9. Perry, B. (2002). Childhood Experience and the Expression of Genetic Potential: What Childhood Neglect Tells Us About Nature and Nurture, Brain and Mind 3, 79–100.
10. Oppenheim, D., Koren-Karie, N., Dolev, S. and Yirmiya, N. (2009). Maternal insightfulness and resolution of the diagnosis are associated with secure attachment in preschoolers with autism spectrum disorders, Child Development, 80, 519–527.
11. Iversen, L. (2008). Speed, Ecstasy, Ritalin: The Science of Amphetamines, Oxford University Press.
12. Chugani, H.T., Behen, M.E., Muzik,O., Juhasz, C., Nagy, F. & Chugani, D.C. (2001). Local Brain Functional Activity Following Early Deprivation: A Study of Postinstitutionalized Romanian Orphans, NeuroImage 14, 1290–1301.
13. Early Learning, Later Success: The Abecedarian Study (1999). Highlights of the Age 21 Follow-up Study, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, FPG Child Development Center. Available at http://fpg.unc.edu/sites/fpg.unc.edu/files/resources/reports-and-policy-briefs/EarlyLearningLaterSuccess_1999.pdf

Image of synapses from Wikipedia.

brain development and social problems

Reading the final report of the Munro Review of child protection, my attention was caught by what turned out to be a minor typographical error. The last sentence of paragraph 5.8 appears to refer to reference 95, the Royal Society paper Brain Waves Module 2: Neuroscience: implications for education and lifelong learning, but in fact cites reference 94. Reference 94 is an independent report commissioned by the current UK coalition government, published in January 2011, written by Graham Allen, Labour MP for Nottingham North and entitled Early Intervention: The Next Steps.

Graham Allen MP

Early intervention is summed up as follows by the ‘Early Intervention Review Team’;

Early Intervention is an approach which offers our country a real opportunity to make lasting improvements in the lives of our children, to forestall many persistent social problems and end their transmission from one generation to the next, and to make long-term savings in public spending….” (p.vi)

In 2008, Graham Allen had written another paper on early intervention, this one co-authored with Iain Duncan Smith and entitled Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens published jointly by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) and the Smith Institute. Iain Duncan Smith is a former leader of the Conservative Party and currently Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. In 2004, he founded the Centre for Social Justice, a centre-right think tank, just after his period of party leadership ended. The Smith Institute is a left-leaning think tank set up in 1996 in memory of the former Labour Party leader, John Smith. Ed Balls, later to become the Labour government’s Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, worked for the Institute between 2004 and 2005.

Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

In previous posts I’ve complained (at some length) that the model of child development being used by children’s services pays little attention to recent biological research. It would be unfair to suggest that biology is entirely absent however. There are many references to physical development in this literature, Aldgate et al’s book contains a chapter on genetic and biological influences and the Munro report cites the National Research Council’s From Neurons to Neighbourhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development – chapter 8 contains a comprehensive summary of brain development. The second chapter of each of the two documents written by Graham Allen is also dedicated to brain development. It’s these two chapters I want to concentrate on in this post.

I’m not entirely clear why it was deemed necessary to refer to brain development in papers about early interventions intended to forestall social problems. After all, few people would want to see evidence from brain scans before they could be persuaded that sanitation, a balanced diet or education have good outcomes for individuals and for the population as a whole. And given the technical problems with brain scanning and the interpretation of the resulting images, there are other more reliable ways of measuring the effectiveness of interventions. Allen and Duncan Smith’s Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens justifies the inclusion of material on brain development as follows;

We make no apology for presenting, as laymen, a considerable body of medical evidence in this chapter. When economic resources are under intense pressure, and facing strong claims from well-established programmes and special interests, we believe that this medical evidence points overwhelmingly in favour of a shift to Early Intervention.” (Good Parents p.45)

What’s the evidence?

The first few pages of chapter 2 of Good Parents focus on results from three large-group, longitudinal studies purported to show that early adverse childhood experiences result in later health risks such as smoking, alcoholism, illicit drug use, obesity and high level promiscuity (Good Parents p.54). At first glance, the conclusions presented are persuasive, but when you look a little more carefully, the picture isn’t quite so clear-cut.

I’ve mentioned several other documents that in some cases refer to each other. To clarify how they are linked, I’ve mapped out the connections here:


Two of the studies, Farrington and West’s Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development, a Prospective Study of South London Males From Ages 8–32 and the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study are prospective – that is, they started with children and have periodically sampled their health, development and behaviour over many years.

According to Allen and Duncan Smith the Cambridge study showed that adult offending could be predicted in childhood (Good Parents p. 51). That’s not quite what the study records. The 2006 report, which tracked the participants up to the age of 48, found that there were predictive factors in childhood for adult offending. In other words, some factors were predictive of behaviour for a particular group, not for particular individuals. The highest correlation between childhood factors and persistent offending was for children having a convicted parent or sibling. What this means is that children with previous offenders in their families are more likely to offend, not that offending can reliably be predicted in individual children. A significant number of children from families with an offender didn’t commit crimes, whereas some children from non-offending families did.

The Dunedin study looked at the health and development of 1037 babies born in Dunedin, New Zealand, between 1972-73. Data from the Dunedin study has been used in over 1000 publications but I couldn’t find which one Allen and Duncan Smith were referring to. They claim that nurses’ assessments of which of a group of 3 year-olds were at risk, predicted criminal convictions, violent behaviour and domestic abuse at age 21. They conclude;

the fact is that children who are likely to have poor outcomes, including adult criminality, can be identified at age three when they are still riding their tricycles.” (Good Parents p.52)

Not exactly. As Allen and Duncan Smith themselves point out, not all of the at-risk children offended, and some of the not-at-risk children did – 18% exhibiting violent behaviour and almost 10 % abusing their partners (Good Parents p.51).

The third study, the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, by contrast, is retrospective; it relies on self-reports about childhood maltreatment, family dysfunction and health status, and therefore on that notoriously unreliable data source, human memory. You can read the questions that were posed to participants in Preventing child maltreatment: a guide to taking action and generating evidence. It’s published jointly by the World Health Organization and ISPCAN, The International Society for the Prevention of Childhood Abuse and Neglect. My curiousity about Preventing child maltreatment: a guide to taking action and generating evidence was initially piqued by the title. I have no problem with taking action against child maltreatment, but do have concerns about ‘generating evidence’. Evidence is usually ‘gathered’ or ‘found’ – implying that it’s already out there, researchers just have to go and look for it. ‘Generating evidence’ suggests that, like Bettelheim, your case might not actually have strong evidence behind it so you need to create some.

I was also concerned by a reference in the Foreword to the idea that

the traditional “privacy barrier” between the domestic and public spheres has inhibited the evolution of policies and legal instruments to prevent violence within the family and provide services for those affected by it.” (p.vi)

I’d predict that the prohibition of violence is as likely to be effective as the prohibition of alcohol consumption, but that violence might be lessened if its causes were to be addressed. Furthermore, the ‘traditional “privacy barrier”’ isn’t about “privacy” – a relatively recent development in human history – but about protecting the individual from the abuse of power by the state. I’m sure the author, who’s had extensive experience with the UN, is aware of that. But I digress.

I also had concerns about Box 1.1 (p.8). It’s entitled Child maltreatment and damage to the developing brain and is adapted from a pamphlet published in 2001 by the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information and the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse called In Focus: Understanding the Effects of Maltreatment on Early Brain Development. The pamphlet lists 31 references, 11 by Bruce Perry and one by Allen Schore. In 13 pages, Schore’s work is cited 17 times and Perry’s 40 times. These names crop up again in the papers by Allen and Duncan Smith.

My concerns about Box 1.1 and the In Focus pamphlet weren’t so much about what they said, as about their emphasis. Firstly, maltreatment and neglect of children is, by definition, harmful – that’s why they are called maltreatment and neglect. We already know that certain practices cause harm to children, at the time they happen, immediately afterwards, and, in some cases, throughout life. We don’t need evidence from brain scans to tell us that. But maltreatment and neglect are being presented as if pre-existing evidence of harm isn’t sufficient to persuade legislators that more stringent legislative measures are required to prevent maltreatment and neglect, so neurobiological findings are being recruited for this purpose. Secondly, although there is certainly evidence to suggest that maltreatment and neglect have a negative impact on brain development, they are only two of the factors that do so. In other words, you could predict with some confidence that maltreatment and neglect would result in ‘abnormal’ brain development, but you can’t assume that because someone’s brain has developed abnormally, that they were maltreated or neglected as a child. Thirdly, there’s an implicit assumption in the way the evidence is presented that maltreatment and neglect are the primary cause of ‘social problems’, when social scientists have been aware, for decades, that those causes are many, varied and have complex interactions.

In short, the evidence doesn’t appear to support the idea that the predominant cause of social problems is child maltreatment or neglect. Allen and Duncan Smith call for a study along the lines of the Dunedin study to be carried out in the UK “in order to provide definitive evidence on the benefits of Early Intervention” (Good Parents p.52). I can’t see why another study is necessary – the Cambridge study makes clear that the causes of antisocial behaviour are complex and that patterns of behaviour change significantly over the lifespan.

Update 13/12/16:  Thanks to @PaulWhiteleyPhD on Twitter for drawing attention to this article in Nature analysing the Dunedin study findings.

In the next post, I want to look at what Graham Allen and Iain Duncan Smith have to say about brain development.

Photographs of Graham Allen and Iain Duncan Smith from Early Intervention Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens.