Environmental Influences on Human Brain Growth and Development
In a study designed to create an enriched environment for prenates by minimizing environmental stressors and substituting a positive, stimulating milieu, we designed a program that would reduce maternal stress with visualization and relaxation exercises, encourage mother-child bonding through prenatal communication and interaction exercises, and pleasantly stimulate prenatal auditory, tactile, visual and vestibular processes. Results from 150 pregnant women in the enrichment program compared to 100 pregnant women in a control group showed that infant head circumference as an analog of brain development in the enriched group was significantly larger than that of the control group. Moreover, most dimensions on the Denver assessment scales showed earlier acquisition of gross and fine motor skills, language, and personal-social development by the enriched group compared to sample norms of Bangkok children.
ABOUT THIS PAPER: Dr. Panthuraamphorn's research in creating positive and stimulating prenatal environments spans a number of studies, starting with the pilot study reprinted here. This new paper represents his most ambitious project to date, undertaken with colleagues Dawiep Dookchitra and Manit Sanmaneechai who were co-researchers in a 1995 study focusing on auditory stimulation.
We have included this paper on brain growth because, first, brain growth has been an important factor in human evolution. Since all brains are constructed inside a mother's womb, a well-constructed brain says that the uterine environment was very favorable because research consistently indicates that unfavorable conditions compromise all parts of the brain. Therefore, it makes a great personal difference, as well as a difference to society, if brains are constructed well or poorly. A second reason is that brain growth has been associated with some programs of prenatal stimulation, a surprising fact, if true. In the first Thai study (Panthuraamphorn, 1993), the experimental babies were superior in both height and in head size compared to control babies, yet the 1995 Thai study mentioned above featuring auditory stimulation alone found no significant difference in the 24 stimulated babies when compared to Bangkok norms. In the Caracas study reprinted in this issue, stimulated babies did have larger head sizes but the difference was not statistically significant. This was a tantalizing discovery since all subjects in that experiment lived in poverty. What if extra attentions from parents could overcome the disadvantages of poverty?
To date, virtually all of the formal experiments in prenatal enrichment have shown significant advances in a variety of intellectual functions, reflecting better brain development if not bigger heads. If it were to be proved that enriched prenatal parent-child communication and bonding does enlarge brains, it would confirm a developmental principle increasingly indicated by both human and animal studies that brains, even during construction, do actually grow and thrive by being put to good use.
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Chairat Panthuraamphorn, M.D., Dawiep Dookchitra, M.D., and Manit Sanmaneechai, M.D,
Address correspondence to Chairat Panthuraamphorn