Effects of Autism on the Brain Chemistry
The science behind early intervention is simple and powerful: most of brain development occurs in the first 3 years, particularly the first 2 years of life.
The number of cells (neurons) in the brain at birth about 100 billion remains the same throughout our lives. In the first year of life, each neuron forms about 15,000 synapses (connections).
By the end of the second year, the brain will have formed 1,000 trillion connections. It is all these connections that make the brain of a 2-year old so much heavier than the newborn four times as much. Since two-thirds of brain development occurs within the first two years, the earlier we can find and maintain attunement, the less damage there will be to the child-parent attachment, their communication and the developing neurological system.
Early brain development
In early life, as nerve-cell connections in the brain are still growing rapidly and large scale pruning is taking place, first experiences and early traumas might also result in secondary brain-damage if the avoidant behaviours become a habit and get etched too deeply into the neurological pathways. As with first experiences, all of the pre-autistic babies subsequent experience gets layered on top, and being excessively quiet, or avoidant, can quickly become the only way of life the growing baby knows and needs in order to feel safe.
No relationships, no connections
The PET scan (below-left) is of the brain of a normal child showing regions of high (red) and low (blue and black) activity. At birth, only primitive structures such as the brain stem (centre) are functional. In regions like the temporal lobes (top), early childhood experiences wire the circuits. The PET scan (below-right) of the brain of a Romanian orphan, who was institutionalized shortly after birth, shows the effect of extreme deprivation in infancy. The temporal lobes (top), which regulate emotions and receive input from the senses, are nearly inactive. Such children suffer emotional and cognitive problems. While an extreme illustration, it clearly highlights the value of early intervention.
Use it or lose it.
| CARE-giving and SCARE-giving have phsyical consequences.
The physical consequences of CARE giving
The physical consequences of SCARE giving
There is much evidence for the use it or lose it theory of brain development. Between the ages of 2 and 3 years, some serious pruning must begin in order for the brain to be wired up efficiently. Each neuron may prune up to 10,000 of these connections if they are not needed or have not been used. Early events determine which circuits in the brain will be reinforced and retained. New synapses can in fact be formed at any time during life, whenever completely new situations demand it, but never with the same ease as in the early years.
Scans of the brain at birth, 3 months and 2 years reveal increasing density and complexity of connections among the neurons.
Research confirms our work.
When we first began our work with infants and parents three decades ago, we were working from clinical intuition. Today, neurobiological research validates our early findings that healthy bonds and healthy brains depend on quality relationships with the primary caregivers (usually parents) and on the consequent connections of neurons in the brain.