- Robbin GibbRobbin GibbUniversity of Lethbridge, Department of Neuroscience
The process of brain development begins shortly after conception and in humans takes decades to complete. Indeed, it has been argued that brain development occurs over the lifespan. A complex genetic blueprint provides the intricate details of the process of brain construction. Additional operational instructions that control gene and protein expression are derived from experience, and these operational instructions allow an individual to meet and uniquely adapt to the environmental demands they face. The science of epigenetics provides an explanation of how an individual’s experience adds a layer of instruction to the existing DNA that ultimately controls the phenotypic expression of that individual and can contribute to gene and protein expression in their children, grandchildren, and ensuing generations. Experiences that contribute to alterations in gene expression include gonadal hormones, diet, toxic stress, microbiota, and positive nurturing relationships, to name but a few. There are seven phases of brain development and each phase is defined by timing and purpose. As the brain proceeds through these genetically predetermined steps, various experiences have the potential to alter its final form and behavioral output. Brain plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change in response to environmental cues or demands. Sensitive periods in brain development are times during which a part of the brain is particularly malleable and dependent on the occurrence of specific experiences in order for the brain to tune its connections and optimize its function. These periods open at different time points for various brain regions and the closing of a sensitive period is dependent on the development of inhibitory circuitry. Some experiences have negative consequences for brain development, whereas other experiences promote positive outcomes. It is the accumulation of these experiences that shape the brain and determine the behavioral outcomes for an individual.