To investigate, neuroscientist Martha Farah of the University of Pennsylvania and her colleagues recruited 64 children from a low-income background and followed them from birth through to late adolescence. They visited the children’s homes at 4 and 8 years of age to evaluate their environment, noting factors such as the number of books and educational toys in their houses, and how much warmth and support they received from their parents.
More than 10 years after the second home visit, the researchers used MRI to obtain detailed images of the participants’ brains. They found that the level of mental stimulation a child receives in the home at age 4 predicted the thickness of two regions of the cortex in late adolescence, such that more stimulation was associated with a thinner cortex. One region, the lateral inferior temporal gyrus, is involved in complex visual skills such as word recognition.
Home environment at age 8 had a smaller impact on development of these brain regions, whereas other factors, such as the mother’s intelligence and the degree and quality of her care, had no such effect.