As aging baby boomers create a growing market for brain-teaser games and memory improvement workshops, two University of British Columbia  researchers are uncovering new evidence that childhood remains the most crucial period for enhancing – or undermining – a person’s cognitive abilities.
Adele Diamond and Clyde Hertzman, both Canada Research Chairs, are experts in the factors and activities that determine whether a person thrives or struggles in the face of challenges that require a nimble, resilient and creative mind. They will share their perspectives in a public lecture sponsored by UBC and the Canada Foundation for Innovation .
Diamond, a professor in UBC’s Department of Psychiatry, is one of the world’s leading researchers on the development of executive functions – reasoning, working memory, self-control, flexibility and problem-solving. Executive functions are key to children’s academic success, Diamond says; improving them will reduce the number of diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, cut school dropout rates and slash the incidence of crime and drug addiction.
With help from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, Prof. Diamond is conducting a pilot study in British Columbia of a program called Tools of the Mind, which aims to promote the development of executive functions in young children. Diamond found that the program, with its use of props and dramatic play, significantly improved children’s academic performance.
“While it seems logical that if you want to improve academic success you should concentrate on academic teaching, that’s not correct. You also have to address children’s social, physical and emotional needs,” she says.
Hertzman, meanwhile, examines how the conditions of early childhood, including parents’ stress levels, stability of a neighbourhood or availability of books, can leave permanent marks on a person’s brain – or on an even deeper level, the functioning of their genes.
“Even 40 years later, there’s an imprint on their DNA,” affecting up to five per cent of their genes, Hertzman says.
B.C. was the first jurisdiction in the world to carry out a complete population-based monitoring of children by neighbourhood.
“We have demonstrated here in B.C. that when you go from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, there’s a huge difference in children by the time they reach school age,” he says. “In some neighbourhoods less than five per cent of the children are behind where we’d like them to be in physical, social, emotional and cognitive development. And in other neighbourhoods it’s more than 60 per cent.”
The survey’s data have affected hundreds of policies and projects, Hertzman says. Victoria’s library system, for example, built a new branch in a neighbourhood with particularly low scores in language and cognitive skills, and started an outreach program to families living there.
In the lead-up to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting this month in Vancouver, the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the University of British Columbia are teaming up to present a four-part lecture series celebrating Canadian innovation. These lectures will cover a range of Canadian research, from brain imaging, to child development, to quantum computing.
Event: Canada Foundation for Innovation Dialogues at UBC Robson Square presents Adele Diamond and Clyde Hertzman – a public lecture on early child development
Date/Time: 6-7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012
Location: Plaza Lounge, UBC Robson Square, 800 Robson Street, Vancouver