Production of myelin is crucial to neural development and the structural organization of white matter. Myelin is the fatty white substance that surrounds some nerve fibers or axons and helps insulate the nerve fibers as they send signals to and from neurons and other cells. Now, new research has shown that sensory rich experiences and new environments can play a positive role in the development of white matter and enhance myelination in children.
Myelination is the process of producing the sheath-like insulation for axons (nerve fibers). Without enough insulation, the nervous system cannot work properly, and many developmental disorders can be traced back to defects in white matter formation and myelin integrity
Thomas A. Forbes, lead author of a report published in the journal Trends in Neurosciences, discusses a crucial “feedback loop,” wherein a pool of cells known as oligodendrocyte progenitor cells make myelin through childhood and adolescence, and the oligodendrocyte cells work in tandem with the axons.
Forbes and his fellow researcher discuss myelination in conjunction with the beneficial effects that sensory rich environments have on young developing brains.
“The strength, duration and timing of environmental experience influences plasticity in brain circuitry, which is made up of communication cables called axons that link neurons throughout the brain and are coated by myelin, a fatty substance that helps nerve impulses speed from place to place,” says Vittorio Gallo, the study’s senior author and Chief Research Officer at Children’s National Health System.
Sensory rich environments can help cognitive development through a variety of ways. Enriching a child’s environment through exposure to new objects and surroundings and interactions with new people and playmates has been found to increase volume and length of myelinated fibers and boost total brain volume.
Other sensory rich activities that can boost brain development include listening to music, active learning, and physical fitness. These positive impacts are further evidenced by the negative effects that poor nutrition, neglect, and social isolation have on basic motor skills and cognitive function and in turn myelin structure.
The research shows how important an enriched environment is to brain development for infants and children, and offers important information for finding therapies and treatments to enhance white matter health.
“An enriched environment not only involves the opportunity to move and participate in physical exercise and physical therapy; it is also an environment where there is novelty, new experiences and continuously active learning. It is equally important to minimize social stressors. It’s all about the balance,” said Gallo.