Purpose of review: Recent advances in neuroimaging methods have provided new ways of unravelling the complex interplay between genetic and environmental factors that influence functional brain development in the critical first years of life. This has allowed new insights into the effects that early adverse experience can exert on the brain later in life. We review recent progress in the characterization of those effects and underlying mechanisms through which adverse environment influences the neurocognitive development.
Recent findings: Socioeconomic background may have a profound effect on structural and functional brain development, especially in the domains of language and prefrontal executive control. These effects are mediated by several factors: diet, quality of parental care, impoverished environment, prenatal exposure to toxic substances and so on. Other circumstances such as perinatal brain injury, early sensory deprivation or limb malformation may result in atypical functional organization of the brain and lasting cognitive impairment of certain functions. Early experience of maltreatment or institutionalized care may alter the development of the social brain, contributing to negative mental health outcomes, which may be partially reversed through early intervention programmes.
Summary: Subsequent models of psychiatric disorder should take into account early risk factors and embrace developmental models at multiple levels of biological organization. There is a continuing need for the study of optimal environmental input during sensitive periods in brain development.