Early onset puberty hits learning 'switch' in girls’ brains
Many young girls are entering the first stage of puberty as early as eight years of age. Now, scientists say that puberty hormones might have educational implications.
New findings from the University of California, Berkeley, has revealed for the first time how puberty hormones might impede some aspects of learning in children.
Linda Wilbrecht, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley, explains that puberty triggers changes in the brain:
"We have found that the onset of puberty hits something like a 'switch' in the brain's frontal cortex that can reduce flexibility in some forms of learning."
Wilbrecht and her laboratory team at UC Berkeley and UCSF discovered significant changes in neural communication in the frontal cortices of young female mice after they were exposed to puberty hormones like estradiol and progesterone. The changes occurred in a region of the frontal brain that is associated with learning, attention and behavioural regulation - issues that might sound familiar to the parents of tweens and teens.
Overall, researchers found that post-pubertal mice had a harder time adapting to rule changes than their pre-pubertal counterparts. The findings, published in the latest issue of the journal Current Biology, may have broad educational and health implications for girls, many of whom are entering the first stage of puberty as young as age seven and eight according to Wilbrecht:
"Puberty onset is occurring earlier and earlier in girls in modern urban settings, driven by such factors as stress and the obesity epidemic, and has been associated with worse outcomes in terms of school and mental health."
Children have been found to have greater brain flexibility or 'plasticity' than adults, enabling them to more easily master multiple languages and other elements of learning. While they continue to learn after puberty, their cognitive focus in adolescence is often redirected to peer relationships and more social learning.
Professor Wilbrecht says that if hormonal changes start as early as first or second class, when children are tasked with learning basic skills, a shift in brain function could be problematic:
"We should be more thoughtful about aligning what we know about biology and education to accommodate the fact that many girls' brains are shifting to this adolescent phase earlier than expected."