Brain plasticity and early development: Implications for early intervention in neurodevelopmental disorders

E. Inguaggiato, G. Sgandurra, G. Cioni

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Epigenetics is changing the interpretation of "genetics" in relation to "environment", in that the genetic code is not exclusively responsible for the "destiny" of a child's development; environment also has a role in child development. Gene and environment interact over a lifetime and influence maturation of neural circuits and shape changes in physical and mental development. This property, called brain plasticity, is more prominent in early postnatal periods ("critical periods"), which are specific time windows when neural circuits display a heightened sensitivity in acquiring instructive and adaptive signals from the external environment. These periods are not a simple maturation process but represent a complex developmental system that involves different functions (visual, auditory, somatosensory, cognitive ones) and region-specific time courses within specific functional circuits. Several studies have revealed that early experience and environmental stimuli, including parent-infant relationship, nutrition and neuro-endocrine signals, play a critical role in brain development. In this review, the effects of early experience, from bench to humans, on development and neuronal plasticity are discussed, underlining the influences of environment and reporting evidence on the effects of deprived environment. In the second part, the concept of "enriched environment" (EE) is introduced and evidence is reported on the effects of EE and its implications in the field of early intervention for infants at risk of developing neurodevelopmental disorders, in particular for preterm infants. To conclude, recent findings of our group on the use of a novel biomechatronic and tele-monitored system as a tool for early intervention is reported to indicate, for the first time, the feasibility of an intervention based on Information Communication Technology in the first year of life. Despite growing scientific knowledge and evidence regarding the effects of environment on brain development, the mechanisms of this complex interaction are still largely unknown. Further research is still necessary to explore and better understand the influences of environment and the role of early intervention on producing epigenetic modifications, their long term effects, and their relation to age and critical periods.

Original languageEnglish
JournalNeuropsychiatrie de l'Enfance et de l'Adolescence
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2017


  • Brain plasticity
  • Early intervention
  • Epigenetics
  • Neurodevelopmental disorders
  • Preterm infant

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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