What is a "Critical Period" in Brain Development?
Pruning or selection of active neural circuits takes place throughout life, but is far more common in early childhood.
Animal studies have shown that there are certain windows of time during which the young are especially sensitive to their environment: newborn mice must experience normal whisker sensation in the first few days of life or they will develop abnormal tactile sensitivity in the face region; cats must be allowed normal visual input during the first three months or their vision will be permanently impaired; and monkeys need consistent social contact during the first six months or they will end up extremely emotionally disturbed. Many of the same critical periods appear to hold for human development, although we are less certain about their exact length. Thus, babies also require normal visual input or they may suffer permanent impairment; children born with crossed or “lazy” eyes will fail to develop full acuity and depth perception if the problem is not promptly corrected. Language skills depend critically on verbal input (or sign language, for babies with hearing impairments) in the first few years or certain skills, particularly grammar and pronunciation, may be permanently impacted. The critical period for language-learning begins to close around five years of age and ends around puberty. This is why individuals who learn a new language after puberty almost always speak it with a foreign accent.
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Neuroscientists do not yet fully understand the biological basis of these critical periods.