The importance of neuroplasticity

Our wondrous brains adapt and rewire to respond to our environment, and that's great news for for all of us, including kids with CVI.

Abstract images of three kids, each one larger than the next. CVI Now logo at bottom.

This is the final article in our 5-part series about the visual system. 

Now that you understand more about how the visual system functions, it’s helpful to consider it within the context of your child’s brain. CVI is a brain-based visual impairment, and one of the most important aspects of brain development is a concept called neuroplasticity.

Understanding Brain Development

The brain’s basic elements are in place by the time we’re two to three years old. After that, the brain changes its structural and functional organization to respond and adapt to its environment. This is a concept called neuroplasticity. Our brains are most sensitive to environmental stimuli before age seven (referred to as the “critical period”), but these changes occur throughout our lifetime. 

What is neuroplasticity?

Neuroplasticity is "the ability of the brain to change its structural and functional organization in response to development, experience, or the environment" (Dr. Lotfi Merabet). Our brain is constantly changing, evolving, and responding to its environment to be as effective as possible. This is true for people with and without CVI. 

The most substantial changes occur during the early years of life. The brain constantly adapts and rewires itself.

The great news for parents is that you can create situations and environments, in school or at home, that promote this rewiring: through play, structured social interactions, language development, and more. When the brain is young, it’s even more malleable. Think about learning how to ride a bike: It’s much easier as a kid than as a grown-up!

Neuroplasticity and vision

More often than not, your child’s vision may have the capacity to improve over time—thanks to neuroplasticity. And this coincides with the development of other compensatory skills that support access (tactile, auditory, kinesthetic). 

Dr. Lotfi Merabet, a clinician-scientist who studies CVI, has advice: “Let your child be active, interactive, and explore in order to create a situation that promotes as much developmental growth as possible. Keep the brain gears turning! It is also important to manage expectations and set up the child for success rather than frustration and disappointment. The more engaged the child is, the more they will find the motivation to continue to explore and interact, and in principle, the more the brain will continue to grow, change, and develop.”

How to Optimize Neuroplasticity for Your Child 

There are so many ways that you can help your child use neuroplasticity to their advantage. Here are some ideas:

  • Promote play for play’s sake. Let your child explore, build, and learn without a focus on outcome. For example, maybe your child is afraid to go down a slide but loves playing with the sand next to the ladder. This is discovery, and it’s helpful in its own right. “The brain likes to explore and to be challenged,” Merabet says.
  • Balance repetition with novelty. It might be tempting to only offer your children materials—familiar blocks, favorite toys—they know how to use. This is important to build confidence, but repetition can also get boring. Don’t be afraid to add in new stimuli to keep the brain engaged.
  • Prize breadth over depth. Merabet calls this “buffet-style learning.” Think about brunch: A plate with eggs, bacon, salmon, bagels, and fruit is better than one big pile of hash browns, right? Just the same, give your children a taste of many different experiences instead of solely relying on the familiar; this offers their brain a chance to adapt and acquire new information and skills. It might look messy—your child might get frustrated with a new toy or an unfamiliar playground—but this is part of learning and promotes development in the long run. Success comes with effort.
  • Get out there! Don’t be afraid of doing something wrong. There’s absolutely no harm in exposing your child to plenty of experiences. Engage with the outside world as much as possible. “We know there’s a lot of scientific evidence that drives home the benefits of environmental enrichment on brain development,” Merabet says; kids need to become comfortable interacting with the outside world so they can understand and make predictions about how it works. What happens when a dog runs up to you on a walk? (They might jump on you!) What happens when ice cream melts onto your hands at the ice cream stand? (It’s cold and sticky!) The more experiences kids have, the better they understand, predict, and become familiar with their environment long-term.

Many kids with CVI benefit from active learning, an approach that provides assessment, curriculum, specifically designed equipment, and instructional strategies that help them actively engage with their surroundings. Talk to your TVI about how to modify your environment based on your child’s CVI assessments. Learn more here.

Take the lead from your child. Watch how they want to explore their world. See what makes them happy, calm, and motivated. Provide opportunities for them to use all of their senses. Our brain is highly interconnected and all sensory inputs support brain development. 

Faith walking on the beach with her service dog. Faith has a big smile on her face. The sky is clear blue and the wind is blowing through her hair.

As kids grow, research shows that the visual system and brain continue to change; development doesn’t stop in childhood. While the visual system comes online quickly in early childhood, many visual abilities still need more time to reach adult-like levels. Here are when most of us reach adult-like visual milestones:

  • Spatial acuity, contrast sensitivity, and orientation: 8 years old
  • Complex motion perception and integration: 12 years old
  • Contour integration (this is the ability to detect the outline of objects to perceive shapes): 16 years old
  • Face perception: 21 years old

In summary, think about this quote from Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain by David Eagleman: “For humans at birth, the brain is remarkably unfinished, and interaction with the world is necessary to complete it.” 
 
Ready to learn more about the developing brain? We love this wonderful exploration from Dr. Takeo K. Hensch, professor of neuroscience at Harvard University and Boston Children’s Hospital. Then, learn even more about how the brain develops with Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child

Learn more about promising practices in literacy and math, mealtime strategies, incidental learning, and so much more in our Parenting section.