Functional brain development in humans

Key Points

  • The human brain continues to develop for some time after birth, providing an opportunity for experience to influence neural development. In the first few years after birth, both brain volume and cognitive function increase markedly.

  • Although most neurons are in place by birth, synaptogenesis occurs at a high rate during the first year of life, and the number of synapses peaks during this period at 150% of adult levels. Brain activity patterns change during this time and most myelination is postnatal. Such changes occur at different times for different brain areas.

  • Young infants fail in some cognitive tasks, such as reaching for an occluded object (up to 9 months) or detecting a change in an object passing behind a surface. Although other abilities seem to be adult-like at this stage, visual object processing appears to develop fully only by the second year of life. Very young infants are predisposed to look at faces, and this bias may assist in the development of social processing abilities.

  • Three theories of functional brain development are proposed. The maturational perspective states that cognitive abilities develop as the cortical areas mediating them mature. The interactive specialization approach suggests that cognitive abilities develop as the networks of cortical areas that mediate them develop appropriate interactions. The skill-learning hypothesis proposes that certain regions will be active during the development of skills in infants, but that other regions will be active once the skill has been learned (as in adult motor learning).

  • There is some evidence for each of these theories, and they are not mutually exclusive. Functional brain development in human infants depends on experience and neural activity as well as brain maturation.


There is a continuing debate in developmental neuroscience about the importance of activity-dependent processes. The relatively delayed rate of development of the human brain, compared with that of other mammals, might make it more susceptible to the influence of postnatal experience. The human infant is well adapted to capitalize on this opportunity through primitive biases to attend to relevant stimuli in its environment. The infant's interaction with its environment helps to sculpt inter- and intraregional connections within the cortex, eventually resulting in the highly specialized adult brain.

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Figure 1: Behavioural testing in infants.
Figure 2: Gamma-band EEG responses from infants show evidence of perceptual binding from at least 8 months.
Figure 3: Three accounts of the neural basis of an advance in behavioural abilities in infants.


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I thank D. Maurer, A. Karmiloff-Smith and D. Mareschal for comments on the manuscript. The UK Medical Research Council supports the author's research.

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Positron emission tomography

Magnetic resonance imaging


Perceptual development

Infant cognition

Neural development


Johnson's research centre



A decrease in the behavioural response to a repeated, benign stimulus.


A rapid eye movement that brings the point of maximal visual acuity — the fovea — to the image of interest.


A neurological disorder caused by bilateral damage to the parieto-occipital region of the brain, characterized by disorders of spatial perception.


An inherited inability to metabolize phenylalanine which can result in brain and nerve damage leading to mental retardation.


A rare congenital disorder: symptoms include facial abnormalities and deficits in some cognitive skills.


A category of computer-generated novel objects, originally designed as a control set for faces. Like faces, Greebles are all similar because they have the same number of parts in the same configuration.


A form of optical (light) imaging that entails placing sources and detectors on the head, and measuring the scatter or bending of light as it passes through the skull and brain.

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Johnson, M. Functional brain development in humans. Nat Rev Neurosci 2, 475–483 (2001).

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