Recent research has explored the cognitive processes and underlying brain circuits involved in cognitive development during childhood and adolescence. Most recent studies have focused on neurofunctional architecture of the brain during childhood and adolescence. Studies also suggest that these structures change over time and that these changes are associated with specific brain circuits. This article reviews recent research on how different families in U.S. combat troops, in the context of childhood and adolescent cognitive development, to identify potential challenges and resources for improving this process.
Gonadotropins and Cognitive Development Information
Early development is critical for optimizing health and academic outcomes into adulthood. As people mature into adulthood they typically become more aware of their behaviors, thoughts, feelings, and emotions and start developing a set of cognitive and behavioral skills which are key for optimizing adaptive capacity. These skills are primarily oriented around self-management and goal-setting. Over time the role of caregivers and other adults in shaping these processes alters as adolescents mature into adulthood.
The key aspects of this emerging science are emerging childhood and adolescent theories of mind which postulate that there are distinct components or systems of cognition and behavior which develop through the dynamic process of adolescence and into adulthood. As we noted in an earlier paper, these developmental processes are shaped by unique experiences from early childhood and adolescence. For example, representations of self-relevant cues of emotional states such as anxiety, pain, fear, anger, and pleasure such as visual images, music, food, and others emerge at this time. These representations provide information which the brain uses to categorize and plan our behavior and reactions. As people mature into adolescence and the development of their neural systems enter the realm of functioning, they enter a state of dynamic flux which shapes how they think about the world, themselves and others.
Research has examined how these processes change across the life course. For example, emerging work demonstrates that cognitive abilities at this stage of life do not remain stable throughout adulthood even though ability levels do remain relatively constant. Instead, over the course of several years, variability emerges which impacts performance across domains of cognition including reasoning, memory, and processing speed and is especially apparent in the domains of academic, social, and motor functioning. In addition, while many of these domains begin to converge for older adults (at the age when cognitive processing has become more closely associated with mental age), they remain largely separate for younger adolescents and adults.
There is emerging evidence that cognitive processes are also highly impacted by environmental factors during the adolescence period. During this period, natural hormonal fluctuations (including estrogen and progesterone) in the body occur in greater amounts. These hormones impact both brain development and plasticity across the developing years. As plasticity (a property of nature) relates to cognitive processes, it is possible that the effects of these changes on brain function extend beyond the realm of adolescence and affect adult functioning in a number of ways.
One of the most well-documented effects of the changes in hormones in the human brain during adolescence is the extension of motor skills. While most normal children continue to develop motor skills even into adolescence, people who start to have puberty do so at a much earlier age, and their level of motor abilities is more advanced than the norm. This may be particularly the case for genetically-driven diseases such as cystic fibrosis or asthma, or syndromes such as Tourette’s syndrome and attention deficit disorder.
In another study by Wolters and colleagues, school-age children were evaluated for cognitive development in two domains: visual-spatial abilities and mean reaction times (the speed with which an adult objects takes in a series of information). The results showed a significant association between childhood gonadotropin levels and a reduction in the extent of generalized motor skills at the age of twelve. When the researchers pooled their findings from four different domains, they found a significant association between gonadotropin levels and improved performance on a range of cognitive tests. In addition, they found a significant relationship between the degree of gonadotropin exposure and the improvement of adults’ visual-spatial and mean reaction times. Finally, they found that the effect of gonadotropin on the magnitude of the effect of aging was quite large – even when the researchers controlled for other factors, such as body weight and height.
These studies provide strong evidence that the link between gonadotropins and cognitive development is indeed causal, although the precise mechanisms remain unclear. One intriguing possibility is that gonadotropins could act via multiple mechanisms to improve adult intellectual function, as in the case of abnormal development of the visual system. Another possibility is that they are required for the development of certain sex-specific behaviors, such as arousal of sexual interest and the maintenance of erection. While further studies are needed to determine how these hormones affect the development of different aspects of adult life, for now it appears that gonadotropins and their related processes may be an important part of the developmental process.