Synaptic pruning in childhood and adolescence: What is it and how to stimulate it?

Since the child is born and until adolescence, their brain is in continuous evolution. At this stage, many neuronal synapses are generated as a result of the learning that is acquired, while training the neural plasticity, which is nothing more than the brain’s ability to reorganize itself and form new neural connections in order to adapt to the environment.

In these years a very important process also takes place in the infant brain that allows reorganizing the synaptic structure and optimizing information processing: synaptic pruning or regulatory pruning.

What is synaptic pruning?

During the first years of life, new synapses are created in the infant brain at a surprising speed that can reach up to the 40,000 neural connections per second. This allows the child to know his environment and acquire new knowledge at a great speed, the problem is that with the passage of time much of this learning ceases to be useful. In this way, many synapses are maintained in the infant brain that are not functionally necessary and that instead of facilitating the processing of information, slow it down.

To prevent this from happening and guarantee efficient processing of information, information takes place synaptic pruning, which is nothing more than the process by which the weakest connections between neurons that were created during the first years of life are eliminated. Basically, it is a regulatory process that guarantees a more efficient synaptic organization, eliminating unnecessary synaptic structures in the brain to increase the receiving surface for neurotransmitters.

In what What stage does synaptic pruning occur?

Usually, the period of pruning begins around the second year of life and extends into late adolescence. Pruning in areas of the cortex involved with visual and auditory perception is usually complete around the 4th and 6th year of life while the pruning of higher functions such as inhibitory control and emotional self-regulation continues well into the early years of youth.

Up to that point, regulatory pruning may have reduced the number of synapses in the brain by 30-40%, meaning that the child will have lost some of the skills or knowledge learned at some point in childhood. Oh, he stopped using it. Instead, new connections will have been created corresponding to the new abilities that he develops.

synaptic pruning adolescence

Benefits of synaptic pruning for the infant brain

Synaptic pruning is as important for brain development as the creation of new connections since in this way the synapses that are not used, the synapses are reinforced important neuronal structures and gives way to the creation of new connections. However, beyond its anatomical importance, synaptic pruning also benefits children’s cognitive, emotional, and behavioral development.

  1. Improves information processing. Synaptic pruning helps to optimize the functioning of the neuronal structure since, by eliminating useless connections, it favors the consolidation of a much more efficient brain network that allows new synapses to be created more easily.
  2. It contributes to the adaptation of the environment. During brain pruning, the synapses that the child no longer uses disappear to make way for the creation of new connections that allow him to adapt more easily to his new environment, as revealed by a study carried out at Harvard Medical School.
  3. Stimulates the maturity of cognitive functions. Experts consider synaptic pruning as a maturational process in which brain connections and major cognitive functions in children. In particular, the pruning of the gray matter, especially in the areas of the cerebral cortex, has been related to a greater development of functions such as memory, attentional control and concentration.

Synaptic pruning has been linked to the increasing and rapid acquisition of skills and knowledge that takes place well into adolescence. Instead,alterations in this process have been linked to some developmental disorders such as autism, according to research carried out at Icesi University.

3 strategies to facilitate pruning Synaptic pruning in childhood and adolescence

Synaptic pruning is strongly influenced by environmental factors and child development. Basically, those functions that the child needs to function in their environment will be those that are preserved while the skills that are no longer useful or have stopped exercising will be the ones that disappear. For this reason, it is important to put into practice some strategies to stimulate the synaptic pruning process and reinforce the abilities that you want to preserve.

  1. Stimulates children’s learning from an early age. Creating a developing environment, in which the child constantly learns, is a very useful strategy to promote brain maturation and enhance synaptic pruning. At the same time, it is essential to stimulate children’s curiosity, which will not only motivate the child to discover new skills and knowledge, but will also contribute to creating new, more solid and lasting synaptic connections.
  2. Train the childhood skills you want to keep. Synaptic pruning cannot be controlled, but it can be guided. Therefore, if you focus on training the childhood skills that you want your child to retain, those synaptic connections will be strengthened and will prevail over the weaker ones. In this sense, you can resort to games or educational activities to stimulate these skills or even go a step further and enroll the child in courses that work on these skills, such as language classes if you want them to learn a particular language.
  3. It enhances the child’s interaction with their environment. There is no better strategy to stimulate synaptic pruning than to stimulate the child’s interaction with other people and their environment. Social interaction is an excellent resource for the child to develop new skills and adapt her abilities to the demands of the environment. In this way, your brain will be forced to reinforce those connections that are useful to it, but instead it will get rid of those that are not necessary in order to optimize information processing.