June 14th, 2024

Play helps grow the human brain, says U of L professor

By Justin Sibbet - Lethbridge Herald Local Journalism Initiative Reporter on June 8, 2023.

Herald photo by Justin Sibbet Participants toss a ball as part of a word game during the 'Building the Adolescent Brain' workshop this week at the public library.

While it is common knowledge that young children need to grow and shape their brains for the future, it is now understood that the same requirements are needed for adolescents.

According to a University of Lethbridge professor in neuroscience, Dr. Robbin Gibb, the simple act of playing can help grow the human brain and even keep it from slowly diminishing as humans age.

“Play, we know, reduces your stress, it brings joy, and everybody needs more of that in their lives,” said Gibb during a presentation at the public library on Tuesday. “It builds relationships and enhances creativity and executive function.”

She says play is the “silver bullet” to ensuring executive function skills can develop properly and in a healthy manner.

“Play shapes the connections in the prefrontal cortex … that is where our executive functions are supported,” said Gibb.

She says the human brain has two main timeframes where the prefrontal cortex is at its most vulnerable and manipulatable, from ages 1-3 and again from ages 16-21.

“We see rapid maturation increments of the brain, you see a lot of that happening in the preschool years, we see it happening again in adolescence,” said Gibb.

As a result, these years are crucial to ensure a healthy brain is developed, yet this is a time when adolescents are often making rash decisions without fully understanding the consequences, according to Gibb.

She says adolescents are often granted significant autonomy from their parents at the age of 15, while they get their driver’s license at 16, further increasing this autonomy.

Furthermore, she says potentially life-changing, or life-creating, events often happen while adolescents are still growing their brains.

“The average age of first sexual encounter is also under the age of 17 in Canada,” said Gibb.

As well, she says drug use is picked up during the ages of 16-21 in many cases, though this can have serious consequences for certain individuals.

Gibb says research has shown that, depending on an individual’s DNA makeup, an adolescent who uses marijuana is up to 10 times more likely to develop schizophrenia later in life, as compared to an adolescent who does not use marijuana.

“It’s sort of like playing Russian roulette with your mental health,” said Gibb.

Furthermore, she says alcohol is never good to consume during these years, if ever, since it can also cause harsh damage to the brain.

“We don’t see some of the same schizophrenic outcomes and some of the mental health outcomes, but we see all kinds of other problems associated with alcohol,” said Gibb. “Alcohol kills cells, so what you’re doing is diminishing your cell supply in your brain.”

Thankfully, Gibb says play is a fantastic way to grow and stay healthy without risk of damaging the brain.

“We really want to encourage families to play these games at home, whenever you have a moment,” said Gibb.

She says playing as a family every day, even if for only 15 minutes, will enable significant growth.

However, she does say there are certain types of play that just do not enable the same executive function growth as others.

“(Video games are) kind of like the junk food of play,” said Gibb. “If you want a high-quality nutrition, you want to play in person.”

She says this is because the social aspect of play is one of the primary reasons it helps the brain develop.

Researchers, including Gibb, have been studying the idea of play in the classroom when integrated into the curriculum.

Two classes at Gilbert Patterson Middle School were selected earlier this year to participate in the study, with one class having more play time than the other.

The results are not yet complete, but Gibb says she hopes to have the results available later this summer.

For a list of games to play with your family, or for more information about the study, go to buildingbrains.ca.

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