The Amazing Human Brain and Human Development

Lesson 6: Resources

Recommended Reading

You've taken in a tremendous amount of information in the past few weeks. I wouldn't be surprised if it all seems a little overwhelming. Our brains are so complex and so magnificent in their function. It is my hope that this course will spark an interest in you to learn more.

There is an abundance of interesting, accessible reading material available regarding the brain and related subjects. Here are a few of my top picks. I recommend that you check some of them out.

  • Magic Trees of the Mind: How to Nurture Your Child's Intelligence, Creativity and Healthy Emotions from Birth Through Adolescence by Marian Diamond and Janet Hopson
This book is a thoughtful review of much of the work on enriched environments and brain development. Dr. Diamond is a pioneer in these studies. The most fascinating elements of this book include the sections examining the work that has been done on enriched environments for human children. Included are practical suggestions for parents and a very good resource section. It targets the general population.
  • The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains and How Children Learn by Alison Gopnik, Andrew N. Meltzoff, and Patricia Kuhl
This is a new book by a team of respected neuroscientists who have been studying the development of language in babies. This group writes a very well-referenced and thoughtful book about the value of early childhood experience in cognitive and emotional development. There is actually little about brain structure, organization, or development, but it does provide much about principles of brain functioning. This book is also appropriate for general readership.
  • Inside the Brain: Revolutionary Discoveries of How the Mind Works by Ronald Kotulak
This is a book by a Pulitzer Prize winning science writer. He reviews some of the emerging findings in the pre-clinical neurosciences with a focus on mental health, violence and aggression, substance abuse, and other neuropsychiatric disorders. This is a very readable book, and it's a good start for anyone interested in learning about the brain.
  • The Scientific American Book of the Brain: Consciousness, I.Q. and Intelligence, Perception, Disorders of the Mind, and Much More
This book, compiled by the editors of Scientific American magazine, examines just about every aspect of brain functioning -- from behavior to intelligence to mental illness. It is an excellent resource for anyone interested in how the brain works.


Suggested Web sites

There are hundreds of places to learn more about the brain. A few useful starting places are listed below.

The Human Brain: Dissections of the Real Brain
You really want to see what the brain looks like? This site has a well-presented dissection of the human brain. It is a useful way to see what these areas really look like. Visit this site and admire the work of Terence H. Williams, M.D., Ph.D., D.Sc., Nedzad Gluhbegovic, M.D., Ph.D. and Jean Y. Jew, M.D.
Society for Neuroscience
The Society for Neuroscience is the world's largest organization of scientists and physicians dedicated to understanding the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nervous system. This site has a number of very useful materials for professionals who don't have specific expertise in the neurosciences. The educational programs and materials are well-written, clear, and accurate. Overall, this is an excellent resource.
These resources will be periodically updated and posted in a special section of the ChildTrauma Academy Web site. Visit for updates and for other resource materials about traumatic events and children.



Action potential: This is an electrical charge that travels down the axon of a neuron to the synaptic terminal. Once there, it can increase or decrease the probability that hundreds of intracellular vesicles filled with neurotransmitter will fuse with the pre-synaptic membrane of that neuron, and release the neurotransmitter into the synaptic cleft. The action potential occurs when the neuron has been activated and temporarily reverses the electric polarity of the interior membrane from negative to positive.

Amygdala: This is a structure in the forebrain. It is part of the limbic system and plays a major role in emotional memory and the response to threat.

Axon: This is the tiny fibrous extension of a neuron, which travels away from the cell body to other target cells (neurons, muscles, glands).

Autonomic Nervous System: The ANS is that part of the nervous system responsible for regulating the activity of the body's other organs (e.g., skin, muscle, circulatory, digestive, endocrine).

Central Nervous System: This is the portion of the nervous system comprising the spinal cord and brain.

Cerebellum: This is a large structure resembling a cauliflower on the top of the brainstem. This structure is very important in motor movement and motor-vestibular memory and learning.

Cerebral Cortex: This is the outermost layer of the cerebral hemispheres of the brain. The cortex mediates all conscious activity including planning, problem solving, language, and speech. It is also involved in perception and voluntary motor activity.

Cognition: This refers to the mental process by which we become aware of our environment, and use that awareness to problem solve and make sense out of the world. It is somewhat oversimplified, but cognition refers to thinking and all of the mental processes related to thinking.

Glia: These are specialized cells that nourish, support, and complement the activity of neurons in the brain. Actrocytes are the most common and appear to play a key role in regulating the amount of neurotransmitter in the synapse by taking up excess neurotransmitter. Oligodendrocytes are those glia that specialize to form the myelin sheath around many axonal projections.

Hippocampus: This is a thin structure in the subcortex shaped like a seahorse. It is an important part of the limbic system and plays a major role in learning, memory, and emotional regulation.

Homeostasis: This is the tendency of a physiological system (i.e., a neuron, neural system, or the body as a whole) to maintain its internal environment in a stable equilibrium

Hypothalamus: This is a group of important nuclei that mediates many important functions. It is located at the base of the brain, and is connected to the pituitary by a network of specialized blood vessels. The hypothalamic nuclei are involved in regulating many of the body's internal organs via hormonal communication. The hypothalamus is a key part of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis that is so important in the stress response.

Limbic System: This is a group of functionally and developmentally linked structures in the brain (including the amygdala, cingulate cortex, hippocampus, septum, and basal ganglia). The limbic system is involved in the regulation of emotion, memory, and in processing complex socio-emotional communication.

Neuron: A cell specialized for receiving and transmitting information. While neurons have tremendous heterogeniety in structure, they all have some form of both dendritic projections (that receive incoming information) and axonal projections (that communicate to other cells).

Neurotransmitter: A chemical that is released from a neuron, and that relays information to another cell by binding to a receptor on the membrane of the target cell.

Plasticity: This refers to the remarkable capacity of the brain to change its molecular, microarchitectural, and functional organization in response to injury or experience.

Synapse: This is the specialized space between two neurons that is involved in information transfer. Neurotransmitter is released from one neuron, enters the synaptic cleft (space), and sends a signal to the post-synaptic neuron by occupying that receptor's receptors.

Thalamus: This is a paired structure of two tiny egg-shaped structures in the diencephalon. The thalamus is a crucial area for integrating and organizing sensory information that comes into the brain. In the thalamus, information is processed and forwarded to the key cortical areas, where more processing and integrating take place.

Use-dependent: This refers to the specific changes in neurons and neural systems following activation. Repetitive, patterned stimulation alters the organization and functioning of neurons and neural systems and, thereby, the brain.


Key Points to Remember

  • Remember that the brain is not one single system. It is many interacting and interconnected systems organized in a specific hierarchy. The most complex areas (i.e., cortex) are found at the top and the least complex (i.e., brainstem) at the bottom.
  • Different parts of the brain -- different "systems" in the brain -- mediate different functions. For example, the cortex mediates thinking, while the brainstem mediates states of arousal.
  • All systems in the brain are comprised of networks of nerve cells (neurons). These neurons are continuously changing (in chemical and structural ways) in response to signals from other parts of the brain, the body, or the environment (e.g., sight, sound, taste, smell).
  • These molecular, chemical changes in neurons allow for the storage of information. The storage of information is the basis for all types of memory, whether they are motor, sensory, cognitive, or affective.
  • Each part of the brain mediates different, specific functions. Each part also stores information (memory) that is specific to its function. This allows for different types of memory. For example, cognitive memory consists of names and telephone numbers, motor memory tells you how to ride a bicycle or type on your computer keyboard, and affect memory prompts feelings of nostalgia.
  • The brain stores information in a use-dependent fashion. The more a neurobiological system is activated, the more that state (and the functions associated with that state) will be "built in." For example, practicing the piano, memorizing a poem, or remaining in a state of fear all exemplify different ways that the brain becomes activated through use.
  • Different states of arousal (e.g., calm, fear, sleep) activate specific neural systems. Because the brain stores information in a use-dependent fashion, the information stored (i.e., the memories) in any given situation depends upon the state of arousal (i.e., the neural systems that are activated). One example of this is state-dependent learning; another is the set of hyperarousal symptoms seen in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

A Complex System

The human brain, and its constituent parts, is the most complex system in the known universe. Each of its one trillion separate cells is in a continuous process of changing in response to chemical signals. From the moment of conception to the moment of death, the biology of each individual human is constantly changing, and the greatest changes are those that take place in the brain.

It is within this complexity that our species has found the capability to store the accumulated experience of thousands of generations and create human culture. Our language, religions, governments, childrearing practices, technologies, and economies are all man-made, yet all depend upon the remarkable capacity of the brain to make internal representations of the external world. It is this amazing plasticity and malleability of the human brain that allows humanity.

In Conclusion

I hope this course has provided an understanding of how the brain's very structure makes it so able to be changed through an individual's life experience and environment. It is through such knowledge that we, as parents, educators, mental health professionals, physicians, and others can begin to truly understand the behaviors so often exhibited by children who have been maltreated. Only through such an understanding can effective treatments and interventions be given a viable chance.


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