Mice raised in cages bombarded with glowing lights and sounds have profound brain abnormalities and behavioral trouble. Hours of daily stimulation led to behaviors reminiscent of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, scientists reported November 14 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.
Certain kinds of sensory stimulation, such as sights and sounds, are known to help the brain develop correctly. But scientists from Seattle Children’s Research Institute wondered whether too much stimulation or stimulation of the wrong sort could have negative effects on the growing brain.
To mimic extreme screen exposure, mice were blasted with flashing lights and TV audio for six hours a day. The cacophony began when the mice were 10 days old and lasted for six weeks. After the end of the ordeal, scientists examined the mice’s brains.
“We found dramatic changes everywhere in the brain,” said study coauthor Jan-Marino Ramirez. Mice that had been stimulated had fewer newborn nerve cells in the hippocampus, a brain structure important for learning and memory, than unstimulated mice, Ramirez said. The stimulation also made certain nerve cells more active in general.
Stimulated mice also displayed behaviors similar to some associated with ADHD in children. These mice were noticeably more active and had trouble remembering whether they had encountered an object. The mice also seemed more inclined to take risks, venturing into open areas that mice normally shy away from, for instance.
Some of these results have been reported previously by the Seattle researchers, who have now replicated the findings in a different group of mice. Ramirez and colleagues are extending the work by looking for more detailed behavioral changes.
For instance, preliminary tests have revealed that the mice are impatient and have trouble waiting for rewards. When given a choice between a long wait for a good reward of four food pellets and a short wait for one pellet, stimulated mice were more likely to go for the instant gratification than non-stimulated mice, particularly as wait times increased.
Overstimulation didn’t have the same effects on adult mice, a result that suggests the stimulation had a big influence on the developing — but not fully formed — brain.
If massive amounts of audio and visual stimulation do harm the growing brain, parents need to ponder how their children should interact with screens. So far, though, the research is too preliminary to change guidelines (SN Online: 10/23/16).
“We are not in a position where we can give parents advice,” said neuroscientist Gina Turrigiano of Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. The results are from mice, not children. “There are always issues in translating research from mice to people,” Turrigiano said.
What’s more, early sensory input may not affect all children the same way. “Each kid will respond very, very differently,” Turrigiano said. Those different responses might be behind why some children are more vulnerable to ADHD.
There’s still much scientists don’t understand about how sensory input early in life wires the brain. It’s possible that what seems like excessive sensory stimulation early in life might actually be a good thing for some children, sculpting brains in a way that makes them better at interacting with the fast-paced technological world, said Leah Krubitzer of the University of California, Davis. “This overstimulation might be adaptive,” she said. “The benefits may outweigh the deficits.”