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Don’t underestimate the developing child brain

Children’s brains react in the same way to social feedback as adults’ brains. But handling frustration or aggression after being rejected is a different matter, developmental psychologist Michelle Achterberg has discovered. Using fMRI techniques, the development of the child brain has now been studied for the first time in a large sample study. PhD defence on 12 March.

You often receive social feedback on yourself, both positive and negative, via social media. That can make you sad or angry. Why is it that some children are very sensitive to this, and others not? According to Michelle Achterberg, the architecture of the brain is already fixed in childhood. She explains: ‘Developments in the child brain can be predictive of behaviour in adolescence. That’s why we need to put more energy into mapping brain activity, the connections between different areas of the brain and brain development in childhood.’

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New experiment

Achterberg has developed a new experiment, the Social Network Aggression Task, to study how children handle social emotions. She asked children who were positioned in an MRI scanner a number of questions, such as, ‘What do you wish for most?’ and ‘What is your favourite subject?’  They then received feedback on their answers from similarly aged children whom they didn’t know. The young participants in the scanner were then asked how hard they wanted to blast a noise into the ear of the person giving the feedback.

Brain region for feedback

With both positive and negative feedback, the child brain is active in the same regions as adults. Achterberg showed that the activity following negative feedback had less to do with mental pain stimuli, but rather that the brain emitted the signal: Hey, watch out, there’s something going on here. ‘It’s logical that the brain area involved, the insula, is active in childhood. That’s how children know something is important and that they need to pay attention to it. We are the first researchers to show this in children between seven and nine years old,’ says Achterberg. 

Brain region for self-control

But the child brain works differently when handling feelings of aggression following a rejection. The development of the brain area involved in self-control, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) is different for each child. Children whose development in this area is stronger over a period of two years exhibit a greater reduction in aggressive behaviour. ‘So, already in childhood – even before the start of adolescence – children regulate negative behaviour following a rejection. But the activity in the DLPFC is less strong than we found in adults,’ Acherberg stresses.  

Front cover of Michelle Achterberg’s PhD dissertation

Connections in the child brain

Besides the specific brain regions, Achterberg also studied the functional connections between these brain regions. ‘The brain is a network of connections. We don’t yet know a lot about this in children, because it’s difficult to carry out experiments with children in an MRI scanner. Children move differently from adults in the scanner, and they also move more. Our longitudinal research on twins, Samen Uniek, is the first MRI research using a very large group of 500 children from seven to nine years old. This group is big enough to split up and to repeat the study (replication) to gain a good image of the connections in the child brain.’

Watching Frozen 200 times for science

But how well can we actually scan children? Is the ability to lie still hereditary? This has possible consequences for the conclusions based on qualitative scans. ‘Our research on twins shows clearly how hereditary the connections are. Strong movements do seem to be hereditary, but if you check that children don’t move too much outside the nominal curve, there’s no impact on the results. What you’re left with isn’t hereditary. So, the conclusion you draw from this is that the movement that is left over is influenced by the environment. That’s why we let children keep a stamp card for example, or take a soft toy in the scanner and watch a nice film while the scan is taking place. I think I must have seen Frozen at least 200 times’, Achterberg laughs.

Banner: Detail of the cover of Michelle Achterberg’s dissertation

Why do some children flourish and others not?

Michelle Achterberg’s PhD is within the broad framework of an NWO Gravitation Subsidy in 2012. Her supervisor is Eveline Crone, one of the four work package leaders in the research on social competence and behaviour regulation. Read more about the Consortium on Individual development

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