Did you know your Cognitive Development is Highly Dependent on Motor Development?


As I continue to read more and more research into developmental delays is astounds me the amount that I see on motor development and cognition. In almost every research article that I read there is mentions of how motor delays and motor development errors seem to play a role in cognitive development. This paper is no exception! This paper talks a lot about an area of the brain called the basal ganglia. 
The basal ganglia is largely responsible for starting and stopping tasks, or what is know as gating tasks. It is a cluster of neurons in the middle of your brain that are very important for everything from movement to cognition. It allows us to control emotions, and sequence tasks. It plays a part in almost every aspect of our lives! 
It also will discuss the importance of proper development of primitive reflexes, postural reflexes, and locomotion for proper cognitive development! So lets dive in!

Leisman, G. Braun-Benjamin, O. Melillo, R. “Cognitive-motor interactions of the basal ganglia in development.” Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience. February 2014. 

As you read in this first picture, and like I have said in other blogs is that there is a very large link between development of motor skills and development of cognitive skills. This is due to the fact that the same areas of the brain that are used for cognitive skills are also the same areas that are used for movement! The biggest players being the cerebellum, the basal ganglia, thalamus, and prefrontal cortex! 

The basal ganglia is largely thought to have just been an area of the brain used for movement for a very long time. This portion of the article talks about how it is now known to control many different areas of cognition. In this chart you can see it also plays a part in attention, working memory, and executive function.

It is interesting to see the role that the basal ganglia plays in memory. It is largely responsible for helping to start a learned task. According to this article the basal ganglia is only activated at the beginning of a learned task, and at the end. This is hypothesized that the basal ganglia is used to activate a stored learned task from different areas of the brain, and then stop the memory when the task is accomplished. For example if a basketball player is going to shoot a basket the basal ganglia activates the memory on how to perform the action (maybe stored in the prefrontal cortex or cerebellum), and then stops the memory after that! 


This would mean that if a child has a dysfunctional basal ganglia they may not have access to learned skills they have previously done. I see this all the time with kids that have practiced a skill and been proficient at it and then the next time they go to do the task they seem to have forgotten how to do it. They may not have simply forgotten, they may just not have access to it because their basal ganglia is not able to start the process efficiently!

In this portion of the article they start talking about how early motor milestones development affects cognition. What they site is that the more abnormalities in early infantile milestones, the larger the delay in cognitive development as the child gets older! 

In this picture is says primitive reflex development, it should say motor development. In the actual article they go on to talk about primitive reflex development that I why it says that!

In this study they linked that lack of motor development at age 1 was indicative of cognitive delays at age 1 and also at age 4! That means that early motor milestones should be assessed and worked toward normalizing for proper development of cognition later in life. They also talked about how lack of proper development of primitive reflexes in the first year of life is linked to developmental delays in this study. They especially talked about the asymmetrical tonic neck reflex is present in a large amount of autistic children.

They continued to talk about how abnormal postural reflex development was an indication of abnormal cerebellar development. Developmentally primitive reflexes go away in the first year of life, and they are replaced by postural reflexes that continue the development of the brain and body. Here they are linking the lack of postural reflex development to walking skills. Walking is a motor milestone that should develop around 12-13 month of life, and without postural reflex development it occurred on average at 14 months!

One of the things that makes us human is our ability to walk on two feet all of the time. We are the only species that can do that all of the time. It is assumed we have the ability to do this because of our large brain development, especially in our frontal lobes. Also because of are increased brain size it has allowed us to improve our cognitive abilities and produce language. So the fact that walking has occured because of bigger brains and better connectivity it means that if someones gait is abnormal, that could indicate less connectivity or lack of development! 


The thing that is noted in almost all developmental delays, especially Asperger and Autism is abnormalities in gait. This is probably largely due to lack of proper primitive, and postural reflex development! 

This just shares more on developmental delays and motor impairments related to locomotion!

It is interesting to note that as our ability to walk upright from an evolutionary standpoint it allowed us to produce better cognition and better language development. When you look at kids with developmental delays they seem to have abnormal gaits, along with cognitive delays, and language delays in many cases. 


This leads me to believe that as we improve how a child moves and walks their cognitive skills should improve. This is what we see in clinical practice in our office when we work to improve movement. This is why I believe that every child with a attention, behavioral, or learning disability should incorporate a motor development program into their daily life! 


If you need help designing a plan for a child you know please reach out to drjosh@iowainfinity.com

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