In my understanding, learning is related to the strengthening and weakening of synaptic connections. Very roughly said: Synaptic connections that are used often are strengthened, those that are used rarely are weakened. This is basically the Hebb rule.

Assumed that the Hebb rule holds at least partially (of course, there are other factors at work during learning), I wonder if in a newborn's brain the areas where learning will take place are equally weakly connected by synapses (so the pathways will be "built up") or are equally strongly (maximally) connected (so the pathways will be "carved out") or something inbetween. Or are there areas of both/all kinds?

(I assume that there is a maximal connection strength beyond which no further strengthening takes place.)

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ This is a really interesting question, but I honestly don't think anyone can answer it yet. I might be wrong, but the problem is our models (rats, primates etc.) are born at different developmental periods to us, neurologically speaking. So it's a difficult question to answer using available techniques. If you think about a specific brain region of interest, then you might be able to find some developmental papers that will give you a bit more insight. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 9:26
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the comment. But don't you - or any of your colleagues - have a feeling how it might be? $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 9:40
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ My gut says that when a synapse forms it will probably be in a middle ground, then can be affected by either "Long-Term Potentiation" (strengthening), or "Long-Term Depression" (weakening). But there's so many changes going on in a developing brain, that it might be different in different regions. Edit, this feeling is based on when individual synapses form, which happens in different regions at different times (but is likely to be similar cross-species). $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 10:05
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ If it's a feeling you want, this becomes a primarily opinion based question. I have a feeling that there are strong and weak and as yet non-existant pathways at birth. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 13:19
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ All synapses start infinitely weak (I.e, there has to be no synapse before there is a synapse). The degree of development of different brain areas at a given stage of life varies dramatically. I don't think this question is answerable in any general sense but to say something vague like that, without more specificity up front. Voting to close in agreement with @anongoodnurse $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 19:51

1 Answer 1


I wonder if in a newborn's brain the areas where learning will take place are equally weakly connected by synapses (so the pathways will be "built up") or are equally strongly (maximally) connected (so the pathways will be "carved out") or something inbetween. Or are there areas of both/all kinds?

According to a paper authored by Princeton researcher Deborah Sandoval:

At the time of birth, the human brain consists of roughly 100 billion neurons in the cortex (The University of Maine, 2001). During the early stages of development (between infancy and adolescence), the weight and size of the brain increases significantly (by up to a factor of 5). This increase in density is not contributed to the creation of a large number of new neurons (neurogenesis), but rather an exponential increase in synaptic growth, known as exuberant synaptogenesis (Huttenlocher & Drabholkar, 1998). At infancy, each neuron averages around 2,500 synapses, and at the peak of exuberant synaptogenesis (around 2-3 years of age) the number increases to around 15,000 (The University of Maine, 2001).


Shortly after this period of synaptic growth, the network experiences a decline in synaptic density as neuron connections that are used least-often are removed from the network. The process of eliminating/weakening the irrelevant and inefficient synapses during this developmental period is known as synaptic pruning. Synaptic pruning has been viewed as a learning mechanism, where the “pruning” or removal of a synapse is dependent on the neurons’ responses to environmental factors and external stimuli (Craika & Bialystokb, 2006). The processes of synaptogenesis and synaptic pruning in the developmental stages of the brain have been associated with an individual’s “critical period,” a time where an individual is highly receptive to environmental stimuli and, therefore, learning (Drachman, 2005).

Given the claims in those passages, it would seem that learning (for infants) takes place by initially developing an extremely large number of neuronal connections (most likely due to massive information exposure), and then selectively prunes synaptic sites due to a lack of various external stimuli keeping those axons/dendrites/synapses active; the remaining connections are then reinforced (continously excited). So, as you put it, it would seem that the infant brain both "builds up" and "carves out" neuronal connections for the sake of learning.

To further support this idea though, consider the following fMRI images that depict the functional connectivity of an infant's brain for the first year of life. (Function Connectivity of the Infant Human Brain)

enter image description here

Pay special notice to the coloration differences between rows, within a given column, for the infant (first five rows). With dark red being least functional, and bright yellow being most functional, it can easily be seen that, as the infant gets older (is learning), occurrences of yellow tend to form as clusters within regions of red, which indicate locations of highest functional network activity.

If you then continue this pattern and compare the most functional regions belonging to the 12 month infant scan, with that of the adult (bottom-most row), you can see that the concentrated yellow regions in the infant scan become the general (red) functional regions in the adult scan. This only further suggests that those initial, yellow-denoted functional regions (belonging to the infant), matured into the even more dense, functional regions of the adult brain, through the process of pruning unnecessary connections (which creates smaller functional regions), while at the same time increasing signaling strength amongst neighboring neurons (synaptogenesis).

Lastly, to assess the initial strength of each neuronal connection for an infant brain: when looking at the 1-month old scans, it appears that most all regions of the brain have a color that falls within an associated numerical range of .4 to .8, which would suggest that the brain, as a whole, begins at an almost "neutral" state.

  • $\begingroup$ I actually think OPs summary of Hebb's rule is more correct than yours. Cells need not be already strongly connected to increase their connectivity under Hebbian plasticity. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 23:44
  • $\begingroup$ I also think this answer is far too rambling and wide reaching to be an appropriate answer on stack exchange; it is not an answer to a specific question, it is a Wikipedia article on neuro development (this is in part why I chose to vote to close the question; it isn't specific enough). $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 23:46
  • $\begingroup$ You quoted (part of) Hebb, then wrote a paragraph. That paragraph is your summary. The rambling nature is that you take on Hebbian plasticity, numbers of neurons and synapses, synaptic pruning, excitotoxicity, and molecular mechanisms of synaptic plasticity. $\endgroup$
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 0:02
  • $\begingroup$ @BryanKrause I've edited my answer to consider your comments. Thanks again. $\endgroup$
    – user22020
    Commented Aug 12, 2017 at 2:24

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .