Say your parents never let you get up from the dinner table until you finished all your Brussels sprouts. If later in life you recoil at the sight of the little green spheres, it might not be much of a mystery.

But how does the adversity and stress we experience in childhood affect our minds, particularly our ability to absorb information and retain it?

Our study set out to learn more about the effects of early-life adversity by examining the colorful little Australian bird known as the zebra finch. Scientists had earlier looked at how developmental stress on males affected their ability to learn to sing. Male zebra finches use their songs to attract females. They learn how to sing from their elders. Likewise, the females learn how to perceive the songs from older male finches. But while plenty of studies have looked at the male end of the equation, few studies have examined how females learn what makes a good song. And little work has been done to check out the neural changes in the animals’ brains.

We subjected our test birds to nutritional stress during their childhood by mixing seeds they consume with wooden chips, which means we increased the amount of time it took for their parents to find food, thereby decreasing the amount of food the little birds got. Birds who grow up with added stress at mealtime would have smaller brains, or less cellular density in key areas, we hypothesized.

So during childhood and again during adulthood, we examined brain sections of our test group, particularly the part of the brain that controls the bird’s listening ability.

And we discovered we were wrong; the bird brains hadn’t changed. That doesn’t mean we failed; in the world of neuroscience disproving a hypothesis can be just as valuable, if not more so, than confirming one. Studies like this one can help us understand how adversity early in life can affect our ability to learn and remember.

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