New research on the neural system of language

December 7, 2011

Neuroscientists have long known that particular areas of the brain are responsible for the comprehension and production of language. But new research points to the criticality of pathways between these areas for various components of language.

From a Science Daily article summarizing the research:

Two brain areas called Broca’s region and Wernicke’s region serve as the main computing hubs underlying language processing, with dense bundles of nerve fibers linking the two, much like fiber optic cables connecting computer servers. But while it was known that Broca’s and Wernicke’s region are connected by upper and a lower white matter pathways, most research had focused on the nerve cells clustered inside the two language-processing regions themselves.

MRI image shows Brocca's (yellow) and Wernicke's (purple) regions, connected by critical neural pathways. (Image credit: Stephen Wilson, Science Daily)

University of Arizona Professor of Speech and Hearing Stephen Wilson was one of the lead researchers:

If you have damage to the lower pathway, you have damage to the lexicon and semantics. You forget the name of things, you forget the meaning of words. But surprisingly, you’re extremely good at constructing sentences.

With damage to the upper pathway, the opposite is true; patients name things quite well, they know the words, they can understand them, they can remember them, but when it comes to figuring out the meaning of a complex sentence, they are going to fail.

Professor Wilson collaborated on the research with colleagues from the University of California at San Francisco and the Scientific Institute and University Hospital San Raffaele in Milan, Italy. The research was published in the journal Neuron.

Shortage of drugs to treat ADHD

November 21, 2011

NPR reports that a shortage of drugs used to treat attention challenges, including ADHD, has left parents scrambling to fill prescriptions for their kids. In some cases, parents who are also medicated for attention challenges are having to share their medication with a child.

According to the story, affected drugs include Adderall and the active ingredient in Ritalin.

Full article, including a link to audio of a Morning Edition story covering the shortages is on NPR’s Web site.

Developing spatial vocabulary in infants

November 3, 2011

In a recent collection of essays, “Manhood for Amateurs,” one of my favorite writers, Michael Chabon, laments a development in the world of Legos, namely that they now come almost exclusively in kits with detailed instructions, designed to be assembled in a particular way to create a specific space ship or tractor. Gone, says Chabon, are the days of starting with a bin full of Legos of all sizes, shapes and colors, and creating, well, something creative.

Fortunately, some new research indicates that all might not be lost. In fact, “guided play,” in which participants are given blocks along with graphic instructions for creating a particular structure, generates higher levels of “spatial talk” than free play. The research was performed at Temple University’s Infant Lab, and recently highlighted by Science Daily:

The researchers found that when playing with blocks under interactive conditions, children hear the kind of language that helps them think about space, such as “over,” “around” and “through.”

“When parents use spatial language, they draw attention to spatial concepts,” said Nora Newcombe, co-director of Temple’s Infant Lab. “The development of a spatial vocabulary is critical for developing spatial ability and awareness.”

Spatial skills, says the Science Daily article, “are important for success in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines, but they are also involved in many everyday tasks, such as packing the trunk of a car or assembling a crib. They are a central component of intellect and, as those who struggle finding their way around a new city can attest, they show marked individual differences.”

So Chabon’s laments aside, it’s OK, and maybe even good, to pick up that Star Wars Lego kit and build the Death Star just like the picture on the box.

For other research about the importance of manipulative play, check out:

Ruminations of a brain scientist who also likes to party

November 2, 2011

Tuesday’s NY Times has a fascinating profile of Dr. Michael Gazzaniga, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who led pioneering research into the interaction of the various systems of the brain. Dr. Gazzaniga’s research focused on patients who had surgery to separate the hemispheres of the brain (used as a treatment for severe epilepsy). The research uncovered the presence of a left-brain-centered brain narrating system that creates a coherent voice from the inputs of many brain systems.

The Times article summarizes Dr. Gazzaniga’s research, but also provides some insight into the man who, among other things, was a member of the fraternity at Dartmouth that inspired the movie “Animal House”, and who says of his fellow researchers at Cal Tech “we weren’t intellectuals, in the sense that we were going out to see people lecturing or cultural events in the evening. That was martini time.” The profile of Dr. Gazzaniga by the Times is part of its series about leaders in science, and includes a video interview.

Dr. Gazzaniga’s new book, which examines the implications of the brain’s narrator for free will is called “Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain.” It’s scheduled for release later this month.

More evidence that exercise keeps the brain fit

July 27, 2011

The NY Times picked up on new research that offers good news for older individuals hoping to stave off mental decline. Here at Be Amazing Learning, we work more frequently with children and young adults than seniors, but the same concepts of neuroplasticity are at play early and late in life.

The multi-year study, performed at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, showed that subjects who engaged in even modest exercise (walking around the block, gardening, cleaning) maintained cognitive function when compared to sedentary subjects.

That exercise can help the brain is not a particularly new concept (we have previously posted on the topic), but what the study showed (according to Professor Laura Middleton, the study’s lead author) that “vigorous exercise isn’t necessary to protect your mind. I think that’s exciting. It might inspire people who would be intimidated about the idea of quote-unquote exercising to just get up and move.”

Another study identified in the Times article indicates that even lifting weights (as opposed to aerobic exercise) can be an effective intervention. That study, published in Neurobiology of Aging, indicated that “light-duty weight training changes how well older women think and how blood flows within their brains.”

So the latest research indicates that exercise of any kind and any intensity can help stave off mental decline. So let’s get out there!

Studying Japanese yields clues for kids with dyslexia learning English

July 11, 2011

The Wall Street Journal reports on recent research into the use of character-based languages such as the Japanese language kanji.

Learners with dyslexia struggle with the association between letters and sounds in English (a language in which words are comprised of groups of sounds that readers decode). However, character-based languages, where the characters represent complete words or ideas, are mastered through memorization, a skill that many students with dyslexia have mastered to compensate for their decoding struggles.

One study featured in the WSJ article looked at fMRI brain scans of dyslexic students and discovered that they use the same area of the brain to read English as do readers of kanji, a character-based Japanese language. This is different from the area of the brain used by typically developing English readers (and readers of kana, another Japanese language in which characters represent sounds instead of words or ideas).

As the article notes, we don’t cure dyslexia by teaching students in a character-based language. But it does offer some insight into how these kids’ brains are working differently and how teachers might be able to deliver reading-based content more effectively.

We have a link to a fantastic dyslexia study on our Web site. The study, performed at Stanford, is very consistent with the findings discussed in the WSJ article, as it supports the idea that students with dyslexia tend to make reading a more visual task, while typically developing readers integrate auditory processing as well.


Working memory training improves fluid intelligence

June 20, 2011

A common question from parents who are considering a program like Fast ForWord or Cogmed to improve foundational cognitive skills centers around when they might see improvements in their children. While parents frequently observe immediate improvements in skills like attention, comprehension, and general ease of reading, sometimes these gains are not immediately apparent. This is because the programs are developing cognitive skills (such as working memory and processing speed) that are critical for developing learning, attention and reading skills. The programs support the development of more complex learning and reading skills, but don’t directly train them.

A 2008 study from the University of Michigan, which looked at measures of fluid intelligence before and after Cogmed training, supports this idea. The LA Times recently reported on the study:

When the children were tested at the end of the month of training, the Michigan researchers at first found scant differences between the group that got the working-memory training and the general knowledge group. Although those who had received working-memory training were better at holding several items in mind for a short while, on a test of abstract reasoning — fluid intelligence — they were, as a group, no smarter than the control group.

But then the researchers took a closer look and noticed a clear pattern: The children who had improved the most on the memory-training task did indeed perform better on the fluid intelligence test. And three months later, they still did better as a group than both the control group and the children who hadn’t improved.

The University of Michigan study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

Be Amazing Learning client featured on ABC News

June 17, 2011

Be Amazing Learning client Sami Merit was featured on San Francisco Bay Area ABC 7 News, as part of a story that looked at Fast ForWord use at home and at an Oakland elementary school.

Hooray Sami!

Brain Fitness Program for Traumatic Brain Injury

June 17, 2011

Today’s NY Times reports on a planned study of the effectiveness of Posit Science’s Brain Fitness Program on veterans who suffered traumatic brain injuries (TBI) in combat. Posit Science was founded by Dr. Michael Merzenich, whose research into neuroplasticity forms the basis for the Fast ForWord programs.

Dr. Merzenich’s core claim is that brain structure is always changing, based on what people do and what they pay attention to. By doing specific brain exercises that focus and refine attention, he says, you can adjust the underlying structure of your brain. It is well established that this happens when we learn a new skill, like dancing. The question is, Can the same processes be employed to correct for brain damage?

Psychologists and others observing the study range from the cautiously optimistic (quoted in the Times, Gary Abrams, director of neurorehabilitation at U.C.S.F. and head of the T.B.I. support clinic at the San Francisco VA Medical Center, says “It is theoretically reasonable, but will it actually work to help veterans?”) to the skeptical (also cited, in the Times, Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, a Duke University psychiatrist, is “not convinced that gains translate into long-term benefits that can be generalized to daily challenges like remembering where the car is parked”).

The study will involve 132 veterans suffering from TBI. They’ll undergo a battery of cognitive tests before the program, and again 3 and 6 months after the program.

The Times article also makes a critical point that we frequently make about the neuroplasticity-based programs (Fast ForWord and Cogmed) that we use with struggling learners: the programs are different because they address the underlying cognitive deficits, rather than compensatory strategies.

Cognitive development improves problem solving for rising 3rd graders

June 8, 2011

Parents of students who are wrapping up second grade rejoice! New research suggests that changes in the brain that occur between 2nd and 3rd grades lead to improved problem solving.

Researchers gave 2nd and 3rd graders both a simple math calculation task (addition, where one of the numbers is 1) and a more difficult calculation task (adding a number between 2 and 5 to a number between 2 and 9). That the third graders performed better on the calculation tasks isn’t surprising, but researchers also discovered that while the second graders used the same basic neurological function for both the simple and more difficult tasks, third graders showed distinct brain responses for the simple and more difficult calculations.

From a CNN blog post on the research:

The older children showed greater engagement in a brain system related to quantity representation, and in another related to working memory.

The third graders’ brains also showed greater “cross-talk,” or signal transfer, along pathways that deal with information between those two regions, and help with more efficient numerical problem solving.

How could the research direct educational planning and decisions? Study author Vinod Menon, neuroscientist at Stanford University School of Medicine, quoted in the CNN blog post says “hopefully at some point we’ll be able to translate and use this information to examine children with dyscalculia and related learning disabilities.”

There’s not enough evidence for specifics yet, but the idea is that brain imaging could inform educational interventions for these children. Understanding the parts of the brain involved in children’s math skill development could lead to tutoring or other cognitive paradigms for children with learning disabilities, Menon said.

Menon’s research was published in the journal Neuroimage.

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