Archive for December, 2009

Learning new tasks can permanently alter the brain’s nerve cells

December 8, 2009

Interesting research published recently in the online journal Nature shows that (at least in mice), motor learning promotes rapid and persistent physical changes in the connections between brain cells:

Novel motor skills are learned through repetitive practice and, once acquired, persist long after training stops. Earlier studies have shown that such learning induces an increase in the efficacy of synapses in the primary motor cortex, the persistence of which is associated with retention of the task. However, how motor learning affects neuronal circuitry at the level of individual synapses and how long-lasting memory is structurally encoded in the intact brain remain unknown. Here we show that synaptic connections in the living mouse brain rapidly respond to motor-skill learning and permanently rewire.

From there, it gets a little technical for us –  “postsynaptic dendritic spines on the output pyramidal neurons in the contralateral motor cortex” – but we’ve got a pretty good handle on the conclusion:

Rapid, but long-lasting, synaptic reorganization is closely associated with motor learning. The data also suggest that stabilized neuronal connections are the foundation of durable motor memory.

The study looked at motor learning, and we’re obviously a little more interested in non-motor cognitive skills that relate to language and reading development, but the study calls to mind a Stanford University study of the impact of Fast ForWord training on students with dyslexia. That study used behavioral and functional MRI measures to document improvements in oral language and reading performance, as well as increased activity in the areas of the brain responsible for phonological processing (which exhibit deficits in children and adults with dyslexia). The Stanford study didn’t get to the level of analyzing dendritic spines, but certainly the changes in brain activity suggest a similar underlying change in the structure of neurons after training with Fast ForWord.

Engaging children with language

December 3, 2009

We just got an email newsletter that emphasized the importance of engaging children with language early in their development. The newsletter created two parenting scenarios, one in which an attentive mother of a toddler (walking with, instead of pushing) her child down the street, takes the time to explain her surroundings, and celebrate the pitfalls of urban life (loud fire engine sirens and splashes from puddles). In the other, a hurried mother pushes her child in a stroller while talking on the phone, and treats the same pitfalls as, well, pitfalls.

Having just rushed our children off to school (though we did walk) with very little language stimulus that wasn’t related to the urgency of the moment (and how long it was taking to get shoes on) might have contributed to the defensive posture we assumed after reading the newsletter. But there are some nuggets in the parenting scenarios, especially related to how critical it is to continually expose children to language at a young age.

Particularly in the critical stage of brain development (when only stimulation is required to develop neural pathways), continuous exposure to language is of utmost importance. The differences in students early experiences with language and literacy are meaningful: by first grade, children whose parents have engaged them with language know twice as many words as those whose parents have not. And it continues: high school seniors near the top of their class know four times as many words as their lower-performing peers, whose vocabularies are equivalent to high-performing third graders.

Want some good news (especially if you were feeling judged by the parenting examples we described above like we were)? Deficits in vocabulary may be fundamentally more remediable than many other school learning problems. In other words, Fast ForWord can help!

Hearing is a multi-sensoried thing

December 2, 2009

We frequently get asked how a program like Fast ForWord Language, which doesn’t include any words or even letters, can have a positive impact on students’ reading abilities. The answer lies in the fact that reading, even silently, is an auditory exercise (that is, it stimulates the auditory cortex of the brain). Develop the processing efficiency of the auditory cortex (with a program like Fast ForWord Language), and you can improve reading abilities.

From today’s Boston Globe, more insight into just how complex and interconnected our sensory systems are:

In the work published yesterday in the journal Nature, researchers found they could influence what people hear by delivering puffs of air to the back of a hand or their neck.

For years, scientists have known that watching another person speak can affect what we hear. In a well-known phenomenon called the McGurk effect, a person who listens to audio of someone saying “ba ba ba,’’ while watching another person’s lips forming the words “ga ga ga,’’ hears something in-between: “da da da.’’

Now, Gick is exploring whether touch also affects hearing. In the experiment, subjects heard the sounds “pa’’ or “ba’’ and “ta’’ or “da.’’ Sometimes, participants received a puff of air on the back of their hand or neck when the words had an aspirated sound – a sound like “pa’’ or “ta’’ that requires the speaker to expel a puff of air. (Hold your hand to your mouth and say “pa’’ and compare it with “ba’’ to feel the difference.) Other times, they got the reverse: a puff of air when they heard “ba’’ or “da’’ – non-aspirated sounds.

The researchers found that when the puff of air was paired with the aspirated word, people got better at identifying the sound. When the puff of air was paired with “ba’’ or “da,’’ accuracy declined.

Says the Globe, reading isn’t the only “non-auditory” activity to stimulate the auditory centers of the brain:

In a 2006 study from Finland, researchers used brain imaging to study 13 subjects and found that touch activated the auditory cortex, a part of the brain involved in hearing.

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