Archive for June, 2010

Pulling a voice out of a crowd

June 28, 2010

In the most recent University of California at Berkeley College of Letters and Science newsletter, we uncovered the highlights of a Cal professor’s research into the brain’s remarkable ability to pay attention to certain sounds.

“It’s like when you focus on one voice at a cocktail party,” says Michael DeWeese, a Berkeley professor of physics. “Your brain has top-down executive control that can direct your attention to sounds you want to focus on despite all the distracting sounds in your environment.” DeWeese is working out the neurological mechanisms behind selective auditory attention.

So how does our brain filter out background noise and allow us to focus our attention on relevant auditory stimuli?

The brain is thought to modulate attention by altering neural behavior. Just as aspirin can increase the amount of stimulus required to make a neuron pass along pain messages, neuromodulator molecules such as acetylcholine can make some neurons more or less likely to relay information about sound stimuli. “There is some change in the internal cell processing of signals,” DeWeese says. “In addition,  the transmission of sensory information is gated at the circuit level.” These changes likely occur within many of the neurons in a given circuit, and to different degrees in different brain regions.

Encoding sound efficiently, and ignoring those deemed unimportant, offers strong evolutionary advantages. “It allows the brain to use those operations in a dynamical, smart way. You don’t want to waste your sensory processing resources on sounds that don’t matter,” DeWeese says.

Comprehension of speech in noise is a skill that frequently improves after Fast ForWord training, despite the fact that the Fast ForWord programs don’t include any exercises specifically geared at that skill. Ann Osterling, a pediatric speech-language pathologist with a private practice in Champaign, IL, says this is because Fast ForWord training is improving the underlying skills needed to process speech in noise. Ann offers the following examples:

  • the brain has been trained to hear each of the phonemes more clearly – for some kids there have been “fuzzy” representations of similar sounding phonemes which are now more clear – so it is easier for the brain to recognize it
  • the brain has been trained to process the phonemes more rapidly – it doesn’t have to spend as much time trying to determine what each phoneme is
  • the brain can remember more sounds/words in a row because it is processing more rapidly
  • it is now easier for the brain to attend – and thus pick up the important message and filter out what is/isn’t important
  • there is improved ability to sustain attention for listening
  • overall, the brain is more efficient at listening and understanding

As for Dr. DeWeese’s research, there are some exciting opportunities: “Understanding how the brain normally focuses on sounds could help scientists identify anomalies in those who have difficulty focusing their attention, such as patients with schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).” (The article also mentions that DeWeese’s findings could contribute to the design of hearing aids and hands-free devices that will respond to nearby voices, and deemphasize background noise, but we don’t think that’s nearly as cool.)

Speech recognition, mobile apps help build reading skills

June 18, 2010

This week’s eSchool News (free registration required) reports that while reading scores have remained relatively flat for the past 40 years, there’s renewed hope that technology might provide a breakthrough and help struggling readers.

The article caught our eye because it highlights Reading Assistant, a program from Scientific Learning that Be Amazing Learning recently began offering. Reading Assistant uses speech-recognition technology to create a virtual reading tutor for students, identifying areas of difficulty like mispronunciations and hesitations and providing students with the necessary support. The program also automatically calculates fluency rates (a process that would otherwise be performed one-on-one with a teacher), which correlate highly to comprehension.

Jacky Egli, executive director of Bridges Academy in Florida, said she’s used Reading Assistant for about two years and is constantly amazed by the confidence that students build using the program. Bridges, a private school for students with disabilities, focuses on helping students close the academic gap. “You see changes by January or February. Reluctant readers are becoming more confident readers,” she said.

We’re pretty firm believers in Reading Assistant, so we weren’t particularly surprised to hear the vote of confidence in the program from Bridges Academy. But we were a little more intrigued by the new research into the opportunities afforded by mobile technology:

An April paper, written by Nian-Shing Chen, Daniel Chia-En Teng, and Cheng-Han Lee and presented at the 2010 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) International Conference on Wireless, Mobile, and Ubiquitous Technologies in Education, looked at the attempt to integrate the strengths of mobile technology into paper-based reading activities to enhance learners’ reading comprehension.

“While conventional print text provides very limited information in fostering learners’ comprehension, integrating mobile technology with paper prints is a possible way to offer learners essential content-related resources to make sense of the text,” they wrote.

And, as parents of young children who are constantly begging for a turn with our phones, we were particularly interested in a PBS study that showed that students who download mobile applications to their smart phones can boost their vocabulary significantly within just a few weeks:

The study found that vocabulary improved as much as 31 percent in children who played with the Martha Speaks Dog Party app, based on the popular PBS Kids’ television series Martha Speaks, about a dog who eats a bowl of alphabet soup and gains the power of human speech.

Technology doesn’t replace reading instruction, but technology programs like Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant can be effective interventions for students who are struggling with reading because they are highly adaptive and offer a systematic and individualized approach to addressing reading problems. As new technology-based reading interventions come on the market critical consumers should continue to seek out research-based options. The Fast ForWord programs, for example, are based on over 30 years of university-based research into language acquisition and brain plasticity. And the programs have been the subject of hundreds of studies in a wide variety of settings. (We’ve got links to many of these studies on our Web site).

2010 Illusions of the Year

June 3, 2010

File this one under “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”…

A couple of months back, we highlighted a cool illusion related to curveballs in baseball. That post was a hit, so we thought we’d pass along the winners of the Best Visual Illusion of the Year award for 2010. From the contest Web site:

The Best Visual illusion of the Year Contest is a celebration of the ingenuity and creativity of the world’s premier visual illusion research community. Contestants from all around the world submitted novel visual illusions (unpublished, or published no earlier than 2009), and an international panel of judges rated them and narrowed them to the TOP TEN. At the Contest Gala in the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts, the top ten illusionists presented their creations and the attendees of the event voted to pick the TOP THREE WINNERS!

Our take? The third place winner is pretty cool, but the first place illusion might just keep you awake at night. We still haven’t really figured that one out.

Research roundup: Language and Music

June 2, 2010

The link between music and language has been long-established. Here are a couple of recent NY Times articles about music that caught our eye:

  • Ahh, the Sweet Sound of Music Training
    A new study shows that the consonance of a musical interval — how pleasant it sounds — may vary based on a listener’s level of music training. In the study, a listener’s preference for harmonically related notes (those that are multiples of the same frequency) correlated to the length of time the person had played a musical instrument.

Testing for Attention Disorders

June 1, 2010

Parents of kids with attention challenges know how devastating they can be to grades and life. And researchers generally agree that they represent an authentic neurological disorder. But the search for distinctive biological evidence of attention challenges has been, well, challenging.

The NY Times reports on an invention, the Quotient A.D.H.D. system, that purports to offer an objective diagnosis of A.D.H.D. without the use of a checklist of questions for parents and teachers that has historically been used to diagnose the disorder. The system was developed by Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Martin H. Teicher. Dr. Teicher reported on the research that led to the development of the test in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in 1996.

One psychologist interviewed for the Times article said that he wouldn’t use the Quotient test alone, but that the results are a helpful tool and can be particularly useful for convincing reluctant parents to use medication. Among other reported benefits of the test are the ability to screen out those who hoping to get a Ritalin prescription for fun or for increased productivity, as well as for fine-tuning dosages of stimulants (because the stimulants are fast-acting, children can be re-tested after taking medication to determine its effectiveness).

Not everyone is convinced the Quotient test should be used to figure out the appropriate medication dosage for kids, however. Says James M. Swanson, a developmental psychologist and attention researcher at the University of California, Irvine:

“It’s essentially a dull, boring task,” he said of the Quotient system, “so do you want to medicate your child to pay attention to dull, boring tasks?”

Overall, development of diagnostic tools like the Quotient system is encouraging. And Dr. Teicher recently received a grant from the National Institutes of Health for further study, which will include research into the Quotient system, as well as other options, like brain imaging.

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