Archive for December, 2010

Brain training games rise in popularity

December 27, 2010

From the San Jose Mercury News:

The idea of “brain training” has been gaining popularity since a 2006 study from the National Institutes of Health suggested that a cognitive training program can have lasting, though narrow, benefits. Numerous companies are touting products such as online games and software packages designed to improve mental sharpness and memory. More are sure to be developed as the number of users, both in the classroom and at home, continues to grow.

The article cites Alvaro Fernandez,CEO of market research firm SharpBrains. Fernandez “estimates that consumers spent about $70 million on them last year, up 40 percent from $50 million in 2008. Schools, employers and health care companies spent more than $200 million in 2009.”

The article focuses primarily on aging populations, who, according to Fernandez, generally chose a brain fitness program out of a desire to stave off age-induced mental decline, or to treat a brain injury or problem. At Be Amazing Learning, we have worked with older learners, but our focus tends to be the beginning of life: building brain fitness abilities (working memory, processing speeds, sustained attention abilities) as a foundation for future academic success.

It’s worth noting, however, that there are similarities between programs designed for young and older learners. In fact, the Posit Science programs that are mentioned in the article, are based on some of the same technology and research that are behind the Fast ForWord programs that we offer for young learners (Dr. Michael Merzenich, the founder of Posit Science, was one of the founders of Scientific Learning, which created the Fast ForWord programs.)

The Mercury News article closes with great advice: do your research before investing in a brain fitness solution. We have previously linked to SharpBrains’ 10 question evaluation of brain fitness programs. It’s definitely worth a look.

Understanding Attention Deficit Disorder

December 15, 2010

When the experts can’t seem to agree, what’s a parent to do? We posted recently about two apparently contradictory studies about ADHD diagnosis, one that highlighted a significant increase in diagnoses, and another that indicated that as many as a million kids are misdiagnosed. In the NY Times 18 and Under column, Dr. Perri Klass picks up this theme in a recent segment, “Untangling the Myths about Attention Deficit Disorder.”

Dr. Klass describes how in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the sense remains that ADHD is not a real medical challenge, but is rather an effect of our multitasking, distracted, and overscheduled lives. But, as Klass points out, there are examples in the literature that go back 150 years that describe children who struggled with attention (well before television corrupted their ability to focus). And, as we have also pointed out, recent studies have gone a long way towards establishing the neurological foundation of attention challenges. From Klass column:

  • Imaging studies of people with attention deficits have shown a consistent pattern of below-normal activity in the brain’s frontal lobes, where so-called executive function resides.
  • paper last month [identified] a gene, LPHN3, that is associated both with [ADHD] and with a favorable response to stimulants.

Though studies do point to a genetic root to ADHD, recent research has also identified environmental factors that increase the likelihood of developing attention challenges in children who may have a genetic predisposition towards the disorder. And we know that the active engagement in language with children is critical for developing attention and focus (and that TV and the Internet don’t help). In short, it’s complicated.

Brain vs. Mind

December 13, 2010

Several years ago, a colleague recommended M. Mitchel Waldrop’s book Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos. I’m not going to do justice to the, well, complexity, of complexity theory, but my two takeaways were that:

  • Incredibly complex systems can emerge very quickly from very basic rules or parameters. Think of birds flying in formation, who encounter an obstacle like a sky scraper and can quickly re-assemble their formation on the other side, guided only by rules that govern their relationship to the bird in front of them.
  • Laboratory experiments where scientists remove variables in order to get to a “core” phenomenon may be of little utility, since no physical process occurs in such isolation in nature.

Mentioned in Waldrop’s book is the Santa Fe Institute, a non-profit institute that supports complex systems research. From the Institute’s Web site:

Complex systems research attempts to uncover and understand the deep commonalities that link artificial, human, and natural systems. By their very nature, these problems transcend any particular field, for example, if we understand the fundamental principles of organization, we will gain insight into the functioning of cells in biology, firms in economics, and magnets in physics. This research relies on theories and tools from across the sciences. Part of the rise of the complex systems research agenda can be tied to the use of theoretical computation as a new way to explore such systems.

Legend has it that the founders of Scientific Learning (creators of the Fast ForWord programs), Drs. Michael Merzenich and Paula Tallal, met at the Santa Fe Institute. Merzenich, a neuroscientist, had been doing groundbreaking research into brain plasticity, while Tallal, a neuropsychologist, focused on language acquisition. Their combined work leveraged their expertise in both fields, and created a revolutionary program with a reach that far exceeds that of their individual research.

I don’t know if he would consider himself a complexity theorist, but an essay by Andy Clark, professor of logic and metaphysics in the School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences at Edinburgh University, Scotland, evoked the kind of multi-dimensional and multi-disciplinary thinking that inspired the creation of Fast ForWord. Clark’s essay takes a shot at recent brain research (which sometimes appears to consist entirely of fMRI brain scans):

We are all familiar with the colorful “brain blob” pictures that show just where activity (indirectly measured by blood oxygenation level) is concentrated as we attempt to solve different kinds of puzzles: blobs here for thinking of nouns, there for thinking of verbs, over there for solving ethical puzzles of a certain class, and so on, ad blobum.

While supporting this kind of research (“Some of my best friends are neuroscientists and neuro-imagers” says Clark), he does ask an interesting question:

Is it possible that, sometimes at least, some of the activity that enables us to be the thinking, knowing, agents that we are occurs outside the brain?

Clark definitely stretches the concept of “outside the brain.” For example, he points to hand waving (those wild gesticulations many of us make while talking) and studies that show that individuals perform more poorly on mental tasks when their ability to gesticulate is limited, or that “the use of spontaneous gesture increases when we are actively thinking a problem through, rather than simply rehearsing a known solution.” But Clark also points to personal devices, like the iPad, which, he argues “transform and extend the reach of bare biological processing in so many ways.”

Clark’s essay is a great read on this concept of embodied cognition. His conclusion, which sounds like it could come straight from the Santa Fe Institute, is that while the brain itself is incredible, “we — the human beings with versatile bodies living in a complex, increasingly technologized, and heavily self-structured, world — are more fantastic still.” And that understanding the mind is more than just understanding the brain.

The Beautiful Mind

December 8, 2010

From the NY Times:

It is only fitting that the story of the brain should be a visual one, for the visuals had the ancients fooled for millenniums. The brain was so ugly that they assumed the mind must lie elsewhere. Now those same skeletal silhouettes glow plump and brightly colored, courtesy of a variety of inserted genes encoding fluorescent molecules. A glossy new art book, Portraits of the Mind: Visualizing the Brain from Antiquity to the 21st Century, hopes to draw the general reader into neuroscience with the sheer beauty of its images.

The Times has a great review of the book. And check out these fantastic photo excerpts.



Good News For Control Freaks!

December 7, 2010

So screams the first line of a recent article on Science Daily. What’s the good news? A study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, shows that “having some authority over how one takes in new information significantly enhances one’s ability to remember it.”

The study compared active and passive learning in a novel way: participants were presented with an array of objects to be memorized, masked by a gray screen. A “viewing window” allowed the study participants to see one object at a time. To test active learning, the participants were able to control the window using a computer mouse. Passive learners viewed a recorded version of the viewing made by an earlier active learner.

The study found significant differences in brain activity in the active and passive learners. Those who had active control over the viewing window were significantly better than their peers at identifying the original objects and their locations.

Cool enough, but to get to a neurological explanation for the phenomenon, the researchers repeated the study with individuals with amnesia (the impaired ability to learn new things) as a result of damage to the hippocampus (the portion of the brain responsible for many memory-related functions). For these participants, there was no difference in recall between active and passive learning.

Additionally, brain imaging of healthy participants indicated that:

Hippocampal activity was highest in the active subjects’ brains during these tests. Several other brain structures were also more engaged when the subject controlled the viewing window, and activity in these brain regions was more synchronized with that of the hippocampus than in the passive trials.

We’re not so sure what to make of the neurological findings in the study, but the clear differences between active and passive learning have lots of relevance for education. It explains why television makes a lousy teaching tool, and why actively engaging students in reading (for example, stopping to ask them questions about what they’ve just read or what they expect to happen next) is helpful for students.

Getting to the truth on ADHD diagnosis

December 2, 2010

We just came across two studies related to the diagnosis of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) that could flat-out baffle a parent struggling to get to the root of their child’s struggles:

  • The first, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, indicates that as many 10% of American children may have ADHD. Additionally, this represents a 22% increase in the occurrence of ADHD between 2003 and 2007 (the last year for which data are available). Researchers site increased awareness and better screening as possible causes for the increase.
  • The second study, by Michigan State Economist Todd Elder, (to be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Health Economics), indicates that as many as 1 million students in the United States are mis-diagnosed with ADHD. According to Elder, many of the students who exhibit poor behavior and inattention are simply younger than their classmates. The inattentive behavior, says Elder, may simply “be because he’s 5 and the other kids are 6. There’s a big difference between a 5-year-old and a 6-year-old, and teachers and medical practitioners need to take that into account when evaluating whether children have ADHD.”

ADHD diagnosis is challenging, because it is generally based on a clinical evaluation of reported behavior. We’ve previously posted on recent efforts to develop a clinical test for attention challenges, and there is research as well that indicates that ADHD may be a genetic disorder.

It’s important to accurately diagnose attention or other learning challenges that may be holding a student back from reaching his potential. However, many attention and other learning challenges, whether or not they reach the level of a diagnosed disorder, can be addressed by developing the foundational cognitive skills that support attentive behavior and learning. For example, working memory and processing speed are critical cognitive skills that may be less than fully developed in students with attention challenges (even if those challenges don’t rise to the level of a formal ADHD diagnosis). Scientifically-validated programs exist to improve these critical skills in all learners, whether typically developing or struggling with a diagnosed learning difficulty.

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