Archive for the ‘brain fitness’ Category

More research on the importance of auditory processing abilities for reading

February 7, 2011

We were interested to see new research from Belgium that looks at the link between early auditory processing abilities and later reading struggles. Published in January in Research in Developmental Disabilities, the longitudinal study showed that auditory processing and speech recognition struggles in kindergarten and first grade corresponded to dyslexia diagnoses in the third grade.

This new research is in line with previous studies that have determined that the auditory centers of the brain in dyslexic readers are under-activated compared to their typically developing peers (interestingly enough, the visual centers of the brain in dyslexic readers are hyper-activated).

Given the criticality of developing auditory processing abilities in young children, what’s a parent to do?

On her Parent Smart blog, Dr. Martha Burns has a couple suggestions:

  • Bed time stories: “It doesn’t matter what the stories are. Many very young children love to hear the same storybook over and over, that is just fine.   Try to make a habit of 15 or more minutes a day of “quiet time” before bed in which your child selects a book and you read it together.” Dr. Burns includes age-specific suggestions for story time as well.
  • Audio books: “Rather than bringing a DVD player along on a trip, try audio-books. The advantage of an audio book over a DVD is that it builds listening skills which are critical for doing well in school and allows your child to follow along with the written pages as they listen to the book, so it builds reading skills as well.”

An intervention like the Fast ForWord programs may be appropriate as well. A study of public school children with Auditory Processing Disorder showed improvement in phonemic decoding and sight word reading abilities after training with Fast ForWord. And the Stanford study referenced above showed normalization of activity in critical areas of the brain used for reading and significant improvements in reading and oral language skills on a number of assessments after Fast ForWord training.

How children’s brains acquire language

February 1, 2011

In adults, injury to the areas of the brain that are responsible for language skills (Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas) result in loss of language abilities. However, injuries to those same areas in early childhood don’t seem to impact language development in a negative way. As a result, researchers have long thought that a different area of the brain was active in language acquisition. But new research from UC San Diego, published in the Oxford University Press journal Cerebral Cortex says otherwise: “similar left frontotemporal areas are used for encoding lexico-semantic information throughout the life span, from the earliest stages of word learning.”

From a recent Science Daily article summarizing the research:

Combining the cutting-edge technologies of MRI and MEG, scientists at the University of California, San Diego show that babies just over a year old process words they hear with the same brain structures as adults, and in the same amount of time. Moreover, the researchers found that babies were not merely processing the words as sounds, but were capable of grasping their meaning.

Study co-author Kathleen Travis, quoted in the Science Daily article:

“Babies are using the same brain mechanisms as adults to access the meaning of words from what is thought to be a mental ‘database’ of meanings, a database which is continually being updated right into adulthood.”

And from co-author Eric Halgren, also in the article:

“Our study shows that the neural machinery used by adults to understand words is already functional when words are first being learned. This basic process seems to embody the process whereby words are understood, as well as the context for learning new words.”

Memory vs. Memorization

January 14, 2011

A post at Scientific Learning’s New Science of Learning blog highlights the importance of memorization in early schooling: math facts, counting to 100, reciting a poem, or recalling sight words are all examples of memorization tasks that are prevalent in the early grades.

Memorization, it turns out, is not a particularly advanced skill, centered as it is in the hippocampus of the brain, which is, evolutionarily, one of the oldest parts of the brain:

A great deal of learning in the elementary grades involves the hippocampus. Memorization of spelling rules likes “i before e except after c,” math facts, reading of “sight” words that cannot be sounded out, and geographical facts, just to name a few, demand good memorization skills (hippocampus function.). Reading curriculum used before 1970, like those used when the goal was memorization of the “Dolch” sight words, also stressed memorization skills.

Different from memorization is working memory. Working memory is the cognitive function responsible for retaining, manipulating and using information. We use working memory to delegate the things we encounter to the parts of our brain that can take action. Because of this, working memory is critical for staying focused on a task, blocking out distractions, and keeping us updated and aware about what’s going on around us. And, unlike sight word memorization, working memory is critical for grasping a phonics-based approach to reading, which is prevalent in most American curricula.

As young readers develop, working memory takes on more importance. For example, to gain meaning from text, a student’s working memory must be sufficiently developed to remember the beginning of a sentence when she get to the end. Or the first sentence of a paragraph when she gets to the last.

We have previously highlighted a recent study, published in May 2010 in the Journal Reading and Writing (link is to abstract only), which examined the relationship between working memory and reading achievement, hypothesizing that working memory problems can be a root cause of poor reading comprehension. The researchers found working memory measures were “related with children’s word reading and reading comprehension.”

Even if working memory is more important than memorization for developing reading and other learning skills, we can’t completely abandon memorization (as evolutionarily primitive as it may be). For example, in its report “Foundations for Success” (2008), the National Math Panel emphasized the importance of developing automatic recall of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division facts in order to adequately prepare for algebra and beyond.

Exercise as a Treatment for ADHD

January 13, 2011

Evidence abounds that physical exercise can enhance cognitive functioning. As we previously posted:

  • study at the University of Illinois compared performance on a cognitive test between higher and lower fit 9 and 10 year old students. The higher-fit students performed better on the test, and brain scans indicated they had larger basal ganglia, a part of the brain responsible for impulse control and response resolution.
  • second study by the same researchers compared performance on complex memory tasks between high fit and low fit 9 and 10 year olds. The study found better performance in high fit students, and brain scans showed larger hippocampi, the portion of the brain associated with complex memory tasks.

Over at SharpBrains, Dr. David Rabiner examines a study, recently published in the Journal of Attention Disorders, which looked at whether an extended physical training program can have a positive impact on students struggling with ADHD.

The data is generally positive, suggesting that a physical exercise routine can positively impact fitness, behavior (as observed by parents and teachers) and attention and inhibition response (as measured by neuropsychological assessments). However, as Dr. Rabiner points out:

It is important to put these positive findings into an appropriate perspective. First, even though the activity program was associated with improve ments in several areas, children continued to show clinically elevated difficulties even in areas where improvements were seen. Thus, there was no evidence that the exercise program reduced children’s difficulties into the normative range.

Dr. Rabiner suggests more research is necessary, but that this study suggests that “a vigorous physical activity program could certainly be valuable for many children with ADHD for a variety of reasons, even if the ultimate impact of exercise on core ADHD symptoms is not yet known.”

Simon Says “Pay Attention!”

January 12, 2011

Play is emerging as a theme in this week’s posts. Today, we look at games that can improve children’s attention skills and reduce impulsivity.

At her Parent Smart blog, Dr. Martha Burns, a Speech-Language Pathologist and Adjunct Associate Professor at Northwestern University, highlights Simon Says… and Clap When I Say… as games that can develop impulse control. What is impulse control and why is it important? According to Burns:

An example of impulsivity in a classroom might be yelling out questions , comments or answers  instead of raising one’s hand, or popping up from a desk at inappropriate times, or even looking a someone else’s paper during a test. Impulsivity on the playground might include chasing a ball into the street without checking for cars or hitting someone who accidently bumps into you.

Learning to control these impulses, says Burns, “requires us to stay alert and purposeful and it is a skill all of us must master to reduce impulsivity; so that we stop and think before we act.”

Check out Burns’ post for details on these games that can help your child “play attention!”

Synaptic Exuberance!

January 10, 2011

Babies are born with all the brain cells they need. But it’s the connections between these cells that are important. During a period of what scientists call “synaptic exuberance”, babies literally develop as many as ten to twenty thousand connections per second.

Robert Krulwich, host of NPR’s so-called “Sciency Blog“, examines synaptic exuberance, as demonstrated by 9-month old Charles-Edward Vachon in a creative time-capture video:

More interesting, perhaps, than this rapid development of neural connections early in life is that, as Krulwich says, we overdo it. As we approach our teenage years, our brains start to prune these connections, focusing on quality over quantity based on our early life experiences. The brain, Krulwich quotes Dr. Harry Chugani, “allows for a fine-tuning of neuronal circuits, based on early exposure and environmental nurturing, that makes the neuronal architecture of each person unique.”

Chugani, Chief of the division of Pediatric Neurology at Children’s Hospital of Michigan and professor of pediatrics, neurology, and radiology at Wayne State University in Detroit, has extensively studied the developing brain. His article, Fine Tuning the Baby Brain, which appears on the Dana Foundation Web site, digs deeper into questions of why the baby brain consumes twice as much energy as an adult brain, and how the brain continues to remodel itself throughout life. Definitely worth a read.

The allocation of attentional resources

January 7, 2011

The Dana Foundation Web site has a good summary of some of the most recent research into the underlying causes of attention challenges. The article outlines two we are familiar with: working memory and processing rates:

One theory holds that the disorder is primarily a problem with working memory–the ability to hold information in temporary storage long enough to act on it appropriately, while another group of theories centers around how information is processed in time.

“There are lots of psychological tests that show that ADHD kids just don’t get the timing of things quite right,” he says. “This would explain very nicely the impulsivity that is seen in ADHD; where they are not getting the very fine-grained timing of social interactions, for example.” In the classroom, this might manifest as blurting out the answer to a teacher’s query before one is called upon.

But the bulk of the article focuses on ADHD as a lack of allocation of attentional resources in the brain. From Philip Shaw, Ph. D., a scientist who studies ADHD at the National Institute of Mental Health:

“A child who is not staying on task in school could be paying attention to what’s going on outside the classroom. So it’s not that they are not doing something that is attention-demanding; it’s just that their focus is on something other than what they’re meant to be doing.” From that perspective, he says, thinking about ADHD as a problem with the allocation of attentional resources makes sense.

This may seem a logical explanation to parents and teachers. As the article points out:

Parents of children with ADHD, for example, may find it hard to fathom that a child who can spend hours engrossed in a video game has a problem with attention. Teachers may be confounded by a student who is fully engaged in a music lesson but is distracted or disruptive in other classwork.

The article continues with a description of the neural network of attention, with particular focus on the executive attention network, which “enables the individual to decide which things to attend to among competing brain activity.”

As the article points out in summary, “each of these theories offers tantalizing clues about what might be going wrong in the brains of children with ADHD, but they do not answer all of the questions.” And so the search continues…

Fast ForWord vs. Cogmed

January 5, 2011

Be Amazing Learning offers programs that address foundational cognitive skills, rather than academic content. We work on helping children learn better. By developing skills such as working memory, attention, sequencing, and brain processing rates, our programs don’t simply give kids new academic knowledge; instead, they equip kids’ brains to better access and retain information they are exposed to, whether in the classroom or in daily life.

Two programs we use most frequently are Fast ForWord and Cogmed. Both programs are based on the concept of neuroplasticity (the lifelong ability of the brain to reorganize neural pathways based on new experiences). They both are computer-based interventions with rigorous daily protocols. And both have very solid foundational research behind them: Fast ForWord research and Cogmed research.

The programs differ in the cognitive skills they develop. Fast ForWord primarily develops auditory processing rates and auditory working memory, with additional training in sequencing and sustained attention. Cogmed primarily develops working memory (auditory and visual-spatial) and attention skills.

At Be Amazing Learning we recommend one or both of the programs for students, depending on the specific learning or behavior challenge they are dealing with. For example, we typically will recommend Cogmed for students struggling with ADD or ADHD. Cogmed addresses the underlying causes of inattentive behavior and improves attention by developing working memory and the ability to focus on multiple tasks and ignore distractions. (Poor auditory processing abilities can also contribute to attention challenges, and in these cases, the Fast ForWord programs may also be an effective intervention.)

Similarly, for students with dyslexia, we typically recommend the Fast ForWord programs, as they attack the auditory processing disorders that cause reading difficulties. And there’s great research on students with dyslexia showing significant improvements in reading and oral language skills on a number of assessments, as well as normalization of activity in critical areas of the brain used for reading after Fast ForWord training.

And in some cases, such as for students struggling with executive function disorder, we might recommend both programs, because they both effectively develop and strengthen the cognitive skills associated with successful executive function, including :

  • Memory – The ability to store information and ideas.
  • Attention – The ability to focus on information and tasks, and ignore distractions.
  • Processing Rate – The rate at which a student is able to accurately perceive and manipulate information.
  • Sequencing – Placing the detail of information in its accustomed order.

The bottom line is that nearly every child can benefit from improved brain processing efficiency.  Wherever your child is, Be Amazing Learning can help move them forward. Our programs have been proven to be effective with many types of learners of all ages, from students with diagnosed learning difficulties, to those simply struggling with homework or reading. With Cogmed and Fast ForWord at our disposal, we can design an effective training program to develop a range of foundational cognitive skills and improve academic potential and performance.

Traditional Tutoring vs. Cognitive Training

January 4, 2011

Traditional tutoring offers additional help in a particular subject area or with a particular skill. It can be an effective addition to content delivered in the classroom, especially because it can frequently be tailored to a child’s individual needs.

Be Amazing Learning is different because the programs we offer (Fast ForWord and Cogmed) address foundational cognitive skills, rather than academic content. We work on helping children learn better. By developing skills such as working memory, attention, sequencing, and brain processing rates, our programs don’t simply give kids new academic knowledge; instead, they equip kids’ brains to better access and retain content they are exposed to, whether in the classroom or with a tutor.

Additionally, training cognitive skills with Be Amazing Learning is a one-time shot: kids build their brain fitness with the programs, then move on to better academic performance. Once children have cognitive training, they stay “fit” by using their new cognitive skills. Studies have shown that the improvements in cognitive skills we can help your child achieve are both substantial and enduring. For example, a 4-year longitudinal study conducted at Dallas Independent School District that showed that students who trained with Fast ForWord programs achieved significant gains in reading, and maintained those gains relative to their peers.

For more information about how cognitive training can help your child, visit our Web site or call (800) 792-4809.

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.


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