Posts Tagged ‘executive function’

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!

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. 

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.

The impact of sleep on sustained attention

April 18, 2011

This weekend’s NY Times Magazine is all about health – everything from the toxicity of sugar to the question of whether cell phones cause cancer. One article that caught our eye (at least after a cup of morning coffee) asks “How little sleep can you get away with?

David Dinges, the head of the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at the Hospital at the University of Pennsylvania has asked just this question, and the answer is: you should really try to get 8 hours. Dinges’ 2003 study assigned dozens of subjects to three different groups: some slept four hours, others six hours and others, for the lucky control group, eight hours — for two weeks in the lab. The study used a measure called psychomotor vigilance task, or PVT. PVT is a “tedious but simple if you’ve been sleeping well. It measures the sustained attention that is vital for pilots, truck drivers, astronauts. Attention is also key for focusing during long meetings; for reading a paragraph just once, instead of five times; for driving a car. It takes the equivalent of only a two-second lapse for a driver to veer into oncoming traffic.”

The results?

Those who had eight hours of sleep hardly had any attention lapses and no cognitive declines over the 14 days of the study. What was interesting was that those in the four- and six-hour groups had P.V.T. results that declined steadily with almost each passing day. Though the four-hour subjects performed far worse, the six-hour group also consistently fell off-task. By the sixth day, 25 percent of the six-hour group was falling asleep at the computer. And at the end of the study, they were lapsing fives times as much as they did the first day.

The six-hour subjects fared no better — steadily declining over the two weeks — on a test of working memory in which they had to remember numbers and symbols and substitute one for the other. The same was true for an addition-subtraction task that measures speed and accuracy. All told, by the end of two weeks, the six-hour sleepers were as impaired as those who, in another Dinges study, had been sleep-deprived for 24 hours straight — the cognitive equivalent of being legally drunk.

These results are particularly interesting in light of a study recently published in the journal SLEEP that indicated that loss of an hour of sleep per night among children with ADHD had a significant impact on their ability to remain focused and sustain attention From a Science Daily article summarizing the research: “The study suggests that even moderate reductions in sleep duration can affect neurobehavioral functioning, which may have a negative impact on the academic performance of children with ADHD.”

Results of multivariate analyses of variance show that after mean nightly sleep loss of about 55 minutes for six nights, the performance of children with ADHD on a neurobehavioral test deteriorated from the subclinical range to the clinical range of inattention on four of six measures, including omission errors (missed targets) and reaction time. Children with ADHD generally committed more omission errors than controls. Although the performance of children in the control group also deteriorated after mean nightly sleep loss of 34 minutes for six nights, it did not reach a clinical level of inattention on any of the six measures.

Reut Gruber, PhD, assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at McGill University and director of the Attention, Behavior and Sleep Laboratory at Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Montreal, Québec, quoted in the Science Daily article, has advice for parents:

“The reduction in sleep duration in our study was modest and similar to the sleep deprivation that might occur in daily life,” Gruber said. “Thus, even small changes in dinner time, computer time, or staying up to do homework could result in poorer neurobehavioral functioning the following day and affect sustained attention and vigilance, which are essential for optimal academic performance.”

“An important implication of the present study is that investments in programs that aim to decrease sleep deprivation may lead to improvements in neurobehavioral functioning and academic performance,” she said.

I don’t know about you, but we’re going to go take a nap.

It’s About Time…

March 29, 2011

Auditory processing describes what happens when the brain recognizes and interprets sounds. Humans hear when energy that we recognize as sound travels through the ear and is changed into electrical information that can be interpreted by the brain. For many students, something is adversely affecting the processing or interpretation of this information. As a result, these students often do not recognize subtle differences between sounds in words, even though the sounds themselves are loud and clear. For example: “Tell me how a chair and a couch are alike” may sound to a child struggling with auditory processing like “Tell me how a hair and a cow are alike.”

These kinds of problems are more likely to occur when the child is in a noisy environment or is listening to complex information.

The Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center (TDLC) at the University of California is one of six Science of Learning Centers funded by the National Science Foundation. Its purpose is “to understand how the element of time and timing is critical for learning, and to apply this understanding to improve educational practice.”

What is the role of timing in learning? From the TDLC Web site:

When you learn new facts, interact with colleagues and teachers, experiment with new gadgets, or engage in countless other learning activities, timing plays a role in the functioning of your neurons, in the communication between and within sensory systems, and in the interactions between different regions of your brain. The success or failure of attempts to communicate using gestures, expressions and verbal language also depend on timing.

In short, timing is critical for learning at every level, from learning the precise temporal patterns of speech sounds, to learning appropriate sequences of movements, to optimal training and instructional schedules for learning, to interpreting the streams of social signals that reinforce learning in the classroom.

Learning depends on the fine-scale structure of the timing between stimuli, response, and reward. The brain is exquisitely sensitive to the temporal structure of sensory experience:

  • at the millisecond time scale in the auditory system;
  • at the second time scale in reinforcement learning;
  • at the minute time scale for action-perception adaptation; and
  • at the day-to-week time scale for consolidation and maturation.

Each level of learning has its own temporal dynamics, and its own timing constraints that affect learning. These levels are not independent, but instead, timing constraints at one level affect learning at another level in a nested way. For example, the dynamics at the cellular level, which is often on the order of milliseconds, implement learning on the whole-brain and behavioral level on much longer time scales, including memories that last a lifetime.

The past decade of neuroscience research demonstrates that the intrinsic temporal dynamics of processes within the brain also reinforce and constrain learning. For example, we have discovered that slow learners tend to have slow “shutter speeds” in terms of how their brains take in and process information. For some poor readers, the underlying problem is the their inability to perceive fast acoustic changes in speech sounds (phonemes) that must be accurately perceived in order to learn letter-sound correspondence rules for reading.

Fortunately, says the TDLC Web site, “Neuroscience-based training regimes that improve this temporal processing ability improve both spoken and written language learning in struggling readers.”

One such training program is the Fast ForWord program, which can be an effective intervention for children with struggling with processing rates because it goes right to the cause of the problem, strengthening the gray matter in the area of the brain responsible for processing auditory information. With Fast ForWord, children are first exposed to sounds that are modified to enhance the minute acoustic differences between similar speech sounds. As children demonstrate proficiency and build new neural pathways, the program automatically reduces the level of modification, until eventually students are challenged to process normal speech sounds.

When their brains are processing speech sounds at peak efficiency, students can better  recognize and discriminate the rapidly changing sounds that are important for discriminating phonemes (the smallest units of speech that distinguish one word from another). As a result, they will more easily:

  • Attend and respond to directions and class discussions
  • Remember questions, directions, and information
  • Learn to read and become a better reader

High creativity in adults with ADHD

March 24, 2011

Research conducted at the University of Michigan and Eckerd College, and published in the current issue of Personality and Individual Differences suggests that adults with ADHD are more creative than their non-attention-impaired peers. The research also indicates that adults with ADHD are “ideators” (they like to generate ideas), while non-ADHD adults tend to be “clarifiers” (who prefer to define and structure problems) and “developers” (who who elaborate or refine ideas and solutions).

We frequently think about ADHD as a disability, and it can have crippling effects on students’ ability to focus in a classroom setting and to adjust academically and socially. However, as study co-author and associate professor at the University of Michigan Priti Shah says (quoted in a Science Daily article summarizing the research): “Individuals who are not succeeding as well academically may benefit from understanding that there may be tradeoffs associated with ADHD. With extra motivation to overcome difficulties in planning, attention, and impulsivity, they may be able to take greater advantage of their creative strengths.”

Creativity in Young Learners

March 8, 2011

Two blogs we follow have recently tackled the topic of creativity in young learners, each from a slightly different perspective:

A recent post at features an excerpt from John Medina’s book Brain Rules for Baby that looks at the link between creativity and a certain kind of risk-taking. Medina describes “functional impulsivity”, the presence of which makes you more creative:

What ever their gender, creative entrepreneurs have functional impulsivity instincts in spades. They score atmospherically high on tests that measure risk­ taking, and they have a strong ability to cope with ambiguity. When their brains are caught in the act of being creative, the medial and orbital sectors of the pre­frontal cortex, regions just behind the eyes, light up like crazy on an fMRI. More “managerial types” (that’s actually what researchers call them) don’t have these scores—or these neural activities.

Medina is careful to differentiate functional impulsivity from, say, putting life and limb at risk on a dare, which tends to be associated not with creativity but with substance abuse.

At Scientific Learning’s Science of Learning blog, the topic of creativity is focused on the books of Edward de Bono, who proposes methods for teaching students to think creatively and “create context from nothingness.”

In one example, he describes how a teacher shows his students a photo of people dressed in street clothes wading through water at a beach. The teacher then asks the students to come up with interpretations as to what is going on in the picture. The teacher has de-emphasized the context; the crux of the activity is to develop the context using their imaginations.

In this situation, de Bono says that students might respond by saying that the picture shows a group of people caught by the tide, or a group crossing a flooded river, or people wading out to a ferry boat which cannot come to shore, or people coming ashore from a wrecked boat.

The fact that the photo is actually of a group of people protesting at a beach is completely irrelevant. The author stresses that the right answer is not important; generating as many interpretations as possible is. The teacher has created a safe, controlled environment and activity where students are encouraged to think outside the box and exercise creative habits of mind, free from qualitative judgment. He even goes on to suggest that if a student comes up with a particularly unfeasible interpretation, the teacher should not judge, but continue to question the student until the context for the interpretation becomes clear, encouraging cultivation of the student’s creative skill.

Medina’s books on the neuroscience of development differentiate between the “seeds”, which is what a child is born with, and the “soil” which is what parents and others can do to nurture that raw material. These two posts, taken together, indicate that when it comes to creativity, both play a role.

Good kids who do dumb things with their friends

February 8, 2011

Parents of teenagers may frequently find themselves asking their children “What was going through your head?” New research from Temple University indicates that their friends may be to blame.

From the NY Times Well blog:

Teenage peer pressure has a distinct effect on brain signals involving risk and reward, helping to explain why young people are more likely to misbehave and take risks when their friends are watching.

In the study, teenagers and adults played a game with the goal of completing a driving mission in as little time as possible. In the game, participants had to make decisions such as whether to run a yellow light that could improve their time but also increased their chance of a crash. The participants each ran through the game alone and again after being told that two of their friends were watching them while they played. The results?:

Among adults and college students, there were no meaningful differences in risk taking, regardless of  whether friends were watching. But the young teenagers ran about 40 percent more yellow lights and had 60 percent more crashes when they knew their friends were watching. And notably, the regions of the brain associated with reward showed greater activity when they were playing in view of their friends. It was as if the presence of friends, even in the next room, prompted the brain’s reward system to drown out any warning signals about risk, tipping the balance toward the reward.

What’s a parent to do? Study co-author (and author of the book You and Your Adolescent: The Essential Guide for Ages 10-25) Laurence Steinberg, quoted in the Times article, says:

All of us who have very good kids know they’ve done really dumb things when they’ve been with their friends. The lesson is that if you have a kid whom you think of as very mature and able to exercise good judgment, based on your observations when he or she is alone or with you, that doesn’t necessarily generalize to how he or she will behave in a group of friends without adults around. Parents should be aware of that.

Computer-based program relieves ADHD symptoms in children

February 4, 2011

The research validating the effectiveness of Cogmed Working Memory Training at improving attention skills keeps rolling in. Science Daily recently highlighted research by psychologists from Ohio State University, published in the November/December 2010 issue of the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology:

Researchers found significant changes for students who completed the program in areas such as attention, ADHD symptoms, planning and organization, initiating tasks, and working memory.

The study asked parents and teachers to complete observational surveys before and after training, as well as in a 4-month post-training follow up:

Results showed that parents generally rated their children as improving on inattention, overall number of ADHD symptoms, working memory, planning and organization and in initiating tasks. These changes were evident both immediately after treatment and four months later.

One interesting aspect of this study is that unlike previous efficacy studies for Cogmed, this one included students who were on and off medication for their ADHD:

“Most kids with ADHD are on some kind of medication, so it helps to know how this intervention works in these cases,” said study co-author Steven Beck.

In this sample, 60 percent of the students were on medication. The results showed the program was equally effective regardless of whether they were on medication or not.

“Medication for ADHD does not help directly with working memory, and the training program does, so it can be useful,” Beck said.

Solid foundational and efficacy research is a common characteristic of the learning programs we offer. It’s great to see additional research that documents the success of Cogmed with an ever-larger population of struggling learners.

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