Posts Tagged ‘technology’

Developing spatial vocabulary in infants

November 3, 2011

In a recent collection of essays, “Manhood for Amateurs,” one of my favorite writers, Michael Chabon, laments a development in the world of Legos, namely that they now come almost exclusively in kits with detailed instructions, designed to be assembled in a particular way to create a specific space ship or tractor. Gone, says Chabon, are the days of starting with a bin full of Legos of all sizes, shapes and colors, and creating, well, something creative.

Fortunately, some new research indicates that all might not be lost. In fact, “guided play,” in which participants are given blocks along with graphic instructions for creating a particular structure, generates higher levels of “spatial talk” than free play. The research was performed at Temple University’s Infant Lab, and recently highlighted by Science Daily:

The researchers found that when playing with blocks under interactive conditions, children hear the kind of language that helps them think about space, such as “over,” “around” and “through.”

“When parents use spatial language, they draw attention to spatial concepts,” said Nora Newcombe, co-director of Temple’s Infant Lab. “The development of a spatial vocabulary is critical for developing spatial ability and awareness.”

Spatial skills, says the Science Daily article, “are important for success in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines, but they are also involved in many everyday tasks, such as packing the trunk of a car or assembling a crib. They are a central component of intellect and, as those who struggle finding their way around a new city can attest, they show marked individual differences.”

So Chabon’s laments aside, it’s OK, and maybe even good, to pick up that Star Wars Lego kit and build the Death Star just like the picture on the box.

For other research about the importance of manipulative play, check out:

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.

Getting the most out of computer-based training programs

May 2, 2011

Computer-based training programs like Fast ForWord and Cogmed can be fantastic interventions for struggling learners because they take advantage of technology to provide precise, adaptive trials. They also provide a game-like format to engage students and allow for comprehensive remote monitoring. In the case of Fast ForWord, they also use complex algorithms to acoustically modify speech sounds to systematically develop processing rates in a way that humans simply cannot (we aren’t capable of slowing down a consonant sound like the <b> in <ba>). We have previously posted about how Fast ForWord uniquely takes advantage of technology to enhance student learning.

A post at Scientific Learning’s New Science of Learning blog addresses some of the challenges related to the efficacy of computer-based training programs. Specifically, it’s important to recognize:

  • What the training program is designed to do (and not to do):

These systems do not do the work of teachers; they are tools to supplement teacher instruction and inform educators’ decisions.  They are not, nor were they ever meant to be, a substitute for highly qualified educators. But when implemented and used correctly, computerized learning systems can and dohelp educators identify and address individual student needs and deliver results.

  • That the programs don’t do all of the work:

Making these solutions work takes work. They are not “plug and play,” nor are they designed to be a one-size-fits-all magic bullet. Computerized solution take careful planning, hours of professional development, and a deep staff and leadership commitment to following implementation protocols.

This second point is critically important, and is something we spend a lot of time refining. Effective computer-based training programs that are based on research into brain plasticity have a common challenge: adherence to a rigorous, intensive training schedule is critical for success. Both programs we work with (Fast ForWord and Cogmed) require a 5-day per week training schedule (daily schedules vary from 30-90 minutes, depending on the program and the child). In our experience, it is how successfully students adhere to this schedule, more than the degree of their learning challenge, that is the single biggest predictor of success with the programs. In short, the programs can achieve amazing results if kids can comply with the rigorous schedule, and they’re pretty mediocre if kids can’t.

So how do we ensure that kids can stick with the schedule?

While we just got finished saying that that the programs don’t do all of the work alone, they do help. Cogmed and Fast ForWord are both presented in an engaging, game-like format that appeals to kids. There are high scores, reward animations, and other supportive features that appear periodically while students are working. Additionally, the adaptive nature of the programs ensures that students are continually challenged at an engaging level: not so hard that they get frustrated, but not so easy that they aren’t learning. These programs aren’t exactly Playstation material, but they are fun and engaging.

As providers of the programs, we can help too. We monitor each child’s progress daily, so if they start to get off track (missed days or missed exercises), we can quickly engage parents in a solution. Comprehensive progress reports also help. For all students, these reports allow parents to identify the portions of the program that are most challenging and intervene with support where necessary. And the reports can engage older students in their own progress, allowing them to track the improvement of their cognitive skills and identify the areas that are proving most challenging. We’ve found that when older students are connected to their own learning in this way, they are more likely to stick with the prescribed training schedule. It’s a bit like seeing results in the mirror when you’re working out at the gym.

The pen is mightier than the keyboard

February 16, 2011

If you want to learn, scientists say, put pen to paper.

A recent article in Business Week cited research in France and Norway, which concluded that “writing by hand is actually a very different sensory experience than typing on a keyboard, with each activating distinctly different parts of the brain.”

Study co-author, associate professor Anne Mangen from the University of Stavangers Reading Centre in Stavanger, Norway, says:

Tests reveal that the act of handwriting — literally the feeling of touching a pen to paper — appears to imprint a “motor memory” in the sensorimotor region of the brain. In turn, this process promotes the visual recognition of letters and words, suggesting that the two seemingly separate acts of reading and writing are, in fact, linked.

In the study, participants were taught a new alphabet. Those who studied by writing out the letters by hand learned significantly more than those who studied only on a computer. Additionally, “brain scans revealed that while learning by handwriting prompted activity in a particular part of the brain known as Broca’s area, learning by keyboarding prompted little or no such activity.” Broca’s area is the portion of the brain most associated with speech production.

If you’re interested in more research-based study tips, check out these previous posts from our blog:

Hat tip to Posit Science for the link to the Business Week article.

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 neural signatures of autism

November 16, 2010

We recently posted about research at the University of Utah that used MRI to uncover communication deficiencies in the areas responsible for motor control, social functioning, attention, and facial recognition in individuals with autism. The thought is that MRI scans that could identify these deficiencies might serve as a diagnostic tool, thereby enabling earlier and more targeted interventions.

On the heels of that study comes new research from Yale University, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that looked at the neural characteristics of children with autism, their unaffected siblings, and typically developing children. From Science Daily:

The team identified three distinct “neural signatures”: trait markers — brain regions with reduced activity in children with ASD and their unaffected siblings; state markers — brain areas with reduced activity found only in children with autism; and compensatory activity — enhanced activity seen only in unaffected siblings. The enhanced brain activity may reflect a developmental process by which these children overcome a genetic predisposition to develop ASD.

The authors were particularly intrigued by the distinct brain responses exhibited by typically developing children and the unaffected siblings of children with autism because their behavioral profiles are so similar.

Like the authors of the University of Utah study, the Yale researchers are hopeful that the study the study could eventually lead to earlier and more accurate autism diagnosis.

Technology as a tool

November 4, 2010

Technology can make a lot of things easier and more efficient: email is faster than the US Mail, and shopping online doesn’t require hunting for a parking space. In the case of the Fast ForWord programs, technology actually enables something that isn’t otherwise possible: it can be used to modify to a consonant sound that a student is struggling to process and make it longer and louder. Go ahead: just try to make the /b/ sound in the word “bat” longer. It isn’t going to happen without some technological assistance.

The NY Times highlights technology – specifically the Apple iPad – that, while not specifically designed for those with disabilities, is nonetheless helping them communicate.

The article highlights Owen, a 7 year old with a motor-neuron disease that leaves him without the strength to maneuver a computer mouse. But he got the touch-screen iPad to work on his first try. The article also describes iPads used to train basic skills to children with autism, and, loaded with a speech-to-text application to give those with disabilities a voice.

One of the major advantages of the iPad is its relatively low price compared to specialized computer equipment that individuals with disabilities have used in the past. And, according to one interviewee, the “cool” factor of the iPad makes it a less stigmatizing tool in social situations.

Baseball on the brain

November 2, 2010

We’ve got Giants fever here at Be Amazing Learning. For the first time since relocating to San Francisco in the 50s, the Giants are World Series Champs! In honor of that accomplishment, we devote today’s post to the intersection of baseball and the brain.

Last week, we posted on the role of the prefrontal cortex in fans’ near-religous devotion to their teams. Today, it’s the neuroscience of hitting.

Steven Small, professor of neurology and psychology at the University of Chicago, is a contributor to Your Brain On Cubs: Inside the Heads of Players and Fans. His research examines the batter-pitcher match-up from the point of view of the neural networks that control if, when and how the batter swings the bat. From a U of C Medical Center press release:

“If the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand at 100 miles per hour,” Small said, “it will take it 0.367 seconds to reach home plate–less than the time between successive heart beats. For elite batters, such as the Cubs’ Alfonso Soriano, such extraordinary skill can only be accomplished by figuring out what the pitcher will do before he even releases the ball.”

Small, an expert on the brain imaging of human behavior, uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study how the brain of professional athletes plans complex movements, such as swinging a baseball bat. With fMRI, researchers can peer into the brain while an athlete focuses on a video of a real situation, such as a pitcher preparing (e.g., winding up, gripping the ball and then releasing the pitch. The scanner can identify the various parts of the brain that activate as the batter prepares his swing.

In several related studies, Small has found patterns that are common as people learn a new task and then slowly master that skill through practice. Based on this research, it would be expected for a novice baseball player to have more brain activation when preparing to swing a bat than an expert. Experts require less brain power because their brains become more efficient at that task as they gain proficiency.

Professional athletes, he found, activate only the regions of the brain that are critical to a precise activity, such as swinging the bat. The novice, on the other hand, has to activate several other regions, some tangentially connected to the movement and others linked to the neural foundation of emotion.

“When doing something for the first time,” Small said, “there is a lower ability to concentrate and greater involvement of emotion than after gaining expertise. Adding these factors to the brain’s neural programming, makes it more complex and therefore less efficient.”

Congratulations to the World Champion San Francisco Giants! And thanks for the opportunity to veer slightly off topic in celebration of your accomplishment!

First Direct Evidence That ADHD Is a Genetic Disorder

October 28, 2010

Some of this DNA stuff is a little beyond us, but we’re intrigued by the gist of a new study, published in the journal Lancet and highlighted on Science Daily: there is now “strong evidence that ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder — in other words, that the brains of children with the disorder differ from those of other children.”

The study, conducted at the University of Cardiff, found that children with ADHD were more likely to have small segments of their DNA duplicated or missing than other children. It’s incredibly important data for parents of children struggling with ADHD:

“We hope that these findings will help overcome the stigma associated with ADHD,” says Professor Anita Thapar. “Too often, people dismiss ADHD as being down to bad parenting or poor diet. As a clinician, it was clear to me that this was unlikely to be the case. Now we can say with confidence that ADHD is a genetic disease and that the brains of children with this condition develop differently to those of other children.”

We posted recently about a new book written by an investigative journalist who received her own ADHD diagnosis not long after her son was diagnosed with the disorder. For her and many other parents, the following is probably not a surprise:

The condition is highly heritable — children with ADHD are statistically more likely to also have a parent with the condition and a child with an identical twin with ADHD has a three in four chance of also having the condition. Even so, until now there has been no direct evidence that the condition is genetic and there has been much controversy surrounding its causes, which some people have put down to poor parenting skills or a sugar-rich diet.

We were also intrigued by the finding that the genes responsible for a tendency towards ADHD have also been implicated in other neurological conditions, including autism:

There was also significant overlap between CNVs identified in children with ADHD and regions of the genome which are known to influence susceptibility to autism and schizophrenia. Whilst these disorders are currently thought to be entirely separate, there is some overlap between ADHD and autism in terms of symptoms and learning difficulties. This new research suggests there may be a shared biological basis to the two conditions.

The importance of the research is well-summarized by Dr. John Williams, Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust, which helped fund the University of Cardiff study: “Using leading-edge technology, [researchers] have begun to shed light on the causes of what is a complex and often distressing disorder for both the children and their families.”

Parents for whom this is interesting stuff might also be intrigued by another recent post related to technology-based screenings for ADHD.

Be Amazing Learning provides research-based solutions that build brain processing efficiency in critical cognitive skill areas, including working memory, sustained attention and auditory processing. Our programs can be effective interventions for students struggling with ADHD. For more information, visit our Web site.

Using MRI to diagnose autism

October 18, 2010

From Science Daily: A recent study of individuals with autism at the University of Utah used MRI to study the strength of connections between the individuals’ left and right brain hemispheres. The study, published in Cerebral Cortex, indicates communication deficiencies in the areas responsible for motor control, social functioning, attention, and facial recognition.

Other than increased brain size in young children with autism, there are no major structural differences between the brains of people with autism and those who do not have the disorder that can be used to diagnose autism on a routine brain MRI. It has been long believed that more profound differences could be discovered by studying how regions in the brain communicate with each other. The study, and other work U of U researchers are doing using diffusion tensor imaging (measures microstructure of white matter that connects brain regions), reveals important information about autism. The advances highlight MRI as a potential diagnostic tool, so patients could be screened objectively, quickly, and early on when interventions are most successful. The advances also show the power of MRI to help scientists better understand and potentially better treat autism at all ages.

“We still don’t know precisely what’s going on in the brain in autism,” says Janet Lainhart, M.D., U of U associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics and the study’s principal investigator. “This work adds an important piece of information to the autism puzzle. It adds evidence of functional impairment in brain connectivity in autism and brings us a step closer to a better understanding of this disorder. When you understand it at a biological level, you can envision how the disorder develops, what are the factors that cause it, and how can we change it. “

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