Thursday, January 27, 2011

10% Students may have working memory problems: Why does it matter?

MAY 10, 2009

By: Dr. Tracy Alloway

Work­ing mem­ory is our abil­ity to store and manip­u­late infor­ma­tion for a brief time. It is typ­i­cally mea­sured by dual-tasks, where the indi­vid­ual has to remem­ber an item while simul­ta­ne­ously pro­cess­ing a some­times unre­lated piece of infor­ma­tion. A widely used work­ing mem­ory task is the read­ing span task where the indi­vid­ual reads a sen­tence, ver­i­fies it, and then recalls the final word. Indi­vid­ual dif­fer­ences in work­ing mem­ory per­for­mance are closely related to a range of aca­d­e­mic skills such as read­ing, spelling, com­pre­hen­sion, and math­e­mat­ics. Cru­cially, there is emerg­ing research that work­ing mem­ory pre­dicts learn­ing out­comes inde­pen­dently of IQ. One expla­na­tion for the impor­tance of work­ing mem­ory in aca­d­e­mic attain­ment is that because it appears to be rel­a­tively unaf­fected by envi­ron­men­tal influ­ences, such as parental edu­ca­tional level and finan­cial back­ground, it mea­sures a student’s capac­ity to acquire knowl­edge rather than what they have already learned.

How­ever lit­tle is known about the con­se­quences of low work­ing mem­ory capac­ity per se, inde­pen­dent of other asso­ci­ated learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties. In par­tic­u­lar, it is not known either what pro­por­tion of stu­dents with low work­ing mem­ory capac­i­ties has sig­nif­i­cant learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties or what their behav­ioral char­ac­ter­is­tics are. The aim of a recent study pub­lished in Child Devel­op­ment (ref­er­ence below) was to pro­vide the first sys­tem­atic large-scale exam­i­na­tion of the cog­ni­tive and behav­ioral char­ac­ter­is­tics of school-aged stu­dents who have been iden­ti­fied solely on the basis of very low work­ing mem­ory scores.
In screen­ing of over 3000 school-aged stu­dents in main­stream schools, 1 in 10 was iden­ti­fied as hav­ing work­ing mem­ory dif­fi­cul­ties. There were sev­eral key find­ings regard­ing their cog­ni­tive skills. The first is that the major­ity of them per­formed below age-expected lev­els in read­ing and math­e­mat­ics. This sug­gests that low work­ing mem­ory skills con­sti­tute a high risk fac­tor for edu­ca­tional under­achieve­ment for stu­dents. This cor­re­sponds with evi­dence that work­ing mem­ory impacts all areas of learn­ing from kinder­garten to col­lege. It is a basic cog­ni­tive skill that we need to per­form a vari­ety of activ­i­ties, and we use it in core sub­jects like read­ing and maths, as well as gen­eral top­ics like Art and Music. Cru­cially, this pat­tern of poor per­for­mance in learn­ing out­comes remains even when stu­dents’ IQ is sta­tis­ti­cally accounted.
This fits well with evi­dence sug­gest­ing that work­ing mem­ory is even more impor­tant to learn­ing than other cog­ni­tive skills such as IQ. For exam­ple, in typ­i­cally devel­op­ing stu­dents, I found that their work­ing mem­ory skills, rather than IQ, at 5 years old were the best pre­dic­tor of pre­dic­tor of read­ing, spelling, and math out­comes six years later.
The next major find­ing from the stud­ies of stu­dents with work­ing mem­ory dif­fi­cul­ties is that teach­ers typ­i­cally judged the stu­dents to be highly inat­ten­tive, and have short poor atten­tion spans and high lev­els of dis­tractibil­ity. They were also com­monly described as for­get­ting what they are cur­rently doing and things they have learned, fail­ing to remem­ber instruc­tions, and fail­ing to com­plete tasks. In every­day class­room activ­i­ties, they often made care­less mis­takes, par­tic­u­larly in writ­ing, and had dif­fi­culty in solv­ing prob­lems. In con­trast, rel­a­tively few of the stu­dents were judged to exhibit the high lev­els of hyper­ac­tive and impul­sive behaviors.
The final key find­ing is that stu­dents with work­ing mem­ory dif­fi­cul­ties take a much longer time to process infor­ma­tion. They are unable to cope with timed activ­i­ties and fast pre­sen­ta­tion of infor­ma­tion. As a result, they often end up aban­don­ing the activ­i­ties all together out of frus­tra­tion. One way to over­come this dif­fi­culty is to pro­vide them with a shorter activ­ity and to allow for more time dur­ing tests.
Stud­ies such as these demon­strate that stu­dents with work­ing mem­ory dif­fi­cul­ties have an extremely high risk of mak­ing poor aca­d­e­mic progress and are rel­a­tively com­mon in the class­room — they rep­re­sent approx­i­mately 10% of their age group in main­stream school­ing. With­out early inter­ven­tion, work­ing mem­ory deficits can­not be made up over time and will con­tinue to com­pro­mise a child’s like­li­hood of aca­d­e­mic success.
How can we sup­port stu­dents’ learn­ing? The first cru­cial step in sup­port­ing stu­dents with work­ing mem­ory impair­ments is proper diag­no­sis, which can be con­ducted by a school psy­chol­o­gist. How­ever, at present work­ing mem­ory prob­lems often go unde­tected in stu­dents or are mis­di­ag­nosed as atten­tional prob­lems. There are sev­eral test bat­ter­ies that can be used to assess work­ing mem­ory, includ­ing the Work­ing Mem­ory Index in the WISC. How­ever, most assess­ment instru­ments that are cur­rently avail­able require con­sid­er­able expe­ri­ence in the admin­is­tra­tion, scor­ing and inter­pre­ta­tion of cog­ni­tive tests. One use­ful tool to iden­tify and sup­port stu­dents with work­ing mem­ory impair­ments is the Auto­mated Work­ing Mem­ory Assess­ment (AWMA; Alloway, 2007 pub­lished by Pear­son). The ben­e­fit of the AWMA is that it is designed to pro­vide a prac­ti­cal and con­ve­nient way for non-expert asses­sors such as teach­ers to screen their pupils for sig­nif­i­cant work­ing mem­ory prob­lems, with a user-friendly inter­face. The auto­mated pre­sen­ta­tion and scor­ing of tasks pro­vide con­sis­tency in pre­sen­ta­tion of stim­uli across par­tic­i­pants, thus reduc­ing exper­i­menter error. The AWMA was used in the study described here, as well as in numer­ous peer-reviewed jour­nal arti­cles on the role of work­ing mem­ory in learn­ing, anx­i­ety, and devel­op­ment in typ­i­cal and clin­i­cal populations.
The main goal of this arti­cle was to explore the link between work­ing mem­ory and aca­d­e­mic per­for­mance. On the basis of a large-scale screen­ing study of over 3000 stu­dent, 10% were found to have work­ing mem­ory impair­ments that jeop­ar­dize their chance of aca­d­e­mic suc­cess. The major­ity per­form below age-expected lev­els in all areas of learn­ing and strug­gle to fol­low sim­ple instruc­tions in the class­room. These dif­fi­cul­ties high­light the need for early assess­ment to iden­tify those at risk. In a future arti­cle, I will dis­cuss ways to help stu­dents with work­ing mem­ory prob­lems, includ­ing clin­i­cal tri­als demon­strat­ing suc­cess­ful trans­fer of cog­ni­tive train­ing to aca­d­e­mic attainments.
Ref­er­ence: Alloway et al. (2009). The cog­ni­tive and behav­ioural char­ac­ter­is­tics of chil­dren with low work­ing mem­ory. Child Devel­op­ment, 80, 606–621.
Tracy Alloway working memory learningTracy Pack­iam Alloway, PhD, is the Direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Mem­ory and Learn­ing in the Lifes­pan at the Uni­ver­sity of Stir­ling, UK. She was recently awarded the pres­ti­gious Joseph Lis­ter Award by the British Sci­ence Asso­ci­a­tion for her con­tri­bu­tion to sci­ence and has devel­oped the world’s first stan­dard­ized working-memory tests for edu­ca­tors pub­lished by Pear­son. To date, it has been trans­lated into 15 lan­guages and used to screen for work­ing mem­ory prob­lems in stu­dents with dyslexia, motor dys­praxia (Devel­op­men­tal Coor­di­na­tion Dis­or­der), ADHD and Autis­tic Spec­trum Dis­or­der. She pro­vides con­sul­tancy to the World Bank and her research has received wide­spread inter­na­tional cov­er­age in hun­dreds of media out­lets, includ­ing Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can, the BBC, and Reuters.

Many struggling pupils suffer from poor memory - report

Anthea Lipsett
Education Guardian,  
Thursday 28 February 2008 

Children who under-achieve at school may just have a poor working memory rather than low intelligence, according to researchers who have produced the world's first tool to assess memory capacity in the classroom.

The researchers from Durham University surveyed more than 3,000 primary school children of all ages and found that 10% of them suffer from poor working memory, which seriously impedes their learning.

Nationally, this equates to almost 500,000 children in primary education being affected.

But the researchers found that teachers rarely identify a poor working memory and often describe children with this problem as inattentive or less intelligent.

Working memory is the ability to hold information in your head and manipulate it mentally - for example adding up two numbers spoken to you by someone else without using pen and paper or a calculator, or memorising verbal directions.

Children at school need this memory on a daily basis for a variety of tasks, such as following teachers' instructions or remembering sentences they have been asked to write down.

The new tool - a combination of a checklist and computer programme - will enable teachers to identify and assess children's memory capacity in the classroom from as early as four-years-old.

This should allow teachers to adopt new approaches to teaching children with poor memories, which in turn would help address the problem of under-achievement in schools.

Without appropriate intervention, poor working memory in children, which is thought to be genetic, can affect long-term academic success and prevent children from achieving their potential, the academics warned.

Although the tools have already been piloted successfully in 35 schools across the UK and have been translated into 10 languages, this is the first time they have been made widely available.

Lead researcher Dr Tracy Alloway, from Durham's school of education, told "The concept of working memory is relatively new compared with IQ and only in the last 15 years have we been interested in the link between it and learning.

"It is a much more important predictor of learning than IQ because it measures a child's potential to learn rather than having any link to environment or socio-economic background, which are closely linked to IQ."

Teachers tend to identify children with poor working memories as having attention problems or "dreamers", she said, but the new test will allow them to screen children for the disorder.

"The only way children with poor working memory can go on to achieving academic success is by teaching them how to learn despite their smaller capacity to store information mentally," she said.

The checklist, called the Working Memory Rating Scale (WMRS), will enable teachers to identify children who they think may have a problem with working memory without immediately subjecting them to a test. A high score on this checklist shows that a child is likely to have memory problems that will affect their academic progress.

If the teacher feels significantly concerned about a child's performance in class, they can get the child to do the computerised Automated Working Memory Assessment (AWMA).

The tools also suggest ways for teachers to manage the children's working memory loads, which will minimise the chances of children failing to complete tasks. Examples include repeating instructions, talking in simple short sentences and breaking down tasks into smaller chunks of information.

Chris Evans, the headteacher of Lakes primary school in Redcar, Cleveland, who has been working with Alloway, said: "With some of the staff now trained to identify problems, we have the knowledge and tools to carry out a proper assessment and have the skills to help these children be more successful in school.

"We are already beginning to see children in a different light knowing more about the difficulties faced by children with impaired working memory. We realise that they are not daydreamers, inattentive or underachieving, but children who simply need a different approach.

"We think these new ways of learning can help both the teacher and the children to successfully complete their work."

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Monday, January 24, 2011

Brain activity pattern signals ability to compensate for dyslexia

Monday, December 20, 2010

Brain scans of dyslexic adolescents who were later able to compensate for their dyslexia showed a distinct pattern of brain activity when compared to scans of adolescents who were unable to compensate, reported researchers funded in part by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
The finding raises the possibility that, one day, imaging or other measures of brain activity could be used to predict which individuals with dyslexia would most readily benefit from various specific interventions.
Scans of brain structure and activity involved in compensating for dyslexia, along with brain activity in a typically developing reader.
(Left) Brains of adolescents who compensated for dyslexia had strong connections on the right side of the brain, between a brain area that processes images and an area that stores images in long term memory. When involved in rhyming tasks, the brains of youth who compensated for dyslexia showed increased activity in a brain area known as the inferior frontal gyrus (center). In contrast, (right) brains of typically developing readers show increased activity on the left side of the brain when involved in rhyming.
“This finding provides insight into how certain individuals with dyslexia may compensate for reading difficulties,” said Alan E. Guttmacher, M.D., director of the NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which provided funding for the study. “Understanding the brain activity associated with compensation may lead to ways to help individuals with this capacity draw upon their strengths. Similarly, learning why other individuals have difficulty compensating may lead to new treatments to help them overcome reading disability.”
The study findings were published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study’s first author was Fumiko Hoeft, M.D., Ph.D., of the Stanford University School of Medicine.
The researchers used two types of brain imaging technology to conduct their study. The first, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), depicts oxygen use by brain areas involved in a particular task or activity. The second, diffusion tensor magnetic resonance imaging, (DTI) maps the brain’s wiring, revealing connections between brain areas.
The adolescents were shown pairs of printed words, and asked to identify pairs that rhymed. The adolescents who would later compensate for their dyslexia showed a pattern of increased activity in the brain region known as the inferior frontal gyrus, an area on the right side of the head, slightly below and behind the temple. This brain area governs the ability to halt an ongoing activity, like stopping at a traffic light. Similarly, DTI scans of the brain also revealed stronger connections in the superior longitudinal fasiculus(also on the right side), a network of neural fibers linking the front and rear of brain. The fibers are involved in the processing of visual aspects of text. The researchers do not know how the inferior frontal gyrus and superior longitudinal fasiculus are involved in compensating for dyslexia.
The 45 adolescents who took part in the study ranged from 11 to 14 years old. Each child underwent a battery of tests to determine reading abilities. Among the series of tests were measures of phonemic awareness (the ability to distinguish between the sounds that make up spoken words), how well they could comprehend what they read, how fluently and accurately they could read, how fast they could read, spelling ability, the ability to rapidly name objects, letters, numbers and colors, and the size of their vocabularies.
The researchers classified 25 adolescents as having dyslexia based on their scores in these tests.
The researchers used the term dyslexia to describe the reading difficulties experienced by the adolescents in the study. These individuals have a learning disability that makes learning to read much more challenging and often requires more intensive interventions to help them succeed.

Dr. Hoeft said that, in the study, the adolescents who were classified as dyslexic had difficulty learning to read despite adequate teaching and exposure to written language.
The researchers adapted computer algorithms used in artificial intelligence research to refine the data collected by the scanner, to gauge subtle brain functioning and structure with a high degree of accuracy.
FMRI scans of the remaining adolescents without dyslexia who are reading normally showed strong brain activation patterns on the left side of the brain when the adolescents were involved in the rhyming task. In contrast, brain scans of the dyslexic adolescents revealed weak activation on the left side of the brain. However, 13 of the dyslexic adolescents who later were able to compensate for their disability showed strong activation in the right inferior frontal gyrus. Similarly, DTI scans for the compensating group showed a strong network of connections in the superior longitudinal fasiculus on the right side of the brain.
When the researchers administered the reading test battery to the adolescents two and one half years later, they found that the 13 adolescents who showed the strong activation pattern in the inferior frontal gyrus were much more likely to have compensated for their reading difficulty than were the remaining 12 dyslexic adolescents.
Dr. Hoeft, explained, that the largest improvement was seen in reading comprehension, which she said is the ultimate goal of reading. The adolescents showed less improvement in other reading-related skills such as phonemic awareness (distinguishing the sounds that make up spoken words). Good readers tend to develop phonemic awareness skills before developing fluency and comprehension skills. Dr. Hoeft said that the findings suggest that the brains of the dyslexic adolescents relied on the right side of the brain to compensate for their reading difficulties, rather than on developing regions in the left side of their brains (involved with phonemic awareness), as typical readers do
In fact, through their analysis of brain activation patterns and brain structure, the researchers could predict with more than 90 percent accuracy which adolescents would compensate for their dyslexia.
“Our findings add to a body of studies looking at a wide range of conditions that suggest brain imaging may help determine when a treatment is likely to be effective or which patients are most susceptible to risks,” said Dr. Hoeft.
In contrast, the testing battery the researchers used did not indicate which of the dyslexic adolescents would improve their reading ability.
Other authors of the study were Jessica Black, Ph.D., Alexander, Gantman, Psy.D., Nahal Zakerani, Ph.D., Allan L. Reiss, M.D., and Gary H. Glover, Ph.D., also at Stanford University School of Medicine, Bruce McCandliss Ph.D., of Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn., Charles Hulme, Ph.D., University of York, York England Heikki Lyytinen, Ph.D., University of Jyvaskyla, Jyvaskyla, Finland, and Susan Whitfield Gabrieli, and John D. E. Gabrieli, Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass.

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Monday, January 17, 2011

Visual Skills Required for Independence Are Impaired in Children With Autism, Research Finds

ScienceDaily (Dec. 30, 2010) — The ability to find shoes in the bedroom, apples in a supermarket, or a favourite animal at the zoo is impaired among children with autism, according to new research from the University of Bristol. Contrary to previous studies, which show that children with autism often demonstrate outstanding visual search skills, this new research indicates that children with autism are unable to search effectively for objects in real-life situations -- a skill that is essential for achieving independence in adulthood.

Previous studies have tested search skills using table-top tasks or computers but none, until now, has tested how children with autism fare in a more true-to-life setting.
In a unique test room, 20 children with autism and 20 typical children of the same age and ability were instructed to press buttons on the floor to find a hidden target among multiple illuminated locations. Critically, these targets appeared more on one side of the room than the other.
A contemporary theory of autism (systematizing) states that these children are more sensitive to regularities within a system (for example, prime numbers, computer programmes and train timetables). Surprisingly, more 'systematic' behaviour was not observed in this test; children with autism were less efficient and more chaotic in their search. Compared to other children, they were slower to pick up on the regularities within the 'system' (e.g. which side of the room the lights could be found) that would help them choose where to search.
Together, these results strongly suggest that autistic children's ability to search in a large-scale environment is less efficient and less systematic than typical children's search. This has important implications for how well children with autism can cope independently in the real world if they struggle to navigate and search within a local environment and identify patterns within it.
Speaking about the findings, Professor Iain Gilchrist, one of the report's authors, said:
'This research was only possible because of the unique research facility we have in Bristol and the support we have received from the MRC, BBSRC and ESRC who funded the basic science that underpins these new findings.'
Dr Josie Briscoe another of the report's authors added:
'The ability to work effectively and systematically in these kind of tasks mirrors everyday behaviours that allow us to function as independent adults, and this research offers an exciting opportunity to explore underlying skills that could help people with autism achieve independence.'
The paper by Elizabeth Pellicano, Alastair D. Smith, Filipe Cristino, Bruce M. Hood, Josie Briscoe, and Iain D. Gilchrist is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

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Deficits in Number Processing in Children With ADHD and Alcohol Exposure: Similar but Different

ScienceDaily (Dec. 14, 2010) — In children, the brain is in a constant state of flux as it analyzes and evaluates stimuli from the environment. Fetal alcohol exposure and ADHD represent two disorders that can affect children's ability to learn and process information from a very young age.

Both ADHD and fetal alcohol exposure are linked to poor academic performance in cognition and attention, so the researchers decided to try to pinpoint the exact brain areas affected by each disorder with the hope that this research could lead to the creation and development of new and improved treatments.
The results will be published in the March 2011 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Researchand are currently available at Early View.
Joseph L. Jacobson, lead author of the study and Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at the Wayne State University School of Medicine, said that the goal of the study was to determine if alcohol-related deficits in magnitude comparison (the ability to mentally represent and evaluate relative quantities) seen in children with prenatal alcohol exposure would also be true for ADHD.
"We thought it very interesting that this is not the case. The arithmetic deficit in ADHD is mediated primarily by poorer executive function and attention problems rather than magnitude comparison, which is more often impaired in children with fetal alcohol exposure."
The researchers assessed 262 African-American adolescents at 14 years of age. Their mothers were recruited during pregnancy and interviewed extensively regarding their use of alcohol to determine the amount of alcohol the child was exposed to prior to birth. The children were evaluated for ADHD symptoms at ages 7.5 and 14 by parent/guardian and teacher reports, and their number processing abilities were assessed at 14 years.
The results showed that children with fetal alcohol exposure demonstrated strong deficits in number comparison, while children with ADHD demonstrated deficits in attention and memory. Thus, although number processing is affected in both ADHD and fetal alcohol exposure, the exact cause of the difficulties appears to be different.
In a related study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) conducted in Cape Town, South Africa, the researchers found that, when given simple number processing problems, alcohol-exposed children appear to be able to recruit different brain regions to compensate for the damage done to the areas of the brain. However, the recovery is never complete and is variable at best depending on the child.
"The extent of the brain damage experienced by the individuals is an important predictor of recovery of function and is influenced by the quantity and duration of alcohol consumed while in utero and various genetic and metabolic characteristics of the mother and fetus," said Julie A. Kable, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine. "More extensive damage leads to less available resources to compensate."
However, Jacobson does not consider the performance of the children in this study to constitute recovery. He said that the alcohol-exposed children in the fMRI study performed as well as the control group on the arithmetic tasks only because of the relatively easy nature of the problems selected for that study.
"In our view, the alternate strategies these children use are less efficient than those used by the controls. As a result, these strategies are not likely to be as effective as the problems get harder."

TV Viewing, Video Game Play Contribute to Kids' Attention Problems, Study Finds

ScienceDaily (July 7, 2010) — Parents looking to get their kid's attention -- or keeping them focused at home and in the classroom -- should try to limit their television viewing and video game play. That's because a new study led by three Iowa State University psychologists has found that both viewing television and playing video games are associated with increased attention problems in youths.

he research, which included both elementary school-age and college-age participants, found that children who exceeded the two hours per day of screen time recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics were 1.5 to 2 times more likely to be above average in attention problems.
"There isn't an exact number of hours when screen time contributes to attention problems, but the AAP recommendation of no more than two hours a day provides a good reference point," said Edward Swing, an Iowa State psychology doctoral candidate and lead researcher in the study. "Most children are way above that. In our sample, children's total average time with television and video games is 4.26 hours per day, which is actually low compared to the national average."
Collaborating with Swing on the research were ISU's Douglas Gentile, an associate professor of psychology and Craig Anderson, a Distinguished Professor of psychology; and David Walsh, a Minneapolis psychologist. Their study will be published in the August print issue of Pediatrics -- the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics -- available online on Monday, July 5.
Studies on elementary, college-aged youths
The researchers assessed 1,323 children in third, fourth and fifth grades over 13 months, using reports from the parents and children about their video game and television habits, as well as teacher reports of attention problems. Another group of 210 college students provided self-reports of television habits, video game exposure and attention problems.
Previous research had associated television viewing with attention problems in children. The new study also found similar effects from the amount of time spent with video games.
"It is still not clear why screen media may increase attention problems, but many researchers speculate that it may be due to rapid-pacing, or the natural attention grabbing aspects that television and video games use," Swing said.
Gentile reports that the pace of television programming has been quickened by "the MTV effect."
"When MTV came on, it started showing music videos that had very quick edits -- cuts once every second or two," Gentile said. "Consequently, the pacing of other television and films sped up too, with much quicker edits."
He says that quicker pace may have some brain-changing effects when it comes to attention span.
"Brain science demonstrates that the brain becomes what the brain does," Gentile said. "If we train the brain to require constant stimulation and constant flickering lights, changes in sound and camera angle, or immediate feedback, such as video games can provide, then when the child lands in the classroom where the teacher doesn't have a million-dollar-per-episode budget, it may be hard to get children to sustain their attention."
The study showed that the effect was similar in magnitude between video games and TV viewing.
TV, video games may contribute to ADHD
Based on the study's findings, Swing and Gentile conclude that TV and video game viewing may be one contributing factor for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children.
"ADHD is a medical condition, but it's a brain condition," Gentile said. "We know that the brain adapts and changes based on the environmental stimuli to which it is exposed repeatedly. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to believe that environmental stimuli can increase the risk for a medical condition like ADHD in the same way that environmental stimuli, like cigarettes, can increase the risk for cancer."
"Although we did not specifically study the medical condition of ADHD in these studies, we did focus on the kinds of attention problems that are experienced by students with ADHD," added Swing. "We were surprised, for example, that attention problems in the classroom would increase in just one year for those children with the highest screen time."
Swing points out that the associations between attention problems and TV and video game exposure are significant, but small.
"It is important to note that television or video game time cannot solely explain the development of attention problems," he said. "Clearly other factors are involved."
The researchers plan to continue studying the effects of screen time on attention. They also hope future research can identify what aspects of television or video games may be most relevant to attention problems.

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Friday, January 14, 2011

Brain Scans Show Children With ADHD Have Faulty Off-Switch For Mind-Wandering

Brain scans of children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have shown for the first time why people affected by the condition sometimes have such difficulty in concentrating. The study, funded by the Wellcome Trust, may explain why parents often say that their child can maintain concentration when they are doing something that interests them, but struggles with boring tasks.

Using a 'Whac-a-Mole' style game, researchers from the Motivation, Inhibition and Development in ADHD Study (MIDAS) group at the University of Nottingham found evidence that children with ADHD require either much greater incentives - or their usual stimulant medication - to focus on a task. When the incentive was low, the children with ADHD failed to "switch off" brain regions involved in mind-wandering. When the incentive was high, however, or they were taking their medication, their brain activity was indistinguishable from a typically-developing non-ADHD child.

ADHD is the most common mental health disorder in childhood, affecting around one in 50 children in the UK. Children with ADHD are excessively restless, impulsive and distractible, and experience difficulties at home and in school. Although no cure exists for the condition, symptoms can be reduced by medication and/or behavioural therapy. The drug methylphenidate (more often known by the brand name Ritalin) is commonly used to treat the condition.

Previous studies have shown that children with ADHD have difficulty in 'switching-off' the default mode network (DMN) in their brains. This network is usually active when we are doing nothing, giving rise to spontaneous thoughts or 'daydreams', but is suppressed when we are focused on the task before us. In children with ADHD, however, it is thought that the DMN may be insufficiently suppressed on 'boring' tasks that require focused attention.

The MIDAS group researchers compared brain scans of eighteen children with ADHD, aged between nine and fifteen years old, against scans of a similar group of children without the condition as both groups took part in a task designed to test how well they were able to control their behaviour. The children with ADHD were tested when they were taking their methylphenidate and when they were off their medication. The findings are published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Whilst lying in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner, which can be used to measure activity in the brain, the children played a computer game in which green aliens were randomly interspersed with less frequent black aliens, each appearing for a short interval. Their task was to 'catch' as many green aliens as possible, while avoiding catching black aliens. For each slow or missed response, they would lose one point; they would gain one point for each timely response.

To study the effect of incentives, the reward for avoiding catching the black alien was then increased to five points, with a five-point penalty incurred for catching the wrong alien.

By studying the brain scans, the researchers were able to show that typically developing children switched off their DMN network whenever they saw an item requiring their attention. However, unless the incentive was high, or they had taken their medication, the children with ADHD would fail to switch off the DMN and would perform poorly. This effect of incentives was not seen in children without ADHD - activity in their DMN was switched off by items requiring their attention regardless of the incentive on offer.

Professor Chris Hollis, who led the study, says: "The results are exciting because for the first time we are beginning to understand how in children with ADHD incentives and stimulant medication work in a similar way to alter patterns of brain activity and enable them to concentrate and focus better. It also explains why in children with ADHD their performance is often so variable and inconsistent, depending as it does on their interest in a particular task."

Dr Martin Batty, co-author of the study, adds: "Using brain imaging, we have been able to see inside the children's heads and observe what it is about ADHD that is stopping them concentrating. Most people are able to control their 'daydreaming' state and focus on the task at hand. This is not the case with children with ADHD. If a task is not sufficiently interesting, they cannot switch off their background brain activity and they are easily distracted. Making a task more interesting - or providing methylphenidate - turns down the volume and allows them to concentrate."

Dr Elizabeth Liddle, first author of the study, says that these findings help explain one of the interesting characteristics of ADHD - that children with the condition appear able to control themselves much better when motivated to do so.

"The common complaint about children with ADHD is that 'he can concentrate and control himself fine when he wants to', so some people just think the child is being naughty when he misbehaves," says Dr Liddle. "We have shown that this may be a very real difficulty for them. The off-switch for their 'internal world' seems to need a greater incentive to function properly and allow them to attend to their task."

Craig Brierley
Wellcome Trust

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Increased Autism Risk Found In Closely Spaced Pregnancies

An examination of California birth records found second-born children were more than three times more likely to be diagnosed with autism if they were conceived within 12 months of the birth of their older sibling. The farther apart pregnancies were spaced, the lower the risk of autism. The study, "Closely Spaced Pregnancies Are Associated With Increased Odds of Autism in California Sibling Births" published in the February 2011 issue of Pediatrics (published online Jan. 10) examined the odds of autism among more than 660,000 second-born children. Compared to children who were conceived more than three years after the birth of an older sibling, children conceived after an interpregnancy interval (IPI) of less than 12 months were over three times more likely to be diagnosed with autism.

Children conceived after an IPI of 12 to 23 months were almost two times more likely to have been diagnosed with autism, and children conceived after an IPI of 24 to 35 months were one and a quarter times more likely to have been diagnosed with autism. One possible explanation for the increased risk of autism is that women are more likely to have depleted levels of nutrients such as folate and iron, as well as higher stress levels, after a recent pregnancy; however, these factors were not tested in the current study.

Study authors suggest the finding is particularly important given trends in birth spacing in the U.S.; between 1995 and 2002, the proportion of births occurring within 24 months of a previous birth increased from 11 percent to 18 percent. Closely spaced births occur because of unintended pregnancies but also by choice, particularly among older women who delay childbearing. The study was funded by the NIH Director's Pioneer Award Program.

American Academy of Pediatrics

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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Computer-based Program May Help Relieve Some ADHD Symptoms In Children

An intensive, five-week working memory training program shows promise in relieving some of the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children, a new study suggests.

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.

"This program really seemed to make a difference for many of the children with ADHD," said Steven Beck, co-author of the study an associate professor of psychology at Ohio State University.

"It is not going to replace medication, but it could be a useful complementary therapy."

Beck conducted the study with Christine Hanson and Synthia Puffenberger, graduate students in psychology at Ohio State. Their findings are published in the November/December 2010 issue of the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology.

The researchers tested software developed by a Swedish company called Cogmed, in conjunction with the Karolinska Institute, a medical university in Stockholm.

The software is designed to improve one of the major deficiencies found in people with ADHD working memory.

Working memory is the ability to hold onto information long enough to achieve a goal. For example, you have to remember a phone number long enough for you to dial it. Students have to remember the passage of a book they just read, in order to understand what they're currently reading.

"Working memory is critical in everyday life, and certainly for academic success, but it is one of the things that is very difficult for children with ADHD," Hanson said.

The study involved 52 students, aged 7 to 17, who attended a private school in Columbus that serves children with learning disabilities, many of whom also have an ADHD diagnoses. All the children used the software in their homes, under the supervision of their parents and the researchers.

The software includes a set of 25 exercises that students had to complete within 5 to 6 weeks. Each session is 30 to 40 minutes long. The exercises are in a computer-game format and are designed to help students improve their working memory. For example, in one exercise a robot will speak numbers in a certain order, and the student has to click on the numbers the robot spoke, on the computer screen, in the opposite order.

"At first the kids love it, because it is like a game," Puffenberger said. "But the software has an algorithm built in that makes the exercises harder as the students get better. So the children are always challenged."

Half the students participated at the beginning of the study. The other half were wait-listed, and completed the software program after the others were finished.

Parents and teachers of the participating students completed measures of the children's ADHD symptoms and working memory before the intervention, one month after treatment, and four months after treatment.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

by Deborah McNelis

I continuously promote how critical it is for children have the opportunity to play and explore outdoors. Increasing research demonstrates the benefits nature and playing outdoors has on the developing brain. For example, studies reveal that children regularly exposed to green spaces for play have better motor coordination, fewer attention-deficit disorders, and have more ability to concentrate.

Additionally, not only does science show us the benefits gained from time outdoors, but numerous sources are revealing the detrimental impacts the lack of nature plays.

With this focus I am thrilled to share a guest post from Sue Atkins *.
Sue states:
I am passionate about making life with children easier and more rewarding, and I am extremely enthusiastic about helping you to bring up happy, confident, well-balanced adults; today's children - tomorrow's future.

This article written by Sue Atkins, was posted yesterday on the blog, Love Outdoor Play, in support of the campaign by the same name. You can find out more information about the campaign here.

Sue Atkins: I Love Outdoor Play Because........
Outdoor play, climbing trees and riding bikes
I used to love taking my kids to the park when they were young and watching them run off to chase our dogs, jump, hide, shout, whistle, climb and explore the natural world.
Wrapped up warm with jumpers and wellies they always arrived back home with rosy cheeks, a healthy glow and a big smile.
Playgrounds are places where children’s play can take off and flourish.

Purpose of outdoor play
I think that there are two fundamental reasons why outdoor play is critical for young children.
Firstly, children develop their fine and gross motor gross skills through playing outside, as well as their dexterity and balance, all through exploring and risk-taking and having fun in the fresh air.
Secondly, children of today are growing up with so much technology, excessive TV and computer use that playing outside is really important and mustn’t be sidelined or lost, because it develops a child’s imagination, their physical stamina as well as keeping them fit.

Enjoyment of the outdoors
Ask any adult about what they loved to play as a child and you will bring back happy memories of making mud pies, jumping in puddles or climbing up trees.
Outdoor play is one of the things that characterises childhood.
Children need opportunities to explore, experiment, manipulate, explore, change, marvel, discover, practice, dam up, push their limits, yell, sing, and create.

Learning about the world
Young children learn lots of things about the world from playing outside:
How snow sounds when you pad about on it when it has first fallen.
How ice sounds when you crunch over it.
How autumn leaves feel and sound when you run through them on a sunny October day.
They learn to explore the natural world by trying to stand sticks in sand.
They learn how plants grow.
How mud feels.
How it feels to run down a hill.
How fast they can go on their bike with the wind blowing in their face.
Learning outside is fun !
And through playing kids are learning about maths, science, ecology, gardening, nature, birds, mini beasts as well as the feel of the seasons, local weather and how to entertain and occupy themselves easily and enjoyably.

Learning about self and the environment
To learn about their own physical and emotional capabilities, children must push their limits.
How high can I swing?
Do I dare to go down this big slide?
How high can I climb I wonder?
I wonder if I can go down the slide headfirst?
To learn about the physical world, the child must experiment with the physical world.

Letting of steam
As a former Deputy Head and class teacher for 22 years I found kids needed to “let off some steam” regularly from the sitting and listening mode of a classroom and going outside to play was a very important part of helping them concentrate and learn both in and out of the classroom.

Also surveys have shown that children who learn to enjoy the outdoors have a much higher likelihood of becoming adults who enjoy hiking, gardening, jogging, bicycling, golf, tennis or other outdoor activities.
Also I think playing and being active plays an important role in keeping children from obesity.

Allowing children to be children
So if you are a stressed out, tired and tense adult – get yourself and your kids down to the park to play this weekend! Join in with the running, jumping, climbing, swinging, racing, yelling, rolling, hiding, and making a big mess – let your BIG KID come out – you’ll laugh, release tension, have fun, get some exercise and relax !
You’ll also build some memories that will last all your lifetimes!
Isn’t what childhood is all about?

If you are interested in promoting or providing outdoor learning you will enjoy knowing about : Naturally Developing Brains

. * Sue Atkins is a Parenting Expert who offers practical guidance for bringing up happy, confident, well behaved children. She is also the author of “Raising Happy Children for Dummies” one in the black and yellow series published worldwide and the highly acclaimed Parenting Made Easy CDs. She regularly appears on BBC Breakfast and The Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2 and her parenting articles are published all over the world.

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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Idle Minds and What They May Say about Intelligence: When smarter people's brains are scanned while "at rest," long-distance connections appear strong

By Susan Whitfield-Gabrieli and John Gabrieli
January 5, 2010

For many years now, neuroscientists have been telling the subjects of experiments something like this: “Please lie in the MRI scanner and relax. When you see the task instructions come onto the screen in front of you, do your best.” The researcher would then use the brain’s activity during the “lie there and relax” period as a mere control condition; the object of scientific interest was always what “lights up” when a subject reads, makes financial decisions or performs some other task.

That has changed. It is now appreciated that the mind never rests. And that if we measure brain activation while a person lies in a scanner doing nothing, naturally occurring fluctuations will reveal networks that help elucidate the functional organization of the brain in fascinating new ways. Initial studies indicate that these “resting state” networks may help cast light on mental illness. And now, tantalizing new results suggest a significant link between these networks and intelligence.

Intelligence is a complex and historically controversial topic, in large part because it is difficult to define and to measure. Psychometricians have developed paper-and-pencil tests of general intelligence that tend to predict performance on a wide range of other tests and a number of life outcomes, like salary. Neuroscientists have used modern imaging methods to discover the neural correlates of intelligence as measured by these widely used tests. Many of these studies have examined the relations of IQ to brain anatomy, generally finding that greater grey matter volume or thickness across many brain regions correlates with higher IQ scores. Others have looked at functional measures taken while people perform tasks, generally finding that bilateral frontal and parietal regions are most often associated with performance on intelligence tests.

But now, for the first time, functional measures of the resting brain are providing new insights into network properties of the brain that are associated with IQ scores. In essence, they suggest that in smart people, distant areas of the brain communicate with each other more robustly than in less smart people.

In a recent paper, researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, led by Ming Song, examined how resting brain networks differ between people who have superior versus average IQ scores. They used graph theory to quantify the network properties of the brain, such as how strong the communication is among distant brain regions. A graph is a mathematical representation that is composed of nodes (or brain regions) and connections between them (functional connectivity or temporal correlations), and can be used to characterize neural networks. Like prior researchers, they found that the posterior cingulate cortex is the hub of the human brain – it is the most widely and intensively connected region of the human brain at rest. Moreover, the strength of connectivity among distant brain regions was greater in people with superior than average IQ scores. Another 2009 study came to a similar conclusion, and noted that the strongest relations between resting connectivity and IQ were observed in the frontal and parietal brain regions, which have been most associated with performance on IQ tests.

Thus, remarkably, the strength of long-distance connections in the resting brain can be related to performance on IQ tests. We are often impressed when people make creative connections between ideas – perhaps long-range connectivity in the brain empowers such mental range.

These “at rest” findings fit well into what we know of how intelligence develops in children. Previous work discovered that in typical brain development there is a progression from local to distributed network connectivity. In children, there is strong local connection and weak distant connection. That changes with age: local connectivity decreases and long-distance connectivity increases. Intelligence by almost any measure increases with age until young adulthood. Interestingly, Earlier research also found that slower thinning of the neocortex (often interpreted as pruning of synapses) was associated with higher IQs in children; perhaps the slower pruning allowed for the establishment of long-lasting long-distance connections. Thus, the strength of long-distance connections in the brain may support the growth of intelligence and influence variation in adult intelligence.

A caveat: The discovery of neurobiological correlates of IQ cannot be construed as evidence that IQ is determined by genes and fixed at birth. Most research favors the view that IQ scores are influenced both by genes and experience (like almost all human traits). Further, recent behavioral research has show that intensive training with adults can increase IQ-type scores.

These intriguing findings on intelligence are only the latest to emerge from the new strategy of using the resting mind to help discover the functional organization of the human brain. Early reports of such resting brain activity around 1995 were viewed skeptically, but many findings since 2000 that relate well to other kinds of neuroscience knowledge have made the study of resting-brain connectivity an exciting research area, in subjects ranging from human infants to primates. In at-rest studies, children or patients do not have to perform complex tasks (or any tasks). So at-rest scans are proving useful for a wide range of studies examining development and clinical disorders. Indeed, many researchers are now mining old data sets with resting periods from scanning sessions, retroactively transforming a modest control condition into a cutting-edge brain analysis. Moreover, because resting scans involve no specific task, they are readily pooled across sites into large data bases.

Already, striking differences have been observed in the patterns of resting connectivity found in autism and schizophrenia. People with autism exhibit reduced connectivity in the brain network most associated with introspection. That lower connectivity may reflect their reduced ability to focus on their own thoughts and feelings, and reduced appreciation of the inner mental worlds of others. In contrast, people with schizophrenia have exaggerated connectivity in this network. This could reflect problems of self-reference and paranoia in schizophrenia, with an overactive network encouraging patients to interpret events in their environment as having special relevance to themselves. Characteristic changes in the resting brain have been found also in depression and Alzheimer’s disease, raising the possibility that resting-brain scans may help with diagnoses.

Beyond disease, and beyond IQ, these exciting discoveries about the resting human brain raise the question of whether we are gaining the novel capacity to measure quantitatively our most intimate and unique inner selves. Are you most “you” when you’re racing through work? Or when you’re simply sitting in a chair, mind adrift, just being?

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