Thursday, December 6, 2012

What is Number Sense and How Does it Relate to Math Skills?

April 20, 2010 by Bill Jenkins, Ph.D

Let’s talk about the Approximate Number System, or just "the ANS." The ANS is the instinctive ability to nonverbally represent numbers. We constantly use this capability in every day decision making, such as choosing the shorter checkout line at the store or wanting to try a meal at a crowded restaurant. In these situations, our gut decisions are mathematically based. Evidence shows that many different species not only share this capacity, but use it to guide everyday behaviors such as foraging and judging time and distance.

So how does the ANS work in non-humans? Let’s do a little study of my two labs, Bella and Buddy. Both love to chase tennis balls, love to swim, and are highly competitive in the ball-chasing department. Buddy clearly exercises his ANS judgment routinely when I throw the ball into the water. If he and Bella approach the water’s edge at about the same time, they both jump in. On the other hand, if Bella beats him to the water by a significant distance, he recognizes instinctively that he can’t beat her to the ball in the water, so he’ll stop and wait until she brings it nearly to the shore. At that point, he jumps in and goes for the steal.

Why is the ANS important for math skills? It is believed that human mathematical competence comes from two representational systems. One is the "symbolic representations" that must be explicitly taught and are the basis for calculus and geometry. The other–the same one that Buddy uses above–is the older approximate number system. The evidence suggests that very young babies can use this ANS to make approximate number judgments, differentiating one item from two, two items from three and three items from greater than three. Further, a growing body of evidence indicates that individual differences in math achievement are related to variations in the acuity of an evolutionarily ancient, unlearned approximate number sense. Interestingly, evidence also suggests that this ANS may be subject to influence by early learning.

If you’d like to dig deeper into understanding the science of the ANS, I recommend reading Halberda and Feigernson’s 2008 study, "Developmental Change in the Acuity of the ’Number Sense’: The Approximate Number System in 3-, 4-, 5-, and 6-Year-Olds and Adults." For an overview, The New York Times published a write up on the article and even included a link to an interactive, online activity that demonstrates the ANS in action.


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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Ultrasound and Autism

 Written by: Dr. Michael Merzenich
A former UCSF medical student, Carolyn Rees, now a doc in rural Idaho, wrote me a very informative letter — and raised several interesting questions — that are definitely worth a little discussion here.
Dr. Rees asked: Is there any evidence that ultrasound examination can affect brain development?

In fact, that evidence is mixed. Over the past 10-15 years, a number of smaller studies conducted principally in North America recorded cognitive and language impairments in children that were attributable to ultrasound examination — while results in several other subsequent large studies conducted principally in the public health systems in Europe were negative.

On the other hand:
1) Elegant studies conducted in monkeys by an eminent brain scientist at Yale (Dr. Pasko Rakic) have shown that ultrasound exams result in an alteration of the normal, detailed organization of the cerebral cortex that specifically applies for neurons that are migrating into the cortex at the time of the exposure. In other words, across roughly the 2nd trimester of pregnancy when cortical layers are being formed, you can actually determine the time of administration of the ultrasound exam post hoc, by looking at the location of abnormally oriented neurons in the layers of the cerebral cortex.
Does this have a functional consequence for the brain?! No one really knows.

2) Seven or eight years ago, Sandy Blakeslee, a science reporter for the New York Times (and a long-time friend), sent me the reference to a study from a Mayo research team in Phoenix in which scientists had measured the levels of audible sound stimulation that bombards the fetus during an ultrasound exam. It turns out that in one part of an ultrasound examination the very high (“ultra”) frequency sound is “modulated” at low frequencies to generate the sharpest images. That modulation creates an audible sound that is very intense (greater than 100 decibels). It is not surprising that the third-trimester fetus — whose hearing is intact across this period — writhes in the womb when the beam moves onto the head! For the ultrasound machines investigated by the Mayo scientists, the highest sound energies transmitted to the fetus were centered in the range of frequencies that are most crucial for resolving the sounds of aural speech. You might note that any untoward consequence of an audible sound-induced exam would be limited to the third trimester, because the baby has no effective hearing until roughly the beginning of the 7th month of gestation.

I talked a doctoral student on a rotation project in my laboratory into studying the neurological impacts of simulating 1) a single exam in the third trimester; or 2) five exams — in both cases using the rat infant as our model. Simulation was relatively simple in the rat because, relative to the human baby, rats are born at a young age; their hearing is not intact until they are 11-12 days old. Sound stimuli designed to mimic sounds received by human fetuses in ultrasound exams were created with the help and advice of the Mayo Research Institute scientists. We played them to our rat babies shortly after they acquired hearing, exposing them for the measured times that would apply in a real exam(s).

Even these brief exposures to these loud sounds degraded the representation of sound frequencies in both rat groups. That degradation was especially striking in the multiply-exposed rats. Strong negative consequences of this exposure endured into adulthood. We were surprised by the magnitudes of these recorded effects. A single exposure was limited to 2 minutes (simulating the time the beam might be directed toward the human fetus’ head); multiple exposures involved only 10 minutes of total, intense-sound exposure, delivered in 5 time-separated epochs.

Five points to emphasize:
1) Given this outcome, ultrasound exposure may plausibly add to the risk of onset of a more devastating condition (e.g., autism) in an already-genetically-vulnerable fetus. It should be put on that short list of possible (unfortunately, STILL UNPROVEN) contributors to the increased rates of incidence of autism. As with the exposure to chemical poisons (non-coplanar PCBs; PBDEs), the use of ultrasound has increased dramatically over the past two decades, and third-trimester exams have become routine.

2) Ultrasound examinations have been shown to have little or no medical value in the third trimester. I was surprised to learn from the medical literature that they do not make any key contribution to medical decisions or significantly change medical outcomes over this period. It can be argued that they have considerable sociological value strengthening doctor-patient and parent-fetus relationships — which are undeniably important. But beyond that, excepting a tiny percentages of cases, they are an unnecessary aspect of prenatal care — unless you want a picture of fetal-Sissie or fetal-Junior hanging above the mantlepiece!

3) Boutique photography shops with ultrasound machines that can provide you with a crystal-clear picture of little Sally-fetus or Jerry, Jr-fetus would seem to this scientist to be more than a little bit over the top.

4) Guess who is in line for MULTIPLE ultrasonic exams? Those kids already at greatest risk for cognitive problems are high on this list. Alas.

5) Different ultrasound manufacturers use different strategies for modulating the ultrasound stimulation to generate the most-resolved images, and some generate more intensely audible sounds than others. I’ve had trouble running down these specs before writing this entry. I’ll contact the scientists in Phoenix and provide a table in a future entry.

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Nature AND Nurture

Friday, October 19, 2012

Childhood stimulation key to brain development, study finds

Alok Jha, science correspondent
The Guardian, Sunday 14 October 2012

Twenty-year research project shows that most critical aspect of cortex development in late teens was stimulation aged four

An early childhood surrounded by books and educational toys will leave positive fingerprints on a person's brain well into their late teens, a two-decade-long research study has shown.

Scientists found that the more mental stimulation a child gets around the age of four, the more developed the parts of their brains dedicated to language and cognition will be in the decades ahead.

It is known that childhood experience influences brain development but the only evidence scientists have had for this has usually come from extreme cases such as children who had been abused or suffered trauma. Martha Farah, director of the centre for neuroscience and society at the University of Pennsylvania, who led the latest study, wanted to find out how a normal range of experiences in childhood might influence the development of the brain.

Farah took data from surveys of home life and brain scans of 64 participants carried out over the course of 20 years. Her results, presented on Sunday at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans, showed that cognitive stimulation from parents at the age of four was the key factor in predicting the development of several parts of the cortex – the layer of grey matter on the outside of the brain – 15 years later.

The participants had been tracked since they were four years old. Researchers had visited their homes and recorded a series of details about their lives to measure cognitive stimulation, details such as the number of children's books they had, whether they had toys that taught them about colours, numbers or letters, or whether they played with real or toy musical instruments.

The researchers also scored the participants on "parental nurturance" – how much warmth, support or care the child got from the parent. The researchers carried out the same surveys when the children were eight years old. When the participants were between 17 and 19, they had their brains scanned.

Farah's results showed that the development of the cortex in late teens was closely correlated with a child's cognitive stimulation at the age of four. All other factors including parental nurturance at all ages and cognitive stimulation at age eight – had no effect. Farah said her results were evidence for the existence of a sensitive period, early in a person's life, that determined the optimal development of the cortex. "It really does support the idea that those early years are especially influential."

As the brain matures during childhood and adolescence, brain cells in the cortex are pruned back and, as unnecessary cells are eliminated, the cortex gets thinner. Farah found that the more cognitive stimulation a participant had had at the age of four, the thinner, and therefore more developed, their cortex. "It almost looks like whatever the normal developmental process is, has either accelerated or gone further in the kids with the better cognitive stimulation," she said.

The most strongly affected region was the lateral left temporal cortex, which is on the surface of the brain, behind the ear. This region is involved in semantic memory, processing word meanings and general knowledge about the world.

Around the time the participants had their brains scanned in their late teens, they were also given language tests and, Farah said, the thinner their cortex, the better their language comprehension.

Andrea Danese, a clinical lecturer in child and adolescent psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, said the study suggested that the experience of a nurturing home environment could have an effect on brain development regardless of familial, perhaps genetic, predispositions to better brains. Danese added that this kind of research highlighted the "tremendous role" that parents and carers had to play in enabling children to develop their cognitive, social, and emotional skills by providing safe, predictable, stimulating, and responsive personal interactions with children.

"Parents may not be around when their teenage children are faced with important choices about choosing peers, experimenting with drugs, engaging in sexual relationships, or staying in education," said Danese. "Yet, parents can lay the foundations for their teenage children to take good decisions, for example by promoting their ability to retain and elaborate information, or to balance the desire for immediate reward with the one for greater, long-term goals since a young age."

Bruce Hood, an experimental psychologist who specialises in developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of Bristol, said his advice to parents was just to "be kind to your children. Unless you raise them in a cardboard box without any stimulation or interaction, then they will probably be just fine."

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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Autism Risk Linked To Space Between First And Second Pregnancy

Written by Christian Nordqvist

A second child is three times more likely to be diagnosed with autism if they are born within twelve months of their siblings, compared to those born three or more years apart, researchers from the Lazarsfeld Center for the Social Sciences at Columbia University, New York revealed in the journal Pediatrics. The investigators gathered information on 660,000 second children born in California between 1992 to 2002.

Sociologist Peter Bearman, and team set out to find out whether there might be a link between the length of time between the birth of one child and his/her brother or sister and autism risk. They found that in cases where pregnancies were less than 12 months apart, the risk of autism in the second-born child was three times as high, compared to pregnancies spaced at least three years apart.

They also found that pregnancy spaced between 1 to 2 years apart had double the risk of autism in the second child compared to those at least 3 years apart.

The researchers examined data from the California Department of Developmental Services to determine how many children had been diagnosed with autism.

Even when other factors that might influence autism risk were taken into account, such as the age of the mother or father, low birth weight, or being born preterm, "we see this really profound association". The authors added that they could not clearly determine what the causes might be.

Peter Bearman said:

"When you see something so robust and so stable, it provides an important clue as to what we should be looking at next."

They suggest that possibly a mother who soon becomes pregnant again may not have fully replenished crucial nutrients. Perhaps parents are better at identifying autism-like traits, such as delayed milestones, after their second child is born.

The authors explained that their study did not include autism in first-born children.

Previous studies had found a link between higher autism risk in a second child if the first child had an autism spectrum disorder, including Asperger's syndrome.

The authors concluded in the journal's abstract:

"These results suggest that children born after shorter intervals between pregnancies are at increased risk of developing autism; the highest risk was associated with pregnancies spaced <1 apart.="apart." br="br" year="year">

According to data from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the incidence of autism in the USA has risen tenfold during the last four decades, to approximately 1 in every 110 children in 2006.

Although increased awareness and better diagnosing techniques account for some of the increase, Bearman believes that other factors have also had an impact.

A comprehensive study published in the BMJ (British Medical Journal) last week clearly showed that a 1998 report by Dr. Andrew Wakefield linking childhood vaccines to autism risk was "an elaborate fraud". BMJ editor in Chief, Dr. Fiona Godlee said "The MMR scare was based not on bad science but on a deliberate fraud.. (such) clear evidence of falsification of data should now close the door on this damaging vaccine scare." Link to article about the report

"Closely Spaced Pregnancies Are Associated With Increased Odds of Autism in California Sibling Births"
Keely Cheslack-Postava, PhD, MSPH, Kayuet Liu, DPhil, Peter S. Bearman, PhD
PEDIATRICS January 10, 2012 (doi:10.1542/peds.2010-2371)

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Thursday, June 14, 2012

It is Not Only Cars That Deserve Good Maintenance: Brain Care 101

By: Alvaro Fernandez

Last week, the US Car Care Coun­cil released a list of tips on how to take care of your car and “save big money at the pump in 2008.”

You may not have paid much atten­tion to this announce­ment. Yes, it’s impor­tant to save gas these days; but, it’s not big news that good main­te­nance habits will improve the per­for­mance of a car, and extend its life.

If we can all agree on the impor­tance of main­tain­ing our cars that get us around town, what about main­tain­ing our brains sit­ting behind the wheel?

A spate of recent news cov­er­age on brain fit­ness and “brain train­ing” has missed an impor­tant con­stituency: younger peo­ple. Recent advance­ments in brain sci­ence have as tremen­dous impli­ca­tions for teenagers and adults of all ages as they do for seniors.

In a recent con­ver­sa­tion with neu­ro­sci­en­tist Yaakov Stern of Colum­bia Uni­ver­sity , he related how sur­prised he was when, years ago, a reporter from Sev­en­teen mag­a­zine requested an inter­view. The reporter told Dr. Stern that he wanted to write an arti­cle to moti­vate kids to stay in school and not to drop out, in order to start build­ing their Cog­ni­tive Reserve early and age more gracefully.

What is the Cog­ni­tive Reserve?

Emerg­ing research since the 90s from the past decade shows that indi­vid­u­als who lead men­tally stim­u­lat­ing lives, through their edu­ca­tion, their jobs, and also their hob­bies, build a “Cog­ni­tive Reserve” in their brains. Only a few weeks ago another study rein­forced the value of intel­lec­tu­aly demand­ing jobs.

Stim­u­lat­ing the brain can lit­er­ally gen­er­ate new neu­rons and strengthen their con­nec­tions which results in bet­ter brain per­for­mance and in hav­ing a lower risk of devel­op­ing Alzheimer’s symp­toms. Stud­ies sug­gest that peo­ple who exer­cise their men­tal mus­cles through­out their lives have a 35–40% less risk of man­i­fest­ing Alzheimer’s.

As astound­ing as these insights may be, most Amer­i­cans still devote more time to chang­ing the oil, tak­ing a car to a mechanic, or wash­ing it, than think­ing about how to main­tain, if not improve, their brain performance.

Fur­ther, bet­ter brain scan­ning tech­niques like fMRI (glos­sary ) are allow­ing sci­en­tists to inves­ti­gate healthy live brains for the first time in his­tory. Two of the most impor­tant find­ings from this research are that our brains are plas­tic (mean­ing they not only cre­ate new neu­rons but also can change their struc­ture) through­out a life­time and that frontal lobes are the most plas­tic area. Frontal lobes, the part of our brains right behind the fore­head, con­trols “exec­u­tive func­tions” — which deter­mine our abil­ity to pay atten­tion, plan for the future and direct behav­ior toward achiev­ing goals. They are crit­i­cal for adapt­ing to new sit­u­a­tions. We exer­cise them best by learn­ing and mas­ter­ing new skills.

This part of the brain is del­i­cate: our frontal lobes wait until our mid to late 20s to fully mature. They are also the first part of our brain to start to decline, usu­ally by mid­dle age.

In my view, not enough young and middle-aged peo­ple are ben­e­fit­ing from this emerg­ing research, since it has been per­ceived as some­thing “for seniors.” Granted, there are still many unknowns in the world of brain fit­ness and cog­ni­tive train­ing, we need more research, bet­ter assess­ments and tools. But, this does not mean we can­not start car­ing for our brains today.

Recent stud­ies have shown a tremen­dous vari­abil­ity in how well peo­ple age and how, to a large extent, our actions influ­ence our rate of brain improve­ment and/or decline. The ear­lier we begin the bet­ter. And it is never too late.

What can we do to main­tain our brain, espe­cially the frontal lobes? Focus on four pil­lars of brain health: phys­i­cal exer­cise , a bal­anced diet , stress man­age­ment , and brain exer­cise . Stress man­age­ment is impor­tant since stress has been shown to actu­ally kill neu­rons and reduce the rate of cre­ation of new ones. Brain exer­cises range from low-tech (i.e. med­i­ta­tion , mas­ter­ing new com­plex skills, life­long learn­ing and engage­ment ) to high-tech (i.e. using the grow­ing num­ber of brain fit­ness soft­ware pro­grams ).

I know, this is start­ing to sound like those lists we all know are good for us but we actu­ally don’t do. Let me make it eas­ier by propos­ing a new New Year Res­o­lu­tion for 2008: every time you wash your car or have it washed in 2008, ask your­self, “What have I done lately to main­tain my brain?”

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Brain Plasticity: How learning changes your brain

By: Dr. Pascale Michelon

You may have heard that the brain is plas­tic. As you know the brain is not made of plas­tic! Neu­ro­plas­tic­ity or brain plas­tic­ity refers to the brain’s abil­ity to CHANGE through­out life. The brain has the amaz­ing abil­ity to reor­ga­nize itself by form­ing new con­nec­tions between brain cells (neurons).

In addi­tion to genetic fac­tors, the envi­ron­ment in which a per­son lives, as well as the actions of that per­son, play a role in plasticity.

Neu­ro­plas­tic­ity occurs in the brain:

1– At the begin­ning of life: when the imma­ture brain orga­nizes itself.

2– In case of brain injury: to com­pen­sate for lost func­tions or max­i­mize remain­ing functions.

3– Through adult­hood: when­ever some­thing new is learned and memorized
Plas­tic­ity and brain injury

A sur­pris­ing con­se­quence of neu­ro­plas­tic­ity is that the brain activ­ity asso­ci­ated with a given func­tion can move to a dif­fer­ent loca­tion as a con­se­quence of nor­mal expe­ri­ence, brain dam­age or recovery.

In his book “The Brain That Changes Itself: Sto­ries of Per­sonal Tri­umph from the Fron­tiers of Brain Sci­ence , Nor­man Doidge describes numer­ous exam­ples of func­tional shifts.

In one of them, a sur­geon in his 50s suf­fers a stroke. His left arm is par­a­lyzed. Dur­ing his reha­bil­i­ta­tion, his good arm and hand are immo­bi­lized, and he is set to clean­ing tables. The task is at first impos­si­ble. Then slowly the bad arm remem­bers how too move. He learns to write again, to play ten­nis again: the func­tions of the brain areas killed in the stroke have trans­ferred them­selves to healthy regions!

The brain com­pen­sates for dam­age by reor­ga­niz­ing and form­ing new con­nec­tions between intact neu­rons. In order to recon­nect, the neu­rons need to be stim­u­lated through activity.

Plas­tic­ity, learn­ing and memory

For a long time, it was believed that as we aged, the con­nec­tions in the brain became fixed. Research has shown that in fact the brain never stops chang­ing through learn­ing. Plas­tic­ity IS the capac­ity of the brain to change with learn­ing. Changes asso­ci­ated with learn­ing occur mostly at the level of the con­nec­tions between neu­rons. New con­nec­tions can form and the inter­nal struc­ture of the exist­ing synapses can change.

Did you know that when you become an expert in a spe­cific domain, the areas in your brain that deal with this type of skill will grow?

For instance, Lon­don taxi dri­vers have a larger hip­pocam­pus (in the pos­te­rior region) than Lon­don bus dri­vers (Maguire, Wool­lett, & Spiers, 2006). Why is that? It is because this region of the hip­pocam­pus is spe­cial­ized in acquir­ing and using com­plex spa­tial infor­ma­tion in order to nav­i­gate effi­ciently. Taxi dri­vers have to nav­i­gate around Lon­don whereas bus dri­vers fol­low a lim­ited set of routes.

Plas­tic­ity can also be observed in the brains of bilin­guals (Mechelli et al., 2004). It looks like learn­ing a sec­ond lan­guage is pos­si­ble through func­tional changes in the brain: the left infe­rior pari­etal cor­tex is larger in bilin­gual brains than in mono­lin­gual brains.

Plas­tic changes also occur in musi­cians brains com­pared to non-musicians. Gaser and Schlaug (2003) com­pared pro­fes­sional musi­cians (who prac­tice at least 1hour per day) to ama­teur musi­cians and non-musicians. They found that gray mat­ter (cor­tex) vol­ume was high­est in pro­fes­sional musi­cians, inter­me­di­ate in ama­teur musi­cians, and low­est in non-musicians in sev­eral brain areas involved in play­ing music: motor regions, ante­rior supe­rior pari­etal areas and infe­rior tem­po­ral areas.

Finally, Dra­gan­ski and col­leagues (2006) recently showed that exten­sive learn­ing of abstract infor­ma­tion can also trig­ger some plas­tic changes in the brain. They imaged the brains of Ger­man med­ical stu­dents 3 months before their med­ical exam and right after the exam and com­pared them to brains of stu­dents who were not study­ing for exam at this time. Med­ical stu­dents’ brains showed learning-induced changes in regions of the pari­etal cor­tex as well as in the pos­te­rior hip­pocam­pus. These regions of the brains are known to be involved in mem­ory retrieval and learning.

To go fur­ther: Q and A about Brain plas­tic­ity

Q: Can hor­mones change my brain?

A: It seems that the brain reacts toits hor­monal milieu with struc­tural mod­i­fi­ca­tions. Read more: Can the pill change women’s brains .

Q: Can new neu­rons grow in my brain?

A: Yes in some areas and through­out your life­time. Learn how and read about what hap­pens to these new neu­rons here: New neu­rons: good news, bad news .

Q: Where can I find more information?

A: Read the answers to 15 com­mon ques­tions about neu­ro­plas­tic­ity and brain fitness

Q: Can you rec­om­mend a good book to learn more about all this and how to apply it?

A: Sure! We pub­lished The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness: 18 Inter­views with Sci­en­tists, Prac­ti­cal Advice, and Prod­uct Reviews, to Main­tain Your Brain Sharp (April 2009; 182 pages) to pro­vide a com­pre­hen­sive and acces­si­ble entry into the research AND how to apply it. And we’re happy to report that AARP named it a Best Book on the subject!


Finally, you will find more related infor­ma­tion on how to improve con­cen­tra­tion and mem­ory by check­ing out these resources:

- Neu­ro­science Inter­view Series : inter­views with over 15 brain sci­en­tists and experts.

- Col­lec­tion of brain teasers and games : atten­tion, mem­ory, problem-solving, visual, and more.

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Working Memory and the Classroom

Why it is important to assess Working Memory in an educational setting
Published on June 11, 2012 by Tracy P. Alloway, Ph.D. in Keep It in Mind

As a psychologist, I have spent over a decade investigating how Working Memory is crucial to learning. Throughout this journey, I have the privilege of working closely with educators and parents and I am grateful to those who have contacted me and taken me beyond the world of theory and data to see the classroom from their perspective. Here are excerpts from some recent emails:

I have an 8-year-old son who has been struggling with school since he was 5. I've taken him to several psychologists, psychiatrists, and even pediatric neurologists and I have not gotten a clear diagnosis other than ADHD. What I noticed is that my son has an issue with his working memory. All of the research I did points to this being his major problem.

Samantha is 12 and has been assessed as having difficulties with her working memory. The school has identified this [and] I am keen to see if I can find ways to help my daughter.

Now more than ever, it is crucial to accurately assess Working Memory. The incidence of learning disorders is increasing and there is growing awareness of how Working Memory deficits feature in a number of learning difficulties. Working memory has also been described as a ‘controller’, a cognitive resource that can keep a goal in mind, bring in cognitive resources from different parts of the brain, and also manage incoming information.

Each of the learning needs listed in the Figure have very different areas of difficulty. For example, students with dyslexia are characterized by their trouble reading, those with dyscalculia find an assortment of math problems tricky, students with dyspraxia have motor impairments, those with ADHD display troublesome behavior, and students with Autistic Spectrum Disorder have limited social skills. Given their distinctive profile, what do these groups have in common? All of them have a weakness in working memory. That is not to say that poor working memory causes the core deficit in their respective disorder. However, it coexists as a separate problem and ultimately leads to learning difficulties. For example, a deficit in working memory does not cause motor problems, however in my own published research I found that working memory weaknesses in a student with dyspraxia leads to learning difficulties, regardless of their IQ.

Research to date indicates that teachers’ awareness of working memory deficits in the classroom can still be quite low. In a recent study, the majority of teachers interviewed only picked up early warning signs of working memory failure in their students 25 percent of the time, often thinking that the students were unmotivated or daydreaming instead.

So how can an educator accurately diagnosis a potential Working Memory problem in a student? Stemming from my research findings, I have published the Automated Working Memory Assessment, a computer-based assessment of working memory that has automatised test administration and presents results in a form that is easy to interpret by non-experts. The AWMA provides measures each of verbal and visuo-spatial short-term memory and working memory and currently, it is the only standardised assessment of working memory available for teachers to use. Not only does the AWMA eliminate the need for prior training in test administration, it also provides a practical and convenient way for educators to screen students for significant working memory problems. It is standardised for use from childhood (five years) to adulthood (80 years) in a revised version (due end-2012).

Once the specific strengths and weaknesses of a student’s working memory profile are known, specific and targeted accommodations can be made to support learning. The aim in supporting students with learning difficulties is not just to help them survive in the classroom, but to thrive as well. Strategies can provide scaffolding and support that will unlock their working memory potential to boost learning.

Recently, there has been an explosion of research investigating the potential benefits of training Working Memory. In a recent study of students with learning difficulties, a computerized working memory training programme ( was found to significantly improve verbal and visual-spatial working memory, IQ scores, as well as language scores as measured by standardized assessments.

When working with schools, I have seen how supporting their Working Memory can make a significant difference to their learning and ultimately their academic success. The interested reader is welcome to look at the resources listed below for further information on Working Memory and learning.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Working Memory in Any Language: Is It the Same?

Published on February 13, 2012 by Tracy P. Alloway, Ph.D.

Working memory is critical for many activities at school, from complex subjects such as reading comprehension, mental arithmetic, and word problems to simple tasks like copying from the board and navigating the halls. We have a limited space for processing information, and the size of various individuals' working memory capacity can vary greatly. For example, a 7-year-old who has working-memory problems may have a working memory capacity the same size as an average 4-year-old. This student will likely find it difficult to keep up with what the teacher says, will struggle to remember instructions, and will mix up words. In contrast, another 7-year-old may have working-memory skills the same size as an average 10-year-old. This student will be the first to finish individual work, will respond quickly to questions during group time, and may even be bored by school.

In everyday classroom activities, students with poor working memory often struggle in activities that place heavy demands on working memory. Thus, it is especially important for educators to be able to directly and accurately assess Working Memory. In my own research, I have published the Automated Working Memory Assessment (AWMA; published by Pearson Assessment, UK), a standardized assessment of verbal and visuo-spatial Working Memory. Not only does the AWMA eliminate the need for prior training in test administration, it also provides a practical and convenient way for educators to screen students for significant working memory problems. Currently, it is the only standardized assessment of working memory available for educators to use, and to date has been translated into 15 languages. Details on the reliability and validity of the AWMA, including research on it use with different learning needs populations, like dyslexia, ADHD, and Autistic Spectrum Disorder, can be found here:

A key question is whether the AWMA provides an accurate assessment of Working Memory in other languages. This is a question that colleagues of mine in Argentina were particularly interested in. The first step was to translate all 12 tests of the AWMA into Spanish. My colleagues who conducted the translation took into account various aspects of phonology, orthography, syntax, semantics, and communicational context (such as, word frequency). They also compared the translation, especially of the verbal tests, to a written work of different literary genres, such as popular science, editorial essays, and news articles from diverse Spanish-speaking countries, not only Spain or a particular Hispano- American country.

Next they recruited 6, 8, and 11 year olds from different demographic backgrounds in Buenos Aires and gave them the Spanish version of the AWMA. My colleagues found very similar patterns in performance between the Spanish-speaking children and the English-speaking children that I tested. Importantly, their results demonstrate that a normal distribution of scores and good relationship between the test scores.

This Spanish translation offers the first step in creating testing materials that are culturally appropriate and offers psychologists and clinicians an opportunity to reliably test Working Memory. The AWMA (and the various translations) is available from Pearson Assessment, UK.

Reference: Injoque-Ricle, I., Calero, A.D., Alloway, T.P., & Burin, D.I. (2011). Assessing Working Memory in Spanish-Speaking Children: Automated Working Memory Assessment Battery Adaptation. Learning and Individual Differences, 21, 78-84.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

How Exercise Could Lead to a Better Brain

Published: April 18, 2012

The value of mental-training games may be speculative, as Dan Hurley writes in his article on the quest to make ourselves smarter, but there is another, easy-to-achieve, scientifically proven way to make yourself smarter. Go for a walk or a swim. For more than a decade, neuroscientists and physiologists have been gathering evidence of the beneficial relationship between exercise and brainpower. But the newest findings make it clear that this isn’t just a relationship; it is the relationship. Using sophisticated technologies to examine the workings of individual neurons — and the makeup of brain matter itself — scientists in just the past few months have discovered that exercise appears to build a brain that resists physical shrinkage and enhance cognitive flexibility. Exercise, the latest neuroscience suggests, does more to bolster thinking than thinking does.

The most persuasive evidence comes from several new studies of lab animals living in busy, exciting cages. It has long been known that so-called “enriched” environments — homes filled with toys and engaging, novel tasks — lead to improvements in the brainpower of lab animals. In most instances, such environmental enrichment also includes a running wheel, because mice and rats generally enjoy running. Until recently, there was little research done to tease out the particular effects of running versus those of playing with new toys or engaging the mind in other ways that don’t increase the heart rate.

So, last year a team of researchers led by Justin S. Rhodes, a psychology professor at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois, gathered four groups of mice and set them into four distinct living arrangements. One group lived in a world of sensual and gustatory plenty, dining on nuts, fruits and cheeses, their food occasionally dusted with cinnamon, all of it washed down with variously flavored waters. Their “beds” were colorful plastic igloos occupying one corner of the cage. Neon-hued balls, plastic tunnels, nibble-able blocks, mirrors and seesaws filled other parts of the cage. Group 2 had access to all of these pleasures, plus they had small disc-shaped running wheels in their cages. A third group’s cages held no embellishments, and they received standard, dull kibble. And the fourth group’s homes contained the running wheels but no other toys or treats.

All the animals completed a series of cognitive tests at the start of the study and were injected with a substance that allows scientists to track changes in their brain structures. Then they ran, played or, if their environment was unenriched, lolled about in their cages for several months.

Afterward, Rhodes’s team put the mice through the same cognitive tests and examined brain tissues. It turned out that the toys and tastes, no matter how stimulating, had not improved the animals’ brains.

“Only one thing had mattered,” Rhodes says, “and that’s whether they had a running wheel.” Animals that exercised, whether or not they had any other enrichments in their cages, had healthier brains and performed significantly better on cognitive tests than the other mice. Animals that didn’t run, no matter how enriched their world was otherwise, did not improve their brainpower in the complex, lasting ways that Rhodes’s team was studying. “They loved the toys,” Rhodes says, and the mice rarely ventured into the empty, quieter portions of their cages. But unless they also exercised, they did not become smarter.

Why would exercise build brainpower in ways that thinking might not? The brain, like all muscles and organs, is a tissue, and its function declines with underuse and age. Beginning in our late 20s, most of us will lose about 1 percent annually of the volume of the hippocampus, a key portion of the brain related to memory and certain types of learning.

Exercise though seems to slow or reverse the brain’s physical decay, much as it does with muscles. Although scientists thought until recently that humans were born with a certain number of brain cells and would never generate more, they now know better. In the 1990s, using a technique that marks newborn cells, researchers determined during autopsies that adult human brains contained quite a few new neurons. Fresh cells were especially prevalent in the hippocampus, indicating that neurogenesis — or the creation of new brain cells — was primarily occurring there. Even more heartening, scientists found that exercise jump-starts neurogenesis. Mice and rats that ran for a few weeks generally had about twice as many new neurons in their hippocampi as sedentary animals. Their brains, like other muscles, were bulking up.

But it was the ineffable effect that exercise had on the functioning of the newly formed neurons that was most startling. Brain cells can improve intellect only if they join the existing neural network, and many do not, instead rattling aimlessly around in the brain for a while before dying.

One way to pull neurons into the network, however, is to learn something. In a 2007 study, new brain cells in mice became looped into the animals’ neural networks if the mice learned to navigate a water maze, a task that is cognitively but not physically taxing. But these brain cells were very limited in what they could do. When the researchers studied brain activity afterward, they found that the newly wired cells fired only when the animals navigated the maze again, not when they practiced other cognitive tasks. The learning encoded in those cells did not transfer to other types of rodent thinking.

Exercise, on the other hand, seems to make neurons nimble. When researchers in a separate study had mice run, the animals’ brains readily wired many new neurons into the neural network. But those neurons didn’t fire later only during running. They also lighted up when the animals practiced cognitive skills, like exploring unfamiliar environments. In the mice, running, unlike learning, had created brain cells that could multitask.

Just how exercise remakes minds on a molecular level is not yet fully understood, but research suggests that exercise prompts increases in something called brain-derived neurotropic factor, or B.D.N.F., a substance that strengthens cells and axons, fortifies the connections among neurons and sparks neurogenesis. Scientists can’t directly study similar effects in human brains, but they have found that after workouts, most people display higher B.D.N.F. levels in their bloodstreams.

Few if any researchers think that more B.D.N.F. explains all of the brain changes associated with exercise. The full process almost certainly involves multiple complex biochemical and genetic cascades. A recent study of the brains of elderly mice, for instance, found 117 genes that were expressed differently in the brains of animals that began a program of running, compared with those that remained sedentary, and the scientists were looking at only a small portion of the many genes that might be expressed differently in the brain by exercise.

Whether any type of exercise will produce these desirable effects is another unanswered and intriguing issue. “It’s not clear if the activity has to be endurance exercise,” says the psychologist and neuroscientist Arthur F. Kramer, director of the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois and a pre-eminent expert on exercise and the brain. A limited number of studies in the past several years have found cognitive benefits among older people who lifted weights for a year and did not otherwise exercise. But most studies to date, and all animal experiments, have involved running or other aerobic activities.

Whatever the activity, though, an emerging message from the most recent science is that exercise needn’t be exhausting to be effective for the brain. When a group of 120 older men and women were assigned to walking or stretching programs for a major 2011 study, the walkers wound up with larger hippocampi after a year. Meanwhile, the stretchers lost volume to normal atrophy. The walkers also displayed higher levels of B.D.N.F. in their bloodstreams than the stretching group and performed better on cognitive tests.

In effect, the researchers concluded, the walkers had regained two years or more of hippocampal youth. Sixty-five-year-olds had achieved the brains of 63-year-olds simply by walking, which is encouraging news for anyone worried that what we’re all facing as we move into our later years is a life of slow (or not so slow) mental decline.

Gretchen Reynolds writes the Phys Ed column for The Times’s Well blog. Her book, ‘‘The First 20 Minutes,’’ about the science of exercise, will be published this month.

Editor: Ilena Silverman

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Behavioral Techniques for Children With ADHD

Learning behavior management techniques is considered to be an essential part of any successful ADHD treatment program for children. Most experts agree that combining medication treatments with extended behavior management is the most effective way to manage ADHD in children and adolescents.

There are three basic categories or levels of ADHD behavioral training for children:
1) Parent training in effective child behavior management methods.
2) Classroom behavior modification techniques and academic interventions.
3) Special educational placement.
Behavior management is most often used with younger children with ADHD, but it can be used in adolescents up to 18 years old and even adults. In children and adolescents, the two basic principles are:
  • Modeling behavior by encouraging good behavior with healthy praise or rewards. This works best if the reward or praise immediately follows the positive behavior.
  • Negatively reinforcing bad behavior by allowing appropriate consequences to occur naturally.
Behavior Management Strategies for Preschoolers (Age 5 and Younger)
To help younger kids with ADHD, try these behavior management techniques:
  •  Provide a consistent routine to the days and structure to the environment. Let them know when the routine is changing or something unusual is going to happen, such as a visit from a relative, a trip to the store, or a vacation.
  • Give your child clear boundaries and expectations. These instructions and guidelines are best given right before the activity or situation.
  • Devise an appropriate reward system for good behavior or for completing a certain number of positive behaviors, such as a merit point or gold star program with a specific reward, such as a favorite activity. Avoid using food and especially candy for rewards.
  • Engage your child in constructive and mind-building activities, such as reading, games, and puzzles by participating in the activities yourself.
  • Some parents find that using a timer for activities is a good way to build and reinforce structure. For example, setting a reasonable time limit for a bath or playtime helps train the child to expect limitations, even on pleasurable activities. Giving a child a time limit for chore completion is also useful, especially if a reward is given for finishing on time.
Behavior Management Strategies for Children Ages 6-12
Behavior management strategies for older children with ADHD may include:
  • As much as possible, give clear instructions and explanations for tasks throughout the day. If a task is complex or lengthy, break it down into steps that are more manageable, keeping in mind that as the child learns to manage their behavior, the steps and tasks can become more complex.
  • Reward the child appropriately for good behavior and tasks completed. Set up a clear system of rewards (point system, gold stars) so that the child knows what to expect when they complete a task or refine their behavior.
  • Bear in mind that as your child gets older they will be more sensitive to how they appear to others and may overreact or be unduly ashamed when they are disciplined in front of others. It is important to have a plan for appropriate discipline for misbehaving that does not require carrying out in front of others. Setting up a specific consequence for a certain behavior is probably the best method of providing consistency and fairness for your child.
  • Communicate regularly with your child's teachers so that behavior patterns can be dealt with before they become a major problem and before the teachers get overly frustrated with the situation.
  • Always set a good example for your child. Children with ADHD need role models for behavior more than other children, and the adults in their lives are very important.
Behavior Management Strategies for Teenagers
Most parents know that teenagers (regardless of whether or not they have ADHD) are completely different animals. Here are some behavior management techniques just for teens:
  • As your child matures, it is important to involve them in setting expectations, rewards, and consequences. Empowering them in this manner will improve their self-esteem and reinforce the concept that they are ultimately the masters of their own behavior and can create positive results with good behavior.
  • Teenagers are often very sensitive of how they appear to others and may overreact or be unduly ashamed when they are disciplined in front of others. As adolescents they are experiencing hormonal changes and sexual development, and this brings up a whole host of new issues. Teenage years can be tough enough without ADHD, so be gentle and understanding. Communicate openly with them about the issues surrounding physical and sexual maturation.
  • Continue to communicate regularly with your child's teachers so that behavior patterns can be dealt with before they become a major problem and before the teachers get overly frustrated with the situation.
  • Continue to be consistent and fair in your own behavior. Having a predictable, reasonable parent is always an asset for children with ADHD.
  • Continue to set a good example for your child. Teens with ADHD need role models for behavior more than other kids, and the adults in their lives are very important.
  • If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed by the situation, speak to a professional. It is only natural that you have needs and questions in this process, so seek help when needed.

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Monday, April 2, 2012

CDC: U.S. kids with autism up 78% in past decade

By Miriam Falco, CNN
March 29, 2012

(CNN) -- The number of children with autism in the United States continues to rise, according to a new report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The latest data estimate that 1 in 88 American children has some form of autism spectrum disorder. That's a 78% increase compared to a decade ago, according to the report.
Since 2000, the CDC has based its autism estimates on surveillance reports from its Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. Every two years, researchers count how many 8-year-olds have autism in about a dozen communities across the nation. (The number of sites ranges from six to 14 over the years, depending on the available funding in a given year.)
In 2000 and 2002, the autism estimate was about 1 in 150 children. Two years later 1 in 125 8-year-olds had autism. In 2006, the number was 1 in 110, and the newest data -- from 2008 -- suggests 1 in 88 children have autism.

Boys with autism continue to outnumber girls 5-to-1, according to the CDC report. It estimates that 1 in 54 boys in the United States have autism.
Mark Roithmayr, president of the advocacy group Autism Speaks, says more children are being diagnosed with autism because of "better diagnosis, broader diagnosis, better awareness, and roughly 50% of 'We don't know.'"
He said the numbers show there is an epidemic of autism in the United States.
Early recognition of signs of autism -- a neurodevelopment disorder that leads to impaired language, communication and social skills -- is vital because it can lead to early intervention, says Dr. Gary Goldstein, an autism specialist and president of the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore.
"There have been studies -- double-blinded studies -- to show that behavioral early intervention changes the outcome for children," Goldstein says.
Roy Sanders and Charlie Bailey sensed something was wrong with their son Frankie Sanders when he was 9 months old.
"Our pediatrician at the time who was a friend of ours tried to tell us that we were being too cautious, we were being too anxious," Sanders says.
Frankie's pediatrician thought his parents were seeing developmental delays that weren't really there. But Frankie wasn't talking, Sanders says. "He didn't have speech; he didn't have any communication skills at all. He didn't point. He would flap quite a bit. He would stare at fans; he would stare at lights; he would become frantic if he didn't have a Thomas the [Tank] Engine because he was obsessed with Thomas the [Tank] Engine."

His parents kept pushing, and Frankie, now a ninth-grade nose guard and defensive guard for the Decatur Bulldogs football team in Decatur, Georgia, was diagnosed with autism when he was 15 months old.

"Early detection is associated with better outcomes," says CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden. "The earlier kids are detected, the earlier they could get services, and the less impairment they'll have on their learning and in their lives on a long-term basis is our best understanding."
The CDC is working with the Academy of American Pediatrics to recommend that children get screened for autism at ages 18 months and 24 months, Frieden says.

However, according to the CDC report, most children were diagnosed between ages 4 and 5, when a child's brain is already more developed and harder to change.
"Doctors are getting better at diagnosing autism; communities are getting much better at [providing] services to children with autism, and CDC scientists are getting much better at tracking which kids in the communities we're studying have autism," Frieden says.
"How much of that increase is a result of better tracking and how much of it is a result of an actual increase, we still don't know. We know more about autism today than we have ever known," he says, "but there is still so much we don't know and wish that we knew."

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Understanding Why Autistic People May Reject Social Touch

By Maia Szalavitz  March 19, 2012

One of the hardest challenges for families facing autism is the problem of touch. Often, autistic children resist hugging and other types of physical contact, causing distress all around.

Now, a new study offers insight into why some people shrug off physical touches and how families affected by autism may learn to share hugs without overwhelming an autistic child’s senses.

Yale neuroscientists recruited 19 young adults and imaged their brain activity as a researcher lightly brushed them on the forearm with a soft watercolor paintbrush. In some cases, the brushing was quick, and in others slow: prior studies have shown that most people like slow brushing and perceive it as affectionate contact, while the faster version is felt as less pleasant and more tickle-like.

None of the participants in the current study had autism, but the researchers evaluated them for autistic traits — things like a preference for sameness, order and systems, rather than social interaction. They found that participants with the highest levels of autistic traits had a lower response in key social brain regions — the superior temporal sulcus (STS) and orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) — to the slow brushing.

According to Martha Kaiser, senior author of the study and associate director of the Child Neuroscience Laboratory at the Yale Child Study Center, the STS is a critical hub of the social brain. “This region is important for perceiving the people around us, for visual social stimuli and for perceiving social versus nonsocial sounds,” she says.

The current findings suggest that the region is also involved in processing social touch and that its response is linked to the individual’s social ability, she says.

The OFC, in contrast, helps the brain evaluate experiences — whether something is likely to be good or bad and if it involves pleasure or pain. “The brains of people high in autistic traits aren’t coding touch as socially relevant, that’s one interpretation,” says Kaiser of her findings. “The OFC is very important for coding reward so maybe they’re feeling the touch but in these individuals, their brains don’t code that type of touch as being as rewarding as in individuals with fewer autistic traits.”

If that’s the case, finding ways to make social experience — including touch — more rewarding might be one way to help autistic people connect better with others.

Indeed, Temple Grandin, the well-known author and animal scientist with autism, and the subject of a 2010 HBO biopic, famously built herself a “hug machine” to self-apply deep pressure to her body. She craved the feeling of being securely held, but also needed to be able to control the sensation herself, often finding touch from others too intense.

A better understanding how social touch is processed differently by autistic and nonautistic people may lead to the development of strategies for family members and loved ones to touch people with autism in a way that soothes and fosters feelings of connection, rather than overwhelms.

Kaiser and her colleagues are already studying people with autistic spectrum disorders to explore these questions, particularly in children. Making social touch more rewarding early in development might further help autistic children learn social skills, since learning is heavily dependent on pleasure. And because later development relies on early experience, such a strategy could improve their overall development. “I think there are a lot of potential treatment applications for this work,” Kaiser says.

The study was published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Truth About Video Games and the Brain: What Research Tells Us

February 9, 2012 by Bill Jenkins, Ph.D

We’ve all seen the news reports, but how do video games really affect the brain? The short answer is this: researchers are working on it. While a great many studies have been done, science has a long way to go before we fully understand the impact video games can have.

The brain is a malleable, “plastic” structure that can change and evolve with every stimulus we give it. Whether that stimulus comes from listening to Tchaikovsky, studying Spanish, training in karate, or jumping through the mushroom kingdom in Super Mario Bros. Wii, every single input can affect the wiring of the brain if the conditions are right.

In a December 2011 article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, six experts in neuroscience and cognitive psychology – Daphne Bavelier, C. Shawn Green, Doug Hyun Han, Perry F. Renshaw, Michael M. Merzenich and Douglas A. Gentile – offer their perspectives on frequently asked questions related to the effects of video games on the brain:

Are there beneficial effects of video games? Does evidence point to improvements in cognitive function? Given the wide variety of game types and the tasks they demand of the brain, this is an extremely complex and layered issue. Han and Renshaw cite studies indicating that game play may improve visual-spatial capacity, visual acuity, task switching, decision making and object tracking. In perception, gaming has been shown to enhance low-level vision, visual attention, processing speed and statistical inference. These skills are not necessarily general improvements in cognitive functioning, but specific skills transferrable to similar tasks. (Gentile)

Does playing video games have negative effects on the brain and behavior? On this issue, the jury is essentially unanimous: intensive play of high-action games has been shown to have negative cognitive effects. Merzenich references studies that indicate such games can create “listlessness and discontent in slower-paced and less stimulating academic, work or social environments.” Research has drawn connections between playing more violent games and an increase in more aggressive thoughts. Games with anti-social or violent content “have been shown to reduce empathy, to reduce stress associated with observing or initiating anti-social actions, and to increase confrontational and disruptive behaviors in the real world.” (ibid)

How strong is the evidence that video games are addictive? While strong evidence is mounting, research is proceeding but still incomplete. According to Han and Renshaw, investigations suggest that “brain areas that respond to game stimuli in patients with on-line game addiction are similar to those that respond to drug cue-induced craving in patients with substance dependence.” In addition, they state that gaming dependence has been shown to create “dysfunction in five domains: academic, social, occupational, developmental and behavioral.” While gaming addiction may differ from other types of addiction, it clearly appears to be a very real issue.

What should the role of video games be in education and rehabilitation? Again, if we come back to the underlying fact that any stimulus can change the brain under the right conditions, video games – a source of stimuli – certainly have a role to play in these areas. The question is, what stimuli are beneficial to which individuals, and how can we customize the gaming experience to give the learner or patient the stimuli that they most need at a given moment? Adaptive technologies that track a user’s responses and present follow-up material based on those response patterns, especially when wielded by an experienced educator or clinician, offer immense potential.

The last question these experts address is: Where is neuroscience headed in this field? Clearly, studies have shown that video games affect and change the brain, both for ill as well as for good. Some researchers, such as neuroscientist Paul Howard-Jones of Bristol University, are already experimenting with ways to harness computer gaming to enhance classroom learning. Future studies are likely to uncover both detrimental effects of video games and significant benefits of their employment as learning and rehabilitation tools.

“Because of their great didactic efficiencies,” says Merzenich, “and because of brain plasticity-based exercises can improve the performance characteristics of the brain of almost every child, these new game-like tools shall be at the core of a schooling revolution.”

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

5 Tips for Talking to Children at Play

By Marissa Rasavong

As educators of young children, we are charged with weighty responsibilities, such as increasing students' vocabulary, facilitating purposeful play, and promoting social-emotional skills. Scary but true: What we say (and do not say) during play-based learning can make a big difference for our students. In our busy classrooms, it is easy to slip into communication patterns that are comfortable for us, but do not help our students grow and learn.

Here are a few tips for communicating with young learners at play:

1) Use words that students do not yet know.
The 2000 National Reading Panel demonstrated that children learn most words incidentally. Since our students spend many of their waking hours at school in play-based learning, early childhood educators have plenty of opportunities to strengthen students' vocabularies. Yet when we talk to young children, it can be tempting to stick to words that we think are easy for them to understand. We should fight this tendency: If we are not exposing our students to words beyond those they hear at home, they are not developing the vocabulary that will later prove useful to them as readers and writers.
We should use rich vocabulary as part of our everyday communication and instruction. It is never too soon to expose young learners to "big words."
Elevating our word choices can be as simple as choosing more sophisticated synonyms. Instead of saying, "Good job!," we can praise students with statements like "That is exceptional work!," "Excellent effort!," or "You persisted!" And rather than observing, "It’s cold today," we can talk about how "blustery" or "frigid" the weather is.
By casually using new words (and explaining them, when necessary) as students take part in engaging activities, we can help to build their vocabularies.

2) Ask good questions.
Play ought to be engaging for our young learners—but it is also an opportunity to promote higher-order thinking skills and independent learning. Then we ask close-ended questions (with one right answer in plain sight), we limit what our students can learn during play. Instead, our questions should encourage students to engage more deeply and reflect on their own learning.
When students are excited to tell us about the structures they have built, we can extend their thinking by asking, "What would happen if we moved this block?" or "How many blocks would we need to add, to make your structure taller than you? How did you know that?" Or, while one student is performing a task (such as sorting objects), we might ask another student, "Do you think she should put this piece in that cup? Why? Why not?"
Most of our questions throughout the day should be open-ended questions that give us more bang for the educational buck by pushing students' thinking. Even when we do ask a one-right-answer question, we can respond with, "That’s right! Tell me how you knew that!," rather than just confirming the student is correct.

3) Encourage problem solving.
It is easy to offer shortcut answers when difficulties arise. But what’s best for students in the long run is to encourage them to solve their own problems.
When a student tattles, we may be tempted to say, "Okay, I will talk to him." But we can instead ask questions like, "That sounds frustrating—what did you do?"
If a student says, "I can’t do it," our first instinct may be to instruct, "Do it like this." However, she will learn to think about her learning if we ask her to predict outcomes of other approaches: "What do you think will happen if ... ?"
Of course, such exchanges require patience: We must give students the time they need to solve problems.
Also, we tend to overlook the strategy of requiring "wait time" before problem-solving because we fear the loss of young children’s attention. However, this is still a valuable strategy to keep in our toolbox, when the situation and individual child’s characteristics allow for it.

4) Respond thoughtfully to student behavior.
Researchers have shown (and all experienced educators have witnessed) that a student’s ability—or inability—to regulate himself and affiliate with others can make or break his educational experience. While they are still young, students need to learn to focus on tasks, take turns, and persevere even when they are frustrated. What does this mean for us as early childhood educators? How can we communicate with students in ways that enhance their self-regulation?
The "personal message," a social guidance technique implemented by the faculty of the Child Development Laboratories at Michigan State University, is a scripted sequence that educators can employ to respond to students’ behavior. This sequence involves reflecting, reacting (and giving reasons for our reactions), and redirecting young children. By communicating in this way, we can help young learners understand why and how to follow rules—teaching them how to behave rather than just telling them to behave. The result? Children are intrinsically motivated to follow rules, even when adults are not present.
Here’s how the personal message might look in a situation in which a student has taken another student’s toy. One way to respond would be to say, "Share!" But consider what the student learns when we respond thoughtfully:
• "You wanted that toy, too." We begin by reflecting on the student’s behavior. By showing that we are listening and watching, we demonstrate respect for the student, which establishes a healthy groundwork for the conversation.
• "I felt sad because you took the toy without asking." We react to the student’s behavior, and give a reason for our reaction. This provides the child a chance to see their actions from the perspective of others and to understand why others might feel the way they do. Often, adults will give a rule without explaining why that rule is important, as if we expect students to be born knowing how to behave. Giving a reason is necessary to promote the student’s understanding of the consequence of their action (even if the reason has been mentioned before).
• "Friends take turns. Try asking if you can please have the toy." The final step in a personal message is the statement of the rule or redirection. The last thing we say should be what we expect the student to do or what they should do instead.
Implementing this multi-step process effectively takes practice and dedication. (After all, it is easier to just say, "Share!") But when we consistently respond in this way, students begin to regulate their own behavior—and when we see that, there’s a genuine sense of payoff!

5) Plan ahead to facilitate purposeful play.
Planning can help us choose our words carefully. As with any effective lesson, we should think in advance about our own roles in purposeful play: considering word choices, possible questions to raise, and our objectives for conversations with students. With reflection and practice, we can move beyond "comfortable" communication patterns to engage meaningfully with our students all day long.

Marissa Rasavong is currently the project facilitator of state-funded pre-kindergarten in the Clark County School District of Nevada. Marissa previously taught kindergarten and Title I pre-kindergarten at Robert Lake Elementary in Las Vegas. She is a member of the Teacher Leaders Network.

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Monday, February 13, 2012

Childhood dyspraxia: James' story

Autistic Girl Expresses Unimaginable Intelligence

A sharing from an autistic girl: "I am autistic, but that is not who i am. Take time to know me, before you judge me."

The Upside of Dyslexia

     (author of “Origins.” She is at work on a book about the science of learning.)
Published: February 4, 2012

THE word “dyslexia” evokes painful struggles with reading, and indeed this learning disability causes much difficulty for the estimated 15 percent of Americans affected by it. Since the phenomenon of “word blindness” was first documented more than a century ago, scientists have searched for the causes of dyslexia, and for therapies to treat it. In recent years, however, dyslexia research has taken a surprising turn: identifying the ways in which people with dyslexia have skills that are superior to those of typical readers. The latest findings on dyslexia are leading to a new way of looking at the condition: not just as an impediment, but as an advantage, especially in certain artistic and scientific fields.

Dyslexia is a complex disorder, and there is much that is still not understood about it. But a series of ingenious experiments have shown that many people with dyslexia possess distinctive perceptual abilities. For example, scientists have produced a growing body of evidence that people with the condition have sharper peripheral vision than others. Gadi Geiger and Jerome Lettvin, cognitive scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, used a mechanical shutter, called a tachistoscope, to briefly flash a row of letters extending from the center of a subject’s field of vision out to its perimeter. Typical readers identified the letters in the middle of the row with greater accuracy. Those with dyslexia triumphed, however, when asked to identify letters located in the row’s outer reaches.

Mr. Geiger and Mr. Lettvin’s findings, which have been confirmed in several subsequent studies, provide a striking demonstration of the fact that the brain separately processes information that streams from the central and the peripheral areas of the visual field. Moreover, these capacities appear to trade off: if you’re adept at focusing on details located in the center of the visual field, which is key to reading, you’re likely to be less proficient at recognizing features and patterns in the broad regions of the periphery.

The opposite is also the case. People with dyslexia, who have a bias in favor of the visual periphery, can rapidly take in a scene as a whole — what researchers call absorbing the “visual gist.”

Intriguing evidence that those with dyslexia process information from the visual periphery more quickly also comes from the study of “impossible figures,” like those sketched by the artist M. C. Escher. A focus on just one element of his complicated drawings can lead the viewer to believe that the picture represents a plausible physical arrangement.

A more capacious view that takes in the entire scene at once, however, reveals that Escher’s staircases really lead nowhere, that the water in his fountains is flowing up rather than down — that they are, in a word, impossible. Dr. Catya von Károlyi, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, found that people with dyslexia identified simplified Escher-like pictures as impossible or possible in an average of 2.26 seconds; typical viewers tend to take a third longer. “The compelling implication of this finding,” wrote Dr. Von Károlyi and her co-authors in the journal Brain and Language, “is that dyslexia should not be characterized only by deficit, but also by talent.”

The discovery of such talents inevitably raises questions about whether these faculties translate into real-life skills. Although people with dyslexia are found in every profession, including law, medicine and science, observers have long noted that they populate fields like art and design in unusually high numbers. Five years ago, the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity was founded to investigate and illuminate the strengths of those with dyslexia, while the seven-year-old Laboratory for Visual Learning, located within the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, is exploring the advantages conferred by dyslexia in visually intensive branches of science. The director of the laboratory, the astrophysicist Matthew Schneps, notes that scientists in his line of work must make sense of enormous quantities of visual data and accurately detect patterns that signal the presence of entities like black holes.

A pair of experiments conducted by Mr. Schneps and his colleagues, published in the Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society in 2011, suggests that dyslexia may enhance the ability to carry out such tasks. In the first study, Mr. Schneps reported that when shown radio signatures — graphs of radio-wave emissions from outer space — astrophysicists with dyslexia at times outperformed their nondyslexic colleagues in identifying the distinctive characteristics of black holes.

In the second study, Mr. Schneps deliberately blurred a set of photographs, reducing high-frequency detail in a manner that made them resemble astronomical images. He then presented these pictures to groups of dyslexic and nondyslexic undergraduates. The students with dyslexia were able to learn and make use of the information in the images, while the typical readers failed to catch on.

Given that dyslexia is universally referred to as a “learning disability,” the latter experiment is especially remarkable: in some situations, it turns out, those with dyslexia are actually the superior learners.

Mr. Schneps’s study is not the only one of its kind. In 2006, James Howard Jr., a professor of psychology at the Catholic University of America, described in the journal Neuropsychologia an experiment in which participants were asked to pick out the letter T from a sea of L’s floating on a computer screen. Those with dyslexia learned to identify the letter more quickly.

Whatever special abilities dyslexia may bestow, difficulty with reading still imposes a handicap. Glib talk about appreciating dyslexia as a “gift” is unhelpful at best and patronizing at worst. But identifying the distinctive aptitudes of those with dyslexia will permit us to understand this condition more completely, and perhaps orient their education in a direction that not only remediates weaknesses, but builds on strengths.

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Developmental Coordination Disorder Often Misdiagnosed As ADHD

13 Feb 2012

Children showing difficulty carrying out routine actions, such as getting dressed, playing with particular types of games, drawing, copying from the board in school and even typing at the computer, could be suffering from developmental coordination disorder (DCD), and not necessarily from ADHD or other more familiar disorders, points out Prof. Sara Rosenblum of the Department of Occupational Therapy at the University of Haifa, whose new study set out to shed new light on DCD. "In quite a few cases, children are not diagnosed early enough or are given an incorrect diagnosis, which can lead to frustration and a sense of disability. It can even result in a decline that requires psychological therapy," she explains. 

A person with DCD suffers from childhood and throughout adult life. Unlike various illnesses or trauma, says Prof. Rosenblum, this disorder is expressed in the inability to control the process of carrying out a particular motor task, consolidate it in memory and repeat the same task automatically. "Simple tasks, such as closing buttons, tying laces, writing or riding a bicycle, which for healthy people become automatic, are difficult to carry out for people with DCD. When those children grow up, they are more likely to have trouble with temporal and spatial organization and have difficulty estimating distance and speed, which could prevent them from learning to drive successfully and even to ride a bicycle," she adds. 

Since the deficit is neural-based, meaning that it is founded in atypical brain activity, it is particularly difficult to diagnose in children. Going undiagnosed often exacerbates the individual's sense of frustration and shame, and they are therefore more likely to grow up to be introverted adults. The current study, conducted by Prof. Rosenblum andDr. Miri Livneh-Zirinski of Kupat Holim Meuhedet (one of Israel's public health plans), set out to identify DCD in children by means of a simple and noninvasive test of writing tasks. 

Two sample groups participated in the study: 20 children diagnosed with DCD and 20 children with no known symptoms of the disorder. Each participant was asked to write down their name, write out the alphabet and copy a full paragraph. The tasks were conducted using a special electronic pen and pad and a program developed by the researcher that shows objective measures that relate to the temporal and spatial characteristics of the writing, and pressure implemented on the pad. These measures can be analyzed with regard to motor, sensory and cognitive performance by taking note of elements such as in-air time per stroke, force of writing, and the time taken to write each letter. 

The study found that the two groups showed very different characteristics in various parameters. Those with DCD took up to three times longer than the other children writing each letter; they also held the pen in the air for longer; and they placed more pressure on the pad with the pen. According to Prof. Rosenblum, these results give further emphasis to the suffering that children with DCD undergo in the classroom and any time they are required to complete a writing task. 

"Children with DCD are 'transparent': they have no physiological or intellectual deformities, and in many cases, they are above average in their intelligence. But they are not able to complete tasks that require coordination between motor, sensory and cognitive functions. Our study comes to show how a simple everyday task can be used to diagnose individuals with DCD, and subsequently enable them to get the necessary treatment and guidance with occupational therapy," concludes Prof. Rosenblum. 

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