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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