How to Tell When Neuroscience-Based Programmes are Well-Developed, by Martha Burns, Ph.D

I am sure you have noticed that there are many technology programmes out there that claim to “build,” or improve your brain function. Every week I receive emails from companies advertising brain games that promise to train attention and memory skills. You may have wondered, do “brain games” really work? A recent article in The New York Times entitled “Do Brain Workouts Work? Science Isn’t Sure,” actually asked that very question as well.
How would a memory brain game that I purchase from a website be different from a card or board game like “Concentration”? How is an attention game different or better than the concentration required to read a good book or play a card game that requires focused and sustained attention, to cards played or discarded each round? Do good old fashioned paper pencil activities like crossword puzzles help with brain function? How about Bridge or Chess? Wouldn’t any challenging video game help us with attention if we had to stay focused for long periods of time to get to a new level?

The answers to the above questions are all “yes, to some degree.” The brain is the only organ of our body that changes each day based on our experiences. And if we do any activities that challenge memory or attention for extended periods of time it will likely be beneficial for improving those capacities. If I play bridge, for example, many hours a week, I will likely get better at the game and boost my short term (working) memory as well. But, neuroscientists who study brain plasticity, the way the brain changes with stimulation (or lack of stimulation), have determined there are ways to enhance the beneficial effects of brain exercises to maximize the efficiency and positive outcomes so that children or adults can specifically target some capacities over others in a short period of time. And, controlled research is showing these targeted exercises have benefits on other brain capacities as well.

So, for example, researchers have shown that when seven year olds do a simple computer-based exercise that targets working memory for just a few minutes a day for a few consecutive weeks they show improved working memory (we would expect that) but also improved reading comprehension compared with children in their classrooms who received reading instruction but did not do the working memory activities (Loosli, 2012). Or, aging adults in their 70’s who did computer-based processing speed exercises a few minutes a day for six consecutive weeks so they could do things like react faster when driving showed improvements in processing speed (again we would expect that) but also in memory when compared to adults who did other exercises but not the processing speed exercises, and the improvements lasted for ten years without doing additional exercises (Rebok, 2014).

The question, then, is what are the critical active ingredients neuroscientists have found that need to be “built-in” so brain exercises effectively build targeted skills compared to the benefits we get from just using our “noggin” in everyday activities? And, more important, how is a parent or consumer to get through all the hype and determine which brain exercises have the important design features shown to be effective?

Fortunately, neuroscientists who have thoroughly researched this have published excellent summaries in respected scientific journals. Below are the key elements to look for in brain exercises:

  1. High & low – Exercises are most effective when they include challenging high-level tasks (like exercises that require a high degree of speed and accuracy) while also including low-level exercises that improve our ability to perceive similar sounds or images more distinctly (Ahissar et el, 2009). We might call this the Sherlock Holmes effect – you must see the details clearly to solve difficult problems.
  2. Adaptability – Exercises should increase or decrease in difficulty based on how you perform so they continuously adapt to your skill level (Roelfsema, 2010).
  3. Highly intensive training schedules – The relevant ‘skills’ must be identified, isolated, then practiced through hundreds if not thousands of trials on an intensive (ie, quasi-daily) schedule (Roelfsema, 2010).
  4. Attention grabbing – In order to maximise enduring plastic changes in the cortex, the learner must attend to each trial or learning event on a trial-by-trial basis.
  5. Timely rewards – A very high proportion of the learning trials must be rewarded immediately (rather than at the end of a block of trials or on a trial-and-error basis) (Roelfsema, 2010).

So, parents may ask, ”This sounds fine for making our average brains work better but what about my child who has been diagnosed with a learning disability or other issues like autism spectrum disorder?” According to Ahissar et al. (2009), for our children (or adults) with learning issues, distortions or limitations at any level will create bottlenecks for learning and the changes we want from brain exercises. But, according to the authors, if the exercises have sufficient intensity and duration on specific sets of activities that focus on lower-level (perceptual) and middle-level stimuli (attention, memory and language) tasks, brain changes will enhance higher level skills and learning will be easier and more advanced.

So for parents, or anyone wanting to understand which brain exercises are worth the investment of valuable time and money, a rule of thumb would be to avoid products that advertise themselves as “brain games” – because that is what they probably are. Rather, seek out programmes or products that contain “exercises” that focus on specific high and low level skills like language, reading, memory and attention, and those who have research evidence to support their value when used by children like yours.

References

Ahissar, M., Nahum, M., Nelken, I., & Hochstein, S. (2009). Reverse hierarchies and sensory learning, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 364, 285–299.doi: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0253

Loosli, S.V., Buschkuehl, M., Perrig, W.J., & Jaeggi, S.M. (2012). Working memory training improves reading processes in typically developing children,Child Neuropsychology, 18, 62-78. doi: 10.1080/09297049.2011.575772

Rebok, G.W., Ball, K., Guey, L.T., Jones, R.N., Kim, H.Y., King, J.W., . . . Willis, S.L. (2014). Ten-Year Effects of the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly Cognitive Training Trial on Cognition and Everyday Functioning in Older Adults, Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 62, 16-24. doi: 10.1111/jgs.12607

Roelfsema, P.R., van Ooyen, A., & Watanabe, T. (2010). Perceptual learning rules based on reinforcers and attention, Trends in Cognitive Science, 14, 64–71.doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2009.11.005

Vinogradav, S., Fisher, M., & de Villers-Sidani, E. (2012). Cognitive Training for Impaired Neural Systems in Neuropsychiatric Illness,Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews, 37, 43–76. doi: 10.1038/npp.2011.251

 

The Benefits of Downtime: Why Learners’ Brains Need a Break by Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP

A friend of mine once described her brain as a washing machine, tumbling and tossing the requests and information that hit her at work from every direction. Many people I know feel the same way—overwhelmed by the onslaught of knowledge and to-dos that accompany the always-on smartphone era.

The situation is not that different for most kids these days, with high expectations in the classroom, fewer opportunities to unwind with recess and the arts, busy social calendars, and a seemingly limitless supply of extracurricular activities—like circus arts and robotics—that weren’t available to previous generations. That’s unfortunate, because research shows that time off-task is important for proper brain function and health.

Going Offline

The idea that the brain might be productively engaged during downtime has been slow in coming. Because of the brain’s massive energy consumption—using as much as 20% of the body’s energy intake while on-task—most scientists expected that the organ would default to a frugal, energy-saving mode when given the chance.

Recently, however, brain researchers have discovered sets of scattered brain regions that fire in a synchronized way when people switch to a state of mental rest, such as daydreaming. These “resting-state networks” help us process our experience, consolidate memories, reinforce learning, regulate our attention and emotions, keep us productive and effective in our work and judgment, and more.

The best understood of these networks is the Default Mode Network, or DMN. It’s the part of the brain that chatters on continuously when we’re off-task—ruminating on a conversation that didn’t go as well as we’d hoped, for example, or flipping through our mental to-do list, or nagging us about how we’ve treated a friend.

Many of us are culturally conditioned to think of time off-task as “wasted” and a sign of inefficiency or laziness. But teachers and learners can benefit from recognizing how downtime can help. In addition to giving the brain an opportunity to make sense of what it has just learned, shifting off-task can help learners refresh their minds when frustrated so they can return to a problem and focus better.

The Productive Faces of Idleness

SLEEP

Sleep is the quintessential form of downtime for the brain. All animals sleep in some form, and even plants and microorganisms often have dormant or inactive states. Sleep has been shown in numerous studies to play a major role in memory formation and consolidation.

Recent studies have shown that when the human brain flips to idle mode, the neurons that work so hard when we’re on-task settle down and the surrounding glial cells increase their activity dramatically, cleaning up the waste products accumulated by the neurons and moving them out via the body’s lymphatic system. Researchers believe that the restorative effects of sleep are due to this cleansing mechanism. Napping for 10-30 minutes has been demonstrated to increase alertness and improve performance.

Teachers might consider reminding parents of the importance of adequate sleep for learning in the classroom – especially if learners are visibly sleepy or have noticeable difficulty focusing in class. As many as 30% of K-12 learners don’t get enough sleep at night.

AWAKE, DOING NOTHING

Idleness is often considered a vice, but there’s growing evidence that there are benefits to “doing nothing.” Electrical activity in the brain that appears to solidify certain kinds of memories is more frequent during downtime—as when lying in the dark at bedtime—than it is during sleep.

Meditation is another way of giving the brain a break from work without fully surrendering consciousness. Research has shown that meditation can refresh our ability to concentrate, help us attend to tasks more efficiently, and strengthen connections between regions of the DMN.

Experienced meditators typically perform better than non-meditators on difficult attention tests, and may be able to toggle more easily between the DMN and those brain networks that we use when we’re actively on task.

There’s evidence as well that the brain benefits from going offline for even the briefest moments—as when we blink. Every time we blink, our DMN fires up and our conscious networks take respite for a moment, giving the conscious mind a bit of relief.

Some schools are taking note and introducing meditation into the classroom. Getting the buy-in needed to launch a meditation program takes work, but benefits can be substantial.

MUNDANE ACTIVITY

It’s not uncommon to experience a sudden flash of insight while engaged in mundane activities like doing a crossword puzzle or cleaning the house. There’s a famous anecdote about Archimedes, a prominent scientist in classical Greece, solving a problem in just this way.

Archimedes needed to determine whether the king’s new crown was made entirely of the gold supplied to the goldsmith, or whether inferior metals like silver had been mixed in—and he had to do it without damaging the crown. He puzzled over how to solve the problem, without luck. Then, as he stepped into a bathtub one day and saw the water level rise, he realized in an instant that he could use the water’s buoyancy to measure the density of the crown against a solid gold reference sample. He conducted the experiment and found that the crown was less dense than the gold sample, implicating the goldsmith in fraud.

Scientists who research “unconscious thought” have found that activities that distract the conscious mind without taxing the brain seem to give people greater insight into complex problems. In a study of students who were asked to determine which car would be the best purchase, for instance, the group that spent their decision-making time solving an unrelated puzzle made better choices than the group that deliberated over the information for four minutes.

Brief windows of time spent on routine, mundane activities in the classroom—like feeding the class pet, putting books back on a bookshelf, or rearranging desks—can give learners a much-needed break from the sustained concentration required for academic time on-task.

Standing Up for Downtime

With so much to do and so little learning time in a school year—fitting in downtime is easier said than done. But take heart. Even closing your eyes, taking one deep breath, and exhaling can help to refresh the brain and takes practically no time. Offering more downtime in moment-sized bites might be just the thing for keeping ourselves, our students and our children on schedule and giving our brains that little bit of freedom to turn off for just a minute.

Holiday breaks and vacations are a perfect time for all of us take a break. I’ll be finding some time to unplug, unwind, and turn off. Will you?

References:

2004 Sleep in America Poll. (2004). Retrieved December 8, 2013, from http://www.sleepfoundation.org/

Braun, D. (2009, August 6). Why do we Sleep? Scientists are Still Trying to Find Out. Nationalgeographic.com. Retrieved December 2, 2013, fromhttp://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2009/08/26/why_we_sleep_is_a_mystery/

Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Epidemic. (2013).  Retrieved December 8, 2013 from http:www.cdc.gov/features/dssleep

Jabr, F. (2013, October 15). Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime.Scientificamerican.com. Retrieved November 30, 2013, fromhttp://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=mental-downtime

Sabourin, J. Rowe, J.P, Mott, B.,W. & Lester, J.C. (2011). When Off-Task is On-Task: The Affective Role of Off-Task Behavior in Narrative-Centered Learning Environments. Artificial Intelligence in Education6738, 534-536. doi:10.1007/978-3-642-21869-9_93

Welsh, J. (2013, October 17). Scientists Have Finally Found The First Real Reason We Need To Sleep. Businessinsider.com. Retrieved December 2, 2013, from http://www.businessinsider.com/the-first-real-reason-we-need-to-sleep-2013-10

Four Myths About Learning Disabilities, by Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP

Learning disabilities can be tough to talk about and even tougher to understand. Some parents and educators prefer to call them learning differences in order to avoid negative labeling that can affect self-esteem. Regardless of what we choose to call them, learning differences or disabilities are frequently misunderstood.

Pinpointing a student’s precise learning challenges can be difficult, and individual outcomes can be hard to predict. What’s more, symptoms of specific learning disabilities can be complex and confusing, and may look more like behavioural problems than learning problems to some. But some of the most common myths about learning disabilities are easy to dispel with a look at the facts.

Myth #1:  Learning disabilities are intellectual disabilities.

First and perhaps most important to understand is that learning disabilities are communication differences that are completely separate from physical, developmental, and intellectual disabilities. In the same way that a hearing impaired student might need assistance in the form of a hearing aid, students with learning disabilities need assistance in the form of alternative learning methods.

When learning disabilities are identified early and dealt with effectively, students can function more or less on par with their peers in school and grow up to be self-reliant adults. Students with intellectual disabilities, on the other hand, have significantly reduced cognitive ability and usually need lifelong support from others.

Myth #2:  ADHD is a learning disability.

Perhaps surprisingly, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is not considered a learning disability, although it is estimated that 20-30% of people with ADHD have a learning disability as well. Learning disabilities include learning differences such as:

  • Dyslexia
  • Dysgraphia
  • Dyspraxia
  • Auditory Processing Disorder (APD)
  • Language Processing Disorder
  • Non-Verbal Learning Disability
  • Visual Perceptual/Visual Motor Deficit

Myth #3:  Dyslexia is a visual problem.

Dyslexia is one of the more commonly misunderstood learning disabilities. Many people think of it as a vision-related disorder, but it is actually rooted in differences in how the brain hears and processes spoken language. The ability to read is dependent upon the reader making accurate letter-sound correspondences, so when the brain processes spoken language atypically, it can be hard for readers to make sense of the connections between printed words and the sounds they make. The good news is that some studies have shown dyslexia to be effectively remediated by training the brain to process language more effectively.

Myth #4:  The incidence of students with learning disabilities in schools is on the rise.

The incidence of students with learning disabilities has actually declined over the past 20 years. However, other learning differences that may qualify a student for special education – such as autism and ADHD – have risen during the same time period, for reasons that are not well understood.

Food for Thought

Students with learning disabilities make up a large portion of students receiving special education services in schools – education outcomes and employment prospects for many of these students are disappointing, to say the least. Twice as many students with learning disabilities drop out as compared with their peers, and only half as many go to university. They are also twice as likely to be unemployed as adults.

With statistics like these, it’s clear that more needs to be done. Students with learning challenges need to be identified early, diagnosed accurately, provided appropriate assistive technologies, and given the right targeted interventions to help them become the best learners they can be, ready to take on new challenges with the confidence that they can succeed.

References:

Williams, D., Kingston This Week, [Letter to the editor]. Retrieved from:http://www.kingstonthisweek.com/2011/01/20/differences-between-learning-and-intellectual-disabilities

Learning disabilities and ADHD.  Retrieved from:http://www.girlshealth.gov/disability/types/learning.html

ADHD. Retrieved from:http://ldaamerica.org/types-of-learning-disabilities/adhd/

Dissecting Dyslexia: Linking Reading to Voice Recognition. Retrieved from:http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=121226

Smith, H., Auditory Processing Skills & Reading Disorders in Children.Retrieved from: http://www.scilearn.com/blog/auditory-processing-skills-reading-disorders-in-children.php

NCLD Editorial Team, Learning Disability Fast Facts.  Retrieved from: http://www.ncld.org/types-learning-disabilities/what-is-ld/learning-disability-fast-facts

For Further Reading:

Why Auditory Processing Disorders (APD) are Hard to Spot, by Martha Burns, Ph.D

Does this ever happen to you? You ask your child to do something simple, and he or she says, “huh?”  For example, you might say something like, “Chris, time to get ready for school: go upstairs, get your shoes, grab your homework (we worked really hard on that last night) and shut your window because it looks like rain.” And your child acts as though he didn’t hear a word.

Often teachers describe a child like this as having poor listening skills because the same thing will happen in class—except that in school the child misses important assignments, fails to follow instructions on tests, or is unable to learn information when it is presented orally. What is going on here?

Parents or teachers may assume that a child is deliberately ignoring them when they ask to have instructions repeated or miss important information in school. But audiologists, who are specialists in hearing, have identified a specific reason for these listening problems. They refer to them as auditory processing disorders, or APD for short.

APD is not a hearing loss and not an attentional problem, although it can often seem as though the child is not paying attention. Rather, with APD a child has trouble figuring out what was said, although it sounds loud enough. All of us suffer from this problem when we are trying to listen to someone talk in a very noisy room, like at a party where a band is playing very loudly. We know the person is speaking—we can hear their voice—but we can’t easily discern what they are saying. Sometimes we try to read the person’s lips to figure out what they are talking about. But after a while it gets so hard to listen we just tune out or leave the situation. Now, imagine you are a child and speech always sounds muddled like that. The child’s natural instinct, just like yours, is just to stop listening. As a result, children with APD often achieve way under their potential despite being very bright. And in some cases, the children may have speech and/or language problems as well.

Audiologists have been able to diagnose auditory processing problems for many years. The recommendations for school intervention with children with this disorder have been largely compensatory, such as “seat the child at the front of the class, right in front of the teacher” or “amplify the teacher’s voice with a microphone and provide the child with a listening device to hear the teacher’s amplified voice more clearly than other noises in the room.” Specific, targeted interventions like Fast ForWord are a more recent development.

Although Fast ForWord Language and later Fast ForWord Language v2 were specifically developed to treat temporal sequencing problems associated with specific language impairment, and the programs have been successfully used as a clinical intervention for auditory processing problems for fifteen years, specific peer-reviewed case studies on auditory processing benefit from these programs has been lacking. That changed in April of this year (2013) when researchers at Auburn University, a leader in the study of APD, published controlled research in International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngologyon the benefits of intervention with children diagnosed with APD. The researchers not only found that Fast ForWord Language v2 improved auditory processing skills, and in one child language and cognitive skills as well, but they found evidence of what scientists call “neuroplastic” brain changes in the children with APD after the program as well. This means that the children’s brains were rewiring themselves and getting better at auditory processing at the same time.

I will discuss the study in detail in next week’s blog post. If you’re not already a subscriber, you can sign up here to have the next blog post delivered to your inbox.

References:

Abrams, D.A., Nicol, T., Zecker, S.G., &Kraus, N. (2006). Auditory brainstem timing predicts cerebral dominance for speech sounds. Journal of Neuroscience, 26(43), 11131-11137.

King, C., Warrier, C.M., Hayes, E., &Kraus, N. (2002). Deficits in auditory brainstem encoding of speech sounds in children with learning problems.Neuroscience Letters 319, 111-115.

Krishnamurti, S., Forrester, J., Rutledge, C., & Holmes, G. (2013). A case study of the changes in the speech-evoked auditory brainstem response associated with auditory training in children with auditory processing disorders. International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology, 77(4), 594-604. doi: 10.1016/j.ijporl.2012.12.032

Wible, B., Nicol, T., Kraus, N. (2005). Correlation between brainstem and cortical auditory processes in normal and language-impaired children.Brain, 128, 417-423.

The Neuroplasticity Revolution With Dr. Norman Doidge, by Noreen Wiesen

Last week, Scientific Learning (developers of our Fast ForWord(R) programmes) was pleased to host The Neuroplasticity Revolution, a webinar with Dr. Norman Doidge—psychiatrist, psychotherapist, researcher, and author of the New York Times bestseller The Brain That Changes Itself. The concept of brain plasticity—the brain’s ability to grow and change in structure and function in response to experience—is “the most important change in our understanding of the brain in 400 years,” Doidge told an audience of more than 3800 registrants.

Doidge reviewed concepts of brain and mind in history—dominated until very recently by the idea that the adult brain is hard-wired and therefore fixed in ability—and explained why it took scientists such a long time to observe and accept the brain’s plasticity. He then told the story of a woman named Cheryl, who was fortunate to find herself in need of brain rehabilitation after that old notion had been put to rest.

Cheryl had a balance problem. Her sense of balance had been so damaged by the antibiotic gentamicin that she couldn’t stand up without feeling that she was falling. Physician-neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita treated Cheryl with “sensory substitution,” a therapy he developed that provided corrective sensory feedback from a motion sensor through electrodes to Cheryl’s tongue. The technique immediately helped Cheryl gain her bearings and she found that she could maintain her balance for a period of time after removing the training gear. This residual effect gradually lengthened, and over the course of a year, Cheryl regained the ability to stand normally without using the device at all.

Cheryl was able to regain normal function, said Doidge, despite having 97.5% damage to her vestibular apparatus—the semicircular canals in the ear that connect to the brainstem and help to orient us in space. He noted that often, but not always, there’s some kind of neural workaround even in severe cases. Cheryl’s recovery not only seems miraculous, but also points to the fact that her brain changed itself to heal—by recruiting dormant pathways or making new pathways for the corrected sensory information to travel.

Cheryl’s, story, said Doidge, is just one example of how the brain learns. He went on to discuss “conventional learning” and learning disorders in the classroom, walking his audience through Dr. Michael Merzenich’s research demonstrating the neural underpinnings of brain plasticity and learning.

Dr. Merzenich conducted a series of experiments in which he rearranged the wiring of the nerves connecting a monkey’s fingers to its brain. He expected to see the brain maps for these fingers become distorted or jumbled, but instead found that they turned out fairly normal. He realized that the brain was able to adapt to the structural changes by taking timing into account. The thumb usually initiates movement, for example, followed closely in time by the index finger. The middle and ring finger behave in a similar way. And Merzenich realized that the monkey’s brain used the timing intervals to determine which fingers were adjacent to one another and map them accordingly. These experiments finally converted the brain plasticity skeptics.

A recording of the full webinar is now available, email us at info@indigolearning.co.za if you would like a copy . Watch and learn:

  • What are the 6 epochs of plasticity across the lifespan?
  • Why does true immersion work so well for language learning?
  • Why do 5-10% of preschool age children have trouble learning to read, write, and follow instructions?
  • How does the Fast ForWord program help normalize the brains of dyslexic learners?
  • And perhaps most intriguing of all, what does Freud have to do with any of this?