1. How reading and writing with your child boost more than just literacy

    September 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Washington press release:

    Children who read and write at home — whether for assignments or just for fun — are building long-term study and executive function skills, according to a paper from the University of Washington.

    And while home literacy activities have already been associated with higher test scores, the new study shows these activities also provide students with tools for lifetime success.

    “People who are good students tend to become good employees by being on time and putting forward their best work. All of the things that make you a good student also make you a good employee,” said Nicole Alston-Abel, a Federal Way Public Schools psychologist who conducted the study while pursuing her doctorate at the UW. “If you make sure your child is academically engaged at home through third grade, kids go on autopilot — they know how to ‘do’ school after that.

    Alston-Abel analyzed data collected by co-author Virginia Berninger, UW emeritus professor of education, who conducted a five-year longitudinal study of academic performance in grades one through seven. As part of that study, Berninger sent home questionnaires asking parents if, and how, they helped their children with reading and writing; Alston-Abel, a former primary teacher, then compared the responses with students’ academic performance.

    The study published online in May in the Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation.

    To collect a range of ages and school experiences, the study followed two groups of students in public elementary schools near the UW campus — one cohort of students from first to fifth grade, the other from third to seventh grade. In all, 241 families participated over five years, completing annual questionnaires about how their child felt about reading and writing, what kinds of activities they engaged in at home, and what kind of help parents provided.

    The demographics of both cohorts reflected neighborhoods around the university: About 85 percent of students were white or Asian American, and nearly three-fourths of parents had a bachelor’s or advanced degree. A more diverse pool, Alston-Abel said, would be illuminating from a research perspective, but the basic message would remain the same: “The takeaway is still the importance of having a parent involved in developing the habits and models a child needs to be successful. It doesn’t matter what socioeconomic status you come from.”

    Among the study’s findings:

    • Students spent significantly more time at home reading than writing.
    • Without a specific assignment, children were more likely to choose reading as an activity than writing.
    • Parents provided more help with writing than with reading.
    • Starting at the intermediate grades (four and up), writing assignments increased, while parent help for writing declined more gradually than for reading.
    • About three-fourths of the fifth- and seventh-grade students used a computer for writing assignments.
    • Parents of those older students described their children as “fluent” in using a computer for writing homework for 19 percent of the fifth-graders, and 53 percent of the seventh-graders.
    • Parent ratings of their student’s “self-regulation,” or ability to stay on task and exhibit other study skills, were associated with academic performance, especially in reading comprehension and written expression.

    The authors point out that there is no direct causal link between the responses on the questionnaires and student achievement, but that some patterns do exist. For example, among students whose parents described their lack of focus or unwillingness to help set modest goals, academic achievement was generally lower than among students who stayed on task or learned to prioritize.

    The study speaks to the need for a collaborative effort between parents and teachers, Alston-Abel said, especially among marginalized populations, and at a time when kindergarteners, according to Common Core State Standards, are expected to demonstrate basic reading and writing skills.

    “Some kids come to kindergarten reading basic ‘sight words,’ and others don’t know their letters. Add up the disadvantages and the demands of the curriculum, and it becomes very apparent that if you don’t have a collaborative effort, for these same kids, that gap is always going to be there,” Alston-Abel said.

    Teachers can start by asking parents about how they support their child’s learning at home — like with the kinds of questionnaires used in the study. The responses to open-ended questions about what kinds of reading and writing a child does at home, why, and for how long each week, can then inform instruction. Meanwhile, parents who work with their children, Alston-Abel added, are introducing study skills like time management and impulse control.

    The paper provides other tips for parents and teachers on how to work together to develop literacy and study skills. One way is to engage a child in writing at home through journals, a story to a family member, even an email or thank-you note. Another is to look for specific skills to help develop, such as spelling or reading comprehension, but pull back when the child appears able to accomplish more independently. And encourage any opportunity to read or write for fun.

    “Academic success is an all-hands-on-deck enterprise,” Alston-Abel said. “Teacher, parent and student all have a part to play. Fostering home-school partnerships that enhance and extend the experience of the learner can lead to life-long habits that foster success.”

    The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.


  2. Study suggests risktaking in teens is not because of brain development deficit

    August 31, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania press release:

    A popular theory in recent neuroscience proposes that slow development of the prefrontal cortex — and its weak connectivity with brain reward regions — explains teenagers’ seemingly impulsive and risky behavior. But an extensive literature review to be published in the journal Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience challenges that interpretation.

    The researchers examined the evidence behind that argument and found that much of it misinterpreted adolescent exploratory behavior as impulsive and lacking in control. Instead, the review suggests that much of what looks like adolescent impulsivity is behavior that is often guided by the desire to learn about the world.

    “Not long ago, the explanation for teenage behavior was raging hormones,” said lead author Daniel Romer, Ph.D., research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. “Now, it’s that the prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed. Neuroscientists were quick to interpret what appeared to be a characteristic of the developing brain as evidence of stereotypes about adolescent risk taking. But these behaviors are not symptoms of a brain deficit.”

    In their article, now posted online, the authors note that the brain development theory fails to take into account the implications of different kinds of risk taking. Teens have a heightened attraction to novel and exciting experiences, known as sensation seeking, which peaks during adolescence. But teens who exhibit that tendency alone are not necessarily more likely to suffer from health issues like substance use or gambling addiction. In fact, the authors noted that the rise in adolescent levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which may underlie the increased drive for sensation seeking, also supports the brain’s ability to exert greater control and to learn from experience.

    “What’s happening is that adolescents lack experience,” Romer said. “So they’re trying things out for the first time — like learning how to drive. They’re also trying drugs, deciding what to wear and who to hang out with. For some youth, this leads to problems. But when you’re trying things for the first time, you sometimes make mistakes. Researchers have interpreted this as a lack of control when for most youth, it’s just exploration.”

    Brain development and risk taking

    In their article, Romer and his co-authors say that the stereotype of the risky adolescent is based more on the rise of such behavior in adolescence than on its prevalence. “For the vast majority of adolescents,” the researchers write, “this period of development passes without substance dependence, sexually transmitted infection, pregnancy, homicide, depression, suicide, or death due to car crashes.”

    It’s a smaller subset of teens — those who exhibit impulsive behavior and have weak cognitive control — who are most at risk of unhealthy outcomes. Teens with impulse control problems can often be identified at ages four or five, and they are disproportionately likely to experience the hazards of adolescence and beyond, including higher rates of injuries and illnesses from car crashes, violence, and sexually transmitted infections, the authors say.

    “Further research is clearly needed to understand the brain development of youth who are at risk for adverse outcomes, as abnormalities of brain development are certainly linked to diverse neuropsychiatric conditions,” said co-author Theodore Satterthwaite, M.D., a faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “This research will help us to understand not only what makes adolescence a period of growth but also of risk.”

    An alternative model

    The authors propose an alternative model that emphasizes the role that risk taking and the experience gained by it play in adolescent development. This model explains much of the apparent increase in risk taking by adolescents as “an adaptive need to gain the experience required to assume adult roles and behaviors.” That experience eventually changes the way people think about risk, making it more “gist-like” or thematic and making them more risk averse.

    “Recent meta-analyses suggest that the way individuals think about risks and rewards changes as they mature, and current accounts of brain development must take these newer ideas into account to explain adolescent risk taking,” said co-author Valerie Reyna, Ph.D., director of the Human Neuroscience Institute at Cornell University.

    Romer added, “The reason teens are doing all of this exploring and novelty seeking is to build experience so that they can do a better job in making the difficult and risky decisions in later life — decisions like ‘Should I take this job?’ or ‘Should I marry this person?’ There’s no doubt that this period of development is a challenge for parents, but that’s doesn’t mean that the adolescent brain is somehow deficient or lacking in control.”


  3. Child’s home learning environment predicts 5th grade academic skills

    August 28, 2017 by Ashley

    From the New York University press release:

    Children whose parents provide them with learning materials like books and toys and engage them in learning activities and meaningful conversations in infancy and toddlerhood are likely to develop early cognitive skills that can cascade into later academic success, finds a new study by NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

    The study, published online in the journal Applied Developmental Science, followed a group of children from birth through 5th grade to track the influence of early home learning environments on later cognitive skills and understand the factors that might explain long-term influences.

    “There is growing evidence for the power of early learning environments on later academic success,” said Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, the study’s lead author and a professor of applied psychology at NYU Steinhardt. “Our study confirms that strong home learning environments arm children with foundational skills that are springboards to long-term academic achievement.”

    Research shows that the home learning environment powerfully shapes children’s language and cognitive development. Children’s participation in learning activities, the quality of parent-child interactions, and the availability of learning materials like books and toys are three key features of the home learning environment that support language and pre-academic skills in early childhood.

    In this study, Tamis-LeMonda and her colleagues examined early home learning environments and whether they predict 5th grade academic skills for children of families from ethnically diverse, low-income backgrounds. The researchers studied 2,204 families enrolled in the Early Head Start Research Evaluation Project.

    Children’s learning environments were measured through a series of home visits at 14 months, at 2 and 3 years, and at pre-kindergarten. The researchers looked at literacy activities (including book reading, storytelling, and teaching letters and numbers), learning materials in the home (including books, toys, or games that facilitate expression and learning), and the quality of mothers’ interactions with their children. Examples of high quality interactions included labeling objects in the environment and responding to children’s cues; these sensitive interactions are attentive to children’s needs and cognitively stimulating.

    Learning environments were again assessed in 5th grade based on the number of books in the home and the quality of mothers’ engagement with children, both spontaneous interactions and during a discussion-based task.

    At the pre-kindergarten and 5th grade visits, children were assessed on age-appropriate academic skills. The pre-K visit included measures of vocabulary, letter and word identification, and math problem-solving; the 5th grade visit measured vocabulary, reading, math, and general cognitive abilities.

    The researchers found that early learning environments supported the emergence of pre-academic skills that persisted into early adolescence to predict children’s 5th grade academic skills. Pathways from early learning environments to later academic skill were similar for children from White, Black, Hispanic, English-speaking, and Hispanic Spanish-speaking backgrounds.

    Notably, learning environments were highly stable over the 10-year study, suggesting that the experiences parents provide their infants as early as the first year of life may solidify into patterns of engagement that either continue to support or impede children’s emerging skills.

    The study highlights the importance of early childhood experiences for children’s skill development and long-term academic success, and reinforces the notion that families have a major influence on children’s academic outcomes.

    The researchers note that the findings have implications for policy and practice, including the design of interventions for young children and parents from disadvantaged backgrounds.

    “Improvements to early learning environments, whether it be in the home or through early childhood programs like Early Head Start, can effectively support the development of children exposed to socioeconomic disadvantage,” said Tamis-LeMonda, who also co-directs the Center for Research on Culture, Development and Education at NYU Steinhardt.


  4. ‘Robin Hood effects’ on motivation in math

    August 24, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Universität Tübingen press release:

    Students from families with little interest in math benefit more from a school intervention program that aims at increasing math motivation than do students whose parents regard math as important. A study by researchers at the Hector Research Institute of Education Sciences and Psychology indicates the intervention program has a “Robin Hood effect” which reduces the “motivational gap” between students from different family backgrounds because new information about the importance of math is made accessible to underprivileged students. Something known as the “Matthew effect” did not take place in this study. The “Matthew effect” says that students who already have good foundations and are therefore more privileged, profit most from an intervention. The results of the study were recently published in Developmental Psychology.

    The Tübingen researchers first analyzed data on the attitudes towards math of roughly 1,900 German ninth-grade students and their parents. The students then took part in a teaching unit about the usefulness of math that was conducted by the researchers. In a presentation, they were given important information about the significance of mathematics for students’ future careers and their daily life. Afterwards they either wrote an essay about the usefulness of math or evaluated interview quotations about math’s relevance.

    At six weeks and at five months after the intervention, the students were again asked about their motivation towards math. The intervention showed several “Robin Hood effects” on the students’ utility and attainment values as well as on students’ effort: the motivation of students from families with little interest in math was more positively affected than the motivation of students from families with greater interest in the subject. Yet the differential effects were observed only five months after the teaching unit. Six weeks after the intervention no differential effects were apparent. “Our assumption was that there would be a delayed effect on the motivation of less privileged students, since it would take some time for them to reflect on and internalize the information they received during the teaching unit,” explains Isabelle Häfner. This so-called “sleeper-effect” grows stronger the more time passes, she adds.

    The study results also suggest that it is not the socioeconomic status of their families — education, income and occupation — that is central for students’ motivation to learn, but rather their parents’ interest in a subject. “If parents are interested in math for example, this might affect the way they spend their free time. They spend more time talking about a subject with their children, thereby passing on their interest in it,” says Häfner. Students from families with little interest in math, on the other hand, do not have access to this kind of information. When they receive it at school, they may profit more greatly because the novelty of the information encourages them to reflect on it. One of the two project leaders and director of the Hector Research Institute of Education Sciences and Psychology, Ulrich Trautwein, stresses the importance of this finding: “Often children who are already privileged are those who end up benefitting from additional programs. Our results highlight the potential of classroom interventions to reduce motivational gaps between students from families with fewer and students from families with greater motivational resources.”


  5. Study suggests brain may be capable of learning during sleep

    August 23, 2017 by Ashley

    From the CNRS press release:

    The human brain’s capacity for learning is astonishing: it can even memorize meaningless sounds if repeated. Hence, a pattern of white noise, like that produced by a radio when it can’t pick up any station, can be learned if heard only a few times. The listener doesn’t even have to be paying attention.

    The researchers chose this kind of passive auditory stimulation — particularly well suited for subjects who are asleep — to explore the connection between learning and sleep. They exposed sleeping volunteers to noise that incorporated repeated sounds and then tracked their brain activity using electroencephalography. Since the brain reacts differently to new, unfamiliar sounds as opposed to learned sounds, electroencephalographic analysis can show researchers whether a sound heard has been memorized, even when the subject is not awake.

    Analysis of brain activity in subjects while asleep, and of their behavioral responses after waking, demonstrated they recognized the noises heard during both REM sleep and stage N2 sleep. These findings reveal that our brains are able to learn while in these two sleep phases. And indeed, during both phases — even though they are very different in terms of brain activity — it has been shown that the brain can process complex information, whether endogenous or exogenous.(1) However, while previous research on humans and other animals has shown that certain types of learning, like conditioning, can occur during sleep,(2) this study reveals that we can also memorize new representations and objects (here auditory ‘objects’) while dozing.

    This study also yielded new information about deep sleep (stage N3). The researchers discovered just the opposite to hold true during this sleep stage: sounds previously learned during N2 sleep are forgotten, or unlearned, as if erased from memory. Furthermore, after waking, subjects find these sounds even harder to learn than completely new ones.

    These findings support the idea that N2 and REM sleep favor cerebral plasticity and active memory consolidation, while N3 sleep seems to fulfill the necessary function of unloading memories that would otherwise accumulate day after day. These novel results are important because they could reconcile two theories on sleep’s function in memory that are often deemed contradictory: one sees sleep as a time for consolidating knowledge acquired during the day; the other imagines it to be a sieve for discarding information no longer needed. Having made their discovery, the researchers are now wondering what precise neural mechanisms underlie this double role sleep plays in memory.

    Led by the Laboratoire de Sciences Cognitives et Psycholinguistique (CNRS / ENS / EHESS) in collaboration with the Laboratoire des Systèmes Perceptifs (CNRS / ENS) and the Centre du Sommeil et de la Vigilance (AP-HP / Paris Descartes University) at Hôtel Dieu Hospital, this study is the subject of an article published in Nature Communications on August 8, 2017.

    (1) During N2 sleep, the brain can manage exogenous information (i.e., data from outside sources), but it primarily handles endogenous information (i.e., from inside sources) during REM sleep and while dreaming.

    (2) Recent experiments concerned with learning through conditioning have demonstrated that sleeping subjects hold their breath when exposed to unpleasant odors immediately after hearing particular sounds. When they later encounter the same sounds — but not the unpleasant odors — they again hold their breath.


  6. Study suggests bilingual babies can efficiently process both languages

    by Ashley

    From the Princeton University press release:

    Are two languages at a time too much for the mind? Caregivers and teachers should know that infants growing up bilingual have the learning capacities to make sense of the complexities of two languages just by listening. In a new study, an international team of researchers, including those from Princeton University, report that bilingual infants as young as 20 months of age efficiently and accurately process two languages.

    The study, published Aug. 7 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that infants can differentiate between words in different languages. “By 20 months, bilingual babies already know something about the differences between words in their two languages,” said Casey Lew-Williams, an assistant professor of psychology and co-director of the Princeton Baby Lab, where researchers study how babies and young children learn to see, talk and understand the world. He is also the co-author of the paper.

    “They do not think that ‘dog’ and ‘chien’ [French] are just two versions of the same thing,” Lew-Williams said. “They implicitly know that these words belong to different languages.”

    To determine infants’ ability to monitor and control language, the researchers showed 24 French-English bilingual infants and 24 adults in Montreal pairs of photographs of familiar objects. Participants heard simple sentences in either a single language (“Look! Find the dog!”) or a mix of two languages (“Look! Find the chien!”). In another experiment, they heard a language switch that crossed sentences (“That one looks fun! Le chien!”). These types of language switches, called code switches, are regularly heard by children in bilingual communities.

    The researchers then used eye-tracking measures, such as how long an infant’s or an adult’s eyes remained fixed to a photograph after hearing a sentence, and pupil dilation. Pupil diameter is an involuntary response to how hard the brain is “working,” and is used as an indirect measure of cognitive effort.

    The researchers tested bilingual adults as a control group and used the same photographs and eye-tracking procedure as tested on bilingual infants to examine whether these language-control mechanisms were the same across a bilingual speaker’s life.

    They found that bilingual infants and adults incurred a processing “cost” when hearing switched-language sentences and, at the moment of the language switch, their pupils dilated. However, this switch cost was reduced or eliminated when the switch was from the non-dominant to the dominant language, and when the language switch crossed sentences.

    “We identified convergent behavioral and physiological markers of there being a ‘cost’ associated with language switching,” Lew-Williams said. Rather than indicating barriers to comprehension, the study “shows an efficient processing strategy where there is an activation and prioritization of the currently heard language,” Lew-Williams said.

    The similar results in both the infant and adult subjects also imply that “bilinguals across the lifespan have important similarities in how they process their languages,” Lew-Williams said.

    “We have known for a long time that the language currently being spoken between two bilingual interlocutors — the base language — is more active than the language not being spoken, even when mixed speech is possible,” said François Grosjean, professor emeritus of psycholinguistics at Neuchâtel University in Switzerland, who is familiar with the research but was not involved with the study.

    “This creates a preference for the base language when listening, and hence processing a code-switch can take a bit more time, but momentarily,” added Grosjean. “When language switches occur frequently, or are situated at [sentence] boundaries, or listeners expect them, then no extra processing time is needed. The current study shows that many of these aspects are true in young bilingual infants, and this is quite remarkable.”

    “These findings advance our understanding of bilingual language use in exciting ways — both in toddlers in the initial stages of acquisition and in the proficient bilingual adult,” said Janet Werker, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, who was not involved with the research. She noted that the findings may have implications for optimal teaching in bilingual settings. “One of the most obvious implications of these results is that we needn’t be concerned that children growing up bilingual will confuse their two languages. Indeed, rather than being confused as to which language to expect, the results indicate that even toddlers naturally activate the vocabulary of the language that is being used in any particular setting.”

    A bilingual advantage?

    Lew-Williams suggests that this study not only confirms that bilingual infants monitor and control their languages while listening to the simplest of sentences, but also provides a likely explanation of why bilinguals show cognitive advantages across the lifespan. Children and adults who have dual-language proficiency have been observed to perform better in “tasks that require switching or the inhibiting of a previously learned response,” Lew-Williams said.

    “Researchers used to think this ‘bilingual advantage’ was from bilinguals’ practice dealing with their two languages while speaking,” Lew-Williams said. “We believe that everyday listening experience in infancy — this back-and-forth processing of two languages — is likely to give rise to the cognitive advantages that have been documented in both bilingual children and adults.”


  7. Cultural activities may influence the way we think

    August 19, 2017 by Ashley

    From the American Friends of Tel Aviv University press release:

    A new Tel Aviv University study suggests that cultural activities, such as the use of language, influence our learning processes, affecting our ability to collect different kinds of data, make connections between them, and infer a desirable mode of behavior from them.

    “We believe that, over lengthy time scales, some aspects of the brain must have changed to better accommodate the learning parameters required by various cultural activities,” said Prof. Arnon Lotem, of TAU’s Department of Zoology, who led the research for the study. “The effect of culture on cognitive evolution is captured through small modifications of evolving learning and data acquisition mechanisms. Their coordinated action improves the brain network’s ability to support learning processes involved in such cultural phenomena as language or tool-making.”

    Prof. Lotem developed the new learning model in collaboration with Prof. Joseph Halpern and Prof. Shimon Edelman, both of Cornell University, and Dr. Oren Kolodny of Stanford University (formerly a PhD student at TAU). The research was recently published in PNAS.

    “Our new computational approach to studying human and animal cognition may explain how human culture shaped the evolution of human cognition and memory,” Prof. Lotem said. “The brain is not a rigid learning machine in which a particular event necessarily leads to another particular event. Instead, it functions according to coevolving mechanisms of learning and data acquisition, with certain memory parameters that jointly construct a complex network, capable of supporting a range of cognitive abilities.

    “Any change in these parameters may change the constructed network and thus the function of the brain,” Prof. Lotem said. “This is how small modifications can adapt our brain to ecological as well as to cultural changes. Our model reflects this.”

    To learn, the brain calculates statistics on the data it takes in from the environment, monitoring the distribution of data and determining the level of connections between them. The new learning model assumes a limited window of memory and constructs an associative network that represents the frequency of the connections between data items.

    “A computer remembers all the data it is fed. But our brain developed in a way that limits the quantity of data it can receive and remember,” said Prof. Lotem. “Our model hypothesizes that the brain does this ‘intentionally’ — that is, the mechanism of filtering the data from the surroundings is an integral element in the learning process. Moreover, a limited working memory may paradoxically be helpful in some cognitive tasks that require extensive computation. This may explain why our working memory is actually more limited than that of our closest relatives, chimpanzees.”

    Working with a large memory window imposes a far greater computational burden on the brain than working with a small window. Human language, for example, presents computational challenges. When we listen to a string of syllables, we need to scan a massive number of possible combinations to identify familiar words.

    But this is only a problem if the person who is learning really needs to care about the exact order of data items, which is the case with language, according to Dr. Lotem. On the other hand, a person only has to identify a small combination of typical features in order to discriminate between two types of trees in the forest. The exact order of the features is not as important, computation is simpler and a larger working memory may be better.

    “Some of these principles that evolved in the biological brain may be useful in the development of AI someday,” Dr. Lotem said. “Currently the concept of limiting memory in order to improve computation is not something that people do in the field of AI, but perhaps they should try and see whether it can paradoxically be helpful in some cases, as in our human brain.”

    “Excluding very recent cultural innovations, the assumption that culture shaped the evolution of cognition is both more parsimonious and more productive than assuming the opposite,” the researchers concluded. They are currently examining how natural variations in learning and memory parameters may influence learning tasks that require extensive computation.


  8. Study suggests cognitive cross-training enhances learning

    by Ashley

    From the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign press release:

    Just as athletes cross-train to improve physical skills, those wanting to enhance cognitive skills can benefit from multiple ways of exercising the brain, according to a comprehensive new study from University of Illinois researchers.

    The 18-week study of 318 healthy young adults found that combining physical exercise and mild electric brain stimulation with computer-based cognitive training promoted skill learning significantly more than using cognitive training alone.

    The enhanced learning was skill-specific and did not translate to general intelligence. The study, the largest and most comprehensive to date, was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

    “Learning provides the foundation for acquiring new skills and updating prior beliefs in light of new knowledge and experience,” said study leader Aron Barbey, a professor of psychology. “Our results establish a method to enhance learning through multimodal intervention. The beneficial effects of cognitive training can be significantly enhanced with the addition of physical fitness training and noninvasive brain stimulation.”

    Psychologists have extensively studied and debated the merits of cognitive training, but have mainly focused on computer-based tasks, Barbey said. The few studies that have incorporated other training modalities, such as physical fitness training or noninvasive brain stimulation, have been small in sample size, short in time or narrow in scope, he said.

    The Illinois study divided its numerous subjects into five groups: three experimental groups and active and passive control groups. One experimental group received only cognitive training; the second group received cognitive training and exercise; and the third group received cognitive training, exercise and noninvasive brain stimulation delivered by electrodes on the scalp. The active control group completed different computer-based cognitive training tasks than the experimental group, but did the same number of sessions of the same amount of time as the experimental group. In the first week, participants took a pretest. In the following 16 weeks, the experimental and active groups completed 90-minute training sessions three times a week. In the final week of the study, all participants took a post-test.

    “Physical activity and aerobic fitness are known to have beneficial effects on the underlying structures and functions of the brain,” said Barbey, a member of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at Illinois. “And research has shown that specific brain stimulation protocols can enhance cognitive performance, prompting us to investigate their effects on cognitive training.”

    The study used six different training tasks, designed to measure specific cognitive skills such as memory, attention and task-switching. In the post-test, the groups that received cognitive training and physical fitness training or all three interventions performed significantly better than the group with cognitive training alone. The group that received all three interventions consistently performed the best, and showed substantial gains in two of the tasks over the group that received cognitive and physical fitness training but did not receive brain stimulation.


  9. Study suggests online volunteers driven by desire to learn

    August 17, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Portsmouth press release:

    People who give up their time for online volunteering are mainly motivated by a desire to learn, a new study has found.

    The research surveyed volunteers on ‘citizen science’ projects and suggests that this type of volunteering could be used to increase general knowledge of science within society.

    The research, led by the University of Portsmouth, discovered that an appetite to learn more about the subject was the number one driver for online volunteers, followed by being part of a community. It also revealed that many volunteers are motivated by a desire for escapism.

    Online volunteering and crowdsourcing projects typically involve input from large numbers of contributors working individually but towards a common goal. This study surveyed 2000 people who volunteer for ‘citizen science’ projects hosted by Zooniverse, a collection of research projects that rely on volunteers to help scientists with the challenge of interpreting massive amounts of data.

    Dr Joe Cox, who led the research, said that while the projects don’t require specialist knowledge, volunteer effort and retention seems to be most strongly driven by a desire to enhance knowledge and understanding. He said: “We also found that those whose motivation was to learn were also more active over longer periods and undertook the most amount of work.

    “What was interesting was that characteristics such as age, gender and level of education had no correlation with the amount of time people give up and the length of time they stay on a project. These participants were relatively highly educated compared with the rest of the population, but those with the highest levels of education do not appear to contribute the most effort and information towards these projects.”

    The study noticed pronounced changes in how people are motivated at different stages of the volunteer process. While a desire to learn is the most important motivation among contributors at the early stages, the opportunities for social interaction and escapism become more important motivations at later stages.

    Dr Cox said that it is important to understand the motivations of citizen scientists due to the possibility of increased competition to recruit and retain such volunteers in the future.

    “We know that citizen science projects place huge value on volunteers because the combined ‘wisdom of crowds’ achieves so much. For example, Galaxy Zoo, which asks volunteers to analyse galaxies and the data helps astrophysicists develop a better understanding of the evolution of the universe. Their work contributes the amount of information that it would take a professional researcher 34 years working alone to complete and it will be just as accurate if not more.”

    He suggests that online volunteering and citizen science projects could incentivise participation by offering clearly defined opportunities for learning, while representing an effective way of increasing scientific literacy and knowledge within society.


  10. Brains are more plastic than previously thought

    August 3, 2017 by Ashley

    From the McGill University press release:

    Practice might not always make perfect, but it’s essential for learning a sport or a musical instrument. It’s also the basis of brain training, an approach that holds potential as a non-invasive therapy to overcome disabilities caused by neurological disease or trauma.

    Research at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital of McGill University (The Neuro) has shown just how adaptive the brain can be, knowledge that could one day be applied to recovery from conditions such as stroke.

    Researchers Dave Liu and Christopher Pack have demonstrated that practice can change the way that the brain uses sensory information. In particular, they showed that, depending on the type of training done beforehand, a part of the brain called the area middle temporal (MT) can be either critical for visual perception, or not important at all.

    Previous research has shown the area MT is involved in visual motion perception. Damage to area MT causes “motion blindness,” in which patients have clear vision for stationary objects but are unable to see motion. Such deficits are somewhat mysterious, because it is well known that area MT is just one of many brain regions involved in visual motion perception. This suggests that other pathways might be able to compensate in the absence of area MT.

    Most studies have examined the function of area MT using a task in which subjects view small dots moving across a screen and indicate how they see the dots moving, because this has been proven to activate area MT. To determine how crucial MT really was for this task, Liu and Pack used a simple trick: They replaced the moving dots with moving lines, which are known to stimulate areas outside area MT more effectively. Surprisingly, subjects who practiced this task were able to perceive visual motion perfectly even when area MT was temporarily inactivated.

    On the other hand, subjects who practiced with moving dots exhibited motion blindness when MT was temporarily deactivated. The motion blindness persisted even when the stimulus was switched back to the moving lines, indicating that the effects of practice were very difficult to undo. Indeed, the effects of practice with the moving dot stimuli were detectable for weeks afterwards. The key lesson for brain training is that small differences in the training regimen can lead to profoundly different changes in the brain.

    This has potential for future clinical use. Stroke patients, for example, often lose their vision as a result of brain damage caused by lack of blood flow to brain cells. With the correct training stimulus, one day these patients could retrain their brains to use different regions for vision that were not damaged by the stroke.

    “Years of basic research have given us a fairly detailed picture of the parts of the brain responsible for vision,” says Christopher Pack, the paper’s senior author. “Individual parts of the cortex are exquisitely sensitive to specific visual features — colors, lines, shapes, motion — so it’s exciting that we might be able to build this knowledge into protocols that aim to increase or decrease the involvement of different brain regions in conscious visual perception, according to the needs of the subject. This is something we’re starting to work on now.”