1. Using virtual reality to identify brain areas involved in memory

    February 15, 2018 by Ashley

    From the University of California – Davis press release:

    Virtual reality is helping neuroscientists at the University of California, Davis, get new insight into how different brain areas assemble memories in context.

    In a study published Jan. 18 in the journal Nature Communications, graduate student Halle Dimsdale-Zucker and colleagues used a virtual reality environment to train subjects, then showed that different areas of the hippocampus are activated for different types of memories.

    It’s well known that one memory can trigger related memories. We remember specific events with context — when and where it happened, who was there. Different memories can have specific context, as well as information that is the same between memories — for example, events that occurred in the same location.

    Dimsdale-Zucker and Professor Charan Ranganath at the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience and Department of Psychology are interested in how the brain assembles all the pieces of these memories. They use functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to look for brain areas that are activated as memories are recalled, especially in the hippocampus, a small structure in the center of the brain.

    For this study, Dimsdale-Zucker used architectural sketching software to build houses in a 3-D virtual environment. The subjects watched a series of videos in which they went into one house then another. In each video, different objects were positioned within the houses. The subjects therefore memorized the objects in two contexts: which video (episodic memory) and which house (spatial memory).

    In the second phase of the study, the subjects were asked to try to remember the objects while they were scanned by fMRI.

    Being asked about the objects spontaneously reactivated contextual information, Dimsdale-Zucker said. Different regions of the hippocampus were activated for different kinds of information: One area, CA1, was associated with representing shared information about contexts (e.g., objects that were in the same video); another, distinct area was linked to representing differences in context.

    “What’s exciting is that it is intuitive that you can remember a unique experience, but the hippocampus is also involved in linking similar experiences,” Dimsdale-Zucker said. “You need both to be able to remember.”

    Another interesting finding was that in this study, the hippocampus was involved in episodic memories linking both time and space, she said. Conventional thinking has been that the hippocampus codes primarily for spatial memories, for example those involved in navigation.

    Virtual reality makes it possible to carry out controlled laboratory experiments with episodic memory, Dimsdale-Zucker said. A better understanding of how memories are formed, stored and recalled could eventually lead to better diagnosis and treatment for memory problems in aging or degenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.


  2. What are memories made of?

    February 12, 2018 by Ashley

    From the University of Colorado at Boulder press release:

    Ask a nonscientist what memories are made of and you’ll likely conjure images of childhood birthday parties or wedding days. Charles Hoeffer thinks about proteins.

    For five years, the assistant professor of integrative physiology at CU Boulder has been working to better understand a protein called AKT, which is ubiquitous in brain tissue and instrumental in enabling the brain to adapt to new experiences and lay down new memories.

    Until now, scientists have known very little about what it does in the brain.

    But in a new paper funded by the National Institutes of Health, Hoeffer and his co-authors spell it out for the first time, showing that AKT comes in three distinct varieties residing in different kinds of brain cells and affecting brain health in very distinct ways.

    The discovery could lead to new, more targeted treatments for everything from glioblastoma — the brain cancer Sen. John McCain has — to Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia.

    “AKT is a central protein that has been implicated in a bevy of neurological diseases yet we know amazingly little about it,” Hoeffer said. “Our paper is the first to comprehensively examine what its different forms are doing in the brain and where.”

    Discovered in the 1970s and known best as an “oncogene” (one that, when mutated, can promote cancer), AKT has more recently been identified as a key player in promoting “synaptic plasticity,” the brain’s ability to strengthen cellular connections in response to experience.

    “Let’s say you see a great white shark and you are scared and your brain wants to form a memory of what’s going on. You have to make new proteins to encode that memory,” he said. AKT is one of the first proteins to come online, a central switch that turns on the memory factory.

    But not all AKTs are created equal.

    For the study, Hoeffer’s team silenced the three different isoforms, or varieties, of AKT in mice and observed their brain activity.

    They made a number of key discoveries:

    AKT2 is found exclusively in astroglia, the supportive, star-shaped cells in the brain and spinal cord that are often impacted in brain cancer and brain injury.

    “That is a really important finding,” said co-author Josien Levenga, who worked on the project as a postdoctoral researcher at CU Boulder. “If you could develop a drug that targeted only AKT2 without impacting other forms, it might be more effective in treating certain issues with fewer side-effects.”

    The researchers also found that AKT1 is ubiquitous in neurons and appears to be the most important form in promoting the strengthening of synapses in response to experience, aka memory formation. (This finding is in line with previous research showing that mutations in AKT1 boost risk of schizophrenia and other brain disorders associated with a flaw in the way a patient perceives or remembers experiences.)

    AKT3 appears to play a key role in brain growth, with mice whose AKT3 gene is silenced showing smaller brain size.

    “Before this, there was an assumption that they all did basically the same thing in the same cells in the same way. Now we know better,” Hoeffer said.

    He notes that pan-AKT inhibitors have already been developed for cancer treatment, but he envisions a day when drugs could be developed to target more specific versions of the protein (AKT1 enhancers for Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia, AKT2 inhibitors for cancer), leaving the others forms untouched, preventing side-effects.

    More animal research is underway to determine what happens to behavior when different forms of the protein go awry.

    “Isoform specific treatments hold great promise for the design of targeted therapies to treat neurological diseases with much greater efficacy and accuracy than those utilizing a one-size-fits-all approach,” the authors conclude. “This study is an important step in that direction.”


  3. Study suggests positive attitude toward math predicts math achievement in kids

    February 9, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Stanford University Medical Center press release:

    For the first time, scientists have identified the brain pathway that links a positive attitude toward math to achievement in the subject.

    In a study of elementary school students, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine found that having a positive attitude about math was connected to better function of the hippocampus, an important memory center in the brain, during performance of arithmetic problems.

    The findings will be published online Jan. 24 in Psychological Science.

    Educators have long observed higher math scores in children who show more interest in math and perceive themselves as being better at it. But it has not been clear if this attitude simply reflects other capacities, such as higher intelligence.

    The new study found that, even once IQ and other confounding factors were accounted for, a positive attitude toward math still predicted which students had stronger math performance.

    ‘Attitude is really important’

    “Attitude is really important,” said Lang Chen, PhD, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral scholar in psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “Based on our data, the unique contribution of positive attitude to math achievement is as large as the contribution from IQ.”

    The scientists had not expected the contribution of attitude to be so large, Chen said. The mechanism underlying its link to cognitive performance was also unexpected.

    “It was really surprising to see that the link works through a very classical learning and memory system in the brain,” said the study’s senior author, Vinod Menon, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. Researchers had previously hypothesized that the brain’s reward centers might drive the link between attitude and achievement — perhaps children with better attitudes were better at math because they found it more rewarding or motivating. “Instead, we saw that if you have a strong interest and self-perceived ability in math, it results in enhanced memory and more efficient engagement of the brain’s problem-solving capacities,” Menon said.

    The researchers administered standard questionnaires to 240 children ages 7 to 10, assessing demographics, IQ, reading ability and working-memory capacity. The children’s level of math achievement was measured with tests of their knowledge of arithmetic facts and ability to solve math word problems. Parents or guardians answered surveys about the children’s behavioral and emotional characteristics, as well as their anxiety about math and general anxiety. Children also answered a survey that assessed their attitude toward math, including questions about interest in math and self-perceived math ability, as well as their attitude toward academics in general.

    Forty-seven children from the group also participated in MRI brain scans while performing arithmetic problems. Tests were conducted outside the MRI scanner to discern which problem-solving strategies they used. An independent group of 28 children also was given MRI scans and other assessments in an attempt to replicate the findings from the cohort previously given brain scans.

    Opening the door

    Math performance correlated with a positive attitude toward math even after statistically controlling for IQ, working memory, math anxiety, general anxiety and general attitude toward academics, the study found. Children with poor attitudes toward math rarely performed well in the subject, while those with strongly positive attitudes had a range of math achievement.

    A positive attitude opens the door for children to do well but does not guarantee that they will; that depends on other factors as well,” Chen said.

    From the brain-imaging results, the scientists found that, when a child was solving a math problem, his or her positive-attitude scores correlated with activation in the hippocampus, an important memory and learning center in the brain. Activity in the brain’s reward centers, including the amygdala and the ventral striatum, was not linked to a positive attitude toward math. Statistical modeling of the brain imaging results suggested that the hippocampus mediates the link between positive attitude and efficient retrieval of facts from memory, which in turn is associated with better problem solving abilities.

    Having a positive attitude acts directly on your memory and learning system,” Chen said. “I think that’s really important and interesting.”

    The study could not disentangle the extent to which a positive attitude came from a child’s prior success in math. “We think the relationship between positive attitude and math achievement is mutual, bi-directional,” Chen said. “We think it’s like bootstrapping: A good attitude opens the door to high achievement, which means you then have a better attitude, getting you into a good circle of learning. And it can probably go the other way and be a vicious circle, too.”

    The findings may provide a new avenue for improving academic performance and learning in children who are struggling, Menon said, cautioning that this idea still needs to be tested through active interventions.

    “Typically, we focus on skill learning in individual academic domains, but our new work suggests that looking at children’s beliefs about a subject and their self-perceived abilities might provide another inroad to maximizing learning,” Menon said. The findings also offer a potential explanation for how a particularly passionate teacher can nurture students’ interest and learning capacities for a subject, he added. Inspiring teachers may be instinctively sharing their own interest, as well as instilling students in the belief that they can be good at the subject, building a positive attitude even if the student did not have it before.


  4. Study looks at personality changes during transition to developing mild cognitive impairment

    February 7, 2018 by Ashley

    From the American Geriatrics Society press release:

    A key feature of Alzheimer’s disease is memory loss and losing one’s ability to think and make decisions (also called “cognitive ability“). Those changes can begin slowly, during a phase called “mild cognitive impairment” (or MCI). A variety of diseases can cause MCI, but the most common is Alzheimer’s disease.

    Not all people who have MCI develop Alzheimer’s disease — but if memory loss is a person’s key MCI symptom, and if that person’s genes (DNA) suggests they may be likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, the risk for the condition can be as high as 90 percent.

    Personality changes and behavior problems that come with Alzheimer’s disease are as troubling as memory loss and other mental difficulties for caregivers and those living with the condition. Mayo Clinic researchers wondered if personality changes that begin early, when MCI memory loss becomes noticeable, might help predict Alzheimer’s disease at its earliest stages. The researchers created a study to test their theory and published their findings in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

    Researchers recruited cognitively normal participants 21-years-old and older who were genetically more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. The recruitment period began in January 1994 and ended in December 2016. Researchers also recruited people without a genetic likelihood for developing Alzheimer’s disease to serve as a control group. All participants took several tests, including medical and neurological (or brain) exams. They were also screened for depression, as well as cognitive and physical function.

    After analyzing results, the researchers concluded that personality changes, which can lead to changes in behavior, occur early on during the development of Alzheimer’s disease. The behavioral changes, however, may be barely noticeable, and can include mood swings, depression, and anxiety. They suggested that further research might be needed to learn whether diagnosing these early personality changes could help experts develop earlier, safer, and more effective treatments — or even prevention options — for the more severe types of behavior challenges that affect people with Alzheimer’s disease.


  5. How your brain remembers what you had for dinner last night

    February 6, 2018 by Ashley

    From the University of California – San Diego press release:

    Confirming earlier computational models, researchers at University of California San Diego and UC San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Arizona and Louisiana, report that episodic memories are encoded in the hippocampus of the human brain by distinct, sparse sets of neurons.

    The findings are published in the January 15 issue of PNAS Online Early Edition.

    Episodic memories are recollections of past events that occurred at a particular time and place, a sort of mental time travel to recall, for example, a past birthday party or conversation with a friend. Encoding of episodic memories occurs in the hippocampus — a pair of small, seahorse-shaped regions located deep within the central portion of the brain — but the precise mechanism and numbers of neurons involved has been unclear.

    “Scientists are interested in these issues not only because of their implications for models of memory, but also for health-related reasons,” said first author John Wixted, PhD, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychology at UC San Diego. “For example, degeneration in this region of the brain is responsible for memory loss in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.”

    Wixted, with Larry Squire, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry, Neurosciences and Psychology in UC San Diego School of Medicine, and colleagues studied brain function in 20 epileptic patients undergoing intracranial monitoring for clinical purposes.

    Specifically, they recorded single-neuron activity as study participants read a continuous stream of words, some of which were repeated. Participants were asked to indicate whether the words were “new” or “old” if they recalled seeing the word earlier. Strong neural activity in the hippocampus associated with repeated words, but not novel words, was deemed evidence of activity related to episodic memory.

    The scientists found that individual episodic memories are encoded and represented by the strong activity of small (fewer than 2.5 percent) and usually non-overlapping sets of hippocampal neurons, a finding that perhaps helps explain why past research efforts have struggled to detect the process. At the same time, they noted that the firing rates or activity of remaining hippocampal neurons (approximately 97.5 percent) were suppressed — a phenomenon called neural sharpening. These findings are significant because they confirm what scientists have long believed to be true but for which direct evidence had been lacking.

    The researchers also looked for related activity in the amygdala, a nearby brain region associated with emotion and emotional memory. Models do not predict episodic memories are encoded in the amygdala by sparse sets of neurons as they are in the hippocampus, and, indeed, the scientists found no such activity there.

    “If treatments and preventions are to be developed for memory problems, and for diseases that affect memory,” said Squire, “it will be important to know how the brain accomplishes learning and memory: What brain structures are important for memory and what jobs do they do? In our study, we found what would have been easily missed were it not for theoretical models of memory that had been developed earlier.”

    Co-authors include: Stephen D. Goldinger, Arizona State University; Joel R. Kuhn, UC San Diego; Megan H. Papesh, Louisiana State University; Kris A. Smith, David M. Treiman and Peter N. Steinmetz, Barrow Neurological Institute.


  6. Study suggests curcumin improves memory and mood

    February 3, 2018 by Ashley

    From the UCLA press release:

    Lovers of Indian food, give yourselves a second helping: Daily consumption of a certain form of curcumin — the substance that gives Indian curry its bright color — improved memory and mood in people with mild, age-related memory loss, according to the results of a study conducted by UCLA researchers.

    The research, published online Jan. 19 in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, examined the effects of an easily absorbed curcumin supplement on memory performance in people without dementia, as well as curcumin’s potential impact on the microscopic plaques and tangles in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease.

    Found in turmeric, curcumin has previously been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties in lab studies. It also has been suggested as a possible reason that senior citizens in India, where curcumin is a dietary staple, have a lower prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and better cognitive performance.

    “Exactly how curcumin exerts its effects is not certain, but it may be due to its ability to reduce brain inflammation, which has been linked to both Alzheimer’s disease and major depression,” said Dr. Gary Small, director of geriatric psychiatry at UCLA’s Longevity Center and of the geriatric psychiatry division at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, and the study’s first author.

    The double-blind, placebo-controlled study involved 40 adults between the ages of 50 and 90 years who had mild memory complaints. Participants were randomly assigned to receive either a placebo or 90 milligrams of curcumin twice daily for 18 months.

    All 40 subjects received standardized cognitive assessments at the start of the study and at six-month intervals, and monitoring of curcumin levels in their blood at the start of the study and after 18 months. Thirty of the volunteers underwent positron emission tomography, or PET scans, to determine the levels of amyloid and tau in their brains at the start of the study and after 18 months.

    The people who took curcumin experienced significant improvements in their memory and attention abilities, while the subjects who received placebo did not, Small said. In memory tests, the people taking curcumin improved by 28 percent over the 18 months. Those taking curcumin also had mild improvements in mood, and their brain PET scans showed significantly less amyloid and tau signals in the amygdala and hypothalamus than those who took placebos.

    The amygdala and hypothalamus are regions of the brain that control several memory and emotional functions.

    Four people taking curcumin, and two taking placebos, experienced mild side effects such as abdominal pain and nausea.

    The researchers plan to conduct a follow-up study with a larger number of people. That study will include some people with mild depression so the scientists can explore whether curcumin also has antidepressant effects. The larger sample also would allow them to analyze whether curcumin’s memory-enhancing effects vary according to people’s genetic risk for Alzheimer’s, their age or the extent of their cognitive problems.

    “These results suggest that taking this relatively safe form of curcumin could provide meaningful cognitive benefits over the years,” said Small, UCLA’s Parlow-Solomon Professor on Aging.


  7. Study suggests neurons’ sugar coating essential for long-term memories

    January 19, 2018 by Ashley

    From the University of Oslo, Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences press release:

    How the brain is able to store memories over long periods of time has been a persistent mystery to neuroscientists. In a new study, researchers from the Centre for Integrative Neuroplasticity (CINPLA) at the University of Oslo show that long-lived extracellular matrix molecules called perineuronal nets are essential for distant memories.

    The new research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that removal of the nets disrupts distant but not recent memories.

    Previously, researchers have mainly focused on molecules inside the nerve cells. The team of investigators, led by Drs. Marianne Fyhn and Torkel Hafting, studied perineuronal nets that tightly cover the outside of neurons. The nets are made up of sugar-coated proteins, forming a rigid structure that contains holes where connections to other neurons are kept in place.

    When new memories are formed, the connections between neurons change. The authors hypothesized that perineuronal nets might stabilize the new, memory-related connections to support long-term memories. To test memory function, the team performed a classical conditioning experiment, where rats learn to associate a light blink with an unpleasant event. This type of learning creates a robust and long-lasting memory.

    A surprisingly strong effect

    After learning, the rats were divided into two groups, one where the perineuronal nets were left intact and one where they were removed in a small area of the cortex, termed secondary visual cortex, an area known to be involved in memory storage. When the rats were asked to recall the memory a month later, the results were astonishing — the group without the nets did not remember anything. The experiments show that perineuronal nets are essential for long-term memories, because without them, the memory is lost.

    “We were quite surprised by how strong the effect was in those first experiments, since we only manipulated molecules outside the neurons and not inside” says Elise H. Thompson, one of the leading authors of the paper.

    “While we expected to see some effect of the intervention, previous studies on the nets had focused on their role in development and learning, not memory storage. It was very exciting to see that the memory was in fact gone,” Thompson adds.

    In a follow-up experiment where the memory was tested only a few days after learning, the team found that the memory was intact, and that the disappearing effect was specific to old memories. “Because the net is a very stable structure it may stabilize memories as they age, but when a memory is new, it survives without extra stabilizing factors” says Dr. Kristian K. Lensjø, another leading author of the paper.

    Potential for novel drug targets

    While scientists understanding of the processes that govern the transition from short-term to long-term memory has expanded greatly in recent years, those needed for a memory to persist across years remain unresolved. This research is an important step toward understanding what components are needed to store memories for a lifetime.

    “If we can increase our understanding of how memories are processed over months and years in the healthy brain, we can start to untangle what goes wrong when they are eventually lost in detrimental diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. The surprising finding that extracellular molecules are involved in these processes also suggests potential novel drug targets,” explains Marianne Fyhn, leader of the CINPLA project.


  8. Try exercise to improve memory and thinking, new guideline urges

    January 14, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Mayo Clinic press release:

    For patients with mild cognitive impairment, don’t be surprised if your health care provider prescribes exercise rather than medication. A new guideline for medical practitioners says they should recommend twice-weekly exercise to people with mild cognitive impairment to improve memory and thinking.

    The recommendation is part of an updated guideline for mild cognitive impairment published in the Dec. 27 online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

    “Regular physical exercise has long been shown to have heart health benefits, and now we can say exercise also may help improve memory for people with mild cognitive impairment,” says Ronald Petersen, M.D., Ph.D., lead author, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, Mayo Clinic, and the Mayo Clinic Study of Aging. “What’s good for your heart can be good for your brain.” Dr. Petersen is the Cora Kanow Professor of Alzheimer’s Disease Research.

    Mild cognitive impairment is an intermediate stage between the expected cognitive decline of normal aging and the more serious decline of dementia. Symptoms can involve problems with memory, language, thinking and judgment that are greater than normal age-related changes.

    Generally, these changes aren’t severe enough to significantly interfere with day-to-day life and usual activities. However, mild cognitive impairment may increase the risk of later progressing to dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease or other neurological conditions. But some people with mild cognitive impairment never get worse, and a few eventually get better.

    The academy’s guideline authors developed the updated recommendations on mild cognitive impairment after reviewing all available studies. Six-month studies showed twice-weekly workouts may help people with mild cognitive impairment as part of an overall approach to managing their symptoms.

    Dr. Petersen encourages people to do aerobic exercise: Walk briskly, jog, whatever you like to do, for 150 minutes a week — 30 minutes, five times or 50 minutes, three times. The level of exertion should be enough to work up a bit of a sweat but doesn’t need to be so rigorous that you can’t hold a conversation. “Exercising might slow down the rate at which you would progress from mild cognitive impairment to dementia,” he says.

    Another guideline update says clinicians may recommend cognitive training for people with mild cognitive impairment. Cognitive training uses repetitive memory and reasoning exercises that may be computer-assisted or done in person individually or in small groups. There is weak evidence that cognitive training may improve measures of cognitive function, the guideline notes.

    The guideline did not recommend dietary changes or medications. There are no drugs for mild cognitive impairment approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

    More than 6 percent of people in their 60s have mild cognitive impairment across the globe, and the condition becomes more common with age, according to the American Academy of Neurology. More than 37 percent of people 85 and older have it.

    With such prevalence, finding lifestyle factors that may slow down the rate of cognitive impairment can make a big difference to individuals and society, Dr. Petersen notes.

    “We need not look at aging as a passive process; we can do something about the course of our aging,” he says. “So if I’m destined to become cognitively impaired at age 72, I can exercise and push that back to 75 or 78. That’s a big deal.”

    The guideline, endorsed by the Alzheimer’s Association, updates a 2001 academy recommendation on mild cognitive impairment. Dr. Petersen was involved in the development of the first clinical trial for mild cognitive impairment and continues as a worldwide leader researching this stage of disease when symptoms possibly could be stopped or reversed.

     


  9. Study examines how odours are turned into long-term memories

    January 8, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Ruhr-Universität-Bochum press release:

    The neuroscientists Dr Christina Strauch and Prof Dr Denise Manahan-Vaughan from the Ruhr-Universität Bochum have investigated which brain area is responsible for storing odours as long-term memories. Some odours can trigger memories of experiences from years back. The current study shows that the piriform cortex, a part of the olfactory brain, is involved in the process of saving those memories; the mechanism, however, only works in interaction with other brain areas. The findings have been published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

    “It is known that the piriform cortex is able to temporarily store olfactory memories. We wanted to know, if that applies to long-term memories as well,” says Christina Strauch.

    Artificial sensation through stimulation

    Synaptic plasticity is responsible for the storing of memories in the memory structures of the brain: During that process the communication between neurons is altered by means of a process called synaptic plasticity, so that a memory is created. Strauch and Manahan-Vaughan examined if the piriform cortex of rats is capable of expressing synaptic plasticity and if this change lasts for more than four hours; indicating that long-term memory may have been established.

    The scientists used electrical impulses in the brain to emulate processes that trigger the encoding of an olfactory sensation as a memory. They used different stimulation protocols which varied in the frequency and intensity of the pulses. It is known that these protocols can induce long-term effects in another brain area that is responsible for long term memories: the hippocampus. Strikingly, the same protocols did not induce long-term information storage in the form of synaptic plasticity in the piriform cortex.

    Signal from a higher brain area needed

    The scientists wondered whether the piriform cortex needs to be instructed to create a long-term memory. They then stimulated a higher brain area called the orbitofrontal cortex, which is responsible for the discrimination of sensory experiences. This time the stimulation of the brain area generated the desired change in the piriform cortex. “Our study shows that the piriform cortex is indeed able to serve as an archive for long-term memories. But it needs instruction from the orbitofrontal cortex — a higher brain area — indicating that an event is to be stored as a long-term memory,” says Strauch.


  10. Study suggests exercising at own pace boosts a child’s ability to learn

    January 6, 2018 by Ashley

    From the University of Stirling press release:

    A child’s attention and memory improves after exercise according to new research conducted with primary school pupils and supported by the Universities of Stirling and Edinburgh.

    Researchers found that pupils’ best responses to tests came after physical activity that was set at their own pace, as opposed to exhaustive exercise.

    The study is part of the BBC Learning’s Terrific Scientific campaign — designed to inspire schoolchildren to pursue a career in science — and part-funded by the University of Edinburgh and the Physiological Society.

    In the sixth investigation of the series, more than 11,000 school pupils across the UK conducted a scientific investigation to discover the impact of taking a short break from the classroom to complete a physical activity on their mood and cognitive abilities.

    The study was jointly led by Dr Colin Moran and Dr Naomi Brooks, of the University of Stirling’s Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport, and Dr Josie Booth of the University of Edinburgh’s Moray House School of Education.

    Dr Brooks explained: “Anecdotal evidence suggests that short breaks involving physical activity can boost concentration and happiness in pupils. While this is positive, the evidence is not conclusive and this is what we asked the children to help investigate.

    “Ultimately, we found that 15 minutes of self-paced exercise can significantly improve a child’s mood, attention and memory — enhancing their ability to learn.”

    A total of 11,613 children in the UK signed up to participate in the research — including 1,536 from Scotland — and they were asked to answer questions about how happy and awake they were feeling, before completing attention and memory tasks on a computer. Children completed the tasks both before and after they participated in each of three outdoor activities of varying intensities:

    · A bleep test: This was the most intense activity, where the children ran in time with bleeps, which got gradually quicker, until they felt close to exhaustion.

    · A run/walk activity: This was of intermediate intensity where the children ran or walked at a speed of their own choice for 15 minutes.

    · A control activity: This was the least intense activity where the children went outside to sit or stand for 15 minutes. This was used to compare whether physical activity had a greater impact than simply going outside.

    In total, more than 7,300 children provided information on at least one of the key measurements, related to mood and cognition, and participants completed 22,349 batches of computer tasks.

    Compared to the control, children reported feeling more awake after taking a break and doing exercise for a short time. Both the bleep test and the run/walk made participants feel more awake than the control activity, although they felt most awake after the run/walk.

    The children also said they felt better after doing the run/walk but reported no difference in the way they felt after completing the bleep test, compared to the control activity.

    Children responded quicker to the attention task after completing the run/walk, compared to the control and bleep test activities, and were better at controlling their responses after doing the run/walk and bleep test than they were after the control activity.