New journal volume on ‘Neuroscience of education’

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Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences has just published a new volume focusing on neuroscience and education. Among the topics its articles cover are the role of spatial thinking in the classroom, neural markers for education-relevant executive function skills, brain evidence on the emergence of numerical symbols during maths learning, brain plasticity for academic interventions, and the link between cognitive control and decision-making across childhood and adolescent development.

The CEN’s own Dr. Iroise Dumontheil has an article in the volume entitled ‘Adolescent brain development’. Here’s the abstract!

“Adolescence starts with puberty and ends when individuals attain an independent role in society. Cognitive neuroscience research in the last two decades has improved our understanding of adolescent brain development. The evidence indicates a prolonged structural maturation of grey matter and white matter tracts supporting higher cognitive functions such as cognitive control and social cognition. These changes are associated with a greater strengthening and separation of brain networks, both in terms of structure and function, as well as improved cognitive skills. Adolescent-specific sub-cortical reactivity to emotions and rewards, contrasted with their developing self-control skills, are thought to account for their greater sensitivity to the socio-affective context. The present review examines these findings and their implications for training interventions and education.”

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Foundations of the Educated Brain: Infancy and Early Childhood – Part of ‘The Educated Brain’ Seminar Series

Summary of the Seminar:
Foundations of the Educated Brain: Infancy and Early Childhood
Part of ‘The Educated Brain’ Seminar Series
Monday April 18th, Newnham College, University of Cambridge

Blog written by Su Morris and Annie Brookman

The first of three seminars on ‘The Educated Brain’ began with a morning of six talks on infancy and early childhood. One of the main themes was the translation of neuroscientific evidence to early education, and the obstacles and benefits of doing so. Educational neuroscience is often considered to be the direct application of neuroscience research to the classroom, which is understandably criticised as a fruitless pursuit. Rather, as we heard throughout the morning, educational neuroscience is about taking an interdisciplinary, multi-level, scientific approach to education. Speakers referred to collaborations between neuroscientists, psychologists, and teachers, but also architects, computer scientists, geneticists, speech and language therapists, and mathematicians. As evidenced by the talks we heard, educational neuroscience takes into account the genetic, cognitive, behavioural, and social levels that influence education. It also aims to work with educators to design educationally-relevant studies that teachers want to know the answers to. With regards to infancy and early childhood, one key question is whether or not the early years form a special, sensitive period that requires a particular focus for educational resources and intervention. In the case of clinical conditions such as stroke, it seems that early intervention is better to enable children to catch up with their peers, with evidence of early childhood as a period of vulnerability. However, the evidence for sensitive periods in the early years does not yet extend to typical development, and we seem to have no convincing evidence yet that the early years should attract extra funding in cases where there are no clinical problems.

The afternoon session allowed further discussions arising from the morning’s presentations, through an interactive workshop. Questions were collected and discussed in groups which brought together people from a wide range of backgrounds, including teachers, psychologists and neuroscientists – a great illustration of the collaborations mentioned in the morning presentations. Each group focussed on their own area of interest, such as child-led and adult-led activities in the early years, intervention policies for particular socio-economic groups, assessment, and stress in both school leaders, teachers, and pupils. The aim was to consider how neuroscience and education could together inform policy, and how communication between different groups could, and should, work in practice to foster research. The exercise provided insight into the views and priorities of those working in different areas. Although the focus of the session continued to be early years, many of the discussions could equally well be applied to all levels of education and learning.

The day was a fantastic opportunity to hear the latest research from highly respected speakers, and to share views and ideas about future research with others. We look forward to attending the next seminar in Autumn where we will hear about the educated brains of children and adolescents.

How children’s brains develop to make them right or left handed

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As children grow older, they tend to favour one hand over the other for certain tasks, particularly for writing or drawing. A child’s “handedness” is generally categorised as right, left or mixed, and tends to settle around the same time they acquire language – about four-years-old. It remains a persistent characteristic throughout our life. We now know that a child’s handedness says something about the organisation and function of their brain. See here for latest ideas on the development and evolution of handedness from Dr. Gillian Forrester (University of Westminster). Here are some of our recent papers in collaboration with Dr. Forrester:

Human handedness: An inherited evolutionary trait

Handedness as a marker of cerebral lateralisation in children with and without autistic spectrum disorder

Save the Children advocates nurseries to be led by early years teachers – based on cognitive and brain science

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The charity Save the Children has recently published a report entitled ‘Lighting up young brains‘. The report summarises some of the evidence on young children’s brain and cognitive development. The evidence is used to argue that in the first few years of life, children’s brains are particularly sensitive and that ‘as a child grows older it becomes much more difficult to influence the way their brain processes information’. The report advocates the government ‘to ensure that there is an early years teacher in every nursery in England by 2020′.

It is worth noting that, though there is relatively good understanding of the early phases of brain and cognitive development, the elevation of the early years as the most important phase predicting long-term cognitive and educational outcomes is more controversial (see here for discussion of the myth of the first three years). On the whole, early severe deprivation definitely has negative effects on children’s cognitive and brain development, and this is a clear target for policy. However, enrichment does not necessarily have equivalent positive effects. And a focus on the early years sometimes underplays the development that happens right through childhood and adolescence, when many of the more advanced cognitive abilities are emerging, and consequently underplays the need for education to support the emergence of such skills. Lastly, there is also a debate about the extent to which the brain loses its ‘sensitivity’, i.e., its ability to develop new skills, beyond the early years. Indeed, much of the evidence suggests lifelong plasticity for the acquisition of advanced cognitive skills, and loss of sensitivity only to acquire fine discriminations in low-level sensory and motor skills. Nevertheless, increasing training and expertise in early years teachers is a laudable aim.

 

Summary of ESRC Seminar on Cognitive Training in Children, MRC-CBU 11-12 Jan 2016

Blog written by Annie Brookman and Su Morris, originally published here.

On the 11th of January, the Medical Research Council (MRC) – Cognitive and Brain sciencesUnit (CBU) welcomed researchers and practitioners to Cambridge for a two-day seminar on cognitive training in children. The workshop opened with a presentation from Edmund Sonuga-Barke from the University of Southampton, examining randomised control trials of Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and assessing the importance of designing effective trials. Targeting the key cognitive deficits associated with ADHD (planning, inhibitory control, flexibility, and working memory) with multiprocess interventions has been shown to have a greater impact than targeting working memory by itself. However, the results of cognitive training interventions have not led to substantial associated improvement in ADHD symptoms. Sonuga-Barke argued that to maximise the effectiveness of interventions, they should be tailored to cognitive subgroups reflecting the heterogeneous nature of ADHD, and may be most effective when run alongside behavioural interventions. Rather than considering executive dysfunction as a causal factor of ADHD, it may be a comorbid factor, whereby functional impairment results when individuals exhibit both executive function deficits and ADHD symptoms.

Next up was Michelle Ellefson of the University of Cambridge, who spoke about the potential for using chess as a cognitive intervention in older children. Ellefson argued that chess can be seen as a non-computerised executive function training programme, as it requires flexible thinking, working memory, inhibitory control, and planning. It is also adaptive as players improve over time and continue to challenge each other. With this in mind, Ellefson used chess as a cognitive intervention in an after school activity for children in high poverty communities. Some improvement in executive function was seen, and the greatest improvement seemed to be in those who started with lower general cognitive ability. Analysis of the huge dataset is ongoing, and a next iteration is in the planning, with more precise measurements of intervention factors, such as time spent playing chess.

The third speaker was Emma Blakey from the University of Cardiff, who spoke about an executive function training programme for pre-schoolers. The programme saw an improvement in working memory skills following a short four-session training intervention. Blakey highlighted the importance of using a test task that is different from the training task to assess transfer. In this case, the training effect did transfer to a task sharing few features with the training task. Further, Blakey found far transfer to a mathematical reasoning task at three month follow up.

The final speaker for the first day was Usha Goswami of the University of Cambridge. Goswami spoke about her Wellcome Trust and EEF funded project investigating the effectiveness of a computerised programme called Graphogame Rime. Graphogame was developed in Finland, and is now played by all Finnish children when they are learning to read. While a phonetic version of the programme has been hugely successful in Finland, a rime version has been created for English speaking pupils, since English has many more irregularities than Finnish. Graphogame Rime helps children to use rimes in word-learning, such as ‘at’ in ‘cat’. This enables children to read groups of words with similar rimes, such as mat, sat, chat. Goswami hopes to find that this will be more effective than phonological training, and the project is ongoing. We look forward to hearing the results.

Day two of the seminar was kicked off by Sam Wass from the University of East London, who talked about his research on training attentional control in infants. With only a short training period, a significant improvement in attention was measured, however after 6 months only ‘sequence learning’ improvements remained. This suggests that infants, compared to older children, require a shorter length of cognitive training for improvements to be measured, however the effects may dissipate more rapidly, possibly due to increased plasticity in this age group.

Torkel Klingberg from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden presented data from a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) intervention study which predicted responses to mathematical and cognitive training in children. Four intervention groups were compared – reading, reading and working memory, reading and numberline training, and numberline training with working memory – with outcome measures differing from the training. The maths improvement was greatest in the numberline and working memory training group. Participants with low working memory scores at baseline showed the poorest improvement in working memory after training, suggesting that factors driving poor working memory development continue to limit progress even during working memory training interventions. It is suggested that these factors are genetic (DAT-1 and DRD2) and neural (striatum). Brain activations predicted the type of training which participants would best respond to, therefore fMRI diagnosis could be an effective alternative to examination by neuropsychologists.

Duncan Astle from the MRC-CBU discussed his resting state magnetoencephalography (MEG) study which focussed on functional connectivity within the brain. If different areas of the brain concurrent oscillatory activity, it is likely that these areas are working together. A cognitive training group was compared with an active control group, and post-test resting state network connectivity was shown to improve in the test group, correlating with behavioural measures of working memory improvement. It was suggested that the cognitive training had an impact on phase amplitude coupling which results in improving connectivity rather than isolated changes in specific brain areas.

The final speaker was Susan Gathercole from the MRC-CBU, who was also one of the conference organisers. Gathercole spoke about the current state of working memory training studies and how we might best move forward. The gold standard of training studies are those that are randomised control trials which include an active control group rather than a waiting control group. Many of these studies have shown no or minimal far transfer. Gathercole argued that rather than aiming for far transfer, we first needed to understand near transfer. By understanding the mechanisms involved, we will be able to suggest why far transfer effects are inconsistently observed in current studies.

One of the key areas of discussion that arose throughout the seminar was how best to design interventions. Minimal training is ideal because of the time and money commitment, but we don’t yet know how much is needed to achieve the biggest effects. Some research suggests that effects tend to plateau following 15 to 20 training sessions. A recent move in the training literature is towards embedding cognitive training within the subject domain. Although this sounds like it may lead to greater transfer (within that domain) we are not yet sure if this is the case. Alan Baddeley referred to stroke patients who are trained to climb stairs in the clinic, yet need to be trained again to climb stairs in a different setting. Even though the same skill is required, it needs to be trained within each setting. It remains to be seen how well transfer will work for cognitive training within specific subject domain. The final discussion of the seminar focussed on the need to measure real-world abilities, rather than relying on lab measures. We need to make sure our research is applicable to the classroom and home, and this may require video-recording individuals in their natural setting, and coding their behaviour.

The workshop brought together exciting research on cognitive training in a variety of different fields, and facilitated valuable discussions about how to proceed with future research. The sessions demonstrated the importance of examining research methods and cognitive theory, as well as sharing findings and conclusions. The workshop offered a great opportunity to listen, to question and to network, and was certainly a very enjoyable and interesting event.

Current Issues in Educational Neuroscience: A workshop sponsored by the Bloomsbury and UCL Doctoral Training Centres

Blog written by Annie Brookman. 

This post first appeared on Annie’s personal blog:
 
On Friday 20th November 2015, postgraduate students and early career researchers attended a workshop to hear about and discuss current issues in educational neuroscience. The day started with a keynote talk from Professor Daphne Bavelier from the University of Geneva. Daphne’s research has shown that video games can produce a wide range of improvements beyond just video game performance, for example in attentional control. This work has clear implications for possible educational training programmes. The first symposium of the day examined the potential for training executive functions from infancy to adolescence. Following a lunchtime poster session, the second symposium looked at environmental factors associated with learning and development. The final session was a panel discussion, where the panel summed up their thoughts on the day and took questions from attendees. This was a particularly fruitful part of the workshop, as the panel considered a number of important issues in the field.
 
Daphne Bavelier began the panel session by posing the question of how intervention resources should be divided between family and school. On the one hand, family interventions seem to be more effective, but on the other hand, school interventions are cheaper and can be done on a larger scale. Daphne espoused research that includes teachers from the outset, arguing that these are the best projects.
 
Jeremy Dudman Jones, an Assistant Headteacher, was able to use his experiences in school to give the perspective of teachers. Jeremy explained that teachers often look to neuroscience for silver bullets that don’t exist, or alternatively teachers may have no interest in finding out about relevant neuroscientific findings. This highlights the fine balance between presenting findings in a relevant and interesting way, but without hyperbole. Jeremy also discussed the importance of sharing scientific debates with teachers: informing teachers of the lack of consensus in new research areas may help to guard against myths infiltrating educational practice, as well as engaging teachers in the topic. Finally, Jeremy argued that it is crucial for research to get into teacher training programmes, which unfortunately does not happen at the moment.
 
Lia Commissar from the Wellcome Trust spoke about the six projects that were awarded funding last year from the Wellcome Trust and Education Endowment Foundation. Each of these projects focuses on improving educational attainment, particularly in terms of closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers. Lia mentioned a number of current activities within the Wellcome Trust that aim to provide free materials that are accessible for teachers. The online Learning Zone forum on I’m A Scientist: Get me out of here features questions asked by teachers and answered by scientists. This is an excellent start but the next iteration will be more of a two-way conversation. Lia hoped that the future of the field would lead to research questions informed by the classroom. Teachers are in the unique position of being able to try out something in the classroom, and suggesting it to scientists for rigorous investigation. Lia was keen to invite researchers from any allied field to get involved in the Educational Neuroscience dialogue.
 
Professor Emily Farran from the UCL Institute of Education and the Centre for Educational Neuroscience spoke about both the scientific and practical elements of intervention research. Intervention studies require active control groups to ensure that any observed effects are due to the specific intervention rather than simply focusing on something for twenty minutes a day. Emily also stressed the importance of investigating individual differences due to genetics and environment, and how these factors might influence the effectiveness of training. Finally, Emily urged scientists to go back to the schools where they carried out their research to share their findings and communicate with teachers.
 
The workshop proved to be a thorough investigation of the hot topics in Educational Neuroscience: the current areas of research and the key issues with conducting such work. The inclusion of non-researchers in the discussion was a useful reminder of the benefits of involving all stakeholders in the Educational Neuroscience community. Hopefully future conferences and discussions will follow in the footsteps of this workshop and invite scientists, teachers, funders, and even policy makers. It is clear that opening up this dialogue is the best way to work together to improve teaching and learning. 
 
 
Annie Brookman is a postgraduate student at Birkbeck, University of London, and a member of the Centre for Educational Neuroscience.
 
Links:
 
Centre for Educational Neuroscience:
 
Daphne Bavelier’s TED talk:
 
Learning Zone on I’m A Scientist: Get me out of here:
 
Wellcome Trust and EEF funded projects:
 
This post first appeared on Annie’s personal blog:

Adolescents and multi-tasking

Blog written by Dr. Iroise Dumontheil and originally published here

Humans are social beings. We have evolved to function in groups of various size. Some researchers argue that the complexity of social relationships which require, for example, remembering who tends to be aggressive, who has been nice to us in the past, or who always shares her food, may have been an evolutionary pressure leading to the selection of humans with bigger brains, and in particular a bigger frontal cortex (see research by Robin Dunbar).

However, we do not always take into account the perspective or knowledge of a person we are interacting with. Boaz Keysar and laterIan Apperly developed an experimental psychology paradigm which allows us to investigate people’s tendency to take into account the perspective of another  person (referred to as the “director”) when they are following his instructions to move objects on a set of shelves. Some of the slots on the shelves have a back panel, which prevent the director, who is standing on the other side of the shelves, from seeing, and knowing, which objects are located in the slots. While all participants can correctly say, when queried, which object the director can or cannot see, adult participants, approximately 40% of the time, do not take into account the view of the director when following his instructions.

In a previous study, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (UCL), Ian Apperly (University of Birmingham) and I, demonstrated that adolescents made more errors than adults on the task, showing a greater bias towards their own perspective.  In contrast,  adolescents performed to the same level a task matched in terms of general demands but which required following a rule to move only certain objects, and did not have a social context.

The Royal Society Open Science journal is publishing today a further study on this topic, led by Kathryn Mills (now at the NIMH in Bethesda) while she was doing her PhD with Sarah-Jayne Blakemore at UCL. Here, we were interested in whether loading participants’ working memory, a mental workspace which enables us to maintain and manipulate information over a few seconds, would affect their ability to take another person’s perspective into account. In addition, we wanted to investigate whether adolescents and adults may differ on this task.

What would this correspond to in real life? Anna is seating in class trying to remember what the teacher said about tonight’s homework. At the same time her friend Sophie is talking to her about a common friend, Dana, who has a secret only Anna knows. In this situation, akin to multitasking,  Anna may forget the homework instruction or spill out Dana’s secret, because her working memory system has been overloaded.

Thirty-three female adolescents (11-17 years old) and 28 female adults (22-30 years old) took part in a variant of the Director task. Between each instruction given by the director, either one or three double-digits numbers were presented to the participants and they were asked to remember them.

Overall, adolescents were less accurate than adults on the number task and the Director task (combined, in a single “multitasking” measure) when they had to remember three numbers compared to one number. In addition, all participants were found to be slower to respond when the perspective of the director differed from their own and when their working memory was loaded with three numbers compared to one number, suggesting that multitasking may impact our social interactions.

Presentation of multitasking paradigm (published in Royal Society Open Science)

Presentation of multitasking paradigm (image published in Royal Society Open Science paper). For each trial, participants were first presented with either (a) one two-digit number (low load) or (b) three two-digit numbers (high load) for 3 s. Then participants were presented with the Director Task stimuli, which included a social (c) and non-social control condition (d). In this example, participants hear the instruction: ‘Move the large ball up’ in either a male or a female voice. If the voice is female, the correct object to move is the basketball, because in the DP condition the female director is standing in front of the shelves and can see all the objects, and in the DA condition, the absence of a red X on the grey box below the ‘F’ indicate that all objects can be moved by the participant. If the voice is male, the correct object to move is the football, because in the DP condition the male director is standing behind the shelves and therefore cannot see the larger basketball in the covered slot, and in the DA condition the red X over the grey box below the ‘M’ indicates that no objects in front of a grey background can be moved. After selecting an object in the Director Task, participants were presented with a display of two numbers, one of which corresponding to the only number (e) or one of the three numbers (f), shown to them at the beginning of the trial. Participants were instructed to click on the number they remembered being shown at the beginning of the trial.

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