Curious Brains


Professor Derek Bell from Learnus (one of CEN’s collaborators) gave a presentation last week at the Second Neurocuriosity Workshop, on information-seeking, curiosity and attention. The workshop was hosted by The Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development (Birkbeck) and brought together cognitive neuroscientists, psychologists, and educators interested in the role of curiosity in learning.

Given Learnus’ mission – to facilitate in the translation of research to educational implications and practice – Derek’s talk focused on how scientific research in curiosity might help answer the perennial teachers’ question, “So what do I do in my lessons next week?”.

Derek emphasised that the link between education and neuroscience is not a simple straight line. While there is an appetite among teachers for new methods stemming from research on the brain, this places a responsibility on those working in the field to assure the quality of the information that is shared. Derek focused on key questions including: What is curiosity in the classroom? How does it differ from interest? How can curiosity be harnessed for learning? How does the neuroscience understanding of the basis of curiosity (in exploration, information gain, and reward seeking) link to classroom learning activities?

He drew some tentative conclusions from the research presented at the workshop: Curiosity consolidates learning. It may act as a positive feedback loop, with curiosity stimulating learning, and learning in turn stimulating more curiosity. However, curiosity, surprise, rewards and memory are tightly interlinked concepts. Practical strategies to stimulate curiosity and generate interest in lessons might include the use of surprise items and events, rewards, and questions.

But also he also stressed the importance of dialogue between different professional communities to facilitate understanding the concrete implications of cutting edge research, and whether they yet justify any major changes in teachers’ practice.

In the following discussion, two points emerged. The first concerned the challenge of ‘bringing curiosity to the fore’ and the suggestion that having some structure or task to help focus the curiosity might be more productive for students than situations in which the questions are completely open or students engaging in what might be referred to as ‘idle curiosity’.

The second was the idea that curiosity is not a ‘one-off event’, so there is a need to explore ways of sustaining curiosity so that it becomes a longer term interest in the material and, more broadly, in learning about the world and how it works.

CEN Research Seminars – Autumn programme

The CEN research seminars will recommence next week on Thursday 13th October at 4pm. These seminars are open to anyone with an interest in educational neuroscience, including educators and members of the public. The seminar series will run weekly during term time, and will be held in Birkbeck, University of London.

Some of the upcoming talks: Thursday 13th October 2016: Prof. Michael Thomas “Is educational neuroscience all it’s cracked up to be?” Later in the term: Prof. Ted Melhuish “Long-term effects of early years experience”. Discussion paper: “Genomic basis of educational attainment”

If you are interested in being added to our mailing list for further seminar details, please email us at

Can fish oil supplements help children with reading?


Can changes in diet improve children’s cognition? Everyone agrees that in one way or another diet has an impact on children’s cognitive abilities. Although there are many studies exploring links between diet and behaviour, there are also lots of holes in our knowledge.

One area of particular focus has been the claim that ingesting fish oil supplements either boosts learning in typically developing children or helps children with developmental difficulties, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), overcome behavioural problems. Fish and shellfish contain Omega-3 fatty acids, which, along with Omega-6, are known as essential fatty acids (EFAs). ‘Essential’ because the body isn’t able to produce them itself, but rather relies on dietary intake. EFAs have a substantial impact on how the brain functions. Despite the necessity of fatty acids for healthy brain function, the benefit of taking dietary supplements containing EFAs (usually Omega-3) has been far from clear. Few studies have shown robust effects of supplements in typically developing, healthy children. There is more evidence of the impact of EFA supplements in reducing ADHD-related symptoms in children with developmental disorders, although even here changes are relatively small and inconsistent.

In a recent paper, researchers reported evidence that taking fish oil supplements improved reading in 9 year old mainstream children in Sweden. The paper, by Mats Johnson and colleagues appears in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. The researchers gave omega 3/6 supplements to 64 9-year-old-children in Sweden over a 3-month period, compared to a group of 58 children given a placebo. The control group were then given the supplements for 3 further months to see whether, if fish oils had an effect, these children then showed the same gains. A battery of reading tests (e.g,. of phonological skills, visual analysis skills, naming skills) were given to the children before and after taking the supplements. Parents also rated their children on various scales, including language and communication skills. From the battery, three tests showed reliable improvements of the supplements compared to the controls: phonological decoding time, visual analysis time, and phonological decoding. The reading benefits were stronger in poorer readers, in boys, and in children with higher ADHD symptoms (though no children symptoms marked enough to suggest a diagnosis of ADHD). Parent ratings did not show any changes (including in ADHD symptoms). The results suggest that while the supplements were effective in a mainstream school sample, they only benefitted some. They had stronger effects in the lower performing children, and diminishing returns in the better readers. This is consistent with the idea that in children who already have diets with sufficient essential fatty acids, supplements confer no extra benefit. However, children with attention problems in particular may show treatment benefits on reading.

Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience celebrates 20 years

Congratulations to the UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, celebrating its 20 year anniversary. To mark this occasion, the Institute is holding a 1-day event on 11th June 2016. “Mind the Brain” will feature short 15-minute talks from 12 different researchers at the forefront of cognitive neuroscience. To close the day, there will be a panel discussion focusing on how the future of cognitive neuroscience will affect the lives of the public.


CEN Paper – What Can the Study of Genetics Offer to Educators?

B0001854 DNA double helix

The history of genetics goes back to the 19th century when Darwin and Mendel first developed sophisticated notions of heritability. Since then, a tremendous amount of work has been done to further our understanding of heritability and the biological mechanisms and structures that drive it. Modern work in genetics can tell us about the heritability of traits which are important for learning. For a given trait, if we know it’s heritability we know the extent to which genetic factors can explain variation in the trait. Where genetic factors do not entirely explain differences in the expression of a particular trait, we can assume that environmental factors contribute to a corresponding degree.

This paper by CEN members Michael Thomas, Emma Meaburn and Andrew Tolmie, explores  what genetics research can tell us about the heritability of traits which are important for learning, and how this knowledge might might be helpful for educators, who have the power to affect the environment of learners.

Abstract: This article explores the potential contribution of modern genetic methods and findings to education. It is familiar to hear that the “gene” for this or that behavior has been discovered, or that certain skills are “highly heritable.” Can this help educators? To explore this, we describe the methods used to relate genetic variation to individual differences in high-level behaviors such as academic skills and educational achievement. These methods include twin studies and genome-wide association studies. We address the key question of what genetic data imply about the ability of educators to optimize educational outcomes for children across the range of abilities.

Read the paper here…

See Michael Thomas give the Learnus Annual Public Lecture on genetics and education.

New journal volume on ‘Neuroscience of education’


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.”


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


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


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.