Would you like to do a PhD in educational neuroscience?


Studentship applications are now invited for PhD study in educational neuroscience at Birkbeck and UCL Institute of Education, open to UK students or EU students with UK residency.

Applications are open for ESRC studentships via the UBEL Doctoral Training Partnership, which offers a training route in Educational Neuroscience within its Psychology Pathway.

The closing date for PhD applications within the preferred institution is Friday 6 January 2017, for degrees to start October 2017. Interested candidates should approach relevant possible supervisors to discuss their proposed research projects in the first instance (see CEN faculty members). Alternatively, interested students should contact a representative within the relevant department: Birkbeck: Professor Michael Thomas. UCL Institute of Education: Professor Emily Farran.

The importance of language for deaf children’s cognitive development


Two papers published by CEN member Chloe Marshall and her colleagues at City University of London and UCL’s Deafness Cognition and Language Research Centre stress the importance of language for deaf children’s cognitive development. Deaf children are at risk of having delayed Executive Function (EF) development. It is well established that EFs play a critical role in children’s academic success and social and emotional wellbeing, and that they are closely associated with language skills. A long-standing debate in the research literature concerns whether language supports the development of EFs, or whether EFs support language development.

Marshall and her colleagues argue that deafness, a sensory impairment that negatively impacts children’s ability to take up language from the input, offers a unique way of testing the developmental relationship between language and EF. In a paper just published in the leading journal Child Development, they show that deaf children perform more poorly than hearing children on EF and vocabulary tasks, and that vocabulary level mediates EF performance (but not vice versa). In other words, deaf children’s poor EF can be explained by their low vocabulary levels, whereas their poor vocabulary cannot be explained by difficulties with EF tasks.

In an earlier paper published last year in Frontiers in Psychology, Marshall and her colleagues showed that poor working memory (an important component of EF) is not an inevitable consequence of deafness; deaf children who are native signers (i.e. grow up from birth in a home with parents who use a sign language) have comparable performance on working memory tasks to hearing children, but both those groups perform better than deaf children who are non-native signers.

Taken together, these studies suggest that growing up in an environment that offers a rich and accessible language input can protect deaf children from delayed EF development.

Dr. Natasha Kirkham: Does a multi-sensory approach help learning in the classroom?


Dr. Natasha Kirkham (Birkbeck, University of London) gave a seminar updating us on the findings of her current project investigating the impact of multi-sensory approaches to learning in the classroom.  Dr. Kirkham’s work investigates what guides attention and supports learning from infancy into early childhood. Recently, she has focused on learning occurring in naturalistic settings, amidst all the noise and distraction of real-life environments.

Children’s formal learning in the classroom takes place in dynamic multi-sensory environments, which can be noisy, distracting and occasionally chaotic. Sometimes the information provided is mutually supportive (e.g., consistent or redundant cues), but at other times it can be de-correlated (independent cues), or even contradictory (conflicting cues). Prior research has shown that multi-sensory information can sometimes facilitate learning in infants (Bahrick & Lickliter, 2000; Lewkowicz, 2000; Richardson & Kirkham, 2004; Wu & Kirkham, 2010) and adults (e.g., Shams & Seitz, 2008; Frassinetti, Bolognini, & Ladavas, 2002).

Consequently, the idea that information received simultaneously from multiple modalities is ‘supportive’ of learning has been used as the basis for educational programs in literacy and numeracy, dealing with both typically and atypically developing children (Bullock, Pierce, & McClelland, 1989; Carbo, Dunn, & Dunn, 1986; Luchow & Sheppard, 1981; Mount & Cavet, 1995).

And yet, beyond its intuitive appeal, there has been no systematic investigation of the effects of multi-sensory stimuli on school-aged children’s basic learning (Barutchu, Crewther, Fifer, Shivdasani, Innes-Brown, Toohey et al., 2011).

Dr. Kirkham presented evidence from her team’s latest work looking at the pros and cons of multimodal information in a learning setting, focusing on the modalities of sight and sound. Thus far, they have used two tasks to tap multi-sensory learning. Both involve learning new categories using audio and visual features.

In the first task (run in collaboration with Prof. Denis Mareschal), the goal is explicit – figure out the categories! In one condition, clues to the categories are in audio features, in a second in visual features, in a third in both audio and visual features together. The results showed that redundant multi-sensory (audio-visual) information offers only a little learning support above and beyond uni-sensory information (audio or visual alone), and only in the youngest age group. In fact, while 5-year-olds seem to show some benefit from multi-sensory information, by 10 years of age children perform best in the auditory alone condition.

The second task (run in collaboration with Dr. Hannah Broadbent) is similar in all ways except that it is an incidental learning task – with children asked to press a button every time they see a frog appear on the screen. There were two categories of frogs, defined, as before, by visual, auditory or audiovisual features. Afterwards, children were asked to identify the categories. In this task, the categories were actually irrelevant to the task at hand – kids just had to spot the frog! In this study, all the age groups (5-, 7-, and 10-year-olds) performed significantly better in identifying the (irrelevant) categories of frog when the categories were marked by multi-sensory cues, rather than just visual or audio features alone.

So, as the team begins to investigate the possible benefits of multi-sensory learning, a more complex picture is emerging. Benefits depend on the type of learning and the age of the child. Multi-sensory presentation may be best for incidental learning. For explicit learning, multi-sensory presentation may be advantageous only for younger children. The project is still on-going.

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.

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.

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.”


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.


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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