Cognitive Abilities Through Targeted Interventions
Lisa M.P. Munoz : CNS 2014 Blog
Our cognitive fates are not sealed that was a powerful
message that came out yesterday from a session on developmental cognitive
neuroscience at the CNS meeting in Boston. In four talks, speakers laid out new
ways neuroscience findings can help children learn, even if they are
experiencing challenges because of a developmental disorder or environmental
Children are born into a neurodevelopmental lottery,said
John Gabrieli of MIT, citing dyslexia, rising rates of autism and ADHD, as well
as various mental diseases including depression and bipolar disorder. A growing
body of work, however, is showing that neuroscience can reveal secrets about
the brains of children that behavioral measures alone cannot enabling
researchers to better predict childrens future learning success.
Gabrieli then described two large-scale studies he and
colleagues have undertaken to try to uncover these secrets and use them to help
children in the real world. In one study, his team screened more than 1,400
kindergartners in 19 Boston-area schools for early reading indicators to see if
they could construct a model to predict their later reading skills. Of those
children, they brought 180 participants into the lab for behavioral testing
combined with fMRI and EEG measurements and have been following them through
1st and 2nd grade. The researchers were specifically interested in
phenological awareness the ability to manipulate language sounds, such as
asking the kids to say the word bold without using the sound /b/.
Using diffusion-weighted imaging, which is based on fMRI,
they looked at the white matter in the brain regions associated with reading
skills (the arcuate fasciculus, the inferior longitudinal fasciculus, and the
superior longitudinal fasciculus). In these pre-reading children, the volume
and the micro-structures of the white matter pathway correlated quite strongly
with their phenological awareness, Gabrieli said.
In another study, Gabrieli and colleagues looked at whether
schools can can influence crystallized skills facts and figures like standard
math and vocabulary and fluid skills things like working memory, abstract
reasoning and processing speed. Looking at some 1,300 8th graders in 32 middle
schools, they found that certain schools could boost testing performance on
crystallized skills but not fluid skills.
In a follow-up new study, the researchers focused on charter
schools, which accept children based on a lottery system. This way they could
look at two random groups those who got into the charter school or did not
to compare brain structures and standardized test scores. They found again that
those who got into the charter schools had bigger gains in crystallized skills
than those who did not.
In a small sample of children who came in for further
testing, including a working-memory test, the researchers found a correlation
between children with greater cortical thickness and higher standardized test
scores. They also found a correlation between childrens socioeconomic status
indicated by those who receive free lunches and cortical thickness.
So some schools, including charter schools, can really make
an impact on crystallized skills and test scores which have been linked to
future success on SAT scores, AP scores, and eventually higher education and
We know that many abilities and disabilities of all kinds,
cognitive and emotional, are rooted in early child development, and we hope
that the combination of careful behavioral, brain, and perhaps genetic measures
will promote early interventions that promote long-term success and happiness
in children, Gabrieli told CNS.
The effects of poverty on childrens brains
Martha Farah investigates how socioeconomic status impacts
children's brains; copyright: Lisa M.P. MunozBeyond the impact of child school
or a particular developmental disorder, environmental factors have a big
influence on childrens brains. Researchers are finding that day-to-day
parenting decisions and exposure to adverse situations (discussed in detail by
Margaret Sheridan of Bostons Children Hospital) affect cognitive development.
Oftentimes, these environmental factors come down to
socioeconomic status. Martha Farah of the University of Pennsylvania started by
addressing the question of why neuroscientists should look at childhood
poverty: Understanding human behavior is hard you need all the sources of
understanding you can get, she said.
Study after study has shown a consistent signal, Farah said:
The world is telling us that childhood socioeconomic status shapes brain
structures and function in fairly consistent and fairly specific ways. For
example, across three studies with kindergartners, researchers found that low
socioeconomic status impaired language, executive function, and learning and
Martha Farah examined the reasons why socioeconomic status
affects cognitive skills in children; copyright: Lisa M.P. MunozThe possible
reasons for this link are manifold, including everything from prenatal
nutrition and toxins in the environment to stress and cognitive stimulation. In
one project to look at the impacts of parenting and cognitive stimulation in
the home, researchers tested kids in middle school (11-13 years old) after
having interviewed their caregivers in their home environment at ages 4 and 8.
These children were part of longitudinal study, having been recruited at birth
and being followed for 20 years. In the interviews, research assistants asked
the caregivers about the childrens typical days and parental interactions, as
well as observed the parents behavior with their children and the environment itself.
They found that seemingly little things in parenting like
making available a toy or real musical instrument, posting childrens artwork,
and just talking to kids one-on-one did predict language skills in middle
school. They also found that parental nurturing holding a child, speaking
gently, giving a child a pet name positively influenced memory performance.
Why would parenting affect memory? This is where going
neuro earns its keep, Farah said. Both stress and memory, she explained,
depend on the hippocampus. Scientists know from studies with rats that maternal
care helps protect pups from the effects of stress; more maternal care predicts
better stress response and better memory. The ability of a baby to control its
own stress responses isnt mature and depends, in humans, on cuddling, gentle
talk, etc., to help damp down stress response and to spare the hippocampus from
an onslaught of stress hormones.
Throughout the talks, the researchers cited the scientific
evidence for the many factors that impact childrens cognitive development
while also showing the potential for change: projects that are literally
altering the brain structures and functions in kids.
One piece of advice for parents to help their kids manage
stress: breathe - used in parental training intervention, as explained by Helen
Neville; copyright: Lisa M.P. MunozFor example, Helen Neville of the University
of Oregon discussed a partnership she and colleagues have created with Head
Start, a program geared toward children aged 3 to 5 living at or below the
poverty line. They have had over 500 participating families to date. This
hybrid intervention aims to train children in attention and parents on both
parenting and attention.
In weekly training for parents, researchers talked to
parents about what their kids are doing in the next room to improve their
attention activities like walking down a ribbon to deliver a cup of water to
a (pretend) frog. They also gave them tools for interacting with their
children, for example advising parents to give their kids choices. Rather than
asking them to go to bed, parents should instead ask them: Do you want to go
to bed now or in 5 minutes? This gives kids more of a feeling of control in
their lives and they are then more likely to cooperate. Neville recalled that
parents would come back after that lesson and say: I can control my children
for the first time. The researchers also worked with parents to help them
manage family stress, teaching things like the importance of breathing.
They have found that the children whose families
participated in this intervention program had improvements in a host of
cognitive areas, including in language and nonverbal IQ, as well as stress
management, compared to control groups. Nevilles team continues work on this
project, which has now been adapted for Spanish-speaking families ( Creando
Neville pointed out that the cost of this intervention is
relatively low, about $800. She and colleagues estimate a 9:1 return on
investment with benefits ranging from improved self-esteem to increased rates
of high school and college graduation to better employment. (Visit
changingbrains.org for more about the intervention work by Helen Neville.)
Said Silvia Bunge (UC-Berkeley), chair of yesterdays
session: Developmental cognitive neuroscience research can help to answer some
of societys most important problems.