Alternatives to Medication in the Treatment of ADD

Tuesday, March 24, 2015 - 08:00
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D


In this op-ed in the New York Times, Richard A. Friedman, Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Director of the Psychopharmacology Clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College, discusses the urgent need to address the needs of students with attention problems.  Given the dramatic recent increase in the prevalence of ADHD diagnoses in school-aged children [according to the Centers for Disease Control, the lifetime prevalence in children has increased to 11 percent in 2011 from 7.8 percent in 2003 — a whopping 41 percent increase], Dr. Friedman argues for a need to find more natural (non-medical) ways to help these students. In his op-ed he states, “In school, these curious, experience-seeking kids would most likely do better in small classes that emphasize hands-on-learning, self-paced technology-based assignments, and tasks that build specific skills.”

Whereas many parents and educators consider medication as a first approach to management of disorders of attention, the recent dramatic increase in the incidence and the call for consideration of non-medical interventions for school-aged children is important for parents and teachers to consider when managing learning issues within the classroom. One important type of attention disorder that has been treated successfully without medication is auditory attention disorders associated with some types of learning disabilities. Research conducted by Courtney Stevens and her colleagues at the Brain Development Lab at the University of Oregon has shown that children with specific language learning disorders have problems with auditory attention. Parents and educators rarely use the term “auditory attention”; however, the Stevens et al. research is increasingly supportive of its important role in learning.

We all recognize students who have problems with auditory attention: those who cannot stay focused on listening long enough to complete a task or requirement (such as listening to a class discussion in school). In fact, when educators use the term “listening skills,” they are referring to auditory attention.  It is virtually impossible to imagine a classroom where paying attention to the teacher for sustained periods of time is not critical to academic success.  According to the International Listening Association (www.listen.org), 45 percent of a student’s day is spent listening, and students are expected to acquire 85 percent of their knowledge through listening. Auditory attention skills mature over time, and like many other skills important for learning (memory, thinking skills), students vary in their ability. Children with ADHD have a known diagnosis of significant auditory (and visual) attention problems. However, according to the Stevens et al. research, even across typical learners there is a variation of ability ranging from those with average auditory attention skills to those with excellent auditory attention skills. And like with other cognitive skills, independent controlled research indicates that Fast ForWord training can significantly improve auditory attention and/or reading skills in a variety of students:  typical students and those with specific language impairment.

For those interested in the specifics of the Stevens et al. study, she and her colleagues examined whether six weeks of Fast ForWord Language training would influence neural mechanisms of selective auditory attention previously shown to be deficient in children with specific language impairment (SLI). Twenty 6-8 year old students received Fast ForWord Language training, including 8 students diagnosed with SLI and 12 students with typically developing language skills. An additional 13 students with typically developing language received no specialized training but were tested and retested after a comparable time period as a control group.  Before and after training, students received a standardized language assessment as well as a highly objective electrophysiological neural measure of attention using Event-Related Potentials (ERP).

Compared to the control group, students receiving Fast ForWord Language training showed increases in standardized measures of receptive language as well as an improved effect of attention on neural processing. No significant change was noted in the control group. The enhanced effect of attention on neural processing represented a large effect size (Cohen’s d = 0.8, indicating that the average child in the experimental group is comparable to the child at the 79th percentile of the comparison group). These findings indicate that the neural mechanisms of selective auditory attention, previously shown to be deficient in children with SLI, can be remediated through training and can accompany improvements on standardized measurements of language development.

Other controlled research, presented by Deutsch et al. at a CHADD conference several years ago, also showed improvement in attention among those students with a diagnosis of ADHD or ADD plus language impairment. In fact, if one considers Dr. Friedman’s finding that children with attention disorders benefit from “self-paced technology-based assignments and tasks that build specific skills,” there are no better designed self-paced e-learning programs than the Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant solutions. The Fast ForWord Reading products and Reading Assistant tasks are self-paced online tasks that require sustained auditory attention.  The tasks in Reading Assistant especially require activities that include listening to modeled reading, reading aloud while receiving corrective feedback through listening, listening to your own reading, and then answering questions about what was read.  Answering “think about it” comprehension questions further exercises both auditory memory and executive function skills.

In conclusion, the effort to find more natural, non-medical ways to help students with attentional disorders is at hand.  Self-paced technology programs like the neuroscience-based Fast ForWord series provide one proven alternative for improving attentional skills in students with language-based learning issues as well as those diagnosed with ADD and ADHD. 

Further Reading:

Stevens, C., Fanning, J., Coch, D., Sanders, L., & H Neville (2008). Neural mechanisms of selective auditory attention are enhanced by computerized training: Electrophysiological evidence from language-impaired and typically developing children. Brain Research, 1205, 55-69.

Students Show Improved Auditory Attention and Early Reading Skills After Fast ForWord Intervention

Related Reading:

Improved Auditory Processing With Targeted Intervention

Why Auditory Processing Disorders (APD) are Hard to Spot

 

How Learning A New Language Actually Rewires the Brain

Tuesday, February 17, 2015 - 08:00
  • Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP
English language learners know that mastering a new language is mentally taxing. Until recently, however, less was known about what actually happens inside the brains of those learning a second language. New research findings reveal that the brain undergoes a powerful reorganization in bilingual individuals.
 
Impact of Phonological Competition on Thinking Abilities
In a recent report from the journal Brain and Language, researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Houston studied brain activity of monolingual and bilingual participants. In particular, the researchers were studying a phenomenon known as phonological competition. This is the process through which we determine what word is being spoken, meaning that effective resolution of phonological competition is critical to language comprehension.
 
Our brains engage in phonological competition thousands of times each day. When listening to spoken English, auditory cues from the beginning of a word -- for example, “p-r-o” -- lead to activation of several possible target words (“process,” “project,” “progress,” etc.). Each of these possible targets competes for selection. As more auditory information is received, the competition becomes lower as the correct word is selected.
 
On a neural level, previous research suggests that each of the possible target words are activated in the brain at the same time. The brain must suppress the incorrect items to allow the correct word to be selected. Although both monolingual and multilingual individuals do this, people who know more than one language have more potential words to suppress. For example, someone bilingual in Spanish and English has significantly more words beginning with “p-r-o” to compete for selection (“progreso,” “pronombre,” etc.). Thus, bilingual children become great at suppressing incorrect information when presented with several competing choices. This translates into stronger cognitive control in math, logical reasoning, and other areas of functioning.
 
Novel Research Findings About Brain Structure in English Language Learners
The brain is plastic, meaning that it changes its structure and function in response to learning. Learning a new language is associated with increased brain volumes in the left parietal lobe, which is the brain’s language center. Additionally, in line with the improved cognitive control observed in bilingual people, areas of the brain that control attention and the ability to ignore distracting information also grow in size.
 
In conjunction with studies looking at the size of certain brain regions, researchers use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify brain activity during a task. Functional MRI is a method of measuring the amount of blood flow to a brain region while a person performs a particular task. More blood flow is thought to reflect greater activation in that region compared to the rest of the brain. This allows researchers to identify which brain areas control certain abilities.
 
In fMRI studies, bilingualism is associated with increased activation of a network of regions throughout the brain, including the frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes. This includes the brain’s language centers, which grow larger in response to learning a new language. The network also includes regions thought to help with executive control, which allows the brain to reduce interference between the two languages being activated at a given time.
 
Interestingly, bilinguals show lower activation than monolinguals in the anterior cingulate cortex and left superior frontal gyrus, regions associated with executive control. This lower activation reflects improved efficiency in bilinguals; their stronger executive control abilities means that they do not need to exert as much cognitive effort to complete a task. Thus, they are better at choosing which language to use and which to ignore during a specific task.
 
Similarly, a study examining neural activity in native English speakers who learned Chinese for six weeks scanned the brains of participants before and after their language learning. The investigators focused on network-level differences in brain activity, which reflect the exchange of information throughout numerous brain areas. They found that successful learners had more integrated brain networks than non-learners, particularly in language-related regions. More integrated brain networks translate to faster, more efficient flow of information. This means that bilingual individuals may have structural and functional brain differences that make it easier for them to process new information. 
 
What This Means for Instructors of English Language Learners
  • English language learners aren’t necessarily slower than their monolingual counterparts (and may actually be faster!). In the study published in Brain and Language, there was no difference in reaction time between monolinguals and bilinguals. Although educators sometimes perceive that English language learners take longer to master certain tasks, this may not be the case. Bilingualism may actually make the brain more efficient at complex tasks, particularly those that involve ignoring irrelevant information.
  • Increased executive control may translate to other domains of life. Numerous studies have shown that bilingual people have stronger executive control compared to monolinguals. In fact, they show larger brain volumes and more integrated brain networks in areas associated with executive abilities. This may translate to other classroom areas. For example, when presented with a math word problem that contains pieces of irrelevant information, a bilingual child may be better at ignoring distractors and finding the correct answer. English language learners may also tune out classroom distractions more effectively than their monolingual counterparts. Studies have found robust effects in which bilingual individuals outperform monolinguals across verbal and nonverbal tasks.
  • Successful language use transforms the brain to a greater degree. When it comes to English language learning, the quality of education matters. An experienced educator is likely to achieve better results. Students’ successful learning results in significantly better efficiency of language networks in the brain. These efficient brain networks also improve functioning in other areas of life. This highlights the importance of investing in good educators and training programs for English language learners.
  • Learning a new language results in lifelong changes to the brain. This area of brain research is relatively young, but evidence suggests that the brain changes resulting from learning a new language may last a lifetime. Thus, fostering strong abilities among English language learners may translate into a lifetime of higher cognitive control. 

 

Further reading:

Learning a Second Language:  First-Rate Exercise for the Brain

Related reading:

Educating ELLs:  4 Trends for 2015

5 Things You May Not Know about ELLs

 

Unlocking Potential and Inspiring Outcomes – Register for Visionary Conference 2015 Today!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014 - 08:00
  • Carrie Gajowski

2015 Visionary Conference“The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

It’s that time again! Open your calendar and mark February 26-28 with the highlight event of the year – the 2015 Visionary Conference! This year’s conference theme is “Unlocking Potential and Inspiring Outcomes.” Are we talking about your clients’ potential and outcomes, or that of your business? Both! Attend the conference in person in Chandler, Arizona, or join in online as a virtual attendee. Either way, you won’t want to miss it.

Inspiring Minds Want You to Know

Scientific Learning co-founder Dr. Steve Miller returns to the Visionary Conference in 2015 after several years away, and attendees are in for a real treat. Dr. Miller’s keynote presentation, “A Neuroscience eLearning Revolution,” will look at e-learning and the brain through the lens of the latest neuroscience research. Come prepared to learn what neuroimaging and behavior research has to say about early neurolinguistic skills and future academic performance.

Dr. Paula Tallal, also a co-founder of Scientific Learning, will dive deep into the early years of language development with her keynote, “Early Precursors to Language Development: Implications for Literacy,” exploring the relationship between language and literacy.

Dr. Marty Burns will present the final keynote on the neuroscience of language differences and remediation from a Speech Language Pathologist perspective. Expect to hear all about the latest research and walk away invigorated and inspired to make a difference in the lives of your clients.

Learn It Today, Use It Tomorrow

Additional conference sessions will cover a wide range of topics, so whether you’re a newbie or a seasoned Fast ForWord veteran, there’s something new for you. Find out how to integrate Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant in your practice and maximize your results, get your product questions answered at our Ask-An Expert round table, and take a peek at what’s in store for Scientific Learning products in 2015!

ASHA CEUs will be available for a number of sessions, including Dr. Burns’ keynote.

Summer is Around the Corner

Attending the 2015 Visionary Conference is the perfect way to jump start your plans for the busy summer season. Build your confidence and competence or take your mastery to a higher level so you can inspire dramatic outcomes and unlock potential throughout the year!

Related reading:

Dyslexia – How Far We’ve Come!

5 Things Every Parent and Educator Should Know About Early Childhood Brain Development

 

 

Reading to Learn: Do We Expect Too Much of Fourth Graders?

Monday, November 10, 2014 - 08:00
  • Norene Wiesen

Reading to LearnElementary school teachers are about to get re-schooled in one of the tenets of reading development: that fourth grade marks the turning point between learning to read and reading to learn. A new study in Developmental Science by Dartmouth Associate Professor of Education Donna Coch has revealed that the transition to mature reading skills isn’t as clear-cut as many educators have been taught.

According to the “reading-shift” theory that has dominated teacher education in recent years, students experience a significant transition toward reading automaticity in fourth grade. This shift supposedly gives fourth graders the adult-like ability to read to learn. But Coch’s study, which uses brainwaves to measure the automaticity of different types of processing, doesn’t support the timing behind the theory. Instead, it shows that some aspects of reading automaticity are established before fourth grade while others are still developing past fifth grade.

Specifically, Cook found that phonological processing (“the ability to discriminate and detect differences in phonemes and speech sounds”) and semantic processing (encoding a word’s meaning and making connections between the word and other words with similar meanings) are well established by third grade. However, the brainwave measure of fifth graders’ orthographic processing (using the visual look of a string of letters to quickly understand whether or not those letters make up a word) still resembled that of younger readers more than college students.

If reading automaticity takes years to fully develop, and if we don’t know when the process is complete for most learners (the study did not look at students between 5th grade and college age), what do these results mean for educators and learners?

The takeaway, according to Coch, is that teachers should have realistic expectations of their students’ abilities and not expect them to be reading with full word automaticity in fourth and fifth grade. What makes more sense, says Coch, is for fourth and fifth grade teachers to begin thinking of themselves as reading teachers. That may be a shift for many, but it fits well with the Common Core trend of incorporating reading tasks in subjects beyond ELA. Is your school taking this research into account and changing its approach to teaching upper grade learners?

Related reading:

Teaching Inference as a Reading Strategy: The What, the How, and the Why

Why Prosody Matters: The Importance of Reading Aloud with Expression

 

 

Inside the Brain of a Struggling Reader [Infographic]

Tuesday, September 16, 2014 - 21:45
  • Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP

When a student struggles to learn to read, we often look to social or economic factors, access to books, or the home environment for an explanation. While each of these factors can play a part, treatable brain differences are often part of the equation.

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Inside the Brain of a Struggling Reader [Infographic]

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Neuroscience-based interventions like the Fast ForWord program create specialized learning conditions that can rapidly improve reading and cognitive skills in struggling readers. These interventions work because the brain can actually reorganize itself, changing its internal wiring in response to learning. This ability does not “turn off” after infancy as once thought, but remains active throughout our lifetime.

Many struggling readers who have fallen behind or thought it was “too late” have overcome their reading difficulties. The journey to proficiency starts inside the “plastic” brain.

Related reading:

Dyslexia – How Far We’ve Come!

The Neuroplasticity Revolution With Dr. Norman Doidge

 

Dyslexia – How Far We’ve Come!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014 - 17:30
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

For most of the 40-plus years that the term “dyslexia” has been in existence, and although the diagnosis has long been considered a “learning disability,” it has been based on comparisons with average readers. Simply put, a child has been diagnosed with “dyslexia” if he or she is shown to have an IQ in the “normal” range but falls at or below the 10th percentile on standardized tests of reading for a specific age group. The cut-off has been arbitrary, often varying considerably from one setting to another. As a result, a child who falls at the 12th percentile might be considered a poor reader while a child falling at the 10th percentile would be diagnosed with dyslexia.

The technical term for that diagnostic approach is called “discrepancy criteria.” Stanislas Dehaene, in his book Reading in the Brain, succinctly explains that the diagnosis of dyslexia has thus depended “on the setting of an arbitrary criterion for ‘normality’ … [which] might lead to the erroneous conclusion that dyslexia is a purely social construction.”

Certainly, for those parents among us who have a child diagnosed with dyslexia, it is obvious quite early in the educational process that our bright child is not just behind in reading but dumbfounded by the written word. A child with dyslexia seems to struggle at every turn.

Psychologists, neurologists, and special educators have understood that as well and since the 1970s have assumed dyslexia has a neurological basis. In fact, the term “dyslexia” actually stems from the Greek alexia, which literally means “loss of the word” and was the diagnostic term used when adults lost the ability to read after suffering a brain injury. Dyslexia was a term adopted to confer a lesser (though still neurologically based) form of reading impairment seen in children. However, determining the neurological basis has been elusive until relatively recently.

The Search for a Neurological Basis

In the early attempts at researching the underlying causes of dyslexia in the 1970s there were no technological medical procedures available to study brain processes that might be involved in reading normally or abnormally. As a result, although the term implied that there was a neurological cause, the exact nature of the brain differences in children with dyslexia could not be determined.

Some of the early researchers believed that the cause was visual-spatial. Samuel Orton had originally thought that reading disorders in children were similar to “word blindness” in adults, caused not by a specific brain injury, but representing a maturational disorder based on delayed cerebral development of left hemisphere dominance. However, his theory could not be tested empirically and he and others became more aware over time that many children with reading problems seemed to have specific problems with other non-visual aspects of reading – specifically, sounding out of words.

Because of the inability to determine the neurological cause(s) of dyslexia, in some educational circles especially, it became synonymous with "developmental reading disorder" and the cause (neurological or perhaps otherwise) was deemed not important. Rather, the goal was to develop and test interventions and measure their outcomes without an effort to relate the interventions to underlying causation.

The problem with that approach, from a scientific standpoint, is that it is symptom based. Rather than getting at the root of the problem or distinguishing one child’s problem from another’s, the non-causative approach assumes that the solution to dyslexia depends on a specific teaching method. An analogy in medical science would be trying to treat all skin rashes with calamine lotion – it might make a person feel better no matter the cause, but it would be wholly inadequate for prevention of a virus like measles or treatment of a bacterial rash like impetigo.

Fortunately, just as medical science advanced our understanding of viral and bacterial causes of skin infections to allow for effective medical treatment, advances in neuroscience, buttressed by neuroimaging and brain electrophysiological technology starting in the late 1990s, have led to an emerging consensus about the causes of dyslexia and the most effective methods for remediating those causes. This neuroscience research has been accumulating from a variety of disciplines and is beginning to reveal a few underlying factors in brain development that can cause reading to be problematic. And the best news is that all of those processes are amenable to carefully designed training approaches.

What Happens in the Dyslexic Brain – and Why

In the early to mid-2000s, much of the available research on the underlying basis of dyslexia pointed to a primary problem with the phonological processing of speech sounds. The early research by Shaywitz (2003), Ramus (2003), and Vellutino, Fletcher, Snowling, & Scanlon (2004) – summarized in Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain – identified problems with phonological awareness, the ability to segment words into their component speech sound components.

More resent research has delineated why that problem exists. For example, in 2012, Boets et al., using neuroimaging technology, found that in adults with dyslexia the brain connections between areas that represent speech sounds and a part of the left frontal lobe that is important for higher level processing of speech sounds is significantly hampered. In other words, they found that dyslexia is a problem accessing intact representations of speech sounds. Other recent neurophysiological research has indicated that disrupted timing of auditory processing, particularly in the range relevant to speech sounds, is a core deficit in dyslexia.[1]

Retraining the Dyslexic Brain

These consistent findings have led to an emerging consensus, well summarized by Jane Hornickel and Nina Kraus in the Journal of Neuroscience in 2012: namely that dyslexia is primarily an auditory disorder that arises from an inability to respond to speech sounds in a consistent manner. This underlying problem with perception of speech sounds, in turn, causes problems relating a speech sound to the written letter. Therefore, reading interventions for dyslexia should be most effective if they combine auditory perceptual training of speech sounds with exercises that require relating speech sounds to the written letter. And, in fact, neuroscience research bears that out.

The Fast ForWord Language and Reading interventions contain neuroscience-based exercises. They have been empirically tested in independent neuroscience laboratories and shown to have a rapid and significant impact on children and adults with dyslexia. The exercises have been shown to have a positive effect on the neurological processes that support reading and language as well.[2]

Our understanding of dyslexia has come very far in the past 40 years, with neurophysiological models developed in just the past five years explaining why letter-sound correspondence is so difficult for these children. Fortunately, treatment options have kept pace with the research, and children with dyslexia today have the potential to train their brains to overcome the learning difficulties that earlier generations were destined to carry with them for a lifetime.

References

Boets, B., Op de Beeck, H.P., Vandermosten, M., Scott, S.K., Gillebert, C.R., Mantini, D., Ghesquière, P.  (2013). Intact but less accessible phonetic representations in adults with dyslexia, Science, 342, 1251-1254. doi: 10.1126/science.1244333

Burns, M.S. (2012). Application of Neuroscience to Remediation of Auditory Processing, Phonological, Language and Reading Disorders: The Fast ForWord® and BrainPro Programs. In D. Geffner & D. Swain (Eds.), Auditory processing disorders: Assessment, management and treatment (2nd ed.). San Diego, CA: Plural Publications.

Dehaene, S. (2009). Reading in the brain: The science and evolution of a human invention. New York, NY: Viking Press.

Gabrielli, J. (2009). Dyslexia: A new synergy between education and cognitive neuroscience. Science, 325, 280-283. doi: 10.1126/science.1171999

Hornickel, J. & Kraus, N. (2013), Unstable representation of sound: A biological marker of dyslexia. The Journal of Neuroscience, 33, 3500 –3504. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4205-12.2013

 

[1] See Billet & Bellis (2011), Goswami (2011), and Lehongre, Ramus, Villermet, Schwartz, & Giraud (2011) summarized by Burns (2012).

[2] See Dehaene (2009) and Gabrielli (2009) for excellent summaries of the research on the Fast ForWord interventions for dyslexia.

Related reading:

Auditory Processing Skills and Reading Disorders in Children

How Learning to Read Improves Brain Function

 

 

 

Keep Learning This Summer - Four Must-Watch Webinars for Teachers

Tuesday, June 10, 2014 (All day)
  • Alexis Hourselt

Must-Watch Webinars

School’s out for summer! While it’s a great time to relax and reset before the start of the next school year, it’s also a great time to catch up on professional development.

This summer, check out some of our most popular webinars on topics to help your students.

Comprehension: Going Beyond Fluency

Although fluency is important for reading success, it is not sufficient. Students must also actively work to make meaning out of the texts they read. In this webinar, Dr. Timothy Rasinski shares some of his favorite approaches for helping students engage in texts meaningfully and productively. Watch now.

How the ELL Brain Learns

What does the latest research reveal about the ELL brain? In this session, Dr. David Sousa provides an overview of how the young brain acquires the first language, and then looks at how trying to learn a second language affects brain development. Learn about the challenges that ELL students face when learning both conversational and academic language simultaneously and explore ways to help them. Dr. Sousa also debunks some misconceptions about ELLs and English language acquisition. There are some surprises! Watch now.

Use Brain Science to Make Dramatic Gains in Special Ed

This session features Dr. Martha Burns and special guest Kelly Winnett of Blount County, AL. Dr. Burns shares the latest research on the brain and learning (especially in students who struggle) and Mrs. Winnett shares how the Fast ForWord program has helped her students in special education make tremendous growth (AYP!) - in some cases moving learners from non-readers to readers and from non-verbal to verbal. Watch now.

New Science of Learning for Your Struggling Readers

Dr. Martha Burns discusses the ability of neuroscience to profoundly impact education. Hear how the science of learning has guided the development of breakthrough technologies to enhance underlying memory, attention, processing and sequencing abilities in struggling students. Watch now.

Related reading:

Summer Learning Programs, ELLs and the Achievement Gap

How to Create an Effective Summer Learning Program

 

How to Tell When Neuroscience-Based Programs are Well-Developed

Tuesday, March 25, 2014 (All day)
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

Neuroscience-based programs I am sure you have noticed that there are many technology programs out there that claim to “build,” or improve your brain function. Every week I receive emails from companies advertising brain games that promise to train attention and memory skills. You may have wondered, do “brain games” really work? A recent article in The New York Times entitled "Do Brain Workouts Work? Science Isn't Sure," actually asked that very question as well.

How would a memory brain game that I purchase from a website be different from a card or board game like “Concentration”? How is an attention game different or better than the concentration required to read a good book or play a card game that requires focused and sustained attention to cards played or discarded each round? Do good old fashioned paper pencil activities like crossword puzzles help with brain function? How about Bridge or Chess? Does watching Jeopardy on Television help your memory? Wouldn’t any challenging video game help us with attention if we had to stay focused for long periods of time to get to a new level?

The answers to the above questions are all “yes, to some degree.” The brain is the only organ of our body that changes each day based on our experiences. And if we do any activities that challenge memory or attention for extended periods of time it will likely be beneficial for improving those capacities. If I play bridge, for example, many hours a week, I will likely get better at the game and boost my short term (working) memory as well. But, neuroscientists who study brain plasticity, the way the brain changes with stimulation (or lack of stimulation), have determined there are ways to enhance the beneficial effects of brain exercises to maximize the efficiency and positive outcomes so that children or adults can specifically target some capacities over others in a short period of time. And, controlled research is showing these targeted exercises have benefits on other brain capacities as well.

So, for example, researchers have shown that when seven year olds do a simple computer-based exercise that targets working memory for just a few minutes a day for a few consecutive weeks they show improved working memory (we would expect that) but also improved reading comprehension compared with children in their classrooms who received reading instruction but did not do the working memory activities (Loosli, 2012). Or, aging adults in their 70's who did computer-based processing speed exercises a few minutes a day for six consecutive weeks so they could do things like react faster when driving showed improvements in processing speed (again we would expect that) but also in memory when compared to adults who did other exercises but not the processing speed exercises, and the improvements lasted for ten years without doing additional exercises (Rebok, 2014).

The question, then, is what are the critical active ingredients neuroscientists have found that need to be "built-in" so brain exercises effectively build targeted skills compared to the benefits we get from just using our "noggin" in everyday activities? And, more important, how is a parent or consumer to get through all the hype and determine which brain exercises have the important design features shown to be effective?

Fortunately, neuroscientists who have thoroughly researched this have published excellent summaries in respected scientific journals. Below are the key elements to look for in brain exercises:

  1. High & low - Exercises are most effective when they include challenging high-level tasks (like exercises that require a high degree of speed and accuracy) while also including low-level exercises that improve our ability to perceive similar sounds or images more distinctly (Ahissar et el, 2009). We might call this the Sherlock Holmes effect - you must see the details clearly to solve difficult problems.
  2. Adaptability - Exercises should increase or decrease in difficulty based on how you perform so they continuously adapt to your skill level (Roelfsema, 2010).
  3. Highly intensive training schedules - The relevant ‘skills' must be identified, isolated, then practiced through hundreds if not thousands of trials on an intensive (ie, quasi-daily) schedule (Roelfsema, 2010).
  4. Attention grabbing - In order to maximize enduring plastic changes in the cortex, the learner must attend to each trial or learning event on a trial-by-trial basis.
  5. Timely rewards - A very high proportion of the learning trials must be rewarded immediately (rather than at the end of a block of trials or on a trial-and-error basis) (Roelfsema, 2010).

So, parents may ask, ”This sounds fine for making our average brains work better but what about my child who has been diagnosed with a learning disability or other issues like autism spectrum disorder?” According to Ahissar et al. (2009), for our children (or adults) with learning issues, distortions or limitations at any level will create bottlenecks for learning and the changes we want from brain exercises. But, according to the authors, if the exercises have sufficient intensity and duration on specific sets of activities that focus on lower-level (perceptual) and middle-level stimuli (attention, memory and language) tasks, brain changes will enhance higher level skills and learning will be easier and more advanced.

So for parents, or anyone wanting to understand which brain exercises are worth the investment of valuable time and money, a rule of thumb would be to avoid products that advertise themselves as "brain games" - because that is what they probably are. Rather, seek out programs or products that contain "exercises" that focus on specific high and low level skills like language, reading, memory and attention, and those who have research evidence to support their value when used by children like yours.

References

Ahissar, M., Nahum, M., Nelken, I., & Hochstein, S. (2009). Reverse hierarchies and sensory learning, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 364,285–299. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0253

Loosli, S.V., Buschkuehl, M., Perrig, W.J., & Jaeggi, S.M. (2012). Working memory training improves reading processes in typically developing children, Child Neuropsychology, 18, 62-78. doi: 10.1080/09297049.2011.575772

Rebok, G.W., Ball, K., Guey, L.T., Jones, R.N., Kim, H.Y., King, J.W., . . . Willis, S.L. (2014). Ten-Year Effects of the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly Cognitive Training Trial on Cognition and Everyday Functioning in Older Adults, Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 62,16-24. doi: 10.1111/jgs.12607

Roelfsema, P.R., van Ooyen, A., & Watanabe, T. (2010). Perceptual learning rules based on reinforcers and attention, Trends in Cognitive Science, 14, 64–71. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2009.11.005

Vinogradav, S., Fisher, M., & de Villers-Sidani, E. (2012). Cognitive Training for Impaired Neural Systems in Neuropsychiatric Illness, Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews,37, 43–76. doi: 10.1038/npp.2011.251

Related reading:

Brain Fitness Is Not A Game

Dopamine and Learning: What The Brain’s Reward Center Can Teach Educators

 

Smarten Up! Three Facts About the Learning Brain

Tuesday, March 11, 2014 (All day)
  • Carrie Gajowski

The learning brain

It’s Brain Awareness Week! To celebrate, we’ve put together a few fun facts about the brain and how it learns. Share them and spread the word about why good nutrition, sleep, and learning habits matter.

1) True/False: Dreams are useless.

False! Research has found that when learning a new task, people who have dreams related to the task may actually improve their performance.

In one study at Harvard Medical School, students were asked to navigate a difficult maze, starting at a different point in the maze each time. During a break, one group of students was asked to nap while another group remained awake. Students in the nap group who dreamed about the maze performed better the next time they tried the maze, while those who dreamed about other things or who stayed awake did not improve.

Dreaming can take place during both REM and non-REM sleep. REM stands for “rapid eye movement” because the dreamer’s eyes move around under their eyelids during this phase of sleep. REM is the phase of sleep during which dreaming typically occurs, and dreams during REM sleep tend to be wild and illogical. But dreams can also take place during non-REM sleep. These dreams are often more thoughtful and logical than REM dreams and appear to be more important for learning.

2) True/False: Your brain functions best on Crimini mushrooms and beef brains.

True - though mushrooms and beef brains may be extreme examples of what keeps your brain working at its best. Still, good food choices do more than help your body grow, repair itself, and fight off illness. Food choices have an effect on how well your brain works, too.

Neurons, the cells of the brain, have a fatty coating called myelin that helps impulses move quickly from cell to cell. Your brain needs the right combination of proteins and fats from food sources to create myelin and to build new connections between neurons. Your brain’s ability to create new connections is closely tied to its ability to keep up in class and to learn new things.

The brain also relies on neurotransmitters to relay impulses from neuron to neuron. Neurotransmitters are the brain’s chemical messengers, and different neurotransmitters are built from different starter materials. An example of one of these starter materials is tryptophan, a substance found in a variety of healthy foods including shrimp, Crimini mushrooms, tuna, spinach, eggs, soybeans, broccoli, and cow’s milk. The body needs tryptophan to make serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is linked to learning, memory, and motivation.

In the spirit of brain awareness week, we discovered that beef brains are actually a lean source of protein.  But if you're like us, you'll stick with the chicken, turkey and fish!

3)True/False: Your brain is competitive. With itself.

True. The human brain has incredible potential. People have successfully trained their brains to perform amazing feats of memory and computation, monks have learned to alter their body temperature by controlling their brain waves with meditation, and people with brain damage have   regained lost abilities  that we used to think were irreversible.

You’ve probably heard the expression “use it or lose it,” which means that we lose skills when we don’t practice them in daily life. That’s because the brain actually restructures itself based on how we use it most often, and those structural changes affect our performance. We get better at skills that we practice and we lose skills that we neglect. When it comes to student learning, “use it or lose it” is very real – especially during the summer months.

Say, for example, that a student reads 30 minutes every day during the school year. Then summer vacation rolls around and without the structure of school he reads only 30 minutes each week. His brain is going to think that he doesn’t need all of those neural connections for reading anymore, and it will actually change the way that his neurons are connected and devote them to other activities that he’s engaged in more often – say, playing sports or watching TV. This is called competitive plasticity.

That’s great for the time he spends with  friends for summertime fun, but not so great come fall when it’s time to head back to class. Many kids lose ground in reading over the summer, and even more kids lose skills in math. Over time, these losses add up. In fact, student achievement in the 12 thgrade is closely tied to what kinds of learning activities students engage in during the summer. Students who are high performers at high school graduation have typically spent time during their summers maintaining or increasing their academic skills. 

It’s Not Too Soon

Have you shared the facts of “summer slide” with your students so they understand why you might want them to read or practice their math skills? If not, start beating the drum today for summer learning, and when the summer months roll around, perhaps your students will actually spend time doing those things that challenge their brains to learn and grow. 

Fun Stuff

Try our Brain Awareness Week activities in the classroom as a fun way to extend the learning:

The Learning Brain Word Search– Basic words for lower grades.

The Learning Brain Word Match– More advanced words for higher grades.

References:

Cromie, W.J. (2002, April 18). Meditation changes temperatures: Mind controls body in extreme experiments. Harvard University Gazette. Retrieved from http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/2002/04.18/09-tummo.html

Mateljan, G. (2006). The World's Healthiest Foods: Essential Guide for the Healthiest Way of Eating. World’s Healthiest Foods.

Nutrition and the Brain. (n.d.). In Neuroscience for Kids. Retrieved from http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/nutr.html

Ornes, S. (2010, May 11). Dreaming makes perfect. ScienceNews for Kids. Retrieved from http://www.sciencenewsforkids.com.php5-17.dfw1-2.websitetestlink.com/wp/2010/05/dreaming-makes-perfect-2/

For further reading:

Official Brain Awareness Week Website

Related reading:

The Reading Brain: How Your Brain Helps You Read, and Why it Matters

How Learning to Read Improves Brain Function

Right vs. Left Brained + Autism, APD, ADHD Neuroscience and More

Tuesday, February 4, 2014 (All day)
  • Carrie Gajowski

Visionary Conference 2014

Are some of us “left-brained” and some “right-brained”? Dr. Paula Tallal will be presenting in person (and online via webinar) on this exact topic during our upcoming annual  Visionary Conferencein her session “Hemispheric Dominance: Myth or Reality?”   The conference offers ASHA CEUs and will be 2 days of the most up to date information on the brain, the Fast ForWord/Reading Assistant programs and what’s coming down the line (did someone say iPad®?).  You won’t want to miss this event – best of all, it’s both online and in-person.

New Brain Research

In addition to Dr. Tallal’s presentation, we are fortunate to have Dr. Martha Burns on board with us sharing the latest research on the brain and learning. Dr.  Burns will kick off the conference on Friday morning with a professional development session that will focus on the latest findings related to disconnection patterns associated with communicative-cognitive disorders of CAS (childrens apraxia of speech), APD (auditory processing disorders), ASD (autism spectrum disorders), and dyslexia – as well as the genetics of neuropathology, cognitive challenges after concussion, and evidence-based interventions. To start us off on Day 2 on Saturday, Dr. Tallal will weigh in on the half-century old debate about brain hemisphere dominance with new evidence.  If you have ever seen Drs. Burns and Tallal present, you know that these sessions are not to be missed!  

What’s Happening with Fast ForWord in Australia? Singapore? Brazil?

We are excited to announce that some of our international partners will be joining on Friday, February 21 st, to participate in a discussion panel.  We will have a combination of newer and long-time providers who all share the same enthusiasm about providing the programs in their respective countries with their own unique models.  If you ever wondered how our programs are implemented in other countries, this session is for you.  Countries to be represented are Australia, Singapore and Brazil.  

Evaluation Before and After?

Three of our clinicians based here in the United States will share and discuss best practices in their evaluation protocol for use of and placement in the Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant Intervention Programs.  We will hear from Dana Merritt with Merritt Speech and Language and from  Julie DeAngelis and Summer Peterson with Scottish Rite Language Center.

Product Training & News

Additional sessions will address interpretation of MySciLEARN learner progress data, integration of other commercially available programs with Fast ForWord intervention, what’s on the horizon for the Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant products (exciting developments!),  and much more.    

Be There or… Join us Virtually! 

If you’ve been to an onsite Visionary Conference with us before, then you know how energizing the event is going to be.  As in past years, we are offering a virtual option if you can’t be with us in person.  For 2 full days, we will be broadcasting the conference live.  It will feel like you are there with us!  Virtual attendees will receive copies of the presentations and ASHA Participant forms before the start of the conference.  Enjoy the conference from the comfort of your own home!

ASHA CEUs offered – whether you are on-site or virtual…

We are planning to offer up to 1.4 ASHA CEUs for the entire conference – whether you are onsite with us or virtual (pending ASHA review).  We can also offer partial credit if you can’t attend the entire conference.   Contact Carrie Gajowski at  cgajowski@scilearn.com if you have any questions.

If you’ve never been, don’t miss out – it’s the highlight of the year! 

Related reading:

Left vs. Right: What Your Brain Hemispheres Are Really Up To

What New Brain Wave Research Tells Us About Language-Based Learning Disabilities

 

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