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

Neuroscience-based programsI 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

 

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Categories: Brain Fitness, Brain Research, Education Trends, Family Focus, Reading & Learning

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Smarten Up! Three Facts About the Learning Brain

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 12thgrade 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

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

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 Conference in 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 21st, 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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Categories: Brain Fitness, Brain Research, Fast ForWord, Reading & Learning, Reading Assistant, Scientific Learning Research

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The Benefits of Downtime: Why Learners’ Brains Need a Break

DowntimeA friend of mine once described her brain as a washing machine, tumbling and tossing the requests and information that hit her at work from every direction. Many people I know feel the same way—overwhelmed by the onslaught of knowledge and to-dos that accompany the always-on smartphone era.

The situation is not that different for most kids these days, with high expectations in the classroom, fewer opportunities to unwind with recess and the arts, busy social calendars, and a seemingly limitless supply of extracurricular activities—like circus arts and robotics—that weren’t available to previous generations. That’s unfortunate, because research shows that time off-task is important for proper brain function and health.

Going Offline

The idea that the brain might be productively engaged during downtime has been slow in coming. Because of the brain’s massive energy consumption—using as much as 20% of the body’s energy intake while on-task—most scientists expected that the organ would default to a frugal, energy-saving mode when given the chance.

Recently, however, brain researchers have discovered sets of scattered brain regions that fire in a synchronized way when people switch to a state of mental rest, such as daydreaming. These “resting-state networks” help us process our experience, consolidate memories, reinforce learning, regulate our attention and emotions, keep us productive and effective in our work and judgment, and more.

The best understood of these networks is the Default Mode Network, or DMN. It’s the part of the brain that chatters on continuously when we’re off-task—ruminating on a conversation that didn’t go as well as we’d hoped, for example, or flipping through our mental to-do list, or nagging us about how we’ve treated a friend.

Many of us are culturally conditioned to think of time off-task as “wasted” and a sign of inefficiency or laziness. But teachers and learners can benefit from recognizing how downtime can help. In addition to giving the brain an opportunity to make sense of what it has just learned, shifting off-task can help learners refresh their minds when frustrated so they can return to a problem and focus better.

The Productive Faces of Idleness

SLEEP

Sleep is the quintessential form of downtime for the brain. All animals sleep in some form, and even plants and microorganisms often have dormant or inactive states. Sleep has been shown in numerous studies to play a major role in memory formation and consolidation.

Recent studies have shown that when the human brain flips to idle mode, the neurons that work so hard when we’re on-task settle down and the surrounding glial cells increase their activity dramatically, cleaning up the waste products accumulated by the neurons and moving them out via the body’s lymphatic system. Researchers believe that the restorative effects of sleep are due to this cleansing mechanism. Napping for 10-30 minutes has been demonstrated to increase alertness and improve performance.

Teachers might consider reminding parents of the importance of adequate sleep for learning in the classroom – especially if learners are visibly sleepy or have noticeable difficulty focusing in class. As many as 30% of K-12 learners don’t get enough sleep at night.

AWAKE, DOING NOTHING

Idleness is often considered a vice, but there’s growing evidence that there are benefits to “doing nothing.” Electrical activity in the brain that appears to solidify certain kinds of memories is more frequent during downtime—as when lying in the dark at bedtime—than it is during sleep.

Meditation is another way of giving the brain a break from work without fully surrendering consciousness. Research has shown that meditation can refresh our ability to concentrate, help us attend to tasks more efficiently, and strengthen connections between regions of the DMN.

Experienced meditators typically perform better than non-meditators on difficult attention tests, and may be able to toggle more easily between the DMN and those brain networks that we use when we’re actively on task.

There’s evidence as well that the brain benefits from going offline for even the briefest moments—as when we blink. Every time we blink, our DMN fires up and our conscious networks take respite for a moment, giving the conscious mind a bit of relief.

Some schools are taking note and introducing meditation into the classroom. Getting the buy-in needed to launch a meditation program takes work, but benefits can be substantial.

MUNDANE ACTIVITY

It’s not uncommon to experience a sudden flash of insight while engaged in mundane activities like doing a crossword puzzle or cleaning the house. There’s a famous anecdote about Archimedes, a prominent scientist in classical Greece, solving a problem in just this way.

Archimedes needed to determine whether the king’s new crown was made entirely of the gold supplied to the goldsmith, or whether inferior metals like silver had been mixed in—and he had to do it without damaging the crown. He puzzled over how to solve the problem, without luck. Then, as he stepped into a bathtub one day and saw the water level rise, he realized in an instant that he could use the water’s buoyancy to measure the density of the crown against a solid gold reference sample. He conducted the experiment and found that the crown was less dense than the gold sample, implicating the goldsmith in fraud.

Scientists who research “unconscious thought” have found that activities that distract the conscious mind without taxing the brain seem to give people greater insight into complex problems. In a study of students who were asked to determine which car would be the best purchase, for instance, the group that spent their decision-making time solving an unrelated puzzle made better choices than the group that deliberated over the information for four minutes.

Brief windows of time spent on routine, mundane activities in the classroom—like feeding the class pet, putting books back on a bookshelf, or rearranging desks—can give learners a much-needed break from the sustained concentration required for academic time on-task.

Standing Up for Downtime

With so much to do and so little learning time in a school year—fitting in downtime is easier said than done. But take heart. Even closing your eyes, taking one deep breath, and exhaling can help to refresh the brain and takes practically no time. Offering more downtime in moment-sized bites might be just the thing for keeping ourselves, our students and our children on schedule and giving our brains that little bit of freedom to turn off for just a minute.

Holiday breaks and vacations are a perfect time for all of us take a break. I’ll be finding some time to unplug, unwind, and turn off. Will you?

References:

2004 Sleep in America Poll. (2004). Retrieved December 8, 2013, from  http://www.sleepfoundation.org/

Braun, D. (2009, August 6). Why do we Sleep? Scientists are Still Trying to Find Out. Nationalgeographic.com. Retrieved December 2, 2013, from http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2009/08/26/why_we_sleep_is_a_mystery/

Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Epidemic. (2013).  Retrieved December 8, 2013 from http:www.cdc.gov/features/dssleep

Jabr, F. (2013, October 15). Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime. Scientificamerican.com. Retrieved November 30, 2013, from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=mental-downtime

Sabourin, J. Rowe, J.P, Mott, B.,W. & Lester, J.C. (2011). When Off-Task is On-Task: The Affective Role of Off-Task Behavior in Narrative-Centered Learning Environments. Artificial Intelligence in Education, 6738, 534-536. doi: 10.1007/978-3-642-21869-9_93

Welsh, J. (2013, October 17). Scientists Have Finally Found The First Real Reason We Need To Sleep. Businessinsider.com. Retrieved December 2, 2013, from http://www.businessinsider.com/the-first-real-reason-we-need-to-sleep-2013-10

Related reading:

Sleep: An Essential Ingredient for Memory Function

Stress and The Human Brain

 

 

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Categories: Brain Fitness, Brain Research, Education Trends, Reading & Learning

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Improved Auditory Processing With Targeted Intervention

Improved auditory processing with targeted intervention

Last week’s blog post ended with the mention of a new (2013) peer-reviewed study showing that Fast ForWord Language v2 improved auditory processing in children with auditory processing disorders (APD). The study also provided evidence that the children’s brains rewired themselves during the eight-week study to more closely resemble typical brains. Today I want to go deeper into these findings.

To understand what brain changes the researchers found it is helpful to explain first how the brain actually goes about the task of perceiving speech. The first job the brain has to tackle when one person is listening to another person speak is to sort out the speech signal from the other sounds in the environment. That, of course, is the problem we have when listening to someone at a loud party. But that is also a challenge in most classrooms. Children, as we know, have trouble sitting perfectly still and younger children especially are often fidgeting and scooting their chairs around as well as whispering to children nearby. Add to that noise that comes from outside the classroom like hallway noise and playground noise, which even the best teacher cannot control, and a classroom can be a very noisy place. Part of maturation of the brain is the ability to learn to filter out irrelevant noises. But children must learn to do this and many with APD find that a real challenge.

It is not clearly understood why some children develop this capacity to filter speech from noise fairly easily and others do not, but audiologists do know that the problem can be traced to specific regions of the brain, especially regions of the brainstem. These regions can be tested through a process referred to as auditory brainstem response, or ABR. This test allows researchers to measure brain stem responses to sound through use of electrodes placed on the scalp. ABR is a critical measure of sound processing because it provides information about how well the auditory pathways to the brain from the ear have matured and how well they are functioning. In the study at Auburn University, a specific kind of ABR was used that has been shown to be especially helpful in diagnosing APD in children with language-based learning problems. It is called BioMARK. Using this procedure, the researchers could objectively measure whether a specific intervention not only improved listening skills but also whether it changed the brainstem response to speech.

To test whether auditory processing disorders can be improved though targeted intervention, the researchers at Auburn identified four children with APD using a battery of auditory processing, language, and intelligence tests that they administered before and after eight weeks of Fast ForWord Language v2.  They also used BioMARK testing before and after Fast ForWord to determine if the actual brainstem response was affected by the intervention.

Their results were very exciting. The children who completed all of the before-treatment tests, eight weeks of Fast ForWord Language training, and all the post-treatment tests plus BioMARK showed marked improvements in their auditory processing skills. For example, the children showed improvements in a test designed to assess listening to competing words (like we have to do when two people are talking to us at the same time) as well as deciphering words that are not very clear (like listening on a cell phone when there is a poor connection). They also improved in skills like listening for sound patterns and remembering complex sentences. And, important to teachers and parents, one of the children showed marked improvement in a measure of nonverbal intelligence as well as ability to follow complex directions.

Those results alone were remarkable after just eight weeks of intervention. But the most compelling part of the research was the finding that the BioMARK results also changed significantly in the children. And the changes were positive, meaning the children’s brain stem responses resembled typical children, those who do not have any evidence of auditory processing disorders affecting language skills and listening. In other words, the eight weeks of Fast ForWord resulted in what brain scientists call “neuroplastic” changes in brain function. And the changes occurred specifically in regions that are very specific to and important for accurate listening and language processing.

References:

Abrams, D.A., Nicol, T., Zecker, S.G., &Kraus, N. (2006). Auditory brainstem timing predicts cerebral dominance for speech sounds. Journal of Neuroscience, 26(43), 11131-11137.

King, C., Warrier, C.M., Hayes, E., &Kraus, N. (2002). Deficits in auditory brainstem encoding of speech sounds in children with learning problems. Neuroscience Letters 319, 111-115.

Krishnamurti, S., Forrester, J., Rutledge, C., & Holmes, G. (2013). A case study of the changes in the speech-evoked auditory brainstem response associated with auditory training in children with auditory processing disorders. International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology, 77(4), 594-604. doi: 10.1016/j.ijporl.2012.12.032

Wible, B., Nicol, T., Kraus, N. (2005). Correlation between brainstem and cortical auditory processes in normal and language-impaired children. Brain, 128, 417-423.

For further reading:

Learn more about BioMARK

Related reading:

Dyslexia, Auditory Processing Disorder, and the Road to College: Maria’s Story

What Makes a Good Reader? The Foundations of Reading Proficiency

 

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Categories: Brain Fitness, Brain Research, Education Trends, Fast ForWord, Reading & Learning, Special Education

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Why Auditory Processing Disorders (APD) are Hard to Spot

Why auditory processing problems can be hard to spotDoes this ever happen to you? You ask your child to do something simple, and he or she says, “huh?”  For example, you might say something like, “Chris, time to get ready for school: go upstairs, get your shoes, grab your homework (we worked really hard on that last night) and shut your window because it looks like rain.” And your child acts as though he didn’t hear a word. 

Often teachers describe a child like this as having poor listening skills because the same thing will happen in class—except that in school the child misses important assignments, fails to follow instructions on tests, or is unable to learn information when it is presented orally. What is going on here?

Parents or teachers may assume that a child is deliberately ignoring them when they ask to have instructions repeated or miss important information in school. But audiologists, who are specialists in hearing, have identified a specific reason for these listening problems. They refer to them as auditory processing disorders, or APD for short.

APD is not a hearing loss and not an attentional problem, although it can often seem as though the child is not paying attention. Rather, with APD a child has trouble figuring out what was said, although it sounds loud enough. All of us suffer from this problem when we are trying to listen to someone talk in a very noisy room, like at a party where a band is playing very loudly. We know the person is speaking—we can hear their voice—but we can’t easily discern what they are saying. Sometimes we try to read the person’s lips to figure out what they are talking about. But after a while it gets so hard to listen we just tune out or leave the situation. Now, imagine you are a child and speech always sounds muddled like that. The child’s natural instinct, just like yours, is just to stop listening. As a result, children with APD often achieve way under their potential despite being very bright. And in some cases, the children may have speech and/or language problems as well.

Audiologists have been able to diagnose auditory processing problems for many years. The recommendations for school intervention with children with this disorder have been largely compensatory, such as “seat the child at the front of the class, right in front of the teacher” or “amplify the teacher’s voice with a microphone and provide the child with a listening device to hear the teacher’s amplified voice more clearly than other noises in the room.” Specific, targeted interventions like Fast ForWord are a more recent development.

Although Fast ForWord Language and later Fast ForWord Language v2 were specifically developed to treat temporal sequencing problems associated with specific language impairment, and the programs have been successfully used as a clinical intervention for auditory processing problems for fifteen years, specific peer-reviewed case studies on auditory processing benefit from these programs has been lacking. That changed in April of this year (2013) when researchers at Auburn University, a leader in the study of APD, published controlled research in International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology on the benefits of intervention with children diagnosed with APD. The researchers not only found that Fast ForWord Language v2 improved auditory processing skills, and in one child language and cognitive skills as well, but they found evidence of what scientists call “neuroplastic” brain changes in the children with APD after the program as well. This means that the children’s brains were rewiring themselves and getting better at auditory processing at the same time.

I will discuss the study in detail in next week’s blog post. If you’re not already a subscriber, you can sign up here to have the next blog post delivered to your inbox.

References:

Abrams, D.A., Nicol, T., Zecker, S.G., &Kraus, N. (2006). Auditory brainstem timing predicts cerebral dominance for speech sounds. Journal of Neuroscience, 26(43), 11131-11137.

King, C., Warrier, C.M., Hayes, E., &Kraus, N. (2002). Deficits in auditory brainstem encoding of speech sounds in children with learning problems. Neuroscience Letters 319, 111-115.

Krishnamurti, S., Forrester, J., Rutledge, C., & Holmes, G. (2013). A case study of the changes in the speech-evoked auditory brainstem response associated with auditory training in children with auditory processing disorders. International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology, 77(4), 594-604. doi: 10.1016/j.ijporl.2012.12.032

Wible, B., Nicol, T., Kraus, N. (2005). Correlation between brainstem and cortical auditory processes in normal and language-impaired children. Brain, 128, 417-423.

Related reading:

Auditory Processing Skills & Reading Disorders in Children

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

 

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The Neuroplasticity Revolution With Dr. Norman Doidge

brain plasticityLast week, Scientific Learning was pleased to host The Neuroplasticity Revolution, a webinar with Dr. Norman Doidge—psychiatrist, psychotherapist, researcher, and author of the New York Times bestseller The Brain That Changes Itself. The concept of brain plasticity—the brain’s ability to grow and change in structure and function in response to experience—is “the most important change in our understanding of the brain in 400 years,” Doidge told an audience of more than 3800 registrants.

Doidge reviewed concepts of brain and mind in history—dominated until very recently by the idea that the adult brain is hard-wired and therefore fixed in ability—and explained why it took scientists such a long time to observe and accept the brain’s plasticity. He then told the story of a woman named Cheryl, who was fortunate to find herself in need of brain rehabilitation after that old notion had been put to rest.

Cheryl had a balance problem. Her sense of balance had been so damaged by the antibiotic gentamicin that she couldn’t stand up without feeling that she was falling. Physician-neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita treated Cheryl with “sensory substitution,” a therapy he developed that provided corrective sensory feedback from a motion sensor through electrodes to Cheryl’s tongue. The technique immediately helped Cheryl gain her bearings and she found that she could maintain her balance for a period of time after removing the training gear. This residual effect gradually lengthened, and over the course of a year, Cheryl regained the ability to stand normally without using the device at all.

Cheryl was able to regain normal function, said Doidge, despite having 97.5% damage to her vestibular apparatus—the semicircular canals in the ear that connect to the brainstem and help to orient us in space. He noted that often, but not always, there’s some kind of neural workaround even in severe cases. Cheryl’s recovery not only seems miraculous, but also points to the fact that her brain changed itself to heal—by recruiting dormant pathways or making new pathways for the corrected sensory information to travel.

Cheryl’s, story, said Doidge, is just one example of how the brain learns. He went on to discuss “conventional learning” and learning disorders in the classroom, walking his audience through Dr. Michael Merzenich’s research demonstrating the neural underpinnings of brain plasticity and learning.

Dr. Merzenich conducted a series of experiments in which he rearranged the wiring of the nerves connecting a monkey’s fingers to its brain. He expected to see the brain maps for these fingers become distorted or jumbled, but instead found that they turned out fairly normal. He realized that the brain was able to adapt to the structural changes by taking timing into account. The thumb usually initiates movement, for example, followed closely in time by the index finger. The middle and ring finger behave in a similar way. And Merzenich realized that the monkey’s brain used the timing intervals to determine which fingers were adjacent to one another and map them accordingly. These experiments finally converted the brain plasticity skeptics.

A recording of the full webinar is now available on the Scientific Learning website. Watch and learn:

  • What are the 6 epochs of plasticity across the lifespan?
  • Why does true immersion work so well for language learning?
  • Why do 5-10% of preschool age children have trouble learning to read, write, and follow instructions?
  • How does the Fast ForWord program help normalize the brains of dyslexic learners?
  • And perhaps most intriguing of all, what does Freud have to do with any of this?

Related reading:

Overcoming Language and Reading Problems: The Promise of Brain Plasticity

Auditory Processing Skills & Reading Disorders in Children

 

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Overcoming Language and Reading Problems: The Promise of Brain Plasticity

overcoming language and reading problems“There is an endless war of nerves going on inside each of our brains. If we stop exercising our mental skills, we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead. If you ever ask yourself, ‘How often must I practice French, or guitar, or math to keep on top of it?’ you are asking a question about competitive plasticity. You are asking how frequently you must practice one activity to make sure its brain map space is not lost to another.”

-Norman Doidge in The Brain that Changes Itself

The Critical Period

From our very earliest days, our brain begins to map itself to the world as we experience it through our senses. The mapping is vague at first, lacking detail, but the more we interact with the world, the more well-defined our brain maps become until they are fully formed and differentiated.

“The critical period” is the name given to the time in infancy and early childhood during which our brain is so plastic that its structure is easily changed by simple exposure to new things in the environment. Babies, for example, learn the sounds of language and words effortlessly by listening to their parents speak. Inside the brain, what this learning looks like is the brain actually rewiring itself to change its own structure.

Use It or Lose It: Training the Brain to Form New Maps

Just a few decades ago, the prevailing scientific view held that the brain was a finely tuned machine that operated within a fixed scope of ability once the critical period had passed. But in the 1990s, through a series of experiments with monkeys, Dr. Michael Merzenich discovered that our brains can change well past the critical period—and indeed throughout our lives. But learning that takes place after the critical period is no longer effortless, and children and adults must work hard to pay attention to the new information that they wish to absorb and master.

The maxim commonly used to describe the phenomenon of neural learning is “neurons that fire together wire together,” and it’s this “wiring together” that results in the corresponding structural changes in the brain. Timing is key to the process, with neurons that fire simultaneously wiring together to create a map.

The space allocated to a neural map evolves over a number of stages. When learning is taking place, a relatively large space is allocated to the map. Once a skill is established, the mapped neurons become so efficient that fewer are needed—allowing some of the map space to be reallocated again for new learning. It’s a practical use-it-or-lose-it process that allows us to continue picking up new skills without bumping into space limits in the brain. Taking up a musical instrument such as violin, for example, causes more map space to be allocated to the playing fingers, and consequently, less space is allocated where there is lower demand.

As we develop mastery of a skill, our neurons not only grow to be more efficient, but they also begin to process faster. With that faster processing they tend to fire together more readily as well, creating more groups of neurons that send out clearer signals. The clarity of those signals has a great deal to do with how well the brain learns and remembers what the neurons have processed. The clearer the signal, the more clearly the brain remembers.

But what if there are gaps or inefficiencies in the maps that have been established?

From the Lab to the Learner

Dr. Merzenich had become interested in the work of Dr. Paula Tallal at Rutgers University. Dr. Tallal was interested in understanding why some children have more trouble than others when it comes to learning to read. Her research had shown that auditory processing problems were causing the “fast parts” of speech—common combinations of consonants and vowels that are pronounced very quickly—to be problematic for children with language difficulties.

Dr. Merzenich believed the problem was a matter of the children’s auditory processing speed lagging behind the speed of the speech sounds, resulting in an inability to distinguish differences between similar sounds or to perceive the correct sequence of sounds when they occurred in rapid succession.

Another known contributing factor was that of neural readiness. After processing a sound, neurons require a rest period before they can fire again. Normally this rest period is about 30 milliseconds, but for most children with language impairments it takes at least three times as long for the neuron to recover. The result is that a lot of critical language information is simply missed during the rest period.

Merzenich and Tallal believed they could combine forces to effectively help children who struggled to read. In 1996, Merzenich and his colleague Dr. Bill Jenkins teamed up with Tallal and her colleague Dr. Steve Miller to develop a real-world application of the science of neural plasticity by creating a product that could help struggling readers rewire their brains. From this union, Scientific Learning was born.

Fast ForWord

The partnership between Merzenich, Jenkins, Tallal, and Miller resulted in the software product that today we call Fast ForWord. Fast ForWord was carefully designed in the guise of a video game that could challenge and develop cognitive skills like memory, attention, processing speed, and sequencing as well as language and reading skills from phonemic awareness to decoding and comprehension.

Merzenich and Jenkins wanted Fast ForWord to trigger the children’s brains to secrete dopamine and acetylcholine—neurotransmitters that help lock in learning. Because the brain secretes these neurotransmitters when it gets rewarded, a generous supply of entertaining animations was built into the product to play spontaneously when a child achieved a goal.

From the very beginning, Fast ForWord elicited remarkable results. Children who participated in the initial field trial boosted their language development by 1.8 years, on average, in just six weeks. A subsequent study at Stanford University, dyslexic children’s brains showed increased activity in several areas after Fast ForWord, bringing them more in line with the patterns seen in typical readers’ brains. The dyslexic children’s brains had shown different patterns of activity before Fast ForWord (as revealed by fMRI).

In the 14 years since the field trial, Fast ForWord has been used by more than 2.7 million children around the world, with achievement gains of up to two years in as little as three months. During this time, school-based results—such as those at St. Mary Parish Public School System in Louisiana—have demonstrated that Fast ForWord can improve test scores across subject areas. And many additional research studies have corroborated the effectiveness of the Fast ForWord program for building cognitive, language, and reading skills.

In a 2010 study at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, Beth Rogowsky found that Fast ForWord significantly improved students’ grammar skills as measured by the Written Expression Scale from the Oral and Written Language Scales (OWLS). A subsequent study by Dr. Rogowsky published in 2013 showed that college students who used Fast ForWord increased their reading and writing skills significantly more than students in a comparison group as measured by the Gates MacGinitie Reading Test and the OWLS.

The Brain That Changes Itself

Our current understanding of how the brain changes itself in response to experience opens the door to mind-bending possibilities. With the development of newer, smaller, and faster technologies, there’s no telling how Merzenich’s revolutionary discovery of brain plasticity past the critical period will impact the future of education.

What is certain is that true brain-based learning has arrived, that it’s available today, and that children around the world are overcoming language and reading problems that not long ago were often considered insurmountable.

References:

Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. London: Penguin Books.

Related reading:

What Educators May Not Know about the Neuroscience of Learning

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

 

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Categories: Brain Fitness, Brain Research, Education Trends, Fast ForWord, Reading & Learning, Scientific Learning Research

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Exclusive Webinars with Experts on the Brain and Reading

2013 education webinars

I’m so excited to announce our webinars for this fall!  We are honored to have Dr. Norman Doidge, the well-known author of The Brain That Changes Itself, join us October 2nd for a webinar. This is a rare opportunity that educators, clinicians and parents alike won’t want to miss. Dr. Tim Rasinski, one of our favorite presenters, is returning to speak about the role of fluency in comprehension, and Dr. Marty Burns will be speaking on meeting the needs of the rapidly changing diverse student populations.  

8/19 - Using Brain Science to Close the Achievement Gap

Dr. Martha S. Burns will discuss what the latest brain science says about the true learning potential of ELLs, struggling readers, and students with ADHD. Find out how today’s powerful intervention technologies can help build foundational reading and cognitive skills for a variety of student populations—and help students improve their ability to learn.

9/11 - Reading Fluency: The Neglected (but Necessary) Goal of Your Reading Program

Dr. Timothy Rasinski is a vocal proponent of teaching reading fluency as a means of helping students build better comprehension. In our September webinar, Dr. Rasinski will talk about fluency as a predictor of reading comprehension, present the research on fluency, and substantiate fluency as an essential component of any successful reading program (National Reading Panel). All this and you’ll gain a better understanding of how to teach fluency so your students can start getting more from their reading.

10/2 - The Neuroplasticity Revolution: New Ways to Improve Learning

For 400 years, the brain was thought to be a more-or-less fixed piece of machinery after infancy. Dr. Norman Doidge, author of The Brain That Changes Itself, will talk about the recent discovery that the brain retains the ability to change its own structure and function in response to experience through the latest years of our lives. Learn how this discovery was made, how it turns our understanding of learning on its head, and how it radically alters the was we think about student potential—especially for students with learning challenges or disorders. And, discover the online interventions that have grown out of the science and learn how they work to help students overcome reading and language difficulties.

Related reading:

Why Dr. Timothy Rasinski Thinks Reading Fluency Should Be “Hot!”

Brain Plasticity: A New Frontier For Education and Learning

 

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Categories: Brain Fitness, Brain Research, Education Trends, English Language Learners, Fast ForWord, Reading & Learning, Reading Assistant, Special Education

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

language-based learning disabilities

For decades, most child language scientists have believed that human beings possess an innate capacity to learn the language spoken to them during the first few years of life. Indeed, the vast majority of children worldwide are never “taught” their mother tongue; rather, they acquire it naturally, just by living in a world where people are speaking the language. 

Parsing Speech Sounds

Child language specialists have a word for the ability to tease out the sounds within words—they call it “parsing”. When children are first learning their native language they must also “parse” words into sounds so that they can figure out all the sounds in a word as well as the sequence of those sounds. All children have to learn to do this.

Children’s speech errors, like saying “top” for stop or “aminal” for animal, often reflect trouble children have with parsing. Language learning also requires parsing to learn grammatical forms like plural or verb tenses. The difference between the words rock, rocked and rocks necessitates the ability to distinguish all the sounds in each word. But for children with language-learning disabilities, it turns out that this problem parsing words into sounds is particularly difficult, and it affects not only language learning, but also reading and other school achievement.

Audiologists (hearing specialists) and brain researchers have long been interested in how the brain is able to parse words into relevant speech sounds and why some children struggle so much with that task. New research centering on the electrical brain signals picked up by electroencephalogram (EEG) is clarifying the relationship between auditory processing—specifically the ability to parse sounds in words—and language learning.

Brain wave oscillation bands—sometimes thought of as differing brain wave patterns—appear to be a major mechanism coordinating billions of nerves across different brain regions to perform even basic cognitive tasks such as paying attention to someone who is talking and understanding what they are saying. These bands are grouped by their frequency; so-called alpha bands, beta bands, gamma bands and theta bands all refer to brain oscillations of different frequencies. 

Brain scientists have discovered ways to use features of these oscillations bands to “see” how different parts of the brain work together. Katia Lehongre and colleagues have found that in humans, gamma bands are especially important for parsing words into sounds. Significantly, in children with language-based learning disabilities (including dyslexia) and children with aspects of language learning disabilities—poor auditory working memory and rapid naming—language and reading problems appear to be related to specific differences in brain oscillation patterns in the areas of the brain important for learning language. 

New Research Questions

Scientists postulate that some children’s brains may be inefficient for learning language, but very efficient for certain other aspects of learning—perhaps visual processing or even aspects of sound processing important for musical learning. What might cause differences in brain oscillation patterns is largely unknown and open to speculation, but for parents and teachers who work with struggling learners, the question to ask is:

Does remediation of the brain wave patterns improve language skills in children with language problems?

A study published in January 2013, addressed that question and found that the answer is “yes”.

Sabime Heim and colleagues at the Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, Rutgers University, examined whether oscillations in the gamma band range of the auditory cortex of children with specific language impairments (SLI) change after a specific kind of audio-visual training (Fast ForWord Language), and if that change resulted in improved gamma band efficiency as well as language skills among those children. Study details:

  • Twenty-one elementary school students diagnosed with language learning impairment (LLI) underwent the intervention for an average of 32 days.
  • Pre- and post-training assessments included standardized language/literacy tests and EEG recordings.
  • A control group of twelve children with no language difficulties received the same testing, but no intervention was given.

Questions

The ability to efficiently perceive and sequence two non-speech sounds presented as quickly as speech sounds are in words is often referred to as Rapid Auditory Processing (RAP).

Heim et al wanted to know:

  1. In children with language learning problems who have problems parsing words into sounds, could their difficulty with RAP be seen in the efficiency measure of the gamma band oscillations?
  2. Does intervention with the Fast ForWord Language program, designed in part to improve RAP, improve gamma band efficiency measures and if so…
  3. Does an improvement in gamma band efficiency correlate with improvements in language?

Answers

EEG measures made by the authors before Fast ForWord Language showed what they expected— reduced efficiency components of the oscillations in the gamma-band range (29–52 Hz) among the children with LLI. The reductions occurred where the scientists expected, on the second of two rapidly presented tones. Some answers to the questions above:

  1. In short, the answer is yes. The children with language-based learning disabilities did in fact have a reduction in brain activity associated with sounds that occur as rapidly as speech sounds do during normal talking.
  2. In answer to the second question—do the brain efficiency measures and language skills improve after training?—the authors found that yes, there was an improvement in gamma band efficiency. Amplitude, one of the two efficiency measures, was no longer reduced on the second tone after Fast ForWord training.
  3. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, improvements in gamma band efficiency did – in the majority of cases- correlate with language improvements on standardized tests. The children with language-based learning disabilities who had used Fast ForWord Language showed improvements in core language skills, expressive language skills, and receptive language skills (as measured by the CELF-4).

The authors concluded that measures of brain wave efficiency are not only correlated with auditory processing problems in children with language-based learning disabilities, but that the Fast ForWord Language program improves at least one measure of the brain wave efficiency and that is in turn correlated with improvements both in RAP accuracy and also language skills.

References:

Heim, S., Keil, A., Choudhury, N., Thomas Friedman, J. & Benasich, A. (2013). Early gamma oscillations during rapid auditory processing in children with a language-learning impairment: Changes in neural mass activity after training. Neuropsychologia, 51, 990-1001.

Lehongre, K., Ramus, F., Villiermet, N., Schwartz, D., & Giraud, A. (2011) Altered Low-Gamma Sampling in Auditory Cortex Accounts for the Three Main Facets of Dyslexia. Neuron, 72, 1080–1090.

Siegel, M., Donner, T., & Engel, A. (2012) Spectral fingerprints of large-scale neuronal interactions. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 13, 121-131.

Related reading:

Fast ForWord® Language Series Has Greatest Impact of Any Intervention Listed by NCRTI

Language Skills Increase 1.8 Years After 30 Days Using Fast ForWord

 

 

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Categories: Brain Fitness, Brain Research, Fast ForWord, Reading & Learning, Special Education

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