Thursday, September 13th, 2012
Music lessons have long been a favorite among parents who want their children to have exposure to the arts, and numerous studies have shown benefits ranging from auditory skills to better performance in mathematics. But a new study adds a new benefit of early music lessons: advanced brain wave development that persists well beyond the end of the lessons themselves. The New York Times has more:
Researchers at Northwestern University recorded the auditory brainstem responses of college students — that is to say, their electrical brain waves — in response to complex sounds. The group of students who reported musical training in childhood had more robust responses — their brains were better able to pick out essential elements, like pitch, in the complex sounds when they were tested. And this was true even if the lessons had ended years ago.
Indeed, scientists are puzzling out the connections between musical training in childhood and language-based learning — for instance, reading. Learning to play an instrument may confer some unexpected benefits, recent studies suggest.
We aren’t talking here about the “Mozart effect,” the claim that listening to classical music can improve people’s performance on tests. Instead, these are studies of the effects of active engagement and discipline. This kind of musical training improves the brain’s ability to discern the components of sound — the pitch, the timing and the timbre.
“To learn to read, you need to have good working memory, the ability to disambiguate speech sounds, make sound-to-meaning connections,” said Professor Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University. “Each one of these things really seems to be strengthened with active engagement in playing a musical instrument.”
Image: Child playing a recorder, via Shutterstock
Friday, August 10th, 2012
Babies who are born vaginally have been found in a new Yale University study to have higher levels of important proteins that help their brains begin to grow and develop. The Huffington Post reports on how vaginal (also called “normal”) birth may be important to brain development, at least according to this preliminary study:
“We were looking at the protein, and we realized that if you take a ‘normal birth’ mouse and compare it to a ‘c-section mouse,’ there are very different levels in the hippocampus,” Tamas Horvath, a professor of biomedical research and chair at the department of comparative medicine at the Yale School of Medicine, told The Huffington Post. The findings were published in the online research journal PLoS One, Wednesday.
The “uncoupling 2 protein,” or UCP2, is important to the development of the circuitry in the hippocampus, which helps with the formation and storage of memory. Development, he said, was “very important for behavior in the long run.”
But because the research was done in mice, it is highly preliminary. The research also looked at vaginal birth broadly, not at whether anesthesia use could influence protein production.
Researchers do not yet know why different delivery modes influence the protein, although Horvath guessed that the pressure and stress of traveling the birth canal may trigger it.
Image: Mother in labor at hospital, via Shutterstock
Tuesday, May 1st, 2012
An article in The New York Times profiles an innovative research technique in practice in Harvard University’s psychology department, which is giving scientists new ways of understanding how–and when–infants learn and develop social and cognitive skills.
Elizabeth S. Spelke is a professor of psychology founded the Harvard University Laboratory for Developmental Studies to measure what infants’ gazes tell us about how their brains are working and growing. What Spelke and her colleagues learn has implications for both child development and adult psychology.
From the Times:
Dr. Spelke studies babies not because they’re cute but because they’re root. “I’ve always been fascinated by questions about human cognition and the organization of the human mind,” she said, “and why we’re good at some tasks and bad at others.”
But the adult mind is far too complicated, Dr. Spelke said, “too stuffed full of facts” to make sense of it. In her view, the best way to determine what, if anything, humans are born knowing, is to go straight to the source, and consult the recently born.
Dr. Spelke is a pioneer in the use of the infant gaze as a key to the infant mind — that is, identifying the inherent expectations of babies as young as a week or two by measuring how long they stare at a scene in which those presumptions are upended or unmet. “More than any scientist I know, Liz combines theoretical acumen with experimental genius,” Dr. [Susan] Carey, [a co-founder of the lab] said. Nancy Kanwisher, a neuroscientist at M.I.T., put it this way: “Liz developed the infant gaze idea into a powerful experimental paradigm that radically changed our view of infant cognition.”
The article goes on to describe some of the things Spelke has discovered about infant brains, including that they babies expect physical objects to remain consistent, can understand the basics of “more” and “less,” and have no ability to orient themselves based on landmarks or physical cues.
Image: Baby with flash card, via Shutterstock.
Monday, April 16th, 2012
The Blue School, a private school in Manhattan, is leading the way toward shaping educational curricula around what scientists have discovered about a growing child’s brain development. Lessons at the school, which started out as a neighborhood play group, focus on building emotional literacy as well as the typical academic skills that are introduced in elementary school. The New York Times reports:
Having rapidly grown to more than 200 students in preschool through third grade, the school has become a kind of national laboratory for integrating cognitive neuroscience and cutting-edge educational theory into curriculum, professional development and school design.
“Schools were not applying this new neurological science out there to how we teach children,” said Lindsey Russo, whose unusual title, director of curriculum documentation and research, hints at how seriously the Blue School takes this mission. “Our aim is to take those research tools and adapt them to what we do in the school.”
So young children at the Blue School learn about what has been called “the amygdala hijack” — what happens to their brains when they flip out. Teachers try to get children into a “toward state,” in which they are open to new ideas. Periods of reflection are built into the day for students and teachers alike, because reflection helps executive function — the ability to process information in an orderly way, focus on tasks and exhibit self-control. Last year, the curriculum guide was amended to include the term “meta-cognition”: the ability to think about thinking.
“Having language for these mental experiences gives children more chances to regulate their emotions,” said David Rock, who is a member of the Blue School’s board and a founder of NeuroLeadership Institute, a global research group dedicated to understanding the brain science of leadership.
Image: Happy children, via Shutterstock
Friday, March 16th, 2012
An innovative research study is under way at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston to test whether the sounds of a mother’s heartbeat and voice can help premature infants better grow and thrive while they remain in hospital care. The study, which was recently published in the Journal of Maternal-Fetal and Neonatal Medicine, involved a professional recording studio at the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) to allow neuroscientist Amir Lahav–who himself became the parent of premature twins five years ago–to measure whether the soothing sounds of their mothers can help premature babies develop.
Time magazine has a full report:
“The majority of babies born before 32 weeks’ gestation, even without a diagnosed brain injury, are likely to have learning, cognitive, social or sensory problems down the road,” says Lahav, who is now a pediatric researcher specializing in neonatal medicine and director of the Neonatal Research Lab at Brigham and Women’s. “That tells us that something we do is still not perfect.”
Could the lack of exposure to maternal sounds at a critical time period account at least in part for subsequent problems with language, attention deficit, learning disabilities, even autism? Lahav doesn’t think it’s far-fetched. “If a baby is in an isolated environment with only the sounds of machines and noise, it could possibly translate into problems with social behavior,” he says.
In the small study, Lahav and colleagues played recordings of moms who spoke, read or sang, to a group of 14 babies born between 26 to 32 weeks, for 45 minutes, four times a day. They found a significant reduction in problems such as apnea, in which breathing stops occasionally for more than 20 seconds, and bradycardia, in which the heart beat slows down significantly, when babies listened to their personalized MSS, or maternal sound stimulation. Think of it like iTunes for babies.
All babies had fewer adverse episodes when exposed to maternal sounds, but the measurement was only statistically significant in babies 33 weeks or older, according to the study. That might be because by 32 weeks, the auditory brain system is more developed, and the babies are able to process the sounds better. In general, Lahav hypothesizes, babies who hear their mothers may have reduced cortisol levels, which correlate with less stress.
Image: Recording studio, via Shutterstock.