Researchers Discover Why Learning Can Be Difficult

Researchers Discover Why Learning Can Be Difficult

Findings, published in Nature, could lead to improved treatments for stroke, other brain injuries.

Learning a new skill is easier when it is related to an ability we already have.

For example, a trained pianist can learn a new melody easier than learning how to hit a tennis serve.

Neural engineers from the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (CNBC)—a joint program between the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University—have discovered a fundamental constraint in the brain that may explain why this happens. Published as the cover story in the Aug. 28, 2014, issue of Nature, they found for the first time that there are constraints on how adaptable the brain is during learning and that these constraints are the key determinant for whether a new skill will be easy or difficult to learn. Understanding the ways in which the brain’s activity can be “flexed” during learning could eventually be used to develop better treatments for stroke and other brain injuries.

Lead author Patrick T. Sadtler, a PhD candidate in Pitt’s Department of Bioengineering, compared the study’s findings to cooking.

this image shows the brain with a red box inside it.

“Suppose you have flour, sugar, baking soda, eggs, salt, and milk. You can combine them to make different items—bread, pancakes, and cookies—but it would be difficult to make hamburger patties with the existing ingredients,” Sadtler said. “We found that the brain works in a similar way during learning.

We found that subjects were able to more readily recombine familiar activity patterns in new ways relative to creating entirely novel patterns.”

For the study, the research team trained animals to use a brain-computer interface (BCI), similar to ones that have shown recent promise in clinical trials for assisting tetraplegics and amputees.

“This evolving technology is a powerful tool for brain research,” said Daofen Chen, program director at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which supported this research. “It helps scientists study the dynamics of brain circuits that may explain the neural basis of learning.”

The researchers recorded neural activity in the motor cortex and directed the recordings into a computer, which translated the activity into movement of a cursor on the computer screen. This technique allowed the team to specify the activity patterns that would move the cursor. The subjects’ goal was to move the cursor to targets on the screen, which required them to generate the patterns of neural activity that the experimenters had requested. If the subjects could move the cursor well, that meant that they had learned to generate the neural activity pattern that the researchers had specified.

The researchers found that their subjects learned to generate some neural activity patterns more easily than others, since they only sometimes achieved accurate cursor movements. The harder-to-learn patterns were different from any of the pre-existing patterns, whereas the easier-to-learn patterns were combinations of pre-existing brain patterns. Because the existing brain patterns likely reflect how the neurons are interconnected, the results suggest that the connectivity among neurons shapes learning.


Flexing the Brain: Carnegie Mellon, Pitt Scientists Discover Why Learning Tasks Can Be Difficult
“We wanted to study how the brain changes its activity when you learn and also how its activity cannot change. Cognitive flexibility has a limit—and we wanted to find out what that limit looks like in terms of neurons,” said Aaron P. Batista, assistant professor of bioengineering at Pitt and co-principal investigator on the study with Byron M. Yu, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon. Yu believes this work demonstrates the utility of BCI for basic scientific studies that will eventually impact people’s lives.

“These findings could be the basis for novel rehabilitation procedures for the many neural disorders that are characterized by improper neural activity,” Yu said. “Restoring function might require a person to generate a new pattern of neural activity. We could use techniques similar to what were used in this study to coach patients to generate proper neural activity.”

NOTES ABOUT THIS NEUROSCIENCE AND LEARNING RESEARCH

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.

In addition to Sadtler, Batista, and Yu, the research team included Pitt’s Kristin Quick and Elizabeth Tyler-Kabara, CMU’s Matthew Golub and Steven Chase, and Stephen Ryu of Stanford University and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.

Contact: Dr Sonia Corrêa – University of Pittsburgh
Source: University of Pittsburgh press release

Eye Contact With Your Baby Helps Synchronize Brainwaves

Eye Contact With Your Baby Helps Synchronize Brainwaves

Summary: University of Cambridge researchers report making eye contact with a baby causes brainwave synchronization in both the child and person they are looking at. Researchers believe this synchronization can help boost communication and learning skills.

Source: University of Cambridge.

Making eye contact with an infant makes adults’ and babies’ brainwaves ‘get in sync’ with each other – which is likely to support communication and learning – according to researchers at the University of Cambridge.

When a parent and infant interact, various aspects of their behaviour can synchronise, including their gaze, emotions and heartrate, but little is known about whether their brain activity also synchronises – and what the consequences of this might be.

Brainwaves reflect the group-level activity of millions of neurons and are involved in information transfer between brain regions. Previous studies have shown that when two adults are talking to each other, communication is more successful if their brainwaves are in synchrony.

Researchers at the Baby-LINC Lab at the University of Cambridge carried out a study to explore whether infants can synchronise their brainwaves to adults too – and whether eye contact might influence this. Their results are published today in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The team examined the brainwave patterns of 36 infants (17 in the first experiment and 19 in the second) using electroencephalography (EEG), which measures patterns of brain electrical activity via electrodes in a skull cap worn by the participants. They compared the infants’ brain activity to that of the adult who was singing nursery rhymes to the infant.

In the first of two experiments, the infant watched a video of an adult as she sang nursery rhymes. First, the adult – whose brainwave patterns had already been recorded – was looking directly at the infant. Then, she turned her head to avert her gaze, while still singing nursery rhymes. Finally, she turned her head away, but her eyes looked directly back at the infant.

As anticipated, the researchers found that infants’ brainwaves were more synchronised to the adults’ when the adult’s gaze met the infant’s, as compared to when her gaze was averted Interestingly, the greatest synchronising effect occurred when the adults’ head was turned away but her eyes still looked directly at the infant. The researchers say this may be because such a gaze appears highly deliberate, and so provides a stronger signal to the infant that the adult intends to communicate with her.

In the second experiment, a real adult replaced the video. She only looked either directly at the infant or averted her gaze while singing nursery rhymes. This time, however, her brainwaves could be monitored live to see whether her brainwave patterns were being influenced by the infant’s as well as the other way round.

This time, both infants and adults became more synchronised to each other’s brain activity when mutual eye contact was established. This occurred even though the adult could see the infant at all times, and infants were equally interested in looking at the adult even when she looked away. The researchers say that this shows that brainwave synchronisation isn’t just due to seeing a face or finding something interesting, but about sharing an intention to communicate.

To measure infants’ intention to communicate, the researcher measured how many ‘vocalisations’ infants made to the experimenter. As predicted, infants made a greater effort to communicate, making more ‘vocalisations’, when the adult made direct eye contact – and individual infants who made longer vocalisations also had higher brainwave synchrony with the adult.

a baby and parent in eeg caps

Dr Victoria Leong, lead author on the study said: “When the adult and infant are looking at each other, they are signalling their availability and intention to communicate with each other. We found that both adult and infant brains respond to a gaze signal by becoming more in sync with their partner. This mechanism could prepare parents and babies to communicate, by synchronising when to speak and when to listen, which would also make learning more effective.”

Dr Sam Wass, last author on the study, said: “We don’t know what it is, yet, that causes this synchronous brain activity. We’re certainly not claiming to have discovered telepathy! In this study, we were looking at whether infants can synchronise their brains to someone else, just as adults can. And we were also trying to figure out what gives rise to the synchrony.

“Our findings suggested eye gaze and vocalisations may both, somehow, play a role. But the brain synchrony we were observing was at such high time-scales – of three to nine oscillations per second – that we still need to figure out how exactly eye gaze and vocalisations create it.”

ABOUT THIS NEUROSCIENCE RESEARCH ARTICLE

Funding: This research was supported by an ESRC Transformative Research Grant to Dr Leong and Dr Wass.

Source: Craig Brierley – University of Cambridge
Publisher: Organized by NeuroscienceNews.com.
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to the researchers.
Original Research: Full open access research for “Speaker gaze increases information coupling between infant and adult brains” by Victoria Leong, Elizabeth Byrne, Kaili Clackson, Stanimira Georgieva, Sarah Lam, and Sam Wass in PNAS. Published online November 28 2017 doi:10.1073/pnas.1702493114

CITE THIS NEUROSCIENCENEWS.COM ARTICLE
University of Cambridge “Eye Contact With Your Baby Helps Synchronize Brainwaves.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 29 November 2017.
<http://neurosciencenews.com/babies-brainwaves-eyecontact-8050/&gt;.

Abstract

Speaker gaze increases information coupling between infant and adult brains

When infants and adults communicate, they exchange social signals of availability and communicative intention such as eye gaze. Previous research indicates that when communication is successful, close temporal dependencies arise between adult speakers’ and listeners’ neural activity. However, it is not known whether similar neural contingencies exist within adult–infant dyads. Here, we used dual-electroencephalography to assess whether direct gaze increases neural coupling between adults and infants during screen-based and live interactions. In experiment 1 (n = 17), infants viewed videos of an adult who was singing nursery rhymes with (i) direct gaze (looking forward), (ii) indirect gaze (head and eyes averted by 20°), or (iii) direct-oblique gaze (head averted but eyes orientated forward). In experiment 2 (n = 19), infants viewed the same adult in a live context, singing with direct or indirect gaze. Gaze-related changes in adult–infant neural network connectivity were measured using partial directed coherence. Across both experiments, the adult had a significant (Granger) causal influence on infants’ neural activity, which was stronger during direct and direct-oblique gaze relative to indirect gaze. During live interactions, infants also influenced the adult more during direct than indirect gaze. Further, infants vocalized more frequently during live direct gaze, and individual infants who vocalized longer also elicited stronger synchronization from the adult. These results demonstrate that direct gaze strengthens bidirectional adult–infant neural connectivity during communication. Thus, ostensive social signals could act to bring brains into mutual temporal alignment, creating a joint-networked state that is structured to facilitate information transfer during early communication and learning.

“Speaker gaze increases information coupling between infant and adult brains” by Victoria Leong, Elizabeth Byrne, Kaili Clackson, Stanimira Georgieva, Sarah Lam, and Sam Wass in PNAS. Published online November 28 2017 doi:10.1073/pnas.1702493114

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How Toddlers Begin Learning Rules of Reading and Writing

Toddlers Begin Learning Rules of Reading and Writing at Very Early Age

Summary: A new study reveals that by the age of three, children are already starting to follow complex rules and patterns that govern how letters fit together to make words.

Source: WUSTL.

Exposure to language improves ‘invented spellings’ of children ages 3-to-5 years.

Even the proudest of parents may struggle to find some semblance of meaning behind the seemingly random mish-mash of letters that often emerge from a toddler’s first scribbled and scrawled attempts at putting words on paper.

But new research from Washington University in St. Louis suggests that children as young as 3 already are beginning to recognize and follow important rules and patterns governing how letters in the English language fit together to make words.

The study, published this month in the journal Child Development, provides new evidence that children start to learn about some aspects of reading and writing at a very early age.

“Our results show that children begin to learn about the statistics of written language, for example about which letters often appear together and which letters appear together less often, before they learn how letters represent the sounds of a language,” said study co-author Rebecca Treiman, a professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences.

An important part of learning to read and spell is learning about how the letters in written words reflect the sounds in spoken words. Children often begin to show this knowledge around 5 or 6 years of age when they produce spellings such as BO or BLO for “blow.”

We tend to think that learning to spell doesn’t really begin until children start inventing spellings that reflect the sounds in spoken words — spellings like C or KI for “climb”. These early invented spellings may not represent all of the sounds in a word, but children are clearly listening to the word and trying to use letters to symbolize some of the words within it, Treiman said.

As children get older, these sound-based spellings improve. For example, children may move from something like KI for “climb” to something like KLIM.

“Many studies have examined how children’s invented spellings improve as they get older, but no previous studies have asked whether children’s spellings improve even before they are able to produce spellings that represent the sounds in words,” Treiman said. “Our study found improvements over this period, with spellings becoming more wordlike in appearance over the preschool years in a group of children who did not yet use letters to stand for sounds.”

Treiman’s study analyzed the spellings of 179 children from the United States (age 3 years, 2 months to 5 years, 6 months) who were prephonological spellers. That is, when asked to try to write words, the children used letters that did not reflect the sounds in the words they were asked to spell, which is common and normal at this age.

On a variety of measures, the older prephonological spellers showed more knowledge about English letter patterns than did the younger prephonological spellers. When the researchers asked adults to rate the children’s productions for how much they looked like English words, they found that the adults gave higher ratings, on average, to the productions of older prephonological spellers than to the productions of younger prephonological spellers.

The productions of older prephonological spellers also were more word-like on several objective measures, including length, use of different letters within words, and combinations of letters. For example:

Image shows the letters fepiri.

“While neither spelling makes sense as an attempt to represent sounds, the older child’s effort shows that he or she knows more about the appearance of English words,” Treiman said.

The findings are important, Treiman said, because they show that exposure to written words during the 3-to-5-year age range may be important in getting children off to a strong start with their reading, writing and spelling skills.

“Our results show that there is change and improvement with age during this period before children produce spellings that make sense on the basis of sound.” Treiman said. “In many ways, the spellings produced during this period of time are more wordlike when children are older than when they are younger. That is, even though the spellings don’t represent the sounds of words, they start looking more like actual words.”

“This is pretty interesting, because it suggests that children are starting to learn about one aspect of spelling – what words look like – from an earlier point than we’d given them credit for,” she said. “It opens up the possibility that educators could get useful information from children’s early attempts to write– information that could help to show whether a child is on track for future success or whether there might be a problem.”

ABOUT THIS NEUROSCIENCE RESEARCH ARTICLE

Other Washington University co-authors include Brett Kessler, a research scientist in psychological and brain sciences; former Arts & Sciences undergraduates Hayley Clocksin and Zhengdao Chen; and Kelly Boland, a former research assistant in Treiman’s reading lab who is now a psychology graduate student at the University of Missouri.

Funding: This research was supported by grants from NSF (BCS-1421279) and NIH (HD051610).

Source: Chuck Finder – WUSTL
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is adapted from the WUSTL news release.
Original Research: Full open access research for “Statistical Learning and Spelling: Older Prephonological Spellers Produce More Wordlike Spellings Than Younger Prephonological Spellers” by Rebecca Treiman, Brett Kessler, Kelly Boland, Hayley Clocksin, and Zhengdao Chen in Child Development. Published online July 7 2017 doi:10.1111/cdev.12893

CITE THIS NEUROSCIENCENEWS.COM ARTICLE
WUSTL “Toddlers Begin Learning Rules of Reading and Writing at Very Early Age.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 25 July 2017.
<http://neurosciencenews.com/toddler-reading-writing-7174/&gt;.

Abstract

Statistical Learning and Spelling: Older Prephonological Spellers Produce More Wordlike Spellings Than Younger Prephonological Spellers

The authors analyzed the spellings of 179 U.S. children (age = 3 years, 2 months–5 years, 6 months) who were prephonological spellers, in that they wrote using letters that did not reflect the phonemes in the target items. Supporting the idea that children use their statistical learning skills to learn about the outer form of writing before they begin to spell phonologically, older prephonological spellers showed more knowledge about English letter patterns than did younger prephonological spellers. The written productions of older prephonological spellers were rated by adults as more similar to English words than were the productions of younger prephonological spellers. The older children s spellings were also more wordlike on several objective measures, including length, variability of letters within words, and digram frequency.

“Statistical Learning and Spelling: Older Prephonological Spellers Produce More Wordlike Spellings Than Younger Prephonological Spellers” by Rebecca Treiman, Brett Kessler, Kelly Boland, Hayley Clocksin, and Zhengdao Chen in Child Development. Published online July 7 2017 doi:10.1111/cdev.12893

Brain Stimulation May Help Children With Learning Difficulties

Brain Stimulation May Help Children With Learning Difficulties

Summary: An exploratory study reveals a brain stimulation method previously suggested to help adults learn math may also help children with mathematical learning difficulties.

Source: Oxford University.

Applying a brain stimulation method, which was previously suggested to enhance mathematical learning in healthy adults, may improve the performance of children with mathematical learning difficulties, according to an exploratory study by researchers from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

The early stage, small-scale study, which has been published in Nature’s open access journal Scientific Reports, involved twelve children between the ages of eight and eleven with learning difficulties in mathematics.

The study took place at Fairley House, a specialist day school for children with specific learning difficulties in London. After careful safety screening, the children were split into two groups of six. One group wore a cap attached to a light, battery-operated device through which painless low electrical current was applied over the left and right areas on the forehead, above regions of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortices. This region has been highlighted to play a role in mathematical learning.

The method of stimulation, which is known as transcranial random noise stimulation (tRNS), was applied in nine 20-minute sessions over five weeks.

The other group wore an identical cap but did not receive any stimulation. Children did not detect reliably whether they received stimulation or not.

While wearing the caps, the children in both groups played a specially-designed numerical training game developed by the researchers, which integrates numerical learning and visuospatial components, with bodily movements, while the game changed its level adaptively based on the child’s performance.

Immediately before and after the trial, the researchers also measured their performance in a mathematical test called MALT, a standardized diagnostic tool calibrated to the UK’s national curriculum.

They found that stimulation yields a mixed effect in term of performance but improved the learning of children during the numerical training game, compared to those who wore the ‘placebo’ cap.

The results also hinted that the positive effects of tRNS have contributed to improved results on the MALT test.

These findings resemble previous studies on healthy adults that suggested tRNS over the same regions of the brain improved arithmetic learning compared to the control group, and generalised to related materials that were not specifically trained.

Professor Roi Cohen Kadosh of Oxford University’s Department of Experimental Psychology, said: ‘Compared to children without learning difficulties, children with learning difficulties have a brain that works differently. This is usually associated with poor learning, and in turn might impair typical brain development.

‘Learning difficulties are usually treated by behavioural interventions, but these have shown little efficacy, especially in brains with neural atypicalities. Our research suggests that children with learning difficulties might benefit from combining their learning with tRNS, which has been suggested to improve learning and alter brain functions in healthy adults.’

But the authors warn that this study is just the first step from a scientific perspective. To understand the potential of tRNS for improving learning and cognition of children with learning difficulties, we need to run more studies, and see whether these results replicate. We also need to understand the neural mechanisms that support such improvements in learning.

‘Maths is something that many people find challenging, and worries a lot of people so the potential for neuroscience to help those with difficulties to learn better is exciting but there are still a lot of ethical and scientific issues to explore,’ says Professor Cohen Kadosh who also worked with Oxford neuroethicists to deal with such problems.

Image shows a child writing math equations.

‘It is also important to explore its impact on children from different educational and cultural backgrounds, and children with other developmental conditions, such as dyslexia or ADHD. This would allow a better understanding if such approach could be used in schools to help those with learning difficulties in the future.’

This type of study was first to take place in a school environment. Professor Cohen Kadosh said he hopes this trial will encourage other schools to take part in future neuroscientific research, but warned that members of the public should not try to use tRNS on themselves or on children.

‘The trial was carried out by experts with years of training in brain stimulation and expertise in mathematical cognition, who did careful medical and safety screening before deciding if a child could take part in the study,’ he said.

‘We urge people not to buy devices claimed to achieve these or similar results – do not try this at home!’

ABOUT THIS NEUROSCIENCE RESEARCH ARTICLE

Source: Oxford University
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is adapted from the Oxford University news release.
Original Research: Full open access research for “Transcranial random noise stimulation and cognitive training to improve learning and cognition of the atypically developing brain: A pilot study” by Chung Yen Looi, Jenny Lim, Francesco Sella, Simon Lolliot, Mihaela Duta, Alexander Alexandrovich Avramenko & Roi Cohen Kadosh in Scientific Reports. Published online July 5 2017 doi:10.1038/s41598-017-04649-x

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Abstract

Transcranial random noise stimulation and cognitive training to improve learning and cognition of the atypically developing brain: A pilot study

Learning disabilities that affect about 10% of human population are linked to atypical neurodevelopment, but predominantly treated by behavioural interventions. Behavioural interventions alone have shown little efficacy, indicating limited success in modulating neuroplasticity, especially in brains with neural atypicalities. Even in healthy adults, weeks of cognitive training alone led to inconsistent generalisable training gains, or “transfer effects” to non-trained materials. Meanwhile, transcranial random noise stimulation (tRNS), a painless and more direct neuromodulation method was shown to further promote cognitive training and transfer effects in healthy adults without harmful effects. It is unknown whether tRNS on the atypically developing brain might promote greater learning and transfer outcomes than training alone. Here, we show that tRNS over the bilateral dorsolateral prefrontal cortices (dlPFCs) improved learning and performance of children with mathematical learning disabilities (MLD) during arithmetic training compared to those who received sham (placebo) tRNS. Training gains correlated positively with improvement on a standardized mathematical diagnostic test, and this effect was strengthened by tRNS. These findings mirror those in healthy adults, and encourage replications using larger cohorts. Overall, this study offers insights into the concept of combining tRNS and cognitive training for improving learning and cognition of children with learning disabilities.

“Transcranial random noise stimulation and cognitive training to improve learning and cognition of the atypically developing brain: A pilot study” by Chung Yen Looi, Jenny Lim, Francesco Sella, Simon Lolliot, Mihaela Duta, Alexander Alexandrovich Avramenko & Roi Cohen Kadosh in Scientific Reports. Published online July 5 2017 doi:10.1038/s41598-017-04649-x