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Child Neuropsychology

A blog by Dr Jonathan Reed

  • There is some interesting new research showing how video games can improve visual skills. The research by Renjie Li and others from the University of Rochester and published in Nature Neuroscience showed how playing an action based vidoe game improved Contrast Sensitivity Function (CFS). This was a good study with controls and pre and post assessment showing clearly that it was the video game training that made the difference. The key factor was that only action games worked e.g. Call of Duty. Non action games such as the Sims didn’t result in improvements. Contrast Sensitivity is the visual ability to see objects that may not be outlined clearly or that do not stand out from their background. It is a visual perceptual function that is important for night vision, facial perception, reading and a host of other activities. Whilst physical properties in the eye are involved it is also a neurological function. The study was on adults but I don’t see why the same effects wouldn’t be seen in children. The study showed that training using the video games can improved contrast sensitivity and therefore neural function. This provides further evidence that video games may be a very important way to improve neurological function. However as I have reported in other posts it is a question of targeting the right areas with the right games. It is important to have a good research base. Not all games work and not all functions can be trained. For those of you interested the Center for Visual Science at University of Rochester has a number of papers looking at the use of video game training in visual, motor and attentional tasks.

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  • There is more evidence of the effectiveness of computer based working memory training with the early publication of a new study in Developmental Science. In this paper Joni Holmes, Susan Gathercole and Darren Dunning took children with low working memory and provided training in the form of computer game designed to improve working memory- see Cogmed. They assessed IQ, working memory and academic attainment before and after training. The training which was only for about 6 weeks resulted in substantial gains in working memory. It also resulted in significant improvements in maths 6 months after the training. There weren’t any gains in IQ or in verbal abilities suggesting that the gains were quite specific. This study adds to the evidence that computer game based training can improve neuropsychological functioning. The target for the training however, need to be specific and based on areas that the research shows can improve. It also shows that training working memory can have an impact on educational development, in this case maths. As the authors point out there will typically be 4-5 children in a class of 30 with poor working memory. The study therefore has big implications for future education practice.

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  • You can now try Neurogames for free with the demos online for the basic maths game Nutty Numbers and the reading game Letter Lilies. The games are specially formulated to help children who find learning difficult including children with dyslexia, dyscalculia, ADHD and Learning difficulties. However, they are based on normal child development and so can be used by anyone learning to read or learning maths. I use them clinically in my practice and I have had great feedback from children of different abilities who have played the games. I believe that using games to help children learn holds great promise for the future. So try the games for free here and let me know what you think.

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  • I have recently been reading a life changing book by Peter Singer The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty

    Based on this I present 5 reasons why it is important to help children in poverty:

    1. Because 27,000 children under 5 die everyday (10 million a year) from poverty related causes i.e. a football stadium full every day. If this was on the news it would shock us.

    2. Because it will make you happier to help. Helping others provides meaning and fulfillment which in turn are key ingredients for making us happy.

    3. Because ethically it is the right thing to do. If we saw a child suffering most people would intervene especially if the cost of doing so was not that great to us.

    4. Because if enough people donated a small proportion of their income each week (Singer suggests 5%) extreme child poverty could be eliminated. 10 years ago 20 million children died a year, now that has reduced to 10 million. Things are improving. It is within our power to stop this.

    5. From a neuropsychological perspective child poverty affects brain development- see this latest study to show this . Experiencing child poverty affects that persons whole life. As I have said in previous posts intervening to help children will change society in the long run.

    If you are a skeptic (like me) you will want to know that any help you give will be effective and goes to the people who need it. Check out www.givewell.net and www.intelligentgiving.com for programmes that make a difference.

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  • Scientific and technological knowledge is developing very fast. This post is about some of the ways in which we could use this knowledge to help children develop in ways that will help them and change society in the long term. These are just a few examples of what we know and what we could do.

    1. Eliminate dyslexia- not being able to read as well as being difficult for the individual involved also is associated with significant social problems for example approximately 50 % of adult in prison in the UK have difficulty reading and 80% have difficulty with writing. We know how to treat dyslexia (see this post) Eliminating dyslexia has been attempted in one school district in Scotland with great success. Why can’t we do this everywhere?

    2. Teach children how to be happy- There is a large literature on the science of happiness. For example see Paul Martin’s book Making Happy People: The Nature of Happiness and Its Origins in Childhood. We could use this science to teach children how to live happy lives. Helping children develop in this way early on could set up life long patterns. Imagine the effect on society.

    3. Introduce safe internet based social networking for all children. The potential power of computer based social networks is immense. With twitter, facebook and email we can now talk, communicate and work with people from all walks of life and from all over the world. These have the power to expand social networks and work against isolation and xenophobia. School children could from an early age learn to communicate and work with other children all over the world. There are risks for children in terms of social networking which are often highlighted in the media i.e. abuse online- but the key is to develop safe social networks, for example see Moshi Monsters. Developing safe social networks for children at school could have massive benefits for how they see the world from a social perspective.

    4. Improve children’s working memory (short term memory) – see post. Working memory involves holding information in mind and manipulating it. It is involved in listening to instructions, formulating thoughts, planning etc. It is linked with academic and intellectual development. It is a key skill to have as an adult. Difficulties with working memory are also associated with children with neurodevelopmental problems such as ADHD. We have the tools to help improve working memory in children. This is brain training at it’s best. Could this be part of regular school exercises in the same way as PE is?

    5. Develop Computer based learning- so many children become disillusioned with learning and give up. Computer based learning has the power to engage children and deliver learning in new specialized ways. Games designers have worked out with great success how to motivate children. Neuroscientists know how children learn. If we combine knowledge in these two areas we could revolutionize learning. I have started on this process in with Neurogames. Also see the Consularium blog for examples of how this has been tried in innovative ways in schools in Scotland.

    These are just some ideas, but imagine if we could produce a generation of children who were happy, with optimal brain development, with a broad social network, whose brains are primed to learn and think. What would this do for the next generation and for society in the future. We have the knowledge to do this. Could we make it happen? Let me know what you think?

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