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Child Neuropsychology

A blog by Dr Jonathan Reed

  • I want to discuss an important new book for understanding how the brain works, which I have just read and is called Subcortical Structures and Cognition: Implications for Neuropsychological Assessment by Leonard Koziol and Deborah Budding.  Our current understanding of how the brain works using Neuropsychology has traditionally focused on the cortex part of the brain – frontal, temporal, parietal and occipital lobes and has looked at what happens psychologically when there is damage to these particular areas.  From this we understand perception, memory, language etc pretty well.  However we have tended to ignore subcortical brain areas such as the basal ganglia and cerebellum and have considered these areas as being responsible mainly for motor co-ordination.   This new book by Koziol and Budding challenges this view and presents a view of sub cortical structures being central to the way the brain works.  It is a detailed book with many arguments (a summary can be seen on the website here) and needs to be read carefully, but some of the important points for me were:

    1.  The brain responds to the environment in two key ways.  Firstly most of the time it responds in an automatic way (subconscious way using procedural memory) which requires little thought, is fast and is adaptive.  You don’t need to work out how to respond to most everyday occurrences you just do it.  However, when a new situation arises, maybe a threat, maybe something you need to learn, the front part of the brain takes control and thinks about how to respond (i.e. executive function).  Both systems operate in tandem and are connected by the basal ganglia.  The default setting for the brain, however, is to make unfamiliar familiar.  This is more efficient.  Hence there is a drive to turn new information into automatic memory.

    2. Koziol and Budding argue that the basal ganglia is key in determining this process i.e. linking controlled and automatic responses.   It does this by being part of a feedback loop connecting the cortex to the limbic system (thalamus) and acting as a gate between the two. Basically the cortex is stimulated by sensory input and the sub cortex inhibits responses by deciding what information is returned to the cortex.

    3. The other main sub cortical area the cerebellum works to further fine tune responses using a mix of excitation and inhibition.

    4. The book details how and why such a system would have evolved.  This is often missing in neuropsychology accounts.  The book offers a plausible explanation of what any organism needs to function and how brains have evolved to meet these needs.  The key purpose of an organism is to survive.  In order to survive an organism needs to recognise objects, locate objects and detect movement (all cortex functions) and then to know what to do, how to do it and when to act (all mediated by the subcortex).  Koziol and Budding compare the subcortical structures in vertebrates, primates and humans to illustrate this point.

    5. The  basal ganglia acts as a gate to switch responses on and off, which is the key to regulation.  Knowing when to start a behaviour (initiation) and when to decease from a behaviour (inhibition) is key to how we function (and yet is rarely explored). The cerebellum further fine tunes this process.

    6.  Traditionally the sub cortical structures have been though of as mainly involved in motor responses.  However one of the many interesting ideas in the book is that  the same structures may have a similar  function for emotion, behaviour and cognition.  This would make sense from an evolution and developmental point of view.  Undertaking complicated motor sequences such as kicking a ball i.e. judging when to move and adjust can be similar to knowing how to control anger, social response or thoughts.

    7. Why this is important in my opinion is that it starts to offer explanations for disorders of regulation, which are so common in children, e.g. ADHD, TBI, OCD, emotional disorder, motor co-ordination and speech disorders.  Neuropsychology does not provide very good explanations for these disorders at present and yet they are the most common difficulties encountered especially with children.  The key issues in these disorders is regulating and adjusting responses to the environment.

    8.  Another reason the book is important is that it gets away from the view that we need to focus on a single brain area and it’s function and looks instead about how different brain areas act in circuits in relation to one another.  The circuits work by involving different brain areas in feedback loops using excitation and inhibition to regulate the system.   This makes sense biologically, developmentally and from an evolutionary point of view.

    Therefore I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in neuropsychology and how the brain works.  It challenges existing thinking.  It is a specialist book but is well written and informative.   There are detailed sections on neuropsychological assessment for those interested, although these sections are in my opinion of more limited interest because most tests don’t assess subcortical functions that well.  The important thing the book does for me as well as explaining sub cortical anatomy and function is to start to provide a more coherent framework for understand brain regulation, which I think is fundamental for understanding child neuropsychology.   I think that ultimately this understanding will help us better assess and help children with brain dysfunction and particularly regulation difficulties.

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  • Our rehabilitation company Recolo is now offering the Cogmed working memory training program. Working memory is the ability to hold information in mind for a short period of time and to be able to use this information in your thinking. Problems with working memory are associated with a number of childhood conditions including ADHD, brain injury and poor academic achievement.

    We decided to provide the Cogmed working memory training in the UK because the research literature on it is impressive. It is effective in improving working memory in 80% of cases. The improvements have been demonstrated in neuropsychological tests, fMRI changes and rating scales. It can also be demonstrated at the neurotransmitter level- see previous post for details. It has been shown to be effective in improving working memory difficulties in children with ADHD and in adults with strokes. Klingberg is the main researcher in this area and his lab website contains copies of all the most important research papers. In particular the 2002 and 2005 papers are important Working memory training has also recently been shown to improved academic functioning in children with low working memory (Holmes et al 2009).

    The program we offer includes computer training using a game format. The game adjusts itself depending on the level of ability of the person training i.e. if the child finds a task difficult it will lower the demand- if child is doing well demands increases. We monitor performance centrally so we can see how the training is progressing. We also provide weekly coaching to ensure motivation The program lasts for 5 weeks (25 sessions). All these features and the research make this training in my opinion unique and different from other brain training programs.

    We can provide working memory training for children from the age of 4 to young adults up to age 25. If you are in the UK and would like to find out more please contact us on 020 7617 7180 or email care@recolo.co.uk or visit our website.

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  • There is a lot of debate particularly in the media about the pros and cons about computer use with children. I believe that there are some fantastic potential benefits in developing computer games to teach children. Here are 5 of them:

    1. Dissemination of information- Our knowledge about child neuropsychological development is increasing all the time. But there is a problem communicating this to teachers and parents and applying this knowledge. Computer game based learning allows this knowledge to be disseminated to a large number of children. An example is dyslexia (by this I mean difficulties in learning to read). As neuropsychologists we know how reading develops, what part of the brain is involved, how to intervene to improve reading and how this changes the brain areas involved. And yet there are thousands of children who leave school every year unable to read. Developing computer games to address dyslexia using up to date knowledge is possible. Simple computer based learning can spread best practice to everyone (national and international).
    2. Motivation-One of the problems in teaching is in motivating children who find learning difficult or unrewarding. Computer games designers are the experts in motivation especially for kids. I rarely see kids even with severe ADHD who can’t sustain motivation for computer games. Computer game based learning allows educators to combine these motivating factors with learning.
    3. Effectiveness-It is possible to test the effectiveness of computer games based learning programmes in easier ways than it is to assess human taught programmes. Computer games are a standardised procedure that can be easily tested. In this way we combine scientific method with education to determine which programmes are most effective. This in turn will drive development resulting in more effective games over time. This fits with government priorities in producing evidence based learning interventions.
    4. Addressing reasons for learning difficulties. As well as targeting a direct area such as reading it is possible to address indirect reasons for learning difficulties using computer games. A prime candidate is working memory. Whilst it is possible to target and improve working memory directly (see post), it is also possible to use computer games to minimize the demand on working memory with learning programmes by using techniques such as error free learning. It is possible to reduce the need for verbal instructions for children who find listening difficult. It is also possible to reduce attention demands by using visually stimulating action based games.
    5. Computer are patient. As a teacher or parent it can be very frustrating teaching the same thing to a child who just ‘doesn’t get it’. The child also picks up on this and is often anxious about failure. Computers can be very patient. They will repeat the same procedure in the same tone time and time again. Some clever games can lower or raise the demands on the child automatically depending on how the child is doing. The child can work at their own pace and level.

    Therefore in my opinion for all these reasons it makes a lot of sense to develop computer game based learning on a widespread basis. At the moment I think the field is in it’s infancy. To produce good computer game based learning requires a combination of great games design, cleaver programming to build in some of the important factors discussed above and expertise in teaching/ child neuropsychological development. There are thousands of learning games out there but very few based on knowledge of neuropsychological development, with good game play and research to show their effectiveness. I hope that this will change- it could change a lot of children’s lives.

    For an example of a computer game based learning using neuropsychological knowledge visit my games site- Neurogames.

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  • In the past few weeks there have been a number of stories in the UK media about violent behaviour by young people such as Ben Kinsella being stabbed, the robbery, torture and murder of the two French students. In the Times last week there was a story about record numbers of children being excluded from school at a young age for aggressive behaviour. It is difficult to make sense of these stories and they obviously cause concern. I tend to think about the neuropsychological reasons why such behaviour occurs. Obviously there can be a number of explanations for violent behaviour but I thought I would mention three important developmental factors to consider.

    1. Development of Self Regulation. Through development children learn to self regulate their behaviour and emotions. There seems to be a neurological correlate to this. Primitive emotions and behaviours are driven by the brain stem, the hypothalamus and the limbic system, which is present at birth. Over time the cerebral cortex develops to regulate this primitive system. Initially this involves the ventral prefrontal cortex (VPC) and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). This process seems to happen in early childhood and is associated with reactive control. This is a more sub conscious control involving inhibiting impulsive emotional responses which would include aggressive outbursts. This normally develops through the experience of being parented, whereby the parent provides external regulation which becomes internalized over time by the child. Later (age 4 to 6) the Dorsal-lateral pre frontal cortex develops allowing self control. This results in more effortful conscious control over emotions and behaviour. Children learn to use internalized strategies to regulate themselves. This development process can go wrong for a variety of reasons including brain injury, developmental ADHD and also lack of adequate parenting. The result is individuals who have poor control over emotional impulses including aggressive impulses. These processes can also be temporarily affected by drugs and alcohol. To read more about this developmental process see chapter 13 self regulation and the developing brain by Rebecca Todd and Marc Lewis in our book Child Neuropsychology: Concepts, Theory, and Practice

    2. Development of Empathy- this is the drive to identify another persons emotions and thoughts and to respond to these with appropriate emotion (Davis 1994 Empathy: A Social Psychological Approach (Social Psychology)
    This seems to develop very early in most children’s lives (at about 14 months). It is different to Theory of Mind which seems to be about understanding other peoples thought’s. The classic disorder of empathy is a person described as a psychopath. They understand other peoples thoughts but feel no emotion in relation to this and as a result have nothing to stop them hurting others. Empathy seems to be related to gender in that males are more likely to show less empathy. A few children in my experience seem to lack empathy as a developmental disorder. Sometimes this seems to occur for children with traumatic childhoods with experience of early violence, but in my experience it is rare. It seems to be associated with the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), which in turn is associated with a discrete network of brain processes involving face processing (fusiform gyrus, inferior occipital gyrus), emotion (amygdala, insula, ventral stratum and other structures) and with action perception (mirror system). To read more about this see chapter 14 social neuroscience by Simon Baron-Cohen and Bhismadev Chakrabarti in our book Child Neuropsychology: Concepts, Theory, and Practice

    3. The third important factor is social processes. Classic social psychology from H.Tajfel has shown how social identity influences group behaviour. Individual placed in a group would quickly begin to favour and maximise the benefits to their group at the detriment of other groups even when they didn’t know the other members of their group. Group identity is very powerful and may explain some of the gang behaviour in inner cities i.e. why gang members hate members of other gangs. Also there are the studies on social influence by Stanley Milgram. In this study volunteers delivered what they thought where powerful electric shocks to others when told to do so by someone in authority. This authority effect may explain the way that leaders in a group will influence other lower members . This is particularly pertinent in gangs with children- the younger children being influenced by older members. These social influences may also explain state controlled violence where leaders get subordinates to carry out violence on their behalf. It seems to me that social influences can override individual brain processes. This is an important factor in gang related violence – much of which is a problem in London UK at the moment. Children will do what older gang members want through the influence of authority and also start to hate other groups/gangs through social identity processes. There are likely to be wider social influences in society but I will leave that to the sociologists to explain.

    These factors don’t explain all the reasons for violent behaviour but they are important and may be helpful in thinking how to prevent violent behaviour developing. Certainly help with early parenting skills for parents with young children at risk would help with development of self regulation. Early identification and treatment for disorders of regulation such as ADHD and brain injury is important. Early screening for signs of empathy disorder is an option to be explored (treatment options for this are at a very early stage). Finally realizing the negative social influences of groups or gangs is important. The social influences surrounding the gang will be more powerful than the individual within the gang (and perhaps by a certain age their parents) can control. To try and prevent violence in inner cities it is necessary to disrupt the gang itself and find other ways for children to meet their social needs. In the meantime unless these issues are addressed in childhood we will continue to have news headlines about young people being killed and others being jailed for life- not a good option for either or for us.

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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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  • The world of genetics is moving so fast it is hard to keep up. Luckily one of my favorite writers on the subject Robert Plomin (together with Oliver Davies) has written an update on the genetics of child psychology and psychiatry in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. There is a lot of information in the article regarding the latest genetic findings but the issue that stuck me most was about how our understanding about how genes work is changing. My understanding of genes was the classic model described succinctly by Plomin and Oliver as a gene is a sequence of DNA that is transcibed into messenger RNA which is then translated into amino acid sequences, the building block of protein”. The proteins then build to form brain structure, neurotransmitters etc.

    The hunt has been on to find the genes that affect behavior and illness using this classic DNA process. There have been successes with a number of single gene neurological disorders identified such as Huntington’s Chorea and PKU. For these conditions the gene has been located and the sequence from gene to protein to behavior is well documented. Unfortunately this process has not worked in discovering the genes for most other psychological/ psychiatric disorders or for behavior in general. Although it is clear that there is a substantial genetic component in behaviors such as IQ, reading and language and disorders such as ADHD and Autism, as shown by twin studies, the actual genes responsible have not been found. Recent arguments have focused on the idea that many genes may be involved in combination to influence such behaviors. Plomin’s article however also raises another difficult issue. There may also be a problem with the standard DNA model as an explanation for gene- behavior effects. There are a number of puzzles regarding the standard coding DNA model. Firstly there are far fewer of these traditional genes than expected (about 24,000 in humans). Also they only make up about 2% of DNA, the other 98% were said to be junk, a byproduct of evolution. Another factor is how little these traditional genes vary between individuals and species for example simple worm like creatures called called nematodes have 19000 genes compared to the 24000 in humans. Are we not that much different to nematodes? Chimpanzees share 99.4% of DNA coding genes with humans.

    Plomin and Oliver show that part of the problem may be that we have not focused on the way that RNA works. Out of the 98% thought to be junk DNA about 1/2 does produce RNA but not the type of RNA that codes for amnio acids. Instead the non coding RNA ‘plays an important role in regulating the expression of the protein coding DNA‘. RNA is also much more complicated than once thought and many different types of RNA have now been identified, including microRNA, tRNA, snRNA, rasiRNA, snoRNA, etc. How RNA works is explained in detail in the article but that explanation is too detailed to describe here other than to say that there is much more variation between individuals and species in terms of their RNA profile and that it is the RNA that may hold the key to understanding more complex gene behavior effects. The implication of these findings according to Plomin and Oliver is that we should be analyzing the whole genomes of individuals rather than searching for individual genes. This is becoming cheaper and easier to do but so far the results are still very limited.

    My take home message from the article was that genes and their effects are not as simple as most people believe and as much of the media describes. It is very unlikely that we will find the gene for Autism, for IQ or for being gay. Instead such behavior is likely to be the result of a complex interaction of many different genes, with different types of RNA dictating how the genes are expressed which in turn will probably be influenced by factors in the environment. Hugh discoveries are being made all the time but I think the more that is known the more complex it all seems.

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  • A new study published in Science spells out how brain training may work at a biochemical level. One of key candidates for effective brain training is working memory. Working memory is the ability to hold information in mind in the short term. We use it in mental maths, remembering instructions and it is a key component in childhood learning in general. Difficulties with working memory are seen in a variety of childhood disorders including ADHD and brain injury. Previous studies have shown that working memory can be improved by training. Studies have also shown that training working memory produces changes to the frontal and parietal parts of the brain. This latest study shows how the changes occur at the biochemical level. The key neurotransmitter here is dopamine, which is particularly prevalent in these frontal areas. This study in Science shows that 14 hours cognitive training using a computer game resulted in changes in the density of dopamine receptors. These are exciting findings showing that change to brains at a fundamental level is possible using computer based learning. It has major implications for the treatment of disorders such as ADHD as well as learning in general. The important lesson is that brain training needs to be focused on specific brain areas and functions, namely the areas that have the most plasticity.

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  • There has been a lot of discussion in the media recently about the use of fish oil to improve learning and behaviour. Is there any substance behind the claims or is it just a fad? Fish always used to be known as brain food and there are good physiological reasons to expect fish oil to help neurodevelopment. Fish oil is a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA) containing omega 3. Omega 3 fatty acids make up about 20% of brain and heart membrane. They are thought to speed up nerve and muscle signalling. Many children today have diets very low in fish. One would think therefore that fish oil supplements would help, especially for children with low fish diets. The evidence, however, is not strong. Research in 2005 by Alexandra Richardson and Paul Montgomery from Oxford University showed that omega 3 resulted in improvements with reading, spelling and behaviour (see the Food and Behaviour Research website). However, after these promising initial findings the research hasn’t been so positive.

    The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) review on treatment for ADHD showed that the evidence does not support using omega 3 in the treatment of ADHD. http://www.nice.org.uk/Guidance/CG72/Guidance/pdf/English

    A large study was recently carried out in Durham UK with about 3000 children taking fatty acid supplements but there have been concerns about the way the trial was carried out, at the large number of pupils dropping out and the results are disappointing. The difficulties with the study are summarised here on the bad science website.

    One of the leading advocates of the positive effects of fish oil on brain development is Professor John Stein, professor of physiology at Magdelen College, Oxford (and interestingly the brother of famous fish chef Rick Stein). He is currently undertaking a study looking effects on the behaviour of boys in a Young Offenders Institute and this may provide some answers. See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/7618888.stm.

    Until then the jury is still out on the effectiveness on fish oil on neurodevelopment. There are some promising signs and from a biological perspective it does seem make sense, however, the evidence is not there at the moment to make clinical or policy recommendations. I will post any updates on this topic here.

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