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Child Neuropsychology

A blog by Dr Jonathan Reed

  • I have recently been reading a very interesting book on the impact of technology on children.  The Curiosity Cycle by Jonathan Mugan is particularly interesting because Jonathan has a degree in psychology and is a researcher in machine learning.  His area of research is about how robots can learn about the world in the same way that human children do.  He is in a good position to tell us about what is happening with robot development and what we should do about it.

    The book is divided into three parts.  Firstly there is a section on how children construct a view of the world and how this can used to stimulate curiosity .  This section is packed with ideas for parents and teachers about how to encourage curiosity in children.  Jonathan is particularly good at tips for stimulating curiosity in Math, normally a hard subject to be interested in.

    The second section is about how children’s curiosity is shaped by physical exploration (children are embodied creatures- a very current topic) and by interaction with others.  Again there are tips on how to encourage these areas of development.

    Finally and most interesting part for me is how technology is advancing and the impact of this on children’s development.  Jonathan explains in a very thought provoking way how robots and computers are developing and the ways this will shape our children’s lives.   The pace of change he highlights is quite astonishing.   There are going to be many opportunities but also there is some caution -  “Children shouldn’t spend too much time connected since their embodied selves were meant to be out in the sunshine”.  The key point is that while computers and robots are going to be able to do amazing things, where humans have the advantage is in their curiosity.  ”Curiosity will allow your child to go beyond answering questions to asking the right questions and to make inferences beyond the information explicitly given“.

    Overall the book is very clear and readable.  It is thought provoking but also practical.  Jonathan provides a number of media resources.   I would thoroughly recommend to anyone with or working with kids now.  The world is changing and we and our children need to be prepared.

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  • 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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  • There is increasing evidence that playing video games improves neuropsychological function.  I have just been reading another excellent paper from the people at the University of Rochester called Increasing Speed of Processing with Action Video Games.  The paper written by Mathew Dye, Shawn Green and Daphne Bavelier looks at a range of previous studies on reaction time and video game playing.  The introduction to the paper states:

    Playing action video games-contemporary examples include God of War, Unreal Tournament, GTA, and call of Duty – requires rapid processing of sensory information and prompt action, forcing players to make decisions and execute responses at a far greater pace than is typical in everyday life.

    Looking at lots of different studies they conclude that:

    • Video Game Players (VGP) have faster reaction times (RT).
    • RT can be trained by action game play (thus showing causation)
    • Improved RT is not at the cost of more impulsivity.  Increased RT do not result in more errors (as measured by the TOVA)

    This paper adds to a body of research showing improved neuropsychological function; for example in working memory, increased literacy and numeracy and improved attention.

    I don’t find this surprising.  Games provide reinforced repetitive mental activity.  Anyone who plays them knows that they are challenging yet very motivating (even in those with generally poor motivation).    Games designers are experts in terms of human motivation. I have written before about the benefits of computer game based learning here.

    Yet despite these increasing positive findings I don’t see research being translated into great educational application.   Many educational/brain training games are actually quite dull- a point well made on the educational games research blog.  Partly to me there still seems to be a mindset that educational games and brain training games need to look educational. It would be good to produce educational and brain training games that look and play like real games.   Also games based on research are often devised by academics, teachers and clinicians (like me) who don’t have the budget and expertise to produce games in the way that commercial games developers do. Whilst there is research showing that existing commercial games can improve neuropsychological benefits, imagine what specifically designed games could do.

    To move the situation forward there is a need to put serious attention and resources into educational/neuropsychological games that combine the latest research with the latest exciting, engrossing game play.  I think that this does require a new mindset and a good degree of creativity.  Also it is uncertain where the market is for this is-; Schools? Concerned parents?  Governments?  It may not be profitable at first.  Existing brain training tends to target adults looking for self improvement and adults are always willing to pay for this.  Trying to improve child education/development is different.  However if someone/ some company was prepared to invest they could produce something fantastic, with great benefit.   I think video games can change education and development but I think it will take something special to realize this potential.

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  • Children’s welfare and development entered UK politics yesterday with David Cameron the Conservative leader talking about the warmth of parenting being more important than poverty in outcomes with poor children. Polly Tonybee in the Guardian wrote a stinging reply. This prompted me to think about my experience as a child psychologist with children from neglected backgrounds. For the past 13 years some of my work has involved assessing children in care, both residential and foster care. This has shown me how damaging early experience of abuse and neglect is for children, how it is reinforced and not addressed. It is a big problem. There are approximately 60000 children in care in the UK . The number of children with a child protection plan is increasing every year. The vast majority of children that I see in this context have cognitive, social and emotional difficulties. It is rare to see a good outcome. In the UK 12% of children in care get 5 GCSE passes compared to 59% in the general population. 23% of adult prison population were in care as children, 42% of prostitutes had been in care and 45% have mental health problems.

    In my experience there is often a common pathway. There is a history of concern about abuse and neglect dating from birth. Often the parents themselves had a history of abuse which they cope with by taking drugs and alcohol. They have no experience of good parenting themselves. Women often end up with partners who perpetuate abuse in the form of domestic violence. Many children are placed on and off the Child Protection Register during early childhood. Eventually (normally from age 8-13) they are placed in foster care. The children in residential care seem to have had several foster placements break down first. By the time they are placed in residential care it is too late to change the situation. By this stage children start to become involved in drugs, gangs, criminal behaviour, start underachieving educationally and in the case of young women engage in abusive relationships. Obviously this doesn’t happen to everyone but I would estimate it does in 70% of the cases I see. The cost to society is massive and the cycle of problems continues.

    What is also often missing in the debate is the effect on the brain of abuse and neglect. The first five years of life are crucial in terms of brain development. A recent study by Evans and Schamberg looked at the effect of childhood poverty and stress on working memory and explains the mechanism by which this happens. For a review of the literature on neglect and brain development in general see this paper by Danya Glaser. My own data and experience shows a large proportion of children in care with learning problems, neuro-developmental difficulties, self regulation problems and difficulties with social relationships. Waiting until a child is a teenager and then putting them in prison, giving them counseling or criticizing them doesn’t work. Their brains are already damaged. Trying to blame their parents or fine them doesn’t work either. Often they can’t cope in life due to their own history of abuse, drug addiction or neurodevelopmental problems.

    In my opinion the state has to intervene at an early age to break this cycle. There was recently an interesting article by Camilla Batmangheldjh in The Times about the need for good child protection to break the cycle of violence. There may be a need to remove children much earlier from the damaging home environment and place them in care rather than wait for the damage to occur, reinforce it with several short term placements and then put them in residential care in their teens. It would be better for children to return back to parents without the early damage. It may be that providing very high levels of one to one support in the home situation would help. Leaving it to the parents to change by themselves or expecting them to change through nagging,criticism or simple intervention won’t work. Ignoring the problem won’t work. The fundamental point is the need to intervene early to change the inevitable brain damage that occurs. These children are often forgotten. Few people look out for them and I wish this would change. In my opinion it is not just about blaming poverty or blaming parents but seeing the cycle of abuse and neglect that occurs through generations, seeing how this affects brain development and then trying to intervene to stop that cycle perpetuating. Is this possible? Despite yesterday’s debate I don’t see any political party in the UK addressing this properly yet.

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  • I am a avid user of Twitter and find all sorts of interesting information on there. As with the web, however it is difficult to sort out what is important. It also moves so fast that it is hard to keep track. This post highlights some important tweets I have seen regarding advances in neuroscience in the last two weeks.

    1. Repairing brain cells- Researchers at the Montreal NeurologicaI Institute and Hospital (The Neuro) and McGill University group at Montral University have developed a new technique to help repair damaged nerve cells. The study was in the October 7 issue of Journal of Neuroscience. They show that it is possible to use plastic beads coated with a substance that encourages adhesion to help cells grow and form new synapses. You can read about this study here

    2 Gene therapy. A study reported in Nature News investigated possible gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s disease is a neurological condition affecting motor control and is associated with a depleted neurotransmitter, dopamine. Stéphane Palfi, a neurosurgeon at the French Atomic Energy Commission’s Institute of Biomedical Imaging in Orsay, and his colleagues simulated Parkinson’s disease in monkeys and then injected the monkeys’ brains with three genes essential for synthesizing dopamine. They saw significant improvements in motor behaviour after just two weeks, without any visible adverse effects. “We don’t see any problems in these monkeys,” says Palfi. One animal even exhibited sustained recovery more than 3.5 years later. You can read about this study here.

    3. Understanding brain development. Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have identified a key molecular player in guiding the formation of synapses. The paper, published online Oct. 8 in the journal Cell, looks at the interaction between neurons and astrocytes. The relationship is complicated but to quote from the report in science daily “It is commonly agreed that the precise placement and strength of each person’s trillions of synaptic connections closely maps with that person’s cognitive, emotional and behavioral makeup. But exactly why a particular synapse is formed in a certain place at a certain time has largely remained a mystery. In 2005, Barres took a big step toward explaining this process when he and his colleagues discovered that a protein astrocytes secrete, called thrombospondin, is essential to the formation of this complex brain circuitry.

    In this new study, Barres, lead author Cagla Eroglu, PhD, and their colleagues demonstrate how thrombospondin binds to a receptor found on neurons’ outer membranes. The role of this receptor, known as alpha2delta-1, had been obscure until now. But in an experiment with mice, the scientists found that neurons lacking alpha2delta-1 were unable to form synapses in response to thrombospondin stimulation.

    The researchers stimulated neurons with thrombospondin and found, those neurons produced twice as many synapses in response to stimulation than did their ummodified counterparts. Understanding this key mechanism could help explain children’s brains development and why this goes wrong for some children. Understanding the biochemistry holds out hope for future treatments. You can read the full report here.

    4. Computer games and rehabilitation. Every week there are reports on how computer games can help learning. As you will see from previous posts on this blog I am great believer in the potential of computer games for rehabilitation and learning. Just one interesting post this week shows an initiative to help individuals with strokes to regain movement using computer game technology. Read about it here.

    This is just a small selection of the information I am finding on Twitter. It shows some of the advances that are being made to understand and help individuals with neurological illness. You can follow me on Twitter here.

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  • I have been reading an excellent book on personality research called Personality: What makes you the way you are by Daniel Nettle. It is written for the non expert and is easy to read and full of interesting observations. In the UK the psychology of personality has not been very influential on clinical practice. Most Clinical Psychologists do not assess personality, particularly in children and young people. In addition the study of personality has not featured on many university courses and certainly was not part of my undergraduate degree. However, recently I have began to take an interest in this area of psychology because it makes a lot of sense clinically. The children and young people I see have clear personality traits which fit with the current research. Having read Daniel Nettles’ book I believe that there will be a renaissance in personality assessment and understanding over the coming years. There are three key facts driving this, which are:

    1. Researchers studying personality using factor analysis have come to a consensus that there are five main personality factors, which are:

    Extraversion

    Agreeableness

    Conscientiousness

    Openness

    Neuroticism (emotional stability)

    2. The behavioural genetics work fits with the five factor model and also suggests that these traits have a large genetic component.

    3. There is increasing interest in the neuroscience of personality. The five factors are associated with different neural pathways e.g. Neuroticism (amygdala, hippocampus and R dorsolateral prefrontal cortex); Conscientiousness (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex); Extraversion (mid brain dopamine reward systems).

    Given the genetic and neuroscientific evidence it would make sense to consider personality when looking at development, emotional and social difficulties in childhood.

    There are lots of thought provoking issues raised in the book but I will highlight three that I think have major implications:

    Firstly behavioural genetics studies have shown consistently that shared family environment i.e. parents, have little to no effect on development of adult personality (not sure what the Freudians make of this!).

    Secondly that multivariate analysis shows that children’s personality seems to affect the way parent’s treat them rather than the other way round.

    Thirdly : Personality seems to predict quite strongly, certain life experiences. For example high scores on Neuroticism predicts higher likelihood of divorce and low scores on conscientiousness predicts early death. Nettle argues that personality assessment together with IQ are two of the strongest predictors for how you will do in life. It is important to note that the genetics of IQ and personality account for about 50% of variance and environment is also important. There are ways of course that you can alter your environment to influence your life course. However, I think that it is likely that without intervention the genetic biases we all have will lead us in certain directions.

    If you want to find out what your personality is there is a online test at the personality project website where you can take an anonymous personality test as part of an online research study. More information on personality can be found at the main personality project website.

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  • There is more evidence of the neuropsychological benefits of playing action video games in a new paper to be published in July by Matt Dye and colleagues in Neuropsychologia. This paper shows that playing action video games resulted in improvmenets in attention allocation in children and young people. The authors used the Attention Network Test (ANT) which measure “how well attention is allocated to targets as a function of alerting and orientating cues, and to what extent observers are able to filter out the influence of task irrelevant information flanking those tasks”. The subjects were children and young people between the ages of 7 and 22 who had played action games (such as Halo, Metal Gear, Quake, Grand Theft Auto, Medal of Honor etc) and non action games (Age of Empires, Mario, Solitaire etc) for any length of time in the preceding 12 months (note see the paper for a full list of games categorized). The action video game players performed better on the ANT compared to non action game players. The authors interpret the results as the action players having better attention allocation. In my interpretation they seemed to be able to attend to more data simultaneously rather than focus on certain information. The action games players seemed to have faster speed of processing and picked up visual cues quicker.

    This paper adds to a body of work carried out by the University of Rochester showing how computer games change brain function (see examples in web pages by Daphne Bavelier and Matt Dye ). This also fits with other posts on this site. The reason I think that this happens is that computer games involve continued stimulation, seem to act on implicit learning, are structured, follow repeated patterns and are very rewarding ensuring that players practice them repeatedly. All of these factors show the potential of computer games for neuropsychological rehabilitation and for education. It is clear however that not all computer games work in the same way. For computer games to be harnesses in the most effective way it is important to know which parts of the brain are more plastic (i.e. more likely to change) and which elements of the computer games most produce this change. Candidates for areas of plasticity that I have come across include working memory, visual contract sensitivity, attention allocation, speed of processing, visual motor co-ordination and literacy and numeracy development (see Neurogames). There may be other areas. In terms of the type of games, certainty action based games seem to produce changes in attention and visual function. Games requiring remembering short term information are also important. Again there will be others. For any computer game development company out there there are potentially massive benefits (commercially and for social benefit) by getting these elements right. I would be keen to hear of other people’s experience and any ideas about how this can be taken forward.

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  • There is an interesting article in the Sunday Times this week entitled ‘how to make your child more intelligent’. It seems to be based in part on a new book by Richard Nisbett entitled ‘Intelligence and How to Get it: Why Schools and Cultures Count. Whilst the article makes a number of important points the overall tone feels a bit like the old nature/ nurture debate, which I thought was over years ago. The article starts by stating that ‘Over recent years most experts have concluded that intelligence is largely genetic in origin, and that nurture does relatively little to raise an individual’s potential’. I am not sure which experts they are referring to here as anyone who knows anything about the genes and IQ literature knows this not to be true. The relationship between IQ and genes has been researched very thoroughly. The consistent finding is that genes account for about 50% of variance, which leaves 50% due to environmental factors. The article seems to try and overemphasize the role of environment and diminish the role of genes. It states ‘demolishing the finding of twin studies is part of the argument against genes controlling intelligence.’ This is the argument that twins who are adopted and reared apart have similar IQ. The article argues that twins who are adopted and reared apart have a similar environment in that adopted parents are highly likely to give their children a good start in life. This seems a highly tenuous argument. Are all adoptive environments the same? Would this produce such consistent findings? Also would this argument hold for all the twin studies looking at heritability in schizophrenia, autism, ADHD etc. Dismissing twin studies is a familiar ploy of people who want to dismiss the genetic factors and one I thought had died years ago. It undermines what is otherwise a good argument. The results for the gene and IQ studies are very consistent and researched in some detail. It seems silly to me to claim that genes don’t have an effect on brain and psychological development. You don’t need to knock the gene studies to show that environment is important. The gene studies already do this.

    Another factor that points to the importance of genes in IQ is that clinical experience and research suggests that IQ is remarkable stable through lifetime. Twins actually become more similar in IQ scores as they get older. Something must be driving this. IQ doesn’t change easily, although there are obvious environmental factors at work. Certainly it is clear from the Flynn effect that IQ has been steadily rising over the last 100 years (obviously genes are not evolving that fast). There is a lot of research on environmental factors influencing IQ. IQ is a complex concept that is not totally understood, but from the research there are some candidates for strong environmental factors that have an impact on IQ development. These include having a stimulating early environment, good early nutrition, an environment rich in language and literacy. There is also research showing how targeted computer games may raise IQ. There are other suggestions in the article although i am not sure about the research to back them up – I am certainly not aware of the value of meditation on IQ, encouraging self control or having bigger babies to name a few mentioned in the article.

    So overall, yes I believe we can encourage children to be more intelligent (although as IQ as currently assessed is a comparison measure it will be difficult to measure this) and I applaud the article for highlighting this. I think we should try. But don’t dismiss the influence of genes. That influence is always there and if ignored can result in my opinion in insidious effects such as a lack of social mobility. Parent’s genes are important in part in determining early child environments (i.e. stimulating, language rich environments with high levels of nutrition) and therefore IQ development. This is a political question. I think that overall improved IQ and literacy should lead to a better society (although many other factors are important too). To achieve this early intervention by the State will be probably be needed. We will need to understand the whole picture if we are to move forward.

    PS the article does contain a good section demolishing the race, genes and IQ argument and should be read for that alone.

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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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  • 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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