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Child Neuropsychology

A blog by Dr Jonathan Reed

  • The founding father of psychology Sigmund Freud was fascinated by the unconscious mind and made this the centre of his study and practice.  The role of the unconscious in psychology quickly fell out of fashion.  This was because it could not be measured or easily understood.  Initially behaviourism became dominant, based on the objective analysis of observable behaviour.  Later the focus in psychology shifted to studying cognition – the study of thought processes.  Both areas resulted to different psychological therapies for example,  Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and different ways of understanding learning.  Over the last decade or so neuropsychology has started to emerge.  Neuropsychology focuses on the relationship between the brain and behaviour (including cognition).  And guess what – as we begin to understand the role of the brain in psychology there is an increasing interest in the role of  unconscious processes (brain actions that we are not aware of consciously) .  Back to the start again- maybe Freud was right all along!

    I wrote about the importance if understanding the relationship between sub cortical structures and the cortex in a previous post. I have also just read a fascinating and very readable book by David Eagleman Incognito: The Secret Lives of The Brain.  This book looks at the dominant role that the unconscious brain plays in everyday human life.  Eagleman argues that most of what we do happens automatically and without our conscious brains being aware.  He gives numerous examples of how unconscious processes control our psychology including our attraction to others, our prejudices, our perception of the world, as well as the more obvious examples of motor control- I would really recommending reading the book to understand the richness of his argument.  He argues that conscious thought processes play a very small role in our lives,  perhaps just to allowing us to think flexibly and set goals (clearly this has big consequences as the achievements and dominance of the human species shows).  Intriguingly he also suggests that maybe our conscious self is not in control at all, but we (it) just think we are.  This was a central point in Chris’s Frith’s excellent although more academic book Making Up the Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World.  Both authors report studies  showing that when you ask someone to tell when they have the urge to lift their finger and scan their brain, the part of the brain responsible for planning the action lights up before they report the urge to lift their finger.  Therefore the unconscious brain is making the decision before they are are consciously aware of it.

    Understanding the role of unconscious processes has important implications for psychology.  David Eagleman discusses in detail the implications for the criminal justice system.  Are criminals to blame for acts committed by unconscious processes (and especially when you add in abusive childhoods, brain injury, learning problems, genetics, which are all out of conscious control)?  I think there are also significant implications for child neuropsychology.  Understanding how our brains work and basing treatment and intervention on this understanding will lead to more effective intervention.  In my practice I work a lot with children with significant learning disabilities and brain injury.  Often they are unable to learn or control emotions and behaviour consciously.  I  look at ways to influence implicit processes  i.e changing the environment rather than expecting individual to change.  Also with my games company Neurogames I integrate implicit learning processes into the games, which I think is what makes them effective.  However we are only just starting to understand these processes and as our understanding increases I expect there to much more focus on sub cortical and unconscious processes in psychology.  This is not entirely easy as we create and develop psychological theories using the conscious parts of our mind, thus we are already biased.  We need to suspend our own perceptions and experience, based on our conscious view of the world and look at the data instead (a bit like theoretical physics).  Understanding how the brain actually works holds promise for major changes in psychological treatment, teaching and social policy.  Maybe we are also on the verge of a revolution in how we see ourselves?   I’ll keep you posted on ideas that emerge.

  • 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.

  • I have just seen the preliminary findings of the first independent research study on Neurogames, the games I have developed to help reading and maths. The study was undertaken on 20 children aged 4 to 6. 10 children were given the computer games to play for 20 mins twice a week for 13 weeks at school. 10 children were not given the game and received normal teaching in a different class. Both groups were tested on standardized reading and maths tests (WIAT) before and after the intervention. The results show that the computer game group had an average maths score of 102 (average) before using the games which rose to 123 (above average) after playing the game for 13 weeks. The average group reading score before playing the games was 101.7, which increased to 114.9 after the game. In contrast the children not playing the game started with a reading score of 106.4 and this increased to 109.1 over time. Their maths score started at 103.6 and increased to 109.9. Therefore the study shows that exposure to the Neurogames for 13 weeks lead to substantial increases in maths and reading compared to the control group. These are preliminary findings and they need to be independently reviewed and published but they indicate what may be possible with computer based learning.

    I think that this also shows the importance of scientifically evaluating computer games based on learning. At present whilst there are many educational or brain training games on the market very few are being scientifically evaluated to see if they are effective. There are lots of games that look very good and claim to be brain training or educational but don’t seem to me to have any rationale let alone any evidence. For computer games based learning to develop in my opinion more research has to happen. Computer games lend themselves to scientific study given that they can be seen as a standardised intervention (i.e. they are the same each time they are given) and are easy and ethical to administer. Games can also be developed to incorporate the lasted scientific knowledge- see previous post for discussion on this. I intend to encourage other researchers (please contact me if interested) to independently evaluate the Neurogames with a larger number of children next and also with children with different neurodevelopmental disorders such as dyslexia and dyscalculia. I hope that over the next few years there will be an increasing body of research showing which games and which elements of games are effective in learning and neuropsychological development. This could lead to a revolution in education and rehabilitation.

  • 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.

  • I have just been reading a very good new book on neuropsychological rehabilitation by Barbara Wilson and colleagues Neuropsychological Rehabilitation: Theory, Models, Therapy and Outcome
    I also heard her give an interesting talk this week on memory rehabilitation. In the book and the talk she discuses proven techniques to help with memory. These are designed for individual with memory problems but they also work really well for anyone wanting to learn and remember information. The methods are backed with experimental evidence. They will work for adults as well as children.

    1. Encourage associations or links when learning- the best way is to use visual or spatial images and associate these with what you are trying to learn. Some of the best learners use an internal picture of a house or journey and imagine what they have to remember placed in different places in the house. This helps with retrieval of information from memory.

    2. Spaced retrieval i.e. gradually extend the recall time. With this you need to initially recall what you have learnt straight away and then over time extend the time gap between learning and retrieval. For example look at a fact to remember, cover and recall immediately, then look again and wait for 15 seconds and try and recall, then 30 seconds and then 1 min etc. This leads to information stored more deeply in memory.

    3. Pace your learning and reduce the amount you are trying to learn at any one time. Learn a few bits of information, have a break and learn a few more. Trying to do too much at once doesn’t work.

    4. Organize the information e.g. if learning a list, group the items together according to meaning. For example for a shopping list put the items of fruit together, drink together etc. If learning facts group together for meaning. The brain likes to store information semantically i.e. according to categories.

    5. Error free learning- this is used to teach others. If the person doesn’t know the answer to the question immediately provide the answer and ask them to repeat. Continue to support until the answer is recalled automatically without any errors. This works for adults with memory problems including those with Alzheimer’s and also for children with learning difficulties. See previous post for more details

    It does take a bit more effort to store information more efficiently in memory when learning but these methods are proven to work. There are other techniques and also the research behind them in the book.

  • I have been working clinically with children with head injury now for over 12 years and this has allowed me to see the longitudinal effects of childhood head injury for myself. What I have noticed is that some children with what appeared to initially be mild head injury (i.e. no prolonged loss of consciousness) continued to have problems over time. I have looked at these cases in some detail and their developmental problem can’t be explained by pre morbid functioning (i.e. any difficulties before the head injury). This experience is not what the textbooks say is supposed to happen. Mild head injury is thought to be associated with better prognosis and is very rarely followed up by medical services. However, three new studies this year suggest that Mild Head Injury may result in more problems than previously though.

    A new study reported in the Journal of Head Trauma and Rehabilitation looked over time at preschool children (before the age of 5) who suffered a minor head injury. They reaseessed these children at age 14 to 16 years and found that the group who had been hospitalised with MHI were significantly more likely to show symptoms of ADHD, conduct/oppositional disorder, substance abuse and mood disorder than a control group or a non hospitalized group.

    This research group also reported in a separate journal with similar findings and the results are summarised in the excellent child psychology research blog. As Nestor Lopez-Duran the blog’s author reports ‘ the data strongly links TBI history to the presence of ADHD and conduct disorder symptoms years after the injury, and regardless of the underlying mechanism”

    These studies are also on the back of another study by Keith Yeates and his research group published in Pediatrics . They found persistent problems more than 12 months after mild head injury.

    So what are the implications of this. Firstly I think we need to look at categorisation of head injury in children. At present the main categorization tool is the Glasgow Coma Scale (GCS). This basically looks at levels of consciousness. Another important measure is Post Traumatic Amnesia -PTA (which looks at length of time where the person is confused or amnesic following the HI), however PTA in my experience is rarely assessed clinically. I think that both categorization tools are very blunt instrument. I have seen many children, for example with skull fractures who have not lost consciousness but seem to have poor outcome. The New Zealand studies above found that hospitalization was an important indicator. The Yeates study found that children with ‘mild traumatic brain injuries whose acute clinical presentation reflected more severe injury’ had a worst outcome. Therefore it seems clear that GCS is not sufficient in predicting neuropsychological outcome. All clinicians and researchers should be looking in more detail at the wider clinical picture.

    The other implication is that many of these children are discharged from hospital back to their families and schools with no follow up and no information that there may be ongoing problems. About 1 in 30 children suffer a traumatic brain injury so the problem is potentially very big and will affect all schools. It may that teachers could be the best people to identify these children providing that they have the knowledge to do so. There is a great need to educate teachers and other educational professionals about this. Most children with problems after a head injury will show a deterioration in behaviour and academic functioning in school often over time. For the teachers out there if you notice a child struggling or notice a deterioration in behaviour and performance it is worth enquiring whether the child has suffered a head injury. If this is the case it would be important to alert child health services. Also for mental health professionals it is important to always check for a history of head injury including mild head injury especially for children with ADHD or behaviour problems. I am certain that there are many children and adults out there who are not being indentified and suffering as a result.

  • 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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  • Does brain training work? There are a number of conflicting studies in the literature see Guardian games blog for example. There has recently been a lot of interest in the Ninetendo DS brain training game although I am not aware of any published work on it’s effectiveness (but see this BBC site article for some anecdotal evidence.) I have just come across a good study in the British Journal of Educational Technology by Miller and Robertson 2009 showing improvements in self esteem, and accuracy and speed of mental maths using the DS brain training games (Also see comment from Derek Robinson below). I note that in this study only the specific task of mental maths improved, which is partly what the DS program trains.  I don’t think there is evidence that the DS BT works across different areas to train the brain as a whole.  Nintendo brain training does not train specific brain areas or functions and does not fit with contemporary neuropsychological theory.  It is a more broad brush approach.   In reality the brain has numerous functions linked to different anatomical areas and trying to train the whole thing at once is, I think nonsensical. Brain training will have to become a lot more targeted if it is to work.

    There is some evidence that targeting specific areas can be effective. The key candidate at the moment is working memory. Working memory is the ability to hold information in mind i.e mental arithmetic , remembering lists of instructions etc. Working memory is associated with the dorsal-lateral pre- frontal cortex in the brain. There is an interesting paper in PNAS that shows that training working memory resulted in increased IQ levels. You can access the training site and try it for yourself here for free. Also there is some interesting new research on improving working memory using a computer game, which is due to be published soon and which I will report on here.

    The key to brain training is to know how the brain works and how it develops and then to target set areas. My own company Neurogames produces brain training games based on the science of brain and psychological development. The games are targeted on areas where I think we should be able to produce change and where I think brain plasticity exists. It is important to understand how the brain and it’s functions develop as this holds the key to what can potentially change. I am carrying out research on this at the moment. If we can show through good science and based on solid neuropsychological theory that change can occur and how it occurs, then there is the possibility to revolutionize how we learn.

    Note: Update 20.4.10 a new large scale study published in Nature suggests that Nintendo brain training is not effective in producing transferable cognitive benefits.  Initial nature study is published here

  • There is a very interesting debate in the US at the moment about how to tackle reading problems (dyslexia). There is increasing interest in the Response to Instruction (RTI) approach- summarized here. This approach focuses on how to teach reading for everyone rather than just identifying and treating children with dyslexia. It is a public health approach focusing on prevention rather than an individual disorder approach focusing on treatment. In the UK the focus is more individual and based on clinical identification of dyslexia- i.e. does this person have dyslexia or not. Parents and teachers need to find someone – often a clinical or educational psychologist to diagnose dyslexia. This in turn depends on the parent or teacher recognizing the problem in the first place and many children seem to slip through the net. The psychologist will normally write a report with recommendations, which in my experience are often not followed. It is an inefficient system. The RTI approach seems to be more about looking at the school population as a whole. They screen the whole school population at a young age and then the children identified with delayed reading are either provided with minimal intervention or if this doesn’t work more intensive intervention. The focus is on how reading is taught (instruction) and how the child responds to this instruction rather than identifying disability. The research findings suggests that instruction accounts for a lot of reading difficulty and there is a large body of impressive research looking at the effectiveness of RTI- see this site for details. There is a reaction from some neuropsychologists who feel that RTI doesn’t address children with more severe deficits and more complex neuropsychological profiles- RTI is a bit of a catch all that misses the more unusual kids. Also there is concern about the use of RTI in practice. Whilst as a neuropsychologist I have some sympathy with this view I feel more strongly that children should be leaving school being able to read especially when the research shows that nearly all children can be taught with the right teaching methods-see previous posts on dyslexia. I don’t think we have got it right in the UK and too many children are failing. I really like the public health aspect that RTI advocates. If a smaller group of children who need further assessment and more intensive intervention could be identified using this approach and that there are then clear referral lines to a psychologist, it would be a better use of resources and may prevent a lot of children having a miserable and unproductive time at school. It should theoretically be possible to eliminate nearly all reading difficulties in the UK. I am aware of the inspiring work of Tommy Mackay who virtually eliminated reading difficulties in one school district in Scotland, but I am not aware of this happening in other places in the UK or of a political will to address this. I would be keen to learn of other people’s experience of this and any other thoughts- please post a comment.

  • A recently study from the University of California, Berkeley found differences in brain activation between children from low and high socioeconomic status (‘rich and poor kids’). The researchers used EEG to measure activation in the pre frontal cortex and found children from low socioeconomic backgrounds had a low EEG response which was similar to children with brain injury. The psychology group at Berkeley have a distinguished history of research looking at the development of pre frontal cortex. One of the key findings over the last 20 years is the role that the environment has in brain development. Originally work undertaken on rats showed that those in a drab environment had less well developed brains than those living in stimulating environments. It is likely that poor children have less stimulating environments which in turn affects their brain development. Some of my clinical work is with children who have been abused and neglected and a consistent finding is that they have lower than average intellectual functioning and low academic achievement. This latest study adds to the growing body of research highlighting the importance of early intervention for good brain development.

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