How the Brain Learns

Researchers study timing, sensory systems, how regions connect.

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“We used to think that active cells in this region of the hippocampus would be active in all environments,” Cottrell says. “It turns out that spacing out experiences over time can create cell activity that is dedicated and selective for certain experiences, and that this type of activity is dependent upon newly born cells.”

Furthermore, “importantly, the ability to generate newly born cells increases with enrichment and aerobic exercise,” he adds.

Why is this important for education?  “Perhaps we should think twice before we eliminate physical education and enrichment programs due to financial cutbacks,” says Andrea Chiba, the center’s science director. “These may be very important for continued brain development and critical aspects of learning.”

In another center project, a Rutgers team led by April A. Benasich, professor of neuroscience, is studying the role of gamma waves in the infant brain, and their impact on language development. Gamma waves are fast, high-frequency, rhythmic brain responses that emerge when the brain engages in higher cognitive processes.

Research shows that, in the adult brain, gamma waves bind perceptions, thoughts and memories together. Until recently, however, scientists knew very little about the role of gamma waves in infants.

The Rutgers studies suggest that the power of gamma waves between the ages of 16 months to three years, typically an intense period of cognitive and language development, is an important predictor of later language ability, specifically at ages four and five: the stronger the gamma waves, the greater the likelihood of better language and cognitive skills.

“Infant cognitive ability correlates with power density functions even in an idling brain, that is, a brain not engaged in an active perceptual or cognitive task,” Benasich says. “Thus, the capability to generate higher power in certain frequency ranges at certain crucial developmental periods may well confer an advantage.”

Benasich and her research team looked at “resting” gamma power in the frontal cortex, the “thinking” part of the brain, in children 16, 24 and 36 months old, the time when children rapidly are learning words and what they mean.

After analyzing the babies’ EEG (electroencephalogram, a way to measure brain waves), they found that children with higher language and cognitive abilities had correspondingly higher gamma power than those with poorer scores. Similarly, children with better attention and inhibitory control, the ability to moderate or refrain from behavior when instructed, also had higher gamma power.

“Being able to determine an infant’s level of development could allow for more effective treatment at a critical point in time when the brain is laying down the foundations for cognition and language, and establishing efficient connections for future learning,” Benasich says.

They obtained their measurements by placing a soft bonnet with 62 sensors on the babies’ heads as they sat on their mother’s laps and quietly played. In separate tests, the children were evaluated for their emerging language and cognitive skills. The researchers looked both at children from families with typical language development and those at higher risk for problems because they were born into families with a history of language disorders. The group of children with a family history of language impairments showed lower levels of gamma activity.

Another study, known as the Gamelan Project, has been exploring the role of Balinese music--a style of music that emphasizes synchrony--on cognitive development, in particular, the ability to maintain an attention span. Two center postdoctoral fellows, Alexander Khalil and Victor Minces, are conducting the research.

The first phase of the project already has shown that a child’s ability to synchronize musically in a group setting correlates with his or her ability to focus attention. The team next plans to examine whether intensive music training can improve a child’s attention span.

“Important cognitive skills, such as attentional control, may be closely related to the capacity to maintain rhythmic synchrony within a group, an ability that music trains in unique ways,” Chiba says.