Stimulating the Human Brain to Enhance Learning and Cognition:
The Parts are Larger than the Sum
Prof. Roi Cohen Kadosh
Oxford University, UK
Fluid cognitive skills, such as working memory, reasoning, and mathematics, are critical in most academic settings. Current attempts to improve cognitive skills in children and adults have yielded mixed results and limited evidence of transfer beyond the immediate cognitive training materials. These failures have led some to suggest that cognitive skills are fixed. Another suggestion is that these failures are due to suboptimal approaches to exploit neuroplasticity. An innovative method to modulate neuroplasticity is using brain stimulation, with the assumption that concurrent brain stimulation and cognitive intervention interact synergistically, enhancing the benefits derived from the intervention. However, researchers have questioned the utility of brain stimulation for these purposes, leading to the imperative question: can brain stimulation produce genuine cognitive enhancement? By discussing the putative mechanisms of brain stimulation application, in this case random noise stimulation, during training of arithmetic and executive functions, I will demonstrate that a between-groups comparison such as active stimulation versus sham stimulation can produce misleading results. Instead, integrating relevant neurophysiological and psychological measures at the interindividual-level can substantially increase the precision of conclusions about the efficacy of brain stimulation. These results lead to the idea that a consideration of the parts, (e.g., the neurocognitive factors characterising the individuals in the experiment) can lead to a much clearer understanding of effects than considering only the sum, (e.g., the group they belong to). This approach yields basic and translational benefits. It would enable the improvement and individualisation of interventions, and produce a better understanding of the underlying neurocognitive mechanisms.
Social cognition in the classroom
Prof. dr. Lydia Krabbendam
VU University Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Adolescence is a developmental phase characterized by risks and opportunities. Navigating the increasingly complex social world is a challenge, and at the same time offers rich opportunities to learn new social skills. Understanding the cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying social development in adolescence may aid the fostering of social competence. An important social developmental goal is learning whom to trust. Trusting others can be risky, and therefore requires a sensitivity to the other person’s perspective. There is evidence that perspective-taking skills are still developing during adolescence. How does this impact on their disposition to trust and cooperate? In my presentation, I will draw on behavioural and neuroimaging studies investigating trust and cooperation during the adolescent years. In the first behavioural study, trusting behaviour and perspective-taking were assessed in 200 adolescents. Trust was experimentally assessed using a trust game, in which the first player can express trust in the second player by investing money. The results suggest that increased perspective-taking ability was negatively related to expression of trust, but only in adolescents with a proself orientation. In the second study, better perspective-taking was associated with a stronger decline in trust in response to unfair behaviour from the other player in the trust game. In the third study, we used two trust games with a trustworthy and an unfair partner to explore the neural mechanisms underlying trust in subjects ranging from adolescence to mid-adulthood. Increasing age was associated with higher trust at the onset of social interactions, increased levels of trust during interactions with a trustworthy partner and a stronger decline in trust during interactions with an unfair partner. The findings demonstrate a behavioural shift towards higher trust and an age-related increase in the sensitivity to others' negative social signals. Increased brain activation in mentalising regions, i.e. temporo-parietal junction and precuneus, supported the behavioural change. Together, the results suggest that sensitivity to the other person’s perspective is crucially involved in decisions to trust or not trust in adolescence. I will discuss these findings in view of their relevance to education.
The brain basis of knowledge and knowledge acquisition
Prof. dr. Guillén Fernández
Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour,
Radboud University Medical Center, Nijmegen, The Netherlands
The acquisition, integration and use of our entire knowledge represent a massive mnemonic operation including memory formation, consolidation and retrieval. Although neuroscientific research over the past 60 years has provided substantial insight in these operations we are far from understanding the brain basis of knowledge. Functional neuroimaging has delineated and characterized a set of mnemonic operations underlying formation, consolidation and retrieval, but those appear most relevant for episodic memory, the kind of memory that enables us to remember specific events of our past. It is, however, unclear whether such episodic memories represent the basis of knowledge which is typically thought to be devoid of specific episodic detail. There are currently two models discussed how episodic memory and knowledge may interact. One kind of models proposes that episodic memories are decontectualized by consolidation leading to generalized knowledge and other models suggest that an a-contextual memory is augmented by episodic detail during memory formation. Here I will provide relevant empirical evidence for a third option, in which two memory systems, one optimized for structured knowledge and one for salient information relevant for survival are working in parallel though balanced dynamically. As I will show there is initial support for a model in which hippocampal and medial prefrontal contributions to memory formation are dynamically balanced depending on the ease by which new information can be integrated into existing knowledge structures (i.e., schemas). I will present functional neuroimaging studies probing schema-related memory formation and retrieval at the level of local activity, multi-voxel activity pattern and network properties. Results suggest that the medial prefrontal cortex links, during schema encoding, consolidation and retrieval, representations in posterior brain areas, potentially forming the brain-basis of knowledge. I will conclude with presenting initial empirical data that is educationally relevant and discuss how this insight might stimulate educational research.
Is cognitive control development in childhood and adolescence relevant to education?
Dr. Iroise Dumontheil
Department of Psychological Sciences, Birkbeck, University of London
Cognitive control refers broadly to the mechanisms underlying the regulation, coordination and sequencing of thoughts and actions in goal-directed behaviour. Cognitive control is supported by a broad fronto-parietal network of brain regions, where both grey and white matter show prolonged maturation into adolescence and early adulthood. Particular aspects of cognitive control, or executive functions, have been the focus of developmental psychology and developmental cognitive neuroscience research. This research has demonstrated extensive improvements in working memory, inhibitory control and task switching during childhood and adolescence, as well as changes in the structural and functional neural correlates of these functions. Further, individual differences in executive function tasks performance have been associated with brain structural and functional differences. More complex cognitive control skills, such as strategy use, error monitoring and reasoning, have not been studied as extensively but also show prolonged development during childhood and adolescence. In a second section, I will discuss observed associations between individual differences in cognitive control and academic performance, focusing in particular on the domain of mathematics. I will highlight the different approaches used to investigate these associations, from correlational studies to dual task paradigms, the need to develop more complex models relating individual executive functions to components of mathematical knowledge, and the proposed implications of this research. I will end by investigating whether executive function skills, and their underlying brain networks, can be trained with an aim to improve academic performance. Computerised training games are thought to enhance the functioning of the fronto-parietal executive functions network and its influence on posterior cortical regions by repeatedly recruiting these networks and strengthening their functional connectivity. I will review additional strands of research assessing whether executive function skills can be trained with approaches that are not computerised and/or focus on metacognition and strategy, such as mindfulness meditation or a strategic use of inhibitory control.
Adapting brains for visual symbolic processing in
reading and math.
Prof. Bruce McCandliss
Department of Psychology, Graduate School of Education, Stanford Neurosciences Institute,
Stanford University, Stanford, CA, U.S.A.
Educational experiences in early elementary school, when successful, drive dramatic cognitive transformations in cognitive abilities, such as the emergence of literacy and mathematical skills. Both of these emerging abilities rests on changes within brain systems that allow visual symbols to be fluently and precisely integrated with other functional brain systems. Thus the initial mastery of visual symbols within education creates fruitful ground for research that links changes in brain systems with educational experiences. This talk will review recent advances in understanding the changes that occur over the first years of elementary school education that enable the emergence of visual symbolic processing in reading and mathematics. By imaging the changes in brain circuitry that occur over the early years of elementary school when visual symbolic processing emerges, we gain insights into questions about how learning experiences lead to changes in these neural circuits, questions about why some children face challenges in making these changes, and questions about why some teachers and educational technologies might be particularly effective in addressing these challenges. By contrasting these changes across the visual symbol domains of reading and mathematics we gain insights into generalities across these different neural pathways, as well as insights into domain specific processes that are unique to each. An emerging theme across these studies centers on the importance of top-down, goal directed attentional processes that drive activation within specific neural systems within a given moment, across a series of learning epochs, and across a child’s early education. Better understanding such processes may open a new form of collaboration between cognitive neuroscience constructs that seek to find mechanisms of change within neural systems and pedagogical techniques that aim to overcome challenges in developing robust visual symbolic skills in a wide range of children.