Kids, Language & Brains


Music and the Brain 2

Just as Oliver Sacks suggested, music education is important for the brain.  Gottfried Schlaug, director of Music and Neuroimaging at the Stroke Recovery Laboratory at Harvard Medical School says that making music is not just an auditory experience.  It is a multisensory and motor experience, a powerful stimulant.  In addition, research shows that music training builds better sensory integration as well as enhanced auditory cognition across the lifespan. The weight of the research is clearly on the side of musical training, training that comes with significant neurobiological reach.  Benjamin Rich Zendel, a neuroscientist who studies music and the brain at the University of Montreal says that musical expertise is not the objective of such training and is unnecessary to achieve notable effects.  It seems the benefits can happen in a fairly short training period.  And while starting musical training in elementary school is ideal, the benefits are also available to high school students who reap the rewards after a very short time period. Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University, argues that policy makers need to forget about seeing music education as something focused on forming  professional musicians.  In her eyes, music education appears to be a fundamental part of education that has a lasting impact on the brain.  Music education is a viable way to level the playing field so even students of low socioeconomic backgrounds can benefit. Kraus says, emphatically, schools should be treating musical education as the fundamental part of education it is rather than cutting important music programs. Kayt Sukel, Dana org., Brain in the News, Nov-Dec 2013.


Music and the Brain 1

On 9/11/2015, to honor the memory of Dr. Oliver Sacks, who passed away on 8/30/15, Jim DeRogatis (Chicago Sun-Times) and Greg Kot (Chicago Tribune) revisited their interview with him from 10/10/2008.   The film "Awakenings," starring Robin Williams as Dr. Sacks gave us some insights into how the British-born neurologist practicing in America (NYU) saw music connecting to the brain, and connecting for some Parkinson disease patients as nothing else could.  For these disconnected patients, music in their lives meant "go, flow, rhythm," all qualities that seemed out of their reach at that stage in their disease.  Music reconnected them to the world, if only for a time.  One anecdote captures the miracles Dr. Sacks was witnessing:  Clive Wearing, a talented musician and musicologist lost his memory following a devastating attack of encephalitis. Believing him to be totally debilitated by memory loss, observers were stunned to realize he had retained all his former abilities as an accomplished musician despite his otherwise life-crushing memory loss.  Dr. Sacks said the brains of professional musicians are quite obviously altered by their intense musical training, and these alterations are visible through out the brain, thanks to MRI technology.   He believed that almost any brain could be trained, even a more mature brain, to develop the natural musicality already present in the vast majority of us.  For this reason Dr. Sacks wanted music to be part of an education, beginning in primary schools.  While he was quick to characterize the so-called "Mozart-effect" as a misinterpretation, he firmly subscribed to the educational power of music.  His 2007 book, Musicophilia:  Tales of Music and the Brain, has been re-released in an expanded paper-back edition.


Why Safe Drinking Water Is So Important to the Developing Brain

In her recent article, Drinking Water and the Developing Brain, MacArthur Foundation "genius" award winner, Ellen K. Silbergeld, Ph.D., points to problems in our drinking water that reach beyond the much publicized lead contamination.  Her interest is in identifying neurotoxins that influence brain development.  These DNT's, developmental neurotoxins, affect brain development from the prenatal period through childhood and adolescence, with long term consequences affecting motor function, learning and behavior.  By robbing children of their opportunity to realize their full potential, DNT's can lead to lower graduation rates, increased crime and reduced lifetime earnings.  Economic costs are calculated to be in the billions.  Developing brains are extremely sensitive to neurotoxic hazards because of the complexity of the human central nervous system. Due to this complexity, our brains require an extended period of pre-and postnatal molecular events involving a temporal cascade of cell migration, differentiation, and communication, and the biological wiring of neuronal circuitry. The immune and endocrine systems are among the other physiological systems that help shape and regulate brain development. During this extended period, the brain and central nervous system are extremely vulnerable, offering multiple targets for harmful exposures which can interrupt and alter normal developmental sequences. Such exposures can interfere with developmental timings and have persistent impact on brain function as well as cause effects that become apparent only years later.  Lead contamination was the first environmental agent to be recognized as toxic. By the 1800's lead and mercury were associated with behavioral and neurological dysfunction in adults and children. Today, DNT's fall into four broad categories:  metals, solvents, industrial chemicals, and natural products. Maternal exposure to DNT's leads to fetal exposure.  Failure to detect high levels of DNT's in drinking water has led women of childbearing age to be exposed. We cannot afford to remain ignorant of the nature and extent of DNT's in our drinking water. Current methods for identifying DNT's here and abroad are acknowledged to be inadequate, and as a result, success in assuring the safety of our drinking water is yet to be realized.  Dana Foundation, Cerebrum, July 11, 2016.


Chip, Crack, Break

Such is the rather tongue-in-cheek prediction Phil Rosenthal makes regarding China and a future potential cold war between them and us. His reasoning?  China's linguistic intolerance. With growing resistance to what at worst may make us groan, the powers that be in China see puns as a potential source of cultural and linguistic chaos.  To protect those it deems most vulnerable, minors, the government is cracking down on wordplay in the media and in advertising.  Somehow this doesn't jibe with our experience: Kids especially enjoy wordplay and love telling jokes that more often than not revolve around wordplay.   As Rosenthal says, puns may be low humor.  Often the only person who thinks they're clever is the one who comes up with them  Even when they are mildly amusing, they wear out their welcome in a hurry.  But they can also be funny and do encourage a certain amount of creative thought.  Social media and Internet humor, often involving Chinese language puns or plays on words, have been witty and quite popular.  But that was then.  Evidently China has lost its sense of humor.  Rosenthal asks the government of China how dumb it must think its people are if mere wordplay threatens to mislead them?  Punish language?  No. Pun-ish language.  He sees in this a patriotic statement.  We don't fear puns, even if we don't always embrace them. Banning puns?  Absurd.  Chicago Tribune, 12/3/14.


Critical Development in the Young Brain

Just as electricity traveling on wires, nerve impulses in our brains travel along nerve fibers. The necessary insulation for the nerve fibers is called myelin, a fatty substance that protects the nerve fibers as it increases the speed at which nerve impulses can travel.  While babies' brains contain very little myelin at birth, levels of myelin increase quickly throughout childhood.  Research think, without being able to fully explain the process, children's ability to learn quickly and manage large amounts of information depend on the rapid myelination of the nerve fibers.  Generally, the thicker the myelin sheath around the nerve fiber, the more quickly impulses can travel.  Two kinds of magnetic resource imagining (MRI), used in tandem, have been helpful in attempts to study nerve fibers in the brain:  MRI based DTI and mcDESPOT.  Measuring their results against theoretical predictions, these researchers were glad to see the accuracy of their results and calculations.  It's going to take years of study to reap the benefits of these kinds of observations but clearly they are important first steps in in gaining understanding of these vital stages of early human development., Brain in the News, June 2016.   


The Eyes Have It

We're already familiar with the brain's capacity to rewire itself early in life, but how this happens has been a question researchers were intent on answering.  Takao Hensch of Children's Hospital Boston and colleagues in France and Japan have identified a protein that triggers plasticity in visual systems.  Parvalbumin (PV) cells located in the visual cortex help the brain rewire based on visual input.  But this research, relying on studies of postnatal mice, held some suprises regarding the molecular triggers that determine when the PV cells mature. The first surprise was that Otx2, a protein essential for fetal head formation and thought to disappear at birth actually orchestrates PV cell maturation.The second surprise was that Otx2 is synthesized not by the PV cells but by the retina from which it is sent to the cortex. Instead of the brain specifying the timing of the critical period, the eye tells the brain when to become plastic. Using mice raised in the dark, Hensch and his colleagues determined the migration of Otx2 from eye to brain is activity-dependent.  Their question now is what is the step which triggers the Otx2 to migrate from the eye to the cortex? That's a question they're now working on.  In the meantime, they speculate that other sensory systems may also have a molecular messenger that triggers plasticity.  By being able to control plasticity's timing, a range of needs could be addressed, from learning a language to recovering from a stroke.  Sandra A. Swanson, BrainWork "News," Sept-Oct 2008.