Kids, Language & Brains


Right Brain + Left Brain = Creativity?

While it is often claimed creative people make greater use of the right hemisphere of their brain, this myth is being debunked by researchers. They have discovered that the real source of creativity is the strength of the neural connection between the left and right hemispheres. In a study co-authored by Duke University's David Dunson, distinguished professor of statistics, and Daniele Durante, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Padova in Italy, their perspective comes from the field of "connectomics"  which focuses on brain networks rather than analyzing different brain regions.  Using evidence from MRI scans conducted by Rex Jung, clinical professor of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico, and his team, Dunson and Durante analyzed the collected data looking for statistical differences between brain structures.  They found significant statistical differences in the number of inter-hemispheric connections in the top 15th and lowest 15th percentiles of creativity.  Granting the small size of their sample, Dunson and Durante are quick to say they will need to work with larger and more diverse groups and with altered research designs in future studies.  At this point they are comfortable stating their findings are consistent with recent ideas that creative innovations arise from communication between regions of the brain that ordinarily aren't connected.  Shagun Vashisth, Brain in the News,  April 2017.


Arriving at a Mature Brain

Pinpointing a specific time when a brain can be described as mature is a suspect endeavor. For not only is there no one-size fits all time for an individual brain's maturity, there is no one-size fits all method for measuring brain maturity, according to Abigail Baird, a neuroscientist at Vassar College and a Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives (DBI) member.  Historically, age 18 has been identified as the age of maturity but that's quite arbitrary.  Maturation is about the refinement of circuits and larger networks that produce increasingly coordinated behaviors and brain activity.  Those refinements and improvements in neural coordination are heavily dependent on neurobiology, practice and experience, not to mention individual differences.  As juvenile courts begin taking increased notice of the psychological research on brain development, it is more important than ever for brain science studies to be correctly considered in law and policy decisions.  B.J. Casey, DBI member and director of the Fundamentals of the Adolescent Brain (FAB) at Yale University says using the very term maturity sets us up for failure.  She argues that while there is no single point in time when the brain does everything well, that doesn't mean young people can't make good decisions. As science and public policy meet, it seems as if the real danger is the potential misuse of scientific research. Casey sees close collaboration of scientists and lawmakers as the best way to assure accurate interpretation and application of research findings. Such an outcome stands to benefit society as well as adolescents working their way to maturity.  Kayt Sukel, Briefing Paper, The Dana Foundation, April 4, 2017.


From Use It & Lose It to Use It or Lose It

The point of the title is to track the evolution of scientific thinking about the human brain and how it has changed. Prior to the 1970's scientists generally believed the brain was fixed and resistant to modification.  The analogy with the computer worked then because the brain was considered to be machine-like, a machine destined to show the wear and tear of time leading to inevitable deterioration.  Since then, the thinking has changed dramatically and the computer/machine model has been displaced by a view of the brain as an organism capable of self-healing. Scientists have learned that not only does the brain's circuitry change with experience and activity, when a body part ceases sending sensory input (as in stroke victims), the brain area formerly dedicated to that weakened part can be taken over to perform another function. Today the mainstream view in neuroscience is that brain circuits are constantly changing as we think, perceive, form memories or learn new skills as connections between cells change and strengthen.   It is this capacity to change and strengthen that helps us understand how the brain can be self-healing.  With Alzheimer's as one example, researchers have shown that mental and especially physical exercise can lower the risk of experiencing dementia.   Even having multiple copies of the genetic materials associated with the risk of Alzheimer's is not enough to produce the disease.  How we live matters.  And now, rather than waiting some six weeks following a patient's stroke to intervene and begin active treatment, physicians, realizing how the brain can rewire itself, act quickly to get their stroke patients into therapy/rehabilitation as soon as possible.     Norman Doidge, Brain in the News, February 2015.


Does the Brain Sleep When We Sleep?

I think there's this pervasive misconception that your brain just turns off when you go to sleep, because there's no obvious output.  So says Professor Sara Aton from her University of Michigan lab.  Following this reasoning, many other scientists had no interest in the study of sleep as a research topic.  Yet Aton would beg to differ. Even though she and her team use mice as subjects in their sleep studies and are quick to note that translations from animal studies to human studies can be problematic, they are quite sure that, like mice brains, our brains keep working as we sleep. For Aton, while we're sleeping, our brains are learning. That's good to know because we spend a third of our lives sleeping.  Sleep is essential to our survival. Recent tools such as brain imaging show that some parts of the brain are actually more active during sleep.  Aton has found that sleep is critical for learning new things. When new memories form, the brain changes the structure and function of its neural circuits. Disrupting sleep disrupts those essential brain changes; sleep actually helps the brain absorb new experiences.   As an example, people studying new vocabulary words retain them better for the next day's quiz if they can sleep within three hours of first learning. Why?  Sleep is needed  in a certain window of time, along with activity in a particular part of the brain and protein synthesis in that circuit for the brain to retain new information.  As much as she values sleep, Aton's ongoing study of sleep aims to determine which aspects of sleep are necessary for memory formation in the brain and which aspects of sleep are sufficient to achieve the same thing.   Elizabeth Wason, Brain in the News, March 2017.