TORONTO – New York scientists have recruited the likes of Elmo, Cookie Monster and the friendly faces on Sesame Street to help them study brain development in children.
University of Rochester researchers believe their findings may help in identifying and helping kids with learning disabilities.
For their study, experts had 27 kids between four and 11 years old and 20 adults watch a 20-minute segment of Sesame Street.
While the subjects were watching, fMRI scans – or functional magnetic resonance imaging – was used to capture neural activity in the brain.
Over the past 15 years or so, scientists have begun to use brain imaging to understand how humans process thought in real time.
“But this is the first study to use the method as a tool for understanding development,” lead scientist Jessica Cantlon said.
Brain imaging reveals kids’ brain development
The fMRI scan on the left represents correlations in neural activity between children and adults, in the middle between children and other children, and on the right between adults and other adults. Such neural maps, says University of Rochester cognitive scientist Jessica Cantlon, reveal how the brain’s neural structure develops along predictable pathways as we mature. (Jessica Cantlon, University of Rochester photo)
In that 20-minute clip, hundreds of scans were gathered from each participant, precisely one snapshot every two seconds.
The scans virtually segmented the brain into 3D grids to create “neural maps” that tracked what kids processed while watching.
“We were able to show them this really complicated video where there’s a song, they’re talking about numbers and words in between music, and there are Muppets everywhere,” she told the National Institutes of Health in the U.S.
Watch a clip shown to the kids in the study here:
Meanwhile, those who watched the video completed standardized IQ tests for math and verbal ability.
“What is very far away, can only be seen at night, and twinkles in the sky?” was one of the questions, Cantlon told Global News.
“Cookie Monster’s babysitter gave him three cookies. When he pleaded for more, she gave him six more cookies. How much is three cookies and six more altogether?” was another.
Results showed that kids who had neural maps that resembled those of adults fared better on the standardized tests.
That may not seem like a groundbreaking finding, but Cantlon suggests this glimpse into children’s brains will pave a way to better identifying what might be going wrong with some kids’ learning abilities.
“We can start to think about using brain data as a new source of information about whether a child is learning well and if not, why not,” she explained to Global News.
She said that right now, behavioural tests are the main tools scientists rely on to try to figure out why some kids have trouble in the classroom. Access to the brain’s functioning adds an invaluable layer to understanding what’s going on firsthand.
Ideally, these brain scans could one day determine why some kids have trouble, Cantlon said, reminding readers that this is a still a “distant goal.”
Mapping components of the brain
The scientists also noted that their findings second research that identifies where certain developing abilities are.
For example, kids who tested higher in verbal tests had adult-like neural patterns in the Broca area where speech and language is involved.
For math, better scores were related to growing patterns in the IPS – the intraparietal sulcus – which is known for helping to compute numbers.
Cantlon’s complete findings were published Friday in the Public Library of Science’s PLoS Biology journal.