How Neuroplasticity Was Discovered

NeuroplasticityOne of the most significant researchers on neuroplasticity was Michael Merzenich. Back in the early 1970s, he discovered this by running some very specific studies in the laboratory.

Before you find out about them, it’s important to know about something called the homunculus (pronounced  hoe – monk’- you-luss). This is something that students learn in basic neuroanatomy classes. The word “homunculus” means “little man,” which refers to a visual representation of the different parts of the body as seen by the brain. The brain sees your hands as very large because many, many nerves connect to your hands.

For example, when you catch a ball, you have nerves registering how big the ball is, how heavy it weighs, how each finger should hold it, and so on. But your back is another matter. If you close your eyes and ask someone to touch your back, you may not be able to guess the correct spot. Your body does not have as many nerves connected to the skin on your back. The back would look really small on the homunculus picture.  Another term for the homunculus is “cortical map.”

Your brain has a cortical map for your feet, hands, and every other part of the body. Merzenich found that if one cortical map is deprived of its input, this situation wasn’t permanent. Later on it could become active once again if other nearby cortical maps were stimulated. This process occurs thanks to “neuroplasticity,” or the brain’s ability to adapt to change.

Have you ever heard of what happens when someone loses a limb due to amputation? Soon after the amputation, the person suddenly starts feeling pain as if the arm or leg was still there. The cortical map has reorganized itself, in order for this to happen.

This concept of cortical maps and neuroplasticity comes at a perfect time in history to help children with reading, math or memory problems. By stimulating nearby cortical maps in the brain, ones that are close to the area of dysfunction, a child’s brain gets the stimulation that is needed to fire up the neurons in the area that weren’t working.

That means the child will be solving math questions easily, reading, and showing signs of a good memory with the correct help–all thanks to Michael Merzenich, the creator of the Fast ForWord™ program. Learn more about Fast ForWord™ software and its science-based approach to helping children with reading problems and other learning difficulties.


The Brain Activity Map Project vs. Online Reading Programs

Online Reading ProgramsIt’s exciting that we have much to look forward to with President Obama’s Brain Activity Map Project that will discover more about the circuitry of the human brain. It’s difficult and even impossible to fathom the new direction that education, medical science and technology will take after all the data comes in from this project.

But the bottom line is that we already know an awful lot about the human brain that simply is not being utilized to its fullest. For example, there’s the concept of brain plasticity. Plasticity is the concept that the brain has the ability to grow rapidly after intellectual stimulation.

We’ve already discovered that stimulating the brain with fun little games such as in Gemm Learning’s online reading programs is enough to cause global cognitive changes in the brain in a very positive way. And children are proving the results, not just one by one, but by the thousands who have been researched by dozens of universities and colleges worldwide.

If you give a child the intellectual stimulation he or she needs, then you get a better functioning brain. Why couldn’t money have been allocated to the use of the current technologies that work, such as Fast ForWord™? There are children’s futures at stake right now, ones that can’t wait until 10 years of data from the Brain Activity Map Project comes in. And who will sift through all that data?

The Map Project is destined to bring in new and fascinating technology; there’s no doubt about that. You are likely to see new online reading programs and remedial learning applications as a result. But why not take that first year’s allocated money – $300 million to give to schools to initiate what already works?

Why not go after the students now who need the help, who are waiting for a solution, and who are depending on us for their future? Every child needs to learn to read, and if he or she can’t, the negative reinforcement from school and from society as well as peers only dooms the child to a difficult life. Learn how an online reading program can help your child today.


Disliking School and Losing Confidence: The Matthew Effect and Your Child

matthew effect

Somewhere between second and fourth grade, parents and teachers begin to observe a very noticeable difference among kids when it comes to both their academic performance and their feelings about school. Usually, the two go hand in hand. Youngsters who perform well in school find it enjoyable while those who struggle academically often dislike school. Makes sense, right? The question is, which comes first: a child’s poor academic performance or his disdain for school? Psychologist Keith Stanovich says it’s the latter and pinpoints literacy issues as the main culprit for academic failure in the early primary grades and beyond.

Stanovich was the first to coin the term “the Matthew Effect” as a way of illustrating the negative psychological effects a child experiences as a result of struggling to acquire literacy. The term has its origins in scripture, namely the verse in Matthew that reads, “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath,” or in layman’s terms, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Although you can probably think of a dozen different ways that this adage can apply to our daily lives, the way it impacts young school children is of particular concern.

What is the Matthew Effect?

At some point during the early elementary years, students have to make the transition between learning to read and reading to learn. Those students who have yet to learn to read fluently begin to lag behind as more and more subject matter content is delivered through textbooks. They suddenly find themselves struggling not just in the area of Language Arts but in Science and Math as well, subjects that they may have otherwise excelled in had they not been required to read a textbook in order to learn the information. Unfortunately, once students begin to fall behind, some of them never catch up. That’s why it’s imperative that parents learn to recognize the signs of the downward side of the Matthew Effect, so that they can intervene to stop the cycle of failure and defeat that many elementary children experience.

What are the Signs of the Matthew Effect?

Although every child is different, there are some general signs of the Matthew Effect that all parents should be aware of. These include:

  • Resists new things, no longer a learning risk-taker
  • Anxiety over assignments, homework, tests
  • Suddenly dislikes school
  • A drop in grades or standardized test scores

What Can I Do to Help?

If you notice signs of a negative spiral and are worried that it may be impacting your child’s academic success or emotional wellbeing, rest assured that there are steps you can take to turn the proverbial ship around and get your child back on the path to calmer waters. That doesn’t mean there is a one-size-fits-all solution, however.

While some experts argue that retention is the answer, the data doesn’t clear show that retention makes a difference.  Most parents turn to tutoring to help their children cope, but tutoring does not address the source of declining confidence and skill that is at the heart of a downward trend.  The best answer is grade-level remediation (either at home or school, but ideally both!) that gets at the source of confidence erosion, the reading or learning delays that are undermining performance at school.  Fast ForWord software by Gemm Learning is one such program.

Nearly everyone agrees that something must be done, though. Crossing your fingers and hoping that your child catches up with his peers simply isn’t an option.

Is Cognitive Training for Real?

cognitive trainingCan video and online brain training games really make you smarter? This is the question that David Hambrick, associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University, poses in a recent NY Times article, “I.Q. Points for Sale, Cheap.”

IQ Can Be Changed, But By How Much?

The article’s main point focuses more on the claims of some cognitive training firms, most particularly the now infamous Jaeggi study where the equivalent of 6 IQ points were added after only 6 hours of brain training, a study that incidentally has not been replicated. Hambrick points to successful efforts to change cognitive skills made in the Abecedarian Early Intervention study, where 6 IQ points were added on average after five years of training, from birth to entering elementary school.

We are also somewhat circumspect about the potential to change IQ with training.  IQ limits seem akin to natural physical talent limits on the sports field — while they can be developed with practice, there are limits.

Is IQ a Distraction?

It appears that Hambrick chooses to link cognitive training to IQ because it is more controversial.  But achievement is not defined entirely by IQ or natural talent. Skill development through good technique and practice are perhaps equally important.

In academics, essential skills are reading, learning and focus.  While the ability to change IQ is questionable, these learning skills can be helped by cognitive training — processing, memory, sequencing and other skills can be exercised and improved to some absolute levels for most individuals.  This is proven science, established by fMRI images that show changed neural activity after cognitive training.

The fact that learning skills can be improved with brain training is reason enough to consider trying a brain-based intervention if your child has learning difficulties.

The fact that these gains sometimes translate into higher testing on IQ tests is a sideshow, a distraction.  Improving IQ is not the reason to try Fast ForWord or some other cognitive software.  However, just as practice makes perfect on the sports field, improving the outcomes of natural sports talent, cognitive training improves learning and reading skills.

Brain Change — A Quick, Easy Project?

“I.Q. Points for Sale, Cheap” also mentions how the Jaeggi study was able to produce major gains in only 6 hours of exercise.  This is treated with suspicion.  We agree.

In our world of cognitive training for reading and learning using Fast ForWord software, our benchmarks are 20 hours for any material change, 30-40 hours for the best outcomes.

Furthermore, cognitive training requires consistent practice and an “aerobic” effort each time, pushing cognitive skills to new levels each and every time.  This is another area where we think these off-the-shelf brain game programs fall down.  Consistent attendance requires consistently engaging material and personal trainer oversight, and we use remote educators to support Fast ForWord at home.

Is It Inattentive ADD or Auditory Processing Disorder?


Why It’s Probably Not ADD

Just because there’s a drug for it does not mean that ADD is a disease or disability.  Actually, it’s not a disability.  It’s a description of behavior — an inability to focus for sustained periods or a tendency to be easily distracted.

You may think of it as a disease because there is a drug you can take for it, and most of the time that drug is actually pretty effective.

Just like Adderall is effective in helping perfectly normal students hyper-perform to ace a test.

While ADHD or ADHD-PH (Predominantly Hyperactive) is more complex and actually has multiple causes, our subject here is ADD, or better said, Inattentive ADD or ADHD-PI (Predominantly Inattentive).  Here are the classic symptoms of ADD:

  • Drifting off in class
  • Cannot attend to reading, homework or tests for extended periods
  • Forgetfulness
  • Struggling with multiple-step directions

While many children with these ADD symptoms end up on medication, most often there is an underlying learning difficulty that is causing these symptoms, and that is auditory processing disorder (APD).  This describes an inability to process language efficiently. To a child with APD, words seem muddy or unclear, and so listening requires extra effort. After a while, this will lead the child to tune out, which a teacher or parent may misinterpret as ADD.

Muddy listening also impacts phonological awareness, sounding out words while reading. Many children with auditory processing difficulties are able to manage reading, but the effort required is taxing, and so they have no reading stamina … just like with ADD.

Here’s the good news.  In many cases, a one-time treatment that exercises auditory processing skills – -to make them more accurate and more efficient – can remove the source of attention deficit symptoms once and for all.

Improved processing efficiency makes listening in class easier and more interesting (as more is heard and understood) and less exhausting, so children will not tune out. To be fair, this is partly a learned behavioral skill, and so sometimes, even with much better processing skills in place, it takes a while for new habits, like listening attentively, to form!

Improved processing  also helps thinking. We think in language, and so if language is muddy, thinking is compromised.  Better thinking skills help test scores, homework habits and self confidence.

Improved phonological awareness makes reading more automatic or effortless.  This makes reading more natural.  It frees up the brain for reading comprehension, making the text more interesting.  The end result is better reading, and more reading stamina.

Our bottom line is this:

Don’t think of ADD as something you hope your child will grow out of that  has to be medicated for the time being.  Instead, think of it as a symptom, a clue, that your child has some kind of learning difficulty that in most cases can be targeted and helped.

And in most cases, because all learning in the end comes down to language — listening, reading, writing and thinking — a learning difficulty is related to how your child processes language.  And in most cases, that is a difficulty that, with intense practice, can be dramatically improved.

Gemm Learning uses Fast ForWord software to strengthen auditory processing skills to help inattentive ADD, reading and learning. If you think your child has an auditory processing disorder, learn more about APD treatment.