By: Simon Collins
If you have trouble concentrating or learning, Dr David Moreau believes he may be able to rewire your brain to help.
Moreau, who heads the University of Auckland’s Brain Dynamics Lab, has developed a combination of exercise and computer games designed to build up whatever parts of your brain are weakest.
Initial results have found that children who follow the programme for just half an hour a day for 10 weeks can recognise patterns faster, and are better at holding several things in their minds at once, than children who did other activities in that half-hour such as playing board games.
It’s early days. No one has scanned the children’s brains yet to see how they are changing.
But Associate Professor Karen Waldie, the psychologist who hired French-born Moreau after a worldwide search in 2015, says the programme assumes that the brain is “plastic” – it can be changed with practice.
“The assumption is that doing this programme over a 10-week period, with all these different cognitive sub-skills worked into the training programme, it will rewire the brain,” she says.
The pair aim to start the programme with children as young as possible – before they are diagnosed with any learning differences such as dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
“The whole idea behind it is to start the intervention before there is a diagnosis – to ‘normalise’ the brain before they even need a diagnosis,” Waldie says. “That would be the ultimate aim.”
Our brains are different
Twelve years ago, Waldie’s early research helped to establish that the brains of people with dyslexia, or reading problems, actually are wired differently than non-dyslexic brains.
Using technology that was still new at the time, she scanned the brains of people while they were reading and found that most people mainly activated brain cells on the left side of their brains, which also contains the main areas used for speech.
In contrast, dyslexic people mainly activated areas in their right brains. They could read words that they had learnt to recognise visually, but they struggled to read new words that other people can “sound out” by recognising the sound that each part of the word represents.
Waldie and others have found that people with autism tend to have larger brains, suggesting that brain cells haven’t been “pruned” as children grow up so the brain is less efficient at tasks such as recognising faces and controlling instinctual behaviour.
“Pruning occurs at critical stages between ages 2-3 and 10-12, when you have strong connections and fewer neurons because the ones that are not useful get discarded,” Waldie says.
“The theory is that in autism the connections are not being pruned.”
In ADHD, brain scans also show less activity in the front part of the brain, which keeps our instincts in check.
All these differences are strongly genetic, or running in families, although Moreau and Waldie have written: “Despite the genetic component of these learning disorders, heritable traits do not account for the full variance of their occurrence, leaving room for environmental factors.”
And although these brain differences can make it harder for people to read, recognise faces or control instinctual behaviour, they may have other advantages.
“There is anecdotal evidence that people with dyslexia are more likely to be in creative professions,” Waldie says.
“Whether it is cause or effect we don’t know, but maybe their brain is differently wired and has a more holistic view.
“The biggest problem is self-esteem. There needs to be a lot of work to make sure people know that their kids are not dumb.”
Rewiring the brain
Many programmes have been developed to help children with learning differences. Waldie is sceptical of most of them, but has found that tuition by Specific Learning Disability NZ (Speld) helped children struggling with reading to sound out new words.
“The average effect size from the cognitive tests (1.55) is noteworthy and testament to the ability of the brain to be modified,” she wrote in 2014.
Many studies have also found that exercise can improve memory and thinking, or “cognition”, in children, old people and people with coordination disorders or schizophrenia.
Moreau’s new programme, MovinCog, developed with funding from Anne Gaze’s CampusLink Foundation, involves 10 minutes of high-intensity exercise, then 20 minutes playing computer games designed to build specific skills such as concentration, memory and number skills, starting from any level.
“The software gives them exactly what they need when they need it,” he says.
“An example would be if a particular student has ADHD, say. The chances are his working memory, his ability to retain information in his head, and his attention are a bit lower than they could be.
“The software is going to pick up on that, recognise that there is a sub-average performance in those abilities, so it’s going to feed through more of the games that target those abilities.”
The programme is aimed initially at children aged 8 to 12. Waldie piloted it on her own son Zachary Kirk, now aged 11, and it has since been trialled at 23 schools from Whangarei to Invercargill and at two schools in Sydney.
St Cuthbert’s College’s junior school in Auckland was one of the first to try it and has adopted it for the first half-hour of the day for all students in Years 4 to 6. Angela Bell, who was the college’s head of personalised learning when the Herald visited, says the programme helps all students wherever they start from.
“What I love about this programme is that we can help our diverse learners, but we can also help all students,” she says.
“Even with the girls with learning differences, we find they are all quite different. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”
Once the research base is strong enough to show that it works, Moreau hopes to make the programme free to the world online.
“We are aiming for the end of 2018.”
The lab is also seeking research funds to develop games that might help children on the autism spectrum.
Psychologists are divided about the usefulness of brain studies of learning differences. British psychologist Julian Elliott and US-based Elena Grigorenko have argued that there are “no established biomarkers, either genetic or brain-based” to distinguish someone with “dyslexia” from anyone else who struggles with reading.
“Complex developmental difficulties such as reading disability are best considered as heterogeneous conditions influenced, but not determined, by multiple genetic and environmental risk factors,” they argue.
They recommend assessing each child’s individual difficulties to design “individually tailored educational interventions”.
Canadian brain scientist Professor Adele Diamond told a forum at Auckland University last year that computerised brain exercises could improve children’s working memory, but that broader learning also depended on non-academic factors such as being fit, cared for and happy.
“Brains work better when we are not stressed and emotional, so before you diagnose a child with ADHD, check whether they are stressed,” she said.
Children could not relax if they always felt pressure to succeed.
“Children who are lonely have more difficulty learning. We need to feel there are people who care for us, and that we are part of something larger than ourselves,” she said.
“If a child is stressed, sad, lonely or not physically fit, they can’t learn.
“What activities help? Storytelling, dance, arts, music, play and sports. Almost any activity can be a way in – the key is that the child loves the activity.”
An open question
Waldie says scientists are still learning about what works best.
“These neuro-imaging technologies are less than 30 years old,” she says.
“We are still in our infancy of understanding what the typical brain looks like, then you need all of the research on the atypical brain.
“Whether or not we can ‘normalise’ the atypical brain – and do we want to – is still an open question.”
The Auckland lab is looking for adults with dyslexia for a new study. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Struggling to learn