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Neuroscience, Pediatrics, Research

Tutoring changes the brain in kids with math learning disabilities

Tutoring changes the brain in kids with math learning disabilities

One-on-one tutoringA new Stanford study, publishing today in Nature Communications, sheds light on how to help children with math learning disabilities. One-on-one cognitive tutoring improves math performance in these children and also normalizes brain activity in several regions important for numerical problem solving, the research found.

The findings are important because math learning disabilities often fall off educators’ and parents’ radar. (Everyone has heard of dyslexia, but its numerical equivalent, dyscalculia? Not so much.) Yet math learning disabilities can hamper a child’s ability to gain basic life skills such as managing time and money, and can prevent children from growing up to pursue math- and science-related careers.

The new study is similar to another recent experiment that demonstrated alleviation of math anxiety with tutoring. Both studies are the work of the Stanford MathBrain Project, directed by Vinod Menon, PhD. Teresa Iuculano, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar working with Menon, is the new study’s lead author.

In the new research, 30 children in third grade received eight weeks of one-on-one tutoring in basic arithmetic skills; half of the kids had math learning disabilities and half did not. The instructors adjusted the sessions’ pace and emphasis individually for each child, helping students past bottlenecks in their learning without making them feel like they might be falling behind their peers. All of the children got MRI brain scans before and after tutoring.

Before tutoring began, the kids with math learning disabilities had abnormal function in a network of brain areas involved in solving numerical problems, including the parietal, prefrontal and ventral temporal-occipital areas. Kids without math learning disabilities did not show these problems. After tutoring, the differences between the two groups’ brain scans disappeared. The children’s math performance also improved, in sync with the brain changes.

These findings suggest that tutoring actually fixes the brain issues at the root of math learning disabilities, rather than providing children with a work-around that circumvents the real problem.

“We demonstrate that, in parallel with performance normalization, 1:1 tutoring elicits extensive functional brain changes in children with math learning disabilities, normalizing their brain activity to the level of neurotypical peers,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

The scientists want to conduct follow-up studies to find out how long the effects of tutoring last. Their new discoveries also lay a framework for studying how to intervene in other forms of learning disabilities.

Previously: Stanford team shows that one-on-one tutoring relieves math anxiety in children, Stanford team uses brain scans to forecast development of kids’ math skills and New research tracks “math anxiety” in the brain
Photo by U.S. Department of Education

Imaging, Neuroscience, NIH, Research, Videos

Video reconstruction reveals stunning detail within a tiny section of brain

Video reconstruction reveals stunning detail within a tiny section of brain

Important discoveries in science are often called “big” breakthroughs, yet much of the information that makes these “aha” moments possible is found in the most diminutive of details. So it seems fitting that our first glimpse into the inner workings of the mammalian cerebral cortex arises from a tidbit of brain no bigger than a grain of sand.

For the first time, researchers have created a digital reconstruction of part of a mammalian cerebral cortex — the “rind” of the brain, about two to three dimes thick, that plays a central role in functions like memory, thought, language and consciousness.

This digitized rendering was created by NIH grantee Jeff Lichtman, MD, PhD, and his colleagues as part of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. Francis Collins, MD, PhD, director of the National Institutes of Health, offers more details on how the film was made over on the NIH Director’s blog.

Previously: Exercise and your brain: Stanford research highlighted on NIH Director’s blogProcess that creates transparent brain named one of year’s top scientific discoveries and How CLARITY offers an unprecedented 3-D view of the brain’s neural structure

Genetics, In the News, Mental Health, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

Bright Young Mind: Stanford postdoc featured as a top young scientist

Bright Young Mind: Stanford postdoc featured as a top young scientist
100315_nobels_rajasethupathy_resizedYoung researchers don’t always get the accolades they deserve, so I was delighted to see a recent story that’s bucking this trend. This week Science News released its list of “10 scientists who are making their mark,” and Stanford neuroscientist Priya Rajasethupathy, MD, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow in the lab of Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, was featured among them.

Rajasethupathy was nominated for this honor by another group of outstanding scientists: Science News polled 30 Nobel Prize winners to learn which young researchers are doing work that’s worth watching.

Rajasethupathy’s research on how memories are made and stored caught their eye because she’s found that long-term memories may leave lasting marks on DNA. (Her work “has been called groundbreaking, compelling and beautifully executed,” according to the piece.) By studying sea slugs, she and her colleagues have also identified a tiny molecule that may be involved in memory.

Now Rajasethypathy is expanding on this early work and investigating the neural circuits involved in memory recall. To do this, she’s exploring specific genetic mutations to see if they result in abnormal memory behavior. This work may offer insights into neurological disorders, she explains.

Previously: Exploring the role of prion-like proteins in memory disordersNo long-term cognitive effects seen in younger post-menopausal women on hormone therapy and Individuals’ extraordinary talent to never forget could offer insights into memory
Photo by Connie Lee; courtesy of Pryia Rajasethupathy

Neuroscience, Pediatrics, Research, Stanford News

Stanford team shows that one-on-one tutoring relieves math anxiety in children

Stanford team shows that one-on-one tutoring relieves math anxiety in children

Math-worksheetKids who suffer from anxiety about doing math problems can find relief in a program of one-on-one tutoring, which not only improves their math skills but also fixes abnormal responses in the fear circuits in their brains.

That’s the finding from a new study published today in the Journal of Neuroscience. The study is great news for those seeking relief from a common but often-overlooked problem.

From our press release about the research:

“The most exciting aspect of our findings is that cognitive tutoring not only improves performance, but is also anxiety-reducing,” said the study’s senior author, Vinod Menon, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “It was surprising that we could, in fact, get remediation of math anxiety.”

Even if they are good at math, many children feel anxious about doing math problems. For some, the anxiety persists throughout life, discouraging them from pursuing advanced math and science classes as well as careers that rely on mathematical expertise. Yet almost no attention has been paid to how to help alleviate this problem.

“Math anxiety has been under the radar,” said the study’s lead author, research associate Kaustubh Supekar, PhD. “People think it will just go away, but for many children and adults, it doesn’t.”

The researchers tested the idea that math anxiety could be helped with the same tactics used for phobias, which can be relieved by exposure therapy. In this approach, the person suffering the phobia is repeatedly exposed to the thing they fear, but in the context of a safe environment. The eight-week tutoring program, which covered a series of basic addition lessons, gave kids an opportunity to repeatedly tackle math concepts with the help of someone who could give positive, appropriate guidance to get past any bottlenecks in their understanding.

The team plans to conduct future research to find out what elements of the tutoring were most important in alleviating kids’ fear of math.

Previously: New research tracks “math anxiety” in the brain, Stanford team uses brain scans to forecast development of kids’ math skills and A not so fearful symmetry: Applying neuroscience findings t0 teaching math
Photo by Hana Tichá

Chronic Disease, Neuroscience, Pain, Research, Stanford News

Study: Effects of chronic pain on relationships can lead to emotional distress

Study: Effects of chronic pain on relationships can lead to emotional distress

sad womanIt’s not surprising that people living with chronic pain often have high levels of emotional distress. The question that Stanford researcher Drew Sturgeon, MD, a postdoctoral pain psychology fellow in the Stanford Pain Management Center, recently aimed to determine was why. Is a patient’s depression or anger caused by his or her inability to do physical things or is it perhaps because pain can limit social relationships?

“What I hear from patients is that it’s not just that it hurts, but that the pain takes you away from things that matter to you – the things that are meaningful to you,” Sturgeon recently said.

To explore this further, Sturgeon and colleagues analyzed data from 675 patients who came into the Stanford pain clinic and filled out data sets for the national open source Collaborative Health Outcomes Information Registry, referred to as CHOIR. CHOIR is a registry that originated at the Stanford pain center to help improve the collection and reporting of data on pain.

The researchers examined both physical functioning and social satisfaction reported by chronic pain patients, since both have been shown to play a role in causing anger and depression. Their results — published online recently in the journal Pain — show that the effects of chronic pain on a patient’s social relationships can be a key trigger of depression and anger, even more so than the limits that pain can place on physical activity.

“My suspicion was that there was going to be a stronger frustration when [the pain] affects social relations,” Sturgeon told me. “Relationships are one of the strongest predictors of mood. If you’re an avid bicyclist and can no longer cycle, that’s frustrating. But if cycling is the primary source of your social relationships, that’s even more frustrating.”

“The conversation when you have a patient with chronic pain who is very depressed tends to [focus on] how we treat the pain,” he continued. “Perhaps considering how the pain is affecting the people around the patient is also important… This is something that as a field we haven’t been paying very good attention to.”

Previously: National survey reveals extent of Americans living with pain, Chronic pain: getting your head around it and Advances in pain research and treatment
Photo by rochelle hartman

Autism, In the News, Neuroscience

A tribute to Oliver Sacks, from a science writer

A tribute to Oliver Sacks, from a science writer

Library-stacksThe news this weekend of neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks’ death brought back a crystalline memory of myself at 18, searching through the library stacks for a copy of his 1973 book, Awakenings. I needed it because the brains did not show up.

An explanation is in order: The spring semester of my college-freshman biology class included a six-week lab elective. Of a few dozen elective options, I picked “The Brain” because the descriptive blurb said each student would get to dissect a sheep brain. I was a bit grossed out by the idea of a sheep brain in front of me on a tray, but my curiosity outweighed my squeamishness. I intensely wanted to examine a real brain.

However, on the first day of The Brain, our teaching assistant broke the bad news: No brains. The room moaned in dismay.

“I know,” he said. “I’m really sorry. To make it up to you, I’m going to let you each do a short report on anything you want, as long as it has some relationship to the brain.”

I had seen the movie version of Awakenings a few years earlier (with Robin Williams playing Sacks) and remembered my mom saying that there was a book, too, but that she had heard it was clinical and dull. Well, I thought, clinical isn’t so bad, and I can stomach dull if it lets me present a book report about a weird brain disease. The TA approved my topic, and off I went to the university’s biomedical library, where the long, dim, badly ventilated staircases gave me attacks of claustrophobia.

Up the dreaded stairs, through the overheated, papery-smelling stacks to the book itself: A library edition, small and lightweight in my hands, bound in an ugly turquoise cover. A book that, once I opened it, I could not put down. Yes, the writing was clinical – there were medical words, and patients were disguised behind names like “Miriam H.” – but dull? No. An adventure in the brain: patients who had been frozen for decades with post-encephalitic parkinsonian syndrome coming to life again when Sacks gave them a drug, only to slowly sink back into their freeze as the drug stopped working for them.

The main thing I remember thinking is: Eeeeeeee! I want to write stories like this! It did not seem like a dream that had any hope of being realized, since I had no intention of becoming a neurologist. I let the impulse go, prepared my Brain report (a success), and subsequently read many more of Sacks’ books – with great pleasure.

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Neuroscience, Podcasts

Remembering Oliver Sacks, “sleuth of the mind”

Remembering Oliver Sacks, "sleuth of the mind"

Oliver Sacks drawingIn memory of well-known neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, MD, who died yesterday: A look back at a lengthy conversation he had with us in 2012. For this 1:2:1 podcast, Paul Costello, chief communication officer for the medical school, spoke with Sacks about the discoveries Sacks made while writing his book The Mind’s Eye, and how Sacks was grappling with his ocular cancer.

My favorite part, as excerpted in an issue of Stanford Medicine magazine, was a quote of hope from Sacks: “I will say to patients, “I’m not sure that I can cure you or I can help this directly. But let’s think about other ways of living, other ways of doing things, and think positive.”

Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

Genetics, Microbiology, Neuroscience, Research, Science, Stanford News

Quest for molecular cause of ALS points fingers at protein transport, say Stanford researchers

Quest for molecular cause of ALS points fingers at protein transport, say Stanford researchers

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, is a progressive, fatal neurodegenerative disease made famous by Lou Gehrig, who was diagnosed with the disorder in 1939. Although it can be inherited among families, ALS more often occurs sporadically. Researchers have tried for years to identify genetic mutations associated with the disease, as well as the molecular underpinnings of the loss of functioning neurons that gradually leaves sufferers unable to move, speak or even breathe.

We hope that our research may one day lead to new potential therapies for these devastating, progressive conditions

Now Stanford geneticist Aaron Gitler, PhD, and postdoctoral scholar Ana Jovicic, PhD, have investigated how a recently identified mutation in a gene called C9orf72  may cause neurons to degenerate. In particular, a repeated sequence of six nucleotides in C9orf72 is associated with the development of ALS and another, similar disorder called frontotemporal dementia. They published their results today in Nature Neuroscience.

As Gitler explained in our release:

Healthy people have two to five repeats of this six-nucleotide pattern. But in some people, this region is expanded into hundreds or thousands of copies. This mutation is found in about 40 to 60 percent of ALS inherited within families and in about 10 percent of all ALS cases. This is by far the most common cause of ALS, so everyone has been trying to figure out how this expansion of the repeat contributes to the disease.

Gitler and Jovicic turned to a slightly unusual, but uncommonly useful, model organism to study the effect of this expanded repeat:

Previous research has shown that proteins made from the expanded section of nucleotides are toxic to fruit fly and mammalian cells and trigger neurodegeneration in animal models. However, it’s not been clear why. Gitler and Jovicic used a yeast-based system to understand what happens in these cells. Although yeast are a single-celled organism without nerves, Gitler has shown that, because they share many molecular pathways with more-complex organisms, they can be used to model some aspects of neuronal disease.

Using a variety of yeast-biology techniques, Jovicic was able to identify several genes that modulated the toxicity of the proteins. Many of those are known to be involved in some way in shepherding proteins in and out of a cell’s nucleus. They then created neurons from skin samples from people with and without the expanded repeat. Those with the expanded repeat, they found, often had a protein normally found in the nucleus hanging out instead in the cell’s cytoplasm.

Jovicic and Gitler’s findings are reinforced by those of two other research groups, who will publish their results in Nature tomorrow. Those groups used different model organisms, but came to the same conclusions, suggesting that the researchers may be close to cracking the molecular code for this devastating disease.

As Jovicic told me, “Neurodegenerative diseases are very complicated. They likely occur as a result of a defect or defects in basic biology, which is conserved among many distantly related species. We hope that our research may one day lead to new potential therapies for these devastating, progressive conditions.”

Previously: Stanford researchers provide insights into how human neurons control muscle movement, Researchers pinpoint genetic suspects in ALS and In Stanford/Gladstone study, yeast genetics further ALS research

Neuroscience, Pediatrics, Research

Stanford team uses brain scans to forecast development of kids’ math skills

Stanford team uses brain scans to forecast development of kids' math skills

multiplication-table-2Back in the third grade, I did not like math. It was boring! It was hard! Why did I have to memorize the times tables, anyway?

Did this mean I would have trouble with math for the rest of my life, or would I get over my eight-year-old’s funk and end up being good at it? At the time, there was no way to know. But now, in a longitudinal study published today in The Journal of Neuroscience, a team of Stanford researchers show that scans of third graders’ brains forecast which children will eventually do well in math and which of them will continue to struggle.

The resting MRI scans collected in the study evaluated the brain’s structure and connectivity between different brain regions in 43 eight-year-olds of normal intelligence. The researchers also gave the children several standardized tests outside the scanner. They then re-tested the kids’ math skills regularly for the next six years.

The brain scans were better than standard IQ, math or other tests at predicting how the children’s math skills would develop. Larger volume and greater connectedness of specific brain regions at age eight was linked to better math skills down the road. From our press release:

“A long-term goal of this research is to identify children who might benefit most from targeted math intervention at an early age,” said senior author Vinod Menon, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “Mathematical skills are crucial in our increasingly technological society, and our new data show which brain features forecast future growth in math abilities.”

In addition to identifying at-risk kids, the scans may help scientists design better ways to help them. Because the new work gives a baseline understanding of brain features in children with normal math skills, it may help guide efforts to strengthen the brains of kids with math difficulties. The researchers, who are now exploring how math tutoring changes the brain, encourage parents and teachers not to give up on children who have a hard time with math:

“Just because a child is currently struggling doesn’t necessarily mean he or she will be a poor learner in the future,” said [Tanya] Evans, [PhD, first author of the new study].

As for me, math never became my favorite subject. But I did eventually shake my early aversion to it. Since my job requires me to understand a range of mathematical concepts, I’m grateful — and I hope the new work being done at Stanford will allow today’s struggling third-graders to someday say the same.

Previously: A not so fearful symmetry: Applying neuroscience findings to teaching math, Peering into the brain to predict kids’ responses to math tutoring and New research tracks “math anxiety” in the brain
Photo by jmawork

Neuroscience, Research

Exploring the role of prion-like proteins in memory disorders

Exploring the role of prion-like proteins in memory disorders

Over on the Mind the Brain blog, Stanford psychiatrist Shaili Jain, MD, discusses disorders of memory, including post-traumatic stress disorder and Alzheimer’s, with Nobel Laureate Eric Kandel, MD.

Ongoing research conducted by Kandel has helped scientists better understand the basic molecular mechanisms underlying learning and memory. His latest study showed how prion-like proteins, which are similar to the prions behind bovine spongiform encephalopathy and Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, are key for maintaining long-term memories in mice – and likely other mammals.

In Jain’s conversation with Kandel, she asks him how these new findings may translate clinically and impact patients diagnosed with memory disorders. He responds:

We are already there in some areas. We have far to go in other areas, but I will give you an example. We have a pretty good understanding of Alzheimer’s disease. We know the toxicity of beta amyloid. We do not know why the drugs that are directed against beta amyloid do not work, but one possibility that is being seriously entertained is that by the time the patient comes to see a physician, they have had the disease for ten years. That is a very long time and you lose a lot of nerve cells in ten years, and drugs do not bring nerve cells back once they are dead.

We need to diagnose the disease earlier and a major effort now, in Alzheimer’s research, is early diagnosis. Imaging, cerebral spinal fluid, genetic warning signals etc.

The other thing is it has proven possible to define an independent disorder, age related memory loss. Recent work from our lab, and that of Scott Small, has shown there is a separate entity, independent of AD, called Age Related Memory Loss. We have identified the molecular pathways involved in that disorder. We have treatments that work very effectively in animals. I think the time is going to come soon when these will be tried in people.

All of these came out from a basic science and work with experimental animals. So even though we are in the very early stage of understanding the really complex functions of the brain, we are making progress and all of this will hopefully have some therapeutic impact.

Previously: Memory of everyday events may be compromised by sleep apnea, Malfunctioning glia – brain cells that aren’t nerve cells – may contribute big time to ALS and other neurological disorders and The state of Alzheimer’s research: A conversation with Stanford neurologist Michael Greicius

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