Gaming for science, children visiting London’s Science Museum were asked to contribute to a brain research project.
Specialists caring for premature babies are developing a computer game that can measure the impact of premature birth on brain function.
During the brain games at the museum, the performance of hundreds of volunteer children, aged between six and seven has been tracked.
According to neuropsychologist Anita Montagna the tests disguised as computer games require specific cognitive skills:
“One is executive attention, so the ability to hold information and to inhibit automatic responses. That’s the idea and then there’s working memory, holding information in mind and manipulating the information online and it’s really important as it predicts academic achievement and other skills in life and then we have selective attention, the ability to focus the attention and to not pay attention to distractions and you can see that in the games and we’ve got sustained attention, the ability to keep the attention for a long time. “
Some of the young children will now be asked back to the MRI imaging laboratory.
The research team plan to scan 60 eight-year-old children, 30 born prematurely and 30 born at term, to see if there are any differences in how the brain network develops over time.
Pre-term babies are at greater risk of neurodevelopmental problems, but not much is known about why they develop these impairments or how we can help them.
Professor David Edwards is the consultant neo-natologist and leads the study:“The amount of change that goes on at around the time that premature babies are born is massive.
The brain becomes hugely bigger and much more complicated. When our youngest children are born in the prenatal unit their brain is very smooth and looks like a coffee bean and during the time that they’re with us it has to grow into the walnut shaped, or walnut looking organ that we all know from pictures of adult brains so it’s a massive amount of change that’s going on and they have to achieve this while they’re outside their mothers, when they should really be inside their mothers. “
A few decades ago, babies born prematurely had little chance of survival. That’s changed dramatically, but prematurity can still affect the child’s development.
Edwards is already involved with producing a Connectome – a comprehensive map of neural pathways in the brain.
Professor David Edwards continues: “So we’ll have them playing the game while they’re in the MRI scanner and with the MRI scanner we can see which bits of their brains are active and how much of their brain is active during this game and therefore learn what resources in their brain they’re using to play the game with. And by that we can try compare them to children who’ve not been premature and see what the differences are.”
For these children at the Science Museum, the games were just fun. But the results are serious and could one day help children born prematurely.
French researchers are also trying to explore the children’s mind. A recent study has put the focus on what happens inside the brain of young pupils learning to read.
For two years, ten kids, have been monitored every two months while reading under the MRI scan.
Researchers analysed and determined the brain circuit of reading:
And found an answer to a quite controversial question in French education: which reading method is better, global or syllabic?
Well, the IRM scans clearly showed, syllabic reading to be the most efficient.
The head of the research team is Stanislas Dehaene: “People who learn with a phonic alphabetic method train the circuit of the left hemisphere which is the most efficient universal reading circuit. People who pay a global attention on the form of the word do not use this circuit. Their attention is oriented in the right hemisphere, to a much less efficient circuit for the analysis of reading. “
According to the scientists, the brain imaging confirmed their theory they have defended for years for a syllabic, not a global reading method. It could also partly explain the appearance of dyslexia and the degradation in the level of reading in France. Still, other experts recommend a mixed method, according to the pupils’ profile.