Research Update: Brain Development, Mindfulness, Autism, and Educational Engagement

Salk scientists discover previously unknown requirement for brain development

Salk researchers are publishing an article this month in Science magazine. Their experiment on mice found that when the thalamus is disconnected from the cortex of the brain during development visual processing was affected. The thalamus is a centrally located area of the brain primarily involved with connecting other areas of the brain involved with sensory processing and movement. It also controls sleep and levels of consciousness. When this area was separated from the cerebral cortex at birth in the mutated mice, differentiation between higher and lower level visual processing areas did not occur. This resulted in deficits in visual perception and other higher level visual tasks. This is new information, as it was previously thought that this differentiation was determined solely through genetics and predisposed to occur. Researcher Dennis O’Leary and his team are planning to continue researching areas of the brain related to autism and other developmental disorders.

Mindfulness can increase wellbeing and reduce stress in school children

This controlled study from the British Journal of Psychiatry, compared levels of depressive symptoms, stress, and wellbeing in two groups of adolescents. One group of students participated in a nine-week curriculum designed to teach the basics of mindfulness, and the other did not. At a 3 month follow up, the children who learned mindfulness techniques reported a decrease in stress and improvement in well being. Additionally, 80% of the teens reported that they continued to use the strategies learned, and the teachers and schools found the program, titled ” Mindfulness in Schools Project” worthwhile and enjoyed teaching it.

Underconnectivity between voice-selective cortex and reward circuitry in children with autism

The three areas of function impacted by autism spectrum disorders are communication, social interaction, and repetitive behaviors. Researchers used functional MRI  data to analyze the connections among areas of the brain involved in communication and hearing, specifically the voice-selective cortex, and areas responsible for processing speech prosody and emotion-related learning. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences of the United States of America, found  more severe communication impairments were predicted by brains that had less connectivity between the voice-selective cortex and emotion-related learning. The researchers expressed a belief that this would impact the ability of children with ASD to experience speech as something pleasurable.

Student Engagement More Complex, Changeable Than Thought

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh have completed a 2 year longitudinal study of young adults that sought to determine what factors most predicted educational engagement. Where other educational researchers have looked at external evidence of school engagement, such as attendance and work completion, this study sought to measure the emotional and cognitive factors that determined a student’s engagement in his education. Students were most engaged when the content and activities were meaningful and related to their goals. They also found that the environment of the school is an important tool in engaging students, and that, for all students to be optimally participating in their education, individual needs must be taken into account. For example, students who were considered lower achieving needed more structure and support, and those who were higher achieving needed more autonomy.

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