Research | Feature

Our Plastic Brains

New neuroscience research tells us that specific technological interventions can actually build critical brain structures in struggling learners.

How does the brain learn? Why do some children find learning so challenging? What can educators do to help those children? These are questions that neuroscientists have been grappling with over the past 10 years. By and large, they are beginning to find answers.

Neuroscience is rapidly uncovering more and more about how the brain functions in the learning process. Neuroscientists like Stanislas Dehaene, for example, provide evidence that specific brain structures in the temporal lobe are required so that learning to read happens easily and effortlessly. We know too from neuroscience research that those brain structures--and the neural pathways that connect them to other language comprehension, memory, and verbal fluency regions of the brain--need to be adequately mature when children enter school for the student to learn to read. Research is helping us understand the reasons why that brain architecture may not be strong enough to support the learning process--for example, a home environment where there is not a great deal of oral language experience may have negative impact on brain architecture.

These are all neuroscience findings that most educators are familiar with. What educators may not know, however, is that those undeveloped learning pathways are mutable. The brain's capacity to learn, it turns out, is not set by our genes or predetermined in any way--not even by early learning disadvantages.  

The human brain, in fact, is quite malleable--even into adulthood. Neuroscientists call this malleability "plasticity." Neural plasticity is what allows teachers to educate a classroom of children who range in background, environmental experiences, or learning behaviors. Adults experience this plasticity themselves when they study a new language or take up a musical instrument well into adulthood--their brains can get in shape for the task.

The exciting results of this decade of brain research are, first, that we have learned which brain structures are necessary to learn to read or to master other learning tasks. We also know more about how the learning process itself changes the brain. In addition, research has shown there are now neuroscientific methods available that can identify children, as young as 3 months, who may have weaknesses in these structures or the pathways that connect them.

Finally, and perhaps most exciting for educators, neuroscientists have developed technological interventions that have been shown to target and build these specific brain structures in struggling learners. Neuroscience has demonstrated that through brain-based learning practices, all children who have IQs within normal limits, even those diagnosed with severe learning disabilities like dyslexia, have the capacity to learn to read and successfully master all subject areas.

Building Brain Fitness
Computer interventions designed by neuroscientists have been shown to actually build up the regions of the left hemisphere responsible for perception of speech sounds, working memory, and oral language skills. The interventions are composed of brain-fitness applications that provide a series of daily exercises that seem gamelike to students but build brain functioning around memory, attention, processing speed, and sequencing skills--cognitive skills essential for all classroom learning. (Full disclosure: The company I work for, Scientific Learning, is one of many that develop brain-fitness learning products.)

Some of the exercises in entry-level interventions require the student to distinguish between or remember syllables with similar-sounding consonants and vowels (such as /da/ versus /ba/ or long and short vowels); other exercises put demands on the student's ability to process information quickly; and still others build vocabulary, grammar, and narrative language comprehension skills. There are also technology-based reading interventions that focus on memory, attention, processing, and sequencing, while at the same time providing grade-level reading curricula for mastery of decoding, reading comprehension, and spelling skills.

In a research review of new neuroscience approaches to dyslexia published in the journal Science in 2009, John Gabrieli of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology summarized functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) research conducted by his team on the brain fitness interventions described above. The research indicated that after six weeks of intervention, the children with dyslexia not only showed significant improvements on standardized reading assessments, but also showed increased brain function in previously weak regions of the left hemisphere of the brain. In essence, the brains were shown to be functioning like those of children in the control group, who had no dyslexia.

Of further interest to literacy educators is Dehaene's research report published in the December 2010 issue of Science, which demonstrates that learning to read, in and of itself, changes the brain of typically developing children as well as adults. Dehaene used fMRI to compare brain function of three groups of adults: those who were illiterate, those who became literate as adults, and those who were literate in childhood. He compared the fMRI brain studies of the three groups on several dimensions. His results revealed that reading ability boosts organization of the visual cortex; allows practically the entire left-hemisphere spoken-language network to be activated when individuals read written sentences; and refines spoken language processing by enhancing the phonological region of the brain.

The promise of neuroscience research does not stop at reading--it can help identify and treat children with math and other learning issues. It turns out that the neural architecture children need to be good at math, social studies, science, and even symbolic aspects of team sports share several common overlapping pathways and brain processing centers. 

Neuroscience is helping educators understand how the brain learns, what causes learning disabilities, and what we can do about them. Moreover, neuroscience is developing technology-based interventions that can ameliorate the root cause of reading failure and, by enabling nonreaders to read, build brain capacity for other types of learning.

Research Referenced in This Article
"Dyslexia: A New Synergy Between Education and Cognitive Neuroscience," John D.E. Gabrieli, Science (Vol. 325, No. 5938), 2009.

"How Learning to Read Changes the Cortical Networks for Vision and Language," Stanislas Dehaene et al., Science (Vol. 330, No. 1359), 2010.

Reading in the Brain, Stanislas Dehaene, Penguin Viking, 2009.

About the Author

Martha S. Burns, Ph.D., is an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Northwestern University (IL) and director of clinical specialist market at Scientific Learning Corp. She writes a blog for parents on learning at