The educated brain
Featured Departments and Institutes
Implementing approaches in neuroscience to improve understanding of learning in children
Researchers across several different departments in Cambridge study aspects of learning in children, both by studying typical brain development and by understanding the atypical brain
Most children learn to read or to do mathematics fairly easily, but for some children education is fraught with difficulty. As well as experiencing specific learning difficulties like dyslexia or dyscalculia, children may have educational difficulties because they are poor at organising their learning behaviour (“metacognition” and “executive function” deficits), or because they have unusual perceptual systems; for example, they may be deaf, or they may see numbers and letters in colours (synaesthesia). Researchers across several different departments in Cambridge study all these different aspects of learning in children, both by studying typical brain development and by understanding the atypical brain. They combine expertise from a variety of disciplines, including psychology, education, medicine and physics. Cambridge also has a purpose-built facility for carrying out brain imaging studies with young children, within the Centre for Neuroscience in Education. Siting the Centre in the Education Faculty facilitates the dissemination of neuroscience information directly to teachers, and enables input from teachers and users in formulating research questions for future studies.
To understand reading development, researchers in Cambridge have shown how the brain processes some of the auditory cues essential for understanding spoken language
For example, to understand mathematics development, researchers from the Centre for Neuroscience in Education are studying the basic representation of magnitude in the brain. The magnitude representation is a spatially-based system for knowing approximately how much “stuff” is in the environment. The magnitude representation is shared with other animals, and is already functioning in infancy. As children learn symbolic number, they need to attach Arabic digits to this basic magnitude representation. Dyscalculia may involve deficits in either the basic magnitude representation itself or in this attachment process. To understand reading development, researchers in Cambridge have shown how the brain processes some of the auditory cues essential for understanding spoken language, such as cues to speech rhythm. These auditory processes are impaired in children with developmental dyslexia and also in children with specific language impairments. Rhythmic impairments lead to problems with phonology (the sound structure of words), which in turn cause problems in understanding how the alphabet works. For both reading and numbers, the brain bases of disorder should be similar across cultures, leading researchers in the Centre for Neuroscience in Education to set up collaborations with research groups in Spain, France, Greece, Hungary, Japan and Italy, to understand better causal factors.
The Department of Developmental Psychiatry and the Learning Disabilities Research Group complement this research by having close affiliations with local services for people with learning disabilities, and with local, national and international voluntary organisations. Similarly, researchers at the MRC Cognition & Brain Sciences Unit recently developed an intensive form of language training to help patients with aphasia, which may be of benefit to children in the future.