Children’s incredible learning may be due to 1 chemical in the brain: ScienceAlert

Children’s incredible learning may be due to 1 chemical in the brain: ScienceAlert

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Compared to adults, children are fast learners, their developing brains absorbing information at a mind-boggling speed. Somehow, their neurons not only incorporate new knowledge more easily, but hold onto it firmly, even in a constant stream of new experiences.

Now a team of neuroscientists from the University of Regensburg in Germany and Brown University in the US may have discovered what makes young brains so efficient.

It’s all because of a brain chemical known as GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which increases in children during and after learning, turning their young brains into ‘super-sponges’.

“It is often assumed that children learn more effectively than adults, although the scientific support for this assumption is tenuous at best,” says study co-author Takeo Watanabe, a cognitive psychologist at Brown University.

Looking for the brain mechanisms involved, the team used an advanced neuroimaging technique called functional MRS (fMRS) to indirectly measure GABA concentrations in children’s visual cortex during a visual learning activity to see how it differed from adults.

Measurements were made on 55 children aged 8 to 11 years and 56 adults aged between 18 and 35 years, spanning three different periods: before the visual learning task began, during the learning process and after the activity was finished.

The results showed that GABA levels in adults remained constant throughout the experiment. Meanwhile, children’s GABA levels are much more adventurous.

“What we found was a rapid increase in GABA in children associated with learning,” says Watanabe. And not just during learning – high GABA levels continue into the post-learning period.

This is a revealing discovery, Watanabe says.

GABA is a chemical messenger in the brain known to be important in the process of learning new information. It also plays a key role in stabilization, a “cooling off period” after learning through which fragile new neural networks consolidate and information is successfully stored.

But if something new is learned during the cooling-off period, a phenomenon called “retrograde interference” occurs, in which previously learned information is canceled or destroyed—it slips out of our brains.

Think of it like letting a pie cool after it’s taken out of the oven. Leaving it out gives the starches in the filling a chance to set into a gel that will hold everything nicely in place. However, if you cut the pie during the cooling period, the hot filling is runny and spills.

With the new knowledge of the children’s GABA levels on board, the team then conducted behavioral experiments to see if this was what allowed visual learning to stabilize more quickly. What they found was astonishing.

Adults need a “cooling off period” of one hour to allow for stabilization. However, the children were able to relearn within 10 minutes without undoing what they had previously learned. In other words, thanks to their high levels of GABA, their pie hardens much faster.

“We found that robustness to retrograde perturbations, and thus stabilization, indeed occurs within minutes of the end of training in children, whereas learning is fragile in adults at least one hour after training,” the researchers wrote in their newspaper.

“This rapid stabilization of learning in children allows them to learn more subjects within a given period of time and makes learning more efficient in children than in adults.” explains psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist Sebastian Frank, co-author of the study now at the University of Regensburg in Germany.

The researchers also found that successive learning sessions appeared to further increase the children’s GABA concentration, allowing even faster stabilization of previous learning.

“Therefore, our results point to GABA as a key player in achieving effective learning in children.” says Frank.

Although it should be noted that this study was done on visual learning, Watanabe believes these findings can be generalized to other types of learning involving memory.

Excitingly, these findings could be used to help adults learn more effectively.

“For example, a new technology or therapy could be developed to increase the amount of GABA in the brains of adults,” Watanabe says. “That’s one possible application.”

This research was published in Current Biology.

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