December 2016 research round-up

Research highlights in learning and education from around the world
December 2016 research round-up

Waking up stops memory formation

A newly formed memory remains in a fragile state until it undergoes consolidation, a process that is extremely sensitive to disruption. If a new experience occurs while a memory trace is being consolidated, the trace can be altered or forgotten. To make consolidation more robust, much of it happens during sleep, when sensory inputs and distractions are minimized. But what happens if we wake from sleep while our brains are consolidation memories? Are the memories disrupted, or is there a safeguard? Israeli researchers studied the sea slug Aplysia – a classic model for the study of memory’s molecular machinery – to show that new memories could not be formed immediately upon waking. Normally, the synthesis of new proteins is an essential part of consolidating a memory, but in this study, the authors demonstrate that protein synthesis can also be critical in preventing memory formation. The finding shows how the important process of memory consolidation is protected during sleep, at the expense of new memory formation.

Levy et al. (2016) New learning while consolidating memory during sleep is actively blocked by a protein synthesis dependent process. eLife 5:e17769

Emotions help future memory storage

Emotional memories are more robust, vivid and detailed than those with only neutral associations. What is less understood is whether the memory enhancing effects of emotion might persist. In other words, is routine information remembered better if it follows an emotional state? Tambini and colleagues investigated this by comparing how well subjects could recall neutral images presented under two situations: either before or tens of minutes after they viewed emotionally charged images. Consistent with a lasting enhancement of memory formation by emotion, the authors found that subjects had significantly better recall for neutral images viewed after they saw emotion-inducing images. By measuring brain activity with fMRI, the authors also showed that the brain state supporting enhanced memory formation was reminiscent of that seen during emotional processing. The study reveals that emotional arousal can enhance memory formation for tens of minutes, likely due to the persistence – or perhaps reinstatement – of an emotional brain state.

Tambini et al. (2016) Emotional brain states carry over and enhance future memory formation. Nature Neuroscience doi:10.1030/nn.4468

The success of cognitive training depends on age

Earlier is better – it’s a mantra appropriate for many disease interventions, but how suitable is it for educational interventions? We know that the human brain continues to develop throughout adolescence, causing changes in behavioral and cognitive capabilities. Does this mean that what works for adults may not work for children? To answer this, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and colleagues at University College London sorted subjects aged 11–33 into four age groups, and had them undergo one of three types of cognitive training. Two of the training tasks are known to correlate with mathematics performance; the third was a face perception task that served as a control. The authors found that for the two mathematics-relevant tasks, training was effective in adults and older adolescents, but less so or not at all for younger children. The existence of age-specific cognitive training effects highlights how understanding the brain’s developmental stages is an important part of optimising educational practice.

Knoll et al. (2016) A window of opportunity for cognitive training in adolescence. Psychological Science 27:1620-1631

How much does a teacher need to know?

Teacher quality consistently ranks as one of the most important determinants of student success. What level of mastery should a teacher possess, in what domains, to effectively guide learning in pupils? In this paper, the author developed a model for the knowledge necessary to optimally teach children. The two major components of the model were: 1) contingency knowledge – the ability to respond authoritatively to student questions, veering from the teaching plan as necessary; and 2) horizon content knowledge – how topics, themes or concepts are interrelated. The author also suggests that initiating situations in which the learner asks questions is important, and that good teaching requires knowledge not just of content, but of how to provoke student curiosity and engagement. The model awaits empirical testing, which the author plans to achieve by studying the effectiveness of primary school mathematics teachers who vary in experience and expertise.

Hurst (2017) Provoking contingent moments: Knowledge for ‘powerful teaching’ at the horizon. Educational Research

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