Compared to adults, children learn quickly, with their developing brains absorbing information at a breathtaking rate. Somehow, their neurons not only integrate new knowledge more easily, but they retain it firmly, even in a constant torrent 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 down to a brain chemical known as GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) that surges in children during and after learning, turning their young brains into “super-sponges.”
“Children are often assumed to learn more effectively than adults, although scientific support for this assumption has been weak at best,” says study co-author Takeo Watanabe, a cognitive psychologist at the University. Brown.
In search of the brain mechanisms involved, the team used an advanced neuroimaging technique called functional MRS (fMRS) to indirectly measure GABA concentrations in the children’s visual cortex during a visual learning activity in order to see how it differed from that of adults.
The measurements were taken in 55 children aged 8-11 and 56 adults aged 18-35, covering three different periods: before the start of the visual learning task, during the learning process and after the end. of the activity.
The results showed that GABA levels in adults remained constant throughout the experiment. Meanwhile, GABA levels in children were much more adventurous.
“What we found is a rapid increase in GABA in children associated with learning,” says Watanabe. And not just during the apprenticeship – the high levels of GABA also lasted into the post-apprenticeship period.
It’s an eye-opening finding, says Watanabe.
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 down period” after learning during which fragile new neural networks are consolidated and information successfully stored.
But if something new is learned during the cool-down period, a phenomenon called “retrograde interference” kicks in, where previously learned information is overwritten or destroyed – it leaks out of our brains.
Think of it like letting a pie cool after you take it out of the oven. The rest gives the starches in the filling a chance to turn into a gel that will hold everything in place. If you cut the pie during the cooling period, the very hot filling will sink and overflow.
With the new knowledge of GABA levels in the children on board, the team then conducted behavioral experiments to see if this was what stabilized visual learning more quickly. What they found was amazing.
Adults needed a one hour “cooling period” to allow stabilization. However, the children were able to relearn in 10 minutes without undoing what they had previously learned. In other words, thanks to their high levels of GABA, their tart sets much faster.
“We found that resilience to retrograde interference and thus stabilization did indeed occur minutes after the end of training in children, whereas learning was in a fragile state in adults for at least an hour afterwards. training,” the researchers wrote in their paper.
“This rapid stabilization of learning in children allows them to learn more things in a given amount of time and makes learning more efficient in children than in adults,” says psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist Sebastian Frank. , co-author of the study currently at the University. from Regensburg in Germany.
The researchers also found that consecutive learning sessions seemed to further increase GABA concentration in children, allowing for even faster stabilization of previous learning.
“Our results therefore indicate that GABA is a key player in making learning effective in children,” says Frank.
While it should be noted that this study was carried out in visual learning, Watanabe thinks that these results could be generalized to other types of learning involving memory.
Interestingly, these results 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 adult brains,” says Watanabe. “It’s a possible app.”
This research was published in Current biology.
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