Understanding Wired Brains

If we want to understand how the brain is altered by targeted intervention it is essential to appreciate that attentional regulation, response inhibition, and conflict and error monitoring are cognitive processes that are engaged in the service of cognitive control and successful task performance. Performance on all of these tasks improves steadily as intervention brings about pre and post synaptic changes in a child’s brain, but does not approach significantly altered levels until the self-regulatory capacity of children can be primed so that it is not overwhelmed easily by increasing task demands.

The objective of cognitive control and subsequent task performance is to achieve self-regulation, which relies on broad cortical areas in the brain and understand how various training techniques which are a combination of traditional and modern can be utilized to impact upon the regular brain functioning and bring about changes in the brain’s neuronal organization over time.

The T.R.A.I.NTM - Neuroplasticity based intervention uses sensory stimuli as one of the modes of cognitive training and over time the memories of sensory experiences are made to be learnt by the child so that these stimuli get stored in the memory lexicons by synaptic modifications. These modifications, which are both pre and post synaptic, occur in the same regions of the brain that are used to process sensory information. Thus, memories of visual experiences would be stored in visual cortex; auditory experiences would be stored in auditory cortex, and so on. Within each of these regions of cortex, the T.R.A.I.NTM programme tries to ensure that the memory of a sensory event should result from the permanent modification of the synapses between the cortical neurons that are activated by that specific intervention.

Research confirms that memories can be stored by small but coherent modifications of synapses that may be widely distributed among many neurons. At the single cell level, the occurrence of such modifications would be manifest as a change in neuronal selectivity for particular input patterns.

If we use an example and consider that there are three neuronal cells, which are activated for a particular task. When an excitatory synaptic input is received that conveys information about three different stimuli Initially, before the T.R.A.I.N™ intervention programme and targeted learning, each neuron responds similarly to each stimulus –i.e. there is no pattern of cellular output that uniquely represents each stimulus. After intervention based learning, however, the synapses undergo modification so that different stimuli yield different responses. Also although each stimulus evokes a maximal response from a different neuron, the neural representation of a stimulus is distributed over all three cells. The outward manifestation of this neural change in the child’s brain would be visible in the ease of execution of cognitive tasks and task switching abilities that this particular child will begin to show.

A stimulus – say learning to Decode Complex Language Based Words (Which forms one of the core issues in Dyslexia), for example, evokes a large response in a certain cell – let us call it C1, a moderate response in the second cell which we shall call Cell2, and a weak response in the third neuronal cell we label as cell3. The representation of the stimulus A - will be the unique combination of responses across the cells in the network and signifies distributed memory storage. Such stimuli representations are resistant to the loss of individual neurons. For example, loss of Cell1 would still leave an activity ratio in Cells2 and Cell3 that is unique to the learnt stimulus of decoding in the way it was taught and learnt.

Also we now know that memory associated with this learnt activity is encoded in the neurons by both increases and decreases in synaptic effectiveness. The modifications of both signs (increase and decrease) can contribute equally to memory formation in the neural networks and this is exactly what we need to understand about the newly wired brain which has been put through the T.R.A.I.N™ Intervention programme. Correlates of memory are based on experience-dependent changes in neuronal stimulus selectivity - and the long term outcome of the T.R.A.I.N™ programme is similar to the researched Neurophysiological studies of neurons in the hippocampus and neocortex - which have revealed precisely this type of change as we learn to recognize and discriminate the incoming stimuli.

A hallmark of human cognition is its flexible nature: only the human brain is able to rapidly adapt thoughts and behaviors to changing internal states and the evolving external environment. The flexibility of cognition demonstrated by most children is thought to depend on specialized cognitive control mechanisms, which facilitate goal-directed actions and suppress inappropriate ones. When children have delays in academic achievement and Learning Disabilities, the so-called ‘neurological deficits’ are enough to send the cognitive mechanisms in a tizzy. This is the reason that the model student who follows the teachers visual attention is blank in his mind and lost in a daydream while another child knows that fidgeting will get him into trouble, but just cannot stop turning his head back at the slightest sound and talk incessantly to his neighbor.

Therefore while it is appreciated that cognitive control mechanisms in most children who are in their school years enable’s flexibility, it is still very difficult to plan and implement for such flexibility to be achieved.

One possibility that the T.R.A.I.NTM programme is exploring is the idea of functional specialization and flexible selection of the neural mechanisms that subserve cognitive control. That is, it believes that there may be a variety of different cognitive control mechanisms housed within anatomically distinct brain regions, and that a subset of these mechanisms may be dynamically selected according to the specific cognitive demands of the task situation.

In addition to this it is also venturing into the alternate possibility, that cognitive flexibility in children can also be achieved by modulating the manner in which a particular control mechanism is deployed in response to changing task demands or internal goal states. To be more specific the T.R.A.I.NTM programme is also based on the premise that the deployment of the cognitive control mechanism will occur through modulation of the temporal dynamics of its engagement (i.e., the time period and duration over which a region is activated). Therefore, there is no short cut to achieving result of intervention if children are not willing to give it time. The ideal time duration over which Neuronal Circuits begin to respond cohesively and in a synchronous manner with polarization of spike timing, which in turn indicates systematic brain activity, is upward of 38 months for a significant number of children.

The T.R.A.I.NTM programme focuses more on proactive rather than a reactive mode of cognitive control. In the proactive control mode, which is a form of “early selection,” goal-relevant information is actively maintained in a sustained and anticipatory manner, before the occurrence of cognitively demanding events, to optimally bias attention, perception, and action systems in a goal-driven manner. Thus, it relies on the anticipation and prevention of interference before it occurs, rather than on the detection and resolution of interference after its onset.

The advantage of proactive control is that assessment and screening for Learning Disabilities at the Dyslexia Association of IndiaTM are followed up with Neuroplasticity based Training and Intervention strategies which cause sustained and or anticipatory activation of the lateral pre frontal cortex area of the brain, which in turn reflects the active maintenance of task goals. This goal-maintenance activity serves as a source of top-down bias that can facilitate processing of expected intervention that places a high cognitive demand on the child allowing him to manipulate information in Working Memory. This learned ability to manipulate information in Working Memory is a key factor in cognitive development and developmental improvements in manipulation may co-relate to the proactive mode of cognitive control relative to maintenance based cognitive control. The developmental improvements so achieved with intervention, have been researched to be associated with increased recruitment of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and superior parietal cortex regions of the human brain.

With the proactive mode of cognitive control working memory, the ability to keep information in a highly accessible state, improves over the course of intervention for the child and this is crucial for a variety of cognitive abilities, including reading, mathematical calculation, and problem-solving. Eventually this helps the child with his academic efforts, as it is a child’s working memory capacity that predicts school performance eventually.

The T.R.A.I.NTM programme also actively stimulates and brings about maturation of the Visual Word Form Area. This area of the human brain is important for mediating literacy and in the acquisition of reading skills.

The impact of Neuroplasticity Intervention aimed at training attention versus simple evening Tuition that most parents prefer for their children – cause’s throw up event-related potentials which reveal more adult-like markers of the executive attention network after attention-targeted training than after sitting in simple tuition classes. A working hypothesis is that the attention-intervention training may have allowed the brain system mediating conflict resolution to become more efficient, as it would during typical development.

In fact children who have been on this programme for at least six months and upwards have demonstrated significant brain and behavioural changes from pre- to post-test compared with children who dropped out of the T.R.A.I.NTM programme.

In a recent study that was conducted in the United States using a similar paradigm but with limited attempt at remediation it was noticed that, in the structural brain scans of young adults which were acquired before they learned a particular computer gaming task – children with an initially larger caudate nucleus and putamen, two basal ganglia nuclei involved in the control of movement, reinforcement learning, and reward, were most likely to learn efficiently.

Similarly the size of the hippocampus, a key structure in memory and learning for declarative knowledge, which is predictive of learning grew in those children who were exposed to highly complex information where information retention and working memory utilization were crucial to navigate the spatial and visual maze of sequential information that they had to recall on demand.

Parents who come to the Association and share that their children are brilliant at paying the PSP or other computer games must understand that a computer game requires cognitive and motor control skills best predicted by structures that regulate habit formation and reward processing rather than content learning.

The T.R.A.I.NTM programme understands that effective responding to environmental stimuli requires selective attention and motivational direction, coupled with suppression of actions that are no longer required or that are inappropriate. This suppression in children eventually shows up via response inhibition, which involves three interrelated processes, inhibition of an initial pre-potent response, stopping of an ongoing response or delayed responding, and ultimately limiting interference or distractibility during delay periods. Research now points out that the basal ganglia and the prefrontal cortex are both implicated in these processes with the basal ganglia controlling the inhibition of inappropriate behaviors, and the prefrontal cortex acting to prevent interference for relevant information by competing information. If over a period of time, consistent cognitive activities using the principle of brain plasticity - bring about the metacogniton in children - undergoing this intervention of response inhibition before onset - and interference prevention before competing stimuli take over, the outcomes can and are very encouraging.

Eventually what will happen for children is that as this process is in contrast to approach-avoidance, which requires incentive salience attribution, the response inhibition effort which recruits circuitries that regulate motor planning and timing will ensure that the primary role of fronto-striatal networks lends itself to a different developmental profile.

Understanding wired brains implies understanding that children can perform sophisticated cognitive tasks, and that the ability to do so consistently continues to improve during childhood and the teen years and into adulthood, This linear improvement suggests that the neurobiological underpinnings of cognition follow similarly linear progression. Children who go through the T.R.A.I.NTM Neuroplasticity programme show significantly higher intensity of activation in frontal lobe regions. This is consistent with age-related differences in accuracy and reaction time on go no-go tasks across childhood. The linear developmental trajectory of children’s brain and the corresponding linear development of cognitive control, relative to the inverted U-shaped trajectory of affect and reward processing of simple academic tuition make the programme distinct.

Genes definitely provide the blueprint for the brain to construct itself, but the experience that a child picks up, changes that brain to match the needs of the environment. The final functional execution of a given synapse is based on functional validation. A child’s brain is not only uniquely susceptible to environmental influences, but childhood is also a period when early experiences manifest Complex neural networks form during the growing years, and these in turn are sculpted by both spontaneous and experience-driven activity. The T.R.A.I.NTM programme relies on this experience driven ability of the brain to change and this process is highly modulateable due to brain plasticity that allows the human system to adapt to the needs of its environment.

To know more about the T.R.A.I.NTM programme, please e mail The Dyslexia Association of IndiaTM at info@dyslexiaindia.org.in or you can even call us on 88260 – 22886 to speak to us freely and set up an appointment to meet us.

The T.R.A.I.NTM Neuroplasticity Programme is a copyright programme of the Dyslexia Association of IndiaTM and protected by the relevant provisions of the Copyright Act. Please do not use information gained from this programme to misrepresent any instructional course or programme being delivered by a third party vendor. The T.R.A.I.NTM programme is available only at the DAITM Intervention Centre and it has not been franchised out to any vendor.