Rerailing the Brain Train

UO researchers study children's brains and teach kids to overcome obstacles to learning. Photograph by Christina M. Karns

UO psychology professor Helen Neville and her research team take human, sheep, and dog brains to the Oregon Country Fair and Eugene Ems baseball games. They encourage the public to examine them up close and ask questions. They promote their DVD on brain development and hand out sponge brains to anyone who wants one. Their take-home message is this: Environment and experience can change the brain. Biology is not destiny.

Neville is the director of the Brain Development Laboratory. Experiments carried out by her team of postdoctoral researchers, PhD and MS candidates, and undergraduate research assistants show that children from relatively well-off families have better-developed brains than children from poor families. A critical consequence is that underprivileged kids have difficulty in focusing their attention on important information and tuning out distractions. Without the ability to concentrate, they frequently endure a lifetime of diminished literacy, numeracy, attention span, and emotional development.

Recent U.S. census statistics show that the number of people living in poverty has increased during the past four years and is now at a historical high. More than nine million Americans families—with nearly sixteen million children—are affected.

“Eighty-three percent of kids living below the poverty line don’t graduate from high school,” Neville says, adding that “there are crucial quality of life issues for individuals and great economic costs to society,” increasing the likelihood that “they don’t get jobs and commit crimes.”

Not satisfied with simply observing low cognitive function in poor kids, Neville’s team has devised strategies to overcome it. They teach at-risk kids how to focus their attention on classroom tasks. They also teach parents how to help their kids at home. “After only eight weeks of intervention, underprivileged children show brain function for attention similar to that found in peers from higher-income parents,” says postdoctoral research associate Eric Pakulak ’90, MA ’97, ’01, MS ’02, PhD ’08.

Neville says her group is one of a handful studying how to help children develop their brainpower to stop the poverty cycle. University-based cognitive neuroscientists often ignore this segment of society, finding research subjects by offering academic credit or cash to undergraduate psychology majors. “These are high socioeconomic status kids,” Neville says. “It’s not accurate or scientific to characterize the brain based on this small proportion of the population.”

Many children suffer from chronic stress brought on by living in poverty. This stress, asserts Pakulak, is a major culprit behind their cognitive disabilities. “It’s toxic,” he says. “It shrinks the part of the brain associated with learning, long-term memory, long-term planning, evaluating choices, and inhibiting bad ones.”

Neville began recruiting three-to-five-year-old children for neurological assessment in 2004 through Lane County’s Head Start preschool program, which promotes intellectual and emotional development in at-risk children. At the start of the fall, winter, and spring terms, Neville and her team meet with parents, explain their work, and encourage them to participate.

For the children who are signed up, the brain development staff makes sure they have a fun time while in the lab. A research team member escorts parents and their children into a room decorated with Winnie- the-Pooh stickers. A toy box filled with books, puzzles, blocks, and puppets awaits exploration. The kids are encouraged to play and munch on Goldfish crackers.

As a child who has come for testing settles down, a research assistant slips a perforated swim cap over his head. The cap bristles with thirty-two electrodes, which shoot out in all directions. Once the child is accustomed to the hat, he is escorted into a second room and seated in a cushy chair that faces a video screen. Speakers sit at ear level on shelves to the right and left of the chair. The researcher gathers the wires leading from the cap’s electrodes and plugs them into an amplifier. “We tell the kids it’s like a stethoscope, but we’re listening to their brain-beat, not their heartbeat,” says research associate Courtney Stevens, MS ’03, PhD ’07.

The child is then asked to watch a cartoon and focus on the narration coming from the right speaker. Simultaneously the subject hears a different story, which has no connection with the cartoon, coming from the left speaker. By examining specific brainwaves recorded by the electrodes, researchers can distinguish how well the child can tune out the distraction coming from the left speaker and tune into the story line coming from the right speaker.

Typically, kids from higher socioeconomic families suppress distractions better. Kids from low-socioeconomic backgrounds struggle. “It’s basically impossible for a child to learn in a classroom if she can’t tune into what her teachers are saying and tune out other students’ disruptive behavior,” Stevens says. “That’s why we believe selective attention is so important. Learn to focus your attention, and you are then prepared to learn anything.”

Back at Head Start, children continue their normal curriculum during the day. But one night per week for eight weeks, they return for two-hour enhanced-learning sessions accompanied by their parents. Scott Klein, a Brain Development Lab research assistant with ten years of grade-school teaching experience, coaches parents on communication skills. He advises them to create routines. Daily rituals allow kids to predict what will happen and how to respond, Klein says. Their stress levels go down. And when children cooperate, parents’ stress levels also go down.

Klein teaches parents to give their kids choices: Do you want to put on your pajamas first or brush your teeth first? Do you want to pick up your toys before or after dinner? “This is a huge first step in gaining kids’ attention,” Klein says. “Choices engage the thinking process.”

Klein also developed the “Brain Train,” the method used to increase kids’ concentration skills. Initially, the children sit with crayons and color. Then, they learn what distractions are, usually through puppet shows and role-playing. At the next level, one group of kids will color while others stand at the edges of the classroom and play with balloons. Head Start teachers encourage the children to keep coloring. The groups switch their roles. At the end of the eight weeks, kids are able to color while others are standing right next to them bouncing balloons in their hands. Neville attributes children’s increased ability to remain focused not only on these exercises but also on the change in their parents’ behavior.

Single parent Matt Dillender says the intervention provided him with group support from other parents and taught him new ways to communicate with his child. “Over time I have seen a clear, positive impact on my son’s emotional health as well as my own.”

The Brain Development Lab is a busy place. Every eight weeks, new recruits come in for initial brain-wave measurements. Children who have been tested previously and completed the intervention return for follow-up measurements. The Neville team has worked with about 400 families so far. They made a DVD, called Changing Brains, which explains their research. Neville hopes the program can continue and help more kids.

The Institute of Education Sciences recently awarded her grants to follow Head Start kids long term and translate the entire research project into Spanish. She’s previously received funding from the National Institutes of Health. However, Neville now calls the funding organization “broken” because grants are increasingly difficult to come by. She admits that the Brain Development Lab may not attract sufficient funding to continue supporting its thirty full-time employees. Neville says she is frustrated with the situation.

Forty or fifty years ago, scientists thought that brains were fixed, unchangeable. Researchers in the Brain Development Lab have not only helped to dispel that myth, but they are now exploiting the organ’s changeability to level the playing field for disadvantaged children. “Our research is being used to make a difference in the world,” Neville says.

By Michele Taylor MS ’03, ’10