Children’s incredible learning can be boiled down to one brain chemical: ScienceAlert

Children’s incredible learning can be boiled down to one brain chemical: ScienceAlert

Compared to adults, children learn quickly, their developing brains absorb information at an incredible rate. Somehow, their neurons not only incorporate new knowledge more easily, but also hold on to it, even in a constant flood 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 all comes down to a brain chemical known as GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) that occurs in children during and after learning, turning their young brains into ‘uber-sponges’.

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

Measurements were made in 55 children aged 8 to 11 years and 56 adults aged 18 to 35 years, 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 consistent throughout the experiment. Meanwhile, the children’s GABA levels were much more adventurous.

“What we found was a rapid increase in GABA in children associated with learning,” he says Watanabe. And not only during learning – high levels of GABA persisted in the post-learning period as well.

That’s a revelation, Watanabe he 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, the ‘cooling off period’ after learning in 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’ begins, where previously learned information is canceled or destroyed – it slips out of our brain.

Think of it like letting a pie cool after taking it out of the oven. Resting gives the starch in the filling a chance to harden into a gel that will hold everything neatly in place. However, if you cut the pie during the cooling period, the hot filling is runny and spills out.

With the new knowledge about GABA levels in the children, the team then conducted behavioral experiments to see if this is what allows visual learning to stabilize more quickly. What they found was astonishing.

Adults required a ‘cooling off period’ of an hour to allow 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 GABA levels, their pie hardens much faster.

“We found that resistance to retrograde interference, and thus stabilization, did indeed occur within minutes of the end of training in children, whereas learning was fragile in adults for at least one hour after training,” the researchers wrote in their work.

“This rapid stabilization of learning in children allows them to learn more subjects in 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 further increased GABA concentrations in the children, allowing for even faster stabilization of previous learning.

“Our results therefore point to GABA as a key player in effective learning in children,” he says Frank.

Although it should be noted that this study was conducted on visual learning, Watanabe believes that these findings can be generalized to other types of learning that involve 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 he says. “That’s one possible application.”

This research was published in Current Biology.

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