* Brain model and autism?

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No, the new brain model does not look like this!

According to a recent issue of Brain in the News, scientists at The Ohio State University have created a miniature brain model.  It has the maturity of a 5-week fetal brain and is about the size of a pencil eraser.  Why the excitement?  It has the potential to replicate brains with complex diseases and other conditions.  Rene Anand engineered this brain from adult skin cells and is creating “brain organoid” models of autism, as well as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Gulf War diseases.  Anand says: “Genomic science infers that there are up to 600 genes that give rise to autism, but we are stuck there.  Mathematical correlations and and statistical methods are insufficient to in themselves identify causation.  You need an experimental system- you need a human brain.”  The researchers are confident that it will speed the process of determining the causal relationships between genes, environment, and/or both.

I continue to rejoice at the acceleration of research that has the potential to improve our quality of life.  This one replaces animal research, too. What’s not to love?

* Poverty, the brain, and race

In the current issue of Brain in the News, researchers have once again linked poverty and neural development.  I am adding race to that equation.  Here’s what they found.  When kids grow up in poverty, they “tend to have as much as 10 percent less gray matter” in areas of the brain linked to academic skills.  White matter in the brain sends signals, while gray matter involves memory, emotions, speech, decision-making, and self-control, among other vital functions.  The researchers suggested that 20% of the achievement gap in test scores could be explained by diminished gray matter.  They urge us to think of poverty as a public health problem, not just a social problem.

But socially, we aren’t doing well, either.  According to a Pew report, about 38% of black kids and 43% of Hispanic kids live in poverty.  Poor black kids now outnumber poor white kids by 4.2 million to 4.1 million.  Combined, those are staggering numbers.  And then add 5.4 million poor Hispanic kids.   Also, consider that there are three times as many white kids in America as black.  Although children only make up 28% of our population, 38% of poor blacks are children.

The researchers advocate early intervention (and food, I imagine!) to change the course of lives diminished by poverty and racism.  In the face of overwhelmingly yucky news, what can we do?  As my pastor says, “Do for one what you would do for all.”   Mentor a kid, get involved in local shelters, volunteer in community kitchens, donate food and money to local food drives.  Just imagine what would happen if we all did for one….poverty

* New study: phonics and the brain

As neuroscience continues to instruct teachers in best practices for education, Brain in the News, a publication of The Dana Foundation, cites a study linking phonics instruction to improved reading performance. This is not a surprise, given the foundational work and current research by the Drs. Shaywitz, among others.  This new research, conducted at Stanford University by Yoncheva, Wise, and McCandliss, suggests that beginning readers who focus on phonics instruction, instead of trying of learn whole words, increase activity in an area of the left hemisphere of the brain best suited for reading.  This left hemisphere engagement during reading “is a hallmark of skilled readers, and is characteristically lacking in children and adults who are struggling with reading.”  In contrast, whole-word instruction tended to activate the right hemisphere. Even more remarkably, the subjects in this experiment were able to read unfamiliar words within split seconds, using their previously acquired decoding skills.

For those of us who’ve been teaching both dyslexic and “typical” readers who struggle with reading, this research comes as no surprise.  In my work with non-dyslexic readers, they consistently make huge gains in reading with systematic phonics instruction.  The dyslexic student will also make those gains, but it takes much more time and effort.  I encourage you to subscribe to Brain in the News (follow link above).  I appreciate their summaries of current research, which also help me decide whether to read the original source.  In this case, both are worth a look.   network-440738_640