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Marjorie Bekaert Thomas
Advances in health and medicine.
Children's Health Channel
Reported January 4, 2013

Elmo, Big Bird, and Your Brain?


(Ivanhoe Newswire) – We can learn more from Sesame Street than our A, B, C’s.  Researchers are using brain scans of adults and children watching Sesame Street to learn how children’s brains change as their intellectual abilities in reading and math develop.  
Scientists are using brain imaging to develop a deeper understanding of how human’s process thought during real-life experiences.   An example, researchers compared scans of adults watching an entertaining movie to study the similarity of neural responses across different people.  “But this is the first study to use the method as a tool for understanding development," lead author, Jessica Cantlon, cognitive scientist at the University of Rochester, was quoted as saying.  
"Psychologists have behavioral tests for trying to get the bottom of learning impairments, but these new imaging studies provide a totally independent source of information about children's learning based on what's happening in the brain," Cantlon continues.
The study involved 27 children between 4 and 11 years old, and 20 adults.  The all had to watch the same 20 minute Sesame Street program.  The program featured a variety of short clips focused on words, shapes, numbers, and other subjects.  Afterwards, the children had to take a standardized IQ test for verbal and math ability.
Researchers turned to functional magnetic resonance imaging scans (fMRI) to capture the neural response to the show. The study produced 609 scans of each patient, one every two seconds when they watched the Count, Big Bird, Elmo, and other stars of the program.  Researchers then created “neural maps” of the thought processes for adults and children and compared the two groups.
Researchers found that children whose neural maps were similar to adults scored higher on IQ tests.  The study also found where in the brain these developing abilities are located.  For more advanced verbal tasks, patterns are in the Broca area.  For better math scores, patterns are found in the intraparietal sulcus.  
To test their theory, study authors had children perform regular fMRI tasks by matching numbers, words, simple pictures of faces, and shapes.  The neural responses did not predict their test scores.  
"Neural patterns during an everyday activity like watching television are related to a person's intellectual maturity.  It’s not the case that if you put a child in front of an educational TV program that nothing is happening–that the brain just sort of zones out. Instead, what we see is that the patterns of neural activity that children are showing are meaningful and related to their intellectual abilities,” Cantlon said.  
SOURCE:  PLoS Biology, January 2013


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