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Children's Incredible Learning Can Be Reduced to 1 Brain Chemical: ScienceAlert

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Compared to adults, children are fast learners, their developing brains absorbing information at a breakneck pace. Somehow your neurons not only incorporate new knowledge more easily, they also hold on to it firmly, even in a constant torrent of new experiences.

Now, a team of neuroscientists from the University of Regensburg in Germany and Brown University in the United States may have discovered what makes young brains so efficient.

It’s all down to a brain chemical known as GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) that surges in children during and after learning, turning their young brains into ‘super sponges’.

“It is often assumed that children learn more efficiently than adults, although scientific support for this assumption is weak at best,” says study co-author Takeo Watanabe, a cognitive psychologist at 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 the visual cortex of children during a visual learning activity to see how it differed from adults.

Measurements were taken on 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.

Results showed that GABA levels in adults remained consistent throughout the experiment. Meanwhile, GABA levels in children were much higher.

“What we found is a rapid increase in GABA in children, which is associated with learning,” says Watanabe. And not just during learning – the high GABA levels lasted into the post-learning period as well.

It’s an eye-opening finding, says Watanabe.

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, a ‘cooling period’ after learning, in which fragile new neural networks are consolidated and information successfully stored.

But if something new is learned during the cooling off period, a phenomenon called ‘retrograde interference’ kicks in, where previously learned information is nullified or destroyed – it slips out of our brains.

Think of it like letting a pie cool after it’s been taken out of the oven. Resting gives the starches in the filling a chance to form a gel that will hold everything neatly in place. If you cut the pie during the cooling period, however, the piping hot filling will ooze and spill out.

With new knowledge of GABA levels in the children on board, the team conducted behavioral experiments to see if this was what allowed visual learning to stabilize more quickly. What they found was surprising.

Adults needed a one-hour “cooling off period” to allow for stabilization. However, the children were able to learn it again within 10 minutes without replacing what they had previously learned. In other words, thanks to its high levels of GABA, your pie will set much faster.

“We found that resilience to retrograde interference, and therefore stabilization, did indeed occur minutes after training ended in children, whereas learning was in a fragile state in adults for at least an hour after training,” the researchers wrote in your article.

“This rapid stabilization of learning in children allows them to learn more items 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. from Regensburg in Germany.

The researchers also found that consecutive learning sessions appeared to further increase GABA concentration in children, allowing for even more rapid stabilization of previous learning.

“Our results therefore point to GABA as a key element in making learning efficient in children,” says Frank.

While it should be noted that this study was done on visual learning, Watanabe believes these findings can be generalized to other types of learning involving memory.

Interestingly, these findings can 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,” says Watanabe. “That’s a possible application.”

This research was published in current biology.