Research — 31 July 2015

Brain-training exercises that calm children with autism, hyperactivity or learning difficulties should be used in Australian schools, a leading neuroscientist said yesterday.

A pioneer in brain plasticity ­research, US neuroscientist ­Michael Merzenich, told a group of principals and teachers in ­Brisbane yesterday that “brain ­retraining” would soon be as common as physical fitness programs. Brain plasticity was the new frontier in neuro­science, and could help children with autism, attention deficit hype­ractivity disorder and dyslexia.

Professor Merzenich, who featured in the television series ­Redesign My Brain, has been ­invited to address officials from the Queensland government’s departments of education, health and police, and the Family and Child Commission today.

He said yesterday that 15 minutes of computer-based brain ­exercises a day could “turn on the lights’’ and make children more alert within two weeks. Training children to listen could also ­improve their handwriting.

Professor Merzenich said his research showed brain-training exercises for ADHD children had longer lasting benefits than medication that had to be taken regularly, and the job of teachers in the knowledge economy would be to “grow students’ brainpower’’.

“It’s not just about trying … to cram information into their little brains,’’ he said. “It’s about ­improving the brain’s ­efficiency.

“Every child should understand they’re a work in progress and every teacher should understand that potential is built-in and you only lose it when you die.

“Children become disillusioned but if they understand their brain is plastic and they’re not stuck in a rut, that is important in turning on the lights.’’

The Queensland University of Technology has set up a brain “fitness lab’’ in Brisbane to help people strengthen the neural pathways in the brain.

QUT neuroscientist Selena Bartlett said the training — which includes deep breathing and mindfulness tuition — would help children “keep the primitive part of their brain under control.’’

She said childhood trauma could affect development of the brain’s foundational neural pathways, triggering a “survival response’’ from the primitive part of the child’s brain, the amygdala.

Professor Bartlett said too many Australian children were growing up with abuse, neglect and stress. “I could not get ethical approval to do to animals what is being done to kids right now.’’

She said neuroscience, brain imaging and education were “coming together to solve mental health and learning issues … This is going to change the world.’’

This article first appeared on ‘The Australian’ on 31 July 2015.

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