Category Archives: cognition

Kids’ Brains Benefit from Praise

St. Louis Post-Dispatch 1/31/12 

Washington University study reports that positive reinforcement may increase brain size. by Blythe Bernhard 314-340-8129

If your child forgets his lunch or struggles with school work, a little more loving might turn things around. 

Supportive mothers who practice positive reinforcement seem to help their children’s brains grow, according to new research from Washington University.

Brain scans show that school-age children of nurturing mothers have a 10 percent larger hippocampus-the region of the brain that plays a role in memory, learning and stress response-compared to the brains of children whose mothers were deemed less supportive.

The take-home message for working and stay-at-home parents is to praise children more than you scold them, the researchers said. 

“Parents might feel guilty because they’re working, and we work a lot as well,” said Dr. Kelly Botteron, a professor of child psychiatry and co-author of the study. “But when you’re home in the evening and you’re trying to rush through homework and trying to get dinner ready, if you remember to say a a couple nice, really positive things… I think a lot of parents could do that and it’s a practical thing that has very little risk to it.”

It’s long been known that orphans and other neglected children who are placed in loving homes can improve their behavior and health.  And while a link between nurturing mothers and their offspring’s brain growth has been established in rats, the study is the first to show the same anatomical process in humans.

As part of their ongoing research on childh00d depression, staff members watched how two groups of 92 children ages 3-5 interacted with their caregivers (usually mothers) during a stressful task.  One group of children had symptoms of depression and the others were assigned to a control group.

For the task, the mothers were told to fill out a questionnaire.  The child was given a wrapped present but told not to open it right away.  The  eight-minute “waiting task,” as it’s known, has been used by researchers as a reliable indicator of parental nurturing skills.  The task is thought to simulate situations at home, such as a parent distracted by cooking dinner while the child needs to focus on homework.

Researchers who reviewed the taped interactions rated the mother’s responses to their children’s behavior.  Mothers received points each time they praised the child’s patience or offered encouragement to not open the gift.

The researchers acknowledged they’re not getting a complete picture of family life, especially if Mom was having a bad day.  But they are confident that the results of the MRI brain scans on the kids, performed four years after the “waiting task,” indicate that children who have more supportive mothers also have bigger brains.

Children with less supportive mothers had a hippocampus volume that was 9.2 percent smaller than the children of more nurturing mothers.  In children with depression, the effects of nurturing were not as positive, and the researchers think the disease process has a greater impact on brain development.

The researchers plan to run second and third MRI brain scans on the children, who are now preteens, to watch for brain development over time.

Although the study wasn’t designed to look at fathers, foster parents or grandparents, the researchers said the positive effects of nurturing can come from any caregivers, which can be reasonably stretched to include teachers.

“If you know your child is in a difficult situation, to reinforce to them that you know it’s a hard situation but they’re doing such a great job, that’s the kind of parenting we would try to encourage,” Botteron said.

The researchers were careful to point out they’re not opposed to disciplining children or giving them boundaries.

“You should be supportive and nurturing, which is not the same as spoiling, and not the same as smothering,” said the study’s lead author Dr. Joan Luby, a professor of child psychiatry.

One local mom said it was exciting to hear that something she already believes in could have an effect on her children’s intellectual, and not just emotional, development.

“For a nurturing parent it’s both beautiful and frightening because many of us who spend a lot of nights wondering whether we’re doing everything we possibly can for our children, this falls into the category of one more thing to worry about,” said Danielle Smith of O’Fallon, MO, who has two young children and writes the blog “It sounds like a bonus to me, but I have to embrace the idea that what I’m doing is enough.”

Comment from Pam Hass, Speech Language Pathologist:  As we as caregivers and teachers of our children, in addition to being nurturing and supportive of our children, we also need to include our children in day to day conversations and make reading to our children a daily event.  Talking with  our children, listening  and responding to our children while they play or while we do our daily chores will help develop children’s language skills.  Reading to our children and talking with them about the story is very important in developing their language and cognitive skills.  

In my next blog, I will begin to list some language activities that families can do to stimulate both the understanding and expression of language.

Asleep at School

Reference:  Advance for Speech Pathologists and Audiologists  12/14/11

Sleep deprivation impacts academics and safety.

From memory to judgment, attention span, emotional stability and even immunity, sleep deprivation negatively affects school-age children,” reports Kristin Avis, MD, a sleep specialist and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UA.  Of children under age 18, 60 percent polled by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) complained of being tired during the day, and 15 percent reported falling asleep at school.

The NSF has guidelines for how much sleep children of various ages require.  Three-five year-olds need 11 to 13 hours per night, while 5-to 12-year olds need 10-11 hours.

“As for adolescents, it’s a common myth that they need less sleep and can handle only seven or eight hours,” said Dr. Avis.  “They actually need nine hours of sleep.  That’s typically the most sleep-deprived population in school.

A student can make up for the lack of one good night’s sleep, but going an entire school week without sufficient rest can be detrimental, she noted.  “You can sleep until noon on Saturday and feel caught up, but then you will go to bed later that night, sleep in on Sunday, and then repeat the cycle into the new school week.”

Children need a suitable amount of sleep every night.  Their bedrooms should be as tranquil as possible, which means removing noise-makers.

“On average, there are three to four electronic gadgets in a kid’s room,” Dr. Avis reported.  “It’s been shown that even sleeping with a television on deprives them of 20 minutes of sleep per night, which may not sound like a lot but adds up over a week’s time.

‘Cell phones are often used as an alarm clock, but for about $5 you  can invest in a real alarm clock so the phone can be turned off,” added Stephanie Wallace, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at UAB.

Dr. Avis is exploring further what a bad night’s rest can do to a child.  She and David Schwebel, PhD, professor of psychology and director of the Youth Safety Lab at UAB, are studying sleep deprivation and pedestrian injury and general safety among children.

Mild Hearing Loss

Reference: Advance for Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists (Oct. 3, 2011)

Mild Hearing Loss
Linked to brain atrophy in older adults

Declines in hearing ability may accelerate gray matter atrophy in auditory areas of the brain and increase the listening effort necessary for older adults to comprehend speech successfully, a new study has shown.  When a sense is altered, the brain reorganizes and adjusts.  In the case of people with poor hearing, researchers found that the gray matter density of the auditory areas was lower in people with decreased hearing ability, suggesting a link between hearing ability and brain volume.

“As hearing ability declines with age, interventions such as hearing aids should be considered not only to improve hearing but to preserve the  brain,” said lead author Jonathan Peelle, PhD, a research associate in the Department of Neurology, Perelman School of Medicine, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.  “People hear differently, and those with even moderate hearing l0ss may have to work harder to understand complex sentences.”

In a pair of studies, researchers measured the relationship of hearing acuity to the brain, first measuring the response of the brain to increasingly complex sentences and then measuring cortical brain volume in the auditory cortex.

Older adults, ages 60-77, with normal hearing for their age were evaluated to determine whether normal variations in hearing ability impacted the structure or function of the network of brain areas supporting speech comprehension.

The studies found that people with hearing loss showed less brain activity on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans when listening to complex sentences. People with poorer hearing also had less gray matter in the auditory cortex, suggesting that areas of the brain related to auditory processing may show accelerated atrophy when hearing ability declines.

In general, research suggests that hearing sensitivity has cascading consequences for the neural processes supporting both perception and cognition.  Although the research was conducted in older adults, the findings have implications for younger adults, including those concerned about listening to music at loud volumes.

“Your hearing ability directly affects how the brain processes sounds, including speech,” said Dr. Peelle.  “Preserving your hearing doesn’t only protect your ears but also helps your brain perform at its best.”

Audiologists should monitor hearing in patients as they age, noting that individuals who still fall within normal hearing ability may have increasing complaints of speech comprehension issues.

Grants from the National Institutes of Health funded the research.

Peele, J.E., Troiani, V., Grossman, M., et al. (2011).  Hering loss in older adults affects neural systems supporting speech comprehension.  The Journal of Neuroscience, 31 (35): 12638-43


Make Your Child Laugh: The Developmental Stages of Humor


This article was posted and seemed so relevant to our very serious approach to special needs that we forget as professionals that laughter is a great way to learning.  Here is the post.

Many children with special needs have problems with friendships.  The problems can surround not understanding nonverbal communication, to not being able to identify emotions, to confusion over humor and more.  One thing we know for sure is that life without friendships and human connections is a very lonely life.

Humor is something that can bring two people together.  Laughter signifies that people are having fun and is good for a healthy relationship.  Sharing jokes and funny stories provides a connection between two people.

Children love to laugh.  But children with special needs such as autism, ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, and more often take things quite literally.  This results in them missing a joke or the humor in a situation.  If a child can’t share laughter with a group, then she is missing a part of the bonding that occurs and this affects the development of friendships.

Before you can work on humor with your child, you need to understand humor from a developmental perspective.  This is a general guideline and actual ages vary depending on the child.
    1) By six months of age, babies will laugh at behaviors that are not typical of their parents.  
         Making exaggerated faces will get a baby to laugh.
    2) A one year old baby loves the game of peek-a-boo.

At this stage, you can play peek-a-boo and other games that do not end at a predictable time, such as jack-in-the-box.  This can be played with a four or five year old child with special needs (or even older) if she has not acquired this basic level of humor.  There are many different kinds of jack-in-the-boxes, such as Sock Monkey Jack in the Box and SpongeBob Squarepants Jack-in-the-box, so you should be able to find one that will appeal to your child.

      3) Starting at age one or one and a half, children start pretend play and  will make believe that
            an object is something other than what it is or will use it in a “wrong” way.  For example,
            a child may put a sock on his hand and laugh.
       4) By age two to three as language skills develop, children enjoy giving objects the wrong 
            name.  “Bathroom” humor may also begin at this time.

For the two stages above, you can create a game to play with your child.  Take a box and fill it with familiar objects.  Pull something out and pretend it is something else.  For example, you can take a sock out of the box and say it is a hat and put it on your head.  After you take a few turns, let your child try.

        5) By age three, children enjoy playing with the sounds of words.  They may create 
             variations of common words or generate rhyming words.  Some of these children may     
              also enjoy making nonsensical sentences.

Saxton Freymann and Joost Eiffers created a set of books containing photographs of fruits and vegetables depicting emotions, vehicles, and other objects.  The pictures can help children with special needs to not only identify moods and emotions, but to also appreciate the silliness of the photographs.  The books are titled “How Are You Peeling? (Scholastic Bookshelf), “Fast Food”, and “Food Play”.

         6) Around age five, children start telling riddles or knock-knock jokes that don’t make any

“What Do You Hear When Cows Sing?: And Other Silly Riddles (I Can Read Book 1) contains
twenty-two riddles with the use of wordplay.

         7) By age six or seven, the nonsensical part of the riddles and knock-knock jokes disappear
               and children find true riddles and knock-knock jokes very humorous.

“Good Clean Knock-Knock Jokes for Kids” contains a couple hundred jokes.

Knowing the developmental stages of humor is important.  When attempting to teach humor to a child with special needs, you need to make sure that you are teaching what is developmentally appropriate and not what is appropriate based on the child’s chronological age.  In addition to helping to develop your child’s humor, other benefits will be seen, such as improved eye contact and a fun emotional connection between you and your child.

Early fitting for Later Benefits

Reference:  American Speech and Hearing Association Leader
July 5, 2011

Elderly persons fitted with hearing aids during the early stages of hearing loss may retain cognitive function better than those who are fitted later for hearing aids.  In a study conducted at the International University of Health and Welfare in Tochigi, Japan, participants were divided into three groups: a typically hearing group, a hearing-loss-without-hearing-aids group, and a hearing-loss-with-hearing-aids group.

On tests of pure-tone audiometry, syllable intelligibility, dichotic listening, and the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-Revised (WAIS-R) Short Forms, the hearing-loss-without-hearing-aids group showed the lowest scores on all measures.  These results indicate that acquiring a hearing aid in the initial stages of hearing loss may lead to greater retention of cognitive skills in elderly people.  However, the lack of statistically significant correlations between the auditory and cognitive tests suggests that further studies are warranted to address this question more definitively.  Search “Obuchi” at

Please click on comment for further discussion on this topic.

Food Additives and Dyes: Links to Attention Problems

Reference: Learning Disabilities of America May/June 2011 Newsletter

Healthy Children Project

Article by Maureen Swanson
Healthy Children Project Coordinator

At the beginning of April, a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory committee decided that there is not sufficient evidence to support a link between artificial dyes in foods and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).  The committee failed to recommend any ban or regulation of dye additives in food products.  They did call for more research.

There are seven primary food dyes used in the United States: Red #3, Red #40, Blue #1 & #2, Green #3 and Yellow #5 and #6.   There are two limited use dyes: Orange B used in hot dog and sausage casings, and Citrus Red 2 allowed only for coloring orange peels.  The dyes are used to make foods, candy and drinks more appealing, especially to children.  European countries already have banned some food dyes, including Blue #1 and Yellow #5 and #6.  In many cases, manufacturers now use natural colorings for food products in the European market.

According to experts at the Mayo Clinic, Yellow #5 may be more likely to cause problems with attention and behavior than other additives.  Yellow #5 is found in beverages, candy, ice cream, custards and other foods such as macaroni and cheese mixes.  The FDA requires manufacturers to label foods that contain Yellow #5 in the list of ingredients.

Many parents and teachers have their own anecdotal evidence that food dyes and preservatives seem to contribute to a child’s hyperactivity, behavior or attention problems.  LDA often takes a position that it is better to err on the side of caution when it comes to children’s health and learning.

If you want to avoid food dyes and preservatives for your family, summer is a great time to change eating and food shopping habits.  Foods to avoid include brightly colored, processed foods, which are most likely to contain one or more food dyes.  Another good rule of thumb is that if you cannot understand or pronounce the ingredients in a food product, you shouldn’t eat it.

To quote Michael Pollan, well-known author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “Food Rules”, one of the best ways to ensure a healthier diet is to “Eat Real Food.”

By real food, Pollan means fruits and vegetables, grains, dairy and meat that have not been “processed” with other ingredients into packaged foods.  In summer and early fall, farmers markets and backyard gardens make this kind of eating much easier.  If possible, load your plate with locally grown fruits and vegetables.

To have healthy, locally grown produce available year-round, one option is to can fruits and vegetables.  Another way to preserve some fruits and vegetables is to freeze them – this works well with blueberries, corn, beans, peas, rhubarb and many other fruits and vegetables.  For a “how-to” guide on freezing fresh food, see the charts at the following website:

While European governments seem more willing to take precautionary measures to protect people, especially children, from the possible harmful effects of food dyes, the FDA’s recent ruling means that in the United States, we have to take our own precautionary measures.

Exercise May Help Improve Memory Problems

Reference: ADVANCE for Speech Language Pathologists- March 20,2011   
Adults with memory problems who participated in a home-based physical activity program experienced a modest improvement in cognitive function, compared to those who did not participate in the program, according to Australian researchers [JAMA, 300, (9): 1027-1037].

As the world population ages, the number of older adults living with Alzheimer’s disease is estimated to increase from the current 26.6 million to 106.2 million by 2050.  “If illness onset could be delayed by 12 months, 9.2 million fewer cases of Alzheimer’s disease would occur worldwide.  For this reason, attempts have been made to identify individuals who are at increased risk of Alzhiemer’s disease and to test interventions that might delay the progression of prodromal symptoms [early non-specific symptom, or set of symptoms] to full-blown dementia,” the authors wrote.

Nicola T. Lautenschlager, MD, of the University of Melbourne, Australia, and colleagues conducted a randomized controlled trial to test whether a physical activity intervention would reduce the rate of cognitive decline among 138 adults age 50 years and older at increased risk of dementia.  The participants, who reported memory problems but did not meet criteria for dementia, were randomly allocated to an education and usual care group or to a 24-week home-based program of physical activity.

The aim of the intervention was to encourage participants to perform at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week, which participants were asked to complete in three 50-minute sessions each week.  The most frequently recommended type of activity was walking.  The intervention resulted in 142 minutes more physical activity per week or 20 minutes per day than with usual care.  Cognitive function was assessed with the Alzheimer Disease Asssessment Scale-Cognitive Subscale (ADAS-Cog; a measuring tool that consists of a number of  cognitive tests) over 18 months.

The researchers found that by the study’s end, participants in the exercise group had better ADAS-Cog scores and delayed recall than those in the usual care control group.  Participants in the physical activity group also had lower Clinical Dementia Rating scores than those in the usual care group.

“To our knowledge, this trial is the first to demonstrate that exercise improves cognitive function in older adults with subjective and objective mild cognitive impairment.  The benefits of physical activity were apparent after 6 months and persisted for at least another 12 months after the intervention had been discontinued.  The average improvement of 0.69 points on the ADAS-Cog score compared with the usual care control group at 18 months is small but potentially important when one considers the relatively modest amount of physical activity undertaken by participants in the study,” the authors write.

“Unlike medication, which was found to have no significant effect on mild cognitive impairment at 36 months, physical activity has the advantage of health benefits that are not confined to cognitive function alone, as suggested by findings on depression, quality of life, falls, cardiovascular function, and disability.