September 2020 research round-up

Research highlights in learning and education from around the world

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The link between school environment and academic achievement

For a child, social dynamics can make one school a drastically different experience from another. This, in turn, can influence the student’s academic performance. What mediates this link between a student’s school social environment and their academic achievement?

In this study, researchers predicted that positive school social dynamics – a sense of belonging, strong interpersonal relations – might foster a sense of self-worth, including academic self-worth. This, in turn, could translate into real benefit for academic performance. Indeed, in a survey of over 1600 middle- and high-school students, the authors found correlations between these factors. They suggest that school social dynamics shape how a student views their own academic performance, and that this helps drive actual academic achievement.

Zysberg and Schwabsky (2020) School climate, academic self-efficacy and student achievement. Educational Psychology DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/01443410.2020.1813690

A plasticity rule for spines

Learning relies on the plasticity of our brains – their ability to change with experience. At the most fundamental level, these changes occur at “spines”, tiny protrusions on the branches of a neuron that receive inputs from other neurons. In appearance, they are akin to the leaves of a tree, with a small head (leaf) connected to a parent branch via a thin neck (stem).

A classic “plasticity rule” holds that the strength of communication between two neurons can either increase or decrease, depending on the timing of input and output. Here, researchers show that when inputs are clustered in space, the plasticity rule changes, favouring increases in synaptic strength. This required a shortening of the spine neck (similar to the stem on a leaf).

Tazerart et al. (2020) A spike-timing-dependent plasticity rule for dendritic spines. Nature Communications 11: 4276 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-17861-7

Does device usage really affect our sleep and mental performance?

Using electronic devices before bed is a common behavior, even though studies have shown this can influence sleep patterns, with ramifications for cognition the following day. This is a particular concern for adolescents, whose sleep patterns already conflict with school schedules.

In this study, which relied on adolescents’ self-reported device usage and sleep behaviors, researchers show that the use of electronic devices prior to bed is linked to impaired reaction time in an attention task, as well as more variable attention levels over time. Perhaps surprisingly, the research did not reveal an effect of device usage on sleep behaviors, or on performance levels in the attention task.

Cruz de Oliveira et al. (2020) Impact of electronic device usage before bedtime on sleep and attention in adolescents. Mind, Brain, and Education DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/mbe.12260

Circuits for novelty and memory

Our survival depends on being able to detect new information and commit it to memory, but it is not clear how the brain signals novelty or how that influences memory processes. This study reveals that connections between the hypothalamus and hippocampus are key, and that different types of novelty are signalled via distinct pathways between these structures. Moreover, the researchers could tweak the memory of a mouse by controlling these circuits: for example when the pathway signalling a novel physical environment was activated, a mouse that had already spent considerable time in the space behaved as though it was a new experience.

Chen et al. (2020) A hypothalamic novelty signal modulates hippocampal memory. Nature DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2771-1

Alan Woodruff

Community Editor, Queensland Brain Institute

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