January 2018 research round-up
Research highlights in learning and education from around the world
How can the learning sciences (better) impact policy and practice?
For many, the aim of learning research is to improve the practice of education. Yet a significant gap remains between research findings and implementation in the classroom. According to this editorial by Susan McKenney, more research should specifically be aimed at ensuring that science of learning research can have greater influence on educational practice.
In this context, three broad areas of investigation are suggested: Implementation, with the aim of lowering the barriers between research findings and practice; scale, or research that aims to promote interventions that can be implemented widely and sustainably; and research–practice interactions, meaning research into the strengths and weaknesses of various types of researcher-educator relationship.
McKenney (2018). How can the learning sciences (better) impact policy and practice? Journal of the Learning Sciences 27:1-7 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/10508406.2017.1404404
Improving long-term memory in humans via brain stimulation
Emotional memories are well-remembered, and the amygdala—a structure deep in the brain that processes emotion—is thought to help memory consolidation by interacting with other brain regions. This has not been directly tested in humans, however, since the amygdala cannot be manipulated using non-invasive stimulation techniques like TMS or tDCS.
In this study, epilepsy patients viewed a series of emotion-neutral images. Immediately after some of these, the amygdala was directly stimulated via electrodes inserted deep into the brain as part of the epilepsy surgery. When tested the next day, patients did significantly better at remembering images that were followed by amygdala stimulation; this was accompanied by enhanced interaction between the amygdala and other memory-related brain regions.
Inman et al. (2017). Direct electrical stimulation of the amygdala enhances declarative memory in humans. PNAS DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1714058114
Making brain research matter for academic instruction
Despite neuroscience and education both sharing the goal of understanding how learning happens, translating what we know about the brain to meaningful educational practices remains difficult. In this review, Richard Mayer from UC Santa Barbara proposes educational psychology as a linking science between the two, since that field covers both how learning occurs and the instructional methods that affect learning. Mayer advocates two-way interaction between education on the one hand, and neuroscience and psychology on the other, with educational psychology as the intermediary. He concludes by offering a 4-point checklist for how neuroscience and psychology might effectively influence education.
Mayer (2017) How can brain research inform academic learning and instruction? Educational Psychology Review 29: 835-846. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-016-9391-1
Dendritic spine turnover predicts learning
Recent years have revealed that dendritic spines – tiny (~1 μm3) structures on the branches of neurons – can dynamically form and disappear, contributing to memory formation and learning.
These studies generally looked at how learning impacted the number of spines. In this paper, Frank et al. did the opposite – they assessed whether spine turnover (i.e. those lost or formed) in the days preceding training predicted how well the animal would learn, finding that better learning occurred when the rate of spine turnover was high. They also showed that high spine turnover predicted how close together, or clustered, spines were after learning, providing evidence that pre-learning spine turnover modulates spine clustering to affect learning efficacy.
Frank et al. (2018). Hotspots of dendritic spine turnover facilitate clustered spine addition and learning and memory. Nature Communications 9: 422 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-017-02751-2