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Children, as a rule, are able to learn much easier and faster than adults, acquiring a significant amount of new information every day. However, so far there has been no concrete evidence to explain this phenomenon. American neuroscientists at Brown University have finally identified the key to this incredible learning ability: it will be γ-aminobutyric acid (or GABA), the central nervous system’s main inhibitory neurotransmitter.
Effective learning relies on the stabilization of newly acquired knowledge, which must be fast enough so that further learning does not disrupt the process—a phenomenon called “retrograde interference.” After learning something new in adults, the neural network involved in processing that information is still flexible or “hot”. “If the same or a similar neural network is required to learn something else too soon, the information just processed can be destroyed,” says Takeo Watanabe, professor of cognitive science and linguistics at Brown University.
It is γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) that plays an important role in this stabilization process; it prevents prolonged firing of neurons and protects new knowledge from retrograde interference. But studies have shown that GABAergic inhibitor therapy in children is not yet fully mature. This is also the reason why they have less inhibition and less control over their impulses than adults, the researchers note. Therefore, the origin of this exceptional ability to learn remained a mystery.
Rapid and sustained increase in GABA levels
To understand the unique learning mechanisms of children, Watanabe and his team studied how GABA concentration changes at different stages of learning. Using an advanced imaging technique, functional magnetic resonance spectroscopy (or fMRS), they measured GABA concentrations in visual cortical areas before, during, and after training sessions in about 50 children (8–11 years old) and adults (18–35 years old). old).
Representing the evolution of GABA levels in children and adults during visual learning sessions. © S. Frank et al.
“We found that children experienced a rapid increase in GABA during vision training that persisted after the training ended, while adult GABA concentrations remained unchanged,” they report in Current Biology. In particular, before the start of training, the total amount of GABA in children is lower than in adults; but during the second cycle of learning, the children experienced a rapid increase in GABA. Meanwhile, adult GABA levels remained constant throughout the experiment.
The researchers then conducted behavioral experiments to test whether these high levels of GABA stabilized visual learning faster. They then found that in children, resistance to retrograde interference—and thus stabilization of learned information—occurs within 10 minutes of training sessions. Adults, on the other hand, remained in a more “fragile” (i.e., unconsolidated) learning state for at least an hour after the session.
In addition, the researchers found that consecutive learning sessions seem to further increase children’s GABA concentration, leading to even faster stabilization of previously acquired knowledge.
Pathways to Improving Adult Learning Capabilities
Thus, due to more dynamic and adaptive inhibitory processing, children stabilize visual perception learning much faster than adults. In this way, they can quickly merge different training sessions without harming the “storage” of information and the consolidation of new neural networks – quite the contrary.
“This rapid stabilization of learning in children allows them to learn more things in a given amount of time and makes children’s learning more efficient than adults,” says Sebastian Frank, a neuroscientist at the University of Regensburg, Germany, and co-author. research. Therefore, it is in the interests of the child to provide him with as many opportunities as possible to acquire new knowledge and skills.
This study also sheds new light on brain maturity in children, suggesting that GABAergic processing associated with different aspects of cognitive function may mature at different rates. Indeed, while here it appears to be very effective (and better than in adults) in the case of visual learning, we know that this inhibitory treatment can be misleading—or at least not as effective as in adults—in others. areas such as cognitive control or attention. These differences in maturation rates between brain regions and functions will no doubt be explored in future studies.
Note that the researchers focused here on visual learning. But Watanabe says these results can be generalized to other types of memory-related learning. In addition, this discovery can be used to help adults learn more effectively. “A new technology or therapy could be developed to increase the amount of GABA in the adult brain,” the professor suggests.