Turns out, many adults aren’t any smarter than fifth graders. Children and adults have different brain messenger signals that affect how quickly they pick up new material. This is according to a study that examined visual learning in elementary school students and adults, using both behavioral and advanced neuroimaging techniques. The researchers found that these differences lie in GABA, a neurotransmitter important for stabilizing learning.
Until this study, the belief that children are stronger learners than adults was accepted despite the limited evidence to support it.
“It is often assumed that children learn more efficiently than adults, although the scientific support for this assumption has been, at best, weak, and if it is correct, the neural mechanisms responsible for children’s more efficient learning are unclear,” according to Takeo Watanabe of Brown University press release.
GABA has always been a focus of research on this topic. However, the team noted that the children’s GABA was only measured at one time. It is also not measured at a time of particular importance for learning. To explore things in more depth, they investigated how GABA levels changed before, during and after learning.
In doing so, they discovered that visual learning increased the children’s GABA levels within their visual cortex, which processes visual information. These levels remained elevated even after the training ended.
Among adults, the responses were not as strong. No GABA effects were seen at all, suggesting that novel physical training can rapidly increase children’s GABA concentration, leading to more sedentary learning.
“In subsequent behavioral experiments, we found that children did indeed settle into new learning much more quickly than adults, which is consistent with the popular belief that children outperform adults in their learning abilities,” says Sebastian M. Frank, who is now at the University of Regensburg in Germany. “Our results thus indicate that GABA plays a key role in making learning effective in children.”
The team agrees that these findings should encourage teachers and parents to provide children with opportunities to learn new skills, even if it’s just riding a bike or learning simple math. This work also has the potential to change the way neuroscientists view brain maturation in children, particularly with regard to visual learning. The researchers note that differences in rates of maturation between brain regions and their functions should be a focus of future studies. Furthermore, they hope to investigate GABA responses via other learning modalities, such as reading and writing.