Watching Sesame Street Helps Children’s’ Brain Develop Intellectual Abilities
January 4, 2013

Watching Sesame Street Helps Children’s’ Brain Develop Intellectual Abilities

[Watch Video: Sesame Street Helps Brain Development]

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Using brain images, researchers are gaining insight into how humans process thought during real-life experiences. The same researchers studied brain scans of children and adults while they watched Sesame Street and found that a child´s brain changes as they develop intellectual abilities like reading and math.

The scientists say that the novel use of brain imaging in this way could open the door to studying other thought processes in naturalistic settings and may also one day help to diagnose and treat learning disabilities.

Researchers have in the past compared scans of adults watching an entertaining movie to see if neural responses are similar among different individuals. "But this is the first study to use the method as a tool for understanding development," lead author Jessica Cantlon, a cognitive scientist at the University of Rochester, said in a statement.

She said eventually, that understanding could help pinpoint the cause when a child experiences difficulties mastering school tasks. She said there are behavioral tests that can be implemented to diagnose and study learning impairments, but the new studies “provide a totally independent source of information about children's learning based on what's happening in the brain.”

In Cantlon´s investigation, she recruited 27 children between the ages of 4 and 11, and 20 adults. Each participant watched a 20-minute Sesame Street video while his or her neural activity was monitored by fMRI. The short video contained a variety of clips from the regular hour-long broadcast, showing bits on numbers, words, shapes, letters and other subjects. After watching the video, each child took a standardized IQ test for math and verbal ability.

Using the fMRI´s magnetic fields, the scans segmented brain images into a three-dimensional grid of about 40,000 pixels, known as voxels, and measured the neural signal intensity in each of those tiny voxels. The study produced 609 scans of each individual, one every two seconds, as they watched the Sesame Street characters (Big Bird, The Count, and Elmo, and others) do their thing.

Cantlon and her team then used statistical algorithms to create “neural maps” of the thought processes of each child and adult and then compared the two groups.

What the team found was that children whose neural maps more closely resembled the neural maps of adults scored higher on the IQ tests. This means the brain´s neural structure, like other parts of the body, develops along predictable pathways as we grow.

The study also found that verbal and math tasks develop in different areas of the brain. Verbal tasks develop in the Broca area, which is involved with speech and language. Math tasks develop in the intraparietal sulcus, a region of the brain known to be involved in the processing of numbers.

Using normal activities, such as watching TV, scientists may get a more accurate picture of a child´s learning and brain development in the real world rather than the short and simple tasks of fMRI studies, say the study authors.

To test that assumption, Canton and her former research partner, Rosa Li, now a graduate student of Duke University, had the children perform traditional fMRI tasks by matching simple pictures of faces, numbers, words, or shapes. During these more limited activities with simple images, the neural responses of the children did not predict their test scores, unlike the more naturalistic task of watching Sesame Street.

Cantlon said the study doesn´t advocate TV watching. However, it does show "neural patterns during an everyday activity like watching television are related to a person's intellectual maturity.”

“It's not the case that if you put a child in front of an educational TV program that nothing is happening—that the brain just sort of zones out. Instead, what we see is that the patterns of neural activity that children are showing are meaningful and related to their intellectual abilities,” she concludes.

The research is published in this week´s PLoS Biology journal.