With school moving into full swing this week, children will have the usual assignments to be completed at home. The theories behind homework have been examined for years but the consensus appears to be a combination of motivation to learn and preparation for a better future. While the concept continues to be debated, there is little doubt it will continue for quite some time.
The practice of reading, writing and arithmetic are well established forms of training and make up the lion's share or homework. Yet over the last few decades, research has shown there may be ways to help improve cognitive function biologically. Thanks to studies both in animals and humans, the scientific community has learned how to increase the success of education without ever having to pick up a pen or pencil.
Learning and memory are accomplished by billions of cells in the brain known as neurons. When we come across something new and worth remembering, our bodies make new and healthy neurons - a process called neurogenesis - and incorporate them into the overall cerebral circuitry. The process is incredibly complex and any alteration or perturbation may lead to molecular misunderstanding, signal misinterpretation and cellular damage. The end result is cognitive impairment and reduced learning potential.
At one time, learning problems were thought to be due to uncontrollable defects, such as a genetic mutation. But in 2009, another factor was discovered, the immune system. Although immunity is designed to protect us, it can also act against us in the form of chronic inflammation. When this occurs in the brain, coined neuroinflammation, neurogenesis is hampered and the brain suffers.
Since the discovery, researchers have worked tirelessly to lessen the impact if not prevent it altogether. Though answers were few and far between, one unusual link was found between the brain and the microbial constituents of the gut. Though unknown at the time, the bacteria in our intestines somehow controlled the brain. The link has since been called the microbiota-gut-brain (MGB) axis.
The impact of the MGB axis on learning is determined on the overall health of the gut. When infections occur, particularly if chronic, there is a noticeable reduction in cognition and memory. On the other hand, when the bacteria in the gut are happy, usually thanks to the presence of good bacteria known as either commensals or the more recognized probiotics, memory is enhanced and learning is improved. Further investigations into how this happens revealed the cause as being the bacteria themselves and their ability to signal the body and the brain.
When an infection occurs, a number of molecules including toxins send the body into defensive mode. This can lead to neuroinflammation and the cessation of neurogenesis. If infection continues over a long period of time, or leads to an imbalance of bacteria called dysbiosis, significant neural damage and loss of cognitive ability may occur.
On the other hand, when the gut is healthy and contains a number of probiotic species, such as Lactobacillus, there is a beneficial effect. The value comes from three specific functions of these bacteria. The first is the production of beneficial chemical signals known as neurotransmitters. The bacteria use these to send messages to the brain to declare all is well. The second is through the delivery of beneficial nutrients to the body, such as polyphenols, flavonoids and fatty acids. Finally, these bacteria help to defend the body against infections allowing the body to function normally.
The benefit of probiotic bacteria on the brain could eventually lead to more specialized probiotics designed specifically to help improve learning and memory. While these products - collectively known as psychobiotics - may be years away, parents can take advantage of what has already been learned to help their children today. Making probiotics a part of everyday lifestyle will help to keep the immune system balanced and send those good signals to the brain to promote learning and memory.
There is one more way to improve children's motivation and success. In addition to good bacteria, probiotic-friendly foods can offer a great supply of nutrients to keep the gut bacteria sated. These prebiotics, such as bananas, yogurts, berries, and even dark chocolate help keep our intestines happy and send those good messages to the brain. Even better, they are all tasty and make for a great treat; after of course, they finish their scholastic homework.
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