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Brain Development in School Years - not all educations are equal, and teens take cognitive risks

Posted: Tue, July 16, 2013 | By: Brain Health

by Hank Pellissier

HEALTH AND FITNESS Exercise - John Ratey MD, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, calls exercise “Miracle-Gro for the brain” because it elevates neurotransmitters, stimulates neuron growth, and builds the brain’s infrastructure. Children need to be engaged in physically challenging activities, 30 - 60 minutes per day. For older children, sports like soccer, swimming, yoga, gymnastics and dance are valuable brain-boosters. A University of Illinois (Champagne-Urbana) study indicates that 10 year olds who are physically fit perform better on a variety of cognitive tests than their out-of-shape peers. MRI scans determined that the hippocampus – a brain region that contributes to spatial reasoning and memory – was 12 percent larger in the children who exercised. Columbia University research discovered that exercise also builds brain cells in the dentate gyrus. Are there sex differences in exercise’s benefits? A Harvard Medical School study asserted that “greater physical activity was associated with higher intelligence scores for women, whereas exercise level was essentially unrelated to intelligence among men.”

Early Exercise - When early-morning exercise was offered at Naperville High School, the students who attended demonstrated a 6.3% higher improvement rate in reading and comprehension, than students who slept in.

Yoga - A 1989 Bangalore study of 90 mentally retarded children revealed that after yogic training 5 hours per week for one academic year, there was “highly significant improvement in the IQ.” Researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana Champagne found that 20 minutes of Hatha Yoga produced “significant improvement in speed and accuracy tests.” Yoga provided a greater benefit than 20 minutes of moderate exercise.

Meditation - A 1984 article published in the International Journal of Neuroscience suggested that students practicing the Transcendental Meditation program significantly improved their grade point averages. Other studies using M.R.I. brain scans indicate that meditation increases grey matter in the right hippocampus, right thalamus, left interior temporal gyrus, and right orbit frontal cortex - areas important for learning and memory. The images also showed a reduction of gray matter in the amygdala, a region connected to anxiety and stress. The immune system was also boosted. All India Institute of Medical Sciences reports that “meditation brought significant improvements in IQ and scores for cognitive functions, whereas participants’ stress levels (GSR and AS) decreased.”

Obese Children and Teens - A 2010 study by Uppsala University in Sweden examined 60 obese patients between ages 8-16 and concluded that, “obese children are at increased risk of having below average IQ.” Other studies in Brazil and China also correlated low IQ and obesity; the average IQ of the subjects was repeatedly about 85.

Premature Adrenarche (Early Period) - A study by Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center determined that hormone exposures in girls’s premature maturation impacted their brain development and neuropsychological functioning. Girls who had their period early performed worse on verbal, working memory, and visuospatial tasks, but they improved attention.

Bulimia - University of Colorado Denver researchers noted in 2011 that bulimia nervosa can negatively affect brain regions involved in the reward circuitry.

Anorexia - According to researchers at Yale University, anorexia nervosa may shrink the afflicted’s brain matter. The condition is partly reversible when weight is regained. Researchers at Kagoshima University Graduate School of Medical and Dental Sciences (Japan) discovered - in a population of severely anorexic women - that overall IQ scores showed borderline intelligence (75.86). After weight restoration, the IQ scores increased in visuospatial tests, but unchanged in auditory cognitive tests.

Children of Anorexic and Bulemic Mothers - University College London research discovered that children of women with lifetime anorexia nervosa often had high performance IQ, increased working memory, better visuo-spatial functioning, and decreased attention. Children of women with lifetime bulimia nervosa had poor visuo-spatial functioning. The conclusion was that children who demonstrated these characteristics were more likely to develop anorexia and bulimia themselves.

Avoid Junk Food - A recent Bristol University study indicated that young children fed junk food developed IQs up to five points lower than healthy eaters, because they consumed insufficient vitamins and minerals for optimal brain growth. For example, egg yolk, fatty meat, and soybeans contain choline, the building block for the neurotransmitter acetylocholine, which is crucial in memory function.

Regular breakfast consumption - University of Pennsylvania researchers found that children who regularly eat breakfast had “significantly higher full scale, verbal, and performance IQ test scores.”

Sugar - UCLA researcher Fernando Gomez-Pinella reported that “eating a high-fructose diet over the longterm alters your brain’s ability to learn and remember information.” The study - published in the Journal of Physiology - suggested that omega-3 fatty acids can help protect or heal the brain from this damage.

Avoid Artificial Additives - The Hindustani Times reported that in a study of one million Pakistanis, the students who ate a meal before IQ testing, “that did not contain any artificial flavors, preservatives and colors,” had IQ test scores that were 14 percent higher than those of individuals who consumed foods with the additives.

Multi-vitamins or B-complex vitamins with minerals - Steven Fowlkes, a nootropics expert, says these inexpensive supplements, “enhance foundational level influences, providing a strong ‘nuts and bolts’ infrastructure in the basic parts used throughout the brain. When multi-vitamins were distributed to two separate groups of students, in California and England, the IQs of one-third of the students rose by 10 points. A 3.3 point overall class IQ elevation - at only 5-10 cents per child, per day.” A semi-contrasting study, by Valley Family Medicine, in Renton Washington, determined that “it’s doubtful that multivitamin with mineral (MVM) supplementation improves IQ in healthy, low-risk children…the benefits appear to be limited.”

Sleep - McGill University and Douglas Mental Health University (Montreal, Canada) found in 2011 research that “longer habitual sleep duration in healthy school age participants was associated with better performance on overall IQ… and on academic performance.” In the September 2010 issue of Sleep connections were made between sleep duration and cognitive performance, plus it was discovered that a later school start for high schoolers improved IQ, and shorted sleep duration was also linked to obesity in later life.

Intestinal Worms (helminth infections): Intestinal worms have been associated with reduced IQ in many studies; one estimate is that “the average IQ loss for children left untreated is 3.75 points per worm infection.” A 1995 UC Davis article concludes that “there is evidence that high intensities of [hook]worms can affect mental performance, [and] not all dewormed children show improved performance.”


Smaller Class Sizes - In 1910, 50% of the USA’s children attended one-room schools. Today, the average school contains 653 pupils. Many researchers have concluded that smaller schools provide higher academic achievement, superior attendance, lower dropout rates, less alienation, greater extracurricular participation, and improved relationships between students, teachers and administrators. In Maximizing Intelligence, author David J. Armor claims: “A reduction of three pupils per teacher… in schools that have an average of 27 students per teacher could raise average [academic] test scores by 5 to 6 percentile points.” The impact is approximately two IQ points.

School Attendance - In Maximizing Intelligence, author David J. Armor claims: “Studies found that students with greater amounts of schooling had higher IQ scores… many of these studies showed an average of 2 or 3 IQ points gained (or lost) per year of schooling…” Additionally, nations that require students to attend school more days of the year often have higher collective IQs. Japanese children attend school 243 days per year, whereas USA kids quit for vacation at 180. Japanese IQ is 105, USA’s is 98.

Teacher Effectiveness - In Maximizing Intelligence author David J. Armor claims: “A 1999 study by Linda Darling-Hammond concluded that teacher quality variables… are more important than [any other] characteristics.” The impact is approximately two IQ points.

Free Lunch - In Maximizing Intelligence, author David J. Armor claims that providing free lunches to students has been repeatedly proved to raise performance in school.

Peer Tutoring - Norwegian scientists published reports indicating that older siblings have generally higher IQ, by three points on average, than their younger siblings. A possible reason for this is because the firstborns spend more time tutoring their younger family members. “Explaining something,” suggests Robert Zajonc, a Stanford University psychiatrist, “Solidifies your knowledge and allows you to grow more extensively.”

Aim High - According to Daniel Siegel, professor of psychiatry at UCLA School of Medicine, teachers’ expectations of students’ abilities have a huge effect on student learning. In one study, teachers were mistakenly told that some of their students who had been previously identified as learning disabled were in fact gifted. After the teachers raised expectations, the students performed up to expectations. Success breeds success, on the neurological level. Victory provides a rush of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that activates motivation for further accomplishments.

Positive Thinking - Research psychologists at Michigan State in 2011 reported that “mind set” makes a difference in intelligence because their attitude determines if they react productively, or self-destructively, to their mistakes. In the course of 480 trials, it was discovered that “participants who thought they could raise their intelligence performed far better than those who thought they couldn’t.”

Self-Discipline - Developing delayed gratification and self-control helps students academically: A University of Pennsylvania study of 140 eighth-graders concluded that “the correlation between self-discipline and final GPA was twice the size of the correlation between IQ and final GPA.”

Multisensory Integration - A 2011 study of school age children (average age 9.5) by La Trobe University, Australia, researchers indicated that “multisensory integration in quiet and noisy environments is associated with the development of optimal general intellectual abilities.” Children with enhanced multi sensory integration scored higher on IQ tests.

Chess - Studies indicate that the tactical thinking required in the “Game of Kings” initiates a significant advance in many cognitive abilities,including IQ. The visual, organizational, and strategic skills required for chess build up the precuneus in the superior parietal lobe, and the caudate nucleus in the subcortical region. A Zaire 1973-1974 chess program with students aged 16-18 claimed it developed their spatial, numerical, verbal, and administrative-directional abilities. A Venezuelan project in the 1980’s demonstrated “significant gains” after 4.5 months, and concluded that, “chess, methodologically taught, is an incentive program sufficient to accelerate the increase of IQ in elementary age children of both sexes at all socio-economic levels.” A Kyushu University (Japan) study determined that chess fine-tuned object-recognition abilities. Researchers at the Universidad de La Laguna (Spain) claim “chess improves cognitive abilities, coping and problem-solving capacity, and even socioaffective development of children and adolescents who practice it.” in San Francisco believes chess benefits learners in creativity, concentration, logical reasoning, critical thinking, memory, problem solving, planning ahead, complex decision making, pattern recognition, and intellectual maturity. The MindChampions Academy teaches chess in schools to over a million students in more than 5000 schools across India. Other brain-building games are checkers, Scrabble, and backgammon.

Music - Children enrolled in keyboard or singing lessons improved their academic and IQ scores, notes 2004 University of Toronto research. UC Irvine’s Gordon Shaw gave 19 children piano or singing lessons for eight months, and found that the kids demonstrated dramatic improvement in spatial reasoning. A 2009 Journal of Neuroscience article reports that when 31 six-year-olds received instrumental musical training for 15 months, the result was impressive growth in the brain’s auditory and cortical motor systems. Neurological Research published a study indicating that second-graders given four months of piano training scored 27% higher on fraction tests than children who used math software. An article in Journal of Adolescent Research reports that in a study of 6,026 middle schoolers, “students enrolled in formal instrumental or choral music instruction . . . outperformed [their peers]” in algebra. A followup study at the University of Toronto ascertained, once again, that “Musically trained children scored higher on IQ.” Research at Carl von Ossietzky University Oldenburg (Germany) decided, “children receiving music training may benefit from improvements in their verbal memory skills.” A University of Bedfordshire (United Kingdom) study that gave kindergarten children twelve 75-minute weekly music lessons, found that participants enjoyed “significant IQ increase” specifically in verbal reasoning and short-term memory. Music training optimizes neuron development and improves skills in spatial-temporal reasoning, math analysis, organization, memory, language, creativity, stress management, improvisation, self-esteem, determination, perseverance, concentration, motivation, and science. Melodic, structured music is most harmonious to cognitive development.

Mandarin - Literacy in Mandarin requires recognition of at least 4,000 ideogrammatic characters, with scholastic fluency necessitating 10,000. The prodigious memorization demanded exercises the utilized areas of the brain. Many of the characters also look quite similar to others - differentiating them improves the learner’s visual-spatial brain centers. Communicating in Mandarin also requires both the left temporal and the right temporal lobes for processing; English can be interpreted with only the left temporal lobe. This is due to Mandarin being “tonal,” requiring participation from the right lobe, which handles music.

Abacus - Using an abacus encourages students to think spatially and visually about numbers; it develops the right side of the brain.


Concussions - UCLA Department of Medicine estimates that 300,000 concussions occur annually in the USA in teen football programs. Studies show that loss of IQ can occur “after a single concussion.” Adventure-seeking adolescent are giving little thought to protecting their mind matter during the long, lazy days of summer. But extra caution is in order when it comes to tweens and teens attracted to risk. Injuries and concussions — via car accidents or skateboarding crashes, for example — can result in severe mental damage. One study reports a 14 point IQ loss after 20 weeks.

Alcohol - Children and teenagers who drink alcohol expose their vulnerable, still-developing cognition to possible long-term mental impairment. Their brains contain more exposed axons (receptors) than adults; alcohol binds to these axons, impacting zones controlling memory, emotion, learning, motivation, and judgment. A San Diego study reports that teen use of alcohol is linked to abnormalities in “brain structure volume, white matter quality, and activation to cognitive tasks… in youth with… consumption levels of 20 drinks per month, especially when >4-5 drinks are consumed in a single session.” Teenagers imbibing alcohol, especially binge-drinkers, expose their still-developing brains to possible long-term impairment.

Marijuana - Harvard studies indicate that kids who use marijuana before the age of 16 can develop problems in making decisions, cognitive flexibility, and recalling details. Marijuana’s active chemicals, cannabinoids, block cell signaling in the brain that helps construct learning and memory. Research has also shown that IQ can decrease, at least temporarily, in those who use cannabis. “Brain development is actively transpiring . . . in the teen brain, and [if] you throw in a drug on top of that, you could change the trajectory of brain development,” warns Dr. Frances Jensen of Children’s Hospital Boston. National Institute on Drug Abuse scientists determined that “cognitive impairments resulting from smoking marijuana can last up to at least 28 days.” Studies suggest that teen stoners can develop problems making decisions, recalling details, and maintaining cognitive flexibility.

Smoking - A 2010 study by Sheba Medical Center (Israel) of 20,221 18-year-old males reports that, “IQ scores are lower in brothers who smoke compared to their non-smoking brothers. The IQs of adolescents who began smoking between ages 18-21 are lower…” A 2006 Carleton University, Canada study of 112 17-21 year old subjects indicated that, “regular smokers did significantly worse than non-smokers in a variety of cognitive areas predicated upon verbal/auditory competence including receptive and expressive vocabulary, oral arithmetic, and auditory memory… these results suggest that regular smoking during early adulthood is associated with cognitive impairments.” the deficits, claim researchers, “may be reversed upon cessation.” Teen smoking is similarly unwise. Research has determined that the habit is associated with cognitive damage.

Second-Hand Tobacco Smoke Exposure - A 2004 study by Cincinnati Children’s Hospital of 6-16 year olds exposed to second-hand tobacco smoke concluded that the environmental hazard can lead to a decrease of 5.0 points in IQ reading scores. A 2010 study of 667 children aged 8-11 by Seoul National University of Medicine concluded that “environmental exposure to tobacco smoke in children is associated with poor neurocognitive performance.”


Dual N-back Test - Can fluid IQ be improved via a continuous performance task that’s called the “dual n-back”? So claims a 2008 paper by researchers from the University of Michigan, University of Bern (Switzerland), and the National Taiwan Normal University. The study subjects practiced the test for about 20 minus a day for approximately 19 days. Applications that “closely mimic the one used in the study” can be found on the internet. School children in the Detroit area demonstrated a 5.0 point IQ gain after one month of training, reports a June 11, 2011 Wall Street Journal article.

Cognitive Attentional Control Game - Helps ADHD children who have demonstrated an inability to focus, and because of this, struggle academically. Suggested training is 30-45 minutes per day, 5 days a week.

Space Fortress - This challenging video game was created to test participants strategic cognitive skills. The game activates three structures inside the brain’s basal ganglia: caudate nucleus, putamen, and nucleus accumbens. The basal ganglia is used in procedural learning, so playing Space Fortress gives it a “work out.”

Rise of Nations - This strategic video game improves neocortex strength in skills like reasoning, working memory, visual short-term memory, and task switching.

Creativity Games - Three computer games - MineCraft, Scribblenauts, and Little Big Planet - develop “divergent thinking” and the ability to link seemingly-disparate bits of information.

Online Game Benefits and Damage - Researchers at Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis used MRI to view brain regions that were stimulated when kids played a variety of video games. When the study subjects played “Need for Speed: Underground” — a non-violent game — activity in the frontal area was observed; this zone is associated with concentration, self-control and inhibition. However, when kids played “Medal of Honor: Frontline” or “Call of Duty” — violent games — there was no frontal area activity; instead, the “reptilian brain” amygdala was excited. The amygdala is associated with emotional arousal — especially anger — and is responsible for aggressive, impulsive behaviors. Repeated “firing up” of reptilian zones could “hardwire” a developing brain for less self-control and more violence. Tween and teen boys should be steered clear of violent video games.

Limit “Screen Time” - The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children’s “screen time” should be no more than 1 to 2 hours each day. “Screen Time” includes TV, video games, consoles, and computers. An article published in the journal Pediatrics by University of Washington researchers concluded, “early television exposure is associated with attentional problems . . . efforts to limit television viewing in early childhood may be warranted.” Excessive viewing over-stimulates young children’s still-developing neurological systems, resulting in hyperactivity and abbreviated attention spans. Why? Some researchers believe viewing wastefully releases high quantities of the neurotransmitter dopamine, a key regulator for focus. Researchers at Dunedin School of Medicine (New Zealand) found, alarmingly, that “young adults who had spent more time watching television during childhood and adolescence were significantly more likely to have a criminal conviction, a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder, and more aggressive personality traits…

Teen Internet Addiction - Research at Seoul National University College of Medicine (South Korea) found that an “internet addiction group showed high impulsivity and impaired inhibitory control.”

Excessive Emailing and Texting - Teenagers obsessively emailing and texting are possibly dumbing down their brains, and lowering their IQ by as much as 10 points, says futurist Paul Saffo in the NYTimes.

Adderall - A 2005 study from Utah State University reported that children who took the medication for ADHD evidenced “significant increases” in IQ. It has also been widely used as a “study drug” on college campuses because it helps students stay awake and study.

Methylphenidate (Ritalin) - Researchers from Shanghai Children’s Medical Center studying children with ADHD reported a significant gain in Verbal IQ after the subjects were treated with methylphenidate for six months. Another 2004 study by Gary’s Hospital in London also reported significant improvement in children prescribed methylphenidate for ADHD. Doses were also given to low-IQ children with ADHD in New Zealand - the University of Auckland researchers reported that 44% of the subjects showed improvement, reducing their overactivity and conduct problems.


Involved Dads - A Concordia University study indicates that “involved Dads” contribute to their children’s intelligence and emotional well-being. Daughters were most affected - girls with absentee fathers had higher degrees of sadness, social withdrawal and anxiety in school.

High Expectations: A survey by Parenting magazine revealed that 45% of women polled would rather lose 15 pounds than advance their child’s IQ by 15 points—that’s not supportive! Teacher expectations are equally important - in one study, teachers were mistakenly told that some of their students who had been previously identified as learning disabled were in fact gifted. As the teachers raised expectations, the students raised their performances, and simultaneously, it’s inferred, their IQs.

Trauma - Stanford University research indicates that traumatic stress and fear can release toxic levels of the hormone cortisol, which can destroy neurons in the hippocampus, a region that supports factual and episodic memory. Being subjected to violence puts a traumatic burden on children that leads to cognitive decline. Children should also not live in environments where they are exposed to episodes of murder, mayhem, rape, and general violence. A 2002 study from the Children’s Hospital of Michigan concludes that “a child experiencing both violence exposure and trauma-related distress… would be expected to have a 7.5-point decrement in IQ and a 9.8 decrement in reading achievement.” Stanford Hospital suggests that, “children’s risk for learning and behavior problems… rises in correlation to their level of trauma exposure….children experiencing four types of trauma were 30 times more likely to have behavior and learning problems than those not exposed to trauma.” University of Sheffield researchers surveyed 55 homeless adults and discovered that 89% of them had experienced emotional abuse, emotional neglect, physical neglect and sexual abuse, and had an average IQ of 88. A Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Medical Centre (Malaysia) study found that child IQ in Bagdad, Iraq, was influenced by mental stress in the environment.

Harsh Corporal Punishment - A 2009 Harvard Medical School study examined the neurobiological consequences of people who were exposed to HCP for a minimum of 3 years duration - the subjects suffered a reduction in brain gray matter volume in three areas: 19.1% in the right medial frontal gyrus, 14.5% in the left medial frontal gyrus, and 16.9% in the right anterior cingulate gyrus. A study published in Journal of Aggression shows that spankings reduce IQ by 2.8 - 5.0 points.

Parental Verbal Abuse - A joint 2009 study between Harvard Medical School/McLean Hospital and Catholic University of South Korea revealed that the brain’s white matter was reduced in subjects who experienced maternal verbal abuse. The three areas were the arcuate fasciculus in left superior temporal gyrus, cingulum bundle by the posterior tail of the left hippocampus, and the left body of the fornix. Verbal IQ was subsequently reduced. Another Harvard 2011 study showed 14.1% reduction of gray matter volume in the left superior temporal gyrus.

Witnessing Domestic Violence - A 2003 Boston University study noted that “children exposed to high levels of domestic violence have IQs that are, on average, 8 points lower than unexposed children.” A 2011 report from Harvard Medical School/McLean Hospital and the Catholic University of Korea notes that “Witnessing domestic violence is a traumatic childhood experience associated with… reduced IQ scores.” Research from harvard Medical School determined that witnessing domestic violins caused a “reduction in the right lingual gyrus [and] visual cortex.” Parents should avoid conflicts where family members yell and physically hurt each other.

Child Sexual Abuse: Multiple studies assert that children subjected to sexual abuse suffer parallel damage to their brain development. A Yale University study has linked childhood sexual abuse to “long-term deficits in verbal short-term memory” - a result that resembles the damage observed in “patients with combat-related PTSD.” Female Genital Mutilation: Although FGM is a “traditional ritual” it needs to also be regarded as a violent, traumatic episode that can likely damage the cognitive development of the victims, generally girls aged 4-12. The World Health Organization (WHO) agrees, asserting that FGM poses a “mental health risk.” I have written about FGM in greater detail at the website of the Institute for Ethics in Emerging Technology (

Girls Mature Earlier - A report published in NeuroImage claims, “we found robust male/female differences in the shapes of the trajectories with total cerebral volume peaking at age 10.5 in females and 14.5 in males.” In girls, language and fine motor skills generally mature up to six years earlier.

Gender Non-Conformity - A 2011 study by Queen Mary University of London revealed “elevated boyhood femininity correlated with higher IQ scores” and “elevated girlhood femininity correlated with lower IQ scores.” Study subjects were 106 heterosexual men, 115 heterosexual women, and 103 gay men.

References are in Hank’s book, Brighter Brains - 225 ways to elevate or injure IQ


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