Can children be trained to focus better--thereby building neural networks associated with attention? In all likelihood, yes, said Michael Posner, PhD, at APA's 2003 Annual Convention in Toronto in a presidential invited address, in which he presented recent research to support his contention.

"The fact that we can now trace the development of neural networks in the human brain that are at the very heart of the educational experience means that we can try to change them for the better," said Posner, professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Oregon.

Key to understanding how attention develops, said Posner, is knowing its major components, which include:

  • Maintaining alertness, or focus.

  • Orienting to visual and auditory stimuli, or where you look and what you listen to.

  • Sustaining executive or voluntary control, or suppressing competing cognitions or emotions, to complete a task. This form of control is associated with empathy and IQ.

A trainable skill?

Posner and his colleagues at Oregon and the New York City-based Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology, of which Posner was the founding director, have found that they can measure network efficiency by gauging the speed at which people perform a simple cognitive task--what they call the attention network task (ANT)--involving all three networks. They've also found two genes that relate to differences in people's attentional efficiency, as measured by the task.

But that doesn't mean people are necessarily sentenced to a fixed level of attentional efficiency--quite the opposite, Posner emphasized. Preliminary results from as-yet unpublished research have shown that children can improve their attentional efficiency, since such networks are still forming. Executive attention develops latest, suggesting that it might be the most malleable ability to study.

To test the attention training theory, Posner's team has been using a concentration-enhancing computer simulation that builds on monkey studies conducted by psychologists Duanne Rumbaugh, PhD, and David Washburn, PhD, of Georgia State University's Language Research Center. For example, children learn to use a joystick by moving a cat to a shrinking area of grass. Subsequent exercises train them on prediction, selection and memory for features and on the resolution of conflict with competing stimuli.

The researchers increase the difficulty of the exercises over 30 to 45 minutes of daily training for a week. Before and after training, they study the children using the ANT, an intelligence test and a temperament scale. Scalp electrical recordings are used to examine changes in their brain networks.

Preliminary results are inconclusive on the reaction times in the ANT, but the trained children show a slight tendency toward improvement in executive attention as well as more coherent brain activity measured by the scalp electrode monitoring, Posner said. They also show clear post-training improvement on the Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test (KBIT) and in overall IQ, compared with controls.

"If the result holds up in replications currently being conducted," said Posner, "it suggests that we were not only able to train, but that we were able to get generalization--because the KBIT was different from anything we used in our training."

Brain-based education

For Posner, the findings hold exciting implications not just for helping children with attention-deficit problems, but for generally improving young children's education.

"We should think of this work not just as remediation but as a normal part of education," said Posner. "Attention plays a very important role in acquisition of high-level skills, and if attention is trainable, it becomes attractive for preschool preparation."

Posner wrapped up his talk by inviting others to replicate and extend his team's attention findings and by highlighting other promising brain research. He noted, for example, the brain-based reading remediation work of Yale University pediatrician Sally Shaywitz, MD. He also pointed to new findings on how children develop a mental number line to understand math--work from the lab of French psychologist Stanislas Dehaene, PhD.

With the global advent of brain-based education, Posner noted, such work has garnered increased support from national and international governments and nonprofit groups, including the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

"These efforts are bringing together a platform where new findings about the brain--in literacy, numeracy and attention--can yield new interventions," said Posner. "We are on the threshold of important developments in education and psychology."