Learning & the Brain – Frances Jensen, first part (cellular learning)

As a teacher of teenagers and a mother of two sons, one who is currently a teenager, I was primed for Frances Jensen’s session The Paradox of Learning in the Teen Brain: Unique Vulnerabilities and Strengths. Jensen is a doctor at Harvard’s Children’s Hospital and is on a mission to share current research on teen brains with those who would most benefit from the information – teenagers, their parents, and their teachers.

Just this past Friday, I shared the bulk of her talk in a class I co-teach with an upper school colleague, Frontiers in Science. Once a week I give a talk on what’s new in technology, and volunteered to give a talk on what’s new in brain research. To best understand the paradox of the teen brain, it helps to first have a sense of how the brain learns.

Jensen provided a quick primer in cellular learning. Essentially, information in the form of a signal is received by a neuron via its dendrites, and then information in the form of a signal is fired through the neuron’s axon and out via its axon terminals. This communication between neurons happens across the synapse, which is the space between the neurons. Coating the axon is myelin, which protects the axon and assists with communication.

Not all brain cells fire; some send excitatory signals and some send inhibitory signals. According to Jensen, in order for learning to take place there needs to be:

  • a synapse
  • a patterned input
  • enough excitation to induce a response
  • and alterations in the activated cell that is long lasting and leads to long term potentiation (LTP)

What, exactly, is Long Term Potentiation? Potentiation refers to increased effectiveness or potency. In terms of LTP, it means the ability of information to retain its strength over time, in other words, for information to be remembered. To better understand what this means in terms of learning, consider that LTP (the following comes directly from Jensen)

  • consists of a practice effect or memorization
  • is why repetition works
  • explains why multiple inputs into a cell enhances learning
  • and is why multiple methods of teaching should be utilized (my addition)

With LTP the synapse gets altered to be larger, faster and newer, with more receptors.

In my next post I’ll share more of what Frances Jensen said about the teen brain, in particular how it differs from the child and adult brain. Meanwhile, feel free to check out Teen Brain’s Ability to Learn Can Have a Flip Side on The Dana Foundation site. The article shares a number of reports that lend

support to the idea that the remarkable adaptability of the adolescent brain can be a double-edged sword: The dramatic remodeling of the brain during adolescence holds tremendous opportunities for growth and learning but also appears to increase a teen’s vulnerability to the long-term effects of environmental influences such as stress and drug experimentation.

Another article on the topic of teen brains, Understanding the Temporary Insanity of Adolescence, appeared recently in The New York Times, and I suspect there will be more and more doctors deciding to specialize in this area of medicine, just as there are pediatricians and gerontologists who specialize by a general age range of patients.


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