05 August 2007

Prefrontal Cortex Needs Time--Maturation to Cognitive Richness

Younger brains lack the prefrontal function for good judgment and rich memory. If the prefrontal cortex is damaged in infancy or later in life, sensitivity to future consequences and social/moral behaviour is compromised. Drinking alcohol in adolescence leads to smaller prefrontal cortex.

A recent MIT study demonstrates that a mature pre-frontal cortex facilitates richer memories.
In the August 5 advance online edition of Nature Neuroscience, the MIT team reports that children rival adults in forming basic memories, but adults do better at remembering the rich, contextual details of that information. The MIT study provides new insights into how children learn that are not only theoretically important, but could also inform practical learning in everyday settings.

The ability to remember factual information - who, what, where, when - emerges gradually during childhood, and plays a critical role in education. The brain systems underlying it have been extensively studied in adults, but until now little was known about how they mature during child development.

The MIT study indicates that a more developed prefrontal cortex (PFC) - an area of the brain long associated with higher-order thinking, planning, and reasoning -- may be responsible for creating richer memories in adults.

“Activation in the PFC follows an upward slope with age in contextual memories. The older the subjects, the more powerful the activation in that area,” explains senior author John Gabrieli of MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.

“That makes sense, because there's been a convergence of evidence that the PFC develops later than other brain regions, both functionally and structurally.... But this is the first study that asks how this area matures and contributes to learning.”

For the study, Noa Ofen, a postdoctoral associate in Gabrieli's lab, forewarned 49 healthy volunteers ranging in age from eight to 24 that they would be tested on their recognition of 250 common scenes, such as a kitchen, shown to them as they lay in a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner. She recorded their brain responses as the volunteers tried to commit each picture to memory. Shortly after the volunteers left the scanner, she showed them twice as many scenes. Had they seen each one before, and if so, how vividly did they recall the scene"

Ofen then went back to the brain activation patterns. In both children and adults, several areas in the PFC and the medial temporal lobe (MTL) showed higher activation at the time when subjects studied a scene they would later remember. No age-related differences showed up in the activation patterns of the MTL regions in children and adults, but differences did appear in the PFC when looking at pictures that were later correctly recognized.

Those age-related differences related to the quality of the volunteers' memories.

The poor judgment exhibited in adolescence and early adulthood is generally accompanied by immature prefrontal cortex. The inability to anticipate future consequences of current actions is a hallmark of youth. Poor planning, poor judgment, and other limitations in function associated with poor functioning of PFC are stereotypical characteristics of most high school and college aged youth.

The MIT finding that rich contextual memories are also functions of maturity help to further round out the picture of mental maturation.

In the arab world, PFC-immature youth are prone to joining jihadi movements. In the western worlds, most radical political movements center around universities, and recruit their most devoted adherents in university. These are all different versions of youth gangs. If not for youth, militaries would have far fewer members.

High testosterone levels of young males combined with slow maturation of their PFCs makes for a lot of excitement. No doubt that is one reason why young females are drawn to young males--for this unpredictable excitement.

The problem that I see with current western child-raising methods, is that the PFCs of youth may never truly mature, when held in a the neotenous environment of educational institutions, segregated from the responsibilities of the adult world, confined with only their PFC-immature peers during these formative years. No meaningful rites of passage. Thanks to the ideological straightjackets of most universities, these neotenised youth are isolated from a diversity of ideas and viewpoints. This makes them academically lobotomised.

Being raised in smaller families often with only one sibling--or no siblings at all--leads to narcissism, an unwarranted, unearned feeling of entitlement and specialness.

Narcissism, psychological neoteny, and academic lobotomy. The magic modern trio of decadent child-raising. Leading to an opposite society from the next level. We need to do something about this.

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