Learning, the brain, and DNA: physiological effects of learning

Learning is closely related to many processes in the body. And knowledge of these connections opens up broad prospects for education design.

We know for sure that diet or exercise affects us physiologically. Restricting calories in your diet will help you lose weight while going to the gym will help you build muscle. What about reading books and solving learning problems?

The learning process is rooted in biological mechanisms and actively changes them at various levels – from intracellular changes to the functioning of the entire brain.

What biological processes are associated with the memorization of a new

We used to think that DNA is given to us from birth and does not change throughout life. Indeed, the sequence of nucleotides in our DNA is unchanged. But how DNA will manifest itself depends on the epigenetic processes, which can, relatively speaking, “turn on” some genes and “turn off” others.

The sequence of nucleotides in DNA can be represented as a piano, and epigenetic processes as playing a melody. This “melody” determines how our genetic inclinations will manifest themselves in reality, and it is the “melody” that is very sensitive to environmental influences, particularly learning. How does it work?

Learning, the brain, and DNA: how learning affects us physiologically

From the school biology course, we know that genes contain the information necessary for synthesizing various proteins. Epigenetic mechanisms are special biochemical processes that occur near DNA and lead to the fact that some genes work more actively (that is, more protein is produced on their basis) and some less.

Scientifically speaking, epigenetic processes regulate gene expression. These processes include modifications of histones (proteins found in chromatin along with DNA), the addition of a methyl group to DNA (modification of the DNA molecule without changing the DNA nucleotide sequence itself), and other biochemical mechanisms.

Learning would not be possible without epigenetic processes – thanks to them, we remember new information. Modern research shows that both DNA methylation and histone modification occur in memorization. It is noteworthy that different epigenetic mechanisms determine long-term and short-term memory.

The most studied of the genes activated during learning is called c-Fos. It refers to the so-called early genes, that is, those that are the first to “turn on” in response to a special situation and trigger the activation of other genes.

Research shows that c-Fos is activated in neurons in the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex during learning. Thanks to this, neurons begin to change and change connections with each other – this is how new information is memorized. Interestingly, c-Fos activation is also characteristic of the early stages of organism development. Thus, the processes of biological development and the processes of learning have common epigenetic markers.

How Learning Changes Neurons and Neural Connections

Epigenetic mechanisms are closely related to neuroplasticity, which scientists discovered relatively recently.

So, our nervous system consists of neurons – interconnected cells that store, process and transmit information using electrical and chemical signals. For a long time, it was believed that the nervous system is static – that is, the connections between neurons and their structure remain unchanged as soon as a person reaches adulthood.

Learning, the brain, and DNA: how learning affects us physiologically

However, modern science has discovered that this is not so: neurons can change their structure and properties, break old connections, and create new ones with other neurons. This happens when we learn new knowledge and skills. This phenomenon is called neuroplasticity.

Epigenetic mechanisms regulate neuroplasticity and allow our brain to change throughout life, not just in childhood, as previously thought.

Several scientific works prove that neuroplasticity is a key psychophysiological process, thanks to which learning is generally possible. And the study reveals interesting patterns. In particular, how the development of some abilities can indirectly “pull” the improvement of others.

So, in one experiment, scientists from Stanford conducted a four-week educational program for primary school students to develop cognitive skills for counting, comparing, and ordering numbers. As a result of the program, children not only improved their results in mathematics but also showed a more noticeable growth mindset – that is, they grew convinced that they could develop their intellectual abilities with effort. This was accompanied by changes in the functional connectivity of brain regions such as the anterior cingulate cortex, striatum, and hippocampus, as well as an increase in the activity of these regions during cognitive tasks.

Apparently, study and cognitive training can change the volume of gray matter (that is, the bodies and short processes of neurons) in the brain. Spanish scientists recorded such changes after their subjects completed a 200-minute working memory training course.

Why children and adults learn differently

If the human brain is neuroplastic, then the neurophysiological processes we learn do not depend on age. Unfortunately, it is not.

Epigenetic changes accompany not only the development of the child and the assimilation of new information and biological aging. Therefore, what epigenetic processes are triggered when remembering something depends heavily on the person’s age. As a result, memory and learning abilities are deteriorating in older people. Scientists are now actively discussing the creation of drugs that could influence epigenetic processes and thereby improve human cognitive abilities – or prevent age-related degradation.

Learning, the brain, and DNA: how learning affects us physiologically

The developing brain of a child also has its “weak points.” So, only as children grow physiologically, the amount of working memory increases – that is, the number of blocks of information that the brain can process quickly. This also applies to cognitive flexibility  – that is, the ability to switch between different tasks and thinking strategies. This must be considered when designing educational tasks for preschoolers and younger schoolchildren – tasks with many variables and a sharp change in task types will cause objective difficulties for children.

There is also evidence that the brains of children and adults respond qualitatively differently to new information. Thus, in one experiment, adults and children aged 5–12 performed tasks involving motor-speech skills. Scientists noted that as a result, adults showed changes in the areas of the brain responsible for processing somatosensory (tactile) and sound information and in children – in somatosensory and motor areas.

Another important aspect that affects the success of training is the balance of neurotransmitters in the body. These are complex organic compounds that provide communication between brain neurons.

Studies show that neurotransmitters such as dopamine (responsible for the desire for reward, that is, motivation), serotonin, and GABA play a role in learning. And according to the results of one study, because of the difference in the regulation of this neurotransmitter in children and adults, children learn more effectively compared to adults.

In general, researchers agree that the brain of children has a greater potential for plasticity in response to various environmental interventions (including educational ones) than an adult’s brain.

What does this mean for education?

Firstly, the understanding that our “physiological basis” is very plastic dispels the myth that abilities are given once and for all from birth, education, and upbringing and cannot do anything about “bad” heredity. Of course, we are given a certain “biological base” from birth. But it does not remain static throughout life. The environment and, in particular, education can significantly change it.

Secondly, the psychophysiological learning processes are closely related to growing up and aging. At the same time, the concept of lifelong learning – lifelong learning – is becoming one of the main trends in the modern world. And knowledge about age-related changes in the brain will help methodologists and pedagogical designers create optimal educational programs for people who want to develop at any age.

Learning, the brain, and DNA: how learning affects us physiologically

Thirdly, it is important to remember that our brain has a reflex craving for “light pleasures.” Such pleasure, for example, releases dopamine in response to interaction in social networks – and developers have long exploited this mechanism. In educational practice, it is also implemented as gamification, when the completion of educational tasks is rewarded with something pleasant, for example, points and an increase in the rating.

However, dopamine release can also cause “complex pleasures” associated with intellectual activity. If a student sees value in learning, it has a personal meaning for him. He has not only external motivation (associated with external incentives, for example, getting high grades) but also internal motivation – interest and pleasure in the very process of learning. Therefore, the teacher should consider how to form this type of motivation in students.

And, of course, teaching children and adolescents self-regulation skills is very important. Such skills include, for example, the ability to postpone the game and focus on the lessons and competent time management when preparing a training project.

Finally, introducing neuroscience into the education sciences will help to understand how educational programs activate the plasticity of brain regions responsible for certain cognitive processes. In the future, this might make it possible to evaluate different programs’ effectiveness and quality characteristics. For example, ensure that course A develops working memory to a greater extent and course B develops cognitive flexibility.

Understanding what and how specific programs develop makes it possible to design balanced curricula aimed at the comprehensive development of the individual and taking into account the age specifics of the audience.

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