I am very sad not to make it to the Association of Learning Technology conference on right now in Warwick (#ALTc), and the first two recorded keynotes that I’ve just viewed have already had me gripped. I’d like to focus on the one today by Lia Commissar who is part of the education team at Wellcome. You can view all the conference keynotes including Lia’s on the ALT YouTube Channel ( Education and Neuroscience: Issues and Opportunities). (Of course, Josie Fraser’s excellent one on trolling is also there).
Several education and neuroscience projects are underway to better inform educators about learning processes, and to dispel some of the mythology and misconceptions we have about how people learn, and that we have favoured learning styles, or use or left or right brain hemispheres. What interested me more are a series of projects looking actively at the brain and how it can impact on learning, using MRI scanning technology, looking at student sleep patterns to name a few of the ideas.
Let’s debunk some more myths.
As a physiologist of course I’m interested in the brain and central nervous system. But I’m also aware and very interested how our body systems act in concert, and it is not ever relevant to think of one system in isolation. And of course, when we start talking about the wonder of the nervous system, we usually forget another nervous system in our body that is as extensive as the brain, contains the same array of neurotransmitters and is located in the only part of our body that is able to work entirely independently of brain control. What am I going on about now? Our enteric nervous system in our guts.
“A north wind brings constipation”.
OK, so Hippocrates through his ancient and detailed observations didn’t always get it right, but he was probably the first to observe that stagnant water caused diarrhoea. The trouble with the intestines is they are very inaccessible, and therefore carrying out research to understand the mechanisms therein, is awfully difficult. To make matters worse it contains a ridiculously wide ranging number of cell types – epithelium, striated muscle, smooth muscle, immune cells (oh yes, most of your immune system is also in your gut), blood cells, nerve cells and sensory cells. The reality is also that humans are just mere hosts for bacterial and fungal ecosystems, large numbers of which also reside in our guts. We apparently are more bacterial than human.
By Goran tek-en [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons, Available: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Layers_of_the_GI_Tract_english.svg
You can see how buried away the enteric nervous system is. It forms a series of mesh layers that extend along the entire lengths of our guts – from mouth to anus. The mucosal plexus, submucosal plexus and myenteric plexus are the main components, and they are connected to the central nervous system and brain via additional connections. Sensory information is gathered all the time and fed-back to the brain, and the brain elicits commands to control our gut functions. The gut contains:
- Primary afferent neurones that senses food and chemicals within our gut.
- Tension receptors monitor the contents and control peristalsis.
- Glial cells, as with other parts of the nervous system, provide support.
- “Pacemaker” cells (like in the heart) control motility patterns.
- You find all the neurotransmitters that you find elsewhere – acetyl choline, serotonin, dopamine etc.
We know increasingly how vital the connections between the gut and brain are, and how the two systems work synergistically not just for our physiological processes but as part of our psychological ones. Some interesting medical studies looked at the use of psychotherapy for treating patients with gut disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (Reed, 1999). We know ourselves about these connections – we often refer to having “gut feelings”, and that is simply our sensory environment in our guts responding before our brains provide more of an interpretation of what might be going on.
The gut and neurodegeneration.
This is such an interesting area of science, and this is no attempt at a literature review. However there are many interesting epidemiological studies (that have looked at patient populations), controlled medical studies and animal work that points to the gut and other peripheral systems being associated with the processes of neuro-degeneration. Science gets excited at treatments and discoveries that target biochemical markers in the brain, and rightly so, but research shouldn’t only focus there. Here are a few papers.
Some of this is fascinating – the first paper shows how important the vagus nerve is – that is the main route of connection between the gut and central nervous system. In patients where the connection was severed (as part of a previous operation), the incidence of Parkinson’s in that group was lower. The last paper shows some intriguing interactions between our bacterial flora and nervous system.
So what is the role of neuroscience in education?
The work funded by Wellcome is starting to explore just that. It is worth thinking that gut neuroscience seems to be involved in degeneration and the loss of cognitive processes, so I would think the gut most likely will also play a role in our development and ability to learn. I guess, that could be the next project for Wellcome to fund!
- Chung, S.J., Kim, J., Lee, H.J., Ryu, H.S., Kim, K., Lee, J.H., Jung, K.W., Kim, M.J., Kim, M.J., Kim, Y.J. and Yun, S.C. (2015). Alpha‐synuclein in gastric and colonic mucosa in Parkinson’s disease: Limited role as a biomarker. Movement Disorders.
- Haehner, A., Tosch, C., Wolz, M., Klingelhoefer, L., Fauser, M., Storch, A., Reichmann, H. and Hummel, T. (2013). Olfactory training in patients with Parkinson’s disease. PloS one, 8(4), p.e61680.
- Kelly, L.P., Carvey, P.M., Keshavarzian, A., Shannon, K.M., Shaikh, M., Bakay, R.A. and Kordower, J.H. (2014). Progression of intestinal permeability changes and alpha‐synuclein expression in a mouse model of Parkinson’s disease. Movement Disorders, 29(8), pp.999-1009.
- Mulak, A. and Bonaz, B. (2015). Brain-gut-microbiota axis in Parkinson’s disease. World journal of gastroenterology: WJG, 21(37), p.10609.
- Rahne, K.E., Tagesson, C. and Nyholm, D. (2013). Motor fluctuations and Helicobacter pylori in Parkinson’s disease. Journal of neurology, 260(12), pp.2974-2980.
- Svensson, E., Horváth‐Puhó, E., Thomsen, R.W., Djurhuus, J.C., Pedersen, L., Borghammer, P. and Sørensen, H.T. (2015). Vagotomy and subsequent risk of Parkinson’s disease. Annals of neurology, 78(4), pp.522-529.