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Dr. Helen Neville, University of Oregon – Neuroplasticity and Early Childhood Education


In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Helen Neville of the University of Oregon discusses a method that utilizes early childhood education to overcome socioeconomic disadvantages in educational outcomes. 

Helen Neville is director of the Brain Development Lab at the University of Oregon. Her research uses psychophysical, electrophysiological (ERP), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques to study the development and plasticity of the human brain. Specifically, her group is conducting a program of research on the effects of different types of training on brain development and cognition on typically developing children and parents living in poverty.

About Dr. Neville

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Dr. Helen Neville – Neuroplasticity and Early Childhood Education

For decades researchers have documented the markedly lower IQs, language skills, self regulation, attention and brain function and structure in children living below the poverty line..  Since lower  socioeconomic status, or SES, typically occurs across multiple generations,  many argue that these differences are of genetic origin.  However genes are not destiny, partly because gene expression depends on environment, a process known as epigenetics.

Two ways we have studied these questions, and societal inequality more generally, Are 1) show that there are no differences in distribution of gene variants (alleles) between lower and higher SES children and to 2) develop an intervention that makes lower SES children and their parents look indistinguishable from higher SES families on several measures including language, cognition and brain function and parenting and stress regulation.

Our lab  studies human brain development with a focus on the changeability or neuroplasticity of different brain systems.  We have learned a considerable amount about which systems are least changeable and  exactly when others are open to change.  Using this, we targeted one very malleable system in lower SES children in Head Start—selective attention, that is, the ability to select one of several possible visual objects, auditory conversations, or ideas to focus on and enhance it’s signal while suppressing unattended inputs.  This is important because Selective attention is a force multiplier that operates across every area of functioning to leverage the mastery of that skill. We also train their parents in parenting,stress regulation, and selective attention.

After this 8 week, inexpensive program, children resemble higher SES children on measures of language, cognition and brain functions of attention. Among the adults, parenting skills improved while stress fell.

There is now strong economic motivation to reduce the neurological differences induced by socioeconomic inequality.  Improving these systems in lower SES children will improve educational outcomes, increase earnings and employment, and decrease crime and incarceration.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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