Ever wonder why kids seem to pick up new knowledge and skills faster than adults?
A new study attributes the kids' mental prowess to differences in a brain messenger called GABA.
"Our results show that children of elementary school age can learn more items within a given period of time than adults, making learning more efficient in children," said Takeo Watanabe, a researcher and professor at Brown University.
Children have a rapid boost of GABA, an amino acid, during visual training, according to study results reported Nov. 15 in the journal Current Biology. That GABA boost lasts after training ends.
In adults, concentrations of GABA stayed constant.
"It is often assumed that children learn more efficiently than adults, although the scientific support for this assumption has, at best, been weak, and, if it is true, the neuronal mechanisms responsible for more efficient learning in children are unclear," Watanabe said in a journal news release.
To study this issue, researchers used behavioral and state-of-the-art neuroimaging techniques on 13 elementary school-age kids and 14 adults. They found that visual learning triggered an increase of GABA in children's visual cortex. This is an area of the brain that processes visual information.
This finding predicts that training on new items rapidly increases the concentration of GABA in children, allowing the learning to be rapidly stabilized.
Researchers did additional experiments to back this up.
"In subsequent behavioral experiments, we found that children indeed stabilized new learning much more rapidly than adults, which agrees with the common belief that children outperform adults in their learning abilities," said researcher Sebastian Frank, now at the University of Regensburg, Germany. "Our results therefore point to GABA as a key player in making learning efficient in children."
These findings should encourage teachers and parents to give children many opportunities to acquire new skills, whether that's mastering math facts or learning to swim, researchers said.
The results imply that even if kids lack cognitive control or attention, they have highly efficient processing in this domain.
"Although children's brains are not yet fully matured and many of their behavioral and cognitive functions are not as efficient as in adults, children are not, in general, outperformed in their abilities by adults," Watanabe said. "On the contrary, children are, at least in some domains such as visual learning, superior in their abilities to adults."
Future research should examine differences in maturation rates between brain regions and functions, the authors said. More research could also include studying GABA responses in other types of learning, such as reading and writing.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more on GABA.
SOURCE: Current Biology, news release, Nov. 15, 2022