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123 Sesame Street: Scientists use popular children's TV show to study brain

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By Kristen Fritz

building blocksScientists are interested in what children are thinking, but pinpointing their thoughts isn't exactly an easy thing to do.


Instead, a recent study in PLOS Biology was conducted in the hope it would help depict how the brain process works and reacts in educational settings. "Sesame Street" was used as a way to test what happens on a neurological level during a popular TV program specifically aimed at learning by comparing the brains of adults and children.


"We're kind of honing in on what brain regions are important for real-world mathematics learning in children," said lead study author Jessica Cantlon, assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester.


Participants included 27 normally developing children, ages 4 to 10, and 20 adults between the ages of 18 and 25. Each participant took part in one or more of the three components to the study. Researchers focused on what happens in the brain during mathematical lessons by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure the neural activity in participants.


Part of the experiment had children and adults watch the same 20-minute montage of clips from "Sesame Street," and the fMRI scanner measured their brain activity for the duration of the video. In a different task, participants had to determine whether the stimuli they were shown, such as faces and numbers, were the same. Some clips were related to counting, while others were about colors, animals and other non-math topics. The children were given standardized IQ tests after the scanning.


The results showed that adult-like brain responses tended to show up in kids who demonstrated higher math and verbal knowledge levels. A brain region called the interparietal sulcus appeared to be linked to mathematics, as activity in that area tended to increase during math-related "Sesame Street" segments. However, the researchers do not have enough evidence to know if these neural patterns are the cause or effect of learning.


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