Center Studies Adolescent Reasoning Deficiency

Brain Research Identifies Extent of Problem, Searches for Possible Treatments

Sept. 15, 2008

The brain undergoes more change during the teen years than any other time except for the first two months of life. Failure to take advantage of these formative years could set today’s youth back permanently, according to researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas Center for BrainHealth.

The frontal lobes, the area of the brain associated with critical thinking and reasoning, develop rapidly throughout adolescence. High-level reasoning and critical thinking are skills that have to be learned and practiced. Teens must be taught to block unimportant details and to condense critical information into main ideas or concepts, rather than trying to memorize and repeat facts verbatim.

Learning to use reasoning skills helps the brain process more efficiently and thoroughly, and results in long-term retention of information. If teens do not acquire the ability to learn strategically during this developmental period, they might never do so.

Under the leadership of Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, chief director of the Center for BrainHealth, UT Dallas scientists began this research more than 15 years ago with a study of teens with traumatic brain injury. More recently, the work has expanded to youths with ADHD, who despite normal intelligence, commonly show reasoning deficits. Through the research, the scientists have found that the problem is more pervasive: Teens without any known cognitive problems are failing to develop critical thinking and reasoning skills.

The United States ranks 24th out of 29 developed countries in critical thinking, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. On standardized tests, such as TAKS, students score well in language and math, but more than 50 percent fail the short-response section that tests strategic thinking.

“This is a problem across the nation. We’re missing the critical brain years and building a brain that doesn’t reason,” said Dr. Chapman. “The TAKS test is not the problem; we need to get the basic skills up, but we also need to find a way to get beyond fact-based learning,” she said.

BrainHealth researchers believed that the middle school years would be the optimal time to train complex reasoning skills, critical thinking skills and risk resilience. Their initial studies show they were right.

Dr. Chapman, the Dee Wyly Distinguished Chair in the University’s School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, and BrainHealth scientist Dr. Jacquelyn Gamino used cognitive neuroscience findings to create the Strategic Memory and Reasoning Training (SMART) program to teach teens how to think critically and effectively use the information they learn, rather than trying to memorize facts.

As part of the study, Dr. Gamino’s team used pre and post electroencephalograms (EEGs) to measure brain activity, as well as behavioral assessments, to record changes. In the initial research group of teens with ADHD, every participant showed overall improvement in strategic thinking.

“My son is quite intelligent but the everyday challenges prevent him from reaching his fullest potential,” said Jill Lowry, mother of a SMART program participant. “The SMART program gave him new skills to boost his reasoning and confidence as an intelligent young man of value.”

Now the UT Dallas team is ready to apply its findings to develop a Web-based training program to teach strategic reasoning to all students, teachers and parents. The center’s SMART program is the only one of its kind in the nation. Researchers hope to eventually incorporate a virtual reality SMART training as a model program across Texas middle schools.

The Center for BrainHealth, part of the UT Dallas School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, is known for its continual transmission of the latest research into clinical practice. “So much of what is learned in brain science stays in science,” said Dr. Bert Moore, dean of the UT Dallas School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. “It’s rare for practitioners and scientists to work in conjunction, translating the latest advances into programs to improve the lives of individuals. That’s what makes the center unique.”

“Texas currently has the third-lowest high school completion rate in the country, but I’m hopeful. I believe that through our SMART program, Texas can become a leader in building reasoning brains, which are critical to success in higher education and the workforce,” said Dr. Gamino.

The past support for the work has come from federal grants and private philanthropy, but the center is seeking $20 million in funding from the state, corporate sponsors and private donors to translate its findings into a program for Texas schools and eventually to become a national model for brain-based reasoning training. For those interested in contributing to the Center for BrainHealth’s middle school initiative, contact Sarah Monning at 972-883-3408.


Media Contacts: Audrey Glickert, UT Dallas, (972) 883-4320, audrey.glickert@utdallas.edu
or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, newscenter@utdallas.edu

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Sandra Bond Chapman
“This is a problem across the nation,” said Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, chief director of the Center for BrainHealth. “We’re missing the critical brain years and building a brain that doesn’t reason.”

Jacquelyn Gamino

BrainHealth scientist Dr. Jacquelyn Gamino's team used brain activity measurements and behavioral assessments and found that a research group of teens with ADHD showed overall improvement in strategic thinking.

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