Some years ago, I was privileged to spend time with neuroscientist, John Geake, in Oxford, learning about his studies in neuroscience, examining the way in which the brain processes, learns and stores information. John had a particular interest in the way gifted students learn. Developments of technology and scientific techniques have enabled scientists to examine and identify the way the brain works. Neuroscientists have found that the brain develops and changes according to how it is used.
Significant neurological changes take place during adolescence, limiting the effectiveness of executive function, the part of the brain that is responsible for cognitive focus, impulse control, working memory, sequencing, planning, organizing, managing time and linking ideas. This is the part of the brain primarily responsible for academic achievement, so it is important to create the optimum environment for cognitive growth and neurological development, especially during adolescence.
Digested food releases sugars into the blood to provide energy for the brain. High ability students think efficiently but they use up more energy in the process. Energy is best provided through foods that are digested slowly and release blood sugars over time. When depleted levels of blood sugar are experienced, physical tiredness is accompanied by loss of cognitive focus, emotional dysregulation, leading to a craving for sweet, sugary food to provide a rapid increase in blood sugar levels. Nutritious snacks and regular meals are needed to provide the steady release of energy. Snacks and meals should include fruit, vegetables, protein and wholegrain foods.
Brains don’t work properly without nutritious food to keep brains energised throughout the day. When students have had a good night’s sleep and begin the day with breakfast which includes protein, fruit and whole grains, have a nutritious lunch and snacks at morning and afternoon breaks, they are well equipped to concentrate in class, think clearly and maintain energy for their bodies and brain throughout the day and into the evening. Fluid – preferably plain water – is critical to hydrate the body and provide the biochemical environment in which neurons synapse. A lack of fluid will also contribute to reduced brain function, irritability and headaches as well as placing stress upon kidneys, especially in hot weather.
Psychiatrist John Ratey, author of the book ‘Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,’ maintains that exercise is not only of enormous benefit in improving cognitive function but it is also an effective treatment for mood disorders, improving mental health, well-being and happiness. Neuroscientist Carl Cotman from the University of California, identified that brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that helps build and maintain the cell circuitry in the brain, is elevated by exercise. Other studies have demonstrated endorphins and dopamine, the ‘feel good’ bio-chemicals released by the brain during exercise, help to alleviate stress and anxiety while improving mood. Students, who maintain good nutrition and include walking in their routine, improve brain fitness, memory function, mood and well-being; offsetting adolescent changes in the brain and optimising brain function.
© Michele Juratowitch