How can we help children’s attention, motivation, and learning abilities without conventional medication? We should start by looking at the brain.
It consists of more than 100 billion neurons which drive the way we think, learn, and feel. The neurons connect with each other, facilitated by neurotransmitters, when new information is learned. Neuroplasticity is the process where new connections are formed and old connections are pruned away if not used.
As an audiologist, my focus is on how the brain hears; the ears are simply the gateway to the brain. For children with Auditory Processing Disorder (APD), listening is difficult and affects everyday life.
Think of auditory processing as what we do with what we hear. When we look deeper at APD research, a few characteristics stand out:
APD is not hearing loss. Children with APD will generally pass all standard tests of hearing.
There is a breakdown in receiving, remembering, understanding, and using information they hear.
There is a neurological basis to their difficulties.
The ability to listen is impaired.
Many disorders can cause symptoms that are consistent with APD. For example, a child with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may exhibit poor listening and problems remembering what was said. The attention issue is causing difficulty accessing and using information – the neural processing of auditory information may be completely intact. In that case, there is not an auditory processing disorder. True APD is isolated to how the brain uses auditory information. It is not the result of cognitive, language, or related disorders.
When treating an auditory processing disorder, we aim to build a better brain to allow targeted interventions to work most efficiently. The key ingredients to a better brain are nutrition, meditation, and stimulation.
As a child thinks, speaks, moves or feels, electrical impulses trigger the release of neurotransmitter chemicals. These neurotransmitters function to connect multisensory memories, regulate alertness, and affect mood and behavior. They are made from the food we eat and our choices determine the overall health and function of the brain. A healthy brain diet includes:
1 Good fats in the form of omega-3 oils from fish, nuts, seeds, and dark leafy greens. The fats to avoid are trans-fats and saturated fats. These fats stiffen cellular membranes which impede efficient cell communication. They accumulate in the retina and can impact eye-brain coordination. Research at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston studied rats on a diet high in saturated fats and found they developed learning difficulties. Though this was an animal study, the findings mirror what has been observed in children.
2 High quality protein provides amino acids, building blocks of neurotransmitters and support structures in neurons. These include serotonin, which aids feelings of well-being and dopamine, associated with enthusiasm. Amino acids also form antioxidants that are used to protect our cells from damage. All protein, like fats, are not created equal. Good choices are raw nuts instead of roasted and flavored nuts or broiled wild salmon instead of batter-fried fish sticks. Quality counts when choosing foods to build a better brain.
3 Carbohydrates for an energy source for the brain. Sugar is the main fuel for the brain. When a child consumes excessive amounts of sugar, there is a burst of energy followed by fidgeting, headaches, trouble concentrating, or drowsiness. This sets up a cycle when the child has excessive sugar for snacks or lunch. They end up with a roller coaster of energy highs and lows that impede learning.
Choose complex carbohydrates such as whole grains. Whole grain products contain complex sugars for energy and fiber to slow the rate of absorption of sugar to avoid those highs and lows. B-vitamins, vitamin E, and other nutrients are found in the germ and hull of whole grains.
4 Micronutrients, such as B-vitamins, to aid in producing energy for brain cells and help manufacture neurotransmitters such as serotonin and GABA. GABA aids in focus and concentration. B-vitamins are found in the hull of grains and in leafy green vegetables as well.
The mineral zinc is essential to learning: it is used in building connections between neurons, pruning unused connections, and repairing cells. Zinc is found in ample amounts in the area of the brain responsible for processing short-term and long-term memory (hippocampus). Seeds, nuts, and red meat are good sources of zinc.
Calcium is a mineral which is used to help maintain the electrical environment of the brain and also to regulate nerve transmission.
Another group of micronutrients, known as phytonutrients, are plant compounds critical for repair and protection of neurons, act as antioxidants that neutralize damaging free radicals, and protect memory function. A diet high in colorful fruits and vegetables is the best way to get in phytonutrients.
5 Water for optimal brain health and function. Water keeps the brain from overheating, which can cause cognitive decline and even damage. Before thirst is even felt, there may be a loss of body weight up to 2% from water loss, and a 10% cognitive decline may be present. Dehydration can lead to fatigue, dizziness, poor concentration and reduced cognitive abilities. Even mild levels of dehydration can impact school performance.
Meditation and Tai Chi
Tai Chi may be thought of as moving meditation with a focus on breath. This creates a stillness in the mind which leads to increased focus and decreased stress levels. Neuroimaging has shown increases in the gray matter of the hippocampus (the area of the brain associated with learning and memory) following regular meditation. In addition, meditation trains the brain to help retain information, stay focused on a task, and make decisions quicker. Improvement of neuroplasticity attributed to Tai Chi has been shown to help with emotional stability by increasing the level of gamma wave activity in the brain. Many of my patients with difficulty learning are often anxious, depressed, or easily frustrated; using Tai Chi and meditation to help them achieve emotional balance becomes a quality of life issue.
Music has the power to change the way our brains work. There is a huge body of research from Northwestern University examining the brain changes following formal music instruction. These changes have been qualified using objective measures such as neuroimaging and auditory evoked response testing. Musicians have better neural encoding of speech, more accurate tracking of pitch, process emotion in speech better, and have stronger auditory memory and auditory attention skills than non-musicians. These skills have implications for being able to hear speech better in noise and have stronger reading skills. Brain changes have been seen even after only one year of music instruction.
Music-based sound therapies are based on this research and can be customized to stimulate the areas of the brain needed to perceive, store, and utilize speech and language. Many times music-based sound therapy will be used in conjunction with more traditional therapies (such as speech language therapy) to make the direct interventions more effective.
When a child has difficulty learning we need to look at the foundation they are starting from. For children with APD, a correct diagnosis by an audiologist specializing in APD is the first step. Nutrition, meditation, and stimulation should be discussed with the audiologist as part of a multi-disciplinary treatment plan. Incorporation of natural health interventions should be given a place in teaching our children to learn.