Neurochemistry in the Classroom
Sep 21, 2010 Learning Methodology 3014 Views
NEUROCHEMISTRY IN THE CLASSROOM
by Robert DePaolo
This article discusses the relevance of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine to learning, memory and attention as well as the pros and cons of orchestrating its release in the classroom
The terms adrenaline and noradrenaline (also known as epinephrine and norepinephrine respectively) are familiar to most people. Often times the words are used interchangeably. Yet while both are associated with stress reactions and emergency responses, there are subtle chemical and functional differences between the two. Epinephrine is the true fight/flight neurotransmitter/hormone. Its role is to activate the organism globally and provide physiological reactions that insulate an organism against pain and duress. It fosters intense emotion, foments global behavioral reactions and in effect “disregards the forest for the trees” as urgency overrides cognition in the quest for survival.
Norepinephrine (which will subsequently be referred to here as “NE”) plays a more subtle but necessary role. While any response to threat requires an immediate and forceful reaction it also requires perceptual and cognitive accuracy. The phrase “fight or flight” often connotes an impulsive reaction toward or away from some other object or creature. Yet, for the organism to be successful it would have to decide when and in what direction to flee, whether to maintain or alter its flight behavior, or conversely, how to fight, ie. what level of posturing, actual aggression or even restraint are appropriate to the situation. For example when a male Water buffalo infringes on the territory of another male for purposes of co-opting his territory the ensuing combat involves not only head butting and grunting but also social perception and self regulation. Seldom does the victorious male have to kill his adversary. Both eventually come to realize which of the two is stronger and/or has more stamina for the fight. The male with the lesser of these two qualities, will more often than not recognize the probable outcome, give up, lower his head and walk away. Thus the fight/flight mechanism is not as simplistic as is often assumed.
That’s where NE comes into play. It produces arousal in way slightly different from epinephrine by enhancing perception, memory and reasoning abilities. The fact that it is accompanied by epinephrine (the two tend to be co-activated in the face of urgent experience) leads to more vivid and enduring memories and emotions.
One reason why learning is more blatantly imprinted in such circumstances is that NE stimulates the reward centers in the brain (Marten-Soelch, Leenders et al 2001), (Wise, 2002). It is a member of the dopamine family and is in fact a pleasure-transmitter. That suggests that all activities under the influence of NE have the potential to be highly satisfying. NE also plays a role in facilitating novel responses, thus has something to do with unleashing creative, problem-solving behaviors. (Redgrave, Gurney 2006). Research has also demonstrated that NE is crucial in memory retrieval (Thomas, 2004), (Douglas 2004) memory consolidation (Southwick, Davis et al. 2002) and attention (Hunt 2006).
Since it enhances memory, perception, attention and infuses pleasure into the learning process, the activation of NE in a classroom setting might potentially provide a boost to students, especially those with memory, perceptual and attention deficiencies. It is a precious brain chemical that might be summoned by insightful educators – if only a workable method could be devised for doing so.
Sources of Norepinephine
With regard to its nature and origins, NE is manufactured in the nervous system at the level of the brain stem – specifically in the areas around the pons and medulla. It is derived from an amino acid known as tyrosine which in turn is manufactured from proteins that can be found in meats and cheese food products. (Consequently, a high carbohydrate, low protein diet would ostensibly be counterproductive with respect to learning, attention and memory). NE is then dispersed to many sites around the brain to modulate arousal levels and provide the perceptual, mnemonic and attentive accuracy to complement the “adrenaline rush.” Its vast dispersion within the brain makes it very available under normal circumstances.
It is less available for children with learning problems. For example Hunt’s research pointed to an NE depletion in children with Attention Deficit. The implication is that children with ADHD cannot summon arousal from within due to that deficiency, and consequently cannot enhance their own perceptual and attentive faculties intrinsically. Therefore they must seek high stimulus situations from the outside, making them appear stimulus-bound, antisocial and provocative. Contrary to the usual image of children with Attention Deficit Disorder as being hyperactive, it actually appears they are (at least within the framework of neurotransmission in the brain) hypoactive, thus relatively incapable of attending, perceiving and perhaps most importantly enjoying the learning process. The fact that ADHD has been linked to depression (Bailey 2010) and that individuals with depression also show NE depletion (Leonard 1997) is further indicative of the importance of this neuro-chemical to energy maintenance, as pertains to both learning and emotional functioning.
In fact the medications typically used for ADHD and depression serve essentially the same purpose. ADHD medications such as Concerta, Aderall and Ritalin are NE enhancers, while medications used in depression (the monoamine inhibitors) operate by inhibiting re-uptake of NE so that it remains more available in the brain. Thus the role of NE in mood regulation, attention and memory is clear. That ostensibly makes it as valuable a tool in education as curriculum and remedial and/or RTI methodologies.
Aside from it chemical origins, NE is activated, both temporally and long-term by physical activity (Watson, Hamilton et al 1979). It stands to reason that if one wanted to have a ready supply of NE for purposes of attending, memorizing, taking pleasure from learning and preventing depression, then regular, vigorous exercise would seem rather important. By the same token a passive life style could conceivably lead to depleted NE reserves.
Norepinephrine in the Classroom
The research clearly indicates that NE can facilitate learning, memory and attention, provided it could be summoned by instructors in an effective, non intrusive way. Enhancing NE levels in students is a fairly simple matter. For example since NE is often co-activated with epinephrine it could be solicited via emotional reactions. Indeed this is probably the easiest way to introduce it into the learning process. Yet this obviously presents a dilemma for the classroom teacher. While any instructor capable of inserting passion into a classroom would almost certainly be able to improve students’ academic investment and performance, it is arguably a risky approach. Teachers must consider just how much emotion to elicit, what type of emotion to seek and what rules to impart to the class with regard to the limits on emotional expression in class. In other words, inserting emotion into the curriculum while attempting to impart factual knowledge is a difficult balancing act.
Still another potential problem is that some classes don’t lend themselves to emotional discourse – for example math. It would take a very creative instructor to convey geometric or algebraic principles in this manner.
NE can be activated by pre-class physical exercises as well. Once again the difficulty would lie in trying to help students regain their composure in the aftermath of a five minute physical routine so as to absorb the academic material presented. Still, to the extent that physically-induced NE arousal can become an inherent component of the teaching method one might expect positive results from students (all things being equal)
Despite its potential problems a movement toward NE-solicitation in the classroom could lead to a growing emphasis on maximizing faculties that are nourished, fomented and supported by this precious chemical so that eventually terms like adequate student arousal, emotion-based curricula and pleasure-driven lectures and exercises (all revolving around NE activation) might seep into education theory to the benefit of all students.
Bailey, E. ADHD and Depression Article in Health Central. May 15, 2010
Douglas, S. (2004) Norepinephrine and Memory. The Scientist
Hunt, R. (2006) Functional Roles of Norepinephrine and Dopamine in ADHD. Medscape Psychiatry and Mental Health
Leonard, B.E. (1997) The Role of Noradrenaline in Depression; A Review. Journal of Psychopharmacology 11(4) 39-47
Martin-Soelch, Leenders, KC. Chevalley, AF. Missimer, J. Kunig, G. Magyar,S, Mino, A. & Schultz, W. Reward Mechanisms in the Brain and their role in Dependence; Evidence from Neurophysiological and Neuro-imaging studies. Brain Research Review, 36: 139-149
Redgrave, P, Gurney, K (2006) The short-latcncy dopamine signal: a role in discovering novel actions. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 7 (12) 967-975
Southwick, S. Davis, M. Horner, B. Cahill, L. Morgan, C. Gold, P. Bremner, D. & Charney, D. (2002) Post Learning Adrenergic Modulation. American Journal of Psychiatry 159: 1420-1422
Thomas, S. Norepinephrine Important in Retrieving Memories. Article Source, University of Pennsylvania Medical Center April 2004.
Watson, RD, Hamilton, CA, Reid, JL & Littler, WA. (1979) Changes in plasma norepinephrine blood pressure and heart rate during physical activity in hypertensives. Hypertension, Vol. 5 341-346
Wise, RA. (2002) Brain Reward Circuitry: Insights from Un-sensed Incentives. Neuron 36: 229-240