Think Bomb

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Glutamate Project

One of the major challenges facing public school teachers is adjusting for the variability in student intellectual capabilities. Inter-individual variation results in a range of intelligence quotients between students but even more challenging is accommodating the intra-individual differences. Each student varies in their own unique abilities, some being stronger in one subject and less so in another. Strengths should be encouraged, as these are what keep children interested in school, but weaknesses still need attention until proficiency is reached.

As an "educator of educators," Terry Armstrong is all too familiar with this problem. He spoke for a research seminar I attended last week and proposes a few different reasons for the intellectual gaps. One is the variation in developmental ages of children; just because two children are the same age does not mean that they are at the same stage of development. Another difference, one that Dr. Armstrong is especially interested in, is the variation in Gardner's seven intelligences. Dr. Armstrong suggests that each of the intelligences; verbal, mathematical, visual/special, kinesthetic, inter- and intra-personal, and naturalist abilities, corresponds to a cortical region in the brain. He believes that the reason for these strengths may be the percentage of glutamate receptors corresponding to each cortical region. He is curious to see if, in those regions that are stronger in some individuals than others, a higher percentage of glutamate receptors may be found.

Glutamate is the most common excitatory neurotransmitter in the cerebral cortex. It has five different receptor types; NMDA, AMPA, kainite, met1, and met2 binding sites. Dr. Armstrong hopes to begin his project looking at that various glutamate receptors in the verbal/linguistic area, including the superior temporal gyrus (Wernicke's area) and the opecular and triangular inferior frontal gyrus (Broca's area). In donated brains with that have been found to be left hemisphere dominant (as determined by the size of the planum temporal), the percentage and types of glutamate receptors in the left will be compared to those in the right. If the study shows that there is a greater density of glutamate receptors in the dominate sides of the brain, it might show that glutamate receptors are an important feature in language skills.

If glutamate receptor density does seem to be a factor in language abilities, Dr. Armstrong hopes to eventually move forward to investigate all regions of the brain that may correspond to various intelligences.

As an ultimate goal, Dr. Armstrong hopes that a better understanding of the human brain will lead to better teaching techniques in the future. He'd like to see a curriculum more focused on multiple intelligences, with more class variety for the varying minds of students.

My thoughts:
This project may answer some interesting questions. I've read about the effects of different neurotransmitters but it is less common to look at the ratios of specific receptors for one neurotransmitter. I'd be interested to see if there are regions with more or less of each type of glutamate receptor. If this is so, another interesting project may be to see if a sort of topographic map of receptor density could be made, depicting the receptor layout of the brain.

As for the educational possibilities, I am in agreement with Terry that high school should be set up a bit more like college with your pick of courses in the later, junior/senior years. I do think it is essential though, that students can show proficiency in math and language as well as a basic understanding of science first.


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