University of Rochester uses Sesame Street to study children's brains

Posted at: 01/03/2013 5:05 PM
Updated at: 01/03/2013 11:35 PM
By: Lynette Adams

Call it your brain on Sesame Street. Researchers at the University of Rochester are using the popular show to learn more about how the brain develops.

University of Rochester researchers are calling their findings a major breakthrough . Researchers say this study could one day help them diagnose and treat learning disabilities and a host of other ailments.

The findings of this study were just released tonight. Over the past three years experts at the University of Rochester had 27 children and 20 adults watch Sesame Street while undergoing a functional MRI scan.

Simona Griffin said, “It's absolutely hard. The teachers can say your child is struggling, but you're not quite sure why your child is struggling.”

As the mother of five, Simona Griffin has to work hard to stay on top of how each child is doing in school. A daunting task, especially if one of them falls behind or begins to struggle in a particular subject.

Griffin said, “If there's something else that’s in the works as far as trying to get your children pinpointed as to what problems they may have, that may be such a big help as opposed to them going through school and you not knowing where their exact problems are  and what kind of help is available for them.”

Researchers at the University of Rochester may have made a discovery that could be that “something” that Griffin is talking about. It's a new study using Sesame Street. An MRI is used. Researchers take images of the brain while children and adults watch 20 minutes of the popular children's show. These images are helping scientists to understand how human process thoughts in real life situations and may one day help doctors pinpoint and treat things like learning disabilities.

Dr. Brad Mahon, University of Rochester, said, “The real breakthrough is not the finding that has to do with educational TV, but I think that watching a real time naturalistic stimulus unfold, drives activity in the brain in a very content specific way.”

Dr. Brad Mahon contributed to the study lead by his wife and fellow assistant professor Dr. Jessica Cantlon. He says the findings are astounding.

Dr.  Mahon said, “Looking ahead into the future I think it holds the promise of being able to provide more directive and diagnostic information about whats going on in an individual...at the moment the concern of basic scientists like Dr. Cantlon is to really understand how the brain functions.”

Experts say the study isn't advocating television for young children, but it does prove something is happening when they are watching educational programs.