Translational Neuroscience – Untapped Potential for Education and Policy

Recent decades have seen extraordinary advances in the fields of neuroscience, molecular biology, genetics, psychology, and cognitive science. In particular, the National Institutes of Health called the last 10 years of the 20th century the “Decade of the Brain.” Aside from the scientific advances made during that time, government agencies, foundations, and professional organizations put forth substantial efforts to increase public awareness about brain development and diseases. A growing number of neuroscientists indicate that these efforts need to be elevated in order for neuroscience findings to be translated into principles that can facilitate sound policymaking relevant to early childhood education.

Ten years ago, the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council published a report entitled From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, in which great emphasis was placed on the need to utilize knowledge about early childhood development to ensure the health and well-being of young children. Many are now taking this further and emphasize what they call “Neuro-Education” – the utilization of scientific findings about learning and environments to create more effective teaching methods and curricula, as well as to influence educational policy.

The lofty goals of Neuro-Education are deeply rooted in the knowledge that genes interact with both early experiences and environments to shape the structure and function of the developing brain. On this topic, neuroscience has been more informative regarding the negative consequences of these interactions in cases where, for example, early experiences and/or environments are less than ideal. For this reason, scientific contributions to policymaking have been focused on interventions in the lives of children facing considerable adversity. However, given the plethora of evidence suggesting that enriching early experiences have beneficial outcomes in terms of cognitive abilities, placing greater emphasis on this facet of policymaking holds considerable promise. In order for neuroscience to influence early childhood education and policy effectively, there must now be a focus on what can be done to increase the impacts of current educational interventions, as well as on how they can best be implemented. To this end, the power of critical periods in brain development, during which time experience has a particularly powerful influence, must be recognized and utilized as part of organized efforts to positively influence the cognitive, emotional, and social development of young children.

It is time for neuroscience to begin to realize its full translational potential in the world of educational policy. Children in the U.S. and beyond are not doing well academically. Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, called the state of education in America a national public health crisis. Importantly, some Neuro-Education initiatives have recently been established in order to begin to address these issues. In 2009, Dr. Thomas J. Carew, Professor of Neurobiology and Behavior at the University of California at Irvine, and then President of the Society for Neuroscience, created the Neuroscience Research in Education Summit, which gave rise to the creation of the Neuro-Education Leadership Coalition that is working to further the goals of Neuro-Education. Also, the Johns Hopkins University School of Education has established a Neuro-Education Initiative, which promotes the applicability of findings from neuroscience to inform and enrich educational practices. In addition, the Harvard Graduate School of Education offers master’s and doctoral degrees in Mind, Brain, and Education, which emphasize the applicability of the biological and cognitive sciences to pedagogy and public policy. Such efforts, however, are only a beginning.

Neuro-Education provides a framework within which science can inform education and public policy through the application of knowledge gained across multiple disciplines that have not traditionally worked in collaboration. If efforts in Neuro-Education are implemented on a large scale, they may help produce children that are better learners who can rise to the challenges required for leadership in the 21st century. Some have even argued that Neuro-Education may be financially and socially rewarding because, if successful, it may result in reduced costs associated with remedial education, clinical treatment, public assistance, and even incarceration. The existence of so many potentially favorable outcomes of Neuro-Education suggests that we, as a society, cannot afford to continue to do without it.


Carew TJ, & Magsamen SH (2010). Neuroscience and education: an ideal partnership for producing evidence-based solutions to Guide 21(st) Century Learning. Neuron, 67 (5), 685-8 PMID: 20826300

Shonkoff JP, & Levitt P (2010). Neuroscience and the future of early childhood policy: moving from why to what and how. Neuron, 67 (5), 689-91 PMID: 20826301

Shonkoff JP, & Phillips DA, eds. (2000). From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development (Washington, DC: National Academy Press).

Society for Neuroscience (2009). Neuroscience Research in Education Summit: The Promise of Interdisciplinary Partnerships Between Brain Sciences and Education [PDF]

  • Neuroscience like genetics is being incredibly oversold.

    I haven’t heard one significant innovation proposed for education based on neuroscience. We already know what makes for good education, neuroscience is playing catch-up.

    Early experiences shape educational performance? Not exactly news is it?

    Yes, good education would have all these favourable outcomes. I’m yet to see that neuroscience has any contribution to make.

  • Kathleen

    My question is: when do you start selling over-priced neuro-education teacher training programs, classroom kits, and standardized test packages? If anything ever sounded like a sales pitch, this is it.

    • Michael

      I think you missed the point. This is neither a sales pitch nor a conspiracy against teachers. Worried about your job? Worried about being held accountable for the performance of your students? Welcome to the 21st century.

      • I don’t see the slightest danger of teachers being held accountable. They seem to be asked to be accountable for everything. What seems far more likely to me is reductionist science being oversold. I’m waiting to hear the contributions that neuroscience has made to education – or even any new hypotheses!

        • Michael

          That’s hasn’t happened yet, but needs to. That was the point!

  • george

    “We” know how to educate in the early years? As the famous quote from the Lone Ranger’s side-kick goes, “what do you mean ‘we’, Kimosabe?” There seem to be at least three points of disconnect:

    1. in the 0-3 age range, “we” the educators are, for the most part, still parents. I suspect little of the physiological knowledge base has translated into popular parenting knowledge.

    2. “we” believe what we know, not what you know. Evidence-based education hasn’t translated to parent-educators, so “we” do what we know. Which is mostly what our parents did to us.

    3. “we” are culturally and physically diverse in a wide variety of way. How does Hispanic culture translate this knowledge base? How do the parents of children on the autism spectrum process it? These days, parenting happens perhaps one or twice in a lifetime. People get more practice at being a mate than being a parent, and how often do we get the interaction right when the significant other is a fully functioning, communicating adult with a shared culture, not a squally infant, devoid of communication skills and cast up on the shores of our culture more devoid of an understanding of its ways than any illegal immigrant…

    Knowing is good.

    Translating that knowledge to skills that parents can employ, pricless.

  • Re evidence based education: It depends what counts as evidence. Creativity and compassion? Passing tests on knowledge with little relevance? Ability to make a squillion?

  • Ulises

    Neuro education in my view is an attempt to awaken the youth in the USA to the science inquiry process in general while paying attention to the mental health crisis we currently live in North America. I do agree that basic education in general is a huge problem especially in inner city and rural communities (where I myself grew up and now live). I did not have the luxury of attending small liberal arts colleges and I know first hand that it is crucial to engage youth in topics that are of interest to them and they can relate. Interestingly, I myself engage students by talking about drug and mental health topics in general. I live in an area where drug abuse is abundant as well as mental health in general. Believe me that I do no see this at all as a marketing strategy to sell. Interestingly, I am also a SfN (Society for Neuroscience) Educator and for those that do not know, SfN will mail you “Informational / Didactical” Material in a huge range of topics from basic to high level education.

    Further, to reply to Evan’s comment with regard that neuroscience has not contributed to a significant innovative approach in education, I strongly differ. Although I can think of many examples to list, that is not the point of this blog. For instance, there are excellent resources available such as Neurons In Action that without diluting (Neurophysiology) one of the hardest topics to grasp for students delivers an excellent platform for learning.

  • Michael, you say “That’s hasn’t happened yet, but needs to. That was the point!”

    So where’s the evidence? You can either say that we need evidence based stuff (in which case show the evidence) or that we need to change in a particular direction (in which case you need to say why we need to do this – but it can’t be an ‘evidence based’ argument).

    I moved this to a new reply because the boxes were getting very thin.

    • Michael

      Ulises took the words right out of my mouth!

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  • I’m very interesting in your research,I believe there is a solution to improve the education level if we understand how the consciousness works in the brain. Have you work about it?

    Thanks, Mariana.

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  • Sophie

    Education is very important and it is our best weapon to live and succeed in our dream. And the quality of education depends on the school we go to. One of the reasons for the decline in the quality of education is the cut down of educational budget and this is something we should be worried about.

Dario Dieguez, Jr, PhD

Dario Dieguez, Jr., Ph.D., spent over a decade conducting neuroscience research relevant to cognitive brain aging. He worked as a Science Writer in the Office of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Elias Zerhouni, M.D. and at NIH’s Center for Scientific Review. He taught Cellular Biology and Neurochemistry at the University of Texas at San Antonio and Cognitive Psychology at Boston University. For several years, he worked as a consultant for Pearson, Inc. and as a freelance science writer, with several clients in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Germany. As a Research Program Manager at the Lupus Foundation of America, he oversaw the awarding of millions of dollars for research and was integral to the launching of Lupus Science and Medicine, an open access journal. Currently, he works as a Health Scientist Administrator at the Society for Women’s Health Research and is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology and Bioethics at The Washington Center.

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