Information processing issues

At a Glance: 4 Ways Brain Structure and Chemistry May Affect Processing Speed

By Ellen Braaten

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Processing speed is a hot topic among brain researchers. Brain chemistry and brain structure can affect how quickly kids process information. Find out what scientists think may cause some kids’ brains to take longer to process information.

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At a Glance: 4 Ways Brain Structure and Chemistry May Affect Processing Speed

There are lots of bright kids who have slow processing speed. Here are some of
the factors that researchers think may affect how quickly brain cells (neurons)
process information.

1 Space Between Neurons
Neurons look a bit like trees, with branches (dendrites) and a long trunk (axon). Information moves from neuron to neuron in the form of electrical signals. These signals have to jump from tree to tree across a small space called the synapse.
Some kids with slow processing speed may have larger than expected spaces between neurons. This may be because the neurons have fewer or shorter dendrites, which play a key role in moving information from one brain cell to the next.
Researchers think more space between neurons may make it take longer for messages to travel through the brain.

2 Myelin Coating
Some parts of neurons are coated in a fatty substance called myelin. This coating—called a myelin sheath—helps neurons send messages along quickly. The myelin layer gets thicker as kids get older, and it may start to thin later in life.
Researchers are starting to study how the thickness of the myelin coating may affect processing speed in healthy kids. A slightly thinner coating might explain why some kids’ brains take longer to process information. But this is still just an interesting theory. Doctors typically won’t order brain scans for this unless kids are part of a research study.

3 Brain Chemicals
Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the brain that carry signals across the space between neurons. Think of them as messengers. Some kids may have fewer of them. Or these messengers may have trouble handing off the information to the next neuron. Both of these issues can affect processing speed.
Having low levels of some brain chemicals can also cause trouble with paying attention. For kids
who have ADHD and slow processing speed, ADHD medication may not improve processing speed directly, but it may increase their overall work pace by helping them focus.

4 Brain Pathways
Neurons that routinely work together to transmit information form pathways. Processing speed depends on how efficient or organized these neural networks are. The process of learning and mastering a new skill is a bit like turning a small country road into a major highway.
Some studies have linked slower processing speed to less well organized frontal lobes. The more kids do a certain task, the more efficient—or more densely packed—this part of their brain becomes and the faster they can complete that task. Repeating the task makes it become more automatic—and thus quicker to process.
Graphic of 4 Ways Brain Structure Chemistry Affect Processing
Graphic of 4 Ways Brain Structure Chemistry Affect Processing

About the Author

Portrait of Ellen Braaten

Ellen Braaten is the director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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