Originally trained in psychology, Markus Werkle-Bergner’s main field of research can be described as developmental cognitive neuroscience. Basically, he is interested in how maturational mechanisms in conjunction with personal experiences (e.g., learning, social environment) interactively shape the highly individual profile of cognitive abilities and potentials in each single person. Towards this goal, his research combines cutting-edge neuroscience methods with innovative experimental designs, including intervention studies, to uncover the neural and cognitive foundations of attention, learning, and memory from early childhood to old age.
My plans for the fellowship period
Sleep arguably belongs to the most basic bodily needs, like breathing. During child development, massive knowledge gains and improved cognitive performance are paralleled by a change in the architecture of sleep (the regular succession of different sleep phases) and sleep physiology (the expression of neural activity patterns during sleep) towards adult-like patterns – most likely reflecting the concerted influences of experience and maturation on brain anatomy and functionality. Given sleep’s physiological importance and the increasing evidence for its role in memory stabilization and integration, surprisingly little is known about the neuro-cognitive mechanisms connecting learning, sleep, and memory during child development.
The envisioned project will combine an experimental approach with longitudinal follow-up assessments to observe individualized developmental changes in the cognitive and neural processing architecture of children and adults. In this context, our newly developed memory task allows the within-person tracking of learning histories for individual memory contents. This procedure effectively eliminates pre-existing differences in memory performance levels, but quantifies individual learning speed and potential. Moreover, it becomes possible to investigate the separate contributions of sleep to memory enhancement and the protection against forgetting.
Continuous EEG recordings during learning sessions allow for monitoring of the neural mechanisms of knowledge acquisition. Structural and functional MRI measurements will be used to quantify inter-individual and age differences in brain anatomy. Sleep will be assessed by ambulatory polysomnography, which has the added advantage that children can maintain their usual sleep habits in their home environment.
How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?
The huge variability in the timing of normative brain development poses a challenge for any real-world decision based on intellectual performance (e.g., school placement). Hence, it is of utmost importance to derive diagnostic tools that allow the differentiation of delayed normative development from stable differences in true intellectual potential. This problem can only be solved on the level of the individual child. However, unequivocal identification of personalized learner characteristics that could inform individually optimal decisions and adapted instructional technologies is far from trivial.
Sleep is deeply engraved in the human physiology and is fundamental for the healthy regulation of several bodily functions – among them the human information-processing capacity. As a result, alterations in sleep architecture and physiology are highly sensitive markers of pathology on psychological (e.g., stress) and brain anatomical levels that can impair learning success. An improved understanding of the co-development of sleep and cognition will open new avenues for identifying individual learning potentials and developing personalized training programs for every child.