The researchers report that adults are better at remembering the rich, contextual details of any information as compared to children.
Besides being theoretically significant, the insight that the study provides into how children learn may also inform practical learning in everyday settings.
The study indicates that the creation of richer memories in adults may be due to a more developed prefrontal cortex (PFC), an area of the brain long associated with higher-order thinking, planning, and reasoning.
"Activation in the PFC follows an upward slope with age in contextual memories. The older the subjects, the more powerful the activation in that area," Nature magazine quoted senior author John Gabrieli of MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, as explaining.
"That makes sense, because there's been a convergence of evidence that the PFC develops later than other brain regions, both functionally and structurally.... But this is the first study that asks how this area matures and contributes to learning," he added.
Noa Ofen, a postdoctoral associate in Gabrieli's lab, forewarned 49 healthy volunteers ranging in age from eight to 24 that they would be tested on their recognition of 250 common scenes, such as a kitchen, shown to them as they lay in a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner.
She recorded the volunteers' brain responses as they tried to commit each picture to memory. Shortly after the volunteers had left the scanner, she showed them twice as many scenes.
Upon going back to the brain activation patter, Ofen found that in both children and adults, several areas in the PFC and the medial temporal lobe (MTL) showed higher activation at the time when subjects studied a scene they would later remember.
No age-related differences showed up in the activation patterns of the MTL regions in children and adults, but differences did appear in the PFC when looking at pictures that were later correctly recognized.
The age-related differences observed related to the quality of the volunteers' memories. The older the volunteers, the more frequently their correct answers were enriched with contextual detail.
When Ofen studied the brain scans, she found that the enriched memories also correlated with more intense activation in a specific region of the PFC.
"We found no change with age for memories without context. All the maturation is in memories with context. Our findings suggest that as we mature, we are able to create more contextually rich memories, and that ability evolves with a more mature PFC," Ofen explains.
The researcher fraternity believes that the new findings take them one step further towards the understanding of the neural basis of memory development.
"This study takes an important step forward in our understanding of the neural basis of memory development," comments Daniel Schacter, an expert on memory at Harvard University who was not associated with the study.