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What Can Medical Education Learn From the Neurobiology of Learning?

Friedlander, Michael J. PhD; Andrews, Linda MD; Armstrong, Elizabeth G. PhD; Aschenbrenner, Carol MD; Kass, Joseph S. MD; Ogden, Paul MD; Schwartzstein, Richard MD; Viggiano, Thomas R. MD, MEd

doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e31820dc197
Faculty Development

The last several decades have seen a large increase in knowledge of the underlying biological mechanisms that serve learning and memory. The insights gleaned from neurobiological and cognitive neuroscientific experimentation in humans and in animal models have identified many of the processes at the molecular, cellular, and systems levels that occur during learning and the formation, storage, and recall of memories. Moreover, with the advent of noninvasive technologies to monitor patterns of neural activity during various forms of human cognition, the efficacy of different strategies for effective teaching can be compared. Considerable insight has also been developed as to how to most effectively engage these processes to facilitate learning, retention, recall, and effective use and application of the learned information. However, this knowledge has not systematically found its way into the medical education process. Thus, there are considerable opportunities for the integration of current knowledge about the biology of learning with educational strategies and curricular design. By teaching medical students in ways that use this knowledge, there is an opportunity to make medical education easier and more effective. The authors present 10 key aspects of learning that they believe can be incorporated into effective teaching paradigms in multiple ways. They also present recommendations for applying the current knowledge of the neurobiology of learning throughout the medical education continuum.

Dr. Friedlander is executive director, Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, and professor of biological sciences and biomedical engineering, Virginia Tech, Roanoke, Virginia.

Dr. Andrews is senior associate dean for medical education, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas.

Dr. Armstrong is director, Harvard Macy Institute, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts.

Dr. Aschenbrenner is executive vice president, Association of American Medical Colleges, Washington, DC.

Dr. Kass is chief of neurology and director, Stroke Center, Ben Taub Hospital, and assistant professor of neurology, Center for Ethics and Health Policy, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas.

Dr. Ogden is associate dean for educational program development, Texas A&M Health Sciences Center and College of Medicine, College Station, Texas.

Dr. Schwartzstein is director, Harvard Medical School Academy, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts.

Dr. Viggiano is associate dean for faculty affairs, professor of medical education and medicine, and Barbara Woodward Lips Professor, Mayo Medical School, Rochester, Minnesota.

Please see the end of this article for information about the authors.

Correspondence should be addressed to Dr. Friedlander, Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, 2 Riverside Circle, Roanoke, VA 24016; e-mail:

First published online February 21, 2011

© 2011 Association of American Medical Colleges