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by Bethany Brookshire Isaac Newton famously showed that in physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. A similar push-and-pull of positive and negative inputs also exists in our brains. Brain cells can send out excitatory chemical signals, and they can also receive inhibitory chemical signals, putting the brakes on further signaling. This delicate balance of excitation and inhibition allows our brains to function normally and to react to the world around us. A new study shows that the same neurons contribute excitatory and inhibitory chemical signals in a brain area linked with how we process disappointment, and that antidepressants might be able to change this delicate molecular dance and stop some of the negative thought cycles associated with depression. But while the work finds an association, it’s not yet proof that the balance of these chemicals holds the key to relieving depressive symptoms. The study, published September 19 in Science, focuses on the lateral habenula. This tiny area makes up the “stalk” connecting the pineal gland to the rest of the brain. It receives inputs from areas of the brain important in reward and emotional processing, including the basal ganglia. Some areas of the brain appear to specialize in predicting rewards, showing increases in activity in response to enjoyable things such as food, sex or drugs. Activity in these areas lets us know when things are about to get good. But for every high there is a low. The lateral habenula is thought to play a role in how we process negative events: Getting a lemon on the slot machine again or the empty inbox on your dating site. Studies in monkeys and other animals have shown that increased activity in the habenula is linked to depressive behaviors, and treatment with antidepressants decreases this activity. In addition, a study in rats and a 2009 case study in a human patient showed that deep-brain stimulation in the lateral habenula could relieve symptoms of depression. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2014.
Link ID: 20125 - Posted: 09.27.2014
By ROBERT KOLKER Reggie Shaw is the man responsible for the most moving portion of “From One Second to the Next,” the director Werner Herzog’s excruciating (even by Werner Herzog standards) 35-minute public service announcement, released last year as part of AT&T’s “It Can Wait” campaign against texting and driving. In the film, Shaw, now in his 20s, recounts the rainy morning in September 2006 that he crossed the line of a Utah highway, knocking into a car containing two scientists, James Furfaro and Keith O’Dell, who were heading to work nearby. Both men were killed. Shaw says he was texting a girlfriend at the time, adding in unmistakable anguish that he can’t even remember what he was texting about. He is next seen taking part in something almost inconceivable: He enters the scene where one of the dead men’s daughters is being interviewed, and receives from that woman a warm, earnest, tearful, cathartic hug. Reggie Shaw’s redemptive journey — from thoughtless, inadvertent killer to denier of his own culpability to one of the nation’s most powerful spokesmen on the dangers of texting while behind the wheel — was first brought to national attention by Matt Richtel, a reporter for The New York Times, whose series of articles about distracted driving won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010. Now, five years later, in “A Deadly Wandering,” Richtel gives Shaw’s story the thorough, emotional treatment it is due, interweaving a detailed chronicle of the science behind distracted driving. As an instructive social parable, Richtel’s densely reported, at times forced yet compassionate and persuasive book deserves a spot next to “Fast Food Nation” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” in America’s high school curriculums. To say it may save lives is self-evident. What makes the deaths in this book so affecting is how ordinary they are. Two men get up in the morning. They get behind the wheel. A stranger loses track of his car. They crash. The two men die. The temptation is to make the tragedy bigger than it is, to invest it with meaning. Which may explain why Richtel wonders early on if Reggie Shaw lied about texting and driving at first because he was in denial, or because technology “can hijack the brain,” polluting his memory. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 20124 - Posted: 09.27.2014
By Melissa Dahl If you are the sort of person who has a hard time just watching TV — if you’ve got to be simultaneously using your iPad or laptop or smartphone — here’s some bad news. New research shows a link between juggling multiple digital devices and a lower-than-usual amount of gray matter, the stuff that’s made up of brain cells, in the region of the brain associated with cognitive and emotional control. More details, via the press release: The researchers at the University of Sussex's Sackler Centre for Consciousness used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at the brain structures of 75 adults, who had all answered a questionnaire regarding their use and consumption of media devices, including mobile phones and computers, as well as television and print media. They found that, independent of individual personality traits, people who used a higher number of media devices concurrently also had smaller grey matter density in the part of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), the region notably responsible for cognitive and emotional control functions. But a predilection for using several devices at once isn’t necessarily causing a decrease in gray matter, the authors note — this is a purely correlational finding. As Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT who was not involved in this research, wrote in an email, “It could be (in fact, is possibly more likely) that the relationship is the other way around.” In other words, the people who are least content using just one device at a time may have less gray matter in the first place.
By Rachel Feltman With the help of electrical stimulation, a paralyzed rat is "walking" again. It's actually being controlled by a computer that monitors its gait and adjusts it to keep the rat balanced. When a spinal cord is severed, the electrical pulses sent out by the brain to control limb movement are interrupted. With this method of treatment, the rat's leg movements are driven by electrical pulses shot directly into the spinal cord (which has unfortunately been severed in the name of science). Scientists have been working on this method in humans for awhile, but have only had moderate success — some subjects have regained sensation and movement in their legs, but haven't walked on their own. In the experiment described in the video above, published Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine, researchers tweaked this use of electrical stimulation: They primed the rats with a drug to boost their ability to respond to the electrical signal. Then, while the rats were placed in treadmill harnesses to support their weight, the researchers trained a camera on their subjects. The camera tracked the rats as they took electrically stimulated steps, and corrected their movement in real time. This instant feedback made the system precise enough to get the rats up tiny sets of stairs. MIT Technology Review reports that the team hopes to use a human volunteer within the next year. If the system works on humans, doctors can prescribe its use in rehabilitation therapy. You can watch the actual experiment in the video below:
by Helen Thomson My, what big eyes you have – you must be trying really hard. A study of how pupils dilate with physical effort could allow us to make strenuous tasks seem easier by zapping specific areas of the brain. We know pupils dilate with mental effort, when we think about a difficult maths problem, for example. To see if this was also true of physical exertion, Alexandre Zenon at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, measured the pupils of 18 volunteers as they squeezed a device which reads grip strength. Sure enough, the more force they exerted, the larger their pupils. To see whether pupil size was related to actual or perceived effort, the volunteers were asked to squeeze the device with four different grip strengths. Various tests enabled the researchers to tell how much effort participants felt they used, from none at all to the most effort possible. Comparing the results from both sets of experiments suggested that pupil dilation correlated more closely with perceived effort than actual effort. The fact that both mental effort and perceived physical effort are reflected in pupil size suggests there is a common representation of effort in the brain, says Zenon. To see where in the brain this might be, the team looked at which areas were active while similar grip tasks were being performed. Zenon says they were able to identify areas within the supplementary motor cortex – which plays a role in movement – associated with how effortful a task is perceived to be. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Link ID: 20121 - Posted: 09.27.2014
By Roni Caryn Rabin When I was in college, my father David started walking with an odd, barely perceptible limp. He was in his mid-40s, a gregarious physician, teacher and researcher who was always upbeat. He told his four kids that he had a “back problem” — a deliberately vague cover story that I, for one, was willing to believe. I had never heard of the real culprit — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S. In fact, no one had. A.L.S. was a disease in the shadows. During my father’s life, it didn’t even have its own advocacy organization. This was the early ’80s, long before support groups and the Internet and a colored ribbon for every cause. And it was way before ice bucket challenges. My parents continued to use their code — “back problem” — to talk about the disease. They used it to protect my younger sisters, who were about to start high school, but I think they were also protecting themselves. My mother was also a physician, and they both knew exactly what lay ahead. Saying “A.L.S.” out loud was too threatening. But soon there was no getting around it. My father’s legs were getting weaker, his muscles were wasting, and he started relying on a cane to get around. I was 19, and my mother and I were out running errands one afternoon when she pulled the car over to the curb and stopped. She told me the truth. This was no slipped disc. She laid it all out for me in black and white: A.L.S. is a progressive, degenerative neurological disease that causes paralysis in the entire body. It’s fatal. There is no cure. It sounded like something from a horror movie. Over the next five years, as my father’s health deteriorated, he remained remarkably determined. He ate a high-protein diet and swam laps every day in an attempt to maintain his muscle and fend off the atrophy caused by the disease. He kept on swimming laps in our next-door neighbor’s pool, even when he had to use a walker — and later a wheelchair — to get there. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Keyword: ALS-Lou Gehrig's Disease
Link ID: 20120 - Posted: 09.27.2014
By Smitha Mundasad Health reporter, BBC News A spice commonly found in curries may boost the brain's ability to heal itself, according to a report in the journal Stem Cell Research and Therapy. The German study suggests a compound found in turmeric could encourage the growth of nerve cells thought to be part of the brain's repair kit. Scientists say this work, based in rats, may pave the way for future drugs for strokes and Alzheimer's disease. But they say more trials are needed to see whether this applies to humans. Researchers from the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine in Julich, Germany, studied the effects of aromatic-turmerone - a compound found naturally in turmeric. Rats were injected with the compound and their brains were then scanned. Particular parts of the brain, known to be involved in nerve cell growth, were seen to be more active after the aromatic-turmerone infusion. Scientists say the compound may encourage a proliferation of brain cells. In a separate part of the trial, researchers bathed rodent neural stem cells (NSCs) in different concentrations of aromatic-tumerone extract. NSCs have the ability to transform into any type of brain cell and scientists suggest they could have a role in repair after damage or disease. Dr Maria Adele Rueger, who was part of the research team, said: "In humans and higher developed animals their abilities do not seem to be sufficient to repair the brain but in fish and smaller animals they seem to work well." Picture of the spice turmeric Turmeric belongs to the same plant family as ginger BBC © 2014
By Jennifer Cutraro and Michael Gonchar Marijuana is illegal in the United States. Yet 35 states and the District of Columbia permit some form of marijuana consumption for medical purposes, and, as of this year, two states now allow its recreational use. As national policy evolves on this issue, the New York Times editorial board this summer published a six-part series calling for legalization. In this lesson, we pull together those opinion pieces as well as many other Times articles, graphics and videos to offer starting points for science, social studies and English teachers aiming to use the debate as an opportunity for learning, research and discussion. Like other crops, marijuana is largely cultivated — legally and illegally — in greenhouse-type “grow houses” and on farms. And like other crops, marijuana comes from a plant — cannabis, originally found in the wild and cultivated over thousands of years. Have students research the history of cannabis, from its origins in South and Central Asia to its introduction to the Americas. How have people used the different parts of the plant throughout history? Then, have students work in groups to annotate a map of the world, tracing the history of marijuana cultivation. Marijuana is best known for its psychoactive properties. But how does marijuana bring about these sensations and how else does it behave in the body? To answer these questions, students might research how the active compounds in marijuana affect the body at the level of the cell, and draw parallels with how other drugs act in the body. As is the case with many other drugs — from legal, over-the-counter medications to illegal street drugs, like heroin — the active compounds interact with locations on the surfaces of cells called receptors. Cell surface receptors provide a means for cells to receive information and input from the environment; when a molecule attaches, or binds, to a cell surface receptor, it triggers a series of events inside the cell, like the release of hormones, neurotransmitters or other molecules. A discussion about marijuana’s effects on the body might dovetail nicely with a broader class discussion or review of cell biology, the makeup and function of the cell membrane, and the function of neurotransmitters. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Drug Abuse
Link ID: 20118 - Posted: 09.27.2014
By Alyssa Abkowitz If you’re wary of investing in a certain stock or exchange-traded fund, it could be because of the your brain’s physical composition. In a recent study, 61 participants from the Northeastern U.S. were asked to choose between monetary options that differed in the level of risk. Questions included: “Would you prefer a 50 percent chance of receiving $5 or would you rather take a 13 percent chance of winning $50?” and “Would you prefer $10 for sure or a 50 percent chance of receiving $50?” Researchers found that individuals with more gray matter in a specific part of their brains tend to tolerate more financial risks, says Agnieszka Tymula, an economist at the University of Sydney and co-author of the findings. Most of the participants answered questions while their brains were being scanned, while others received MRIs afterward (the timing doesn’t make a difference because the researchers were looking at brain structure, not brain function). The study involved measuring the volume of gray matter, or the outer layer of the brain, in the right posterior parietal region of the cortex. Thicker gray matter corresponded to riskier responses. Tymula worked with researchers from Yale University, University College London, New York University, and the University of Pennsylvania. Their findings, published in the Journal of Neuroscience this month, dovetail with previous work in which Tymula found that adults become more risk-averse as they age. Other neuroscience research shows that people’s cortexes become thinner as they get older, meaning there could be a link between a thinning cortex and risk aversion. ©2014 Bloomberg L.P
by Laura Sanders Earlier this month, a star running back for the Minnesota Vikings was indicted for whipping his young son bloody with a switch. Leaked photographs allegedly showed Adrian Peterson’s 4-year-old son with cuts and bruises on his legs, back, buttocks and scrotum. As details about the incident emerged, Peterson took to Twitter to say that he’s not a perfect parent but what he did was not abuse. It was discipline. “My goal is always to teach my son right from wrong and that’s what I tried to do that day,” he wrote. Many people, and I’m one of them, that think Peterson’s actions were disgusting. There’s no way that hitting 4-year-old with a switch until his body is cut and bruised is a good way to impart values and morals. Peterson’s extreme actions, done in the name of corporal punishment, ignited a ferocious, emotionally fraught debate over whether it’s OK to hit your kid. The debate reflects deep divides in our society, chasms that track along political, religious, regional and racial lines. Half of all U.S. parents say they’ve spanked their kid. Spanking doesn’t just happen in the privacy of homes, either. Nineteen states allow teachers or principals to hit children. Opponents often point to scientific studies as proof that spanking is bad. And I confess, I originally thought this post was going to describe those results that we’ve all heard: how children who have been spanked are more aggressive and have more behavioral problems. But despite the headlines, the science behind spanking is actually quite limited, says clinical psychologist Christopher Ferguson of Stetson University in DeLand, Fla. “Because it’s a culture war issue, I think a lot of what we hear has misrepresented what is very nuanced science,” he says. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2014.
Some people don't just work — they text, Snapchat, check Facebook and Tinder, listen to music and work. And a new study reveals those multitaskers have brains that look different than those of people who stick to one task. Researchers at the University of Sussex scanned 75 adults using an fMRI to examine their gray matter. Those who admitted to multitasking with a variety of electronic devices at once had less dense gray matter in their anterior cingulate cortexes (ACC). This region controls executive function, such as working memory, reasoning, planning and execution. There is no way of knowing if people with smaller anterior cingulate cortexes are more likely to multitask or if multitaskers are shrinking their gray matter. It could even show that our brains become more efficient from multitasking, said Dr. Gary Small, director of UCLA’s Memory and Aging Research Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, who was not involved in the study. “When you exercise the brain … it becomes effective at performing a mental task,” he said. While previous research has shown that multitasking leads to more mistakes, Small said research remains important to our understanding of something we’re all guilty of doing.
Link ID: 20115 - Posted: 09.25.2014
by Greg Laden I heard yesterday that my friend and former advisor Irven DeVore died. He was important, amazing, charming, difficult, harsh, brilliant, fun, annoying. My relationship to him as an advisee and a friend was complex, important to me for many years, and formative. For those who don’t know he was instrumental in developing several subfields of anthropology, including behavioral biology, primate behavioral studies, hunter-gatherer research, and even ethnoarchaeology. He was a cultural anthropologist who realized during his first field season that a) he was not cut out to be a cultural anthropologist and b) most of the other cultural anthropologists were not either. Soon after he became Washburn’s student and independently invented the field study of complex social behavior in primates (though some others were heading in that direction at the same time), producing his famous work on the baboons of Kenya’s Nairobi National Park. For many years, what students learned about primate behavior, they learned from that work. Later he and Richard Lee, along with John Yellen, Alison Brooks, Henry Harpending, and others started up the study of Ju/’hoansi Bushmen along the Namibian/Botswana border. One of the outcomes of that work was the famous Werner Gren conference and volume called “Man the Hunter.” That volume has two roles in the history of anthropology. First, it launched modern forager studies. Second, it became one of the more maligned books in the field of Anthropology. I have yet to meet a single person who has a strong criticism of that book that is not based on having not read it. For many years, much of what students learned about human foragers, they learned from that work.
Link ID: 20114 - Posted: 09.25.2014
By Sarah C. P. Williams Press the backs of your hands against the inside of a door frame for 30 seconds—as if you’re trying to widen the frame—and then let your arms down; you’ll feel something odd. Your arms will float up from your sides, as if lifted by an external force. Scientists call this Kohnstamm phenomenon, but you may know it as the floating arm trick. Now, researchers have studied what happens in a person’s brain and nerve cells when they repress this involuntary movement, holding their arms tightly by their sides instead of letting them float up. Two theories existed as to how this repression worked: The brain could send a positive “push down” signal to the arm muscles at the same time as the involuntary “lift up” signal was being transmitted to cancel it out; or the brain could entirely block the involuntary signal at the root of the nerves. The new study, which analyzed brain scans and muscle activity recordings from 39 volunteers, found that the latter was true—when a person stifles Kohnstamm phenomenon, the involuntary “lift” signal is blocked before it reaches the muscle. The difference between the repression mechanisms may seem subtle, but understanding it could help people repress other involuntary movements—including the tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease and the tics associated with Tourette syndrome, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science
By Dick Miller, CBC News Dan Campbell felt the bullets whiz past his head. The tracer rounds zipped between his legs. It was his first firefight as a Canadian soldier in Afghanistan. "I was completely frightened and scared like I’d never been before in my life,” he says. As the attack continued, the sights, sounds and smells started to form memories inside his brain. The fear he felt released the hormone norepinephrine, and in the complex chemistry of the brain, the memories of the battle became associated with the fear. 'I think one day, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, we will be able to delete a memory.'- Dr. Sheena Josselyn, senior scientist, Hospital For Sick Children Research Institute Six years later, a sight or sound such as a firecracker or car backfiring can remind him of that night in 2008. The fear comes back and he relives rather than remembers the moments. "It can be hard. Physically, you know, there’s the tapping foot, my heart beating,” he says. Like so many soldiers and victims of assault or people who have experienced horrific accidents, Campbell was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. Now a newspaper reporter in Yellowknife, Campbell thinks one day he may get therapy. But for now he is working on his own to control the fear and anger the memories bring. © CBC 2014
By SAM BORDEN Bellini, a Brazilian soccer star who led the team that won the 1958 World Cup and was honored with a statue outside the Estádio do Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro, had a degenerative brain disease linked to dozens of boxers and American football players when he died in March at age 83. At the time, his death was attributed to complications related to Alzheimer’s disease. But researchers now say he had an advanced case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., which is caused by repeated blows to the head and has symptoms similar to those of Alzheimer’s. C.T.E. can be diagnosed only posthumously, and few brains of former soccer players have been examined. Bellini is the second known case, according to Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at Boston University and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Bedford, Mass., who assisted in examining Bellini’s brain. McKee was also involved this year when researchers found C.T.E. in the brain of a 29-year-old man from New Mexico who had played soccer semiprofessionally. McKee said in an interview that she was aware of a third former soccer player who had C.T.E. but that she was not yet authorized to publicly identify the person. As C.T.E. began to gain widespread attention about six years ago, it was often thought of as an American problem. Many of the early cases of the disease, for which there is no known cure, were connected to boxers and American football players. © 2014 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Brain Injury/Concussion
Link ID: 20110 - Posted: 09.24.2014
by Sarah Zielinski Chimps may be cute and have mannerisms similar to humans, but they are wild animals. A new study finds that chimps raised as pets or entertainers have behavioral problems as adults. There are plenty of good reasons why chimpanzees should not be pets or performers, no matter how cute or humanlike they appear: They are wild animals. They can be violent with each other. And they can be violent toward humans — even humans that have a long history with the chimp. Plus, there’s evidence that seeing an adorable chimp dressed up like a miniature human actually makes us care less about the plight of their species. Now comes evidence that the way that chimps are raised to become pets or entertainers — taking them away from other chimps at a young age and putting them in the care of humans, who may or may not feed and care for them properly — has long-term, negative effects on their behavior. “We now add empirical evidence of the potentially negative welfare effects on the chimpanzees themselves as important considerations in the discussion of privately owned chimpanzees,” Hani Freeman and Stephen Ross of the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago write September 23 in PeerJ. Freeman and Ross compiled life history and behavioral data on 60 captive chimps living in zoos. Some of the animals had always lived in zoos and grew up in groups of chimpanzees. Six were raised solely by humans and were later placed in zoos after they became too big or too old for their owners to care for them. Others had a more mixed background. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2014
// by Jennifer Viegas Harems -- where a group of females share a single mate -- can be sexual bliss for the male, but the arrangement poses many challenges for him, according to a new study. Male leaders of harems are often overworked and tired finds the study, published in the latest issue of Royal Society Open Science. Gelada baboons exemplify the problems. "Being a gelada leader male is fairly exhausting," co-author David Pappano told Discovery News. "In order to keep the females within his harem happy, gelada leader males spend a lot of time grooming them." "When bachelors are around, leader males often engage in costly displays -- running around, climbing up a tree, and producing a very loud (ee-yow) display call," added Pappano, who is an NSF postdoctoral research fellow at Princeton University's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. He co-authored the paper with Jacinta Beehner. © 2014 Discovery Communications, LLC.
Keyword: Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 20108 - Posted: 09.24.2014
|By Simon Makin The Claim Casual cannabis use harms young people's brains. The Facts A study found differences in the brains of users and nonusers, but it did not establish that marijuana use caused the variations or that they had any functional significance. The Details Researchers at Northwestern University and Harvard Medical School conducted MRI scans of two groups of 20 young adults ages 18 to 25. One group reported using marijuana at least once a week, smoking 11 joints a week on average, whereas the other had used it less than five times total and not at all during the last year. Neither group had any psychiatric disorders, and the users were psychiatrically assessed as not dependent on the drug. The study focused on two brain regions involved in processing rewards, the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala. These areas create pleasurable experiences of things such as food and sex, as well as the high associated with drugs, and have been shown to change in animals given THC, the main psychoactive component of cannabis. The researchers found that cannabis users had more gray matter density in the left nucleus accumbens and left amygdala, as well as differences in the shape of the left nucleus accumbens and right amygdala. The left nucleus accumbens also tended to be slightly larger in users. They concluded that recreational cannabis use might be associated with abnormalities in the brain's reward system. News reports have proclaimed that scientists have shown that even casual cannabis use harms young people's brains. The Caveats The most obvious problem with leaping to that conclusion is that the scans were conducted at only one point. © 2014 Scientific American
|By Corinne Iozzio Albert “Skip” Rizzo of the University of Southern California began studying virtual reality (VR) as psychological treatment in 1993. Since then, dozens of studies, his included, have shown the immersion technique to be effective for everything from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety to phobias and addiction. But a lack of practical hardware has kept VR out of reach for clinicians. The requirements for a VR headset seem simple—a high-resolution, fast-reacting screen, a field of vision that is wide enough to convince patients they are in another world and a reasonable price tag— yet such a product has proved elusive. Says Rizzo, “It’s been 20 frustrating years.” In 2013 VR stepped into the consumer spotlight in the form of a prototype head- mounted display called the Oculus Rift. Inventor Palmer Luckey’s goal was to create a platform for immersive video games, but developers from many fields—medicine, aviation, tourism—are running wild with possibilities. The Rift’s reach is so broad that Oculus, now owned by Facebook, hosted a conference for developers in September. The Rift, slated for public release in 2015, is built largely from off- the-shelf parts, such as the screens used in smartphones. A multi- axis motion sensor lets the headset refresh imagery in real time as the wearer’s head moves. The kicker is the price: $350. (Laboratory systems start at $20,000.) Rizzo has been among the first in line. His work focuses on combat PTSD. In a 2010 study, he placed patients into controlled traumatic scenarios, including a simulated battlefield, so they could confront and process emotions triggered in those situations. © 2014 Scientific American
Jia You In the future, a nurse could determine whether a baby is likely to develop a reading disorder simply by attaching a few electrodes to its scalp and watching its brain waves respond to human speech. Such is the scenario suggested by a new study, which finds a potential biological indicator of how well preschool children perceive rhythm, an ability linked to language development. “It’s really impressive to work with children this young, who are not often looked at,” says Aniruddh Patel, a cognitive neuroscientist at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, who was not involved with the research. Spoken language consists of sound waves occurring over multiple timescales. A syllable, for example, takes place over a quarter of a second, while a sentence unfolds over a few seconds. To make sense of this complex auditory information, humans use rhythmic cues such as stress and pause to discern words and syllables. Adults and school-aged children with reading disorders, however, struggle to pick up on these rhythmic patterns. Scientists estimate that dyslexia and other reading disabilities plague about 5% to 10% of the population. Detecting such impairments early could lead to more effective intervention, but observing telltale signs in younger children who have not learned to read has proven a challenge. So biologist Nina Kraus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and her colleagues looked for automatic brain responses that can track language development in preschoolers, who have not learned to read. © 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science