Babies understand words that are related before they can speak

Researchers have demonstrated that babies are actively studying language before they start talking. A new investigation shows that babies can make word associations long before they can express the words themselves.

“Even though there aren’t many overt signals of language knowledge in babies, language is definitely developing furiously under the surface,” said Elika Bergelson, an assistant professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University.

Bergelson previously participated in a 2012 study which revealed that infants as young as six to nine months old already have a basic understanding of words for food and body parts. For the current study, Bergelson’s team used eye-tracking software to show that babies also recognize that the meanings of some words are more alike than others.

“Even in the very early stages of comprehension, babies seem to know something about how words relate to each other,” said Bergelson. “And already by six months, measurable aspects of their home environment predict how much of this early level of knowledge they have. There are clear follow-ups for potential intervention work with children who might be at-risk for language delays or deficits.”

In order to measure word comprehension, babies and their caregivers were taken into a lab equipped with a computer screen and few other infant distractions.

The babies were shown related pairs of images, like a foot and a hand, or unrelated pairs, like a foot and a carton of milk. The caregiver was prompted to say the name of one of the images in each pair while an eye-tracking device followed the baby’s gaze.

The study showed that babies spent more time looking at the image that was named when the two images were unrelated.

“They may not know the full-fledged adult meaning of a word, but they seem to recognize that there is something more similar about the meaning of these words than those words,” explained Bergelson.

The research team used home recordings to investigate the babies’ word knowledge, and found that it was directly related to the amount of time they heard objects being discussed in their home environment.

“My take-home to parents always is, the more you can talk to your kid, the better,” Bergelson said. “Because they are listening and learning from what you say, even if it doesn’t appear to be so.”

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Heavy alcohol consumption linked to specific cultural values

For health organizations around the world, understanding why people drink alcohol in excess is an important endeavor. Harmful alcohol consumption resulted in over 3.3 million deaths in 2012, according to the World Health Organization. Alcoholism is also directly linked to health problems such as high blood pressure, liver cirrhosis, and chronic pancreatitis.

In a recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, researchers found that nations with populations that value autonomy and harmony tend to have higher levels of alcohol consumption than those with more traditional values – such as hierarchy and being part of a collective.

These findings may have important implications for public health organizations around the world that tackle problems caused by excessive alcohol consumption.

This is the first time that researchers have attempted to locate the broad societal and cultural predictors of alcohol consumption, rather than simply focusing on these issues at an individual level. They did this by analyzing data on alcohol consumption and cultural value orientation for over 70 countries.

The researchers modeled whether the country’s average level of alcohol consumption could be linked to different societal values (i.e. autonomy, hierarchy, harmony, and collectivism).

The results differed slightly between men and women, but the researchers still found that values of autonomy and harmony are associated with greater alcohol consumption, while values of hierarchy and embeddedness are associated with less alcohol consumption.

“Our results suggest that bodies like World Health Organization should prioritize tackling alcohol consumption in countries that are more autonomous and less traditional,” says Dr. Richard Inman, a professor at the University of Lusíada and one of the study’s authors. “And future research should be directed at further understanding the relationship between cultural values and alcohol.”

Smoking, alcohol consumption, inactivity, and diet are the non-communicable health problems that cause 70% of deaths worldwide. The study’s authors believe that the next step for this research is for other scientists to create similar models for these risky behaviors so that these issues can be better understood at a base level.

By Connor Ertz, Staff Writer

Motorcycle crashes cause 5 times more deaths than car accidents

Researchers have found that motorcycle crashes cause five times as many deaths, three times as many injuries, and cost six times more in medical expenses compared to car crashes. Despite safety improvements, injuries from motorcycle accidents remain the same.

The research team used data on adults admitted to the hospital between 2007 and 2013 for injuries sustained from motorcycle or car accidents. The analysis was focused in Ontario, Canada, with a population of more than 13.6 million people.

Over the course of the study, 26,831 people were injured in motorcycle crashes and 281,826 were injured in car crashes. People with motorcycle accident injuries were younger, with an average age of 36 years. They were also 81 percent more likely to be men than those injured in car accidents.

Motorcycle accidents were found to not only cause three times the injuries, but these injuries were also 10 times as severe as those sustained in car accidents. In addition, motorcyclists experienced six times the medical costs and five times the number of deaths. People with injuries from motorcycle crashes were much more likely to be admitted to the intensive care unit compared with car crash victims.

Study co-author Daniel Pincus is a PhD candidate at Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences and an orthopedic resident physician at Sunnybrook Hospital.

“We know that the additional risk associated with driving a motorcycle has not translated into improvements in motorcycle safety,” said Dr. Pincus. “So we hope that estimating the medical costs of care for motorcycle crashes may provide an additional incentive to improve safety.”

This was the first study of its kind to estimate the medical costs for motorcycle accidents on a large scale.

“Although exact health care costs vary in other health care systems, we argue that the conclusions drawn from the relative comparison of motorcycle to automobile crashes apply beyond Canada to the rest of the developed world,” said the authors of the study. “For example, in a privately funded health care system, insurance companies and individual providers may accept a larger share of the direct healthcare costs than we have estimated in this study.”

The research is published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Human evolution involved overlapping eras, new research finds

New evidence uncovered in Spain has revealed that Neanderthals survived in the area long after Neanderthals died out in other parts of the world. The findings support the notion that human evolution was more complicated and uneven than previously thought.

A 10-year excavation uncovered the remains of three Middle-Paleolithic sites in southern Spain that showed evidence of Neanderthals at least 3,000 years after Neanderthals were thought to have died off.

The researchers recently published their findings in the journal Heliyon.

The Middle-Paleolithic Period was part of the Stone Age and dates back from 300,000 to 30,000 years ago. It was during this time that modern humans interbred with Neanderthals and other Eurasian populations.

The researchers used radiocarbon and luminescence dating to track artifacts that were found in the sites. Luminescence dating is a precise dating method that can tell archaeologists exactly when certain events occurred.

In this case, the excavations and dating pointed to a Neanderthal presence.

“In three new excavation sites, we found Neanderthal artifacts dated to thousands of years later than anywhere else in Western Europe,” said Dr. João Zilhão, the lead author of the study. “Even in the adjacent regions of northern Spain and southern France the latest Neanderthal sites are all significantly older.”

One of the most interesting aspects of the discovery is that it gives a more accurate picture of how and when Neanderthals were absorbed into modern human populations through interbreeding.

This interbreeding was not a smooth process that happened everywhere at once, but instead was an uneven “stop and go” process that differed depending on geographic regions.

“We believe that the stop-and-go, punctuated, uneven mechanism we propose must have been the rule in human evolution, which helps explain why Paleolithic material culture tends to form patterns of geographically extensive similarity while Paleolithic genomes tend to show complex ancestry patchworks,”  said Dr. Zilhão.

There is certainly more about human evolution left to discover, particularly when it comes to Neanderthals, and excavating new sites may be the key to unearthing that information.

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

Gene mutation allows some Amish people to live 10 years longer

Researchers have discovered that some Amish people have a gene mutation that enables them to live up to ten years longer. The carriers also have higher metabolic efficiency and are significantly less likely to develop diabetes.

Dr. Douglas Vaughan of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine is the lead author of the study.

“Not only do they live longer, they live healthier,” said Dr. Vaughan. “It’s a desirable form of longevity.”

The researchers tested 177 Amish residents of Berne, Indiana for the analysis. They found 43 individuals who had the genetic mutation. These carriers, who have one mutant copy of the gene SERPINE1, were found to live an average of 85 years, while non-carriers in the same community were found to live an average of 75 years.

The analysis also revealed that Amish people with this gene mutation are less prone to diabetes, with 30 percent lower fasting insulin levels. In addition, they have higher metabolic efficiency and significantly more vascular flexibility.

“The findings astonished us because of the consistency of the anti-aging benefits across multiple body systems,” said Dr. Vaughan.

According to the researchers, the genetic mutation was introduced into the Amish community by farmers who migrated to Indiana in the 19th century from Berne, Switzerland. Due to cultural preferences, the Amish in Berne have been genetically isolated and they are mostly all related to some degree.

“This is the only kindred on the planet that has this mutation,” said Dr. Vaughan. “It’s a private mutation.”  

The research team has collaborated with scientists at Tohoku University in Japan to develop an experimental oral drug, TM5614, that can mimic the effects of the mutant gene.

Clinical trials in Japan are testing to see how the drug influences insulin sensitivity in patients with type 2 diabetes and obesity. The researchers will also test the drug to investigate whether it can protect against age-related illnesses.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

The top 10 books about the environment

While research shows us that our environment is undoubtedly being damaged by human activities, scientists remind us that our planet can still be restored. Books on the environment give readers a better perspective on what issues we are up against and what can be done to resolve these issues. The following are the top ten best books on the environment.


The Water Will Come

This book explores how millions of people will be displaced as climate change – which brings with it rising sea levels and extreme weather events – moves water inland. Author Jeff Goodell blames fossil fuels, and warns that we must quit burning them.


Silent Spring

Author Rachel Carson describes the harmful effects of pesticides and gathers expert opinions to support her cause. Carson says that the best way to move forward is to use biological controls rather than chemical methods whenever possible.


Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World

Mushroom expert Paul Stamets explains how growing more mushrooms may be the best thing that we could do to save the environment. His book gives an unprecedented look at how we could use natural resources to rescue our planet.


Lab Girl

Geochemist and paleo geobiologist Hope Jahren documents her personal and professional life in this critically acclaimed autobiography. The story delves into the secret life of plants and into the everyday life of a scientist.


The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

Elizabeth Kolbert describes previous mass extinction events and compares them to the state of Earth today, arguing that we are in the midst of the sixth known mass extinction which has been caused by human activities.


The World Without Us

Alan Weisman explores what the fate of our planet may be if humans no longer influenced it. He draws from the expertise of scientists and other experts to illustrate a world where humans no longer exist.


The Lorax

Published as a children’s book in 1971, The Lorax portrays the devastating impacts of industry on the environment. It was Dr. Seus’ favorite of his stories because he was able to address economic and environmental issues in a way that was entertaining.


The Death And Life Of The Great Lakes

Dan Egan focuses on the unique ecosystems of the Great Lakes and the threat of invasive species and other challenges. Egan suggests that the lakes should be given time to recover by cutting off commercial shipping routes.


A Sand County Almanac

Considered a milestone in the American conservation movement, this book is still a powerful force almost 70 years after it was published. American ecologist, forester, and environmentalist Aldo Leopold writes a collection of essays to communicate his idea of a”land ethic,” or the responsibility that people have to the land they inhabit.


Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature

Janine M. Benyus shows us how scientists are mimicking nature’s best ideas and adapting them to solve some major challenges for the benefit of humans. Scientists are developing strategies based on naturally occurring phenomenon so that we can learn how to better heal ourselves and our planet.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Adopting a dog can actually extend your life

A groundbreaking study reveals that dog owners have a lower risk of fatal cardiovascular disease and death from other causes. The new research shows that dog owners in a single household have a significantly lower risk of death and cardiovascular disease than non-owners who live alone.

Swedish scientists investigated data on the health of more than 3.4 million individuals to see how dog-ownership related to the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The researchers selected records from seven different national registries for individuals between the ages of 40 and 80 who did not have cardiovascular disease in 2001. The registries included two dog ownership registries, and enabled the researchers to track the subjects over the course of 12 years.

Mwenya Mubanga is the lead junior author of the study at Uppsala University.

“A very interesting finding in our study was that dog ownership was especially prominent as a protective factor in persons living alone, which is a group reported previously to be at higher risk of cardiovascular disease and death than those living in a multi-person household,” said Mubanga. “Perhaps a dog may stand in as an important family member in the single households.”

The researchers found that single dog owners had a 33 percent reduction in risk of death and 11 percent reduction in risk of cardiovascular disease compared to single non-owners.

“Another interesting finding was that owners to dogs from breed groups originally bred for hunting were most protected,” said Mubanga.

“These kind of epidemiological studies look for associations in large populations but do not provide answers on whether and how dogs could protect from cardiovascular disease,” explained senior author Tove Fall. “We know that dog owners in general have a higher level of physical activity, which could be one explanation to the observed results. Other explanations include an increased well-being and social contacts or effects of the dog on the bacterial microbiome in the owner.”

Fall pointed out that there also may be health differences between dog owners and non-owners before getting a dog. For example, people who choose to get dogs may simply have more active lifestyles. The results of the study are published in Scientific Reports.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

New tool predicts which cities are at risk as sea levels rise

A new forecasting tool will let scientists know which cities are at risk of flooding as glacial land ice melts. Developed by scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, the model also gives experts insight into which ice sheets are of the most concern.

The tool, which predicts how water will be “redistributed” as land ice melts, can inform cities of which particular ice sheets, ice caps, and glaciers will impact sea level rise in their region.

Dr. Eric Larour, who has worked in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory since 2005, is the project’s lead developer.

Dr. Larour told BBC News, “We can compute the exact sensitivity – for a specific town – of a sea level to every ice mass in the world. This gives you an idea, for your own city, of which glaciers, ice sheets and ice caps are of specific importance.”

Dr. Larour explained that the tool diagnoses the sea level rise by examining its three major contributors, the first of which is gravity.

Dr. Larour said that ice sheets “are huge masses that exert an attraction on the ocean. When the ice shrinks, that attraction diminishes- and the sea will move away from that mass.” In addition, land that has been compressed underneath the weight of the ice expands vertically.

The third major influence on the pattern of sea level change is the Earth’s rotation.

“You can think of the Earth as a spinning top,” said Dr Larour. “As it spins it wobbles and as masses on its surface change, that wobble also changes. That, in turn, redistributes water around the Earth.”

The researchers found that sea level rise caused by changes in the northern and eastern regions of the Greenland ice sheet will directly impact New York, while London may be significantly affected by the ice sheet’s northwestern region. Sea level pattern changes in Sidney will be heavily influenced by melting ice sheets along the northeast and northwest coastline of Antarctica, according to the study.

“As cities and countries attempt to build plans to mitigate flooding, they have to be thinking about 100 years in the future and they want to assess risk in the same way that insurance companies do,” said senior scientist Dr. Erik Ivins.

The findings of the study are published in Science Advances.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Stress causes the brain to make risky decisions

It can be very challenging to make important decisions based on cost versus benefit, and neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have determined that this type of conflict is drastically affected by chronic stress. When mice were faced with a cost-benefit analysis, stress caused them to make the most high-risk decisions available.

“One exciting thing is that by doing this very basic science, we found a microcircuit of neurons in the striatum that we could manipulate to reverse the effects of stress on this type of decision making,” said study senior author Ann Graybiel. “This to us is extremely promising, but we are aware that so far these experiments are in rats and mice.”

The research team had first identified the brain circuit involved in decision making that involves cost-benefit conflict in 2015. In that study, the researchers found that they could suppress the circuit and alter the rodents’ preference for lower-risk, lower-payoff choices to a preference for higher risks and higher payoffs.

In the current study, the researchers exposed the mice to a short period of stress every day for two weeks. Before experiencing stress, the rodents would choose to run toward the region of the maze which had dimmer light and weaker chocolate milk about half the time. The researchers gradually increased the concentration of chocolate milk found in the dimmer side and the animals began choosing that side more frequently.

However, when chronically stressed rodents were put in the same situation, they continued to choose the side of the maze with bright light and better chocolate milk, even as the chocolate milk concentration increased on the other side. This was the same behavior the researchers witnessed in their previous study when they disrupted specific decision-making circuitry.

“Somehow this prior exposure to chronic stress controls the integration of good and bad,” said Graybiel. “It’s as though the animals had lost their ability to balance excitation and inhibition in order to settle on reasonable behavior.”

The researchers found that after this stress-induced change takes place, it remains in effect for months. However, they were able to develop a way to restore normal decision making in the stressed mice, which demonstrates that the brain circuitry involved in cost-benefit decision making remains intact following chronic stress.

The findings of the study, which are published in The Cell, suggest that the key brain circuitry identified by the researchers may be susceptible to guidance that could restore normal behavior in humans who have disorders which cause atypical decision making.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Heavy drinking and smoking will visibly age you

A new study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health finds that heavy drinking and smoking lead to visible signs of aging. The researchers suggest that this behavior leads to looking older than one’s years. Light to moderate drinking, however, was not linked to physical aging.

The experts analyzed data from more than 11,500 adults. As part of the Copenhagen City Heart Study, the heart health and visible aging signs of the individuals had been tracked for an average of 11.5 years.

Before clinical tests, the participants reported on their lifestyle, general health, and how much they drank and smoked. They were examined for four signs of aging that have been linked to a heightened risk of cardiovascular issues including earlobe creases, arcus corneae, xanthelasmata, and male pattern baldness.

The individuals observed for the study ranged in age from 21 to 93. Average alcohol consumption was 2.6 drinks per week for the female participants and 11.4 drinks per week for the men. 57 percent of the women and 67 percent of the men were current smokers.

The study revealed that arcus corneae was the most common sign of aging for both sexes, with a prevalence of 60 percent among men over 70 and among women over 80. The least common sign was xanthelasmata, with a prevalence of 5 percent among men and women over 50.

The study also demonstrated that heavy drinking and smoking led both male and female participants to looking older than their true age. Heavy drinkers and smokers also had an increased risk of developing arcus corneae, earlobe creases, and xanthelasmata.

For example, 28 or more drinks a week was associated with a 33 percent heightened risk of arcus corneae among the women, and 35 or more drinks per week among the men led to a 35 percent heightened risk of corneal arcus.

The investigation showed that visible signs of aging were found to be no different among light to moderate drinkers than among non-drinkers. Furthermore, male pattern baldness was not linked to heavy drinking and smoking.

The study authors concluded, “This is the first prospective study to show that alcohol and smoking are associated with the development of visible age-related signs and thus generally looking older than one’s actual age….This may reflect that heavy drinking and smoking increases general aging of the body.”

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Emojis help replace clues from face-to-face communication

In today’s digital age, texting with emojis, abbreviations, GIFs, and memes has become the new norm.

The downside is that texting eliminates both verbal and facial cues, and so sometimes texts can be misinterpreted or misread. Something as small as a punctuation or capitalization can change the entire tone of a text message.

Emojis may seem like a frivolous or even lazy development, but a new study has found that they can actually help convey tone and meaning in written communication.

The study, conducted by researchers at Binghamton University, found that exclamation points, emojis, and punctuation help replace the visual cues found in face-to-face communication.

“In contrast with face-to-face conversation, texters can’t rely on extra-linguistic cues such as tone of voice and pauses, or non-linguistic cues such as facial expressions and hand gestures,” said Celia Klin, one of the study’s co-authors. “It’s been suggested that one way that texters add meaning to their words is by using ‘textisms’– things like emoticons, irregular spellings (sooooo) and irregular use of punctuation (!!!).”

In a previous study, Klin had discovered that the use of a period at the end of a text message made the text seem less sincere.

For this study, Klin and her colleagues conducted experiments to see if textisms were important in conveying meaning, and if a single word text in response to an invitation was changed by the use of a period.

With texting, the period is used rhetorically to add meaning instead of strictly grammatically, according to Klin.

Klin had study participants text either an invitation or a single word response to an invitation. The use of a period changed the meaning for many of the texts responding to the invitation.

“Specifically, when one texter asked a question (e.g., I got a new dog. Wanna come over?), and it was answered with a single word (e.g., yeah), readers understood the response somewhat differently depending if it ended with a period (yeah.) or did not end with a period (yeah),” said Klin.

According to Klin, the research also reflects the way texting, and textisms, show the evolution of language and communication. As different methods of communication are developed, people invent new language constructs to work with any new advancements.

The study proves that textisms like emojis and exclamation marks are actually important in conveying meaning, and are a testament to how language evolves.

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

Good news for gamers! Video game skill linked to intelligence

“Video games won’t get you anywhere!” How many times have kids been told that by their parents? But according to new research from scientists at the University of York, video game skill may show a direct correlation to higher intelligence.

While the researchers make it clear that their findings do not indicate that playing computer games will make a young person smarter, they do indicate that individuals who are more skilled at these games tend to be smarter.

The study focused on “Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas” (MOBAs), which are action strategy games that usually involve two teams of five individuals competing against each other. They also looked a multiplayer “First Person Shooter” (FPS) games, which is one of the most popular game genres today.

The researchers first study analyzed the correlation between performance in the game League of Legends and an individual’s performance in paper-and-pencil intelligence tests. Their second study looked at large datasets from two MOBA games (League of Legends and Defense of the Ancients) and two FPS games (Destiny and Battlefield 3).

In their second study, the scientists found that for large groups of thousands of players in MOBAs, their performance in the game and IQ behaved in similar ways as player got older. However, for FPS games they found the opposite effect, where performance actually declined after players’ teen years. Athanasios Kokkinakis, a PhD student at York and lead author of the study, elaborates on this, “unlike First Person Shooter (FPS) games where speed and target accuracy are a priority, Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas rely more on memory and the ability to make strategic decisions taking into account multiple factors. It is perhaps for these reasons that we found a strong correlation between skill and intelligence in MOBAs.”

Professor Alex Wade of the University of York – a corresponding author on the paper – says that MOBA games “are complex, socially-interactive and intellectually demanding. Our research would suggest that your performance in these games can be a measure of intelligence.” Wade continues, “Research in the past has pointed to the fact that people who are good at strategy games such as chess tend to score highly at IQ tests. Our research has extended this to games that millions of people across the planet play every day.”

The researchers believe that their findings have the potential to have a big impact on the future of video games and the creative industry, as these games may be able to extend as a tool for research in mental health and psychology. They could also be used as “proxy” tests of IQ, as well as a way to monitor cognitive health across populations.

By Connor Ertz, Staff Writer