Team McCallum

R&D for Lifetime of Life

Baby learning.

Do babies learn the same way adults do, or is there something else going on in there before they can speak?

Damage to two particular regions of the brain causes language impairment in adults, while in children it does not halt language development. Does this mean baby brains work language through different regions to adult brains, or is their brain so adaptable that they can call in other areas to make up for the damage?

Researchers from the University of California San Diego used two types of brain scans, both noninvasive, to check on the areas in the brain that were activating in babies aged 12 months to 18 months. The results appear in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

The tests were quite simple. First, say a common word or alternatively a fake word that sounds quite similar. Second, show a picture of a common object, like a ball or a dog, and say either the correct name or a wrong name for the picture.

From the scans, the team found that even before they can speak, babies process language in the same areas as adults, as the same areas become active. This means if these get damaged in young children, the brain is still flexible enough to call on other areas for language development, whereas in adults, the brain is too fixed to re-route.

The team also found that the babies already had a mental database of words they understood. When pictures were mismatched to names, adult brains become active in a particular region that handles errors in language, and the brain scans showed babies did this too.

So, even before your baby can talk, he or she is learning much the same way an adult does, and has already developed a vocabulary.


January 10, 2011 Posted by | Brain, Language, Learning, Success | Leave a comment

Pregnancy v autism.

A trio of researchers has discovered that if there is a short interval between first and second babies, the second one has an increased risk of autism.

The researchers looked at 660,000 pairs of siblings born in California between 1992 and 2002, where the first-born did not have autism. Then they compared the rates of autism in the second sibling, using the interval between when the mother first gave birth and when she became pregnant again.

Compared to an interval of 3+ years, an interval of 2-3 years resulted in an increase in the risk of autism by 27%, while 1-2 years increased the risk by 87% and under 1 year increased the risk by 139%.

The researchers checked their work using pairs of siblings where the 1st born had autism, and again found the second was at even greater risk if the interval was less than 3 years.

Experts in autism are cautioning that although the study appears sound, it is normal to wait for results to be replicated in a different group of people.

However, other studies have shown an increased risk of schizophrenia in the second born where there is a short interval between pregnancies. While other problems such as being severely pre-term are also linked to increased risk of autism.

Collectively, these suggest that a short interval increases the chance that the second child’s neural development is impacted.

The researchers speculated that the reason might be a depleted level of nutrients such as folate or iron, or elevated stress levels.

Until a mechanism is established, this would suggest mothers falling pregnant within 3 years of last giving birth should make sure their nutrients follow medical recommendations closely, and put practices in place to cut stress.

January 10, 2011 Posted by | Autism, Brain, Child Health, Diet, Minerals, Pregnancy, Stress, Success, Vitamins | Leave a comment

How smart is your dog?

John W Pilley and Alliston K Reid decided they would like to find out how much a dog can learn, given extensive training over a long period. The dog in question was a border collie called Chaser. Pilley and Reid couldn’t find Chaser’s limit after 3 years, when the dog could remember the names of over a thousand different objects and was still learning new ones.

The 1,022 objects were toys that Chaser used, each with a different name. However, Chaser also understood verbs, so the dog could combine the correct object with what was supposed to be done with that toy.

Further, Chaser understood a few groups. For example, there were objects that collectively could be referred to as balls, while others fell into the frisbee group.

Finally, Chaser could remember, at least for a short while, that a particular toy was excluded from the group to which it apparently belonged. For example, a particular ball was not to be counted as a ball. This remembering for a short time then forgetting is displayed by children when they learn.

As noted, Pilley and Reid did not find Chaser’s limit. They simply stopped trying to find it after the 3 years was up.

The other point of interest is that these things were toys to Chaser – fun, enjoyment, a real incentive to learn, and this be the main carry over message for humans.

But the next time you talk to your dog just be aware that the dog may understand more than you think.

January 9, 2011 Posted by | Activity, Brain, Exercise, Fun, Health, Language, Learning, Nature, Psychology, Success | Leave a comment

Accelerating learning?

Two Professors of Psychology at the University of Chicago,  Sian L Beilock and Susan Goldin-Meadow, appear to have come up with a way to accelerate learning that you can use yourself or to teach others, such as children, more effectively. But their experiments showed this would accelerate learning things wrong just as much as it accelerated learning things right, so you need to be careful that you’ve got things right before you apply this.

The Tower of Hanoi is a well-known puzzle in which you move the tower from the left-hand side to the right-hand side, one slice at a time, and stacked so that there is never a larger slice on top of a smaller slice.

The professors carried out 2 experiments.

First, people were asked to shift the tower, then they were asked to explain the way they did it to another person. People explaining typically used gestures to do this, as this is much easier. Those gestures were either one-handed or two-handed, and this made a major difference.

The professors changed the weight of the smallest slice so it could no longer be moved with one hand – it now required two. People who had demonstrated with two hands found no problem with this change. But for those using one-handed gestures, it took longer, and the more the gestures had been one-handed, the longer the puzzle took.

To confirm that gestures affect learning, the professors carried out the second experiment. This had the same start as the previous one, using a top slice that could be moved one-handed if the person so chose. This time, people were not asked to explain their solution, so there were no gestures. The tower puzzle was completed a second time, then the professors swapped in the top slice requiring two hands.

Whether people had previously moved the top slice one-handed or two-handed made no difference. Both groups did the puzzle in the same time.

So the process of gesturing cements learning, whether right or wrong.

The professors pointed out the potential of this. Gesturing yourself while learning, or building this into teaching when others are learning, is an easy way to accelerate learning, even for subjects such as mathematics. Just make sure you get the right gestures!

January 6, 2011 Posted by | Brain, Learning, Success | Leave a comment

Photos of evolution?

Orang Utans can swim Anne Russon New Scientist

From the Team McCallum ‘best of’ for March 2010, despite a bucketload of great contenders, we have to give pride of place to a short photo set by New Scientist.

Orang Utans normally avoid rivers because their body is too dense to float, and rivers are packed with predators. But click on the link at the end of this article and in just 6 brilliant photos you can see why Orang Utans might choose to overcome their fear.

The photos are cool, but have a think about whether this might explain a little about evolution.

How about fruit-eating Orang Utans hunting for fish? (Click the link to see the pic!). Fish food for the brain?

How about simple tools? Can you think about how you might use a stone as a drinking cup?  4 year-old Yuni knows how!

How about elders teaching the littlies? 2 year-old Erika gets the heads-up on how to get – um – posh!

6 photos – 6 ideas. Perhaps the steps to being human, perhaps not. But one click gets you six of the best photos from 2010, so congrats to New Scientist.

Click this for the New Scientist full-size photo, then click the Next button for the rest.

January 2, 2011 Posted by | Brain, Evolution, Fish, Nature | Leave a comment

Alcobesity increases in US.

Dr Richard A  Grucza, and colleagues at the Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, found that ‘alcobesity’ is on the rise in the US.

Before this research, it was known that where alcohol abuse runs in families, due to genes, there is also an increased risk of other behaviour that stimulates the same reward centres in the brain, so the risk of substance abuse is also higher.

Dr Grucza compared two national US studies, one in 1991-1992 and the other in 2001-2002, each of which involved just under 40,000 adults.

In the 1992 study, a link between alcohol abuse running in the family and obesity running in the family was weak, at just 6% higher risk and not reaching statistical significance.

But by 2002, this had climbed to 26% for men and was statistically significant. While in women the additional risk was a whopping 48% higher.

The team ruled out other possible explanations, such as stopping smoking in this period, leaving them trying to explain the following. If there is a cross-over genetic effect, where when alcoholism runs in families people are also more at risk of obesity, how can this be explained when genetics have not altered in so short a time?

The idea that excess alcohol consumption, which means excess calories, might be making people fat was ruled out. Alcoholics tend to be thin as they get a large percentage of their calories from alcohol rather than food. And the subjects tended to be either obese, or alcoholic, rather than both.

So genetics gives some people a higher risk of alcoholism (or of substance abuse) while for others the risk is food ‘abuse’.

The researchers speculated that the change from the 90s to the naughties is in the make-up of food, with particular emphasis on fat, sugar and salt, that now  makes food hyper-palatable.

And that those people genetically at risk of reward centres that dance to the tune of alcohol or other drugs, may find their reward centres fire up on hyper-palatable food. The particular preference leads to an addiction to either alcohol, (or drugs), or to obesity, so explaining the rise of  ‘alcobesity’ in the US.

January 2, 2011 Posted by | Alcohol, Brain, Gender, Genetics, Health, Obesity, Success, Sugar, Weight management | Leave a comment

Breastfeeding v boys’ brains?

Dr Wendy H Oddy. a specialist in infant nutrition, has found that breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life is associated at age 10 with higher scores in standardised tests for maths, reading, writing and spelling, but only for boys.

The research team followed over a thousand children from before birth to about age 10, when the tests were conducted. Boys whose mother had breastfed for 6 months or more did better on each of the 4 tests, with additional improvement for each extra month they were breastfed.

Girls did not show this linkage. The researchers speculated this might be due to neuro-protective effects of estradiols, which are naturally higher in girls. However, they could not rule out that breastfeeding might simply lead to a better mother-baby bond, with boys known to be more dependent on this.

Dr Oddy also found that lower maternal education and family income were significantly associated with decreased child academic achievement.

Further, reading and looking at books with the child between ages 3 and 5 were associated with improved scores for reading and writing, particularly when it came to girls.

December 20, 2010 Posted by | Brain, Diet, Learning, Success, Wendy H Oddy | Leave a comment

Jet-lagged hamsters?

What can we learn from jet-lagged hamsters? Quite a lot, according to a study by a team from the University of California Berkeley.

Syrian hamsters are used regularly in the study of circadian rhythms because they follow these very precisely.

The team jet-lagged the hamsters twice a week for four weeks by shifting their light-dark cycle by six hours. This is about the same as flying the North Atlantic, or what you might get on rotating shift patterns.

During this period, the team was not surprised to find that the hamsters had more difficulty when set learning tasks. However, the effects were found to persist for a month after the time switching was stopped. This suggests the human equivalent would last much longer.

The researchers dug deeper to identify the mechanism for this. Using a number of procedures they were able to rule out secondary effects produced by stress from elevated cortisol.

This left only one explanation. A part of the brain called the hippocampus is essential for memory and learning, and it works by neurogenesis – creating new neurons to ‘store’ the new memories. The time shift was cutting neurogenesis, so the hippocampus was not producing enough new neurons for efficient memory formation. This same problem occurs in humans suffering from cognitive decline.

Rotating shift work has been associated with learning and memory problems, decreased reaction times, higher incidences of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and cancer, and reduced fertility, and has been listed by the World Health Organization as a carcinogen.

November 27, 2010 Posted by | Brain, Cancer, Cognitive decline, CVD - cardiovascular disease, Health, High blood pressure, Learning, Memory, Success | Leave a comment

Brain use v Alzheimer’s.

Dr Fergus IM Craik and two other researchers in Canada have found that life-long bilingualism delays the impact of Alzheimer’s by about 5 years.

211 patients who were diagnosed with probable Alzheimer’s were checked for factors known to delay the appearance of Alzheimer’s, such as educational status, plus fluency in one or more languages. In this sample in Canada, almost 50% were bilingual. The groups happened to be well matched for factors already known to make a difference, so any residual difference was linked to whether the patient was monolingual or bilingual.

On average, the bilingual patients were diagnosed 4.3 years after those speaking one language, and the onset of symptoms appeared just over 5 years later in bilingual versus monolingual speakers.

The doctors did not attribute this to Alzheimer’s actually starting later in bilingual speakers, but rather to a ‘cognitive reserve’, a greater store the disease had to work through before symptoms became evident.

Since educational attainment is a known instance where the symptoms of Alzheimer’s are delayed, the language factor is unlikely to be limited to languages. Rather, it appears to be a case of the more you use your brain (whether on languages or otherwise) the later in life you lose it if you are affected by Alzheimer’s.

The team reported a similar delay in 2007 when looking at the broader topic of dementia.

So the message for your brain is simple – use it or lose it.

November 21, 2010 Posted by | Aging, Alzheimer's, Brain, Cognitive decline, Dementia, Health, Success | Leave a comment

Comfort food or sex v stress.

Scientists in the US have been investigating how comfort eating or sex reduces the effects of stress by looking at the brains of rats.

Dr Yvonne M Ulrich-Lai gave some rats access to sweetened water for 2 weeks while controls did not get this ‘comfort’ food. Then the rats were stressed to determine the response pattern within the brain. Rats which got the sweetened water showed less stress response (e.g. heart rate) than the controls. And they explored more in a new environment and interacted more when they met unknown rats.

First, there were technical advances in knowledge, when a part of the brain called the basolateral amygdala was found to be key in the process. If this part was missing, the sugar did not cut the stress response.

More interestingly, the stress reduction of the sugary water was long lasting. Even a week after it was stopped, the stress reduction effects were still working. This finding explains why cutting out comfort eating is so difficult. It’s brain-training, remodelling the system to cut stress.

A further key finding was that saccharin also cut stress, although with less effect than sugar. And sweetener dumped directly into the rats’ stomachs did not cut stress, which means actually tasting the sweetener is important. So it’s not simply about calories.

Finally, rats gives access to sexually-receptive partners showed the same amount of reduction of stress as those on the sugar-sweetened water.

So sweet foods cut stress on a par with sex, by remodelling the brain in a manner that is long lasting.

Next time you enjoy a can of sugar sweetened drink, think of it not as enjoyment, but as stress reduction. Or as a long-lasting rewiring of your brain.

November 14, 2010 Posted by | Brain, Diet, Health, Soft drinks, Stress, Success, Sugar | 2 Comments