Sunday, February 28, 2010

Grandmas make kids fat(ter than a control group)

A study in Britain has found that formal child care was not associated with any greater risk of kids being overweight than kids left home with mom.

For moms with a managerial or professional background or a college degree (but not for other moms), using informal child care was associated with increasing risk of being overweight.

My guess is it was less activity and more crap food, but the question is why for kids of management but not workers.  More specifically, what is it about the child care or providers chosen by management and women with a college degree that makes their kids fat?

If I had guessed before seeing the results of the study, I'd have guessed it would be the other way around, on the theory that poorer people would be busier at home and would leave the kid alone more, but maybe richer people are just more indulgent and give them more crap food. Maybe the cost of crap food is less of an issue, or they're more likely to have a TV in every room. I love making up just so stories.

It doesn't rank up there with curing autism, but it would be worth finding out why this is, if only so moms can wave the study at their own moms and shout, "See what you did!"

Friday, February 26, 2010

New legislation

Just got my weekly child care legislation update, and there are some interesting bills.
  • SB 1126 would basically require agreements between CSUs and community colleges so that community college ECE classes would transfer as upper division major classes at CSUs and hopefully UCs.
  • AB 2323 would allow CDD contractors to who under-earn to carry over up to 20% of their contract to the next fiscal year. Contractors who over-earn can be reimbursed up to 10% from the following year's funds. This is really cool and is obviously part of the effort to reduce under-earned contracts. I don't have any inside information, but it smells like something CCDAA and CDD would be collaborating on.
One reason these have a chance in hell is they wouldn't cost any money.

    Friday follies

    Young cat drinking out of the toilet. We routinely find kitty prints on toilet seats and on the porcelain inside. He also drinks out of water glasses left unattended. I can no longer keep a glass of water at my bedside, because it ends up on the floor every single night. He's thirsty but not very careful. Reminds me of, well, several people I have known.

    Another big reason to do your Kegels

    This is a blog post on a study of side effects of Kegels. Their primary official use is to strengthen the pelvic floor. The post says a stronger pelvic floor is also related to higher measures of sexual arousal and orgasm. Ladies, start your engines.

    Love can overcome cortisol

    Various kinds of stress produce cortisol in the brain, which has all sorts of bad effects there. For example, fetuses who are washed in mom's cortisol become babies with impaired cognitive development. But it turns out sensitive care by mom during infancy and toddlerhood can make it better. Presumably this kind of care affects the hormones the kid's brain secretes, just as stress does, only for the better.

    At the same time, mom's sensitivity in talking with a kid developing autism is related to the kid's language growth. Parenting styles don't cause autism, but they might help ameliorate it. Or not.

    Cool. Moms fix everything. Or is that oxytocin?

    Thursday, February 25, 2010

    Do hospitals cause autism?

    A few days ago I posted about ameliorating symptoms of Asperger's by inhaling oxytocin. My partner was talking with a colleague about this yesterday. The colleague recalled that a common way of medically inducing labor inhibits maternal release of oxytocin, and she recalled a story about an acquaintance who (not whom) she knew had had the drugs and then an autistic kid.

    It made the colleague wonder. If inhaling oxytocin alleviates symptoms of Aspergers, could a deficit of oxytocin at birth be involved in its cause? It is a stretch but not outlandish to conjecture that one could be related to the other.

    If it did turn out to be true, one would have to ask if an increasing tendency in hospitals to induce labor could be related to the observed increase in autism.

    I wish I were in a position to offer grant money for all the stuff I'd like to find out.

    UPDATE: After I wrote this, I ran across this Nicholas Kristof column about the possibility of environmental toxins causing autism. That's possible, too.

    Smarter men are more monogamous, liberal, atheist, and nocturnal

    I hope this is true, because it sure matches my prejudices. The findings of the study are that
    More intelligent people are statistically significantly more likely to exhibit social values and religious and political preferences that are novel to the human species in evolutionary history. Specifically, liberalism and atheism, and for men (but not women), preference for sexual exclusivity correlate with higher intelligence.
    The claim is that dumber people are more likely to think we should do things the way we always have, and smarter people can think of and embrace new ways of doing things. This does not go so deeply that intelligence is correlated with any preferences we have had since we were, say, Australopithecines.

    In the current study, Kanazawa argues that humans are evolutionarily designed to be conservative, caring mostly about their family and friends, and being liberal, caring about an indefinite number of genetically unrelated strangers they never meet or interact with, is evolutionarily novel. So more intelligent children may be more likely to grow up to be liberals.

    More intelligent
    Less intelligent
    More nocturnal
    Less nocturnal

    Adolescent IQ 106
    Adolescent IQ 95
    Very liberal
    Very conservative

    Adolescent IQ 103
    Adolescent IQ 97
    Not at all religious
    Very religious

    Value given to sticking to one member of the opposite sex
    Smarter Men
    Smarter Women
    Dumber men
    Dumber women
    More monogamous
    Same as dumber
    Less monogamous
    Same as smarter

    One reason I like this is it fits into a general idea I have about people, following Jane Jacobs' analysis in Systems of Surval. That is, you can usefully divide people and human activities in to two broad groups. She calls these commercial and guardian. There's lots of caveats and slopping back and forth within and among people, but basically you have liberals and conservatives. It is natural that, because I am a serous liberal, I should think liberal ideas are right, and people who agree with me are smarter than those who don't.  So it is natural that this study should appeal to me.

    I'll wallow around in it a bit and then step back and see what sticks, because it's too much in agreement with my prejudices to take at face value.

    UPDATE: After mulling this a bit, if this is true, conservatism is the historic state of humankind, and liberalism and atheism are a new invention. I wonder how new. Presumably at some point when the occasional people born with liberal mutation didn't die off.   With language, grading back to apes' grunts? With H. sap. sap, call it 50,000 years ago or so, when art and technology also bloomed? When villages became cities big enough that nobody knew everybody, maybe 4000-3000 BC?

    I wish the interesting questions were easier. No, I don't. I just wish I understood them better.

    Wednesday, February 24, 2010

    Genetic link between misery and death

    Those are the words of the author, not me. They found that people who experience trauma bad enough to cause depression have elevated risk of death in the ensuing 11 years, but one particular allele disconnects the link. Some people are genetically more resilient to bad stuff in their life. We knew that, but it's nice to see confirmation of one way it happens.

    This is an example of the general rule of life that people vary. Siblings growing up in an abusive household. One becomes an abusive parent, and one does not.

    Cochlear implants make life better

    Profoundly deaf children with cochlear implants to help them to hear rate their quality of life equal to their normal-hearing peers, according to new research from UT Southwestern Medical Center auditory specialists.
    In addition, the earlier a child is implanted with a cochlear device and the longer he or she wears the device, the better overall quality of life the child reports and the more successful the child is in school... "Wearing cochlear implants doesn't seem to create greater psychosocial problems overall for their users. ..."
    Cochlear implants are small electronic devices that are surgically implanted in the inner ear and activated by another device worn outside the ear. They bypass damaged or diseased parts of the ear by directly stimulating the auditory nerve, which is connected to the brain.
    Cool. Better living through science.

    Depression makes girls fat

    The body releases cortisol in reaction to stress, and it can cause all sorts of permanent brain changes*. In girls but not in boys, depression can cause an increase in cortisol, which leads to obesity.
    Although it is not clear why high cortisol reactions translate into obesity only for girls, scientists believe it may be due to physiological and behavioral differences -- estrogen release and stress eating in girls -- in the way the two genders cope with anxiety.
    Damn. Boys win again. Pass the Haagen-Daz.

    The solution is to notice if a little girl is depressed and do something about it before it makes her irremediably fat.

    *Yeah, I know the brain is godawful complicated, and it may well be possible one day to figure out how to reverse the things cortisol does, but we can't now, so it is effectively permanent in individual cases.

    Suffocating head lice

    Mayonnaise tries to kill head lice by suffocating them, but lice are able to close their spiracles and hold their breath, so they come back. Researchers have developed a lotion that stuns the spiracles open, so the mineral oil and other inactive ingredients can soak the lice and suffocate them once and for all. It's better than  conventional medications, because you don't have to pour poison on the kid's head. The stuff is Benzyl Alcohol Lotion 5% (the brand name is Ulesfia). I wonder if it kills nits, too.

    A couple of years ago, there was a study showing that a really heavy duty hot-air blower could kill an infestation in 30 minutes, including the nits. It dries them out. I haven't heard anything about it since.

    Tuesday, February 23, 2010

    Video games and reading ability

    Kids 6 to 9 who get PS2 video game systems at home progress less in reading ability over a 4-month period than kids without them. It's not the game; it just replaces other activities like homework and reading. This was a randomized trial.
    Diaries kept by the boys' parents revealed that the negative aspects of video gaming were due to the fact that the kids with games spent a lot of time playing on them. The control group would occasionally get their hands on a joypad at a friend's house, but such opportunities only took up an average of 9 minutes a day. Instead, they spent around 32 minutes a day on after-school academic activities. By comparison, the boys who had their own games spent 40 minutes a day with them and only 18 minutes a day on after-school learning. After adjusting for these differences in work-play balance, the link between video games and reading or writing skills vanished.
    This displacement explanation also explains why the boys' maths scores were unaffected - they simply don't have many maths-based leisure activities for video games to displace. Reading books is one thing but it's hard to imagine children rolling out the arithmetic worksheets for pleasure.

    Hyena porn

    Oh. My. God. I found this at Phrayngula. Hyena sex. And if you had to give birth through your clitoris, you'd be a little snappish, too.

    Preschoolers trust adults to know the rules more than kids

    If you show 3s and 4s a video of a made-up game in which either an adult or a boy argue over the rules of the game, the little kids are more likely to believe the adult is right. 

    But enjoy it while you can, because parents are much less influential than peers in shaping older kids (except genetically, of course).

    Ability to recognize faces is genetic

    Yup. The ability to recognize faces has a high heritability.
    The study consisted of 164 identical twins ... and 125 non-identical same-sex twins ... All the participants took the Cambridge Face Memory Test*, which measures ability to learn six faces and then recognise them in novel poses and lighting.
    ... The correlation for identical twin pairs was 0.70, whereas the correlation for non-identical twins was less than half that, at 0.29.  ...
    * An online version of the Cambridge Face Memory Test is available for members of the public to test themselves:
    Not surprising. One more thing to add to the list of biologically determined behaviors. (And they also tested general recognition and found it was only weakly related to facial recognition.)

    Treadmills for babies. No, really.

    In a recent feasibility study, babies with prenatal complications or an injury at birth walked earlier and better if they got treadmill training (with parents helping them), especially if they got it between 10 and 18 months. This includes kids with cerebral palsy. Researchers are looking further into it, but I assume the training affects their brain wiring. Another arrow in the quiver. Stuff like this makes me feel optimistic about what science and medicine are going to do for us in the next few decades.

    Monday, February 22, 2010

    When to do a cochlear implant

    Deaf kids who get a cochlear implant prior to 13 months are able to learn words as well as normal-hearing kids. Deaf kids who get the implant later are not.
    (T)he findings suggest that early access to auditory input, even if the access to sound is quite impoverished, plays an important role in acquiring the ability to rapidly learn associations between spoken words and their meanings.
    Early sensory experiences affect the way the brain wires itself. Parents need to decide early if they're going to do this. I've never had a kid with serious medical issues, but I can't see the issue here. Of course you do a cochlear implant if you have a deaf kid who is a good candidate for it. I understand there will be kids for whom it is not right, but for those for whom it is right, it is right. Said the Tautology Kid.

    Sleep learning in babies

    Okay, this is weird. Some researchers played phrases in an artificial language (such as "pel-wadim-jic") over and over to babies, using attention span to tell when they had learned the phrase. The learning sessions were scheduled at times such that some of the kids napped afterward and others did not. Then they tested them again.
    The infants who did not sleep after the sessions still recognized the phrases they had learned earlier. But those babies who had slept in between sessions were able to generalize their knowledge of sentence structure to draw predictive relationships to the new phrases. This suggests that napping supports abstract learning - that is, the ability to detect a general pattern contained in new information.
    In follow-up work, the UA researchers have shown that infants must have their naps within four hours of listening to the artificial language in order for them to demonstrate this beneficial abstraction effect. Those who failed to nap within that time, but slept normally that evening, failed to show the abstraction effect the next day.
    So sleeping enhances the ability of babies to draw a linguistic abstraction out of the mass of aural data they are immersed in.

    Lots of thoughts come to mind.
    • Yes, that's how language is learned. They're doing the same thing all the time with English that they did with the artificial language.
    • Providers and parents should schedule language activities within a few hours of nap time. That would include reading before bedtime. Aha! Maybe that's why kids who are read to before bedtime are better at language.
    • Is it also true of old people? Should I do my serious mental activity just before bed rather than just after getting up, as I do now. Or maybe it means I should take a nap after doing anything mentally strenuous. I'll take that answer, thank you.
    After I wrote that, I found this, which says yes, a midday nap makes adults learn new stuff better after a nap. Naps seem to consolidate memories, draw inferences from them, and clear RAM for a new task. Cool.

    Friday, February 19, 2010

    Friday follies

    Middle cat looking at Young cat, who is stalking him.

    Worst school district nominee: Spying on kids with webcams

    A Philadelphia suburban school district gave laptops with webcams to all 1800 high school students. They didn’t tell them that the webcams could be remotely turned on by the school. The school now says it was to find the laptops if they were stolen.

    People found out about it when the school disciplined a kid for “improper behavior in his home” and used a webcam photo as evidence. They're being sued.

    The articles I read about it said the actual behavior wasn't described, but the suit says that "'Should discovery disclose that Defendants are in possession of images constituting child pornography' as defined by Pennsylvania law, the family reserves the right to add that to its list of complaints."

    There was no word on whether the high schools in question teach about the fourth amendment in civics classes, nor whether the administrators had read the constitution.

    People don't like kids with working moms as much

    Here's something a child care provider should be aware of: People (in this case undergraduates, all single and 99% childless) judge kids based on the working status of their mothers. Researchers had students watch videos of interviews with women and then the women interacting with their kids. If they thought the woman was either a stay-at-home mom or working part time to balance life and work, the students liked the kid better and thought the woman was a better mom than if they had been told she worked full time.

    Okay, these are childless barely adults who think this, so they may not reflect how a child care provider would react. In fact, I would assume child care people to be more empathetic than random undergraduates. I wonder if they do think differently about kids who are in a program for the socialization versus needing child care to go to work. I'd like to see that tested. I'd hate to see them have negative expectations of kids of working moms.

    Poor women and post-partum depression

    More than half of low-income urban mothers met the criteria for a diagnosis of depression at some point between two weeks and 14 months after giving birth, according to a study led by University of Rochester Medical Center researchers and published online by the journal.
    It really sucks to be poor. The adage says money can't buy happiness, but studies say that is true only after you make enough for food and shelter and basics. The study I read some time ago and don't have a cite for said happiness increased with income up to about $50,000 a year.

    Lots of bad stuff happens to poor people. Bad stuff happens to all of us, but more of it happens to poor people, and money really does ameliorate a lot of it for those who have it. Car break down? Call a AAA and a cab. Or walk home. Higher risk of post-partum depression is just another blow to the poor.

    I guess I should say here that the answer is to monitor poor women after they give birth to see if they develop depression, and then treat it appropriately. But we all know that's not going to happen. This study identified a problem, but there is no solution our country is willing to undertake, because it would involve spending too much money on poor people. Does that make me a commie? No, I believe in a Scandinavian-style mixed capitalist-socialist economy.

    Wednesday, February 17, 2010

    Oxytocin ameliorates autism symptoms

    Researchers have been closing in on a relationship between autism and oxytocin, and now some researchers have administered oxytocin to some Aspergers kids and then watched their behavior during ball games and during facial expression recognition tests.

    • Under oxytocin, the autistic kids were able to play a game where they had to figure out which  game partner was most cooperative and return a ball to them. Under a placebo, they returned the ball randomly. 
    • Under oxytocin, they looked at photographs of faces, looking specifically at the eyes. Under a placebo, they looked away. 
    I wonder if you could put oxytocin in an inhaler. It's good for so many things, it would be a commercial hit.

    I'm not really serious about that, but I do expect in not too long for there to be a cure for autism. If not oxytocin, something else. There are a lot of really smart people working on this, and there are so many clues, and there's a lot of grant money to let the smart people pursue the clues. If not this decade, then the next.

    Bilingual newborns

    A newborn whose mother spoke two languages regularly during pregnancy will have different language preferences than a newborn whose mother spoke only one language. The researchers used increased sucking the way they use length of gaze with older babies to indicate strength of interest in English and Tagalog, and the babies liked best whatever it was mom spoke.

    And bilingual newborns can distinguish between the two languages. It's not just one big language with both sets of sounds for them; it's two separate languages for them, too. The way they tested that part was to have someone speak in English until the kid lost interest and then either switched to a different speaker or the same speaker in Tagalog. The kids showed increased interest in the different language but not the different speaker. 

    Babies' brains really are learning machines, and it starts before birth.

    Baby food too early makes you fat at 42

    Some researchers looked at how long kids were breastfed and when baby foods were introduced and whether the kids were fat during childhood, adolescence, early adulthood, and age 42. The only relationship they found was that later introduction of baby food was related to being leaner at 42. "(F)or each month introduction of vegetables was delayed, the risk of being overweight at 42 ... was reduced by 10%."

    That's a very large difference not to appear before middle age, so that makes it a little harder to accept. The study looked at 5068 kids in the Copenhagen Perinatal Cohort, a long-term prospective study in Denmark, the data are good. I wonder what's going on, but I'll wait to see it replicated before condemning baby food.

    Tuesday, February 16, 2010

    Flat head syndrome and cognitive and motor development

    I've never heard of it before, but apparently there has been an increase in flat  head syndrome since the 1990s. It's officially called positional plagiocephaly, and you get it from extended time with your head against a flat surface while your skull is still soft. Think strollers, car seats, and sleeping on the back.

    This study looked at 474 babies from 6 to 12 months. The ones with flat spots on their skulls (noticeable enough that they had been diagnosed with flat-head syndrome) had lower scores on cognitive observational tests, but their biggest deficit was large motor skills, such as rolling from the back to the side or lifting the chest off the floor while on the tummy.

    They're going to check the same kids at 18 and 36 months, to see if it persists.

    I guess what child development people need to take from this is that if you see a kid with a big flat spot on the back of the head, talk to the parents about a screening.

    When does autism start to show?

    Researchers have found that the distinctive characteristics of autism (lack of eye contact, smiling, and communicative babbling) show up between 6 and 12 months. The article head says it's a slow decline, but the text called it a rapid decline. Maybe it depends on whether you think the period between 6 months and a year old is a long time or a short one.

    The way they found this was by comparing a bunch of kids with older sibs who had already been diagnosed as autistic with some kids who had no risk factors. They used various instruments at 6, 12, 18, 24, and 36 months, counting how many interactions of what types, so they could look back and see how the kids who did develop autism really acted when they were babies.

    Previous ways of seeing when autism started to show were to ask parents when kids passed developmental milestones, but parents misremember things like dates when kids do stuff, and looking at old home movies, but parents apparently turn off the camera when the kid starts acting autistic.

    This is earlier than we had thought. I'm hopeful this morning. At the rate they're learning about the brain, I wouldn't be surprised if, in the few decades either some epigenetic trigger for autism is found, that we can control, or some gene therapy is developed.

    This weekend, I got the ground prepared and my tomatoes planted (instead of blogging), and it's a wonderful day.

    Sunday, February 14, 2010

    Sickle-cell anemia and sports

    I just heard about the coolest study. I don't have a citation, but the gist is that during the 1968 Olympics, it was discovered that a  high percent of American Blacks on the US team carried one copy of the gene for sickle-cell anemia. It turned out that one copy of the gene improves oxygen transport to fast-twitch muscles, which lets them twitch faster.

    If this is true (and I heard it from someone I trust), a side effect of having one copy of the gene is that it makes you better at sports that require fast-twitch muscles. (Of course, a side effect of two copies is that you die young, but not from malaria.)

    Notice that, although this was discovered after noticing the number of US Black athletes with the gene, it would affect anyone with that gene, meaning a fair number of people with ancestry from places where malaria is endemic. You'd expect Saudis, for example, to do well at sprints.

    Saturday, February 13, 2010

    Hypnosis for kids's respiratory disease symptoms

    In principle, I believe in trying quick, easy, cheap solutions before long, hard, expensive ones, so this is good news. The abstract says instruction in hypnosis can be useful in alleviating symptoms for kids with cystic fibrosis, dyspnea, habit cough, insomnia, and vocal cord dysfunction, presumably because it "helps patients control their response to discomfort." One big use of it was getting ready for unpleasant medical procedures.

    The percent of kids helped depends on the disease:
    • Cystic fibrosis 86% report it helpful
    • Vocal cord dysfunction 54% resolved and another 38% resolved
    • Getting to sleep improved in 90%
    One caveat about those numbers. The kids tested were chosen "because it was felt that there was a significant psychological component in their presentation."

    I don't find this woo-woo at all. If playing with kids heads (or rather teaching them to do it themselves) can reduce their symptoms by controlling their response to discomfort, more power to them. It doesn't cure the disease, but ameliorating the symptoms is cool enough for now.

    Friday, February 12, 2010

    When to intervene with fat kids

    How early should you start to worry about a kid's weight? This study looked at medical histories of 111 fat kids (BMI >85th percentile). Their progression from normal weight to being fat started at about 3 months, and there was a "tipping point" at about 2 years. Half the kids were overweight by then and 90% by age 5.

    It sounds like they're talking about a tipping point for the mass of kids rather than individual kids.

    Their point is that doctors should review diets during early well-child visits, to keep them from getting fat rather than working on it after they're already overweight and fixed in their food habits. It keeps turning out that the answer to problems with adults is to start with them before they're 2 years old.

    Fat women have sick kids

    I really don't want this to be true. A research report found that mice who were too fat while pregnant caused something to happen to the fetuses that made them predisposed to inflammation-related disorders, such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and heart disease, from birth, even if the offspring weren't fat themselves.

    Oh, crap. We don't put enough of an onus on fat women that now we have to tell them they're dooming their children to a life of chronic illness followed by a mindless old age? You tell 'em. I'm not.

    I mean, if we could really control our weight, it would be one thing. If it really were just a matter of will power, as skinny people falsely believe. They don't have the urges fat people have, so they think they're easy to ignore. But I've come to believe that your body knows what weight it wants to be, and by god, it's going to be that weight. Oh, not completely, of course. You can't be entirely fatalistic, but there is a huge brain-hormone component to being fat.

    But neither can we tell fat women they can't have kids. So I guess we have to try whatever we can try to have fat pregnant women lose weight, however futile it's likely to be, and to be prepared to deal with whatever does happen to the kids.

    Down the road, I'm more optimistic. Within 10 years, maybe 5, there will be a pill on the market that makes people lose weight down to an appropriate weight without significant side effects. It will change medicine. And society. And some people will deservedly become very rich.

    Brain damage affects spirituality

    I've pointed out a number of times that the extent of one's religiosity has a large biological component. Not what religion but how deeply religious is heritable. In a recent study, researchers gave personality tests to people before and after surgery to remove a brain tumor. The tests specifically measured "the personality trait called self-transcendence," which "reflects a decreased sense of self and an ability to identify one's self as an integral part of the universe as a whole."

    They found that damage to the left and right posterior parietal regions caused an increase in self-transcendence. The authors say what's important about this is that a stable personality trait can be affected by a lesion in the brain, then maybe we could find ways to affect the brain to alleviate personality disorders. (Insert obligatory praise of what science can do for us and caveat about Big Brother here.)

    Another good thing about chocolate

    Eating chocolate reduces the likelihood of having a stroke. Two especially good things about it are that:

    • The amounts they are talking about are amounts a person might eat, an ounce or two a week, not like some of the studies where you would have to eat your body weight in something to get any good out of it.
    • It's dose related. Two ounces a week protects better than one ounce.
    That's good enough for me. I'm doing a similar long-term study at my house, though I'll admit to "administering" more chocolate than they did in this study. My partner and I are the subjects, and the cats are the control. So far, none of us has had a stroke.

    Friday follies

    Old cat distracted from napping. She is very happy the rain has stopped, and she can relax gracefully outdoors.

    Thursday, February 11, 2010

    Genetic component to stuttering

    Researchers have found a complex of 3 genes that are responsible for 9% of cases of stuttering, especially among people of Asian descent. They think stuttering is 50% to 70% heritable.

    There is nothing really unexpected about this. It has been a long time since anybody has believed stuttering was caused by bad parenting. It's just another brain dysfunction.

    So we have another case where genetic susceptibility to a dysfunction can be known. Once we know it, how do we treat the kids differently to reduce the risk or ameliorate the problem?

    The thing that jumped out at me is the statement in the article that stuttering affects up to 1% of the adult population, which is about as many as have autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (not counting all the kids misdiagnosed as bipolar), and high aggression. The one percents add up to quite a large number of people with one or another things wrong with their brains.

    Jan/Feb Child Development Journal

    I just got around to the January/February issue of Child Development. There is a special section on the effects of early experience on development. It looks wonderful, and you can expect me to talk about several of the pieces. I ran across a couple of them elsewhere and have already talked about them, such as the one about moms being important for developing executive functions.

    Partial table of contents: (You can read abstracts but not articles without subscribing.)

    • How the Timing and Quality of Early Experiences Influence the Development of Brain Architecture
    • Epigenetics and the Biological Definition of Gene × Environment Interactions
    • A Quasi-Experimental Study of Maternal Smoking During Pregnancy and Offspring Academic Achievement 
    • Prenatal Antecedents of Newborn Neurological Maturation 
    • The Timing of Prenatal Exposure to Maternal Cortisol and Psychosocial Stress Is Associated With Human Infant Cognitive Development
    • Mothers' Antenatal Depression and Their Children's Antisocial Outcomes
    • Exploring the Relation Between Prenatal and Neonatal Complications and Later Autistic-Like Features in a Representative Community Sample of Twins 
    • Frontal Electroencephalogram Asymmetry, Salivary Cortisol, and Internalizing Behavior Problems in Young Adults Who Were Born at Extremely Low Birth Weight 
    • Late-Treated Phenylketonuria and Partial Reversibility of Intellectual Impairment
    • Placement in Foster Care Enhances Quality of Attachment Among Young Institutionalized Children 
    • Neurodevelopmental Effects of Early Deprivation in Postinstitutionalized Children
    • The Differential Impacts of Early Physical and Sexual Abuse and Internalizing Problems on Daytime Cortisol Rhythm in School-Aged Children
    • The Interactive Effects of Stress Reactivity and Family Adversity on Socioemotional Behavior and School Readiness
    • Early-Childhood Poverty and Adult Attainment, Behavior, and Health 
    • From External Regulation to Self-Regulation: Early Parenting Precursors of Young Children's Executive Functioning
    • Infant Pathways to Externalizing Behavior: Evidence of Genotype × Environment Interaction
    And more. How can you not love a journal with articles like that? I can't write about them all.

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010

    Which kids really like a sweet taste

    (C)hildren's response to intense sweet taste is related to both a family history of alcoholism and the child's own self-reports of depression.
    The way they did this was to pick kids with a genetic disposition to alcoholism and have them taste water with 5 different concentrations of table sugar, and they asked them which one they liked best. Most of these kids liked 18% sugar, which is somewhat higher than a Coke. (And isn't that depressing all by itself; most of these kids liked things sweeter than Coke.) Kids who reported being depressed or who were in families with a history of alcoholism preferred 24% sugar, more than twice what's in a Coke.

    Half of the kids (49%) had a history of alcoholism, which they defined as as having a parent, sibling, grandparent, aunt, or uncle who had been diagnosed as being alcohol dependent. I think this probably understated the amount of alcoholism, because a lot of drunks don't get diagnosed as alcohol dependent, but it's interesting that only half of the kids who were genetically disposed to alcoholism had even one relative who had been diagnosed. I've got more drunks than that in my own family.

    I've asked before what we would do when we can predict which kids are genetically disposed to alcoholism. I guess one answer is you do more research.

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010

    When to worry about language development

    This is a nice column in the NY Times about when you should worry about a kid's language development. It links to a page on the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association with a chart of the kinds of developmental milestones a parent should be looking at.

    Old moms and autism

    Another study shows a link between advanced maternal age and an increased risk of the kid having autism. The dad's age didn't matter.
    The study found that the incremental risk of having a child with autism increased by 18 percent -- nearly one fifth -- for every five-year increase in the mother's age. A 40-year-old woman's risk of having a child later diagnosed with autism was 50 percent greater than that of a woman between 25 and 29 years old.
    And as to why:
    One possible clue comes from a 2008 UC Davis study that found some mothers of children with autism had antibodies to fetal brain protein, while none of the mothers of typical children did. Advancing age has been associated with an increase in autoantibody production. Further work investigating advancing age in such findings may be useful, the study authors said. They added that some persistent environmental chemicals accumulate in the body and also may have a role to play in autism, possibly contributing to the apparent effect of parental age.
    The study also suggests that epigenetic changes over time "may enable an older parent to transfer a multitude of molecular functional alterations to a child ... thus epigenetics may be involved in the risks contributed by advancing parental age as a result of changes induced by stresses from environmental chemicals, co-morbidity or assistive reproductive therapy."
    In short, it's god-awful complicated, and they're working on it.

    Ouija boards as tools of the devil

    It seems Hasbro is selling a hot pink ouija board, and the religious right is unhappy, because:
    "There's a spiritual reality to it and Hasbro is treating it as if it's just a game," said Stephen Phelan, communications director for Human Life International, which bills itself as the largest international pro-life organization and missionary worldwide. "It's not Monopoly. It really is a dangerous spiritual game and for [Hasbro] to treat it as just another game is quite dishonest." Phelan, who has never played the game, said the Bible explicitly states "not to mess with spirits" and that using a Ouija board will leave a person's soul vulnerable to attack.
    "All Christians should know, well everyone should, that it's opening up a person to attack, spiritually," he said. "Christians shouldn't use it."
    Asked how the game differed from magic kits or Harry Potter-themed merchandise, Phelan replied, "The difference is that the Ouija board is actually is a portal to talk to spirits and it's hard to get people to understand that until they actually do it. I don't pretend to know how it works, but it actually does."
    Phelan also noted that the pink version of the game is explicitly marketed to young girls who may want to partake in "something dangerous" during a late-night sleepover.
    This is just so stupid I can't even be tolerant about it. How can anybody over 7 believe that a ouija board actually lets you contact spirits? Okay, okay, I understand that the intensity of one's religiosity is biological, and that this Phelan person is just blathering out what he can't help himself from believing, so I can't really hold it against him personally, but I can ridicule him, because god, he's dumb.

    And he's in charge of communications for an organization that wants to change how people in foreign countries handle abortion. He wants to affect public policy and instill Christian fervor. I wonder how he is at the administrative, non-religious-fervor parts of his job.

    Now, I don't think we should do anything worse to him than point out his error and laugh at him. I certainly wouldn't want to prevent him from saying these crazy things, because then somebody might prevent me from saying my crazy things. But I think ridicule is appropriate, because really believing in ouija boards is ridiculous.

    Monday, February 8, 2010

    Worst parent nominee: waterboarding a 4-year-old for not knowing the alphabet.

    I saw this at Andrew Sullivan's. An American soldier in Tacoma, WA, has been charged with submerging his 4-year-old daughter's face several times in water because she couldn't recite the alphabet. He said he did it because he was angry. He chose this particular punishment because she was terrified of water. He had been awarded custody of his daughter 4 weeks before.
    [T]he terrified girl was found hiding in a closet, with bruising on her back and scratch marks on her neck and throat. Asked how she got the bruises, the girl is said to have replied: 'Daddy did it.'
    Part of his punishment should be a vasectomy. With a hammer.

    But afterward, the Army has to do a better job with its soldiers who get weird after a few tours of duty where people are trying to kill them.

    IQ tests for admission to kindergarten

    They've gone too far again.

    This is a New York Magazine article by Jennifer Senior about the admissions process to New York kindergartens, in which "almost every prestigious private elementary school in the city requires that prospective kindergartners take" an intelligence test. Senior gives examples of one requiring a high 98th percentile IQ for incoming kindergarteners. Admission to that preschool and completion through the third grade means automatic admission to the related prestigious high school. So it is not unexpected (though it is unreasonable) for a parent to think that this test may determine their 4-year-old's  entire academic success.
    I believe there is a set of mental characteristics that are usefully described as general intelligence. I believe that some but not all of the common sense idea of high intelligence is captured in an IQ test. I believe we should test infants, toddlers, and preschoolers for all sorts of mental and physical characteristics. But to give an IQ test to 4-year-olds for admission to kindergarten is ludicrous.
    How do I hate this? Let me count the ways.

    • IQ is a ratio: it is the kid's test score kid divided by the average score of all kids that age. But little kids don't progress in a steady manner; they grow in fits and starts, and when one trait stops and starts varies a lot from kid to kid. A difference in development of 3 or 4 months in two 4-year-olds makes a huge difference in their computed IQs compared to some allegedly average 4-year-old development. So a kid who would be denied admission today might knock the top of the scale in 6 months. Or vice versa.
    • Partly for that reason, IQ is not reliable for kids under about 8. IQ at 4 is not a very good predictor of IQ at 12.
    • Even when they work, IQ tests only measure part of general intelligence.
    • Even so, cognitive intelligence, which I value very highly, shouldn't be the only criterion for admission to any school. In general, you have to be smart enough, but above a couple of standard deviations in IQ, there is no sense making IQ differences an important part of school admissions. At that level, other personality factors matter more for school (or career, or marital) success than IQ.
    • It's advancing a pernicious system. It's pushing the idea of  high-stakes testing further and further down. I predict SAT-like study courses for 3-year-olds with obsessive parents, and we will end up teaching them to bubble Scantron sheets instead of play with blocks.

    Three family habits associated with less preschool obesity

    A recent national study names three things parents can do to reduce the risk of their preschooler being fat:

    • Eat together as a family.
    • Make sure the kid gets enough sleep.
    • Limit weekday TV time.
    No revelations here, but it's quantified. In families who do all 3, 14% were fat, compared with 25% among those who did none of the above. So it changes from 1 kid in 7 to 1 kid in 4.

    The author said,
    "I imagine people are going to want to know which of the routines is most important: Is it limited TV, is it dinner, is it adequate sleep? And what this suggests is that you can't point to any one of these routines. Each one appears to be associated with a lower risk of obesity, and having more of these routines appears to lower the risk further."
     But you have to wonder which way the causal relation goes. Would a fat kid get less fat if you turned off the TV? It would not be a stretch to conjecture that people whose brains make them be more active than others would watch less TV and have different sleep patterns. I wonder what it would show if they compared kids who are sedentary but sit in their rooms and read or daydream instead of watch TV. I mean people who are sedentary have to do something. We had fat people before TV; they just did something else while they sat around. Here TV is a proxy for getting up and burning some calories.

    That's not to say that watching a lot of TV isn't bad for preschoolers on other levels, but it may not be the proximate cause of preschool obesity.

    Of course, I have to beat my hobbyhorse. A bug chunk of how fat you are is biologically determined, and I don't just mean your body translates dairy fat into human fat. Various hormones tell you when you are hungry and when you are not, and some people's hormones lie to them. Notice that even in families who did all three things "right," still 1 kid in 7 was fat.

    Sunday, February 7, 2010

    Food porn: Meyer lemons again

    This is our new Meyer Lemon. I think this is its third crop. The photo was taken last weekend. I was planning to do a major harvest this weekend, but it's raining. Let's see: lemon pie, lemon bars, lemon tarts, lemon fudge, lemon slices on baking fish, lemonade, margaritas. I made up lemon fudge, but I'll bet it would be good. I wonder how you would make it. Maybe I'll experiment.

    Friday, February 5, 2010

    What pregnant women won’t tell you. Ever.

    You must read this post at Skepchick about, as it says, what pregnant women won't tell you.

    Moms are, too, important

    We always knew this, but I guess it's good to have it quantified.
    It turns out that the ways moms act when they're playing and solving puzzles with their babies can explain some of the differences in children's development of executive functioning.
    Children of moms who answered their children's requests for help quickly and accurately; talked about their children's preferences, thoughts, and memories during play; and encouraged successful strategies to help solve difficult problems performed better at a year and a half and 2 years on tasks that call for executive skills than children of moms who didn't use these techniques in interacting with their youngsters.
    I'll bet this transfers directly to child care. I'll bet kids with providers who act this way do better, too. This is why  measures of teacher-child interaction are more important than measures of environment in a quality rating system.

    High sensitivity to stress

    Some kids are more sensitive to stress than others. If those kids grow up in a stressful environment, they can be screwed up, but if they grow up in a supportive environment, they can thrive. Reflexive comment about sun rising in east goes here.

    Friday follies

    Old cat lying on a tile table on the patio. That can't be comfortable, no matter how padded she is.

    Depressed moms raise antisocial teens who become depressed moms

    Here's an unpleasant cycle: Depressed moms raise antisocial teens who become depressed moms.
    Children from urban areas whose mothers suffer from depression during pregnancy are more likely than others to show antisocial behavior, including violent behavior, later in life. Furthermore, women who are aggressive and disruptive in their own teen years are more likely to become depressed in pregnancy, so that the moms' history predicts their own children's antisocial behavior. ...
    The study found that mothers who became depressed when pregnant were four times as likely to have children who were violent at 16. This was true for both boys and girls. The mothers' depression, in turn, was predicted by their own aggressive and disruptive behavior as teens.
    So what do we do about it? Undepress moms? I'd hate to start routinely giving anti-depressants to pregnant women. Some sort of antidepressive psychological therapy? Does anything like that work on depression?

    Given my predilection for believing in biological causes for behavior, it is not surprising that I suspect that hormones circulating in the mom's blood cross the placental barrier and affect the fetus's brain development in some way, so I assume people will be looking at ways of reducing the effect either during pregnancy or in the infant.

    I am in general hopeful that all manner of brain dysfunction will prove amenable to medication or gene therapy. I am in general fearful that the line between a dysfunction that needs to be treated and just being different will be drawn by people I don't trust. How autistic does a person have to be before we figure they're broken and not just on an engineering career track? How destructively bipolar does a writer have to be to be forced onto meds? How strange does a religious prophet have to be before we give him meds to stop the voice of God in his head?

    But that's depressing. On Friday morning, I'd rather think about the non-brain things that are clearly dysfunctional and will likely be fixable in the coming decades. Ommmmmmmmmmm.

    Thursday, February 4, 2010

    Voting Republican as a moral fault

    I try not to emphasize child development issues and avoid too much politics, but this stands out to me. This is a table of data from a poll conducted by for the Daily Kos website. It has been copied several places on the web, but it was pulled out and formatted by Bruce Bartlett. It is a survey of what self-identified Republicans think nationwide, and the results by state are pretty uniform. This is really what they think.

    Not Sure
    Should Barack Obama be impeached?
    Do you believe Barack Obama was born in the United States?
    Do you think Barack Obama is a socialist?
    Do you believe Barack Obama wants the terrorists to win?
    Do you believe ACORN stole the 2008 election?
    Do you believe Sarah Palin is more qualified to be president than Barack Obama?
    Do you believe Barack Obama is a racist who hates white people?
    Do you believe your state should secede from the United States?
    Should openly gay men and women be allowed to teach in public schools?
    Should contraceptive use be outlawed?
    Do you believe the birth control pill is abortion?

    This shows that 1/2 to 3/4 of Republicans are, as Bartlett said at the link, either insane or mind-numbingly stupid. How can you have an intelligent political conversation with a person who thinks Sarah Palin is more qualified than Obama to be president? How can you have an intelligent moral conversation with someone who thinks contraception should be illegal or that gays should be barred from teaching?

    These are the people below the Keyes Horizon. If I were one of the sane few Republicans, I would be embarrassed by having the same voting registration as they do. I would be especially concerned that the wackos determine who wins primaries, and they nominate people who are morally and intellectually repugnant. Can you imagine being a sane Republican in Michele Bachmann's district? It would feel so creepy.

    While I can understand (if not approve) voting for Reagan or George H.W. Bush, voting for someone who wants to teach creationism in public schools, to cut taxes as a solution for every problem, and to outlaw contraception is a grave error for a sane citizen. It's just nuts. We are approaching a point where voting Republican is a moral fault.

    Wednesday, February 3, 2010

    Naming your kid after their disability

    From Andrew Sullivan, who obsesses about Sarah Palin but does it in an interesting and readable fashion, about her infant son Trig, who has an extra chromosome 21:
    The medical term for Down Syndrome is Trisomy-21 or Trisomy-g. It is often shortened in medical slang to Tri-g.
    So Sarah Palin seems to have named her Down Syndrome kid after a slang term for "Down Syndrome."

    I just wrote that I could imagine what people who have kids with a variety of handicaps might name them, but after a flash of adolescent giggling, I saw they were all in really bad taste, so I deleted them. I'm not the most PC person in the world, but even I could see I was going too far.

    Another clue about ADHD

    ADHD has been related to attention processes in the past, and now:
    Researchers at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and the Vall d'Hebron University Hospital have now discovered anomalies in the brain's reward system related to the neural circuits of motivation and gratification. In children with ADHD, the degree of motivation when carrying out an activity is related to the immediacy with which the objectives of the activity are met. This would explain why their attention and hyperactivity levels differ depending on the tasks being carried out.

    The importance of this to us non-scientists is it's another link between biological processes and behavior. When a kid consistently "misbehaves," the first guess at a cause should be something happening in the brain rather than just a bad kid. That doesn't mean a child care provider could diagnose anything physical from behavior, but providers, parents, and counselors should keep the possibility in mind when figuring out how to deal with what are euphemistically called "challenging behaviors." It won't be many years before the relevant genetic information is available for every kid. We just have to figure out how to use it responsibly. Just.

    Genetic screening before pregnancy

    A science blog I follow has a post about a company, one of several, that offers genetic testing to people thinking of having babies together to see if they carry any genes likely to do bad stuff to the kid if both parents have copies of them. Potential parents who both turn out to have such a gene can use in vitro fertilization with genetic screening of the embryos pre-implantation, to make sure the kid didn't get two copies of the gene.

    Without knowing anything about the individual companies involved, this seems to me to be just the right way to do it, and I wish all of them well.

    The blog post also points to an excellent NY Times article about the issue.

    Is child abuse declining? It depends on how far back you look.

    The US Department of Health and Human Services has released an updated National Incidence Study on child abuse. The new study says betweem 1993 and 2006, the incidence of sexual, physical, and emotional child abuse wend down substantially, between 15% and 38%.

    The article I read about it was full of people talking about how neat this is and why it happened. When I started to write this post, I looked for the study online and accidentally saw the 1996 study based on 1993 data. It said in the previous 10 years, different types of child abuse went up 80 or 100%.

    So child abuse went up 80 or 100% over one ten-year period and then back down 15 to 38% in the next, and this is supposed to be wonderful. Your cancer is in partial remission, Mrs. Jones. Congratulations.

    The people the AP quoted found a number of reasons child abuse might be going down:
    • "more public awareness and public intolerance around child abuse"
    • "the proliferation of programs designed to help abusers and potential abusers overcome their problems"
    • "several coinciding trends, including a "troop surge" in the 1990s when more people were deployed in child protection services and the criminal justice system intensified its anti-abuse efforts with more arrests and prison sentences."
    • "greatly expanded use of medications may have enabled many potential child abusers to treat the conditions that otherwise might have led them to molest or mistreat a child"
    • "a general change in perceptions and norms about what one can get away with, so much more publicity about these things"
    • In my local paper, the mayor said it was due to law enforcement getting tough on child molestors.
    Me, I'd say it's either "more public awareness and public intolerance around child abuse" or a point in cycle, and we can expect the sine wave to go up in a few  years. The fact that it comes after such a large increase in child abuse makes me less hopeful than the experts quoted. I'd feel better if it had gone down as much in this ten-year period as it had gone up in the previous one.

    Another clue about SIDS

    Kids who die of SIDS have low levels of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin regulates things like breathing, heart rate, and sleep. 

    I predict:
    • We will find some gene or set of genes that determines the seratonin level in the gut and in the brain and nervous system (the two places serotonin is found).
    • SIDS kids will have alleles that reduce serotonin production in the brain to a point where they die as infants.
    • This will turn out to be a case like sickle-cell anemia, where one copy of a gene prevents some bad thing from  happening but two kills you.
    • Within the lifetime of my offspring, we will begin to sequence the DNA of every child born in a hospital in the US and put it in a research database, to compare genetic and medical histories.
    • We will develop a therapy to increase serotonin levels (medication, gene therapy) and give it to kids with the SIDS genes.
    • This therapy will reduce SIDS to very low levels.
    • We will find that the therapy has unintended consequences, as serotonin becomes overproduced in the gut in some kids receiving the therapy. (I hate to think that that would look like.)
    • It will still be worth it not to have them die as infants.

    Tuesday, February 2, 2010

    Lancet retracts autism paper

    The original paper linking autism to MMR vaccines has been withdrawn by the journal that published it in 1998. 10 of the 13 original authors had withdrawn from it in 2004. A few days ago, the General Medical Council, Britain's medical regulator, said the study had been performed "in an unethical and irresponsible manner" and with "callous disregard" for the children's best medical interest.

    Can we put the autism and vaccine myth to rest now?