Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Why I haven't been writing about ELQIS

ELQIS is very important, and it is also very interesting. Unfortunately it is only tangentially related to my real job, the one that buys food for the cats.* And that real job has been interfering with my ability to spend several hours at a time watching meetings on my computer, even multitasking (which, incidentally, I'm not nearly as good at as I used to be), and there's no way I could go to Sacramento for one.

I try to keep up by reading things on the website, but frankly it's hard, after a day at work, to come  home and read sort-of-work-related material, instead of watching the Daily Show and So You Think You Can Dance with the rest of the family. So I'm afraid you're going to have to find your ELQIS news somewhere else.

*When I was an undergraduate, I was friends with a Kenyan student, who said to me one day, "Did you know that there are people in America who buy special food just for their dogs?" Yes, Oki, I knew that.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Voting Republican is a character fault

I was just reading some comments by some sitting legislators about how they plan to obstruct everything, and I've come to a conclusion. Voting Republican now is a character fault. Voting Republican enthusiastically is a personality disorder.

Who gets traumatized by witnessing family violence?

I sense a confluence of ideas. Or maybe it's just carrying things too far.

 It has long been one of my rules of life that people vary. Two kids grow up in an abusive household. One grows up to be a social worker and a fine parent, and the other is in and out of jail for spouse and child-abuse.

This study showed that the difference in whether kids who had seen family fights had symptoms of trauma ("(b)ad dreams or nightmares about their mom's and dad's arguments or fights; if thoughts of the arguments or fights ever just pop into their mind; if they ever try to forget all about the arguments and fights; and if they ever wish they could turn off feelings that remind them of the arguments and fights") was how concerned they were that "a family member might be harmed, the stability of the family is threatened, or a parent won't be able to care for them."

I've said recently that I'm beginning to think that a genetic difference between conservatives and liberals causes them to sense threats differently and to react to them differently. If this is the case, one's natural speculation after the study about who gets traumatized is that maybe it's the kids who grow up to be conservative who are more traumatized by seeing family violence. Maybe liberal, touchie-feelie, I-have-control-of-my-life-and-it's-all-going-to-turn-out-okay optimism protects against trauma after witnessing family violence.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Quote: Mencken

This is from memory, and I haven't been able to trace it down to where I read it, so it isn't likely to be word for word.

"Never believe anything you read or hear from a man who would be fired if he said the opposite."  H.L. Mencken.

Remember this when reading newspaper editorials or listening to politicians.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Infant game theorists

It as been shown in the past that babies and toddlers are eager to help, for example by picking up something someone has dropped, if they can't reach it, and handing it back to them. This research showed that 21-month olds would spontaneously help someone who had, the day before, tried to give the baby a toy but hadn't been able to, but they would not help someone who had showed them the toy but not given it to them. Kids help people who previously acted kindly toward them.

This is basic game theory, and it has been found, for example, in lots of birds. The first time you interact with someone (or some bird), you cooperate. The next time, you act however the other person or bird acted toward you the previous time. It seems to come naturally to babies.

Yup, attachment to mom is good.

A meta-analysis says kids, especially boys, who have insecure attachment to their moms as little kids have more behavior problems when they are older.

This is confirmation of what we have always thought. If there are any policy implications, they would be that we could save money (and lost kids) at the older end if we could find a way to increase attachment at the younger end.

I wish I had confidence that there is such a way. Maybe we could give new moms inhalers of oxytocin, one with a mom-size dose and one baby-size. Maybe we need to test all new moms for depression and treat all those with signs of it. Maybe we could take stem cells from a kid with great attachment and put them somewhere in the brain of a kid with poor attachment. Maybe we can change this aspect of human nature with genetic engineering. And maybe the dish will run away with the spoon.

Who gets bullied, and why?

This research concludes that an elementary-school-age bully's motivation is status, gained by domination of a victim, but at the same time, they value affection of others of the same sex. It's not the motivation of the bullying, but it is something a bully has to take into account. They need to get their bully fix without alienating their buddies.

So they pick on kids other kids of the same sex don't like. Nobody cares what kids of the opposite sex think about it. The reason they pick on weak kids is that if they picked on popular kids, the bullies would become outcasts from their group.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Parrot on man porn

I found this here.

There's rules, and then there's rules

A researcher says kids distinguish between general moral rules (you shouldn't hit; you shouldn't steal) and specific-to-the-kid rules (you can't wear that outside; you can't play with Kevin anymore; you can't watch that program), and between 4 and 7 they increasingly feel bad about breaking moral rules but not personal rules. Sounds right to me. General rules are fine, but don't impede my personal freedom.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Friday follies

This is a bird's nest I found in our back yard a couple of days ago. The interior is wound fibers from palm fronds, and the exterior is cotton from our back-yard Pima cotton plant. I think this may be a bush tit nest. Humming bird nests we've found in the past have been essentially the same construction, except more cotton in the interior and a sling to hang it from a twig.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Words create categories for babies

When they showed babies pictures of fish with either an adult saying "Look at the toma," a made-up word for fish, or a series of beeps matched for tone and length with the words, the babies who heard the words formed the category of fish, but the ones who heard the beeps did not, as measured by then showing them pictures of a fish and a dinosaur side by side and measuring how long they looked at each.

There's something special about the human voice. I heard something on NPR yesterday about exposing babies to different sounds, including words in a language the baby has never heard before, they early on develop a preference for the human voice.

In a more practical sense, there's something special about talking to babies. One reason richer kids start off preschool ahead of poorer kids is that they have heard more words, more total words and more different words. This study shows it also helps kids cognitively.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Books that have influenced me

People on some political blogs I read have been listing the books that influenced their thinking the most, and I'll join in. My list has almost nothing in common with theirs.

New theory of Down Syndrome cause

We have always assumed that, since Down Syndrome occurs in people with an extra chromosome 21, the disorder should occur because there is too much of some protein coded for on that chromosome. A recent study suggests it may be due to little of a protein. It looks like what happens is a chunk of RNA gets over-expressed, which causes this protein* to be under-expressed.

In rats, they were able to increase the protein level by doing something to the RNA, but it couldn't fix damage that had already occurred. I predict in a few years we will have an in utero treatment after an early blood test for Down.

Of course, this doesn't mean that none of the characteristics of Down Syndrome are caused by over-production of some proteins, just that the under-production of one is involved. No doubt researchers will be busily looking at it all.

*MeCP2, if you must know. It's a transcription factor. 

Monday, March 22, 2010

Meth is worse than coke

A couple of weeks ago, I posted that the in utero effects of cocaine use by pregnant women were not as bad as feared. Now researchers have found the particular brain structures damaged by methamphetamine use, and it looks worse than alcohol by itself, and since most pregnant women who use meth also drink, it makes a real mess.

Babies like to keep time

Researchers filmed a bunch of babies and toddlers listening to music and concluded that babies respond to rhythm more than do to human speech. They say the findings, "suggest that babies may be born with a predisposition to move rhythmically in response to music."

Ya think?

The best music ever for preschoolers is The Hall of the Mountain King, from Peer Gynt, by Grieg. Kids love to stomp around the room in time to the music.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Guys show off for girls if sun rises in east

Who knew? It seems skateboarders take bigger risks if an attractive young woman is watching than if another guy is watching. And their testosterone is higher when they're done.
When skateboarders attempt tricks, they make a split-second decision about whether to abort the trick or try to land it, based on a mid-air evaluation of the likelihood of success and on the physical costs that failure might bring. It was that moment the researchers sought to examine because it resembles the type of risky decisions that young men make when behind the steering wheel of a car or when in physical confrontations with each other.
I'm sorry. I'm sure it's valuable to have measured the testosterone increase* in this kind of situation. It might help people think about risk reduction.

But really. Didn't we know that guys show off for chicks? It's part of our standard literature. Tom Sawyer walked the picket fence when Becky Thatcher was watching, not when he was hanging out with Huck Finn. James Dean raced his car toward the cliff because Natalie Wood was watching, not Sal Mineo. This is almost Ignobel-class research.

Although what would be interesting would be to compare this with gay men and straight and lesbian women, to see how each reacts to various other types. Do straight guys show off for women they know to be lesbians as well as for straights? If they know the guy watching is gay, does that change the testosterone level up or down compared with being watched by a straight guy? Do straight women care at all? I have my guesses how it would all sort out, but it would be fun to see if it is true.

I take back my comment about the Ignobels. It's just unfinished research, as isn't it all?

*I first wrote "testosterone poisoning," but that's rude.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Why some people have asthma

The observed fact that poor people and minorities have more asthma than richer people could be due to the social environment as well as the physical one. Researchers have found that a stressful environment during pregnancy causes increased production of cord blood cytokine, and this seems to be related to increased risk of asthma.

The stress in the study was measured by a detailed questionnaire about stressors in their homes, finances, and neighborhoods, including domestic and community violence.

Another factor is lack of vitamin D.

On the other hand, family mealtimes seem to ease asthma, maybe because it lowers separation anxiety.

Too much or too little of so many things causes such bad stuff.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Offline for a few days

I won't be posting for a few days. Something has come up.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

I saw Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland last night. It was Tim Burton doing Disney. It had all the details of a Tim Burton movie but not the gestalt. Characters were either good or bad (except maybe the white queen; she might have something hidden in there), and nothing really bad happened except to bad creatures and people. And even if you were as evil as the bandersnatch, you become all good after Alice befriends you.

Visually it was spectacular. I understand it was filmed in 2D and changed by computer into 3D, but it impressed me. I saw it in Imax.

What mostly made it a Disney movie more than a Burton movie was the plot, which is a years-later sequel to  the first Alice. I don't mean to give it away, but it's predictable from the time you see the Disney logo. It even ends with frolicking puppies rescued from the evil Red Queen's clutches.

The lesser characters and details are typically wonderful. We all liked the Cheshire Cat and Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee, and we thought the March Hare was appropriately gonzo. People with me thought the Doormouse was over the top, but I liked her.

Depp was Depp. I sighed once or twice.

All in all, I'm glad I went. I'll see his next one, too. But it's not his best.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Worst provider nominee: drugging the kids to sleep better

Two "former" workers at Covenant Apostolic Church Day Care in Cincinnati day care gave over-the-counter melatonin to kids to help them sleep at naptime. They put it in candy. "Parents had told investigators their children often seemed groggy after leaving the day care."  A co-worker told police. They have been charged with misdemeanor child endangering and misrepresentation by a child care provider, which is apparently the worst thing they can find on the books to cover the situation. They face a maximum 18 months in jail.

Toward a cause of schizophrenia

I'd heard that kids of women who had the 1918 Spanish flu in the second trimester had an elevated incidence of schizophrenia. Now researchers have found that Rhesus monkeys born to mothers who had mild flu early in the third trimester had brain scans that look like humans with schizophrenia. Something during pregnancy does it.

Baby slings and suffocation

The federal government has issued a warning about baby slings. The kid who recently died and caused the warning was in a Sling Rider. Apparently there are two issues:
  • Babies can press their noses against the fabric and suffocate, like SIDS.
  • Babies can get into a curved position where their head moves forward and cuts off air.
Note that this is not the type of baby carrier where the baby is vertical and belly-to-mom.

What we should do with sexual offenders

The recent trajedy in San Diego, where the girl was killed while jogging, has resulted in lots of people talking about how we should treat sex offenders. Here's my try at that.

Like every group of people, sex offenders vary. Some are 18-year-olds who slept with their 17-year-old girlfriend and got turned in by the mom. Most are crimes of opportunity, some guy in a situation where he was drunk and thinking with his dick, and he gives a 14-year-old a couple of beers and bangs her, or gropes somebody in a parking lot.

These have a low recidivism rate compared with other kinds of crimes. Depending on the type of violation, I've read recidivism rates of 3.5% to 13%. They didn't like their year in jail, and they're not going back. These relatively low-reoffender-rate people amount to about 95% of offenders. They should be treated like any other person getting out of jail.

Then there are the 5% who are really dangerous. It's not a continuum, where people get badder and badder. It's a cut off. Most people are just not dangerous, but a few really are. And we can tell which is which among sex offenders. There's a useful profile. Look at the age of the victim, how many victims there were, whether the offender stalked the victim, whether fetishes or pain or weapons were involved.

For this 5%, if they are let out of jail, they should be monitored very carefully, meaning ankle-bracelet, weekly visits to the parole officer, twice-weekly random searches of their quarters for pornography, girls panties, or whatever.

Apparently at least one psychiatrist said the guy in San Diego fell into this 5%.

What we need to do is stop wasting our money on the 95%, which only makes them unhappy and people who know about them from Megan's List fearful, and spend it instead on serious monitoring of the dangerous ones.

Friday follies

 Old cat looking elegant beside the pond. She used to try to fish in it, but now she just watches.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A kid who gets gay marriage

I found the coolest video at Andrew Sullivan's blog.

UPDATE: I tried to embed the video here, but the embedded video went to some screen about a private video, and now the one at the place I got it does the same thing.

If it doesn't work for you, it's a 5- or 6-year boy old saying (from memory from yesterday) husbands are boys, and wives are girls, and you boys are married? Then you're both husbands. I only met husbands and wives before, never husbands and husbands, but you are husband and husband. So that means you love each other. I'm going to play ping pong now. You can come play if you want.

The solution to immigration reform

I know this has nothing to do with child development, but when I know how to solve such a knotty problem, it would be selfish of me not to share it.

What we should do about immigration is let people who are now here illegally become permanent legal residents, with no chance of ever becoming a citizen, unless they go back to the old country and start over.

It should satisfy the conservatives, because there is no path to citizenship, in fact an effective prohibition of citizenship. (Kids born here, of course, are citizens by birth.)

It should satistfy the liberals, because everybody's status is regularized, and nobody is deported, no families split up.

You're welcome.

The taste of fat

We used to think there were four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salt, and bitter. Then umami was discovered, which is the taste of meat (okay, protein-rich foods, and it's in mushrooms and tomatoes, too). Now researchers say they have discovered a sixth taste, fat.

What's more, as with other tastes, some people are more sensitive to it than others, and the most sensitive tend to avoid it, as broccoli supertasters avoid broccoli.

You have to assume this is genetic, and it may explain part of how obesity runs in families. Some people just do or don't like the taste of fat.

So what does this mean for a child care provider or early childhood educator? You'd think there would be some application, but I can't think of one. I guess you could offer really fatty foods to kids to see how much they liked them, and then only let the kids who don't like them have them. That would get you a worst provider nomination.

No, I think the implications are more pharmaceutical than child developmental. I'm sure they will be looking for ways to use this to make low fat food taste good or high fat food taste bad to a particular person.

As long as they don't touch my chocolate.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Break-dancing toddler

If this kid were mine, I'd be scared spitless of a broken neck. He will either be a professional dancer or a paraplegic (or a sky diver, or a gymnast, or a stunt man, or a race car driver).

And then you have to wonder what makes a kid like that? What combination of alleles and early exposure makes him want to do it? Maybe the larval stage of a type T personality? Some neurotransmitter is secreted into the oh-my-god-I-like-this part of his brain.

Bad kids turn into hurting adults

From a 52-year-long (and counting) study of 20,000 people in Britain, kids with severe, persistent behavior problems at ages 7, 11, and 16 (they're the same people) are twice as likely to have chronic widespread pain (CWP) at age 45 as good kids are, and they are more likely to be depressed, anxious, a druggie, or in psychiatric treatment.
"We are not sure what underlying biological mechanism underpins this relationship, but one possible explanation might be that both the childhood behaviour and the adult CWP are due to a long-term neuroendocrine dysfunction beginning in early life. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the primary neuroendocrine stress response system, has been shown to be associated with childhood behaviour. Similarly, altered HPA axis function has been reported to be associated with CWP. Early life experience, such as emotional stress due to past trauma, may have a lifelong impact on the neuroendocrine system (HPA axis), which in turn leads to behavioural problems in childhood and CWP in adulthood as well as other mental problems. Further research at molecular and genetic level are needed to clarify this."
Another complicated brain phenomenon. So as an early childhood educator, how should you deal with a kid with severe persistent behavior problems at age 3 or 5? I hope you didn't say expel him. It could be that it's intractable, really in the genes, so all you can do is protect the other kids. Or, it could be that a calm environment and firm hugs can reduce the production of whatever hormone is causing the problem, and therefore reduce the adult effects.

More likely, they'll find a medical treatment for the behavior, and all the child care provider has to do is make sure the parent accepts the referral. The study also said teachers were more reliable reporters of child behavior than parents were.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Monetary value of a prenatal screening for Spinal Muscular Atrophy

About 1 in 10,000 newborns has  Spinal Muscular Atrophy, (Wikipedia). Depending on how bad they have it, they may die as infants or grow into mildly weak adults. It can be tested for prenatally for about $400. Some researchers have concluded that you would need to screen 12,500 women to prevent one case, which is $5,000,000 per case averted. They assume every woman who finds out her kid has SMA will abort it.

Health policy people use a "quality-adjusted life year" (QALY) (Wikipedia) to determine whether a medical intervention is worth it. For each year of perfect health it would provide, it gets a 1. If you die, it gets a zero. Points come off for leaving you blind, amputated, or in a wheelchair.

These researchers find that using that standard, it's not worth it to test all pregnant women for it, just the ones with a family history of the disease.
SMA screening does not approach the cost-effective range ($50-100,000/QALY) until the cost of severe disease is over $7 million or the cost of the mild disease is over $17 million, both of which are more than 20 times the baseline estimates.
Now I accept the idea that we should only pay for treatments that work. But this is not a question of whether it works.This is a question of whether it is worth it to prevent a woman from having a kid with SMA. The question is not just the number of years of life of the kid who grows up (or not) with SMA but the quality of life of the mother. I know if I had had a kid with disabilities, I would love her as much as any other kid, but if I had a chance early on, before I was emotionally invested in the fetus, I think I'd abort and try again, because at that point it's not a person, and it's not going to turn into the baby I want. Okay, I'm selfish, and while it's just a wad of tissue, I'm going to hit reset.

There I go, showing that I'm not just pro-choice but in many cases pro-abortion. Women who are pregnant with kids who will be disabled, and who would really rather not have a disabled kid, should have an abortion. Women who will be bad mothers should have abortions.

But in the case of SMA testing, I think it is a mistake to use only the quality-adjusted life year of the kid as a measure. You need to take into account the quality of life of the family.

Monday, March 8, 2010

How to teach 3 year olds to write

The software behind this blog tells me how people get to it, including what search terms lead them to me. There are two consistent patterns. If I write a post on food porn or flower porn, I get a lot of people who, based on the rest of their search words, aren't the least interested in flowers or meyer lemons.

The second real common search is for some variation on "teaching 3-year-olds to write," which Google points to me because some time ago, I wrote a post on a plan in Britain to start teaching 3-year-old boys to write.

At the time, I said that was a stupid idea, but I've had second thoughts. Now I think you can teach a 3-year-old boy to write, and best way  is to read to him every night before bed until he's 5 or 6 years old.

How Ritalin works; or, a pill to increase learning?

In addition to improving a kid's ability to focus, by increasing the release of dopamine, Ritalin also improves learning, by increasing brain plasticity, by releasing another type of dopamine. This is based on rats learning that sugar water followed a flash of light and a sound. Rats given Ritalin (in doses relatively the same as those give human kids) learned that faster than rats not given Ritalin. If researchers blocked D1 (for dopamine) receptors, Ritalin no longer helped learning; if they blocked D2 receptors, Ritalin didn't improve focus.

Some of the neat part of this is just learning more about the brain. The best part is the speculation it brings on. Suppose they find a drug that only enhances D1 release and (or some other drug that enhances the ability to learn), and even suppose we know it not to have any harmful side effects. Would we want to give it to all kids to generally improve their ability to learn? I don't mean requiring it, like vaccinations, just making it legally available to everyone without a social stigma, like steroids for the brain.

I'd be all for it. But imagine a high-school brain bowl where some kids are juiced and some are not. Is it fair to the non-drugged kids that the drugged kids all know more because they've been on super-Ritalin since kindergarten? Is this like steroids in baseball and track and field? Logically they are the same: taking a drug to increase your ability to learn or to increase your ability to train hard. Maybe the reason they feel different to me is that it's now my ox being gored. I would take a pill to learn better but not to train harder.

And I would see it less as a way for people who already learn well to learn even better, but even more as a public health measure, like adding folic acid to bread to prevent spinal bifida, only this would increase the percentage of people who can read car repair manuals or rental agreements.

I wonder if there are any foods (not food supplements) with nutrients that increase the release of D1. Google will know.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

First woman astronaut enters Asperger's Central

The other day I heard a story on NPR about the first woman astronauts, apparently originally broadcast in 2007. They talked about how funny the men in NASA acted. The men didn't seem to understand them or know how to talk to them. I was screaming in the car, "Aspergers!" You just walked into a building full of aeronautical engineers. A lot of these guys are one broken synapse away from autism. Of course, they didn't understand you or know how to talk to you. So put on your big girl panties, and treat them like a special ed class.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Mood and cognition

This is a blog post by the guy who wrote Proust was a Neuroscientist about the relationship between mood and cognition, specifically the idea that being depressed (not clinically depressed) makes you more analytic and focused. In a way it's like sickle-cell anemia: Being a little depressed makes you focused; being a lot depressed makes you useless.

This might be why bi-polar stays around. (Warning: Just so story ahead.) Maybe it's not an occasional mutation that is immediately selected against. Maybe the mild form of it it has an evolutionary advantage to the species.  Maybe the analytic abilities of mild depression and the creative abilities of mild mania attract enough mates to keep them going.

It's an interesting post, and it has links to other related interesting pieces and book recommendations.

Pie in the sky, with diamonds: genetically designed diets

This sounds like some researchers sitting around after a few beers fantasizing about how they are going to change the world, and we're all going to have personal jet packs, except this could be true. They're talking about parsing the human genome to figure out what kinds of nutrients trigger what genes to turn on in people with which alleles, to design a personal diet to keep one's genes firing on all the healthiest cylinders.

One thing they're looking at specifically is a relation between type 2 diabetes and a gene that determines one's sensitivity to bitter taste. (I assume that's the one where supertasters hate broccoli.) Several plants affect cancer. Wolfberry, a Chinese fruit, affects vision.

I have two reactions to this:

  • It's another example of how cool science makes our lives better
  • No way I'm going to follow any diet that doesn't involve food that tastes good to me. If I can saute it in bacon fat, I'll eat it.

Kindergarten entrance age

I've just been reading Tim Fitzharris's CDPI Information Bulletin.
The LAO is also recommending a change in the age of Kindergarten entrance, beginning in the 2011-12 school year. Research suggests children who are older when they start kindergarten tend to perform better on standardized tests. Some research suggests this change also may lead to other positive student outcomes, including less chance of grade retention and higher earnings as an adult.
Of course, they do better on standardized tests. They're a year older! This is like the parents in Texas who keep their kids back in Kindergarten so they will be a year older in middle school and high school, so they can excel in football, except the LAO wants to keep all the kids of a certain age back so they will be older and do better when they take a certain type of test.

Kids vary. Some are completely ready for kindergarten at 4, and some are barely ready by 6. Myself, I'd like to see the age-date limit of December 2 pushed back to the first of March, as it was when I started kindergarten. Not all kids of that age are ready, maybe not even most, but some are, and the parents (in conjunction with the preschool teacher, and even with the kindergarten teacher, if need be) should be able to tell if a kid born between September 1 and March 1 is ready to enter kindergarten.

 And it is mildly annoying that standardized tests are the measure of success in schools. I know we have to use generated data, and there are times I defend them, but I still don't like the way they are used in schools. And don't even get me started about AP classes.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Friday follies

Old cat is our hunter. We got young cat in hopes she would teach him to hunt as she gets too old. We expect to find an occasional rat or gopher outside the kitchen door, but this is ridiculous. It's a full-grown rabbit with its head gone in front of its ears and assorted other injuries. We assume a hawk dropped it, but Old Cat still looks proud. She probably can't remember whether she killed it or not.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Baby DVDs inhibit language growth

Babies don't learn words from watching DVDs, and the time they spend watching them comes out of time the parent should be talking to the kid, so they end up learning language slower than kids without DVDs.

Violent video games and aggression

A researcher has just published a big meta-analysis of studies of violent video games and concluded that "exposure to violent video games increases the likelihood of aggressive behavior in both short-term and long-term contexts. Such exposure also increases aggressive thinking and aggressive affect, and decreases prosocial behavior."
"These are not huge effects -- not on the order of joining a gang vs. not joining a gang," said Anderson. "But these effects are also not trivial in size. It is one risk factor for future aggression and other sort of negative outcomes. And it's a risk factor that's easy for an individual parent to deal with -- at least, easier than changing most other known risk factors for aggression and violence, such as poverty or one's genetic structure."

The analysis found that violent video game effects are significant in both Eastern and Western cultures, in males and females, and in all age groups. Although there are good theoretical reasons to expect the long-term harmful effects to be higher in younger, pre-teen youths, there was only weak evidence of such age effects.
I have mixed feelings about this. It is clear that doing anything with the brain potentiates some synapses and inhibits others, but things like aggression also have a genetic, or at least a congenital, component. So my guess is we will find that people who are susceptible to aggression are more influenced by violent video games than people who are not. That's my tautology of the day.

Variation in breast milk quality affects infant behavior

In a study of rhesus maqaques, moms who were larger and who had had previous pregnancies gave more milk and better milk, with more "milk energy." At 3 to 4 months old, the separated infants from mom.
The study found that infants whose mothers had higher levels of milk energy soon after their birth coped more effectively (moved around more, explored more, ate and drank) and showed greater confidence (were more playful, curious and active). Infants whose mothers had lower milk energy had lower activity levels and were less confident when separated from their mother.
Okay, here's a dissertation waiting to be written, analyzing human breast milk and infant behavior.

Sororities cause body shame

Girls who successfully join sororities have higher levels of self-objectification (apparently this means believing what others think about your body) and eating disorders than girls who don't try to get into a sorority, both before and after the application process. A month later, girls who get into sororities have elevated levels of body shame.

Apparently the other sisters really want you to be skinny. People who are surprised raise your hands. I thought not.

Marriage ban make gays crazy -- literally

Some researchers looked at the prevalence of mood disorders, generalized anxiety disorder and alcohol use disorders among gays, lesbians, and bisexuals and found that they increased in states that instituted constitutional bans against gay marriage. See what you did?

Worst provider nominee: running over the kids with an SUV

An unlicensed after-school child care center in Cupertino was closed by CCL in October when one of the teachers, who picked up kids at their elementary school, ran over and killed a 5-year-old boy, the only child of older parents, while leaving the center after dropping him of, on her way to take another kid home. I didn't hear about it at the time. Today's news story is that the teacher has been charged with vehicular manslaughter, which the article says is a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of one year, and transporting a kid without a car seat.

This has so many things wrong with it. Unlicensed commercial child care. Child care providers who drive kids around without car seats. Not making sure the kids who get out of the car were out of the way before driving off. After it happened, going first inside to talk with the boss "for several minutes" rather than to the kid lying on the ground.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A gene for one aspect of Down's syndrome

Down's syndrome is caused by having an extra chromosome 21. Presumably, having the extra copy increases the production of some protein or proteins, which produce the observable effects. A researcher has found that superexpression of a particular gene that affects transmission between neurons may be the reason for the visual-spatial memory problems of people with Down's syndrome.

It is believed that the root of this problem is in the central part of the brain; more concretely, in the transmission between the hippocampus and a specific part of the brain. It would seem that cholinergic neurons, which should guarantee this transmission, undergo alterations in those persons with Down's syndrome, besides deteriorating with age. 
Since chromosome 21 has lots of genes on it to be overexpressed, lots of genes are likely to be related to Down's syndrome, but it's cool each time they find something, and this seems to be a big one.

Every time I hear about researchers finding a relation between some gene and some dysfunction, I imagine gene therapy for it in 10 or 20 years. We're learning so much about so many things.

Cocaine's in utero effects are less than was feared

This is mildly hopeful. A big meta study says exposure to cocaine during pregnancy has little effect on growth, IQ, school achievement, and language ability in elementary school. Lots of the kids in the study had deficits in all those areas, but the study authors attribute that to the fact that kids exposed to cocaine in utero are likely to live in crappy households in crappy environments, and their moms may have smoked and drunk during pregnancy, too.

It's always nice when something really horrible turns out to be only moderately horrible.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Toward an explanation for schizophrenia's timing

Researchers looked at patterns of gene expression in the brains of schizophrenic patients. Mostly they are they same as normal people, but:
the most surprising finding was a significant link between aging and gene expression patterns in schizophrenia. The team identified several groups of co-expressed genes that behaved differently in schizophrenia patients compared to normal subjects when age was considered.
A particularly striking age-related difference in co-expression was found in a group of 30 genes related to developmental processes of the nervous system. Normally these genes are turned off as a person ages, but in schizophrenia patients the genes remain active. This critical finding strongly suggests that age-related aberrant regulation of genes important for development can explain at least part of the manifestation of schizophrenia.
We're getting closer to figuring it out. And then we'll have to figure out how to turn those genes off when they should turn off.

Bad grandma, fat kids: part two

I'm not against grandmas. But another study says grandmas influence when their daughters stop breast feeding and start solid food, and not for the better. And the result is increased risk of childhood obesity. The tendency over the last, oh, I don't know, couple of decades has been for longer breast feeding and later introduction of solid food. But grandma tells daughter to do it as it as been done since the angel with the flaming sword told Eve how to do it. Read your bible; it's there.

The grandma stuff was a side issue. The main point of the study was to compare blacks, whites, and hispanics for feeding patterns, to look for influences on childhood obesity.
When compared to Caucasian women, the researchers found that minority women were more likely to be overweight when they became pregnant and Hispanic women had a higher rate of gestational diabetes, both risk factors for childhood obesity. Although the prevalence of two other risk factors—smoking and depression—during pregnancy was higher among African-American and Hispanic women, those rates dropped considerably when the researchers adjusted for socioeconomic status, suggesting that at least those two risk factors may be impacted by income and education levels.
When researchers looked at other risk factors during children's first five years, they found that African-American and Hispanic infants are more likely than their Caucasian counterparts to be born small, gain excess weight after birth, begin eating solid foods before 4 months of age and sleep less. During their preschool years, the study suggests, minority children eat more fast food, drink more sugar-sweetened beverages and are more likely to have televisions in their rooms than Caucasian children.
One commonly held theory is that the presence of these and other risk factors is caused by limited access to health care, poverty and low educational levels. However, when Taveras and her colleagues adjusted for socioeconomic status, they found that the prevalence of many of the risk factors remained the same.
Which risk factors stayed the same, dammit! I'm not going to buy access to online journals for all this stuff (except Child Development, which I do subscribe to), so I rely on summaries like this on on Eureka Alert, and it's mildly infuriating when they don't say which risk factors are independent of socioeconomic status.