Chapter 19. Language and Hemispheric Asymmetry
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By Avi Selk “Oh Long Johnson,” a cat once said, back in the primordial history of Internet memes. “Oh Don Piano. Why I eyes ya.” Or so said the captions — appended to the gibberish of a perturbed house cat on “America's Funniest Home Videos” in 1999 and rediscovered in the YouTube era, when millions of people heard something vaguely human echo in a distant species. It was weird. And hilarious. And just maybe, profound. As the “Oh Long Johnson” craze was fading a few years ago, a wave of scientific discoveries about apes and monkeys began upending old assumptions about the origins of language. Only humans could willfully control their vocal tracts, went the established wisdom. Until Koko the gorilla coughed on command. Surely, then, our vowels were ours alone. But this month, researchers picked up British ohs in the babble of baboons. Study after study is dismantling a hypothesis that has stood for decades: that the seeds of language did not exist before modern humans, who got all the way to Shakespeare from scratch. And if so much of what we thought we knew about the uniqueness of human speech was wrong, some think it's time to take a second look at talking pet tricks. “It's humbling to understand that humans, in the end, are just another species of primate,” said Marcus Perlman, who led the Koko study in 2015. © 1996-2017 The Washington Post
By Helen Briggs BBC News Babies build knowledge about the language they hear even in the first few months of life, research shows. If you move countries and forget your birth language, you retain this hidden ability, according to a study. Dutch-speaking adults adopted from South Korea exceeded expectations at Korean pronunciation when retrained after losing their birth language. Scientists say parents should talk to babies as much as possible in early life. Dr Jiyoun Choi of Hanyang University in Seoul led the research. The study is the first to show that the early experience of adopted children in their birth language gives them an advantage decades later even if they think it is forgotten, she said. ''This finding indicates that useful language knowledge is laid down in [the] very early months of life, which can be retained without further input of the language and revealed via re-learning,'' she told BBC News. In the study, adults aged about 30 who had been adopted as babies by Dutch-speaking families were asked to pronounce Korean consonants after a short training course. Korean consonants are unlike those spoken in Dutch. The participants were compared with a group of adults who had not been exposed to the Korean language as children and then rated by native Korean speakers. Both groups performed to the same level before training, but after training the international adoptees exceeded expectations. There was no difference between children who were adopted under six months of age - before they could speak - and those who were adopted after 17 months, when they had learned to talk. This suggests that the language knowledge retained is abstract in nature, rather than dependent on the amount of experience. © 2017 BBC
By Lisa Rapaport Researchers examined data on high school soccer players from 2005 to 2014 and found non-concussion injury rates declined for boys and were little changed for girls. But concussions increased in both male and female players. The significant rise in concussion rates "could be mainly due to a better recognition of concussion by medical and coaching staff," study leader Dr. Morteza Khodaee, a sports medicine researcher at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said in an email. The research team looked at injuries per minute of athletic exposure (AE), which includes both practices and competitions, for U.S. high school athletes. Overall, there were 6,154 injuries during 2.98 million athletic exposures, for an injury rate of 2.06 per 1,000 AEs, the study found. That included about 1.8 million soccer injuries among girls and 1.5 million among boys. Girls were 27 percent more likely to sustain soccer injuries than boys, the authors reported online December 28 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Injuries were 42 percent more common in competitions than during practice. "The majority of injuries during competitions occurred during the second half indicating a potential accumulated effect of fatigue," the authors reported. "It is well known that the risk of injury is higher in competition compared with practice," Khodaee said. "This is most likely due to more intense, full contact and potentially riskier play that occurs in competition." Still, while injury rates were significantly higher in competition, more than one third of all injuries occurred in practice. © 2017 Scientific American
Keyword: Brain Injury/Concussion
Link ID: 23117 - Posted: 01.18.2017
By Tanya Lewis To the untrained listener, a bunch of babbling baboons may not sound like much. But sharp-eared experts have now found that our primate cousins can actually produce humanlike vowel sounds. The finding suggests the last common ancestor of humans and baboons may have possessed the vocal machinery for speech—hinting at a much earlier origin for language than previously thought. Researchers from the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and Grenoble Alpes University, both in France, and their colleagues recorded baboons in captivity, finding the animals were capable of producing five distinct sounds that have the same characteristic frequencies as human vowels. As reported today in PLoS ONE, the animals could make these sounds despite the fact that, as dissections later revealed, they possess high voice boxes, or larynxes, an anatomical feature long thought to be an impediment to speech. “This breaks a serious logjam” in the study of language, says study co-author Thomas Sawallis, a linguist at the University of Alabama. “Theories of language evolution have developed based on the idea that full speech was only available to anatomically modern Homo sapiens,” approximately 70,000 to 100,000 years ago, he says, but in fact, “we could have had the beginnings of speech 25 million years ago.” The evolution of language is considered one of the hardest problems in science, because the process left no fossil evidence behind. One practical approach, however, is to study the mechanics of speech. Language consists roughly of different combinations of vowels and consonants. Notably, humans possess low larynxes, which makes it easier to produce a wide range of vowel sounds (and as Darwin observed, also makes it easier for us to choke on food). A foundational theory of speech production, developed by Brown University cognitive scientist Philip Lieberman in the 1960s, states the high larynxes and thus shorter vocal tracts of most nonhuman primates prevents them from producing vowel-like sounds. Yet recent research calls Lieberman’s hypothesis into question. © 2017 Scientific American
By SAM BORDEN, MIKA GRÖNDAHL and JOE WARD When player No. 81 took this blow to his head several years ago, it was just one of many concussions that have occurred throughout college football and the N.F.L. But what made this one different was that this player was wearing a mouth guard with motion sensors. The information from those sensors has given researchers a more detailed and precise window into what was happening within the player’s brain in the milliseconds after the hit. Here is what happened to his brain. One common belief has been that just after a person’s head (or helmet) makes contact with something – an airbag, a wall, another person – the brain within bounces around in the skull like an egg yolk in a shell, leaving bruises on the brain’s outer surface, or gray matter. Now, though, many scientists and medical experts believe that this understanding is incomplete. Yes, there is some movement in the skull, but the real damage from concussions, they say, actually occurs deeper in the brain – in the so-called white matter – as a result of fibers pulling and twisting after impact. To stick with the food analogy, think Jell-O, not an egg. You know what happens when you take a plate of Jell-O and give it a hard shake? The stretches and contortions approximate what is happening to all the wiring throughout the brain. To better track the brain’s reaction to these hits, scientists in several labs have been working on a variety of mechanisms, some of which, like the one used during the impact shown above, are moving away from ones connected directly to a football helmet because the helmet can move independently of the skull. “The forces you’re measuring with those are not really exactly what the brain is seeing,” said Robert Cantu, clinical professor of neurosurgery at the Boston University School of Medicine. The mouth guard that was used was developed by the bioengineer David Camarillo and his team at the Cam Lab at Stanford. Camarillo and others have speculated that the most damaging blows are those that cause the head to snap quickly from ear to ear, like the one shown above, or those that cause a violent rotation or twisting of the head through a glancing blow. “The brain’s wiring, essentially, is all running from left to right, not front to back,” Camarillo said, referring to the primary wiring that connects the brain’s hemispheres. “So the direction you are struck can have a very different effect within the brain. In football, the presence of the face mask can make that sort of twisting even more extreme.” © 2017 The New York Times Company
By Virginia Morell We often say the same sweet, nonsensical things to our dogs that we say to our babies—and in almost the same slow, high-pitched voice. Now, scientists have shown that puppies find our pooch-directed speech exciting, whereas older dogs are somewhat indifferent. The findings show, for the first time, that young dogs respond to this way of talking, and that it may help them learn words—as such talk does with human babies. To find out how dogs reacted to human speech, Nicolas Mathevon, a bioacoustician at the University of Lyon in Saint Étienne, France, and his colleagues first recorded the voices of 30 women as they looked at a dog’s photograph and read from a script, “Hi! Hello cutie! Who’s a good boy? Come here! Good boy! Yes! Come here sweetie pie! What a good boy!” (The scientists were afraid the women would ad lib if they spoke to a real dog.) The women also repeated the passage to a person. When the scientists compared the human- and dog-directed speech, they found that, as expected, the women spoke in distinctive, high-pitched, sing-song tones to the pooches—but not the humans. “It didn’t matter if it was a puppy or an adult dog,” Mathevon says. But the women did speak at an even higher pitch when looking at puppy photos. Next, the researchers played these recordings in short trials with 10 puppies and 10 adult dogs at a New York City animal shelter and videotaped their responses. Nine of the puppies reacted strongly, barking and running toward the loudspeaker even when the recording had been made for an older dog, the team reports today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Some even bent toward the loudspeaker in a play bow, a pose meant to initiate horseplay, suggesting they may regard dog-directed speech as “an invitation to play,” Mathevon says. © 2017 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
By Alice Klein Mothers hold their children more on the left and wild mammals seem to keep their young more on that so too, at least when fleeing predators. Now it seems many mammal babies prefer to approach their mother from one side too – and the explanation may lie in the contrasting talents of each half of the brain. In mammals, the brain’s right hemisphere is responsible for processing social cues and building relationships. It is also the half of the brain that receives signals from the left eye. Some researchers think this explains why human and ape mothers tend to cradle their babies on the left: it is so they can better monitor their facial expressions with their left eye. Now, Janeane Ingram at the University of Tasmania, Australia, and her colleagues have looked at whether animal infants also prefer to observe their mum from one side. The team studied 11 wild mammals from around the world: horses, reindeer, antelopes, oxen, sheep, walruses, three species of whale and two species of kangaroo. Whenever an infant approached its mother from behind, the researchers noted whether it positioned itself on its mum’s left or right side. They recorded almost 11,000 position choices for 175 infant-mother pairs. Infants of all species were more likely to position themselves so that their mother was on their left. This happened about three-quarters of the time. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Meredith Wadman In athletes who suffered a concussion, a protein in their blood may be able to predict when they can return to action. A new study finds that those who took longer to return to play had higher levels of a protein known as tau in their blood in the 6 hours following the trauma than players who were cleared to return to the field sooner. Tau blood testing isn’t ready for prime time, but experts say that if it pans out it would become an invaluable tool for coaches and physicians alike. Trainers, sports physicians, and neurologists deal with some 3.8 million sports-related concussions in the United States each year. But they still lack an objective medical test to establish whether someone has sustained the injury, and at what point they have recovered enough from one to resume playing. Instead, they are forced to rely on often-nebulous physical signs, and on players’ self-reporting of symptoms. And it’s known that players, keen to get back on the field, often minimize these. “We don’t want a biomarker that just says somebody had a concussion,” says study leader Jessica Gill, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Nursing Research in Bethesda, Maryland. “We want a biomarker that says who needs to be out of play to recover.” Gill, with concussion physician Jeffrey Bazarian of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in New York, and colleagues took preseason blood samples from more than 600 male and female University of Rochester athletes who participate in contact sports: football, basketball, hockey, and lacrosse. In it, they measured levels of tau, a protein linked to traumatic brain injury and Alzheimer’s disease, which has been found to be elevated in the blood of Olympic boxers and concussed ice hockey players. © 2017 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Perry Link People who study other cultures sometimes note that they benefit twice: first by learning about the other culture and second by realizing that certain assumptions of their own are arbitrary. In reading Colin McGinn’s fine recent piece, “Groping Toward the Mind,” in The New York Review, I was reminded of a question I had pondered in my 2013 book Anatomy of Chinese: whether some of the struggles in Western philosophy over the concept of mind—especially over what kind of “thing” it is—might be rooted in Western language. The puzzles are less puzzling in Chinese. Indo-European languages tend to prefer nouns, even when talking about things for which verbs might seem more appropriate. The English noun inflation, for example, refers to complex processes that were not a “thing” until language made them so. Things like inflation can even become animate, as when we say “we need to combat inflation” or “inflation is killing us at the check-out counter.” Modern cognitive linguists like George Lakoff at Berkeley call inflation an “ontological metaphor.” (The inflation example is Lakoff’s.) When I studied Chinese, though, I began to notice a preference for verbs. Modern Chinese does use ontological metaphors, such as fāzhăn (literally “emit and unfold”) to mean “development” or xὶnxīn (“believe mind”) for “confidence.” But these are modern words that derive from Western languages (mostly via Japanese) and carry a Western flavor with them. “I firmly believe that…” is a natural phrase in Chinese; you can also say “I have a lot of confidence that…” but the use of a noun in such a phrase is a borrowing from the West. © 1963-2016 NYREV, Inc
By Sheryl Ubelacker, The Canadian Press Posted: Peter Chaban was up early doing dishes one morning in 2012 when he noticed there was water flowing over his hand — but he couldn't feel it. Next thing he knew, he lost all sensation and strength on his left side and dropped to floor. Within seconds he was lying there completely immobilized. By the time the ambulance arrived at his vacation property near Collingwood, Ont., Chaban had recovered. But doctors at the local hospital diagnosed him with a probable transient ischemic attack, or TIA, a type of temporary stroke that leaves no permanent damage. Once he returned home to Toronto, Chaban was sent for an MRI, and the brain scan confirmed that diagnosis. But of more concern was the discovery of "quite a few" lesions in his brain, the result of "silent strokes" that show up as small holes on imaging. When the strokes had occurred and over what time period was a mystery to Chaban, who had experienced no symptoms. That's why, in fact, they're known as silent — patients have no idea they've had a miniature clot or microbleed in the brain that has destroyed a tiny chunk of neurons, but resulted in no loss of function as would typically occur with a full-blown stroke. "I was never aware of any deficits," said Chaban, 64, who retired from his research job at the Hospital for Sick Children three years ago. "When I was employed, I was quite cognitively active. "I was physically very active. I ski, play golf, I played squash until a few years ago. And my health is very good, so the silent strokes hadn't expressed themselves, at least to my awareness." ©2016 CBC/Radio-Canada.
Link ID: 23025 - Posted: 12.27.2016
As 2016 draws to a close, we are re-visiting some of the people we met this year — including one man who survived a stroke at a young age, and a listener who heard his story on the radio. DAVID GREENE, HOST: Now as 2016 draws to a close, we're revisiting some of the people we met this year. And NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell checks back with a man who survived a stroke in his 40s and also a listener who heard his story. RAE ELLEN BICHELL, BYLINE: Back in February, I reported a story about strokes increasing in adults under 50. Troy Hodge, a 43-year-old man living in Maryland, shared his story about having a stroke two years earlier. (SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST) TROY HODGE: I remember setting myself on the floor because I was really hot. And I wanted to get some water to splash on my face. BICHELL: When the story aired on MORNING EDITION, the radio waves carried Hodge's voice into the home of Sue Bryson, a teacher in Virginia. SUE BRYSON: It was just a normal Monday morning and I was just getting ready for work and I was listening to NPR. BICHELL: Listening to Hodge's story, Bryson realized that right then, she was having similar symptoms, that she was having a stroke. So she called her neighbors and they took her to the emergency room. BRYSON: I would have never gone to the hospital if I didn't hear your show - never. BICHELL: Bryson is now back in the classroom and Hodge has made some changes. He moved into a bigger apartment. He walks up a flight of stairs each day without his cane to check the mail. He sometimes forgets things. HODGE: Memory's not too bad, I mean, it's... © 2016 npr
Link ID: 23024 - Posted: 12.27.2016
By Veronique Greenwood Babies' ability to soak up language makes them the envy of adult learners everywhere. Still, some grown-ups can acquire new tongues with surprising ease. Now some studies suggest it is possible to predict a person's language-learning abilities from his or her brain structure or activity—results that may eventually be used to help even the most linguistically challenged succeed. In one study, published in 2015 in the Journal of Neurolinguistics, a team of researchers looked at the structure of neuron fibers in white matter in 22 beginning Mandarin students. Those who had more spatially aligned fibers in their right hemisphere had higher test scores after four weeks of classes, the scientists found. Like a freeway express lane, highly aligned fibers are thought to speed the transfer of information within the brain. Although language is traditionally associated with the left hemisphere, the right, which seems to be involved in pitch perception, may play a role in distinguishing the tones of Mandarin, speculates study author Zhenghan Qi of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Wired for Learning Your ability to learn a new language may be influenced by brain wiring. Diffusion tensor imaging of native English speakers learning Mandarin reveals that people who learn better have more aligned nerve fibers (shown with warmer colors) in two regions in the right hemisphere (A and B). In this case, subject 2, who has more aligned fibers, was a more successful learner than subject 1. © 2016 Scientific American
Link ID: 23019 - Posted: 12.26.2016
Lisa Vincenz-Donnelly A test that records the way the brain processes sound might provide a simple and reliable measure of concussion, a small study suggests. If the method works, it could help scientists work out how best to treat the poorly understood brain injury. In a paper published on 22 December in Scientific Reports1, neuroscientist Nina Kraus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and other researchers say that they have found that a particular signal in neural activity, recorded with electrodes placed on the head as children listen to 'da' sounds from a speech synthesizer, can objectively demarcate concussed children from a healthy control group. The research was done on just 40 people — a tiny group — and will have to be repeated in larger samples. But other researchers are still excited by the report, because concussion is hard to diagnose, particularly in children. The study “may for the first time offer a simple and objective biomarker to measure the severity of brain injuries”, says Thomas Wisniewski, a neurologist at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. There is intense interest in finding a clear-cut biological signature for concussion, he says. “We have been crying out for a reliable method." Millions of people enter hospitals every year with blows to the head, and some of have concussion, a minor brain injury that can betoken more serious damage. To diagnose it, physicians rely on subjective complaints of dizziness, coordination tests and sometimes more involved procedures, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scans. But there’s no single objective way to detect concussion and measure its severity — and no simple test that can be administered regularly to determine when someone has recovered, a particularly important issue for athletes keen to be allowed back on the field. © 2016 Macmillan Publishers Limited
Jon Hamilton For patients with serious brain injuries, there's a strong link between sleep patterns and recovery. A study of 30 patients hospitalized for moderate to severe traumatic brain injuries found that sleep quality and brain function improved in tandem, researchers reported Wednesday in the journal Neurology. Patients who still had low levels of consciousness and cognitive functioning would "sleep for a couple of minutes and then wake up for a couple of minutes," both day and night, says Nadia Gosselin, the study's senior author and an assistant professor in the psychology department at the University of Montreal. But "when the brain recovered, the [normal] sleep-wake cycle reappeared," Gosselin says. The results raise the possibility that patients with brain injuries might recover more quickly if hospitals took steps to restore normal sleep patterns, Gosselin says. Drugs are one option, she says. Another is making sure patients are exposed to sunlight or its equivalent during the day and at night rest in a dark, quiet environment. "I think bad sleep can have bad consequences for brain recovery," she says. The findings are consistent with other research showing that "sleep is essential to restore body and brain functions," according to an editorial accompanying the study. The editorial was written by Andrea Soddu of the University of Western Ontario, and Claudio Bassetti of University Hospital Inselspital Bern in Switzerland. © 2016 npr
Ramin Skibba The high-pitched squeals of the humble bat may be as complex as the calls of dolphins and monkeys, researchers have found. A study published on 22 December in Scientific Reports1 reveals that the fruit bat is one of only a few animals known to direct its calls at specific individuals in a colony, and suggests that information in the calls of many social animals may be more detailed than was previously thought. Bats are noisy creatures, especially in their crowded caves, where they make calls to their neighbours. “If you go into a fruit-bat cave, you hear a cacophony,” says Yossi Yovel, a neuroecologist at Tel Aviv University in Israel who led the study. Until now, it has been difficult to separate this noise into distinct sounds, or to determine what prompted the individual to make a particular call. “Animals make sounds for a reason,” says Whitlow Au, a marine-bioacoustics scientist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “Most of the time, we don’t quite understand those reasons.” To find out what bats are talking about, Yovel and his colleagues monitored 22 captive Egyptian fruit bats (Rousettus aegyptiacus) around the clock for 75 days. They modified a voice-recognition program to analyse approximately 15,000 vocalizations collected during this time. The program was able to tie specific sounds to different social interactions captured by video, such as when two bats fought over food. © 2016 Macmillan Publishers
By Vik Adhopia, CBC News Every eight minutes someone in Canada has a stroke. But the odds of survival are getting better because of a new emergency intervention being offered at 22 hospitals across Canada. Spencer Higdon, 63, successfully received the procedure at Toronto Western Hospital in April after suddenly collapsing in his bathroom. "I was stepping into the shower and I dropped like a tonne of bricks." he said. When he regained consciousness he knew he'd had a stroke. "I couldn't move my right leg, my right arm, I couldn't speak, and I had difficulty moving my head." Physicians confirmed he'd had an ischemic stroke — a blood clot in his brain. Unless the blockage was cleared within a few hours, his paralysis would likely be permanent, or worse, he'd die. Higdon later learned from one of the treating physicians that because of the position of the clot in the brainstem, the consequences of his stroke could have been devastating. "She said it's called 'locked-in syndrome,' where your brain works just fine but nothing else in your body moves. You're lying in a bed and the only way to communicate is through your eyes. And that just horrified me." The procedure used to remove Higdon's clot, known as a thrombectomy, involves feeding a tiny catheter into an artery near the groin, all the way up into the brain and through the blockage. The device is expanded to grab the clot. Then it's pulled out, allowing the blood to flow again. Advanced imaging equipment helps navigate the catheter. For Higdon, the entire procedure took eight minutes, a record for the stroke team at Toronto Western. ©2016 CBC/Radio-Canada.
Link ID: 22999 - Posted: 12.20.2016
By Veronique Greenwood Baffling grammar, strange vowels, quirky idioms and so many new words—all of this makes learning a new language hard work. Luckily, researchers have discovered a number of helpful tricks, ranging from exposing your ears to a variety of native speakers to going to sleep soon after a practice session. A pair of recent papers suggests that even when you are not actively studying, what you hear can affect your learning and that sometimes listening without speaking works best. In one study, published in 2015 in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, linguists found that people who took breaks from learning new sounds performed just as well as those who took no breaks, as long as the sounds continued to play in the background. The researchers trained two groups of people to distinguish among trios of similar sounds—for instance, Hindi has “p,” “b” and a third sound English speakers mistake for “b.” One group practiced telling these apart one hour a day for two days. Another group alternated between 10 minutes of the task and 10 minutes of a “distractor” task that involved matching symbols on a worksheet while the sounds continued to play in the background. Remarkably, the group that switched between tasks improved just as much as the one that focused on the distinguishing task the entire time. “There's something about our brains that makes it possible to take advantage of the things you've already paid attention to and to keep paying attention to them,” even when you are focused on something else, suggests Melissa Baese-Berk, a linguist at the University of Oregon and a co-author of the study. In a 2016 study published in the Journal of Memory and Language, Baese-Berk and another colleague found that it is better to listen to new sounds silently rather than practice saying them yourself at the same time. Spanish speakers learning to distinguish among sounds in the Basque language performed more poorly when they were asked to repeat one of the sounds during training. The findings square with what many teachers have intuited—that a combination of focused practice and passive exposure to a language is the best approach. “You need to come to class and pay attention,” Baese-Berk says, “but when you go home, turn on the TV or turn on the radio in that language while you're cooking dinner, and even if you're not paying total attention to it, it's going to help you.” © 2016 Scientific American
Carl Zimmer Primates are unquestionably clever: Monkeys can learn how to use money, and chimpanzees have a knack for game theory. But no one has ever taught a nonhuman primate to say “hello.” Scientists have long been intrigued by the failure of primates to talk like us. Understanding the reasons may offer clues to how our own ancestors evolved full-blown speech, one of our most powerful adaptations. On Friday, a team of researchers reported that monkeys have a vocal tract capable of human speech. They argue that other primates can’t talk because they lack the right wiring in their brains. “A monkey’s vocal tract would be perfectly adequate to produce hundreds, thousands of words,” said W. Tecumseh Fitch, a cognitive scientist at the University of Vienna and a co-author of the new study. Human speech results from a complicated choreography of flowing air and contracting muscles. To make a particular sound, we have to give the vocal tract a particular shape. The vocal tracts of other primates contain the same elements as ours — from vocal cords to tongues to lips — but their geometry is different. That difference long ago set scientists to debating whether primates could make speechlike sounds. In the 1960s, Philip H. Lieberman, now a professor emeritus of Brown University, and his colleagues went so far as to pack a dead monkey’s vocal tract with plaster to get a three-dimensional rendering. © 2016 The New York Times Company
By Michael Price The famed parrot Alex had a vocabulary of more than 100 words. Kosik the elephant learned to “speak” a bit of Korean by using the tip of his trunk the way people whistle with their fingers. So it’s puzzling that our closest primate cousins are limited to hoots, coos, and grunts. For decades, monkeys’ and apes’ vocal anatomy has been blamed for their inability to reproduce human speech sounds, but a new study suggests macaque monkeys—and by extension, other primates—could indeed talk if they only possessed the brain wiring to do so. The findings might provide new clues to anthropologists and language researchers looking to pin down when humans learned to speak. “This certainly shows that the macaque vocal tract is capable of a lot more than has previously been assumed,” says John Esling, a linguist and phonetics expert at the University of Victoria in Canada, who was not involved with the work. The study’s lead author, William Tecumseh Sherman Fitch III, an evolutionary biologist and cognitive scientist at the University of Vienna, says the question of why monkeys and apes can’t speak goes back to Darwin. (Yes, Fitch is the great-great-great-grandson of U.S. Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman.) Darwin thought nonhuman primates couldn’t talk because they didn’t have the brains, he says. But over time, anthropologists instead embraced the idea that the primates’ vocal tracts were holding them back: They simply lacked the flexibility to produce the wide range of vowels present in human speech. That remains the “textbook answer” today, Fitch says. © 2016 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Men and women who suffered traumatic brain injuries had more than twice the risk of winding up in a federal prison in Canada as their uninjured peers, a new study shows. That doesn't surprise Dr. Geoffrey Manley, a neurosurgeon who runs a trauma centre. He knows all too well the long-term struggles of survivors of traumatic brain injuries. "Because there's no system of care for these individuals, they fall into the cracks and get themselves in trouble. And we really as a society are not doing a good job of taking care of people with traumatic brain injuries," Manley, who was not involved in the study, said in a phone interview. For 13 years, researchers followed more than 1.4 million people who were eligible for health care in Ontario and were between the ages of 18 and 28 in 1997. As reported in CMAJ Open, the open-access journal of the Canadian Medical Association, the research team linked subjects' health records to correctional records, adjusted for a variety of factors like age and substance abuse, and found that men with traumatic brain injuries were 2.5 times more likely to serve time in a Canadian federal prison than men without head injuries. Female prisoners were even more likely to have survived traumatic brain injuries. For women with these injuries, the risk of winding up in a Canadian federal prison was 2.76 times higher than it was for uninjured women, although the authors caution that the pool of incarcerated females was small, accounting for only 210 of the more than 700,000 women studied. ©2016 CBC/Radio-Canada.