Chapter 15. Brain Asymmetry, Spatial Cognition, and Language

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by Laura Sanders Like every other person who carries around a smartphone, I take a lot of pictures, mostly of my kids. I thought I was bad with a few thousand snaps filling my phone’s memory. But then I talked to MIT researcher Deb Roy. For three years, Roy and a small group of researchers recorded every waking moment of Roy’s son’s life at home, amassing over 200,000 hours of video and audio recordings. Roy’s intention wasn’t to prove he was the proudest parent of all time. Instead, he wanted to study how babies learn to say words. As a communication and machine learning expert, Roy and his wife Rupal Patel, also a speech researcher, recognized that having a child would be a golden research opportunity. The idea to amass this gigantic dataset “was kicking around and something we thought about for years,” Roy says. So after a pregnancy announcement and lots of talking and planning and “fascinating conversations” with the university administration in charge of approving human experiments, the researchers decided to go for it. To the delight of his parents, a baby boy arrived in 2005. When Roy and Patel brought their newborn home, the happy family was greeted by 11 cameras and 14 microphones, tucked up into the ceiling. From that point on, cameras rolled whenever the baby was awake. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2015

Keyword: Language; Development of the Brain
Link ID: 21429 - Posted: 09.22.2015

By JAMES GORMAN Among the deep and intriguing phenomena that attract intense scientific interest are the birth and death of the universe, the intricacies of the human brain and the way dogs look at humans. That gaze — interpreted as loving or slavish, inquisitive or dumb — can cause dog lovers to melt, cat lovers to snicker, and researchers in animal cognition to put sausage into containers and see what wolves and dogs will do to get at it. More than one experiment has made some things pretty clear. Dogs look at humans much more than wolves do. Wolves tend to put their nose to the Tupperware and keep at it. This evidence has led to the unsurprising conclusion that dogs are more socially connected to humans and wolves more self-reliant. Once you get beyond the basics, however, agreement is elusive. In order to assess the latest bit of research, published in Biology Letters Tuesday by Monique Udell at Oregon State University, some context can be drawn from an earlier experiment that got a lot of attention more than a decade ago. In a much publicized paper in 2003, Adam Miklosi, now director of the Family Dog Project, at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, described work in which dogs and wolves who were raised by humans learned to open a container to get food. Then they were presented with the same container, modified so that it could not be opened. Wolves persisted, trying to solve the unsolvable problem, while dogs looked back at nearby humans. At first glance it might seem to a dog lover that the dogs were brilliant, saying, in essence, “Can I get some help here? You closed it; you open it.” But Dr. Miklosi didn’t say that. He concluded that dogs have a genetic predisposition to look at humans, which could have been the basis for the intense but often imperfect communication that dogs and people engage in. © 2015 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Animal Communication; Language
Link ID: 21416 - Posted: 09.16.2015

By CLYDE HABERMAN Perhaps no crime staggers the mind, or turns the stomach, more than the murder of a baby, and so it is not a surprise when law enforcement comes down hard on the presumed killers. Often enough, these are men and women accused of having succumbed to sudden rage or simmering frustration and literally shaken the life out of a helpless infant who would not stop crying or would not fall asleep. Shaken baby syndrome has been a recognized diagnosis for several decades, though many medical professionals now prefer the term abusive head trauma. It is defined by a constellation of symptoms known as the triad: brain swelling, bleeding on the surface of the brain and bleeding behind the eyes. For years, those three symptoms by themselves were uniformly accepted as evidence that a crime had been committed, even in the absence of bruises, broken bones or other signs of abuse. While many doctors, maybe most, still swear by the diagnosis, a growing number have lost faith. Not that they doubt that some babies have been abused. But these skeptics assert that factors other than shaking, and having nothing to do with criminal behavior, may sometimes explain the triad. Has the syndrome been diagnosed too liberally? Are some innocent parents and other caretakers being wrongly sent to prison? Those questions, at the complex intersection of medicine and the law, can stir strong emotions among doctors, parents and prosecutors. They shape this first installment in a new series of Retro Report, video documentaries that explore major news stories of the past and their enduring consequences. The video’s starting point is a Massachusetts criminal case that introduced the concept of shaken baby syndrome to many Americans: the 1997 murder trial of Louise Woodward, an 18-year-old British au pair accused of having shaken an 8-month-old boy, Matthew Eappen, so aggressively that he died. Matthew also had injuries that may have predated Ms. Woodward’s joining the Eappen family in Newton, outside Boston. The focus, however, was on the triad of symptoms. To prosecution witnesses, they proved that the baby had been shaken violently, his head hitting some hard surface. © 2015 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Brain Injury/Concussion; Development of the Brain
Link ID: 21405 - Posted: 09.14.2015

By Emily Chung, Whadd'ya at? Ow ya goin'? If you were at a picnic with a bunch of Newfoundlanders or Australians, those are the greetings you might fling around. Similarly, scientists who eavesdrop on sperm whales – Moby Dick's species — have found they also have distinct "dialects." And a new study suggests like human dialects, they arise through cultural learning. "Cultural transmission seems key to the partitioning of sperm whales into… clans," the researchers wrote in a paper published today in the journal Nature Communications. Sperm whales live around the world, mainly in deeper waters far offshore. The solitary males live in colder areas, and roam in Canadian waters in areas where the ocean depth is more than 1000 metres, says Mauricio Cantor, the Dalhousie University PhD. student who led the new study with Hal Whitehead, a Dalhousie biology professor. The females live in warmer, more southern waters, in loose family groups of around seven to 12 whales – sisters, aunts, grandmothers, cousins, and the occasional unrelated friend and their calves. Sometimes, they meet up with other families for gatherings of up to 200 whales, similar to human picnics or festivals. These can last from a few hours to a few days. The whales that gather in these groups, called clans, have distinct "dialects" of patterns of clicks called codas that are distinct from the clicks they use in echolocation when they're hunting for food. They use codas talk to each other when they surface between dives. ©2015 CBC/Radio-Canada.

Keyword: Language; Evolution
Link ID: 21388 - Posted: 09.09.2015

By Michael Balter If you find yourself along the Atlantic coastal border between Spain and France, here are some phrases that might come in handy: Urte askotarako! (“Pleased to meet you!”), Eskerrik asko! (“Thank you!”), and Non daude komunak? (“Where is the toilet?”). Welcome to Basque Country, where many people speak a musical language that has no known relationship to any other tongue. Many researchers have assumed that Basque must represent a “relic language” spoken by the hunter-gatherers who occupied Western Europe before farmers moved in about 7500 years ago. But a new study contradicts that idea and concludes that the Basques are descended from a group of those early farmers that kept to itself as later waves of migration swept through Europe. The great majority of Europeans speak languages belonging to the Indo-European family, which includes such diverse tongues as German, Greek, Spanish, and French; a smaller number speak Uralic languages like Finnish, Hungarian, and Estonian. But Basque stands truly alone; what linguists call a “language isolate.” This uniqueness is a source of pride among the nearly 700,000 Basque speakers, some of whom have called for the creation of an independent nation separate from Spain and France. For scientists, however, Basque is a major unsolved mystery. In the 19th century, some anthropologists claimed that Basques had differently shaped skulls than other Europeans. Yet although that racial idea had been discredited by the 20th century, researchers have been able to show that the Basques have a striking number of genetic differences that set them apart from other Europeans. Variations in their immune cells and proteins include a higher-than-normal frequency of Rh-negative blood types, for example. Those findings led to the hypothesis that the Basques descended from early hunter-gatherers who had somehow avoided being genetically overwhelmed when farming spread into Europe from the Near East. But some recent studies have questioned just how genetically distinct the Basques really are. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Language
Link ID: 21384 - Posted: 09.08.2015

By Amy Ellis Nutt There may finally be an explanation for why men are often less verbally adept than women at expressing themselves. It's the testosterone. Scientists have long known that language development is different between boys and girls. But in scanning the brains of 18 individuals before and after undergoing hormone treatment for female-to-male sex reassignment, Austrian and Dutch researchers found evidence of specific brain structure differences. In particular, they found two areas in the left hemispheres of the transgender men that lost gray matter volume during high-testosterone treatment over a period of four weeks: Broca's area, which is involved in the production of language, and Wernicke's area, which processes language. All of which suggests, according to the study, which was presented this week at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology Congress, why verbal abilities are often stronger in women than men. "In more general terms, these findings may suggest that a genuine difference between the brains of women and men is substantially attributable to the effects of circulating hormones," said one of the researchers at the conference, Rupert Lanzenberger from Vienna. "Moreover, the hormonal influence on human brain structure goes beyond the early developmental phase and is still present in adulthood." Previous research has shown that higher testosterone is linked to smaller vocabulary in children and also that verbal fluency skills seemed to decrease after female-to-male sex reassignment testosterone treatment.

Keyword: Language; Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 21381 - Posted: 09.03.2015

Christopher Joyce Ornithologist Arthur Allen of the Cornell Lab or Ornithology was a pioneer, hauling balky recording gear into the wilderness in the 1940s, and actually cutting acetate records of bird song on-site. Let's fast forward 45 years, and talk to Ted Parker, who inherited Allen's gift for recording birds and but added a twist. "Up here in the canopy, these are the hardest birds to detect," he told an NPR Radio Expeditions team in 1991 in the Bolivian rain forest. Parker was an ornithologist with Conservation International who spent months at a time in the tropics, lugging around a portable tape recorder. His skill in using his ears to investigate the world was legendary. "My parents bought me records of bird recordings that were made by people at Cornell," Parker tells the NPR team in 1991. "I spent hours moving the needle back and forth, and back and forth, and my mother would say, 'You are going to destroy the record player.' " Some called Parker the Mozart of ornithology. He'd memorized the sounds of more than 4,000 bird species. He used this knowledge and his tape recorder to quickly take an extensive and detailed census of birds in the tropics. "These birds spend all their time in that foliage that's 130 to 140 feet above the ground," Parker explains on the tape. "And if you don't know their voices, there's no way you could come to a place like this and come up with a good list of canopy species." © 2015 NPR

Keyword: Animal Communication; Language
Link ID: 21380 - Posted: 09.03.2015

By Christian Jarrett If we’re being honest, most of us have at least some selfish aims – to make money, to win a promotion at work, and so on. But importantly, we pursue these goals while at the same time conforming to basic rules of decency. For example, if somebody helps us out, we’ll reciprocate, even if doing so costs us time or cash. Yet there is a minority of people out there who don’t play by these rules. These selfish individuals consider other people as mere tools to be leveraged in the pursuit of their aims. They think nothing of betrayal or backstabbing, and they basically believe everyone else is in it for themselves too. Psychologists call these people “Machiavellians,” and there’s a questionnaire that tests for this trait (one of the so-called “dark triad” of personality traits along with narcissism and psychopathy). People high in Machiavellianism are more likely to agree with statements like: It is wise to flatter important people and The best way to handle people is to tell them what they want to hear. Calling them Machiavellian is too kind. These people are basically jerks. Related Stories Inside the Brains of Happily Married Couples Lonely People’s Brains Work Differently Now a team of Hungarian researchers from the University of Pécs has scanned the brains of high scorers on Machiavellianism while they played a simple game of trust. Reporting their results in the journal Brain and Cognition, the researchers said they found that Machiavellians’ brains went into overdrive when they encountered a partner who exhibited signs of being fair and cooperative. Why? Tamas Bereczkei and his team say it’s because the Machiavellians are immediately figuring out how to exploit the situation for their own gain. The game involved four stages and the student participants — a mix of high and low scorers on Machiavellianism — played several times with different partners. First, the participants were given roughly $5 worth of Hungarian currency and had to decide how much to “invest” in their partner. Any money they invested was always tripled as it passed to their partner. © 2015, New York Media LLC.

Keyword: Emotions
Link ID: 21324 - Posted: 08.22.2015

By Catherine Saint Louis People who work 55 hours or more per week have a 33 percent greater risk of stroke and a 13 percent greater risk of coronary heart disease than those working standard hours, researchers reported on Wednesday in the Lancet. The new analysis includes data on more than 600,000 individuals in Europe, the United States and Australia, and is the largest study thus far of the relationship between working hours and cardiovascular health. But the analysis was not designed to draw conclusions about what caused the increased risk and could not account for all relevant confounding factors. “Earlier studies have pointed to heart attacks as a risk of long working hours, but not stroke,” said Dr. Urban Janlert, a professor of public health at Umea University in Sweden, who wrote an accompanying editorial. “That’s surprising.” Mika Kivimaki, a professor of epidemiology at University College London, and his colleagues combined the results of multiple studies and tried to account for factors that might skew the results. In addition to culling data from published studies, the researchers also compiled unpublished information from public databases and asked authors of previous work for additional data. Dr. Steven Nissen, the chief of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, found the methodology unconvincing. “It’s based upon exclusively observational studies, many of which were unpublished,” and some never peer-reviewed, he said. Seventeen studies of stroke included 528,908 men and women who were tracked on average 7.2 years. Some 1,722 nonfatal and deadly strokes were recorded. After controlling for smoking, physical activity and high blood pressure and cholesterol, the researchers found a one-third greater risk of stroke among those workers who reported logging 55 or more hours weekly, compared with those who reported working the standard 35 to 40 hours. © 2015 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Stroke; Stress
Link ID: 21323 - Posted: 08.22.2015

Bill McQuay The natural world is abuzz with the sound of animals communicating — crickets, birds, even grunting fish. But scientists learning to decode these sounds say the secret signals of African elephants — their deepest rumblings — are among the most intriguing calls any animal makes. Katy Payne, the same biologist who recognized song in the calls of humpback whales in the 1960s, went on to help create the Elephant Listening Project in the Central African Republic in the 1980s. At the time, Payne's team was living in shacks in a dense jungle inhabited by hundreds of rare forest elephants. That's where one of us — Bill McQuay — first encountered the roar of an elephant in 2002, while reporting a story for an NPR-National Geographic collaboration called Radio Expeditions. Here's how Bill remembers that day in Africa: I was walking through this rainforest to an observation platform built up in a tree — out of the reach of the elephants. I climbed up onto the platform, a somewhat treacherous exercise with all my recording gear. Then I set up my recording equipment, put on the headphones, and started listening. That first elephant roar sounded close. But I was so focused on the settings on my recorder that I didn't bother to look around. The second roar sounded a lot closer. I thought, this is so cool! What I didn't realize was, there was this huge bull elephant standing right underneath me — pointing his trunk up at me, just a few feet away. Apparently he was making a "dominance display." © 2015 NPR

Keyword: Language; Evolution
Link ID: 21319 - Posted: 08.20.2015

Alexander Christie-Miller You could say they sent the first tweets. An ancient whistling language that sounds a little like birdsong has been found to use both sides of the brain – challenging the idea that the left side is all important for communicating. The whistling language is still used by around 10,000 people in the mountains of north-east Turkey, and can carry messages as far as 5 kilometres. Researchers have now shown that this language involves the brain’s right hemisphere, which was already known to be important for understanding music. Until recently, it was thought that the task of interpreting language fell largely to the brain’s left hemisphere. Onur Güntürkün of Ruhr University Bochum in Germany wondered whether the musical melodies and frequencies of whistled Turkish might require people to use both sides of their brain to communicate. His team tested 31 fluent whistlers by playing slightly different spoken or whistled syllables into their left and right ears at the same time, and asking them to say what they heard. The left hemisphere depends slightly more on sounds received by the right ear, and vice versa for the right hemisphere. By comparing the number of times the whistlers reported the syllables that had been played into either their right or left ear, they could tell how often each side of the brain was dominant. As expected, when the syllables were spoken, the right ear and left hemisphere were dominant 75 per cent of the time. But when syllables were whistled, the split between right and left dominance was about even. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Keyword: Language; Laterality
Link ID: 21309 - Posted: 08.18.2015

By Perri Klass, A little more than a year ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement saying that all pediatric primary care should include literacy promotion, starting at birth. That means pediatricians taking care of infants and toddlers should routinely be advising parents about how important it is to read to even very young children. The policy statement, which I wrote with Dr. Pamela C. High, included a review of the extensive research on the links between growing up with books and reading aloud, and later language development and school success. But while we know that reading to a young child is associated with good outcomes, there is only limited understanding of what the mechanism might be. Two new studies examine the unexpectedly complex interactions that happen when you put a small child on your lap and open a picture book. This month, the journal Pediatrics published a study that used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study brain activity in 3-to 5-year-old children as they listened to age-appropriate stories. The researchers found differences in brain activation according to how much the children had been read to at home. Children whose parents reported more reading at home and more books in the home showed significantly greater activation of brain areas in a region of the left hemisphere called the parietal-temporal-occipital association cortex. This brain area is “a watershed region, all about multisensory integration, integrating sound and then visual stimulation,” said the lead author, Dr. John S. Hutton, a clinical research fellow at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. This region of the brain is known to be very active when older children read to themselves, but Dr. Hutton notes that it also lights up when younger children are hearing stories. What was especially novel was that children who were exposed to more books and home reading showed significantly more activity in the areas of the brain that process visual association, even though the child was in the scanner just listening to a story and could not see any pictures. © 2015 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Language; Development of the Brain
Link ID: 21308 - Posted: 08.18.2015

Every brain cell has a nucleus, or a central command station. Scientists have shown that the passage of molecules through the nucleus of a star-shaped brain cell, called an astrocyte, may play a critical role in health and disease. The study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, was partially funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “Unexpectedly we may have discovered a hidden pathway to understanding how astrocytes respond to injury and control brain processes. The pathway may be common to many brain diseases and we’re just starting to follow it,” said Katerina Akassoglou, Ph.D., a senior investigator at the Gladstone Institute for Neurological Disease, a professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco, and a senior author of the study. Some neurological disorders are associated with higher than normal brain levels of the growth factor TGF-beta, including Alzheimer's disease and brain injury. Previous studies found that after brain injury, astrocytes produce greater amounts of p75 neurotrophin receptor (p75NTR), a protein that helps cells detect growth factors. The cells also react to TGF-beta by changing their shapes and secreting proteins that alter neuronal activity. Dr. Akassoglou’s lab showed that eliminating the p75NTR gene prevented hydrocephalus in mice genetically engineered to have astrocytes that produce higher levels of TGF-beta. Hydrocephalus is a disorder that fills the brain with excess cerebral spinal fluid. Eliminating the p75NTR gene also prevented astrocytes in the brains of the mice from forming scars after injuries and restored gamma oscillations, which are patterns of neuronal activity associated with learning and memory.

Keyword: Brain Injury/Concussion; Glia
Link ID: 21307 - Posted: 08.18.2015

Geoff Brumfiel Learning to make sounds by listening to others is a skill that helps make us human. But research now suggests a species of monkey may have evolved similar abilities. Marmosets have the capacity to learn calls from their parents, according to research published Thursday in the journal Science. The results mean that studying marmosets might provide insights into developmental disorders found in humans. It also suggests that vocal learning may be more widespread than many researchers thought. Many animals can link sounds with meaning. Dogs respond to simple calls; chimpanzees can even communicate with people using sign language. But the ability to hear a sound and mimic it is possessed by only a small number of species: primarily song birds and humans. "We didn't think that mammals and primates in particular — besides us — had any type of vocal learning," says Asif Ghazanfar, a neuroscientist at Princeton University who led the new study. Enter the small, adorable common marmoset. These fuzzy South American primates look more like squirrels than a monkey. "They're cute, and they smell. They wash themselves in their own urine," Ghazanfar says. "I'm not sure why they do that." But once you get over the stink, these little guys are interesting. Marmoset mommies always give birth to twins and they need help rearing them. So, unlike many mammal species, fathers lend a hand, along with siblings and other community members. Ghazanfar thinks all that child care is what gives marmosets another special trait: They're super talkative. "They're chattering nonstop," he says. "That is also very different from our close relatives the chimpanzees." © 2015 NPR

Keyword: Language; Evolution
Link ID: 21300 - Posted: 08.15.2015

By Janet Davison, CBC News Maddy Huggins would binge drink as a teenager and black out, just like other kids at her high school in Kelowna, B.C. When she went backpacking during her gap year, there were more alcoholic overloads and "really risky" moments when something bad could have transpired. "Nothing too terrible happened, but there was the potential for that," says Huggins, 22, who's just about to start fourth year at the University of Saskatchewan. As she settled into university, however, Huggins did some serious thinking about alcohol in her life. "It was just a gradual progression where I was like, 'OK, enough of this.'" These days, Huggins knows her low-risk alcoholic limits and won't hesitate to order water even if her friends are going for something stronger. But other young Canadian women haven't stepped back like that. Reports suggest the percentage of young women binge drinking — defined now as having at least four drinks per occasion at least once a month — is on the rise and encompasses nearly one in four Canadian women between 20 and 34. Indeed, the trend has become so pronounced that the Paris-based Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development warned in May that binge drinking by young people, including in Canada, has become a "major public health and social concern." Looming problems It's a concern that goes beyond the headline issues like date rape and campus horrors to where health scientists are warning that because of physiology — women generally weigh less than men, have a higher percentage of body fat and smaller livers — excessive drinking by young women is setting them up for a series of health problems down the road. ©2015 CBC/Radio-Canada

Keyword: Drug Abuse; Stroke
Link ID: 21282 - Posted: 08.10.2015

Rachel Martin The National Football League held its annual hall of fame induction ceremony Saturday night, in Canton, Ohio. Eight players were given football's highest honor, including a posthumous induction for Junior Seau, the former linebacker for the San Diego Chargers who killed himself in 2012. After his death, Seau's brain showed signs of chronic damage — the same kind of damage that has been found in dozens of other former NFL players. Scientific studies have shown that the kind of repeated hits NFL players take is linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative brain disease. CTE is associated with memory loss, impulse control problems, depression and eventually dementia. Some players are rethinking their careers — like up-and-coming linebacker Chris Borland, who quit after his first season with the 49ers a few months ago — for fear of head injuries. Parents are weighing the risks as well. So when someone like Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka talks, they listen. When host Bryant Gumbel asked Ditka on HBO's Real Sports earlier this year whether, if he had an 8-year-old now, he would want him to play football. "No," he answered. "That's sad. I wouldn't, and my whole life was football. I think the risk is worse than the reward." Tregg Duerson's father, Dave Duerson, a defensive back who played most of his pro football career with the Chicago Bears, killed himself in 2011 in his Miami home. Duerson was part of the legendary '85 team that won the Superbowl, and five years later helped the New York Giants win their own championship. © 2015 NPR

Keyword: Brain Injury/Concussion
Link ID: 21281 - Posted: 08.10.2015

A dipstick inserted into the brain can check its energy levels, just like checking oil levels in a car. The dipstick is already available and can save lives, according to some neuroscientists. “The goal is to save brain tissue,” says Elham Rostami of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. Last month, Rostami and 47 others published guidelines about how and when to use the technique, known as brain microdialysis, in the hope of encouraging more hospitals to adopt it. The approach involves inserting a slim, 1-centimetre-long probe directly into the brain. It measures levels of chemicals in the fluid that bathes brain cells, including glucose, the brain’s main energy source. When used to monitor the brains of people in intensive care after a stroke or head injury, it warns doctors if glucose starts to dip – which can cause brain damage. The probe can theoretically monitor almost any molecule, but Rostami says the most useful parameters are glucose, which shows if there is a good blood supply, and lactate and pyruvate, two metabolites that indicate if brain cells are using the glucose to release energy. Although widely available, the device has so far mainly been used as a research tool rather than to guide treatment. Rostami believes her use of the probe helped save a woman’s life last year. The woman was in intensive care after a stroke involving bleeding on the surface of her brain. The probe revealed that although the bleeding had stopped, the woman’s brain glucose levels had fallen, probably caused by other blood vessels constricting. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Keyword: Stroke; Brain imaging
Link ID: 21270 - Posted: 08.05.2015

// by Richard Farrell Bonobos have a capacity to do something human infants have been shown to do: use a single sound whose meaning varies based on context, a form of "flexible" communication previously thought specific to humans. The finding was made by researchers from the University of Birmingham and the University of Neuchatel, in a paper just published in the journal Peer J. The newly identified bonobo call is a short, high-pitched "peep," made with a closed mouth. The scientists studied the call's acoustic structure and observed that it did not change between what they termed "neutral" and "positive" circumstances (for example, between activities such as feeding or resting), suggesting that other bonobos receiving the call would need to weigh contextual information to discern its meaning. Human babies do something similarly flexible, using sounds called protophones -- different from highly specific sounds such as crying or laughter -- that are made independent of how they are feeling emotionally. The appearance of this capability in the first year of life is "a critical step in the development of vocal language and may have been a critical step in the evolution of human language," an earlier study on infant vocalization noted. The find challenges the idea that calls from primates such as bonobos -- which, along with chimpanzees, are our closest relatives -- are strictly matched with specific contexts and emotions, whether those sounds are territorial barks or shrieks of alarm. © 2015 Discovery Communications, LLC.

Keyword: Language; Evolution
Link ID: 21265 - Posted: 08.05.2015

By Michael Balter Have you ever wondered why you say “The boy is playing Frisbee with his dog” instead of “The boy dog his is Frisbee playing with”? You may be trying to give your brain a break, according to a new study. An analysis of 37 widely varying tongues finds that, despite the apparent great differences among them, they share what might be a universal feature of human language: All of them have evolved to make communication as efficient as possible. Earth is a veritable Tower of Babel: Up to 7000 languages are still spoken across the globe, belonging to roughly 150 language families. And they vary widely in the way they put sentences together. For example, the three major building blocks of a sentence, subject (S), verb (V), and object (O), can come in three different orders. English and French are SVO languages, whereas German and Japanese are SOV languages; a much smaller number, such as Arabic and Hebrew, use the VSO order. (No well-documented languages start sentences or clauses with the object, although some linguists have jokingly suggested that Klingon might do so.) Yet despite these different ways of structuring sentences, previous studies of a limited number of languages have shown that they tend to limit the distance between words that depend on each other for their meaning. Such “dependency” is key if sentences are to make sense. For example, in the sentence “Jane threw out the trash,” the word “Jane” is dependent on “threw”—it modifies the verb by telling us who was doing the throwing, just as we need “trash” to know what was thrown, and “out” to know where the trash went. Although “threw” and “trash” are three words away from each other, we can still understand the sentence easily. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Language; Evolution
Link ID: 21263 - Posted: 08.04.2015

A protein previously linked to acute symptoms following a traumatic brain injury (TBI), may also be responsible for long-term complications that can result from TBI, according to research from the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR), a component of the National Institutes of Health. Using an ultra-sensitive technology, researchers — led by NIH Lasker Clinical Research Scholar and Chief of NINR’s Brain Injury Unit, Tissue Injury Branch Jessica Gill, Ph.D., R.N., — were able to measure levels of the protein, tau, in the blood months and years after individuals (in this case, military personnel) had experienced TBI. They found that these elevated levels of tau — a protein known to have a role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease — are associated with chronic neurological symptoms, including post-concussive disorder (PCD), during which an individual has symptoms such as headache and dizziness in the weeks and months after injury. These chronic neurological symptoms have been linked to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — progressive brain degeneration that leads to dementia following repetitive TBIs — independent of other factors such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The study and an accompanying editorial appear in the August 3 issue of JAMA Neurology. “Our study was limited to identifying the effects of tau accumulation in military personnel who experienced long-term neurological symptoms after a TBI. With further study, our findings may provide a framework for identifying patients who are most at risk for experiencing chronic symptoms related to TBI. Identifying those at risk early in the progression of the disease provides the best opportunity for therapies that can lessen the cognitive declines that may result from these long-term effects,” said Dr. Gill, the study’s lead author.

Keyword: Brain Injury/Concussion
Link ID: 21259 - Posted: 08.04.2015