Sunday, June 30, 2013

Dyslexia: UK Campaign to help dyslexic prisoners

A CHARITY set up by a Benfleet (UK)  family to help cut re-offending rates in prisons is being rolled out across the country.

Jackie Hewitt-Main, of Kents Hill Road, and her two sons, Stuart and Richard, launched the Cascade Foundation in a bid to stop prisoners reverting back to a life of crime and keep them on the straight and narrow once they have served their sentences.

The organisation will work with dyslexic prisoners in UK prisons and use a multi-sensory learning programme and prisoner mentoring scheme to help them develop basic reading and writing skills needed to get by in everyday life.

Jackie, who suffers from dyslexia herself, said: “After years of struggling, it was an epiphany moment for me when I was diagnosed.

“It is easy to believe you are stupid because you have trouble reading and writing, when actually you are not stupid, you just learn differently from how you were made to try and learn in the classroom.

“If we can diagnose dyslexics in prisons properly, help them come to that realisation and give them the basic reading and writing skills they need to interact with society when they are released, it gives them a real opportunity to turn their lives around.”

Jackie, who is a qualified special educational needs teacher, set up a successful pilot project in Chelmsford Prison in 2006 which was largely attributed to a stark drop in reoffending rates among those who took part.

The national average reoffending rate for prisoners within one year of their release is 50 per cent, but of the prisoners released at the end of Jackie’s scheme, only 6 per cent went on to reoffend.

The charity has been set up in conjunction with Benfleet councillor Andrew Sheldon, who suffers from dyslexia, and Hadleigh-based artist Karen Osman.

Mr Sheldon said: “This programme has the potential to impact upon so many lives, not just the prisoners, but also those who would otherwise become victims of their reoffending.

“The results from the Chelmsford pilot Jackie did a few years ago are so encouraging we felt we had to push to get it rolled out across the country.”

The charity was launched by the Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, at an event hosted by Castle Point MP Rebecca Harris in the Houses of Parliament earlier this month.

Mr Grayling said: “The fact that what Jackie did was to find people who had been in the criminal system their whole lives and couldn’t even write a letter, is an indication of the challenge we face, that we do need to recognise that within our prisons there are very specific challenges that can be addressed and can be turned round. Dyslexia is very clearly one of them.”

The Cascade Foundation will be launching its next project in Doncaster Prison in August.

Cuteness can bring out our aggression

Whether we are pinching the cheeks of an adorable toddler or enveloping a beloved pet in a bear hug, most of us have experienced the strange drive to give something cute a gigantic squeeze.

New research by two Yale University psychologists details how the sight of something cute brings out our aggressive side.

Rebecca Dyer and Oriana Aragon investigated “cute aggression” by showing study participants slide shows of either cute, funny or normal animal photographs.

As they watched, the participants held bubble wrap. The researchers, attempting to mimic the common desire to squeeze cute things, told subjects to pop as many or as few bubbles as they wished.

People watching the cute slide show popped significantly more bubbles than those viewing the funny or control pictures, according to results presented at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology annual meeting in New Orleans.

“Some things are so cute that we just can't stand it,” Dyer concludes. Cute aggression's prevalence does not mean that people actually want to harm cuddly critters, Aragon explains.

Rather the response could be protective, or it could be the brain's way of tamping down or venting extreme feelings of giddiness and happiness.

The scientists are currently conducting additional studies to determine what drives the need to squeeze.

Read the article in Scientific America

Babies can read each other’s moods, study finds

Research shows that babies can understand each others emotional signals at five months of age. 

These baby boys are cousins - the one on the left is four months old and the one on the right is five months. 

Credit: Image courtesy of Brigham Young University

Although it may seem difficult for adults to understand what an infant is feeling, a new study from Brigham Young University finds that it's so easy a baby could do it.

Psychology professor Ross Flom's study, published in the academic journal Infancy, shows that infants can recognize each other's emotions by five months of age.

This study comes on the heels of other significant research by Flom on infants' ability to understand the moods of dogs, monkeys and classical music.

Ross Flom
"Newborns can't verbalize to their mom or dad that they are hungry or tired, so the first way they communicate is through affect or emotion," says Flom.

"Thus it is not surprising that in early development, infants learn to discriminate changes in affect."

Infants can match emotion in adults at seven months and familiar adults at six months. In order to test infant's perception of their peer's emotions, Flom and his team of researchers tested a baby's ability to match emotional infant vocalizations with a paired infant facial expression.

"We found that 5 month old infants can match their peer's positive and negative vocalizations with the appropriate facial expression," says Flom.

"This is the first study to show a matching ability with an infant this young. They are exposed to affect in a peer's voice and face which is likely more familiar to them because it's how they themselves convey or communicate positive and negative emotions."

In the study, infants were seated in front of two monitors. One of the monitors displayed video of a happy, smiling baby while the other monitor displayed video of a second sad, frowning baby.

When audio was played of a third happy baby, the infant participating in the study looked longer to the video of the baby with positive facial expressions.

The infant also was able to match negative vocalizations with video of the sad frowning baby. The audio recordings were from a third baby and not in sync with the lip movements of the babies in either video.

"These findings add to our understanding of early infant development by reiterating the fact that babies are highly sensitive to and comprehend some level of emotion," says Flom.

"Babies learn more in their first 2 1/2 years of life than they do the rest of their lifespan, making it critical to examine how and what young infants learn and how this helps them learn other things."

Flom co-authored the study of 40 infants from Utah and Florida with Professor Lorraine Bahrick from Florida International University.

Flom's next step in studying infant perception is to run the experiments with a twist: test whether babies could do this at even younger ages if instead they were watching and hearing clips of themselves.

And while the talking twin babies in this popular YouTube clip are older, it's still a lot of fun to watch them babble at each other.

Journal Reference:
Mariana Vaillant-Molina, Lorraine E. Bahrick, Ross Flom. Young Infants Match Facial and Vocal Emotional Expressions of Other Infants. Infancy, 2013; DOI: 10.1111/infa.12017

Grandparents work to maintain grandchildren's position in England's Outdated Elitist Class system

Children's eventual position in England's outdated, discredited and elitist class system is closely linked to that of their grandparents, not just their parents, English researchers claim.

And where parents have "dropped down" the pseudo socio-economic ladder, the so-called "grandparents effect" often pulls them back up, their research suggests.

The passing on of wealth and property is thought to play some part in this, by supplementing the economic status of the family group.

Researchers at Oxford and Durham universities looked at data on the lives of more than 17,000 people.

Their study, published in the American Sociological Review, involved family groups born in 1946, 1958 and 1970 in England.

It says that among men with both parents and grandparents in the highest socio-economic group, 80% stayed in those positions when they were adults.

But among men whose parents had been upwardly mobile, only 61% stayed in the group they had been born in to.

Women excluded from elite groups
The researchers said that for women, the "grandparents effect" was less strong, with only 66% of women born in to the highest group staying there. Among women whose parents had moved up the ladder, 51% stayed there.

Mobility changes are classed as 'mistakes'
Where grandparents were from a, so-called, higher social class and the parents slipped down, the grandparents effect appeared stronger, "pushing the grandchild back up the social ladder", the researchers claimed.

In such cases there was "a higher level of social mobility, as though grandparents' class background was correcting the mobility 'mistake' made by the parents", they said.

Lead researcher Tak Wing Chan, from the elitist University of Oxford, said: "The grandparents effect in social mobility is found to operate throughout society and is not restricted to the top or bottom of the, so-called, English social elitist class structure.

"It works through a number of channels but mainly through the inheritance of wealth and property, and is aided by durable elitist institutions such as generation-skipping trusts, residential segregation, and other demographic processes.

"Our study reveals that grandparents have a substantial effect on where their grandchildren end up in the discredited English elite class system."

The report says the older generation is now more likely to be healthier and wealthier and more able to  help with childcare payments, as well as passing on financial advantages to grandchildren in the shape of property and savings.

There has been no study done on the detrimental affect that this additional and unplanned burden has on the grandparents future or whether they are able to sustain their achieved level of health and wealth throughout the years needed to support the extended family.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Divorce early in childhood affects parental relationships in adulthood

Divorce has a bigger impact on child-parent relationships if it occurs in the first few years of the child's life, according to new research.

Those who experience parental divorce early in their childhood tend to have more insecure relationships with their parents as adults than those who experience divorce later, researchers say.

R. Chris Fraley
"By studying variation in parental divorce, we are hoping to learn more about how early experiences predict the quality of people's close relationships later in life," says R. Chris Fraley of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Psychologists are especially interested in childhood experiences, as their impact can extend into adulthood, but studying such early experiences is challenging, as people's memories of particular events vary widely.

Parental divorce is a good event to study, he says, as people can accurately report if and when their parents divorced, even if they do not have perfect recollection of the details.

In two studies published today in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Fraley and graduate student Marie Heffernan examined the timing and effects of divorce on both parental and romantic relationships, as well as differences in how divorce affects relationships with mothers versus fathers.

In the first study, they analyzed data from 7,735 people who participated in a survey about personality and close relationships through

More than one-third of the survey participants' parents divorced and the average age of divorce was about 9 years old.

The researchers found that individuals from divorced families were less likely to view their current relationships with their parents as secure.

And people who experienced parental divorce between birth and 3 to 5 years of age were more insecure in their current relationships with their parents compared to those whose parents divorced later in childhood.

"A person who has a secure relationship with a parent is more likely than someone who is insecure to feel that they can trust the parent," Fraley says.

"Such a person is more comfortable depending on the parent and is confident that the parent will be psychologically available when needed."

Although there was a tendency for people to experience more anxiety about romantic relationships if they were from divorced families, the link between parental divorce and insecurity in romantic relationships was relatively weak.

This finding was important, the researchers say, as it shows that divorce does not have a blanket effect on all close relationships in adulthood but rather is selective – affecting some relationships more than others.

They also found that parental divorce tends to predict greater insecurity in people's relationships with their fathers than with their mothers.

While it is premature to speculate on the implications of this work for decision-making regarding child custody, the work is valuable as it suggests that "something as basic as the amount of time that one spends with a parent or one's living arrangements" can shape the quality of child-parent relationships, write Fraley and Heffernan.

"People's relationships with their parents and romantic partners play important roles in their lives," Fraley says.

"This research brings us one step closer to understanding why it is that some people have relatively secure relationships with close others whereas others have more difficulty opening up to and depending on important people in their lives."

Read the full article here

More information: doi: 10.1177/0146167213491503

Friday, June 28, 2013

ADHD: Prolonged MPH Treatment Restores Normal Response to Rewards

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is characterized by abnormal behavioral traits such as inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity.

It is also associated with impaired processing of reward in the brain, meaning that patients need much greater rewards to become motivated.

One of the common treatments for ADHD, methylphenidate (MPH), is known to improve reward processing in the short term, but the long-term effects have remained unclear.

Kei Mizuno from the RIKEN Center for Life Science Technologies, in collaboration with colleagues from several other Japanese research institutions, has now demonstrated that prolonged treatment with MPH brings about stable changes in brain activity that improve reward processing with a commensurate improvement in ADHD symptoms.

ADHD is thought to affect up to 5% of children worldwide, and about half of those will go on to experience symptoms of the disorder into adulthood.

MPH treats the disorder by increasing the levels of the brain chemical dopamine, which is involved in reward processing.

To understand the effect of MPH on ADHD symptoms and specifically reward processing over the longer term, the researchers studied the reward response behavior of ADHD and healthy patients—all children or adolescents—before and after treatment with osmotic release oral system (OROS) MPH.

They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity during a task that saw participants rewarded with payment, but in two different scenarios: a high and a low monetary reward condition.

"In the high monetary reward condition, participants earned higher than the expected reward; whereas in the low monetary condition, participants earned an average reward that was consistently lower than expected," says Mizuno.

The brain images showed that before treatment with OROS-MPH, ADHD patients had lower than normal sensitivity to reward, as demonstrated by their abnormally low brain activity in two parts of the brain associated with reward processing—the nucleus accumbens and the thalamus—during testing under the low monetary reward scenario.

However, after three months of treatment with OROS-MPH, there was no difference in the activity of these brain areas in ADHD patients compared with the healthy controls under any of the reward conditions.

Their sensitivity to reward had returned to normal, and the patients' other ADHD symptoms also showed improvement.

Mizuno says that this study goes further than previous work. "We knew that acute MPH treatment improves reward processing in ADHD," he explains.

"Now we've revealed that decreased reward sensitivity and ADHD symptoms are improved by treatment for three months."

More information: Mizuno, K., et al. Osmotic release oral system-methylphenidate improves neural activity during low reward processing in children and adolescents with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. NeuroImage: Clinical 2, 366–376 (2013).

A New Look Inside Children's Brains

Researchers at the University of Iowa have found that children have a limit to what they can see and remember at a given time, known as visual working memory. 

In tests, the researchers found that 3-year-olds can hold a maximum of 1.3 objects in visual working memory, while 4-year-olds reach capacity at 1.8 objects. 

Adults hit the ceiling at 3 to 4 objects. 

Credit: Sondra Cue, University of Iowa

When young children gaze intently at something or furrow their brows in concentration, you know their minds are busily at work but you're never entirely sure what they're thinking.

Now you can get an inside look. Psychologists led by the University of Iowa for the first time have peered inside the brain with optical neuroimaging to quantify how much 3- and 4-year-old children are grasping when they survey what's around them and to learn what areas of the brain are in play.

The study looks at "visual working memory," a core cognitive function in which we stitch together what we see at any given point in time to help focus attention.

In a series of object-matching tests, the researchers found that 3-year-olds can hold a maximum of 1.3 objects in visual working memory, while 4-year-olds reach capacity at 1.8 objects. By comparison, adults max out at 3 to 4 objects, according to prior studies.

"This is literally the first look into a 3 and 4-year-old's brain in action in this particular working memory task," says John Spencer, psychology professor at the UI and corresponding author of the paper, which appears in the journal NeuroImage.

The research is important, because visual working memory performance has been linked to a variety of childhood disorders, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, developmental coordination disorder as well as affecting children born prematurely.

The goal is to use the new brain imaging technique to detect these disorders before they manifest themselves in children's behaviour later on.

"At a young age, children may behave the same," notes Spencer, who's also affiliated with the Delta Center and whose department is part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, "but if you can distinguish these problems in the brain, then it's possible to intervene early and get children on a more standard trajectory."

Plenty of research has gone into better understanding visual working memory in children and adults. Those prior studies divined neural networks in action using function magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

That worked great for adults, but not so much with children,­ especially young ones, whose jerky movements threw the machine's readings off kilter.

So, Spencer and his team turned to functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), which has been around since the 1960s but has never been used to look at working memory in children as young as three years of age.

"It's not a scary environment," says Spencer of the fNIRS. "No tube, no loud noises. You just have to wear a cap."

Like fMRI, fNIRS records neural activity by measuring the difference in oxygenated blood concentrations anywhere in the brain.

You've likely seen similar technology when a nurse puts your finger in a clip to check your circulation. In the brain, when a region is activated, neurons fire like mad, gobbling up oxygen provided in the blood.

Those neurons need another shipment of oxygen-rich blood to arrive to keep going. The fNIRS measures the contrast between oxygen-rich and oxygen-deprived blood to gauge which area of the brain is going full tilt at a point in time.

The researchers outfitted the youngsters with colorful, comfortable ski hats in which fiber optic wires had been woven.

The children played a computer game in which they were shown a card with one to three objects of different shapes for two seconds.

After a pause of a second, the children were shown a card with either the same or different shapes. They responded whether they had seen a match.

The tests revealed novel insights. First, neural activity in the right frontal cortex was an important barometer of higher visual working memory capacity in both age groups.

This could help clinicians evaluate children's visual working memory at a younger age than before, and work with those whose capacity falls below the norm, the researchers say.

Secondly, 4-year olds showed a greater use than 3-year olds of the parietal cortex, located in both hemispheres below the crown of the head and which is believed to guide spatial attention.

"This suggests that improvements in performance are accompanied by increases in the neural response," adds Aaron Buss, a UI graduate student in psychology and the first author on the paper.

"Further work will be needed to explain exactly how the neural response increases—either through changes in local tuning, or through changes in long range connectivity, or some combination."

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Autism: Hyperconnectivity found in children's brains

The brains of children with autism show higher-than-normal connectivity along many neural networks, a new study from the Stanford University School of Medicine has found.

The study's results may contribute to the development of a brain-based test that could be used to diagnose autism at an early stage.

The findings, published June 26 in JAMA Psychiatry, were unexpected because they contradict prior reports of reduced brain connectivity in adults with autism.

Vinod Menon
"We found that in the brains of children with autism there is a surprisingly high level of hyperconnectivity," said Vinod Menon, PhD, senior author of the study.

Menon is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and a member of the Child Health Research Institute at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital.

Based on measurements taken when the brain was at rest—while study participants were awake but had their eyes closed—at least five major brain networks were hyperconnected in kids with autism.

But the finding was not uniform across the brain; some networks were underconnected.

"We found that there are major differences in the way the brain is functionally organized in children with autism—in how different brain areas are talking to each other," Menon said.

"The challenge is to figure out how these differences contribute to the complex profile of clinical symptoms that characterise autism."

The research team collected functional and structural magnetic resonance imaging scans from 20 children with autism and 20 typically developing children.

Assessment of connectivity was based on observing whether different areas of the brain were activated simultaneously: "Spontaneous synchronization of brain signals across long distances is what underlies the hyperconnectivity we detected," Menon said.

Hyperconnected systems in the brains of children with autism included the salience, default mode, fronto-temporal, motor and visual networks.

The salience network, which was the most heavily hyperconnected in autism, integrates information about outside stimuli with information about internal states, allowing the brain to decide which external stimuli to pay attention to.

Menon's team suggests that the hyperconnected salience network may contribute to decreased interest in social interactions among children with autism.

The new study also raises the possibility that brain scans could someday be used to diagnose autism: It found that hyperconnectivity in the salience network distinguished children with autism with 83 percent accuracy.

The team confirmed this finding with a second, independent set of brain scans from 15 children with autism and 15 typically developing children, which were obtained from a public database.

No diagnostic test based on biological markers currently exists for autism; at present, the diagnosis is based solely on observations of a child's behavior, which means that many children are diagnosed later than would be ideal.

Lucina Uddin
"We are optimistic that the brain network metrics we have identified may be used to help in developing strategies for earlier diagnosis, leading to the possibility of earlier interventions," said Lucina Uddin, PhD, an instructor in psychiatry and behavioural sciences and the study's lead author.

The complete implications of brain hyperconnectivity in children with autism are not entirely clear. In the new study, for instance, the degree of hyperconnectivity in the salience network predicted the severity of a child's restricted and repetitive behaviours—such as intense focus on a particular object or interest—frequently seen in autism.

"We think there might be a relative inability for certain types of external stimuli to engage the brain's attentional system," Menon said.

"As a result, a child with autism may be engrossed in a narrow range of behaviours instead of adaptively responding to external stimuli. That's a hypothesis we plan to test."

It's possible that hyperconnectivity could also contribute to epileptic seizures, which are more common in individuals with autism than in the general population.

Future research could also explore whether hyperconnectivity explains unusual skills seen in some individuals with autism, such as outstanding mnemonic, mathematical or spatial abilities.

"Whether hyperconnectivity can lead to exceptional skills, albeit in restricted domains, is an open question," Menon said. "We don't have answers to that yet."

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Dyslexia and Talent - Rod Nicolson Positive Dyslexia

Rod Nicolson, Professor of Psychology (University of Sheffield).

The Conference on Dyslexia and Talent was a landmark event that brought together from accomplished dyslexics from diverse fields, including a MacArthur Genius award winner, Pulitzer-prize winning poet, CEOs, artists, doctors, lawyers, and leaders in the dyslexia community.

Join the movement at

BBC Radio 4 - The Reason I Jump - Childhood Autism

The Reason I Jump Episode 3 of 5

Duration: 15 minutes

First broadcast: Wednesday 26 June 2013

By Naoki Higashida

Translated by David Mitchell and K.A. Yoshida and introduced by David Mitchell

Read by Kasper Hilton-Hille

Thirteen year old Naoki Higashida reveals how his perception of the world is so alien to those without autism that he is often completely misunderstood. With delicate and moving descriptions he invites us into his world.

He explains how he can be immersed in the beauty of light filtered through his fingertips, or lost in the intricate world of memory and imagination.

Naoki's autism is so severe that he finds it difficult to hold a conversation, and he wrote the book painstakingly, using an 'Alphabet Grid', Japanese character by character.

When the author David Mitchell, whose own son has autism, discovered this extraordinary book, he felt that for the first time his own son was talking to him about what was going on inside his head, through the words of the young author.

Abridged and Produced by Allegra McIlroy.

BBC Radio 4 - Book of the Week, The Reason I Jump, Episode 3

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Autism: Affects social abilities AND a broad range of sensory and motor skills

Lead researcher, Aarti Nair, a student in the San Diego State University/University of California, San Diego Joint Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology reviews MRI scans of children with autism. Credit: SDSU

A group of investigators from San Diego State University's Brain Development Imaging Laboratory are shedding a new light on the effects of autism on the brain.

The team has identified that connectivity between the thalamus, a deep brain structure crucial for sensory and motor functions, and the cerebral cortex, the brain's outer layer, is impaired in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

Led by Aarti Nair, a student in the SDSU/UCSD Joint Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology, the study is the first of its kind, combining functional and anatomical magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques and diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to examine connections between the cerebral cortex and the thalamus.

Ralph-Axel Müller
Nair and Dr. Ralph-Axel Müller, an SDSU professor of psychology who was senior investigator of the study, examined more than 50 children, both with autism and without.

Brain communication
The thalamus is a crucial brain structure for many functions, such as vision, hearing, movement control and attention. In the children with autism, the pathways connecting the cerebral cortex and thalamus were found to be affected, indicating that these two parts of the brain do not communicate well with each other.

"This impaired connectivity suggests that autism is not simply a disorder of social and communicative abilities, but also affects a broad range of sensory and motor systems," Müller said.

Disturbances in the development of both the structure and function of the thalamus may play a role in the emergence of social and communicative impairments, which are among the most prominent and distressing symptoms of autism.

While the findings reported in this study are novel, they are consistent with growing evidence on sensory and motor abnormalities in autism.

They suggest that the diagnostic criteria for autism, which emphasize social and communicative impairment, may fail to consider the broad spectrum of problems children with autism experience.

Childrens' reading success boosted by long-term Individualised Student Instruction

Students who consistently receive individualized reading instruction from first through third grade become better readers than those who don't, according to new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

These findings come after a three-year study that followed several hundred Floridian students, who received varying amounts of individualized instruction, from first to third grade.

"Our results show that children need sustained, effective instruction from first through third grade if they are going to become proficient readers," said psychological scientist Carol McDonald Connor of Arizona State University, who led the research team.

Carol McDonald Connor
Teachers involved in the longitudinal, randomized study used Assessment-to-instruction (A2i) software to make informed decisions about how to tailor reading instruction to meet their students' needs.

Using algorithms, the A2i software recommended specific amounts and types of reading instruction based on the skills of each student.

Data from study showed that students who received Individualised Student Instruction (ISI) in all three grades showed the strongest reading skills by the end of third grade, compared to those who received fewer years of individualized instruction.

"Another way to think about this is that 94 percent of the students in ISI classrooms from first through third grade were reading proficiently, compared to only 78 percent of the children who didn't participate all three years," said Connor.

In fact, students who were in ISI classrooms for all three years often achieved reading skills that were well above grade level expectations by the end of third grade, when measured by nationally-normed reading achievement tests.

The data are particularly promising given that they demonstrate improvement in reading scores for children from an economically and ethnically diverse school district that included urban, suburban, and rural communities.

The findings suggest that, with a little help from software programs such as A2i, teachers may be able to track student reading success and intervene more effectively.

"The individualized instruction was provided by regular classroom teachers," added Connor.

"So, I think the findings demonstrate that we can help teachers become more effective through professional development, supported by technology."

Monday, June 24, 2013

Giving children non-verbal clues about words boosts vocabularies

The clues that parents give toddlers about words can make a big difference in how deep their vocabularies are when they enter school, new research at the University of Chicago shows.

By using words to reference objects in the visual environment, parents can help young children learn new words, according to the research.

It also explores the difficult-to-measure quality of non-verbal clues to word meaning during interactions between parents and children learning to speak.

For example, saying, "There goes the zebra" while visiting the zoo helps a child learn the word "zebra" faster than saying, "Let's go to see the zebra."

Differences in the quality of parents' non-verbal clues to toddlers (what children can see when their parents are talking) explain about a quarter (22 percent) of the differences in those same children's vocabularies when they enter kindergarten, researchers found.

The results are reported in the paper, "Quality of early parent input predicts child vocabulary three years later," published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Erica Cartmill
"Children's vocabularies vary greatly in size by the time they enter school," said lead author Erica Cartmill, a postdoctoral scholar at UChicago.

"Because preschool vocabulary is a major predictor of subsequent school success, this variability must be taken seriously and its sources understood."

Scholars have found that the number of words youngsters hear greatly influences their vocabularies.

Parents with higher socioeconomic status—those with higher income and more education—typically talk more to their children and accordingly boost their vocabularies, research has shown.

That advantage for higher-income families doesn't show up in the quality research, however.

"What was surprising in this study was that social economic status did not have an impact on quality.

Parents of lower social economic status were just as likely to provide high-quality experiences for their children as were parents of higher status," said co-author Susan Goldin-Meadow, the Beardsley Ruml Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology at UChicago.

More information: Quality of early parent input predicts child vocabulary 3 years later,

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Mindfulness: Increasing Wellbeing and Reducing Stress in UK school children

Mindfulness – a mental training that develops sustained attention that can change the ways people think, act and feel – could reduce symptoms of stress and depression and promote wellbeing among school children, according to a new study published online by the British Journal of Psychiatry.

With the summer exam season in full swing, school children are currently experiencing higher levels of stress than at any other time of year.

The research showed that interventions to reduce stress in children have the biggest impact at this time of year.

There is growing evidence that mindfulness-based approaches for adults are effective at enhancing mental health and wellbeing.

However, very few controlled trials have evaluated their effectiveness among young people.

A team of researchers led by Professor Willem Kuyken from the University of Exeter, in association with the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge and the Mindfulness in Schools Project, recruited 522 pupils, aged between 12 and 16 years, from 12 secondary schools to take part in the study.

256 pupils at six of the schools were taught the Mindfulness in Schools Project's curriculum, a nine week introduction to mindfulness designed for the classroom.

Richard Burnett who co-created the curriculum said: "Our mindfulness curriculum aims to engage even the most cynical of adolescent audience with the basics of mindfulness. We use striking visuals, film clips and activities to bring it to life without losing the expertise and integrity of classic mindfulness teaching".

The other 266 pupils at the other six schools did not receive the mindfulness lessons, and acted as a control group.

All the pupils were followed up after a three month period. The follow-up was timed to coincide with the summer exam period – which is a potential time of high stress for young people.

The researchers found that those children who participated in the mindfulness programme reported fewer depressive symptoms, lower stress and greater wellbeing than the young people in the control group.

Encouragingly, around 80% of the young people said they continued using practices taught in MiSP's mindfulness curriculum after completing the nine week programme.

Teachers and schools also rated the curriculum as worthwhile and very enjoyable to learn and teach.

Study of Parents Trying to Fulfill their Dreams through their Children

Some parents desire for their children to fulfill their own unrealized ambitions, just as psychologists have long theorized, according to a new first-of-its-kind study.

Researchers found the more that parents see their child as part of themselves, the more likely they are to want their child to succeed in achieving their own failed dreams.

The results might help explain the actions of so-called "stage moms" or "sports dads" who push their sometimes-unwilling children to become stars of the stage or gridiron, said Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University.

"Some parents see their children as extensions of themselves, rather than as separate people with their own hopes and dreams," Bushman said.

"These parents may be most likely to want their children to achieve the dreams that they themselves have not achieved."

The study was led by Eddie Brummelman of Utrecht University in the Netherlands. It appears online today in the journal PLOS ONE.

The results, while not surprising, had not previously been the subject of empirical research, Bushman said.

"Right from the beginning of psychology, there have been theories that parents transfer their own broken dreams onto their children," he said. "But it really hasn't been experimentally tested until now."

The study, conducted in the Netherlands, involved 73 parents (89 percent mothers) of a child aged 8 to 15.

Parents first completed a scale designed to measure how much they saw their children as part of themselves – from completely separate to nearly the same. This scale is commonly used in psychology, and has been found to be very reliable, Bushman said.

The participants were then randomly separated into two groups. In one group, the parents listed two ambitions they had not been able to achieve in their lives, and wrote about why these ambitions were important to them.

The other group completed a similar exercise, but focused on an acquaintance's ambitions rather than their own.

Some of the dreams that eluded parents included becoming a professional tennis player, writing a published novel and starting a successful business.

Now that the parents were thinking about unfulfilled ambitions, they were asked several questions that probed their desire to have their child achieve their own lost dreams.

For example, they were asked how strongly they agreed with statements like "I hope my child will reach goals that I wasn't able to reach."

Results showed that parents who reflected on their own lost dreams (as compared to those of acquaintances) were more likely to want their children to fulfill them – but only if they felt strongly that their child was a part of themselves.

Researchers identify emotions based on brain activity (fMRI Scans)

For the first time, scientists at Carnegie Mellon University have identified which emotion a person is experiencing based on brain activation. 

This image shows the average positions of brain regions used to identify emotional states. 

Credit: Carnegie Mellon University

For the first time, scientists at Carnegie Mellon University have identified which emotion a person is experiencing based on brain activity.

The study, which will be published in the June 19 issue of PLOS ONE, combines functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and machine learning to measure brain signals to accurately read emotions in individuals.

Led by researchers in CMU's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, the findings illustrate how the brain categorizes feelings, giving researchers the first reliable process to analyze emotions.

Until now, research on emotions has been long stymied by the lack of reliable methods to evaluate them, mostly because people are often reluctant to honestly report their feelings.

Further complicating matters is that many emotional responses may not be consciously experienced.

Identifying emotions based on neural activity builds on previous discoveries by CMU's Marcel Just and Tom M. Mitchell, which used similar techniques to create a computational model that identifies individuals' thoughts of concrete objects, often dubbed "mind reading."

"This research introduces a new method with potential to identify emotions without relying on people's ability to self-report," said Karim Kassam, assistant professor of social and decision sciences and lead author of the study.

"It could be used to assess an individual's emotional response to almost any kind of stimulus, for example, a flag, a brand name or a political candidate."

One challenge for the research team was find a way to repeatedly and reliably evoke different emotional states from the participants.

Traditional approaches, such as showing subjects emotion-inducing film clips, would likely have been unsuccessful because the impact of film clips diminishes with repeated display.

The researchers solved the problem by recruiting actors from CMU's School of Drama.

Read the full article here

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Childhood Obesity: After-school exercise and nutrition programs

Research has shown that children from low-income neighbourhoods are at higher risk of being obese and overweight than children from affluent neighbourhoods; in fact, one-third of low-income children enter kindergarten either overweight or obese.

In an effort to address this issue, UCLA researchers implemented and evaluated the effectiveness of a pilot after-school health-promotion program that focused on increasing students' opportunities for physical activity and healthy snacks—and boosting their knowledge about physical activity and nutrition—at four low-income, diverse elementary schools in Los Angeles County (four additional school sites were used as comparisons). The study involved students in grades 3 through 5.

After-school staff members were trained by UCLA researchers to implement the evidence-based, sequential nutrition and physical activity curriculum.

Data were collected by researchers on students' nutrition and physical activity knowledge and behavior, and their height and weight measurements, at the beginning and end of the academic year.

Results showed that the proportion of children who were obese or overweight in the intervention group decreased by 3.1 percent by the end of the school year, compared with a 2.0 percent reduction among children in the comparison group. The study found mixed results regarding diet and physical activity knowledge and behaviour.

The authors conclude that enhancing after-school physical activity opportunities through evidence-based programs can potentially benefit low-income children who are overweight or obese.

Findings from this study indicate that after-school programs have the potential to provide opportunities for enhanced physical activity and the development of healthy habits in children from socioeconomically disadvantaged families who may have limited access to nutritious foods and environments conducive to physical activity outside of school.

More information:

Learning Disabilities: Fiber-optic pen helps see inside brains of children

Todd Richards demonstrates the pen and pad device while inside the fMRI. 

Credit: Center on (for) Human Development and Disability

For less than $100, University of Washington researchers have designed a computer-interfaced drawing pad that helps scientists see inside the brains of children with learning disabilities while they read and write.

The device and research using it to study the brain patterns of children will be presented June 18 at the Organization for Human Brain Mapping meeting in Seattle.

A paper describing the tool, developed by the UW's Center on (for) Human Development and Disability, was published this spring in Sensors, an online open-access journal.

Thomas Lewis
"Scientists needed a tool that allows them to see in real time what a person is writing while the scanning is going on in the brain," said Thomas Lewis, director of the center's Instrument Development Laboratory.

"We knew that fiber optics were an appropriate tool. The question was, how can you use a fiber-optic device to track handwriting?"

To create the system, Lewis and fellow engineers Frederick Reitz and Kelvin Wu hollowed out a ballpoint pen and inserted two optical fibers that connect to a light-tight box in an adjacent control room where the pen's movement is recorded.

They also created a simple wooden square pad to hold a piece of paper printed with continuously varying colour gradients.

The custom pen and pad allow researchers to record handwriting during functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to assess behaviour and brain function at the same time.

Other researchers have developed fMRI-compatible writing devices, but "I think it does something similar for a tenth of the cost," Reitz said of the UW system.

By using supplies already found in most labs (such as a computer), the rest of the supplies – pen, fiber optics, wooden pad and printed paper – cost less than $100.

The device connects to a computer with software that records every aspect of the handwriting, from stroke order to speed, hesitations and liftoffs.

Understanding how these physical patterns correlate with a child's brain patterns can help scientists understand the neural connections involved.

Researchers studied 11- and 14-year-olds with either dyslexia or dysgraphia, a handwriting and letter-processing disorder, as well as children without learning disabilities.

Subjects looked at printed directions on a screen while their heads were inside the fMRI scanner. The pen and pad were on a foam pad on their laps.

Subjects were given four-minute blocks of reading and writing tasks. Then they were asked to simply think about writing an essay (they later wrote the essay when not using the fMRI).

Just thinking about writing caused many of the same brain responses as actual writing would.

"If you picture yourself writing a letter, there's a part of the brain that lights up as if you're writing the letter," said Todd Richards, professor of radiology and principal investigator of the UW Integrated Brain Imaging Center.

"When you imagine yourself writing, it's almost as if you're actually writing, minus the motion problems."

Richards and his staff are just starting to analyze the data they've collected from about three dozen subjects, but they have already found some surprising results.

"There are certain centers and neural pathways that we didn't necessarily expect" to be activated, Richards said. "There are language pathways that are very well known. Then there are other motor pathways that allow you to move your hands. But how it all connects to the hand and motion is still being understood."

Besides learning disorders, the inexpensive pen and pad also could help researchers study diseases in adults, especially conditions that cause motor control problems, such as stroke, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease.

"There are several diseases where you cannot move your hand in a smooth way or you're completely paralyzed," Richards said.

"The beauty is it's all getting recorded with every stroke, and this device would help us to study these neurological diseases."

Parental cultural attitudes and beliefs affects Children's TV Media Habits

Wanjiku F. M. Njoroge
Differences in parental beliefs and attitudes regarding the effects of media on early childhood development may help explain increasing racial/ethnic disparities in child media viewing/habits, according to a study by Wanjiku F. M. Njoroge, M.D., of Seattle Children's Hospital and the University of Washington, Seattle, and colleagues.

A total of 596 parents of children ages 3 to 5 years completed demographic questionnaires, reported on attitudes regarding media's risks and benefits to their children, and completed one-week media diaries in which they recorded all of the programs their children watched.

According to study results, children watched an average of 462.0 minutes of TV per week, with African American children watching more TV/DVDs per week than did children of other racial/ethnic backgrounds.

The relationship between child race/ethnicity and average weekly media time was no longer statistically significant after controlling for socioeconomic status (parental educational attainment and reported annual family income), indicating that the observed relationship between race/ethnicity and media time was significantly confounded by socioeconomic status (SES).

Significant differences were found between parents of ethnically/racially diverse children and parents of non-Hispanic white children regarding the perceived positive effects of TV viewing, even when parental education and family income were taken into account.

"These findings point to an important relationship between parental attitudes/beliefs about child media use and time that could be useful for intervention work."

The study concludes,

"Because of the strong relationship between socioeconomic status (SES) and media exposure in our sample, future research with larger samples of children from diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds is warranted to better understand the complexities of race/ethnicity, family SES, and parental beliefs and attitudes on child media exposure." 

More information: JAMA Pediatr. Published online June 17, 2013. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.75

Autism Risk: Exposure to high pollution levels during pregnancy

Women in the U.S. exposed to high levels of air pollution while pregnant were up to twice as likely to have a child with autism as women who lived in areas with low pollution, according to a new study from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH).

It is the first large national study to examine links between autism and air pollution across the U.S.

Andrea Roberts
"Our findings raise concerns since, depending on the pollutant, 20% to 60% of the women in our study lived in areas where risk of autism was elevated," said lead author Andrea Roberts, research associate in the HSPH Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

The study appeared online June 18, 2013 in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Exposure to diesel particulates, lead, manganese, mercury, methylene chloride and other pollutants are known to affect brain function and to affect the developing baby.

Two previous studies found associations between exposure to air pollution during pregnancy and autism in children, but those studies looked at data in just three locations in the U.S.

The researchers examined data from Nurses' Health Study II, a long-term study based at Brigham and Women's Hospital involving 116,430 nurses that began in 1989.

Among that group, the authors studied 325 women who had a child with autism and 22,000 women who had a child without the disorder.

They looked at associations between autism and levels of pollutants at the time and place of birth. They used air pollution data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to estimate women's exposure to pollutants while pregnant.

They also adjusted for the influence of factors such as income, education, and smoking during pregnancy.

The results showed that women who lived in the 20% of locations with the highest levels of diesel particulates or mercury in the air were twice as likely to have a child with autism as those who lived in the 20% of areas with the lowest levels.

Other types of air pollution—lead, manganese, methylene chloride, and combined metal exposure—were associated with higher autism risk as well.

Women who lived in the 20% of locations with the highest levels of these pollutants were about 50% more likely to have a child with autism than those who lived in the 20% of areas with the lowest concentrations.

Most pollutants were associated with autism more strongly in boys than girls. However, since there were few girls with autism in the study, the authors said this finding should be examined further.

Marc Weisskopf
Senior author Marc Weisskopf, associate professor of environmental and occupational epidemiology at HSPH, said, "Our results suggest that new studies should begin the process of measuring metals and other pollutants in the blood of pregnant women or newborn children to provide stronger evidence that specific pollutants increase risk of autism. A better understanding of this can help to develop interventions to reduce pregnant women's exposure to these pollutants."

Monday, June 17, 2013

Autism: Voices may not trigger brain's reward centers in children

Brain scans of children with ASD showing weak connections between voice-selective regions and reward pathways. Credit: Daniel A. Abrams, Stanford University.

In autism, brain regions tailored to respond to voices are poorly connected to reward-processing circuits, according to a new study by scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

The research could help explain why children with autism struggle to grasp the social and emotional aspects of human speech.

"Weak brain connectivity may impede children with autism from experiencing speech as pleasurable," said Vinod Menon, PhD, senior author of the study, which will be published online June 17 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Menon is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and a member of the Child Health Research Institute at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital.

"The human voice is a very important sound; it not only conveys meaning but also provides critical emotional information to a child," said Daniel Abrams, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar in psychiatry and behavioural sciences who was the study's lead author.

Insensitivity to the human voice is a hallmark of autism, Abrams said, adding, "We are the first to show that this insensitivity may originate from impaired reward circuitry in the brain."

The study focused on children with a high-functioning form of autism. They had IQ scores in the normal range and could speak and read, but had difficulty holding a back-and-forth conversation or understanding emotional cues in another person's voice.

The scientists compared functional magnetic resonance imaging brain scans from 20 of these children with scans from 19 typically developing children, paying particular attention to a portion of the brain that responds selectively to the sound of human voices.

Prior research has shown that adults with autism had low voice-selective cortex activity in response to speech.

But until this study by Menon and his colleagues, no one had looked at connections between the voice-selective cortex and other brain regions in individuals with autism.

The new study found that in children with a high-functioning form of autism, the voice-selective cortex on the left side of the brain was weakly connected to the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area - brain structures that release dopamine in response to rewards.

The voice-selective cortex on the right side of the brain, which specializes in detecting vocal cues such as intonation and pitch, was weakly connected to the amygdala, which processes emotional cues.

The weaker these connections in children with autism, the worse their communication deficits, the study showed.

The researchers were able to predict the children's scores on the verbal portion of a standard test of autism severity by looking at the degree of impairment in these brain connections.

The findings may help to validate some autism therapies already in use, said co-author Jennifer Phillips, PhD, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford who also treats children with autism at Packard Children's.

For instance, pivotal-response training aims to increase social use of language in children who can speak some words but who usually do not talk to others.

"Pivotal-response training goes after ways to naturally motivate kids to start using language and other forms of social interaction," Phillips said.

Future studies could test whether brain connections leading from voice to reward centers are strengthened by autism therapies, she added.

The findings also help resolve a long-standing debate about why individuals with autism show less-than-normal interest in human voices.

The team investigated two competing theories to explain the phenomenon: that individuals with autism have a deficit in their social motivation, or, alternatively, that they have sensory-processing deficits which impair their ability to fully hear human voices.

The new study found normal connections between voice-selective cortex and primary auditory brain regions in children with high-functioning autism, suggesting that these children do not have sensory-processing deficits.

The next steps for researchers include studying the consequences of the weak voice-to-reward circuit in autism.

"It is likely that children with autism don't attend to voices because they are not rewarding or emotionally interesting, impacting the development of their language and social communication skills," Menon said.

"We have discovered an aberrant brain circuit underlying a core deficit in autism; our findings may aid the development of new treatments for this disorder."

More information: Underconnectivity between voice-selective cortex and reward circuitry in children with autism,

Down's syndrome girl attacked and beaten by girl gang in UK park

A 12-year-old with Down's syndrome has been hospitalised by a vicious girl gang who beat her up in a park.

The youngster was playing in a local park in Bobby Heywood Park, Great Lever, Bolton, Manchester, when she was assaulted by a group of older girls.

The girl was taken to Manchester Children's Hospital with a serious head injury. At first the girl said she had fallen off a swing, after the incident on Wednesday but her family later reported to police on Friday that she had been attacked.

Police are now appealing for anyone who may have been in the park at the time, or has any information about what happened, to contact them.

Detectives are yet to interview the girl as she is still “unwell in hospital”, police said.

Insp Andy Sidebotham, said: "This incident has quite rightly caused a lot of concern both in the community and on social media networks and I want to reassure everyone that we are taking this extremely seriously.

"Due to the girl's obvious vulnerability, this case is clearly very emotive, but I want to stress to everyone that we have launched a painstaking investigation to get to the bottom of what happened.

"It is important that officers are allowed to do our jobs and get on with catching those responsible.

"With that in mind we have been speaking to the victim, her family and witnesses, but we still want to hear from anyone who may have been in the playground last Wednesday afternoon.

The Manchester police are asking the public to come forward with any information they may have.

Dyslexia and Talent - Matt Schneps - Scientist - YouTube

Dr. Matt Schneps of Harvard-Smithsonian shares his personal dyslexic story as well as research highlighting some of the visual talents associated with dyslexia at the Conference on Dyslexia and Talent in CT.

The conference was a landmark event that brought together from accomplished dyslexics from diverse fields, including a MacArthur Genius award winner, Pulitzer-prize winning poet, CEOs, artists, doctors, lawyers, and leaders in the dyslexia community.

Join the movement!

Autism: Racial and Ethnic disparities in specialty services

A study from investigators at MassGeneral Hospital for Children (MGHfC) found that African-American or Hispanic children diagnosed with autism were significantly less likely than white children to have received subspecialty care or procedures related to conditions that often accompany autism spectrum disorders.

While previous studies have documented that minority children with autism tend to be diagnosed at a later age than white children, this report – which will appear in the July issue of Pediatrics and has been released online – is the first to describe disparities in the use of specialty services in gastroenterology, psychiatry or psychology.

"We think there are probably many reasons for these differences," says Sarabeth Broder-Fingert, MD, of MGHfC and the Center for Child and Adolescent Health Research and Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), lead author of the report.

"Many autism-related medical symptoms – including gastrointestinal issues like constipation and neuro-psychiatric issues such as anxiety or sleep disorders – are not well understood, so doctors may not realize children are having those symptoms."

The research team reviewed records for more than 3,600 patients ages 2 to 21 with a diagnosis of autism who received care at the MGH or its affiliated health centers from 2000 through 2010.

Data on each clinical visit was analyzed, with particular attention to specialty care in gastroenterology, psychiatry and psychology and to procedures including endoscopy, ultrasound, EEG, brain imaging and sleep studies.

Among the patients identified, 81 percent were white, 5 percent were African-American and 7 percent, Hispanic.

The analysis revealed that minority children were significantly less likely to have received either subspecialty care or procedures, with some of the most significant differences in gastroenterology services, which were accessed by almost 14 percent of white children but only 9 percent of African-American children and 10 percent of Hispanic children.

Minority children were less likely to have received an endoscopy or colonoscopy, and Hispanic children were much less likely to have had sleep studies or other neurological or neuropsychiatric tests.

"We know that many children with autism have gastrointestinal or sleep issues, and if those problems are not being diagnosed or treated, they can lead to additional behavior difficulties that can inhibit development," says Broder-Fingert, who is a clinical fellow in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.

"Combining the challenges of accessing specialty services for any child with autism, regardless of race or ethnicity, with the recognized difficulties minority communities have accessing medical care in general can lead to these major disparities in the use of services.

"It's going to be important to see whether these differences in service use lead to differences in medical and behavioral outcomes, and we need to understand more about why this is happening," she adds.

"We hope this work can help doctors be aware of these disparities and be sure to look out for patients – especially minority patients – who might need specialty services, and that we can help parents of children with autism be aware that these conditions may occur in their children and ask their doctors for assistance."

Sibling aggression, often dismissed, linked to poor mental health

"It's not fair!" " "You're not the boss of me." "She hit me!" "He started it." Fights between siblings – from toy-snatching to clandestine whacks to being banished from the bedroom – are so common they're often dismissed as simply part of growing up.

Yet a new study from researchers at the University of New Hampshire finds that sibling aggression is associated with significantly worse mental health in children and adolescents.

In some cases, effects of sibling aggression on mental health were the same as those of peer aggression.

Corinna Jenkins Tucker
"Even kids who reported just one instance had more mental health distress," says Corinna Jenkins Tucker, associate professor of family studies at UNH and lead author of the research, published in the July issue of the journal Pediatrics.

"Our study shows that sibling aggression is not benign for children and adolescents, regardless of how severe or frequent."

The study, among the first to look at sibling aggression across a wide age and geographic range, is unique in its size and scope.

Tucker and her co-authors from UNH's Crimes against Children Research Center – center director and professor of sociology David Finkelhor, professor of sociology Heather Turner, and researcher Anne Shattuck – analyzed data from the center's National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence (NatSCEV), a national sample of 3,599 children, ages one month through 17.

David Finkelhor
The study looked at the effects of physical assault with and without a weapon or injury, property aggression like stealing something or breaking a siblings' things on purpose, and psychological aggression such as saying things that made a sibling feel bad, scared, or not wanted around.

The researchers found that of the 32 percent of children who reported experiencing one type of sibling victimization in the past year, mental health distress was greater for children (1 month to age 9) than for adolescents (age 10 – 17) who experienced mild sibling physical assault, but children and adolescents were similarly affected by other psychological or property aggression from siblings.

Read the full article here

More information: The study, "Association of sibling aggression with child and adolescent mental health," appears in the July 2013 issue of the journal Pediatrics.

Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity - Andrew Solomon

It's been said that "who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love." But the opposite is also true – we blossom into who we are under the warming light of the love that surrounds us.

This beautiful osmosis is precisely what Andrew Solomon explores in Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity (public library) – a fascinating and deeply moving meditation on our evolving definitions of family, our diverse dispositions toward parenthood, the enduring ideals of motherhood and fatherhood, and, perhaps above all, how the freedom of identity unites us in our differences.

Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment, and especially on their children," legendary psychoanalyst Carl Jung famously asserted, "than the unlived lives of the parents." And, indeed, the propensity for projection in parents who want to see in their children better or unfulfilled versions of themselves, Solomon argues, is a dangerous byproduct of our selfish genes:

In the subconscious fantasies that make conception look so alluring, it is often ourselves that we would like to see live forever, not someone with a personality of his own. Having anticipated the onward march of our selfish genes, many of us are unprepared for children who present unfamiliar needs. Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity. We depend on the guarantee in our childrenメs faces that we will not die. Children whose defining quality annihilates that fantasy of immortality are a particular insult; we must love them for themselves, and not for the best of ourselves in them, and that is a great deal harder to do. Loving our own children is an exercise for the imagination. ナ [But] our children are not us: they carry throwback genes and recessive traits and are subject right from the start to environmental stimuli beyond our control. And yet we are our children; the reality of being a parent never leaves those who have braved the metamorphosis.

Solomon goes on to differentiate between vertical, or directly inherited, and horizontal, or independently divergent, identity:

Because of the transmission of identity from one generation to the next, most children share at least some traits with their parents. These are vertical identities. Attributes and values are passed down from parent to child across the generations not only through strands of DNA, but also through shared cultural norms. Ethnicity, for example, is a vertical identity. Children of color are in general born to parents of color; the genetic fact of skin pigmentation is transmitted across generations along with a self-image as a person of color, even though that self-image may be subject to generational flux. Language is usually vertical, since most people who speak Greek raise their children to speak Greek, too, even if they inflect it differently or speak another language much of the time. Religion is moderately vertical: Catholic parents will tend to bring up Catholic children, though the children may turn irreligious or convert to another faith. Nationality is vertical, except for immigrants. Blondness and myopia are often transmitted from parent to child, but in most cases do not form a significant basis for identityラ blondness because it is fairly insignificant, and myopia because it is easily corrected.

Often, however, someone has an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group. This is a horizontal identity. Such horizontal identities may reflect recessive genes, random mutations, prenatal influences, or values and preferences that a child does not share with his progenitors. Being gay is a horizontal identity; most gay kids are born to straight parents, and while their sexuality is not determined by their peers, they learn gay identity by observing and participating in a subculture outside the family. Physical disability tends to be horizontal, as does genius. Psychopathy, too, is often horizontal; most criminals are not raised by mobsters and must invent their own treachery. So are conditions such as autism and intellectual disability.

But Solomon wasn't moved to consider these intricate issues until he had first-hand contact with a particular horizontal identity other than his own. In 1993, he was assigned to do a story on Deaf culture for The New York Times and immersed himself in the Deaf world – a world in which most deaf children are born to hearing parents, who often wish their children had full-range hearing and led "normal" lives.

And yet he found himself in awe of the vibrant richness of Deaf identity as he visited Deaf theater performances, reading clubs, and beauty pageants.

Shortly thereafter, a friend of Solomon's had a daughter diagnosed with dwarfism and "wondered whether she should bring up her daughter to consider herself just like everyone else, only shorter [or] whether she should make sure her daughter had dwarf role models."

Suddenly, a pattern revealed itself – a tendency for "normal" culture, including the parents of children with different horizontal identities, to try to subvert or even "cure" those identities – and it rang with painful familiarity for Solomon, who is himself gay. He writes:

I had been startled to note my common ground with the Deaf, and now I was identifying with a dwarf; I wondered who else was out there waiting to join our gladsome throng. I thought that if gayness, an identity, could grow out of homosexuality, an illness, and Deafness, an identity, could grow out of deafness, an illness, and if dwarfism as an identity could emerge from an apparent disability, then there must be many other categories in this awkward interstitial territory. It was a radicalizing insight. Having always imagined myself in a fairly slim minority, I suddenly saw that I was in a vast company. Difference unites us. While each of these experiences can isolate those who are affected, together they compose an aggregate of millions whose struggles connect them profoundly. The exceptional is ubiquitous; to be entirely typical is the rare and lonely state.

But in families, Solomon argues, many parents tend to perceive their child's horizontal identity as not only a problem to be fixed but a personal failure or even an affront. He observes:

Whereas families tend to reinforce vertical identities from earliest childhood, many will oppose horizontal ones. Vertical identities are usually respected as identities; horizontal ones are often treated as flaws.
One could argue that black people face many disadvantages in the United States today, but there is little research into how gene expression could be altered to make the next generation of children born to black parents come out with straight, flaxen hair and creamy complexions. In modern America, it is sometimes hard to be Asian or Jewish or female, yet no one suggests that Asians, Jews, or women would be foolish not to become white Christian men if they could. Many vertical identities make people uncomfortable, and yet we do not attempt to homogenize them. The disadvantages of being gay are arguably no greater than those of such vertical identities, but most parents have long sought to turn their gay children straight. … Labeling a child’s mind as diseased – whether with autism, intellectual disabilities, or transgenderism – may reflect the discomfort that mind gives parents more than any discomfort it causes their child.

As we've observed the powerful role of language in other cultural change and social justice reform movements, the way we talk about these issues not only reflects but also shapes the way we think about them. Solomon calls for a necessary change in vocabulary by way of an apt analogy:

We often use illness to disparage a way of being, and identity to validate that same way of being. This is a false dichotomy. In physics, the Copenhagen interpretation defines energy/ matter as behaving sometimes like a wave and sometimes like a particle, which suggests that it is both, and posits that it is our human limitation to be unable to see both at the same time. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Paul Dirac identified how light appears to be a particle if we ask a particle-like question, and a wave if we ask a wavelike question. A similar duality obtains in this matter of self. Many conditions are both illness and identity, but we can see one only when we obscure the other. Identity politics refutes the idea of illness, while medicine shortchanges identity. Both are diminished by this narrowness. 
Physicists gain certain insights from understanding energy as a wave, and other insights from understanding it as a particle, and use quantum mechanics to reconcile the information they have gleaned. Similarly, we have to examine illness and identity, understand that observation will usually happen in one domain or the other, and come up with a syncretic mechanics. We need a vocabulary in which the two concepts are not opposites, but compatible aspects of a condition. The problem is to change how we assess the value of individuals and of lives, to reach for a more ecumenical take on healthy.

Having a child with a horizontal identity vastly different from that of the parent, Solomon argues, is a kind of magnifying mirror for the parent's character and capacity as a human being:

Having exceptional children exaggerates parental tendencies; those who would be bad parents become awful parents, but those who would be good parents often become extraordinary.

But the dynamic flows both ways:

Parents’ early responses to and interactions with a child determine how that child comes to view himself. These parents are also profoundly changed by their experiences.

"Love can change a person," Lemony Snicket wrote in Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid, "the way a parent can change a baby – awkwardly, and often with a great deal of mess." But Solomon makes a case for precisely the inverse – that a child can change a parent, just as awkwardly and with just as much of a mess, through the power of love:

Self-acceptance is part of the ideal, but without familial and societal acceptance, it cannot ameliorate the relentless injustices to which many horizontal identity groups are subject and will not bring about adequate reform. … To look deep into your child’s eyes and see in him both yourself and something utterly strange, and then to develop a zealous attachment to every aspect of him, is to achieve parenthood’s self-regarding, yet unselfish, abandon. It is astonishing how often such mutuality has been realized – how frequently parents who had supposed that they couldn’t care for an exceptional child discover that they can. The parental predisposition to love prevails in the most harrowing of circumstances. There is more imagination in the world than one might think.

What Solomon's key point boils down to is a necessary and thoughtful addition to history's most notable definitions of love. In the closing pages, he writes:

Some people are trapped by the belief that love comes in finite quantities, and that our kind of love exhausts the supply upon which they need to draw. I do not accept competitive models of love, only additive ones. My journey toward a family and this book have taught me that love is a magnifying phenomenon – that every increase in love strengthens all the other love in the world. . . .

In his stirring TED talk, Solomon paraphrases this already poignant sentiment even more beautifully:

Far From the Tree comes a decade after Solomon’s indispensable The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.