Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Is the label ‘Dyslexia’ unscientific and lacking educational meaning?

Use of the label ‘dyslexia’ should be ditched because it is unscientific and lacks meaning, a new book argues.

Experts said putting young people who are struggling to read through diagnostic tests is ‘wasteful’ because the term lacks educational value.

But their views have been challenged by the Dyslexia Action charity, which insists the term still has meaning and should not be dropped.

In the book The Dyslexia Debate, Prof Julian (Joe) Elliott said parents are being ‘woefully misled’ about the value of a dyslexia diagnosis.

Julian (Joe) Elliott
The author, a professor of education at Durham University, explained: ‘In every country, and in every language, a significant proportion of children struggle to master the skill of reading and some will continue to find it difficult into adulthood.'

‘It is very easy for teachers to identify such children. The hardship and difficulties that typically result are often incapacitating and distressing.'

‘Typically, we search for a diagnostic label when we encounter problems because we believe that this will point to the best form of treatment.'

‘It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the parents and teachers of children with reading difficulties believe that, if the child is diagnosed as dyslexic, clear ways to help them will result. Research clearly demonstrates that this is a grave misunderstanding.’

Elena Grigorenko
His co-author is Prof Elena Grigorenko of Yale School of Medicine. A renowned professor of developmental psychology and genetics.

The book, published next month, is the result of five years’ study by educational experts from Durham and Yale universities.

However, Dyslexia Action insisted the term retained a scientific and educational value.

Dr John Rack, the charity’s head of research, said: ‘We don’t buy the argument that it is wasteful to try to understand the different reasons why different people struggle.

‘For very many, those reasons fall into a consistent and recognisable pattern that it is helpful to call dyslexia.’

Quoting from the flyer that preceded the book;
Elliott and Grigorenko (co-author) consider the latest research in cognitive science, genetics, and neuroscience, and the limitations of these fields in terms of professional action. 
They then provide a more helpful, scientifically rigorous way to describe the various types of reading difficulties and discuss empirically supported forms of intervention.

I believe, writing this blog, that both parties are talking about different things and that Dyslexia Action have reacted defensively to Prof Elliott's press statement, without reading through his work.

We should not lose sight of the needs of the struggling child (reader) in this and although the attachment of a label may give some solace to parents that a 'disorder' has been identified and can now be appropriately addressed, this is not always the case.

We are still a long way from finding a definitive 'treatment' for all forms of Dyslexia, one that can be wholly applied to all readers in all circumstances and will render them 'cured.'

Let's keep our minds open and work collectively to reach this goal.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Babies Cannot Read! NYU Study Confirms

Can babies learn to read? While parents use DVDs and other media in an attempt to teach their infants to read, these tools don't instill reading skills in babies, a study by researchers at New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development has found.

"While we cannot say with full assurance that infants at this age cannot learn printed words, our results make clear they did not learn printed words from the baby media product that was tested," says Susan Neuman, a professor in NYU Steinhardt's Department of Teaching and Learning and the study's senior author.

However, Neuman adds, there was one undeniable effect of these products, on parents.

In exit interviews, there was the mistaken belief among parents that their babies were learning to read and that their children had benefited from the program in some areas of vocabulary development.

Susan Neuman
"It's clear that parents have great confidence in the impact of these products on their children," Neuman explains. "However, our study indicates this sentiment is misplaced."

In their study, which appears in the Journal of Educational Psychology, the researchers examined 117 infants, aged nine to 18 months, who were randomly assigned to treatment and control groups.

Children in the treatment condition received a baby media product, which included DVDs, word and picture flashcards, and flip books to be used daily over a seven-month period; children in the control condition did not receive these materials from the researchers.

Over the course of seven months, the researchers conducted a home visit, four laboratory visits, and monthly assessments of language development.

To test children's emerging skills in the laboratory, the researchers examined the capacity to recognize letter names, letter sounds, vocabulary, words identified on sight, and comprehension.

A combination of eye-tracking tasks and standardized measures were used to study outcomes at each stage of development.

Using a state-of-the art eye-tracking technology, which follows even the slightest eye movements, the researchers were able to closely monitor how the infants distributed their attention and how they shifted their gaze from one location to another when shown specific words and phrases.

The results, which included criterion and standardized measures of emergent and early reading skills, showed no differences between the infants exposed to baby media and the control group on 13 of the 14 assessments.

The only assessment that showed a difference was parents' beliefs that their child was learning new words despite countervailing evidence from a standardized measure indicating no differences between groups.

More Information: Can Babies Learn to Read? A Randomized Trial of Baby Media. Neuman, Susan B.; Kaefer, Tanya; Pinkham, Ashley; Strouse, Gabrielle Journal of Educational Psychology, Feb 24 , 2014, No Pagination Specified. doi: 10.1037/a0035937

Pain killer Paracetamol (Acetaminophen) use in pregnancy linked to ADHD

Acetaminophen, also known as Paracetamol in UK or Tylenol in US, a common pain reliever considered safe for pregnant women, has been linked for the first time to an increased risk of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder in children, said a study, published Monday.

More studies are needed to confirm the findings, but experts said the research points to a new potential cause for the worldwide rise in cases of ADHD, a neuro-behavioural condition which has no known cause and affects as many as five percent of US children.

Women who took acetaminophen, also known as Paracetamol, while pregnant had a 37 percent higher risk of having a child who would be later given a hospital diagnosis of hyperkinetic disorder, a particularly severe form of ADHD, said the study in February 24 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics: doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.4914.

Compared to women who did not take Acetaminophen while pregnant, women who did also had a 29 percent higher chance of having children who were later prescribed medications for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and a 13 percent higher chance of exhibiting ADHD-like behaviours by age seven.

Previous research has suggested that Acetaminophen can interfere with normal hormone function and may affect the developing fetal brain.

The painkiller has also been linked to a slightly increased risk in boys of cryptorchidism, a condition in which the testicles do not descend.

The latest research was based on survey data on more than 64,000 Danish women from 1996 to 2002.

More than half said they took Acetaminophen at least once during pregnancy.

Peer group experts cautioned that; 'The observational findings do not prove that taking Paracetamol or Tylenol-like pain relievers causes ADHD, only that a preliminary link between the two has appeared and would need to be confirmed by further research.'

Miriam Cooper
"Findings from this study should be interpreted cautiously and should not change practice," said an accompanying editorial in JAMA Pediatrics by Miriam Cooper and colleagues at the Cardiff University Institute of Psychological Medicine and Clinical Neurosciences.

"However, they underline the importance of not taking a drug's safety for granted, especially during pregnancy."

The reasons the women took the painkillers could have also had a confounding effect on the outcome, they added.

The study was led by Zeyan Liew, of the University of California, Los Angeles, and was co-authored by Jorn Olsen of the University of Aarhus in Denmark.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Racial and Ethnic disparities in ADHD diagnosis

Black children and children in homes where a language other than English is spoken are less likely to receive an attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) diagnosis by school entry, despite being otherwise similar to white children on many measured background characteristics, according to a study by a team of researchers.

Their findings indicate that disparities in ADHD diagnosis begin to occur early in children's school careers.

Paul Morgan
"We were interested in evaluating whether the disparities observed across elementary and middle school in our earlier study were evident as early as the fall of kindergarten, accounting for many factors measured prior to the children entering school," said Paul Morgan, associate professor of special education, Penn State.

"Whether these disparities extend to Hispanic children has also been unclear. We find that their initially observed disparities are related to non-English language use in the home."

Analyses of kindergarten teacher-reported classroom behaviour indicated that neither black nor Hispanic children displayed less frequent ADHD-related behaviours than white children, suggesting that a lower incidence of ADHD symptomology did not explain minority children's comparatively lower rates of diagnosis.

"One explanation for our findings is that black parents may be relatively more reluctant to obtain a mental health diagnosis for their children, while language barriers may explain Hispanic children's lower likelihood of diagnosis," Morgan said.

"It may also be the case that pediatricians and other professionals are not soliciting developmental concerns as often from minority families."

A lack of treatment for ADHD may result in some minority children experiencing more learning and behavioral problems as they start school, so that they quickly begin falling behind their peers.

"One practical application is that these groups of children may have unmet treatment needs," Morgan said.

"Pediatricians, psychiatrists and school-based practitioners should be sensitive to the possibility that cultural and linguistic barriers are resulting in systematic under-diagnosis for some groups of children."

"Ensuring minority children are appropriately diagnosed and treated for ADHD may require overcoming these barriers."

Providing minority parents with information on recognizing potential ADHD symptoms in their children, as well as encouraging help-seeking behaviours when meeting with professionals, may also help prevent or reduce racial/ethnic diagnosis disparities.

"I hope that our findings inform efforts to help all children with ADHD," Morgan said. "If untreated, ADHD can very quickly begin to interfere with children's opportunities for school success."

More information: "Racial/ethnic disparities in ADHD diagnosis by kindergarten entry." Morgan PL, Hillemeier MM, Farkas G, Maczuga S. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2014 Jan 24. DOI: 10.1111/jcpp.12204. [Epub ahead of print]

Monday, February 17, 2014

Reading before a nap benefits learning for toddlers

Reading before a nap benefits learning for toddlers.

A connection between sleep and learning has already been identified as beneficial for adults and older children.

Now University of Sussex psychologists Dr Jessica Horst and PhD candidate Sophie Williams have shown that three-year-olds who take a nap after having stories read to them will also perform better later in word-learning tasks.

Their study, published in Frontiers in Developmental Psychology today, involved 48 British children, half of whom took afternoon naps, and half of whom didn't.

They were read either the same story, or three different stories, but were exposed to the same number of unfamiliar words.

When tested two and a half hours later, 24 hours later and a week later, those children who had been read the same story before their nap performed significantly better than those who hadn't had a sleep.

Significantly, those children who had been read three different stories before their sleep performed 33 per cent better than those who had stayed awake after hearing those stories.

On subsequent tests, the researchers found the wakeful ones never caught up with their peers in word recall.

Jessica Horst
Previous studies by Dr Horst have shown that being read the same story rather than different stories was more beneficial to learning new words.

But the new study shows that sleep can have an additional significant advantage, especially when the children are exposed to different stories.

Dr Horst says: "Overall, all of the children in the study did very well—reading is always good, at any age and any time.

But, children who were learning something particularly difficult (new words from several stories) especially benefited from hearing the stories right before sleeping.

In fact, these children ended up learning the words as well as the children who had heard the same stories again and again, which we knew would be easier."

Dr Horst points that many studies have shown young children are now sleeping less than ever before and consistently less than recommended guidelines.

Chronically short sleep is significantly related to poorer vocabulary scores, childhood obesity and externalising behaviours, such as tantrums.

"Many preschool children take an afternoon nap, yet classroom naps are increasingly being curtailed and replaced due to curriculum demands," she adds.

"Given the growing body of evidence that sleep consolidation has a significant effect on children's learning, such policies may be doing our children a huge disservice."

"In fact, findings like those from the current study indicate we should be encouraging young children to nap and should take advantage of the period right before they nap for instruction in key academic areas such as word learning and arithmetic."

More information: "Goodnight Book: Sleep Consolidation Improves Word Learning via Storybooks." Sophie E. Williams and Jessica S. Horst. Front. Psychol. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00184

Dyslexia, Reading difficulties and vision

Although Dyslexia is recognised as a cognitive disorder it is prudent to have children's eyes tested to rule out vision problems.

Children do not know if they are perceiving the world differently from others. In fact few of us do, even into middle age.

To help a child who may be have difficulty reading, it is good practice to rule out any physical or eye issues.

Many optometrists believe that all reading difficulties and Dyslexia is caused by vision problems.

This is certainly not the case, and many parents are paying out for expensive bogus treatments and special glasses, which are ineffective.

Have your child's eyesight thoroughly checked to rule out any physical defect and, if their reading difficulties remain, then look at ways to help them overcome  their difficulties around Dyslexia.

I hope you will be able to find some help from the articles in this blog.

You will certainly be able to find good information on the latest scientific research and discoveries around Dyslexia and other cognitive disorders.

Unfortunately, you will not find any 'quick fixes' or any 'cures' for Dyslexia. The first step is acceptance and then you need to support your child in developing a strategy to learn and to live with Dyslexia.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Dyslexia: Being different and a success!

Chances are that when you think of the most successful and wealthy entrepreneurs, you don’t think of a group of weird people. 

Instead, you probably think of well-respected and brilliant people who exhibit all the admirable qualities of well-rounded, well-adjusted leaders. 

Ironically, research shows just the opposite; entrepreneurs, especially those in technology, are indeed quite odd. In fact, the data show that being odd is the norm.

A recent survey of entrepreneurs conducted by Julie Login of Cass Business School found that 35 percent of those surveyed suffered from dyslexia, compared with 10 percent of the population as a whole. 

One reason for this trend posits that those with dyslexia, a learning disability affecting one’s reading and comprehension, tend to delegate tasks to manage their disability. 

Some of the most notable dyslexics of our time are founders Steve Jobs of Apple, John Chambers of Cisco, and Richard Branson of the Virgin Group.

In another study, attention-deficit disorder (ADD) is common among entrepreneurs. 

A recent article in The Economist mentioned that “people with ADD are six times more likely than average to end up running their own businesses.” 

Sufferers of ADD are known to be disorganized procrastinators who are unable to focus, all normally bad characteristics. 

But some entrepreneurs who have the disorder, like Paul Orfalea, founder of Kinko’s, interpret these characteristics as an advantage because people with ADD can be creative in ways that “normal” people would not.

Furthermore, many entrepreneurs display symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, which, according to the Mayo Clinic, is a “developmental disorder that affects a person’s ability to socialize and communicate effectively with others.” 

Some refer to it as a mild form of autism. Asperger’s is perhaps the most prevalent among software developers like me who would prefer to send an e-mail or instant message to someone sitting next to them in the office rather than to talk to them face to face. 

We often appear robotic and detached. Mark Zuckerberg, the cofounder of Facebook, is a good example of an entrepreneur who exhibits these traits. 

In Silicon Valley, several entrepreneurs display the symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome. In fact, it’s cool to act this way. 

Most people would just call it being a geek. In the Valley, the social butterflies are considered offbeat.

In addition to these disabilities, disorders, and syndromes, entrepreneurs have habits that are just plain bizarre. 

Steve Jobs had perhaps the strangest habits, including use of acid and LSD. In fact, he attributed his creativity to his taking LSD. 

Other CEOs have been said to perform karaoke in drag, to have an obsession with guessing measurements, to ideate underwater, and to wear the same clothing every day.

In a strange turn of events, these so-called oddities that are common among prominent entrepreneurs are attracting investors. 

To use a term in computer science, pattern matching has become quite popular. 

For instance, if you are looking for the next Facebook and you have to choose between funding two CEOs of equally great tech companies, one who is jovial and the other who is introverted, you’ll probably go with the introvert. 

This may seem a bit ridiculous, but it happens more and more often.

So when it comes to being a successful entrepreneur, it pays to be odd, and besides, when you become wealthy and successful, people tend to forget how odd you might really be. 

Regardless, everyone wants to be your friend.

Self-esteem: Research reveals the cultural origins

What gives you self-worth? University of Sussex research shows our self-esteem is based on the prevailing values of our culture.

Whatever our personal values, we largely base our self-worth on living up to the prevailing values of our culture, new University of Sussex-led research reveals.

Vivian Vignoles
Sussex social psychologists Dr Vivian Vignoles and Dr Maja Becker collaborated with a global team of researchers to address a long-standing debate about what influences our self-esteem.

Their findings are published online this month (12th February, 2014) in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

More than 5,000 adolescents and young people in 19 countries spanning Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, South America, Africa and Asia took part in the research.

Participants were found to base their self-worth on living up to the prevailing values of others in their cultural contexts, but—surprisingly—their own personal values appeared to have little or no influence on self-esteem.

Dr Vignoles explains: "We can all think of different things that make us see ourselves positively, whether it is succeeding at work or school, our relationships with friends and family, behaving morally towards others, or having the right possessions—as well as other aspects of ourselves that we may feel less good about. But what gives these things their importance?

"An intuitive answer would be that every individual bases their self-esteem on living up to the values that they personally see as most important—and this has been the dominant view in psychology for over 100 years. But firm evidence for this idea has been surprisingly elusive.

"Our new findings paint a very different picture, suggesting that it is the value priorities of others in the surrounding context, not the individual's own value priorities, that predict which aspects of ourselves will give us the greatest sense of self-worth."

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (UK), the research was conducted by the Culture and Identity Research Network, directed by Dr Vignoles.

Research participants were initially asked to list ten aspects of themselves in answer to the question "Who are you?".

Their answers were very wide ranging, including descriptions of their personality characteristics, important relationships, social roles and group memberships.

Participants were subsequently asked: "How much does each of these things make you see yourself positively?"

The researchers used further data from the questionnaires to predict which aspects of themselves each participant would see as providing the greatest sense of self-esteem.

The results showed that participants derived the most self-esteem from aspects of their identities that best fulfilled the values of their surrounding culture.

For example, participants in cultural contexts where people most emphasized values such as self-direction and having a stimulating life (e.g., the UK, Western Europe, and some parts of South America) were more likely to derive self-esteem from controlling their own lives, whereas those in cultures where there was relatively more emphasis on values such as conformity, tradition, and security (e.g., parts of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia) were relatively more likely to derive self-esteem from doing their duty.

Dr Vignoles comments: "Popular psychology and self-help books often seem to imply that people can build self-esteem on their own. These findings should remind us that no-one is an island. Building self-esteem is mostly a collaborative enterprise."

"Our research suggests that the self-esteem system is an important way in which individuals internalise the values of their culture on an implicit level, even if they do not profess to believe in these values when they are asked explicitly."

"These subtle processes may encourage people to act in ways that are desirable in their society, and thus help to maintain social solidarity."

More information: "Cultural bases for Self-Evaluation: Seeing Oneself Positively in Different Cultural Contexts", lead authors Dr Maja Becker and Dr Vivian Vignoles, is published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Dyslexia: Action video games help people with Dyslexia learn to read

In addition to their trouble with reading, people with dyslexia also have greater difficulty than typical readers do when it comes to managing competing sensory cues, according to a study reported February 13 in Current Biology.

The findings suggest that action video games might improve literacy skills in those with dyslexia, which represent five to ten percent of the population.

"Imagine you are having a conversation with someone when suddenly you hear your name uttered behind you," says Vanessa Harrar of the University of Oxford.

"Your attention shifts from the person you are talking to—the visual—to the sound behind you. This is an example of a cross-sensory shift of attention."

"We found that shifting attention from visual to auditory stimuli is particularly difficult for people who have dyslexia compared to good readers."

In fact, researchers already knew that people with dyslexia had some challenges with auditory processing in addition to their visual impairments.

New evidence had also begun to link multisensory integration and dyslexia to the same parts of the brain.

That evidence, together with Harrar's own personal challenges with reading and writing, prompted her and her colleagues to conduct one of the first investigations of how people with dyslexia process multisensory stimuli.

Participants in the study were asked to push a button as quickly as possible when they heard a sound, saw a dim flash, or experienced both together.

The speed with which they pressed the buttons was recorded and analyzed.

While everyone was fastest when the same type of stimuli repeated itself, the data showed that people with dyslexia were particularly slow at pressing the button when a sound-only trial followed a visual-only trial.

In other words, they showed "sluggish attention shifting," particularly when asked to shift their attention from a flash of light to a sound.

While the researchers say further study is needed, they suggest based on the findings that dyslexia training programs should take this asymmetry into account.

"We think that people with dyslexia might learn associations between letters and their sounds faster if they first hear the sound and then see the corresponding letter or word," Harrar says.

Of course, traditional approaches to reading, in which letters are first seen and then heard, do just the opposite.

Harrar's team goes on to propose a unique, nonverbal approach to improve reading and writing with action video games.

"We propose that training people with dyslexia to shift attention quickly from visual to auditory stimuli and back—such as with a video game, where attention is constantly shifting focus—might also improve literacy.

Action video games have been shown to improve multitasking skills and might also be beneficial in improving the speed with which people with dyslexia shift attention from one task, or sense, to another."

More information: Current Biology, Harrar et al.: "Multisensory integration and attention in developmental dyslexia."

More Reading, more talking, and longer sentences help babies' brains

The sooner parents start explaining the world to their baby, the better.

That does not mean flash cards for tots, or merely pointing out objects: "Here's an orange. That's a bowl."

New research shows that both how much and how well parents talk with babies and toddlers helps tune the youngsters' brains in ways that build crucial language and vocabulary skills—a key to fighting the infamous word gap that puts poor children at a disadvantage at an even younger age than once thought.

The idea is to connect words and meaning, so the brain becomes primed to learn through context: "Let's put the orange in this bowl with the banana and the apple and the grapes."

Anne Fernald
"You're building intelligence through language," is how Stanford University psychology professor Anne Fernald explains it.

And forget dumbed-down baby talk: Longer, more complex sentences are better.

Erika Hoff
"The advice I give mothers is to have conversations with your babies," said Erika Hoff, a psychology professor at Florida Atlantic University.

"Children can hear lots of talk that goes over their head in terms of the meaning, and they still benefit from it."

The research, presented Thursday and Friday at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, comes amid a growing push for universal preschool, to help disadvantaged youngsters catch up.

But it also begs the question of whether children from low-income, less educated families need earlier intervention, such as preschool that starts at age 3 instead of 4, or higher quality day care or even some sort of "let's talk" campaign aimed at new parents to stress talking, singing and reading with tots even before they can respond.

That can be difficult for parents working multiple jobs, or who may not read well or who simply don't know why it's important.

Scientists have long known that before they start kindergarten, children from middle-class or affluent families have heard millions more words than youngsters from low-income families, leaving the poorer children with smaller vocabularies and less ready to succeed academically.

Fernald said by some measures, 5-year-olds from low-income families can lag two years behind their peers in tests of language development, an achievement gap that's difficult to overcome.

Kimberly Noble
Brain scans support the link, said Dr. Kimberly Noble of Columbia University Medical Center.

Early experiences shape the connections that children's brains form, and kids from higher socioeconomic backgrounds devote more "neural real estate" to brain regions involved in language development, she found.

How early does the word gap appear? 
Around age 18 months, Stanford's Fernald discovered when she compared how children mentally process the language they hear.

Lower-income kids in her study achieved at age 2 the level of proficiency that more affluent kids had reached six months earlier.

To understand why language processing is so important, consider this sentence: "The kitty's on the bench." If the youngster knows the word "kitty," and his brain recognizes it quickly enough, then he has can figure out what "bench" means by the context but if he's slow to recognize "kitty," then "bench" flies by before he has a chance to learn it.

Next, Fernald tucked recorders into T-shirts of low-income toddlers in Spanish-speaking households to determine what they heard all day—and found remarkable differences in what's called child-directed speech.

That's when children are spoken to directly, in contrast to television or conversations they overhear.

One child heard more than 12,000 words of child-directed speech in a day, while another heard a mere 670 words, she found.

The youngsters who received more child-directed speech processed language more efficiently and learned words more quickly, she reported.

But it's not just quantity of speech that matters—it's quality, Hoff cautioned. She studied bilingual families and found that whatever the language, children fare better when they learn it from a native speaker.

In other words, if mom and dad speak Spanish but aren't fluent in English, it's better for the child to have a solid grounding in Spanish at home and then learn English later in school.

Next, scientists are testing whether programs that teach parents better ways to talk to tots really do any good.

Fernald said preliminary results from one of the first, a program called Habla Conmigo that enrolls low-income, Spanish-speaking mothers in San Jose, California, are promising. She analysed the first 32 families of the 120 the program will enroll.

Mothers who underwent the eight-week training are talking more with their toddlers, using higher-quality language, than a control group of parents—and by their second birthday, the children have bigger vocabularies and process language faster, she said Thursday.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS): Drinking alcohol during pregnancy could be ruled a crime in the UK

UK Lawyers plan to take a test case to the UK Court of Appeal over claims that children harmed in the womb by their mother's drinking should receive compensation as victims of crime

Harming an unborn child by consuming alcohol during pregnancy could be classified as a crime in the UK, if an unusual legal challenge succeeds.

An English council is planning to go to the UK Court of Appeal in an attempt to secure criminal injuries compensation for a six-year-old girl who was born with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FAS) as a result of her mother’s drinking while she was in the womb.

A UK tribunal ruled in 2011 that the unnamed child had sustained personal injury “directly attributable to a crime of violence” and so was eligible for a payout.

Her mother, who drank “grossly excessive quantities of alcohol” during her pregnancy, was never convicted of any offence.

But she was alleged to have maliciously administered poison so as to endanger life or inflict grievous bodily harm, a crime under section 23 of the UK Offences Against the Person Act 1861.

However, the UK Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority challenged the judgment, and it was overturned in December 2013 by the upper tribunal of the UK Administrative Appeals Chamber.
Judge Howard Levenson found that there had been “administration of a poison or other destructive or noxious thing, so as thereby to inflict grievous bodily harm”.

However, he concluded that the girl was “not a person” in legal terms at the time because she was still a foetus.

The judge added: “I conclude that the section 23 offence cannot be committed by a pregnant woman drinking alcohol during her pregnancy and thereby causing damage to her unborn child and that, in the present case, no evidence or argument has been offered in respect of the commission of any other offence.”

Now the council in north-west England which brought the original application for compensation on behalf of the girl, who is now in foster care, is preparing to take the case to the UK Court of Appeal.

Neil Sugarman, a managing partner at GLP Solicitors in Greater Manchester, who is handling the case, told the paper: "Sadly, we act for many, many children who have been damaged by excessive alcohol intake during pregnancy.

We were approached by a local authority with responsibility for a child very badly damaged as a consequence of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FAS).

“They considered making an application under the criminal injuries compensation scheme because they thought there was an argument that the child had been damaged by being victim of a crime. The crime being; the birth mother carrying on drinking knowing that it could damage the child.”

He added: "In all the cases we have, there is good evidence that warnings have been given either by social workers or treating consultants and nurses to say, 'you cannot go on doing this, you are going to damage your child'."

There is a history of similar cases being brought to the courts in the US but with limited success.

Listen to a spokeperson from the American Bar Association. This Podcast discusses what US legal representatives need to know about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or Spectrum Disorder.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Parenting Skills: Positive Reframing

Positive reframing can shore up children’s confidence as well. Credit: iStock

Leo Kanner, author of the first textbook on child psychiatry, used to tell anecdotes about two mothers he knew.

One complained that her sons would spread the Sunday comics on the living room floor to read them.

The other, whose sons had done the same thing as children, said it was one of her fondest memories.

He used to argue that the second mother was the better parent, because she had a more positive attitude.

But what was behind that positive attitude?

Perhaps the mother was thinking about how her children were honing their reading skills. Or, how they were sharing both comics and floor space without fighting.

In other words, she was most likely engaging in what we now call positive reframing, the practice of either focusing on the positive aspects of a bothersome situation or just looking at it differently.

Positive reframing helps us see our children, and our children see themselves in a more favourable light.

If this approach is applied to how we view children, the technique can prevent us from overreacting.

When an adolescent does all those adolescent things, such as leaving her room a mess and spending too much time texting, we can take refuge in the knowledge that by challenging authority and connecting with friends, she is working through an important developmental stage.

Positive reframing can help us understand children from different cultures, too.

For example, Native American students often resist participating in competitive learning games such as spelling bees, causing some teachers to see them as disengaged.

However, when the students' resistance is understood as an expression of a cultural bias toward cooperation over competition, the teacher can see strength in it.

Overcoming Aversions
Applied to helping kids interpret their own behaviour, positive reframing can foster growth. It can help overcome aversions, as it did for one young boy who hated bath time.

Knowing he enjoyed war play, his mother got him to see the bath as a place to enact sea battles, bringing in toy ships and using bubble bath to simulate foamy waves.

The mother of a reluctant eater presented broccoli as "dino trees"—which her "brontosaurus" son would then devour.

Fighting Sleep
A couple with a daughter who resisted going to sleep because her room was dark and scary held a dance party in the dark, after which she associated being in the dark with having a good time.

Positive reframing can shore up children's confidence as well.

On the last play of an important ball game, the right fielder on a children's team I coached, dropped a line-drive fly ball (???), which allowed our opponents to score the winning run.

When the boy came to me distraught, I shared what the pitcher had told me, that his last pitch was too easy to hit, resulting in a hard-to-catch line drive.

I also reminded the boy that before the game, I had denied him time in the outfield to practice 'shagging fly balls.'(???)

He went from thinking he had blown the game to understanding that several factors had contributed to our team's loss.

Even some of the toughest behaviour problems often respond to positive reframing. For instance, when a first-grader made a beeline for the coloured pencils by walking on chairs and desktops, his teacher said, "That's a great idea to use coloured pencils for your journal and you got them all by yourself."

She went on to suggest that in the future, he keep his feet on the floor, which he agreed to do.

Another teacher, faced with a student, James, who suddenly jumped up from a class meeting and started to dance, turned to his classmates and said matter-of-factly, "James likes to dance." James responded by sitting down and rejoining the meeting.

The developmental psychologist Jerome Bruner praises the unflappable Head Start teacher who, while reading "Little Red Riding Hood" to her young students, was stopped short at the famous lines "All the better to eat you!" line.

At this point, one little boy leapt to his feet, furious, and began cursing the wolf, swearing like a sailor. The teacher simply reflected to herself on how much meaning the boy was finding in the story and then asked him how he would have written it differently. The question got him thinking and quieted him down.

We might try to emulate that teacher's self-possession and know-how the next time a kid's shenanigans drive us to salty language ourselves.

Remember, looking on the bright side is for anyone who wants to help children develop while preserving their own sanity.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Autism: Birth hormone controls the expression of the syndrome in animals

Researchers found that a drug affecting chloride levels improves autistic-like behaviour in offspring of mouse models of autism. 

The drug restores the so-called GABA switch in the neurons of fetal mice when given to the mother one day before delivery. 

Credit: D.C. Ferrari

The scientific community agrees that autism has its origins in early life—foetal and/or postnatal.

The team led by Yehezkel Ben-Ari, Inserm Emeritus Research Director at the Mediterranean Institute of Neurobiology (INMED), has made a breakthrough in the understanding of the disorder.

In an article published in Science, the researchers demonstrate that chloride levels are elevated in the neurons of mice used in an animal model of autism, and remain at abnormal levels from birth.

These results corroborate the success obtained with the diuretic treatment tested on autistic children by the researchers and clinicians in 2012, and suggest that administration of diuretics to mice before birth corrects the deficits in the offspring.

They also show that oxytocin, the birth hormone, brings about a decrease in chloride level during birth, which controls the expression of the autistic syndrome.

This work is due to appear in the 7 February 2014 issue of Science.

Neurons contain high levels of chloride throughout the entire embryonic phase. As a result, GABA, the main chemical messenger of the brain, excites the neurons during this phase instead of inhibiting them, in order to facilitate construction of the brain.

Subsequently, a natural reduction in chloride levels allows GABA to exercise its inhibitory role and regulate the activity of the adolescent/adult brain.

In many brain disorders (childhood epilepsy, cranial trauma, etc.), studies have shown abnormally high chloride levels.

Having made various observations, Dr Lemonnier's team (Brest), and Yehezkel Ben-Ari's team at Inserm carried out a clinical trial in 2012, based on the hypothesis of high chloride levels in the neurons of patients with autism.

The researchers showed that administration of a diuretic to children with autism (which reduces neuronal chloride levels) has beneficial effects.

The results of the trial supported this hypothesis, but because high neuronal chloride levels could not be demonstrated in children with autism, it was not possible to prove the mechanism proposed or justify the treatment.

In the present study, the researchers therefore used two animal models of autism, a genetic model, Fragile X syndrome, which is the genetic mutation most frequently associated with autism, and another, generated by injecting the pregnant mice with sodium valproate, a product known to generate abnormalities in children, including autistic spectrum disorder.

A high level of chloride in the brain
For the first time, the researchers recorded the activity of neurons at the embryonic stage and immediately after birth to observe modifications in chloride levels.

These observations showed that neuronal chloride levels are abnormally high in both young and adult animals used in the autism model.

GABA strongly excites neurons, and the researchers recorded aberrant electrical activities in the brain, which persist in adult animals.

The fall in chloride level, a particularly impressive phenomenon seen at birth in control animals, is absent in both of these animal models, and the neurons have the same chloride level before and after birth.

These high levels are due to reduced activity of a chloride transporter, thus preventing transport of chloride out of the neuron. As a result, a major feature of neurons during birth is abolished in animal models of autism.

Clinical trials of the drug bumetanide administered in young children with autistic symptoms are showing progress. 

Credit: D.C. Ferrari

"Chloride levels during delivery are determinants of the occurrence of autism spectrum disorder," explains Yehezkel Ben-Ari, an Emeritus Research Director at Inserm.

Beneficial effects of the diuretic on brain activity.
The researchers administered a diuretic treatment to the mother (in both animal models) for 24 hours shortly before delivery to see if this would restore brain inhibition in the offspring.

They showed that the drop in chloride level was re-established in the neurons several weeks after a single treatment during birth.

According to the research team, antenatal treatment restored brain activity to approximately normal levels, and corrected the "autistic" behaviour in the animals once they became adults.

"These results thus validate the working hypothesis that led us to the treatment we developed in 2012," states the principal author of the study.

Oxytocin, the birth hormone, naturally reduces chloride levels
The role of oxytocin in reducing neuronal chloride was also studied. The researchers had previously shown in 2006 that this hormone, which triggers labour, also has many beneficial actions on the brains of newborns, including protective effects in the event of complications during delivery, and even analgesic properties.

Oxytocin acts like the diuretic, reducing the intracellular chloride levels.

By administering the drug bumetanide to pregnant mice with models of autism, the researchers were able to reduce chloride levels in the brains of their offspring to their appropriate levels -- and in turn, to restore the GABA switch mechanism required for healthy brain development. 

Credit: D.C. Ferrari

In the present study, the team tested the long-term effects of blocking the actions of the hormone before birth.

A drug that blocks the signals generated by oxytocin was injected into pregnant mice.

The researchers evaluated the effects of this blockage on the offspring, and showed that it reproduced the entire autism-like syndrome in them, both with respect to the electrical and behavioural aspects (identical to the two animal models of autism).

As a result, the hormone's natural actions, just like those of the diuretic, are crucial to this delicate phase, and may control the pathogenesis of autism via the cellular chloride levels.

"These data validate our treatment strategy, and suggest that oxytocin, by acting on the chloride levels during delivery modulates/controls the expression of autism spectrum disorder," states Yehezkel Ben-Ari.

Taken together, these observations suggest that earliest possible treatment is essential for maximum possible prevention of the disorder.

This work raises the importance of carrying out early epidemiological studies in order to better understand the pathogenesis of the disorder, especially through analysing data on deliveries where a drop in chloride has occurred.

Indeed, complicated deliveries with episodes of prolonged lack of oxygen, for example, or complications during pregnancy, such as viral infections, are often suggested as risk factors.

Finally, given the role of oxytocin in triggering labour, "although it is true that epidemiological data suggesting that scheduled caesarean deliveries may have increased the incidence of autism are controversial, it nonetheless remains that these studies should be followed up and extended to confirm or refute this relationship, which is still possible," insists Yehezkel Ben-Ari, who concludes,

"To treat this type of disorder, it is necessary to understand how the brain develops and how genetic mutations and environmental insults modulate brain activity in utero."

More information: : "Oxytocin-Mediated GABA Inhibition During Delivery Attenuates Autism Pathogenesis in Rodent Offspring," by R. Tyzio et al. Science, 2014. DOI: 10.1126/science.1247190

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Autism: 'Receptive Joint Attention' in Chimpanzees provides insight

A discovery that variation in "receptive joint attention," or the ability of chimpanzees to follow another's gaze or look in the direction someone is pointing, has a genetic basis that could provide insight into Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

Following another's gaze or looking in the direction someone is pointing, two examples of 'Receptive Joint Attention,' is significantly heritable according to new study results from researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University.

Determining such communicative cues are significantly heritable means variation in this ability has a genetic basis, which led the researchers to the vasopressin receptor gene, known for its role in social bonding.

The study results, which are published in Scientific Reports, give researchers insight into the biology of disorders in which receptive joint attention is compromised, such as autism spectrum disorders (ASD), and may ultimately lead to new diagnosis and treatment strategies.

Larry Young
According to Yerkes researchers Larry Young, PhD, and Bill Hopkins, PhD, co-authors of the study, receptive joint attention is important for developing complex cognitive processes, including language and theory of mind, and poor joint attention abilities may be a core feature in children with or at risk of developing ASD.

Young is division chief of Behavioral Neuroscience and Psychiatric Disorders at Yerkes, director of the Center for Translational Social Neuroscience (CTSN) at Emory and William P. Timmie Professor in the Emory University School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

Bill Hopkins
Yerkes researcher Hopkins is also a core faculty member in the Neuroscience Institute of Georgia State University and newly named science director of the Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary.

Young and Hopkins led a collaborative team of researchers from Yerkes, the CTSN, the Neuroscience Institute at Georgia State University and the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

They studied chimpanzees to determine the extent to which the animals follow gaze or pointing by a human.

"We used chimpanzees in this behavioural study because their 'Receptive Joint Attention' abilities are well documented and their closeness to humans makes the study results the most likely to be 'generalizable' (sic) to humans," says Hopkins.

Young's previous research in which he showed the vasopressin receptor gene was necessary for remembering individuals (or social memories) and for social bonding in male rodents was key to designing the current study.

According to Young, variation in the length of a stretch of repetitive DNA, known as junk DNA, in the control region of the vasopressin receptor gene predicted if a male prairie vole was likely to form monogamous bonds with a mate.

Human-based studies suggest that a similar repetitive element, referred to as RS3, in the control region of the human vasopressin receptor gene predicts romantic relationship quality and generosity.

"We can provide insights into the evolution of human social behaviors, and because of the similarities between chimpanzees and humans, we can work toward better understanding the role of biological mechanisms and how they influence cognitive and communicative abilities of primates, including humans," Young continues.

The team's continuing work will include more sophisticated behavioural studies as well as exploration of the contribution of the oxytocin receptor gene on social behaviour and cognition in chimpanzees.

More Information: 'Genetic Influences on Receptive Joint Attention in Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes)' William D. Hopkins, Alaine C. Keebaugh, Lisa A. Reamer, Jennifer Schaeffer, Steven J. Schapiro & Larry J. Young - Scientific reports: doi:10.1038/srep03774

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Brains of Autistic Children create more information while at rest

Quinn, an autistic boy, and the line of toys he made before falling asleep. 

Repeatedly stacking or lining up objects is a behaviour commonly associated with autism. 

Credit: Wikipedia.

New research from Case Western Reserve University and University of Toronto neuroscientists finds that the brains of autistic children generate more information at rest – a 42% increase on average.

The study offers a scientific explanation for the most typical characteristic of autism – withdrawal into one's own inner world.

The excess production of information may explain a child's detachment from their environment.

Published at the end of December in Frontiers in Neuroinformatics, this study is a follow-up to the authors' prior finding that brain connections are different in autistic children.

This paper determined that the differences account for the increased complexity within their brains.

Roberto Fernández Galán
"Our results suggest that autistic children are not interested in social interactions because their brains generate more information at rest, which we interpret as more introspection in line with early descriptions of the disorder," said Roberto Fernández Galán, PhD, senior author and associate professor of neurosciences at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine.

The authors quantified information as engineers normally do but instead of applying it to signals in electronic devices, they applied it to brain activity recorded with magnetoencephalography (MEG).

They showed that autistic children's brains at rest generate more information than non-autistic children.

This may explain their lack of interest in external stimuli, including interactions with other people.

The researchers also quantified interactions between brain regions, i.e., the brain's functional connectivity, and determined the inputs to the brain in the resting state allowing them to interpret the children's introspection level.

José L. Pérez Velázquez
"This is a novel interpretation because it is a different attempt to understand the children's cognition by analyzing their brain activity," said José L. Pérez Velázquez, PhD, first author and professor of neuroscience at University of Toronto Institute of Medical Science and Department of Pediatrics, Brain and Behavior Center.

"Measuring cognitive processes is not trivial; yet, our findings indicate that this can be done to some extent with well-established mathematical tools from physics and engineering."

Henry and Kamila Markram
This study provides quantitative support for the relatively new "Intense World Theory" of autism proposed by neuroscientists Henry and Kamila Markram of the Brain Mind Institute in Switzerland, which describes the disorder as the result of hyper-functioning neural circuitry, leading to a state of over-arousal.

More generally, the work of Galán and Pérez Velázquez is an initial step in the investigation of how information generation in the brain relates to cognitive/psychological traits and will begin to frame neurophysiological data into psychological aspects.

The team now aims to apply a similar approach to patients with schizophrenia.

More Information: José Luis Pérez Velázquez and Roberto Fernández Galán published this Original Research article.'Information Gain in the Brain’s Resting State: A New Perspective on Autism'