Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Children can be trained to recognise emotions

Children can using training to spot crucial cues on someone's emotional state, new research from the University of Lincoln, UK, has show.

Children can learn to better recognise other people's emotions through games which emphasise the significance of the eyes and the mouth in conveying feelings, new research has shown.

The study by cognitive neuroscientists at the University of Lincoln, UK, suggests that simple training programmes could help children better understand which expressive facial features offer the most important cues to other people's emotional state.

It is hoped the findings, published in the peer reviewed science journal PLOS ONE, could lead to new or improved interventions for children and adults who have difficulty recognising emotional states in others.

Dr Petra Pollux, a cognitive neuroscientist from the University of Lincoln's School of Psychology, said: "How we recognise and process facial expressions plays a big part in our social interaction skills."

"We've all experienced walking into a room, looking around and immediately understanding that something has happened, and that's because we're reading the expressions on people's faces."

"This ability to understand and read facial expressions is a crucial skill in development and begins at quite an early age."

"Generally, when we look at faces, we look at the eyes and the mouth, but with a definite bias towards the eyes."

"We wanted to investigate if there was a correlation between which parts of the face the children looked at and their ability to correctly pick up on the emotional state of the person in the image."

During the study nine-year-old children were shown images which conveyed varying levels of intensity of emotional expressions, from a small smile to a big grin, and asked to match it with the correct emotion. If they answered incorrectly, they were alerted by a tone.

Children and adults were not given any instructions about eye-movements, but over the four sessions learned that focusing more on the eyes offered the crucial clues they needed.

The images used in the study were digitally manipulated and showed happy, sad or fearful expressions.

An adult's ability to recognise emotions was also assessed and compared with children's, and in both cases, special eye tracking equipment was used to monitor their gaze pattern and determine which features of the face, such as the eyes, nose or mouth, they focused on most.

Children looked less often and for a shorter duration at the eyes, and more often and for longer at the mouth compared with adults.

Training for both adults and children increased the amount of time spent looking at the eyes, although for adults this was only for faces which showed a sad expression.

Children, however, showed a significant increase in the amount of time spent focused on the eyes of all three expressions after training, leading to more correct answers.

The images used in the final session were also replaced by new faces, meaning their abilities translated to different people, researchers said.

Dr Pollux added: "It's really useful to know that the way a child scans a face plays an important role in recognising emotions. This research could be used to develop mobile phone apps which turn this kind of training into a game."

Researches now hope that the findings will inform training programmes for people in need of a better understanding of recognising facial expressions, such as those with autism or other cognitive development problems.

More information: Pollux PML, Hall S, Guo K (2014) "Facial Expression Training Optimised Viewing Strategy in Children and Adults." PLOS ONE 9(8): e105418. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0105418

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Beat synchronization in preschoolers aids learning and reading skills

A team of researchers with Northwestern University in the U.S. has found that an ability to synchronize with a beat may be an indication of how well preschoolers will later do when developing reading skills.

In their paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the team describes a study they undertook that involved testing for beat synchronization and sound recognition in preschoolers and what they found as a result.

Devising a test for reading aptitude prior to teaching children to read, it is believed, would help children of all levels learn better.

If a teacher knew beforehand that a child was going to have a reading disability, for example, that child could be placed into a program developed specifically for their needs, hopefully offering a better long term outcome.

Likewise, children with an exceptional aptitude for reading could be put into an accelerated program to prevent boredom.

Unfortunately, there is no such test, thus parents and teachers are left to discover a child's reading abilities on their own.

In this new effort, the researchers devised a study to find out if beat synchronicity skills might be used as the basis for such a test.

Reading specialists have suspected that there is a link between beat synchronization and both language and reading ability, reading and speech are both timing based after all.

To better understand that link the researchers arranged to test preschool volunteers.

In the first test, 35 children were given a toy drum and asked to beat it in time with an adult beating on a similar drum.

Those that could do it well were described as synchronizers, those that could not, as nonsyncronizers.

The same group of children then had electrodes pasted to their scalps to measure brain waves, as the researchers watched monitors, the children listened to sounds the researchers played, such as "da" and "ba" with no other sound, and then with background noise.

In studying the data, the researchers found that the children dubbed synchronizers in the first part of the experiment processed the played sounds with greater precision than did the nonsyncronizers.

Further tests revealed that the synchronizers did better on overall language abilities than the nonsyncronizers, which suggests that it might be possible to use the same process to test children as young as infants for later reading ability.

The researchers plan to continue monitoring the same children in the study for five years to see if their testing method is viable.

More information: Beat synchronization predicts neural speech encoding and reading readiness in preschoolers, Kali Woodruff Carr, PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1406219111

Monday, September 22, 2014

EEG Brainwave test could improve autism diagnosis and classification

A new study by researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University suggests that measuring how fast the brain responds to sights and sounds could help in objectively classifying people on the autism spectrum and may help diagnose the condition earlier.

The paper was published today in the online edition of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disabilities.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 68 children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The signs and symptoms of ASD vary significantly from person to person, ranging from mild social and communication difficulties to profound cognitive impairments.

"One of the challenges in autism is that we don't know how to classify patients into subgroups or even what those subgroups might be," said study leader Sophie Molholm, Ph.D., associate professor in the Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience and the Muriel and Harold Block Faculty Scholar in Mental Illness in the department of pediatrics at Einstein.

"This has greatly limited our understanding of the disorder and how to treat it."

Autism is diagnosed based on a patient's behavioural characteristics and symptoms.

"These assessments can be highly subjective and require a tremendous amount of clinical expertise," said Dr. Molholm. "We clearly need a more objective way to diagnose and classify this disorder."

An earlier study by Dr. Molholm and colleagues suggested that brainwave electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings could potentially reveal how severely ASD individuals are affected.

That study found that children with ASD process sensory information, such as sound, touch and vision, less rapidly than typically developing children do.

The current study was intended to see whether sensory processing varies along the autism spectrum. Forty-three ASD children aged 6 to 17 were presented with either a simple auditory tone, a visual image (red circle), or a tone combined with an image, and instructed to press a button as soon as possible after hearing the tone, seeing the image or seeing and hearing the two stimuli together.

Continuous EEG recordings were made via 70 scalp electrodes to determine how fast the children's brains were processing the stimuli.

The speed with which the subjects processed auditory signals strongly correlated with the severity of their symptoms: the more time required for an ASD individual to process the auditory signals, the more severe that person's autistic symptoms.

"This finding is in line with studies showing that, in people with ASD, the microarchitecture in the brain's auditory center differs from that of typically developing children," Dr. Molholm said.

The study also found a significant though weaker correlation between the speed of processing combined audio-visual signals and ASD severity. No link was observed between visual processing and ASD severity.

"This is a first step toward developing a biomarker of autism severity, an objective way to assess someone's place on the ASD spectrum," said Dr. Molholm.

"Using EEG recordings in this way might also prove useful for objectively evaluating the effectiveness of ASD therapies."

In addition, EEG recordings might help diagnose ASD earlier. "Early diagnosis allows for earlier treatment, which we know increases the likelihood of a better outcome," said Dr. Molholm.

"But currently, fewer than 15 percent of children with ASD are diagnosed before age 4. We might be able to adapt this technology to allow for early ASD detection and therapy for a much larger percentage of children."

More information: The paper is titled "Neurophysiological Indices of Atypical Auditory Processing and Multisensory Integration are Associated with Symptom Severity in Autism."

Saturday, September 20, 2014

US Congressional Committee Hearing on the Science of Dyslexia

In an age of gridlock and choking polarization, the yesterday’s Congressional Committee Hearing on the Science of Dyslexia evoked the best qualities of US governmental process: bringing elected officials to the table with ordinary citizens in non-partisan dialogue to solve a major societal problem.

For a two hours in Rayburn room 2318 on Capitol Hill, there were no Democrats or Republicans, just people concerned about the prevalence of dyslexia in our nation’s children and the fact that millions of families are struggling, and convinced that something huge needs to be done to help these kids read, learn and thrive.

What made the event most remarkable was its emotional richness. As data points from the vast body of dyslexia science were shared by leading experts, tears flowed and laughter filled the air.

At one point, Committee Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas commented that he’d never heard such eruptions of applause and enthusiasm in a Congressional Hearing.

Best of all, the event was made accessible for everyone: its live webcast was recorded and archived; and all of the testimony was transcribed.

Here are several highlights.

Clicking on the speakers’ names will bring up a full transcript of their remarks:

Rep. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana gave some of the day’s most compelling and heart-wrenching testimony, pausing several times to wipe away tears and collect himself.

“A couple of years ago, my youngest daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia. Prompted by concerns about my daughter and my constituents’ children, I set out to learn as much as I could about dyslexia and was amazed at how much is known and yet, far too often, not incorporated into public policy and education. . ."

"If dyslexia is identified in elementary school and the appropriate resources are given to these children, America can produce more teachers, more scientists and more entrepreneurs.”

Brownley1Rep. Julia Brownley of California also shared personal perspectives as a parent.

“When my daughter Hannah struggled to learn to read, like any parent I was completely panicked about what to do next."

"It was Hannah’s dyslexia, and learning to navigate the school system, where I witnessed the good, the bad, and the ugly, that led me to public service. . ."

"This spring, Hannah received her Master’s degree in International Studies, and is now overseas saving the world with a NGO in Kenya, Africa."

"She speaks three languages, and she still misspells in all of them! I could not be prouder of her. But for every success story like Hannah, there are countless others who do not succeed.”

Sally1Dr. Sally Shaywitz of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity made a passionate plea to policy makers that now is the time to translate science into action.

“In dyslexia, remarkably in America, in the year 2014, we have not a knowledge gap but an action gap."

"We have the knowledge but it is not being put into policy and practice and far too many children and adults, too, are suffering needlessly."

"There is an epidemic of reading failure that we have the scientific evidence to treat effectively and we are not acknowledging or implementing it. . ."

"I cannot look into the face of one more child who has lost faith in himself and the world, I cannot look into the face of a child’s father who is desperately trying to hold back tears; I cannot hear once again about how a school told a mother, ‘we do not believe in dyslexia.’. . ."

"It is our hope that hearing the depth and extent of the scientific knowledge of dyslexia will alert policy makers to act and to act with a sense of urgency. ”

Max Brooks, an accomplished author and screenwriter, electrified Committee members and the gallery crowd with his personal account of living with dyslexia:

“For me, dyslexia was nearly as bad as the feelings of anxiety, shame, and low self-esteem that it caused."

"For me, ‘learned dependency’ was the real enemy, the self-narrative that ‘I can’t do this’ that can destroy children’s learning potential for the rest of their lives."

"That was ALMOST me. I’ve spent the last 30 years unlearning the lesson that dyslexia taught me, that society has no use for me. . ."

“A little awareness and flexible teaching methods could unlock unlimited potential in these kids who now think they’re losers."

"If we already have mandatory racial sensitivity training for our police, why not have mandatory dyslexia recognition training for our teachers?"

"It’s so simple, so easy, and when you look at all the other government programs designed to help citizens help themselves, it’s probably the least expensive.”

Persusasive testimony was also given by panelists Stacy Antie, a mother and parent advocate; Paul Eden, president of Landmark College; and Guinevere Eden, Director of the Center for the Study of Learning (CSL) and Professor, Department of Pediatrics, Georgetown University Medical Center.

Later on in a Q&A session with Committee lawmakers, Max Brooks revived his comment about making dyslexia training “a mandatory part of every teacher’s certificate,” instantly sparking whoops of applause from the gallery crowd, including many members of the Decoding Dyslexia movement.

And those Decoding Dyslexia members, from states as nearby as Virginia, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and from as far away as Texas, graciously gathered for a photo op of their own before the day’s proceedings concluded.

After the Committee Hearing, attendeees and panelists enjoyed a great luncheon hosted by the National Center for Learning Disabilities, featuring a preview look at the new initiative and a website that will launch later this month.

This was followed by speeches by an assortment of guests, including Hal Malchow, President of the International Dyslexia Association, Robbi Cooper of Decoding Dyslexia Texas, and Kristin Kane of Decoding Dyslexia Virginia.

What will be the net impact of a day like this on our nation’s dyslexic children and the parents and teachers who support them?

It’s hard to say, but there was enough knowledge, passion and experience gathered there on Capitol Hill to move mountains.

With so many diverse players assembled at the table, it brought to life the vivid slogan Learning Ally has embraced this year: Together It’s Possible.

All credit goes to Learning Ally for the content of this article.

Friday, September 12, 2014

ADHD: Medication plus parent training may help kids with aggression

Combining two medications with parent training appears to improve anger, irritability and violent tendencies in children whose attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is coupled with severe aggression, a new study suggests.

"Augmented" therapy that consists of stimulant and antipsychotic drugs, along with parent training in behavioural management techniques, was rated more effective by parents than "basic" therapy pairing only the stimulant and parent training, researchers found.

"An important finding of this study was that at the end of nine weeks, approximately half of all children receiving basic therapy were still rated by their parents as being impaired... with symptoms interfering with school or social functioning," said study author Kenneth Gadow, a professor of psychiatry at Stony Brook University in New York.

"In the augmented group receiving three interventions for aggression, about one-quarter still, at the end of nine weeks, were rated by their parents as being impaired, and that suggests, even with highly effective therapies, that many of these children still have unmet treatment needs" " he added.

The drugs used in the study, published in the September issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, included the widely prescribed ADHD stimulant Concerta (methylphenidate) and the antipsychotic Risperdal (risperidone).

Approximately 11 percent of American children aged 4 to 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD, which includes symptoms such as impulsivity, hyperactivity, and difficulty focusing and controlling behavior, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As many as half of children with ADHD also display significant, disruptive aggression, according to an editorial accompanying the new research.

"This is very common among kids with ADHD, but unfortunately it complicates the picture for treatment," said Erin Schoenfelder, a clinical psychologist at Seattle Children's Hospital and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioural health at University of Washington.

"It really is staggeringly high."

In the new research, Gadow and his colleagues divided a group of nearly 170 children aged 6 to 12 with ADHD and aggression problems into two treatment groups, basic and augmented.

The basic group received Concerta and their parents underwent behavioral management training.

The augmented group received Concerta and parental training as well, but also took the antipsychotic Risperdal. Both groups were followed for nine weeks.

While both groups of children displayed marked reduction in symptoms, improvement ratings varied depending on whether parents or teachers were making the assessment.

Parents reported that children on augmented therapy were less likely to be impaired socially or academically by their anger and irritability than children on basic therapy.

On the other hand, teachers found few differences in these measures.

Instead, teachers of those on augmented therapy reported significant drops in ADHD symptoms, especially impulsiveness, compared with teachers of children on basic therapy.

Gadow and Schoenfelder agreed that the conflicting parent-teacher ratings demonstrate a familiar concept: that children's behaviours vary in different settings, whether or not they have ADHD.

"Just like adults, they adapt their behaviours to be more appropriate for the setting they're in," Gadow said.

"People do differ, however, in their ability to modify their behaviour from one setting to the next, and some children are much more variable [in this regard]."

Schoenfelder said long-term evidence is needed indicating that combining Concerta and Risperdal is safe in children, but "it appears from this study that the combination was well-tolerated and something practitioners could [adjust the dosage of] effectively."

"Folks trying this type of treatment should have close monitoring," she added. "This is a starting point. It's a combination doctors may try when they see this blend of aggressive and hyperactive behaviours. It certainly will require adjustment . . . but it's exciting to find something helpful for a significant proportion of the kids studied."

The study authors pointed out that their findings only apply to children with ADHD who exhibit severe irritability and peer aggression.

They noted that the study's findings are not an indication of the ADHD population as a whole.

More Information: "Risperidone Added to Parent Training and Stimulant Medication: Effects on Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Conduct Disorder, and Peer Aggression"