Is it okay for children to count on their fingers?

Is it OK for children to count on their fingers? Generations of pupils have been discouraged by their teachers from using their hands when learning maths. But a new research article, published in Frontiers in Education shows using fingers may be a much more important part of maths learning than previously thought.

The article, by Professor Tim Jay of Sheffield Hallam University and independent researcher Dr Julie Betenson, confirms what parents have long felt instinctively — that the sorts of finger games children often play at home are central to their education.

The researchers worked with 137 primary pupils aged between six and seven. All the children were given different combinations of counting and number games to play — but only some were given exercises which involved finger-training.

Some pupils played games involving number symbols, such as dominoes, shut-the-box, or snakes and ladders.

Other pupils were asked to play finger games: such being asked to hold up a given number of fingers, or numbering fingers from 1 — 5 and then having to match one of them by touching it against the corresponding finger on the other hand, or tracing coloured lines using a particular finger.

Both these groups did a little better in maths tests than a third group of pupils who had simply had ‘business as usual’ with their teachers. But the group which did both the counting and the finger games fared significantly better.

“This study provides evidence that fingers provide children with a ‘bridge’ between different representations of numbers, which can be verbal, written or symbolic. Combined finger training and number games could be a useful tool for teachers to support children’s understanding of numbers,” Professor Jay said.

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Study links sleep patterns with pain persistence after pediatric surgery

About 20 percent of children develop persistent pain after surgery, and a new study published in The Journal of Pain showed that poorer night-time sleep quality was significantly associated with greater next-day pain intensity overfour months after surgery.  The Journal of Pain is published by the American Pain Society, www.americanpainsociety.org.

Researchers from the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital studied 66 children who had major surgery and examined the longitudinal sleep patterns over four months to assess the relationship between daily sleep and pain.  They hypothesized that poorer night-time sleep quality would be associated with greater pain intensity. 

In adults, the role of sleep disruption is considered a relevant predictor of acute as well as chronic post-surgical pain.  However, perioperative daily sleep patterns have not been longitudinally assessed in children, and the role of sleep in persistence of children’s pain after surgery has not been explored.

Results of the study showed, on average, children’s sleep duration and quality returned to baseline four months following surgery.  But at the individual level, significant temporal relationships were found between daily sleep and pain.

“Poor sleep quality predicted greater subsequent pain intensity the next day and our findings suggest that poor sleep quality may continue to influence the experience of post-surgical pain in children even four months after surgery,” said lead author Jennifer Rabbits, MB, ChB, Department of Anesthesiology at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

The authors concluded that improving sleep quality could be an important factor to reduce post-surgical pain and improve surgical recovery time in children.  

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Adulthood wellbeing lower for single-parent kids

People who grew up in single-parent families have lower levels of wellbeing and life satisfaction in adulthood, according to new research by the University of Warwick.

Dr Sakari Lemola from Warwick’s Department of Psychology, and Dr David Richter from the German Institute for Economic Research, have discovered that individuals who were brought up by a single parent for their entire childhood earn on average 30% less and are more likely to be unemployed.

Furthermore, on average they were 9% less likely to be in a romantic relationship and had a smaller number of friends, according to the research.

In a study of over 24,000 adults aged 18-66, the researchers identified 641 individuals who spent their entire childhood with a single parent and 1539 who spent part of their childhood with a single parent.

The sample group was asked how satisfied they are with life in general, using an 11-point scale — ranging from zero (completely dissatisfied) to ten (completely satisfied). They were also asked who they lived with for the first fifteen years of their life.

The researchers analysed the participants’ annual income, number of visits to the doctor, level of social integration, and success in romantic relationships.

After accounting for childhood socio-economic circumstances, the differences in life-satisfaction were relatively small. Those who grew up with a single parent for their entire childhood were approximately 0.2 points lower on the scale ranging from 0 to 10 than those who were brought up by both parents — and 0.1 points lower than those who experienced parental separation during childhood.

“These findings suggest that both parents still provide important resources even when children have already grown up and left their parent’s home. During young adulthood these resources may include financial support as well as access to social networks, which is important to find a good job,” commented Dr Sakari Lemola.

“Children who had grown up with a single parent for their entire childhood are less likely to know their second parent well and to receive such support during adult life,” he continued.

“Thus, support from the state for those individuals who grew up in single-parent families should also target the life-stages after childhood and facilitate integration into adult life during important transitions such as from school to university or from education into the job market.”

Single parenthood is increasingly common in Western societies, with 20% of children in Germany and 24% in the UK currently being raised in single-parent households — more than 80% of those in households headed by single mothers.

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Acetaminophen during pregnancy can inhibit masculinity

Paracetamol (acetaminophen) is popular for relieving pain. But if you are pregnant, you should think twice before popping these pills according to the researchers in a new study. In an animal model, Paracetamol, which is the pain-relieving substance found in the pills, actually damages the development of male behaviours.

Previous studies have shown the paracetamol can inhibit the development of the male sex hormone testosterone in male foetuses, thus increasing the risk of malformation of the testicles in infants. But a reduced level of testosterone at the fetal stage is also significant for the behaviours of adult males, says Ph.D. David Møbjerg Kristensen, a researcher employed during the studies at the Department of Biomedical Sciences and the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences.

“We have demonstrated that a reduced level of testosterone means that male characteristics do not develop as they should. This also affects sex drive. In a trial, mice exposed to paracetamol at the fetal stage were simply unable to copulate in the same way as our control animals. Male programming had not been properly established during their fetal development and this could be seen long afterwards in their adult life. It is very worrying,” says David Møbjerg Kristensen.

The dosage administered to the mice was very close to the recommended dosage for pregnant women. Because the trials are restricted to mice, the results cannot be transferred directly to humans. However, the researchers’ certainty about the harmful effects of paracetamol means it would be improper to undertake the same trials on humans, explains David Møbjerg Kristensen.

Markedly reduced male behaviour

Testosterone is the primary male sex hormone that helps develop the male body and male programming of the brain. The masculine behaviours in mice observed by the researchers involved aggressiveness to other male mice, ability to copulate and the need for territorial marking. The mice reacted significantly more passively than normal for all three parameters. They did not attack other males, they were unable to copulate and behaved more like female mice when it come to urinary territorial marking.

After observing the changed behavioural patterns, Prof. Anders Hay-Schmidt, who was employed at the then Department of Neuroscience and Pharmacology during his studies at the University of Copenhagen, investigated the specific effects of a lack of testosterone on the brain. The results showed up clearly here, too.

“The area of the brain that controls sex drive — the sexual dimorphic nucleus — had half as many neurons in the mice that had received paracetamol as the control mice. The inhibition of testosterone also led to a halving of the activity in an area of the brain that is significant for male characteristics,” he explains.

Also affects female fertility

This study focused on the effect of paracetamol on masculine characteristics but paracetamol during pregnancy also has the potential to influence the subsequent lives of female mice. In 2016, the researchers published a study showing that female mice had fewer eggs in their ovaries if their mothers had had paracetamol during pregnancy. This led to the mice becoming infertile more quickly. But even if paracetamol is harmful, that does not mean it should never be taken, even when pregnant.

“I personally think that people should think carefully before taking medicine. These days it has become so common to take paracetamol that we forget it is a medicine And all medicine has side effects. If you are ill, you should naturally take the medicine you need. After all, having a sick mother is more harmful for the fetus,” says David Møbjerg Kristensen.

He emphasizes that pregnant women should continue to follow the guidelines given by their country’s health authorities and recommends people to contact their GP if in doubt about the use of paracetamol.

Could flu during pregnancy raise risk for autism?

Researchers at the Center for Infection and Immunity (CII) at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found no evidence that laboratory-diagnosis alone of maternal influenza during pregnancy is associated with risk of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the offspring. They did, however, find a trend toward risk in mothers with a laboratory diagnosis of influenza and self-reported symptoms of severe illness. This trend did not achieve statistical significance.

The study is the first to assess the risk for ASD based on laboratory-verified maternal influenza infection, not just survey data or medical records. Results appear in the journal mSphere.

The researchers analyzed questionnaires and blood samples from 338 mothers of children with ASD and 348 matched controls, as part of the Autism Birth Cohort Study, a prospective birth cohort in Norway. Blood samples were collected from mothers at mid-pregnancy and after delivery. Mothers also reported on their cold and flu symptoms during pregnancy.

Positive blood tests for past influenza A or influenza B infection were not associated with increased ASD risk. However, when researchers combined reports of influenza-like illness with the blood test results, they found a substantial, albeit statistically insignificant, increased risk of ASD. While random error could be responsible for the finding, the authors caution against dismissing it outright due to the magnitude of the association: children born to mothers with laboratory-verified flu and matching symptoms had nearly double the odds of later being diagnosed with ASD compared to women without flu and symptoms.

“Symptoms are important because they may indicate the extent to which the mother’s immune system is fighting the flu,” says first author Milada Mahic, a post-doctoral research scientist at Center for Infection and Immunity and the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. “If infection is contributing to increased risk, it likely comes from inflammation related to maternal immune system response rather than the flu infection itself. Further research is warranted.”

The flu-ASD finding aligns with past research suggesting that admission to hospital for maternal viral infection in the first trimester and maternal bacterial infection in the second trimester is associated with increased risk of ASD.

In other recent studies from the Autism Birth Cohort Study, researchers reported that women actively infected with genital herpes during early pregnancy had twice the odds of giving birth to a child later diagnosed with ASD. Another new study reports maternal fever during pregnancy may raise risk for the child developing ASD.

“The fetal brain undergoes rapid changes that make it vulnerable to a robust maternal immune response,” says senior author W. Ian Lipkin, director of CII and John Snow Professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School. “That said, mothers should not conclude that having an infection during pregnancy means that their child will develop autism. It may simply be one among many risk factors.”

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Older dads have 'geekier' sons

New King’s College London research suggests that sons of older fathers are more intelligent, more focused on their interests and less concerned about fitting in, all characteristics typically seen in ‘geeks’.

While previous research has shown that children of older fathers are at a higher risk of some adverse outcomes, including autism and schizophrenia, this new study published in Translational Psychiatry suggests that children of older fathers may also have certain advantages over their peers in educational and career settings.

The researchers from King’s College London and The Seaver Autism Center for Research and Treatment at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in the United States collected behavioural and cognitive data from 15,000 UK-based twin pairs in the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS).

When the twins were 12 years old, they completed online tests that measured ‘geek-like’ traits, including non-verbal IQ, strong focus on the subject of interest and levels of social aloofness. Parents were also asked whether their child cares about how they are perceived by their peers and if they have any interests that take up substantial majority of their time. Using this information, the researchers computed a ‘geek index’ for every child in the study. Overall, higher geek index scores were reported in the sons of older fathers. This effect persisted after controlling for parent’s social/economic status, qualifications and employment. In addition, they found that ‘geekier’ children do better in school exams, particularly in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, several years after their geek index was measured.

?Dr Magdalena Janecka from King’s College London and The Seaver Autism Center at Mount Sinai, said: ‘Our study suggests that there may be some benefits associated with having an older father. We have known for a while about the negative consequences of advanced paternal age, but now we have shown that these children may also go on to have better educational and career prospects.’

Although the study did not directly investigate the role of environmental factors, there are a number of potential reasons why older fathers may have ‘geekier’ sons. For example, older fathers are likely to have more established careers and a higher socioeconomic status than younger fathers, meaning that their children may be brought up in more enriched environments and have access to better schooling.

These results also have implications for understanding links between higher paternal age, autism and characteristics typically seen in ‘geeks’. Although the researchers could not measure it directly, they hypothesise that some of the genes for geekiness and for autism are overlapping, and that those genes are more likely to be present in older fathers. Dr Janecka added: ‘When the child is born only with some of those genes, they may be more likely to succeed in school. However, with a higher ‘dose’ of these genes, and when there are other contributing risk factors, they may end up with a higher predisposition for autism. This is supported by recent research showing that genes for autism are also linked with higher IQ.’

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Support in childhood makes midlife the prime time of life

There is a tendency to highlight the importance of cognitive achievements and the family’s socioeconomic background for people’s success in the future, but this study shows that children’s self-regulation, which comprises children’s social skills and processing of emotions, directs the future development in a profound way in different domains of life. Strong self-regulation promotes success in education and work, the intimate relationship, health behaviour, integration into society and the development of flexible personality, explains Professor Lea Pulkkinen.

The results of Jyväskylä Longitudinal Study of Personality and Social Development, which has taken place for more than 40 years, have been summarised in the book Human development from middle childhood to middle adulthood: Growing up to be middle-aged (London:Routledge) to be launched on 15 June 2017. The study started in 1968 when the participants were 8 years old and the latest data collection was implemented in 2009 when they were 50. The book is written by the founder and long-time leader of the study, Professor Lea Pulkkinen in collaboration with Research Director Katja Kokko from the Gerontology Research Center of the University of Jyväskylä. Kokko has been the leader of the study since 2013.

The extensive research summarised in the book demonstrates that constructive ways of coping with problem situations, the consideration of other people’s feelings and a positive way of thinking as a child predict good functioning capacity in adulthood. The development of self-regulation is enhanced by child-oriented mature parenting.

Child-oriented parents are able to analyse their behaviour from the perspective of the child and create an environment in which children are able to sense warmth and approval from their parents as well as notice continuing dedication and interest towards their lives. Child-oriented parents also pay attention to the child’s opinions and react to the child’s needs in order to provide satisfaction and give support, Pulkkinen explains.

The study provides a plenty of new information on adulthood development which has been studied sparsely. Important matters in life are not limited to childhood. The transition to adulthood and the different roles of adults in the family and work create new situations in which humans can develop and mature to take responsibility for themselves and others. Harmful effects on adult development are, above all, caused by the excessive use of alcohol which usually is connected to starting alcohol use at an early age.

The study shows that people in midlife are usually healthy, capable to work and willing to take responsibility. They are active in different domains of life and their physical and mental well-being is good.

The research was conducted at the Department of Psychology at the University of Jyväskylä and has been supported financially for decades by the Academy of Finland.

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Peer-led self-management programs may not help teenagers with asthma

A study from the University of Warwick suggests peer-led self-management programmes have little impact on the quality of life or lung function of adolescents with asthma.

Peer-led self-management programmes differ from typical patient education in that they encourage patients to take an active role in managing their condition. While traditional self-management programmes are taught by professionals, new programmes are taught by “peers” — people of equal standing who belong to the same societal group.

Asthma is a leading chronic condition in adolescents and unlike children or adults, young people face distinct challenges because of puberty, peer pressure, psychosocial development, and healthcare transition. Dr GJ Melendez-Torres who led the study said: “Asthma symptoms can be exacerbated by hormonal changes and new exposures, such as cigarettes and drugs. In addition, adolescents often experience fear, anxiety, and shame about their illness, and may not take their medication as prescribed to fit in with their peers.

“As a result, young people aged 11-17 have double the risk of dying from asthma than children aged 10 and under, and a greater risk of psychosocial problems than those without. These unique challenges and consequences require new approaches to address these adolescents’ concerns.”

Researchers retrieved 1,887 articles and found four studies that met their inclusion criteria. They found a small, statistically non-significant increase in participants’ quality of life, and a small, statistically non-significant decrease in lung function. In one randomised controlled trial interventions reduced asthma symptoms and improved self-management. However overall, a lack of data made meta-analysis unfeasible, and studies had unclear or high risk of bias.

In the United States peer-led management is a critical component of their National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s National Asthma Education and Prevention Program (NAEPP) asthma guidelines. These programmes use organised learning to facilitate healthy behaviours, such as treatment adherence and dealing with emotions. The use of peers has several advantages such as providing role models, interpreting health advice in a relevant manner to adolescents, cutting the cost of staff budgets and benefiting the educators themselves.

Sixteen databases were searched in May 2015 for published and unpublished studies. Studies had to be randomised controlled trials (RCTs); they had to include participants aged 10-19 years old with asthma; use a peer-led educational intervention that addressed self-management of asthma; and report a measure of health status or behaviour as an outcome. Trial quality and data extraction were based on pre-specified criteria. Results were pooled using a random-effects model with mean differences.

Co-author Connie Zhong, of Harvard Medical School added: “According to social learning theory, young people are more likely to have positive attitudes towards modelled behaviours if they can relate to their teachers. By interacting with educators of similar age and backgrounds, adolescents can seek guidance and increase their self-efficacy to achieve health behaviour change. Also role models provide a means for peer identification, which reduces feelings of isolation and increases feelings of normalcy. By normalising health behaviours, adolescents may better adhere to treatments, leading to improved health.”

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Autism risk linked to fever during pregnancy

Fever during pregnancy may raise the risk for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the child, according to a study led by scientists at the Center for Infection and Immunity (CII) at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. The effect was most pronounced in the second trimester, raising odds for ASD by 40 percent. Risk of an ASD was increased by over 300 percent for the children of women reporting three or more fevers after the twelfth week of pregnancy.

The study is the most robust to date to explore the risk of ASD associated with fevers across the entire span of pregnancy, and of the capacity of two different types of commonly used anti-fever medications — acetaminophen and ibuprofen — to address that risk. Risks were minimally mitigated among the children of women taking acetaminophen for fever in the second trimester. Although there were no cases of ASD among children of mothers who took ibuprofen, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, researchers could not ascertain whether risk was mitigated due to the extremely small number of women using this particular drug for fever. Results of the study appear in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

The researchers followed 95,754 children born between 1999 and 2009, including 583 cases of ASD identified in Norway through the Autism Birth Cohort (ABC) Study. Mothers of 15,701 children (16 percent) reported fever in one or more four-week intervals throughout pregnancy, similar to rates reported in the U.S. ASD risk was increased by 34 percent when mothers reported fever at any time during pregnancy, and by 40 percent in the second trimester. The risk increased in a dose-dependent fashion from 1.3-fold with one or two fever episodes after the twelfth prenatal week to 3.12-fold with three or more episodes.

“Our results suggest a role for gestational maternal infection and innate immune responses to infection in the onset of at least some cases of autism spectrum disorder,” says first author Mady Hornig, associate professor of Epidemiology and director of Translational Research at CII.

Questionnaire analysis did not indicate an association between risk and maternally-reported symptoms of infection in individual organ systems that might implicate specific infectious agents. An ongoing study is testing blood samples collected at mid-pregnancy and at birth to explore the possible role of specific infectious agents and the contribution of distinctive patterns of immune response among mothers and children to understand the mechanisms creating vulnerability.

“Future work should focus on identifying and preventing prenatal infections and inflammatory responses that may contribute to autism spectrum disorder,” says senior author W. Ian Lipkin, John Snow Professor of Epidemiology and director of CII.

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Developing fetuses react to face-like shapes from the womb

It’s well known that young babies are more interested in faces than other objects. Now, researchers reporting in Current Biology on June 8 have the first evidence that this preference for faces develops in the womb. By projecting light through the uterine wall of pregnant mothers, they found that fetuses at 34 weeks gestation will turn their heads to look at face-like images over other shapes.

The findings are the first to show that it’s possible to explore visual perception and cognition in babies before they are born.

“We have shown the fetus can distinguish between different shapes, preferring to track face-like over non-face-like shapes,” says Vincent Reid of Lancaster University in the United Kingdom. “This preference has been recognized in babies for many decades, but until now exploring fetal vision has not been attempted.”

Reid said that technical barriers had prevented earlier studies of fetal vision and behavior in the womb. But he and his colleagues realized those challenges could be overcome. The new work was made possible thanks to high-quality 4D ultrasound. Scientists had also realized that it’s possible for light to penetrate through human tissue and into the uterus, where a fetus could see it.

The researchers tested the responses of 39 fetuses to face-like patterns of light presented to them in both upright and inverted orientations. The projected light moved across their field of vision while researchers watched the fetuses’ reactions using 4D ultrasound. Those ultrasound movies showed that the developing babies turned their heads to look more often at face-like stimuli that were upright than those that were presented to them upside down.

“There was the possibility that the fetus would find any shape interesting due to the novelty of the stimulus,” Reid says. “If this was the case, we would have seen no difference in how they responded to the upright and upside-down versions of the stimuli. But it turned out that they responded in a way that was very similar to infants.”

The findings suggest that babies’ preference for faces begins in the womb. There is no learning or experience after birth required.

The findings also confirm that fetuses have enough light to see and have visual experiences in the womb. However, Reid says that he discourages pregnant mothers from shining bright lights into their bellies.

The researchers are now working to improve the light source used in the current study in preparation for further exploration of fetal perception and cognition in the womb. For example, they say, newborns can discriminate numbers and quantities. They want to find out whether a fetus in the third trimester also has that capacity.

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Overweight children are being excluded from friendships, study finds

Overweight children have more unreciprocated friendships and frenemies than their thinner counterparts, a Keck School of Medicine of USC study finds.

In a survey of 504 preteens in the Netherlands, researchers found that overweight children are excluded from friendships, call classmates friends when the feeling is not mutual and are disliked by peers. And overweight children dislike more classmates than their thinner peers.

These heightened negative relationships take a mental, social and physical toll, said Kayla de la Haye, lead author of the new study and an assistant preventive medicine professor at the Keck School of Medicine.

“Our finding is alarming because if we continue to have social environments where fat shaming is the norm, these kids will continue to be ostracized,” de la Haye said. “Those adverse interactions increase the risk of loneliness, depression, poor eating habits and illness.”

Although overweight children, on average, listed as many people in the friend category as children with healthy weight, they were 1.7 times more likely to be disliked and 1.2 times more likely to dislike their peers. These combined tendencies indicate that overweight children are generally involved in more unreciprocated friendships and mutual frenemy relationships, de la Haye said.

The study, published on June 7 in PLOS ONE, included 714 students, 210 of whom were nominated as friends but did not take the survey.

“Research by others has shown people who chronically feel isolated, lonely or socially disconnected experience greater inflammation and reduced viral suppression,” de la Haye added. “We’re not sure if that’s at play here, but a consistent body of research shows that negative social relationships can go under the skin and affect health.”

Worldwide, childhood obesity increased by 31 percent in a little over two decades with about 42 million overweight or obese children in 2013, according to the World Health Organization.

In the United States, the number of obese children has more than tripled since the 1970s. About 1 in 5 school-aged children are obese — about 17 percent of all children in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The prevalence of childhood obesity is higher among Latinos (22 percent) and blacks (20 percent) than among whites (15 percent), according to the CDC.

Isolation can create a vicious cycle for overweight children

The study is based on questionnaires that 504 preteens answered in the Netherlands when they were aged 10 to 12. Participants in 28 classes listed their best friends and their enemies. On average, 26 students participated per classroom.

Children were assigned weight categories based on their body mass index, a measure of body fat. About 16 percent of the participants were overweight.

Researchers controlled for gender because it can steer friendships and omitted children who had skipped a grade or who were held back a grade.

On average, children were listed as a friend by five of their classmates and as an enemy by two. However, overweight kids typically were considered a friend by just four classmates and were disliked by three.

“This social environment characterized by fewer friendships and more antipathies is likely to put overweight youth at increased risk for psychosocial maladjustment,” the study stated. “The resulting social isolation may also promote unhealthy behaviors, such as excessive food intake and decreased participation in sports and physical activities, which can lead to further weight gain and thus a cycle of poor physical and social outcomes.”

Unfortunately, it seems overweight children tend to have fewer friends and be friends with less popular kids who also tend to be overweight, de la Haye said.

“We want to reduce the stigma of being overweight,” she said. “We have anti-bullying campaigns based on sexual identity, race and ethnicity. We should do more to integrate obesity in our anti-bullying repertoire.”

The study used data from the Tracking Adolescents’ Individual Lives Survey, an ongoing research on the psychological, social and physical development of adolescents and young adults.

USC researchers are working across disciplines to improve children’s physical and mental health, boosting health across the life span. They have studied how “secondhand sugars” found in breast milk might negatively affect a baby’s future body weight, how a concussion might interrupt a child’s normal brain development and how teens in military families are at higher risk of depression and suicidal thoughts.

“Childhood obesity is a major focus area on both USC campuses,” Keck School of Medicine Dean Rohit Varma said, referring to the University Park and Health Sciences campuses. “USC-led research shows that children with asthma are more likely to become obese and little bribes spark better eating habits. Through continuous, multidisciplinary research across USC, we hope to bring about the decline of childhood obesity and its impact on children.”

Social support more important to mothers

For mothers who feel that they are not in control of certain aspects of life and who are struggling with their relationship to their teenage children, social support may make a great difference. But the same does not seem to apply to fathers in the same situation, a new study published in Family Process shows.

“Parenting teenagers is not always easy. We wanted to look at what may make it easier to be a warm and positive parent with appropriate rules for teenage children,” says Terese Glatz, researcher in social work at Örebro University. The study was undertaken in collaboration with colleagues in the US.

The study shows that parents who feel they are in control of their lives and parenthood are more consistent and better at setting boundaries. Parents with a social support network maintain a warmer relationship with their children compared to parents who are more isolated. The sense of control and a social network thus affect parents in different ways.

The next step of the study involved researchers taking a closer look at what can be done to help parents who feel that they are not in control of their lives. That is when they discovered a difference between mothers and fathers.

“A social support network proved to be a help to mothers in their parenting role. The support may involve help of a practical nature, such as baby sitting, as well as emotional support in the sense of having somebody who listens to you when you are having a hard time. For mothers who feel they are not in control of their lives, social support can help them build a better relationship with their children.”

“Social support in times when you feel you are not in control, may help reduce stress and mothers are able to act in a more positive way towards their children,” says Terese Glatz.

But for the fathers in the study who expressed a sense of not being in control of their lives, social support did not help the situation.

“Therefore, we need to focus our efforts in different directions for mothers and fathers who are having a hard time. Support activities for fathers may perhaps need to focus specifically on how they can regain a sense of control, while the efforts in helping mothers may entail support in expanding their social network.”

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What causes women to stop breastfeeding early?

A recent systematic literature review has investigated potential sociodemographic, physical, mental, and social factors that may cause breastfeeding mothers to stop breastfeeding before infants reach 6 months of age.

Mothers who were young, had a low level of education, and returned to work within 12 weeks after giving birth were more likely to stop breastfeeding before 6 months. Those who gave birth by caesarean section and who had an inadequate milk supply also tended to stop breastfeeding early.

The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding as the main source of nutrition for infants during their first 6 months of life.

“Sociodemographic factors were seen to have caused cessation of breastfeeding in some of the included articles, and a focus should be placed on how to improve related knowledge of health-care professionals as it is clear that sociodemographic factors have an effect on health behavior,” said Dr. Elisabeth Mangrio, lead author of the Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences review. “These factors should be considered through targeted interventions focusing on mothers who are at risk of ceasing breastfeeding before the recommended time and on known factors and behavior that can be prevented.”

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Assessing and addressing the impact of childhood trauma

Childhood trauma is the experience of a highly distressing event or situation during one’s youth, which is beyond a minor’s capacity for coping or control. Trauma encompasses many possible events, from enduring sexual or physical violence to facing the death of a parent. While such events would be painful for anyone, some children who experience trauma become particularly susceptible to psychosis. That is, they may become more prone to experiencing unusual thoughts, beliefs, and experiences that might make it hard to distinguish things as either real or imagined. Before most people experience full-blown psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, they are often diagnosed as being at clinical high risk (CHR) for psychosis.

A small but growing number of studies on the CHR population have begun to focus on identifying possible factors that predict the conversion to psychotic disorders, such as the role of childhood trauma.

Although the majority of children who experience trauma do not exhibit signs of psychosis later, a sizeable share (by some estimates as much as 35%) of children go on to experience psychotic episodes. These can occur in later childhood or young adulthood. At worst, these events require psychiatric hospitalization, which can become yet another form of trauma. Ideally, health care professionals would be able to spot the warning signs of psychosis early. Based on what we know so far, we can draw provisional conclusions about particular types of childhood trauma that are linked to increased risk for psychosis: bullying, sexual abuse, and emotional neglect.

While various models have been proposed to explain why certain children who experienced trauma become susceptible to psychosis, physicians still do not have a clear understanding of this process. A recent comprehensive literature review, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, by Dr. Danessa Mayo and colleagues offers a model of the trauma-psychosis risk cycle that results from experiencing childhood trauma. According to the model, early childhood trauma interacts with a child’s genetic vulnerability and propels them towards greater likelihood of an altered developmental trajectory. Factors such as poor emotional control, limited coping skills, poor social functioning, and increased stress sensitivity increase a child’s risk of experiencing psychotic-like symptoms (e.g., unusual thoughts, suspiciousness, perceptual disturbances). The experience of having psychotic-like symptoms and a trauma history creates increased vulnerability for future trauma, creating a vicious circle.

Early psychosis programs serve the vital function of preventing and reducing the severity of psychosis. In their review Dr. Mayo and colleagues unearth a benefit to such CHR screenings for trauma history. By closely analyzing the findings in a large sample of CHR screenings, physicians can effectively deduce early childhood predictors of conversion to psychosis. This work is ongoing, and a more consistent and specific definition of what is considered “trauma” should be determined. It will also be necessary to pay particular attention to the experience of members of different ethnic groups and races, as well as gender. It is possible that these variables impact the types of childhood traumas that later cause psychosis.

Dr. Mayo and colleagues recommend that physicians on the front lines of dealing with CHR youth avail themselves of targeted training for assessing and treating individuals with both trauma and psychosis. In addition, physicians should develop and adhere to standard protocols for assessing a history of childhood trauma. Finally, physicians should document any connections they uncover between childhood trauma and other health concerns. As Dr. Mayo notes, undertaking this work is vital: “We can promote resilience and mitigate the vulnerability of CHR individuals to developing a psychotic disorder and improve their chances of recovery.”

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Neurons can learn temporal patterns

Individual neurons can learn not only single responses to a particular signal, but also a series of reactions at precisely timed intervals. This is what emerges from a study at Lund University in Sweden.

“It is like striking a piano key with a finger not just once, but as a programmed series of several keystrokes,” says neurophysiology researcher Germund Hesslow.

The work constitutes basic research, but has a bearing on the development of neural networks and artificial intelligence as well as research on learning. Autism, ADHD and language disorders in children, for example, may be associated with disruptions in these and other basic learning mechanisms.

Learning is commonly thought to be based on strengthening or weakening of the contacts between the brain’s neurons. The Lund researchers have previously shown that a cell can also learn a timed association, so that it sends a signal with a certain learned delay. Now, it seems that a neuron can be trained not only to give a single response, but a whole complex series of several responses.

The brain’s learning capacity is greater than previously thought

“This means that the brain’s capacity for learning is even greater than previously thought!” says Germund Hesslow’s colleague Dan-Anders Jirenhed. He thinks that, in the future, artificial neural networks with “trained neurons” could be capable of managing more complex tasks in a more efficient way.

The Lund researchers’ study focuses on the neurons’ capacity for associative learning and temporal learning. In the experiments, the cells learned during several hours of training to associate two different signals. If the delay between the signals was a quarter of a second, the cells learned to respond after a quarter of a second. If the interval was half a second, the cells responded after half a second, and so on.

The researchers now show that the cells can learn not only one, but several reactions in a series. “Signal — brief pause — signal — long pause — signal” gives rise to a series of responses with exactly the same intervals of time: “response — brief pause — response — long pause — response.”

The cells studied by the researchers are called Purkinje cells and are located in the cerebellum. The cerebellum is the part of the brain that controls bodily position, balance and movement. It also plays an important role in learning long series of complicated movements which require precise timing, such as the movements of the hands and fingers when playing the piano.

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