New face-aging technique could boost search for missing people

The method maps out the key features, such as the shape of the cheek, mouth and forehead, of a face at a certain age. This information is fed to a computer algorithm which then synthesises new features for the face to produce photographic quality images of the face at different ages.

A key feature of the method is that it teaches the machine how humans age by feeding the algorithm facial feature data from a large database of individuals at various ages. Consequently, the method improves on existing techniques, achieving greater level of accuracy.

The findings will be presented at the International Conference on Missing Children and Adults at Abertay University, Dundee in June, and have been published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences.

Professor Hassan Ugail, of Bradford’s Centre for Visual Computing, is leading the research. He said: “Each year around 300,000 missing person cases are recorded in the UK alone. This has been part of our motivation in endeavouring to improve current techniques of searching for missing people, particularly those who have been missing for some considerable time.”

The technique developed by the team uses a method of predictive modelling and applies it to age progression. The model is further strengthened by incorporating facial data from a large database of individuals at different ages thus teaching the machine how humans actually age. In order to test their results the researchers use a method called de-aging whereby they take an individual’s picture and run their algorithm backwards to de-age that person to a younger age. The result is then compared with an actual photograph of the individual taken at the young age.

As a test case, the researchers chose to work on the case of Ben Needham. Ben disappeared on the Greek island of Kos on 24th July 1991, when he was only 21 months old. He has never been found, but several images have been produced by investigators showing how Ben might look at ages 11-14 years, 17-20 years, and 20-22 years. The team used their method to progress the image of Ben Needham to the ages of 6, 14 and 22 years. The resulting images show very different results, which the researchers believe more closely resemble what Ben might look like today.

An effective method needs to do two things: the synthesized images need to fit the intended age; and they need to retain the identity of the subject in age-progressed images. The results were evaluated using both machine and human methods, and in both, the images of Ben produced using this method were found to be more like the original picture of Ben than the images created as part of previous investigations.

Professor Ugail added: “No criticism is implied of existing age progression work. Instead we are presenting our work as a development and improvement that could make a contribution to this important area of police work. We are currently working with the relevant parties to further test our method. We are also developing further research plans in order to develop this method so it can be incorporated as a biometric feature, in face recognition systems, for example.”

“Our method generates more individualised results and hence is more accurate for a given face. This is because we have used large datasets of faces from different ethnicities as well as gender in order to train our algorithm. Furthermore, our model can take data from an individual’s relatives, if available, such as parents, grandparents and siblings. This enables us to generate more accurate and individualised ageing results. Current methods that exist use linear or one-dimensional methods whereas ours is non-linear, which means it is better suited for the individual in question.”

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The cost of opioid use during pregnancy

A new study published today by the scientific journal Addiction reveals that the incidence of neonatal abstinence syndrome — often caused by mothers using opioids during pregnancy — is increasing in the United States, and carries an enormous burden in terms of hospital days and costs. The number of US hospital admissions involving neonatal abstinence syndrome increased more than fourfold between the years 2003 and 2012. In 2012, neonatal abstinence syndrome cost nearly $316 million in the United States.

Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) is a constellation of symptoms that occur in newborn infants exposed to addictive illegal or prescription drugs in utero. Infants affected by NAS typically show a number of neurological symptoms and behaviors (e.g., tremors, seizures) as well as poor feeding and gastrointestinal dysfunction. Standard management of NAS involves the administration of opioids for opioid withdrawal, with additional medications for stubborn cases or instances of multi-drug exposure. This drug administration has been performed traditionally in the hospital setting, consuming valuable and finite hospital resources.

In this study, researchers measured the inflation-adjusted health care provider costs and length of hospital stay for almost 28,000 infants with NAS, compared with over 3 million infants without NAS. They found that between 2003 and 2012, NAS admissions increased more than fourfold, resulting in a surge in annual costs from $61 million and 67,869 hospital days in 2003 to nearly $316 million and 291,168 hospital days in 2012. For an infant affected by NAS, the hospital stay was nearly 3.5 times as long (16.57 hospital days compared with 4.98 days for a non-NAS patient) and the costs more than three times greater ($16,893 compared with $5,610 for a non-affected infant).

In an era of increasingly constrained health-care resources, the rising incidence of NAS has significant implications for policymakers, hospital administrators and health care providers nation-wide. Increased public health initiatives are needed to target, educate and provide resources for women of reproductive age to decrease in utero drug exposure. Additionally, given the large variation in screening and treatment of NAS, further study is needed to determine the most effective assessment and management strategies, with a focus on developing therapeutic plans that offer more cost-efficient management of NAS.

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Loneliness contributes to self-centeredness for sake of self-preservation

Research conducted over more than a decade indicates that loneliness increases self-centeredness and, to a lesser extent, self-centeredness also increases loneliness.

The findings by researchers at the University of Chicago show such effects create a positive feedback loop between the two traits: As increased loneliness heightens self-centeredness, the latter then contributes further to enhanced loneliness.

“If you get more self-centered, you run the risk of staying locked in to feeling socially isolated,” said John Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology and director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience.

Cacioppo and co-authors Stephanie Cacioppo, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the UChicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine, and Hsi Yuan Chen, a researcher at the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, published their findings in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin on June 13.

The researchers wrote that “targeting self-centeredness as part of an intervention to lessen loneliness may help break a positive feedback loop that maintains or worsens loneliness over time.” Their study is the first to test a prediction from the Cacioppos’ evolutionary theory that loneliness increases self-centeredness. Such research is important because, as many studies have shown, lonely people are more susceptible to a variety of physical and mental health problems as well as higher mortality rates than their non-lonely counterparts.

The outcome that loneliness increases self-centeredness was expected, but the data showing that self-centeredness also affected loneliness was a surprise, Stephanie Cacioppo said.

In previous research, the Cacioppos reviewed the rates of loneliness in young to older adults across the globe. Five to 10 percent of this population complained of feeling lonely constantly, frequently or all the time. Another 30 to 40 percent complained of feeling lonely constantly.

Their latest findings are based on 11 years of data taken from 2002 to 2013 as part of the Chicago Health, Aging and Social Relations Study of middle-aged and older Hispanics, African-Americans and Caucasian men and women. The study’s random sample consisted of 229 individuals who ranged from 50 to 68 years of age at the start of the study. They were a diverse sample of randomly selected individuals drawn from the general population who varied in age, gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

Early psychological research treated loneliness as an anomalous or temporary feeling of distress that had no redeeming value or adaptive purpose. “None of that could be further from the truth,” Stephanie Cacioppo said.

The evolutionary perspective is why. In 2006, John Cacioppo and colleagues proposed an evolutionary interpretation of loneliness based on a neuroscientific or biological approach.

In this view, evolution has shaped the brain to incline humans toward certain emotions, thoughts and behavior. “A variety of biological mechanisms have evolved that capitalize on aversive signals to motivate us to act in ways that are essential for our reproduction or survival,” the UChicago co-authors wrote. From that perspective, loneliness serves as the psychological counterpart of physical pain.

“Physical pain is an aversive signal that alerts us of potential tissue damange and motivates us to take care of our physical body,” the UChicago researchers wrote. Loneliness, meanwhile, is part of a warning system that motivates people to repair or replace their deficient social relationships.

The finding that loneliness tends to increase self-centeredness fits the evolutionary interpretation of loneliness. From an evolutionary-biological viewpoint, people have to be concerned with their own interests. The pressures of modern society, however, are significantly different from those that prevailed when loneliness evolved in the human species, researchers found.

“Humans evolved to become such a powerful species in large part due to mutual aid and protection and the changes in the brain that proved adaptive in social interactions,” John Cacioppo said. “When we don’t have mutual aid and protection, we are more likely to become focused on our own interests and welfare. That is, we become more self-centered.”

In modern society, becoming more self-centered protects lonely people in the short term but not the long term. That’s because the harmful effects of loneliness accrue over time to reduce a person’s health and well-being.

“This evolutionarily adaptive response may have helped people survive in ancient times, but in contemporary society may well make it harder for people to get out of feelings of loneliness,” John Cacioppo said.

When humans are at their best, they provide mutual aid and protection, Stephanie Cacioppo added. “It isn’t that one individual is sacrificial to the other. It’s that together they do more than the sum of the parts. Loneliness undercuts that focus and really makes you focus on only your interests at the expense of others.”

The Cacioppos have multiple loneliness studies in progress that address its social, behavioral, neural, hormonal, genetic, cellular and molecular aspects, as well as interventions.

“Now that we know loneliness is damaging and contributing to the misery and health care costs of America, how do we reduce it?” John Cacioppo asked. That is the next big question to answer.

Bilingual children are better at recognizing voices

Bilingual children are better than their monolingual peers at perceiving information about who is talking, including recognizing voices, according to a study by NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

The findings, published in the journal Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, suggest yet another advantage of speaking multiple languages beyond the well-known cognitive benefits.

“Bilingual children have a perceptual advantage when processing information about a talker’s voice. This advantage exists in the social aspect of speech perception, where the focus is not on processing the linguistic information, but instead on processing information about who is talking. Speech simultaneously carries information about what is being said and who is saying it,” said Susannah Levi, assistant professor of communicative sciences and disorders at NYU Steinhardt and the study’s author.

Processing who is talking is an important social component of communication and begins to develop even before birth. In her study, Levi examined how children process information about who is talking and sought to understand whether differences existed between children speaking one language or multiple languages.

Forty-one children participated in the study, a combination of 22 monolingual English speakers and 19 bilingual children. The bilingual children all spoke English and either spoke or were exposed to a second language (other than German) on a daily basis. The children were divided by age into two groups: nine years and younger and 10 years and older.

The children completed a series of tasks listening to different voices. In one, they listened to pairs of words in a language they knew (English, spoken with a German accent) and an unfamiliar language (German). The children were then asked whether a pair of words was spoken by the same person or two different people.

In another task, the children learned to identify the voices of three speakers represented by cartoon characters on a computer screen. After listening to the cartoon characters say a series of words, the participants heard a word and would have to decide which cartoon character spoke it.

The tasks revealed that older children performed better than younger children, confirming previous studies that perceiving information about who is talking improves with age.

Levi also found that bilingual children performed better than monolingual children in recognizing and processing voices speaking in both English and German. When listening to English, bilingual children were better at discriminating and learning to identify voices. They were also faster at learning voices. When hearing German, bilingual children were better at discriminating voices.

“The study is a strong test of the benefits of bilingualism because it looked for differences in both a language familiar to all participants and one unfamiliar to them. The bilingual advantage occurred even in a language that was unfamiliar,” Levi said.

Levi points to several possible explanations for the bilingual advantage. Bilingual children may have more experience listening to accented speech (as the English was spoken with an accent) and multiple languages, may have better cognitive control and focus for the tasks, or may have better social perception — an important tool for perceiving voices.

“While we need more research to explain why bilingual children are better and faster at learning different voices, our study provides yet another example of the benefits of speaking and understanding multiple languages,” Levi said.

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How do preemies perform in school?

Parents of prematurely born babies often fear their children may go on to struggle in school, but findings from a new large-scale study from the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University and Northwestern Medicine should reassure parents.

The large-scale study found that two-thirds of babies born at only 23 or 24 weeks were ready for kindergarten on time. Unexpectedly, nearly two percent of them even achieved gifted status in school. While these extremely premature babies often scored low on standardized tests, preterm infants born 25 weeks or later performed only slightly lower than full-term infants. In fact, as the length of pregnancy increased after 28 weeks, the differences in test scores were negligible.

The study will be published June 12 in JAMA Pediatrics.

“What excites me about this study is that it changes the focus for the clinician and families at the bedside from just focusing on the medical outcomes of the child to what the future educational outcomes might be for a child born early,” said first author Dr. Craig Garfield, associate professor of pediatrics and of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

The longitudinal study analyzed more than 1.3 million babies born in Florida from 1992 to 2002 with gestational ages of 23 to 41 weeks who later entered Florida public schools between 1995 and 2012. The scientists matched the babies’ vital statistic records with their Florida public school records to examine the association between being born early and educational performance.

“Many studies look at premature babies but very few of them look at their educational outcomes into middle school in such a large population,” said Garfield, who also is an attending pediatrician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. “What’s special about this study is it speaks to the importance of administrative data sets and the ability to combine different data sets in ways that allow us to ask questions and get answers about how our children are doing in the long-run.”

“While some people might be troubled that very premature infants tend to score well below their full-term peers on standardized tests, I believe that the glass is more than half-full,” said senior author David Figlio, director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. “Most infants born at 23 to 24 weeks still demonstrate a high degree of cognitive functioning at the start of kindergarten and throughout school.”

While this study’s data is strong, it does not account for some of these infants’ medical issues related to preterm birth or provide information about why these children performed well in school, such as their biological make-up or if they received extra support from family or schools, Garfield said. Nevertheless, most babies born prematurely ended up performing reasonably well on standardized tests through middle school.

“Our future work in this area will focus on what parents and service providers can do to help future premature children to achieve their full potential,” Garfield said.

 

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Can't shake old ideas? Wash them off, suggests new study

Handwipes aren’t just for germs anymore. Their uses may extend to more flexible thinking and reorienting one’s priorities.

A pair of researchers at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management has found the physicality of cleaning one’s hands acts to shift goal pursuit, making prior goals less important and subsequent goals more important.

The researchers’ four experiments each began by bringing participants’ attention to particular goals through word games or a short survey, a process called “priming.” The participants were then asked to either merely evaluate or actually use a handwipe. Those who were asked to use the wipe became less likely to think of the previously primed goal, less likely to make behavioral choices consistent with it, and less likely to find it important. Furthermore, their focus was more easily reoriented towards a subsequently primed goal.

“For people who were primed with a health goal, for example, using the handwipe reduced their subsequent tendency to behave in a healthy manner — they were more likely to choose a chocolate bar over a granola bar,” says Ping Dong, a PhD student in marketing who conducted the research with Spike W. S. Lee, an assistant professor of marketing.

Previous work has already shown that physical cleansing reduces the impact of previous psychological experiences, such as guilt arising from immoral behaviour. The current research unpacks the underlying mental process: cleansing embodies a psychological procedure of separation. Wiping away dirt serves as a physical proxy for mentally separating ideas that linger from previous experience, hence preparing a “clean slate” for focusing on new ones.

This research examined cleansing’s short-term rather than long-term impact on goal pursuit, points out Ms. Dong, who will join the faculty at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management later this year. While it may be premature to suggest that people intent on achieving goals should significantly alter their personal hygiene routines, the findings do suggest that when it comes to finding practical tricks for redirecting one’s thinking away from old fruitless pursuits towards new and better ones, an antiseptic wipe may come in handy.

The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

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Anorexia nervosa has a genetic basis

A large-scale, international whole-genome analysis has now revealed for the first time that anorexia nervosa is associated with genetic anomalies on chromosome 12. This finding might lead to new, interdisciplinary approaches to its treatment. The study was led by the University of North Carolina and has been published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. Child and adolescent psychiatrist Andreas Karwautz from MedUni Vienna’s Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry was responsible for the Austrian contribution.

There are currently around 7,500 adolescents in Austria suffering from anorexia nervosa. Girls make up around 95% of those suffering from this serious and protracted disease, which leads to serious health problems due to excessive weight loss. The disease is currently curable in 80% of cases but is still associated with an annual mortality rate of 0.5%. At the present time, the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at MedUni Vienna is treating around 70 seriously ill adolescents, both as in-patients and out-patients.

Although we already knew from genetic tests on monozygotic twins that genes are approximately 60% responsible for the development of anorexia nervosa, we did not know with any certainty which gene loci were involved. A study initiated by the US University of North Carolina has now been conducted worldwide, involving 220 researchers in international medical centres analysing the genetic material of 3,500 anorexics. It was found that, compared with the control group of 11,000 people, anorexics had a significant locus on chromosome 12 that contributes towards an elevated risk of developing anorexia nervosa.

The researchers also explored whether there was any correlation with other disorders. This revealed that the significant locus lies on chromosome 12, in a region associated with Type I diabetes and autoimmune disorders, as well as insulin metabolism. Moreover, genetic correlations were found between anorexia nervosa, neuroticism and schizophrenia, supporting the idea that anorexia is a psychiatric illness.

Child and adolescent psychiatrist Karwautz regards the findings of this study as significant proof that, in addition to the psychosocial component, biological factors also play an extremely important role in the onset of anorexia nervosa. This has huge implications in terms of improving treatment. Says Karwautz: “Such studies form a basis for providing patients and their relatives with a logical and realistic explanation for this persistent disorder, which is the third commonest disorder in this adolescent age group. Prevention programmes will also benefit from these new findings.”

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Oral communication provides better outcomes for children with cochlear implants

In a new, multisite study of deaf children with cochlear implants, UT Dallas researchers have found that children with either no exposure or limited exposure to sign language end up with better auditory, speaking and reading skills later. The paper is one of the first nationwide longitudinal studies of how sign language exposure affects young cochlear implant recipients.

The topic of whether children with cochlear implants should begin their communication experience with sign language has been controversial. However, Dr. Andrea Warner-Czyz, assistant professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences (BBS) and co-author of the study, said the research clarifies outcomes for such decisions.

“If you want your deaf child to be an oral communicator and have reading and language measures on par with their normal hearing peers, then signing to them may not provide the easiest route to that outcome,” she said.

The study recently was published in the journal Pediatrics.

A cochlear implant is a biomedical device surgically implanted in the cochlea to replace the function of the damaged inner ear. The Food and Drug Administration has approved cochlear implantation for children with severe to profound hearing loss as young as 1-year-old.

Dr. Ann Geers, a BBS research scientist who was the lead author of the study, said a major question for normal hearing parents and the professionals who work with pediatric cochlear implant users is whether spoken language skills are best developed by focusing on the auditory speech signal or whether early exposure to an unambiguous visual language provides an important foundation for learning a spoken language.

To determine the answer, Geers, Warner-Czyz and researchers from six cochlear implant centers across the U.S. studied about 100 elementary-age children who had cochlear implants. The children, like 95 percent of all children born with hearing loss, had parents with normal hearing. The children either had early exposure to sign language that continued more than two years after the implantation, early sign language exposure that stopped before two years post-implant, or had no sign language exposure.

Each year, the researchers looked at how the children performed in the areas of speech perception, speech intelligibility, language and reading. The study showed that the children who continued to sign after two years of having a cochlear implant had poorer outcomes across all communication domains, particularly compared to those who didn’t sign at all.

“This study provides the most compelling support yet available for the benefits of listening and spoken language input for promoting verbal development in children implanted by 3 years of age,” Geers said. “Contrary to earlier published assertions, there was no advantage to parents’ use of sign language. This result affirms the decision of many hearing parents who choose not to use sign language when their child receives a cochlear implant.”

The researchers said the study’s findings should be a powerful counseling tool for families, especially those whose native language is spoken rather than signed.

“A lot of these families think that once their child receives a cochlear implant, then that’s it. But there’s a lot of work that goes into getting these kids with the successful outcomes — some of which has to do with how you use spoken language gt vto communicate with your child,” Warner-Czyz said.

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Improving adolescents' social and emotional lives must go beyond teaching them skills

School programs designed to educate children and adolescents on how to understand and manage emotions, relationships and academic goals must go beyond improving the skills of the individuals to create a respectful climate and allow adolescents more autonomy in decision making, according to psychology research at The University of Texas at Austin.

Neuroscientists have identified both early childhood and adolescence as windows of opportunity for development; and social and emotional learning (SEL) programs are a vital contributor to academic achievement and future success. But educators, policymakers and scholars hold competing views on how or whether SEL skills should be taught in schools.

In an analysis published in Future of Children, UT Austin psychology assistant professor David Yeager identifies and evaluates three types of SEL programs: the skills model, focused on changes made to the individual; the climate model, geared toward improving the emotional environment; and the mindsets model, which addresses the interplay between environments and the beliefs develop and that shape their behavior over time.

“Effective programs are not based on the skills model, even though they sometimes teach skills,” said Yeager, a faculty affiliate of the university’s Population Research Center. “Instead, they find ways to motivate young people in terms of the values that matter most to them, and find ways to make environments more respectful.”

Whereas children younger than 10 are forming basic habits for good conduct in school, teens are more sensitive to social and emotional changes. Because of these differences, skill-based SEL programs taught in elementary classrooms cannot be simply “revamped” for older audiences; rather, approaches that tap into teens’ values and influence the overall climate are most effective.

Effective mindset models harness the adolescent desire for status, respect and a more respectful climate, and they blunt the power of threats to peer status and respect — social aspects valued heavily by pubescent adolescents due to changes in brain structures and hormone activity, such as the status-relevant hormone testosterone, Yeager said.

“Improving adolescents’ interior social and emotional lives can spill over into other areas of functioning, because social and emotional life matters so much at this age,” said Yeager.

Effective approaches help teens find purpose in both learning and as members of their communities, Yeager said. In one experiment, Yeager asked 400 students to reflect on issues or people that mattered most to them, and then presented them with stories and data of other students who had a desire to learn in order to make a difference. Teens were then asked to write a persuasive letter to future students to adopt a purpose for learning. Overall, students improved by 0.10 grade points, with some low-scoring students improving twice that by semester’s end.

Creating a more respectful climate means doing away with authoritarian structures to make way for more authentic relationships with adults through positive, democratic group dynamics, including replacing zero-tolerance discipline strategies with those that are more empathetic. Yeager cites one study by Rutgers University psychologist Anne Gregory, which gave students more autonomy in choosing meaningful work, rather than busy work. Students in these academically demanding classes were less likely to be disciplined, shortening the racial gap in discipline infractions.

Finally, it is possible to blunt the power of social threats by teaching teens that socially relevant traits are malleable and not fixed — an incremental theory of personality — which can make them feel better equipped to face social challenges, rather than viewing them as threats and diagnosing them as lasting realities. Yeager’s studies showed that teens exposed to the incremental theory coped better on days when they reported more stressors and exhibited higher GPAs seven months later compared with their peers.

“If we define successful SEL programs as those that instruct and expect adolescents to apply a given skill in novel settings and thereby show greater well-being, then the evidence is discouraging,” Yeager said. “But if include programs that affect social-emotional outcomes by creating climates and mindsets that help adolescents cope more successfully with the challenges they encounter, then evidence is not only encouraging but demands urgent action in schools across the country.”

Predicting autism: Study links infant brain connections to diagnoses at age 2

For the first time, autism researchers used MRIs of six-month olds to show how brain regions are connected and synchronized, and then predict which babies at high risk of developing autism would be diagnosed with the condition at age two. A previous UNC-lead study, published in Nature in February, used MRIs to determine differences in brain anatomy that predict which babies would develop autism as toddlers.

Published in Science Translational Medicine, this paper describes a second type of brain biomarker that researchers and potentially clinicians could use as part of a diagnostic toolkit to help identify children as early as possible, before autism symptoms even appear.

“The Nature paper focused on measuring anatomy at two time points (six and 12 months), but this new paper focused on how brain regions are synchronized with each other at one time point (six months) to predict at an even younger age which babies would develop autism as toddlers.” said senior author Joseph Piven, MD, the Thomas E. Castelloe Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at the UNC School of Medicine, and director of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities. “The more we understand about the brain before symptoms appear, the better prepared we will be to help children and their families.”

Co-senior author John R. Pruett Jr., MD, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said, “There are no behavioral features to help us identify autism prior to the development of symptoms, which emerge during the second year of life. But early intervention improves outcomes, so if in the future we could use MRI to identify children at ultra-high risk before they develop symptoms, we could begin treatments sooner.”

During the study, sleeping infants were placed in an MRI machine and scanned for about 15 minutes to view neural activity across 230 different brain regions. The researchers analyzed how various brain regions were synchronized with each other. This synchrony reflects the coordinated activity of brain regions, which is crucial for cognition, memory, and behavior, and may be observed during sleep.

The researchers then focused on brain region connections related to the core features of autism: language skills, repetitive behaviors, and social behavior. For instance, the researchers determined which brain regions — synchronized at six months — were related to behaviors at age two. This helped Piven’s co-investigators create a machine learning classifier — a computer program — to sort through the differences in synchronization among those key brain regions. Once the computer learned these different patterns, the researchers applied the machine learning classifier to a separate set of infants.

This part of the study included 59 babies enrolled at four sites, including the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) at UNC-Chapel Hill, Washington University in St. Louis, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the University of Washington in Seattle. Each baby had an older sibling with autism, which means each baby had about a one-in-five chance of developing autism, as opposed to one in 68, which is the approximate risk among the general population. Eleven of the 59 babies went on to develop autism.

The machine learning classifier was able to separate findings into two main groups: MRI data from children who developed autism and MRI data from those who did not. Using only this information, the computer program correctly predicted 81 percent of babies who would later meet the criteria for autism at two years of age.

Robert Emerson, PhD, a former UNC postdoctoral fellow and first author of the study, said, “When the classifier determined a child had autism, it was always right. But it missed two children. They developed autism but the computer program did not predict it correctly, according to the data we obtained at six months of age.”

Emerson added, “No one has done this kind of study in six-month olds before, and so it needs to be replicated. We hope to conduct a larger study soon with different study participants.”

This marks the fourth autism imaging study UNC researchers led or co-led this year. Along with the Nature paper, UNC researchers and collaborators published a study in Biological Psychiatry in March linking increased cerebrospinal fluid surrounding to autism diagnoses. In February, they published a paper in Cerebral Cortex about the brain network functional connections involved in social behavior deficits in children with autism.

“I think the most exciting work is yet to come, when instead of using one piece of information to make these predictions, we use all the information together,” Emerson said. “I think that will be the future of using biological diagnostics for autism during infancy.”

New target found to attack an incurable brain tumor in children

A study published in Molecular Cancer Research reveals that a tumor suppressor gene p16 is turned off by a histone mutation (H3.3K27M), which is found in up to 70 percent of childhood brain tumors called diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG). This insight suggests that restoring p16 is a promising therapeutic strategy. The authors have demonstrated that this can be accomplished in vitro using a drug that is approved for treatment of adult leukemia and other cancers.

Histone is a protein that acts like a spool for DNA, helping to package the six-foot long DNA strand into the tiny nucleus of every cell. Histones also help regulate which genes turn on and off, a process that goes awry when there is a histone mutation.

“Using a genetic mouse model of DIPG, we found that the histone mutation turns off p16, which is a gene that acts like a break on dividing cells,” says senior author Oren J. Becher, MD, from Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. “When p16 is repressed, cells can divide faster, which gives rise to a tumor. We also found that in DIPG, the histone mutation cooperates with overactive growth factor (called PDGF) signaling, which further accelerates brain stem tumor formation.”

DIPG is the most deadly brain tumor in children and currently there are no approved drugs for treating it. The last advance in treatment was in the 1960s with the introduction of radiation therapy, which temporarily decreases symptoms but does not cure DIPG. The discovery of the histone mutation in 2012 has opened up a new line of research and a search for new treatment targets.

Becher and colleagues discovered that in vitro the p16 gene can be turned back on using a drug that inhibits DNA methylation — a mechanism that typically acts as an off switch for the gene. The result was restored p16 function, which slowed down tumor growth.

“This was an unexpected finding,” says Becher, the Rory David Deutsch Scholar and oncologist at Lurie Children’s, as well as Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “We first tried a histone methylation inhibitor — a promising new class of cancer drugs — but that did not restore p16 or had any effect on tumor growth. But when we used a DNA methylation inhibitor, it worked. We now have early evidence that targeting DNA methylation may be useful in restoring p16, and thereby arresting tumor growth. We need more research to confirm this finding in animal models before studying this strategy in children with DIPG. This is incremental progress.”

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Mining the data mother lode

A mother posting on Facebook about the way her son behaves while playing video games could provide a vital clue for the correct treatment for his epilepsy. This is but one type of social media chatter that is informing data scientists at Penn Medicine’s Health Language Processing Lab (HLP). One of the newest entities with the Penn Institute for Biomedical Informatics, HLP combines social media content with other sources of health information in a unique way aimed at understanding how people use language to communicate health needs.

All sorts of groups across Penn Medicine are harnessing data contained in electronic health records (EHRs) and social media to help improve outcomes. The Abramson Cancer Center, for instance, uses lab tests, radiology visits, and patient-reported symptoms to help lung cancer patients avoid the ER visits. Departments across the health system work with data scientists to use finely tuned algorithms to detect complications or underlying health conditions earlier in the continuum of care, and the Center for Digital Health focuses its efforts on how social media intersects with health care, working to determine how posts might help providers detect health problems before urgent care is needed, or even how Twitter might play a role in fighting HIV.

“As other initiatives focus on structured data, the Health Language Processing Lab takes another approach. We’re not only about social media or data gained from electronic medical records,” said Graciela Gonzalez-Hernandez, PhD, an associate professor of Biostatistics and Epidemiology and director of the HLP. “We also use natural language processing techniques on different sources of information — health records, patient reports, consumer reviews, clinical records, and published literature. Then we use data science techniques to integrate them and present them to specialists for context and discovery.”

The HLP uses similar tools as other Penn bioinformatics studies. For example, PennSeek (think Google) is mining unstructured data in clinical records, such as handwritten notes, to refine patient care in cardiology and ophthalmology. Gonzalez-Hernandez came to the field of bioinformatics by way of an undergraduate degree in journalism. She brings her love of words to her present endeavors. “Health tweets have a special twist compared to other social media chatter,” she said. “We see more metaphors, similes, and even sarcasm. This source is rich with meaningful content that can be used to gain insights into the health not only of the person posting, but of a group of people akin to the poster.”

One of HLP’s projects, sponsored by AbbVie Pharmaceuticals, is focused on improving knowledge about the use and effects of drugs and vaccines during pregnancy, with the long-term goal of finding associations between medication used and fetal outcomes. Currently, all information gathered on this topic is through pregnancy registries. Since these health system- and industry-sponsored databases are voluntary, they have limitations, such as low enrollment rate (a majority of pregnant women that are taking medications do not register), high cost, and selection bias (most information is entered only after something bad happens). “We are assessing Twitter to see if we can broadly monitor health information for large groups of pregnant women who take different kinds of medication, such as over-the-counter pain relievers,” Gonzalez-Hernandez said.

Her group also uses natural language processing to mine the clinical records of pediatric epilepsy patients to detect patterns of symptoms. “Epilepsy is a very complex disease and we’re trying to find the right treatment for the right patient,” Gonzalez-Hernandez said. “For example, parents might share that their son was playing a video game, describing his behavior as ‘he sat there frozen’ and another parent might describe their child’s behavior as ‘zoning out.'” Each of these states represents different types of seizures, and recognizing those differences is crucial to choosing the right treatment.

All of these projects are promising for the future of patient care, but Big Data analysis will need quality control like any other area of patient care. “A new approach called continuous analysis will shake up biomedical data science by reducing many common types of analytical errors,” said Casey Greene, PhD, an assistant professor of Pharmacology. He likens continuous analysis to the movie Groundhog Day: “Phil Connors [Bill Murray’s character] has to live the same day over and over again. Each time he gets things a little better until he gets it exactly right. This is how reproducible data science should work.”

Greene explains that each analysis should be repeated from start to finish with each small change to get things right. For example, data scientists might swap statistical tests when a variable doesn’t meet the assumptions of the test they planned to use. Then they would repeat all the steps from start to finish.

“But, this isn’t exactly how things are done right now,” Greene said. “It’s time-consuming for a human data scientist to redo things from start to finish. Remember how frustrated Phil got going through the motions over and over again.” Data scientists take shortcuts, he says. They go back to what they think is the right point, and work from there. But this opens up the door to mistakes.

Instead, with continuous analysis, a program watches for any changes to the workflow. When a data scientist makes changes, it automatically runs every step from start to finish. The results are produced and permanently recorded so that anyone can go back and see what the plan was and what the results of that particular “Groundhog Day” day were.

The purpose is to make it easy to build on what other data scientists have done. “Science is incremental,” said Greene. “Brick by brick, we’re building scientific knowledge.”

Enrollment in early intervention services may be influenced by administering agency

Children under age 3 who have or are at risk of a developmental disability are eligible for services to improve cognitive, behavioral and physical skills under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA).

But many eligible children do not enroll in those services and the rates of enrollment vary in part by which agency at the state level is serving as the lead, or administrator, for the programs, new research from Oregon State University has found.

Enrollment rates tend to be higher when the lead agency is health-focused and lower when the lead agency is education-focused, according to Megan MacDonald, an assistant professor in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences and one of the study’s authors.

“There is a big gap between the number of children with disabilities or delays and the number of children enrolled in early intervention services,” MacDonald said. “And it seems to be tied, in part, to who is in charge.”

The findings were published recently in the Journal of Early Intervention. The lead author is Erica Twardzik, who worked on the project as a student at OSU and now is at the University of Michigan. Alicia Dixon-Ibarra, also of OSU, is a co-author.

The IDEIA is a federal mandate that is implemented by states. It is designed to ensure that children with disabilities through the age of 21 have access to free and appropriate educational services. Programs for children under age 3 are designed to address both diagnosed disabilities as well as delays that could affect a child’s school readiness and quality of life, such as speech or motor skills.

“It’s really intended to address any aspect of a child’s development that is delayed during the critical early years,” MacDonald said. “The longer a delay persists, the wider the gap may become. The one thing we know about early intervention is that earlier implementation is better.”

Early intervention may also reduce the need for some or all special education services when a child enters school, she said. That may allow for more inclusionary practices at school and also could lead to potential cost savings for states.

However, enrollment in these services is low across the country. While enrollment criteria varies from state to state, the variation alone has not accounted for the differences in enrollment rates, MacDonald said.

In their study, the researchers examined how the role of the administering body might influence enrollment rates. The administering body, or lead agency, plays a variety of roles in the support of the program, including allocating funding, sponsoring trainings and conferences and developing public awareness programs. In most states, the lead agency is either a department of health or a department of education, though in some states the agency may be the department of public welfare, developmental services, economic security or similar.

Using several national data sources, including the U.S. Census, the National Surveys of Children’s Health and state agency websites, the researchers found that the odds of a child enrolling in eligible services were significantly higher when the lead agency is health-focused. When the lead agency is education-focused, the odds are lowest.

Education agencies are less likely to come in contact with children until they enter preschool around age 3 or 4, or sometimes even later, at kindergarten. But most children have regular “well child” visits with their doctor and the physicians assess development and conduct initial screenings of children, MacDonald said. That’s likely why primary care physicians are the most common source of referral to services for children under age 3.

“For school-age kids, it makes sense that the lead agency providing services is the education department of a state,” MacDonald said. “But children who are not in school seem to be better served by a state’s health department, according to this study. When the health agency is in the lead, there’s a direct connection to service providers for families.”

The findings indicate that physicians and health agencies play an important role in identifying children who could benefit from early intervention services and referring them to the appropriate programs, but the finding is only one piece of a larger puzzle about low enrollment, MacDonald said.

Educating parents about the importance of developmental assessments and availability of services is also key to ensuring children get off to a good start, she said.

“The message to parents is that it’s OK to have these conversations with your pediatrician or other service providers,” she said. “There is no harm in seeking services or getting interventions for your child.”

Is there a link between infertility and child educational outcomes?

How does resolved parental infertility relate to children’s performance in school?

A University of Illinois at Chicago sociologist considers this question in a sample of all Swedish births between 1988 and 1995.

Findings from the co-authored study suggest that involuntary childlessness prior to either a first or a second birth is associated with lower academic achievement — both test scores and grade point average — at age 16, even if the period of infertility was prior to a sibling’s birth rather than the child’s own.

The authors also find that infertility among parents who already have a first child, known as “secondary infertility,” has negative effects on how first- and second-born children perform in school only when the family did not already experience infertility before a first birth.

“Our results suggest that we need to be thinking of infertility as a cumulative physical and social experience, with effects extending well beyond the point at which a child is ultimately born,” said Amelia Branigan, the study’s lead author and UIC visiting assistant professor of sociology.

Branigan and co-author Jonas Helgertz of Lund University used data from the Swedish Interdisciplinary Panel, which links multiple Swedish government registers.

Infertility is measured as the number of years that parents spent trying to conceive, reported by the mother after a baby is delivered. Grades and test scores were measured at grade 9, when children are about 16 years old.

“To our knowledge, no large U.S. data source currently includes measures of both years of infertility, as well as long-term outcomes in parents and in children ultimately born,” Branigan said.

As no previous study has considered the long-term socioeconomic consequences of resolved infertility for the children ultimately conceived, Branigan emphasizes that further research is needed to determine specific mechanisms driving this relationship.

She notes that the direction of the finding is consistent with previous studies on younger children, which point to parents’ experience of infertility as one likely factor connecting resolved infertility to child outcomes.

“Researchers have suggested that infertility may be a more traumatic experience for parents than is often recognized, with potential consequences on parenting even after infertility is ‘resolved’ by the birth of a child,” Branigan said.

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Materials provided by University of Illinois at Chicago. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Children of separated parents not on speaking terms more likely to develop colds as adults

Previous research has indicated that adults whose parents separated during childhood have an increased risk for poorer health. However, exactly what contributes to this has been less clear, until now.

A team led by Carnegie Mellon University psychologists wanted to better understand if specific aspects of the family environment following a separation better predicted children’s long-term health outcomes. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they found that adults whose parents separated but did not speak to each other during individuals’ childhoods were three times as likely to develop a cold when intentionally exposed to a common cold virus than adults whose parents had remained together or separated but continued to communicate.

“Early life stressful experiences do something to our physiology and inflammatory processes that increase risk for poorer health and chronic illness,” said Michael Murphy, a psychology postdoctoral research associate in CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. “This work is a step forward in our understanding of how family stress during childhood may influence a child’s susceptibility to disease 20-40 years later.”

For the study, 201 healthy adults were quarantined, experimentally exposed to a virus that causes a common cold and monitored for five days for the development of a respiratory illness.

The results showed that adults whose parents lived apart and never spoke during their childhood were more than three times as likely to develop a cold compared to those from intact families. The increased risk was due, in part, to heightened inflammation in response to a viral infection.

The team also found that individuals whose parents were separated but communicated with each other showed no increase in risk compared to the intact families.

“Our results target the immune system as an important carrier of the long-term negative impact of early family conflict,” said Sheldon Cohen, the Robert E. Doherty University Professor of Psychology. “They also suggest that all divorces are not equal, with continued communication between parents buffering deleterious effects of separation on the health trajectories of the children.”

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Materials provided by Carnegie Mellon University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.