Friday, October 31, 2014

FUNterval: Fun and games make for better learners

Four minutes of physical activity can improve behaviour in the classroom for primary school students, according to new research by Brendon Gurd.

A brief, high-intensity interval exercise, or a "FUNterval," for Grade 2 and Grade 4 students reduced off-task behaviours like fidgeting or inattentiveness in the classroom.

"While 20 minutes of daily physical activity (DPA) is required in Ontario primary schools, there is a need for innovative and accessible ways for teachers to meet this requirement," says Dr. Gurd, lead researcher and professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies.

"Given the time crunch associated with the current school curriculum we thought that very brief physical activity breaks might be an interesting way to approach DPA. We were particularly interested in what effects a brief exercise bout might have in the classroom setting."

For the study, students were taught a class and were then given an active break, where they would perform a FUNterval, or a non-active break where they would learn about different aspects of healthy living on alternating days for three weeks.

After each break, classroom observers recorded instances of off-task behaviour. When a four minute FUNterval was completed during a break from class, there was less off-task behaviour observed in the 50 minutes following the break than if students completed a non-active break.

Working with Dr. Gurd, master's student Jasmine Ma created the series of four-minute activities that students could complete in small spaces with no equipment.

FUNtervals involved actively acting out tasks like "making s'mores" where students would lunge to "collect firewood," "start the fire" by crouching and exploding into a star jump and squatting and jumping to "roast the marshmallows" to make the S'more.

Each activity moves through a 20-second storyline of quick, enthusiastic movements followed by 10 seconds of rest for eight intervals.

This research was published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism.

Autism: Conventional UK police interview techniques are not effective

Police find interviewing and interacting with witnesses and suspects with autism a real challenge, a new study from researchers in the Department of Psychology at UK's University of Bath, has revealed, highlighting that the ways UK police officers have been taught to interview could be at odds with what is needed in these situations.

As part of the study, the researchers found that existing interview techniques tend to focus on open questions, only later narrowing down to closed questions, whereas research shows that people with autism may need focused questions from the outset.

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)-funded research studied what does, and does not, work when police interview people with autism.

Katie Maras
The researchers, including Dr Katie Maras from Department of Psychology, University of Bath and her colleague, Dr Laura Crane, at City University London, are calling for better training for UK police and criminal justice professionals as, at present in the UK, these groups currently have no standard compulsory training about autism.

Dr Maras said: "As part of this study we have heard of many cases where problems have arisen because police and other criminal justice professionals know very little about autism.

"Research in this area is still in its infancy, but it's steadily accumulating. There's a crucial need to get findings to practitioners to help them obtain the best evidence possible from people with autism."

Laura Crane
More than 400 UK frontline and investigative police officers holding a variety of ranks provided information for the study.

They spoke of the difficulties and challenges they encounter when obtaining written, oral and identification evidence.

Officers reported, for example, finding it hard to build rapport with people with autism, which usually plays an important part in interviews.

They also described difficulties in arranging a suitable environment for interviews.

"Police stations tend to be noisy with bright or flickering lighting and strange smells, but people with autism are often sensitive to sensory input and as a result they can struggle to maintain concentration in interviews", Dr Maras added.

Over 600,000 people in the UK have autism, many of whom will come into contact with the police at some point in their lives.

Poor social-communication skills can make them vulnerable when involved with the UK Criminal Justice System as a victim, witness or suspect.

Individuals with autism process memories in a different way from other people, which can lead to misunderstandings.

During the study, officers answered questions about existing interview practices that they considered worked well, and were asked what could be done to develop understanding and skills.

The researchers found examples of excellent practice, especially among police officers who were able to draw on their personal experience of the disorder through familiarity with a family member or colleague with autism.

On a further positive note, related research shows that there are simple and effective strategies that can enhance the evidence that people with autism give and improve their credibility as witnesses.

For example, providing information about a witness' diagnosis can improve his or her perceived credibility; unusual and stereotyped behaviours can be attributed to autism, rather than a lack of credibility.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Learning to read involves tricking the brain

In the experimental sequence, a pair of identical animals (e.g. horses) is preceded on the screen by a pair of mirror-image letters (b and d), or, in the control condition, a pair of non-mirror-image letters (f and t). 

The participant must decide in each case whether the two items (letters or animals) are identical or not. 

Credit: CNRS /Université Paris Descartes, Sorbonne-Paris-Cité /Université de Caen Basse-Normandie

While reading, children and adults alike must avoid confusing mirror-image letters (like b/d or p/q). Why is it difficult to differentiate these letters?

When learning to read, our brain must be able to inhibit the mirror-generalization process, a mechanism that facilitates the recognition of identical objects regardless of their orientation, but also prevents the brain from differentiating letters that are different but symmetrical.

A study conducted by the researchers of the Laboratoire de Psychologie du Développement et de l'Education de l'Enfant (CNRS / Université Paris Descartes / Université de Caen Basse-Normandie) is available on the website of the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review (Online First Articles).

In recent years, many studies on the process of learning to read have been based on the neuronal recycling hypothesis: the reuse of old brain mechanisms in a new adaptive role - a kind of "biological trick."

Specifically, neurons that are originally dedicated to the rapid identification of objects in the environment, through the mirror-generalization process, are "repurposed" during childhood to specialize in the visual recognition of letters and words.

In this study, the researchers showed 80 young adults pairs of images, first two letters and then two animals, asking them to determine whether they were identical.

The readers consistently spent more time determining that two animal images, when preceded by mirror-image letters, were indeed identical.

This increase in response time is called "negative priming": the readers had to inhibit the mirror-generalization process in order to distinguish letters like b/d or p/q. They then needed a little more time to reactivate this strategy when it became useful again to quickly identify animals.

Learning to read involves tricking the brain

The reader must learn to distinguish mirror-image letters (b and d) on the computer screen separated by a target fixation cross (+). 

Credit: CNRS/Université Paris Descartes, Sorbonne-Paris-Cité /Université de Caen Basse-Normandie

These results show that even adults need to inhibit the mirror-generalization process to avoid reading errors.

Children must therefore learn to inhibit this strategy when learning to read. A failure of cognitive inhibition during the recycling of visual neurons in the brain could thus be a factor in dyslexia, a direction worth exploring, in light of these findings.

More information: "The cost of blocking the mirror-generalization process in reading: Evidence for the role of inhibitory control in discriminating letters with lateral mirror-image counterparts." Grégoire Borst, Emmanuel Ahr, Margot Roell, and Olivier Houdé. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review (Online First Articles), 23 May 2014. DOI: 10.3758/s13423-014-0663-9

Learning to talk is in the genes

Researchers have found evidence that genetic factors may contribute to the development of language during infancy.

Scientists from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Integrative Epidemiology Unit at the University of Bristol worked with colleagues around the world to discover a significant link between genetic changes near the ROBO2 gene and the number of words spoken by children in the early stages of language development.

Children produce words at about 10 to 15 months of age and our range of vocabulary expands as we grow - from around 50 words at 15 to 18 months, 200 words at 18 to 30 months, 14,000 words at six-years-old and then over 50,000 words by the time we leave secondary school.

The researchers found the genetic link during the ages of 15 to 18 months when toddlers typically communicate with single words only before their linguistic skills advance to two-word combinations and more complex grammatical structures.

The results, published in Nature Communications today [16 Sept], shed further light on a specific genetic region on chromosome 3, which has been previously implicated in dyslexia and speech-related disorders.

The ROBO2 gene contains the instructions for making the ROBO2 protein. This protein directs chemicals in brain cells and other neuronal cell formations that may help infants to develop language but also to produce sounds.

The ROBO2 protein also closely interacts with other ROBO proteins that have previously been linked to problems with reading and the storage of speech sounds.

Dr Beate St Pourcain, who jointly led the research with Professor Davey Smith at the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit, said: "This research helps us to better understand the genetic factors which may be involved in the early language development in healthy children, particularly at a time when children speak with single words only, and strengthens the link between ROBO proteins and a variety of linguistic skills in humans."

Dr Claire Haworth, one of the lead authors, based at the University of Warwick, commented: "In this study we found that results using DNA confirm those we get from twin studies about the importance of genetic influences for language development."

"This is good news as it means that current DNA-based investigations can be used to detect most of the genetic factors that contribute to these early language skills."

The study was carried out by an international team of scientists from the EArly Genetics and Lifecourse Epidemiology Consortium (EAGLE) and involved data from over 10,000 children.

More information: 'Common Variation Near ROBO2 is Associated with Expressive Vocabulary in Infancy' by St Pourcain et al in Nature Communications.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Rett syndrome: Autism Spectrum Disorder Mice improve with synthetic oil

When young mice with the rodent equivalent of a rare autism spectrum disorder (ASD), called Rett syndrome, were fed a diet supplemented with the synthetic oil triheptanoin, they lived longer than mice on regular diets.

Importantly, their physical and behavioral symptoms were also less severe after being on the diet, according to results of new research from The Johns Hopkins University.

Researchers involved in the study think that triheptanoin improved the functioning of mitochondria, energy factories common to all cells.

Since mitochondrial defects are seen in other ASDs, the researchers say, the experimental results offer hope that the oil could help not just people with Rett syndrome, but also patients with other, more common ASDs.

A description of the research will be published on Oct. 9 in the journal PLOS ONE.

ASDs affect an estimated one in 68 children under 8 years of age in the United States. Rett syndrome is a rare ASD caused by mutations in the MECP2 gene, which codes for methyl-CpG-binding-protein 2 (MeCP2).

Rett syndrome includes autism-like signs, such as difficulty communicating, socializing and relating to others.

Other hallmarks are seizures, decreased muscle tone, repetitive involuntary movements, and gastrointestinal and breathing problems.

These other signs are also seen in some patients with other ASDs, suggesting underlying similarities in their causes.

While the causes of most ASDs are unknown and thought to be complex, Rett syndrome is unique, and could be a source of insight for the others, because it is caused by an error in a single gene.

The research team used mice lacking the MeCP2 protein, which left them with severe Rett syndrome.

In examining those mice, what stood out, according to Gabriele Ronnett, M.D., Ph.D., who led the research project at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, was that they weighed the same as healthy mice but had large fat deposits accompanied by lower amounts of nonfat tissue, such as muscle.

This suggested that calories were not being used to support normal tissue function but instead were being stored as fat.

This possibility led Ronnett and her research team to consider the role of mitochondria, which transform the building blocks of nutrients into a high-energy molecule, ATP.

This molecule drives processes such as the building of muscle and the growth of nerve cells.

Mitochondria use a series of biochemical reactions, collectively called the TCA cycle, to make this transformation possible.

According to Susan Aja, Ph.D., a research associate and lead member of the research team, "If the components of the TCA cycle are low, nutrient building blocks are not processed well to create ATP. They are instead stored as fat."

Ronnett suspected, she says, that some of Rett syndrome's neurological symptoms could stem from metabolic deficiencies caused by faulty mitochondria and reduced energy for brain cells.

"Rett syndrome becomes apparent in humans 6 to 18 months old, when the energy needs of the brain are particularly high, because a lot of new neural connections are being made," says Ronnett.

"If the mitochondria are already defective, stressed or damaged, the increased demand would be too much for them."

Previous small clinical trials in people with a different metabolic disorder suggested that dietary intervention with triheptanoin could help.

Triheptanoin is odourless, tasteless and a little thinner than olive oil. It is easily processed to produce one of the components of the TCA cycle.

When Rett syndrome mice were weaned at 4 weeks of age, they were fed a diet in which 30 percent of their calories came from triheptanoin, mixed in with their normal pelleted food.

Though far from a cure, the results of the triheptanoin treatment were impressive, the researchers say.

Treated mice had healthier mitochondria, improved motor function, increased social interest in other mice and lived four weeks, or 30 percent, longer than mice who did not receive the oil. The team also found that the diet normalized their body fat, glucose and fat metabolism.

"You can think of the mitochondria of the Rett syndrome model mice as damaged buckets with holes in them that allow TCA cycle components to leak out," says Aja.

"We haven't figured out how to plug the holes, but we can keep the buckets full by providing triheptanoin to replenish the TCA cycle."

"It is still too early to assume that this oil will work in humans with ASDs, but these results give us hope," says Ronnett.

"It's exciting to think that we might be able to improve many ASDs without having to identify each and every contributing gene."

According to Aja, additional mouse studies are needed to learn if female mice respond to the treatment, to perform a wider range of physiology and behavior tests, and, importantly, to assess the effects of triheptanoin treatment on the brain, which is considered the main driver of many Rett symptoms.

The team would also like to provide triheptanoin at earlier ages, perhaps via the mothers' milk, to mimic developmental ages at which most children are diagnosed with Rett syndrome.

Triheptanoin is currently made for research purposes only and is not available as a medicine or dietary supplement for humans.

More information: PLOS ONE:

Addressing Whining and unwanted behaviour in young children

Whining: That Voice!

Whining is high on the list of childhood behaviours that are really, really obnoxious to parents.

Some kids have developed this strategy into a dramatic art form, and there are a few youngsters who definitively deserve academy awards for their performances!

Many parents dread saying "No" to their kids, or not giving the children what they want, simply because of the threat of the whining that will result.

As aggravating as whining is, it can be managed. That management starts with a good understanding of where the behaviour comes from, followed by the use of a Calm, Decisive and Consistent strategy to address it.

What Causes Whining? 
You don't have to search far to discover the causes of whining. The answer to the question goes something like this.

Good parents have two sides to them, a warm, loving side and a demanding dominant side. To the child, the warm, loving part of parenting involves fun, affection and good times.

The demanding part involves learning to follow rules, acquiring skills and, basically, growing up and accepting responsibility for your actions.

The warm side of parenting is more friendly; the demanding side is more challenging.

You generally won't run into whining from your children when you are operating in the warm parenting mode.

However, you will run into whining when you are coming from the demanding side of the parenting equation.

Being demanding is a big part of your job as a parent, but it can create frustration and inappropriate reactions from your youngsters.

When you ask or demand a behaviour from a child, they have two choices: They can bite the bullet and cooperate or they can do what we call "test and manipulate."

Whining is a form of testing and manipulation.

Adults Reinforce Whining?
What makes whining work for kids?

Whining continues, and gets worse when mums, dads, grandparents or teachers do any of the following:

1. See whining as abnormal, horrible behaviour.
2. Feel angry or guilty when the kids complain.
3. Talk, argue, yell or whine back when the kids moan.
4. Or worst of all, give in to the kids and let them have their way when they whimper.

Four Useful Strategies for Parenting a Whiner 

1. Dramatically change the way you think: Whining comes from GOOD parenting; it does not mean you did something wrong.

2. Tell your child, “Whining is for your room.” Let them moan where you can’t hear it, but once they have calmed down, make sure they comply with your initial 'demand.' If they do not, then send them to their room again and repeat until they are willing to comply.

3. Use small, reasonable consequences. For example, "For every minute you whine at me, you are going to pay me 25 cents."

This 'monetary' forfeit may only work in a deeply consumer-based society where the child has a certain amount of 'disposable wealth,' like the US and the UK, but the principal of applying a 'loss' for unwanted behaviour is sound.

Keep any consequence simple, clear and short. Then no more talking, until the child changes its behaviour and complies.

There is No Negotiation and No Discussion allowed as this is simply another 'Testing' behaviour used by the child to take control of the situation and avoid doing what you want.

If you find this difficult, try avoiding eye contact with the child as well as not talking, this will help you stay stronger and stick to your goal.

4. You can also try using the age-old Counting Method from 1‐2‐3 for addressing the whining, but this should be a well understood way of correcting your child's unwanted behviour. It should be something you have practiced with your child from when they were very young.

If you want more information on correcting unwanted child behaviour and advice on sleep, bed-wetting and more serious childhood conditions, visit