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Why Sisters Are Scientifically Better Than Brothers (and Other Important Discoveries)

If you're keeping tabs on the score between robots and humans, you've probably heard about the robot named Adam who made a scientific discovery back in April without any human assistance. Well, sort of. He made the discovery after some human scientists gave him a specific project to work on. And while the event was chalked up as a win in the artificial intelligence column, we're here to tell you that Adam's still got a lot of catching up to do before he's doing the work of real human scientists. Need proof? From definitive proof on why sisters are better than brothers to the reasons we itch and scratch, here's our monthly round-up of (human!) scientific discoveries you ought to know about.

Science Proves Sisters are Way Better than Brothers?!

New research from the University of Ulster confirms that girls are made of sugar and spice and everything nice. Tony Cassidy, the lead researcher on the project, found sisters make their siblings more optimistic and help families deal with problems in emotionally healthy ways. Families with at least one sister are more cohesive and communicate more often. Girls who grow up with a sister are more independent and achieve more than girls who have brothers. Cassidy surveyed 571 young adults between 17 and 25. He found that sisters have the most positive impact on broken families. Only children scored in the mid-range for happiness while boys who had only brothers were the least happy.

Tony Cassidy, University of Ulster; presentation at the British Psychological Association Annual Conference.

Reducing Autism Cases by 15%

There's good news in the fight against autism: Hakon Hakonarson's new research may drastically reduce the number of autism cases in the world. Hakonarson, a scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, has been running the largest and most exhaustive genetic study on the disorder. He's analyzed DNA from 2,600 autistic children, 2,000 of their family members, and 7,000 healthy controls. Hakonarson's team has found several variations in chromosomes, but one of the most important might be the variation on gene CDH10, which was found in 65 percent of autistic participants. Amazingly, researchers hypothesize that by fixing this variation they could reduce the number of autism cases by 15 percent. They also found that autism was linked strongly to 30 genes, which produce proteins that help brain cells migrate to the correct location and connect to neighboring cells. While it will be years before autism is completely understood, Hakonarson's results have given scientists a foothold since they can now point to 133 genes which directly contribute to the disorder.

Hakon Hakonarson, et al. "Common genetic variants on 5p14.1 associate with autism spectrum disorders," Nature.

Poverty Can Affect Your Memory

Social scientists have long understood that poorer children don't perform as well as their more affluent peers. Researchers know that inadequate schools, infrequent access to health care, and low quality diets contribute to lower academic and career achievement—the so-called income-achievement gap. But two child development experts have also found that the stress of poverty changes brain functioning. Cornell University's Gary Evans and Michelle Schamberg studied 195 poor and middle class Caucasian students. By measuring their stress hormones and blood pressure at age 9 and 13, the researchers found a direct link between poverty and stress. The duo also tested 17-year old students on their memory-- a reliable indicator of reading, language and problem-solving abilities. Children who grew up in poverty recalled 8.5 items while children who were more affluent remembered 9.44 items. The duo theorizes that stress hormones damage grey matter leading to the deficiencies in working memory.

Gary W. Evans and Michelle A. Schamberg "Childhood poverty, chronic stress, and adult working memory," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Science of Scratching

itching-powder.jpgThe next time you complain about your itchy back and feet, remember that you don't have it that bad. In one of the more disturbing accounts we've ever read (if you're squeamish, don't read ahead), a June 2008 New Yorker article by author Atul Gawande introduced the world to M, a woman who had recently suffered from shingles. M, who is also HIV positive, could not stop scratching the right side of her head. She complained to her doctor who prescribed the normal anti-itching remedies, but the feeling wouldn't cease. Her doctor suggested it was a form of OCD, yet OCD medications didn't quell the itch either. Worse still, the condition got so bad that M actually scratched through her skull.

For people suffering from serious itching conditions, scratching does little to stop the sensation. But now, thanks to Glenn Giesler Jr. and Steve Davidson's recent study, we might understand what's going on when you need to itch. Here's how it works: When a mosquito bites your arm, your sensory neurons respond to the histamine by carrying the itch message through the spinal cord to the thalamus in the brain. The thalamus passes the itch message to the cerebral cortex, which produces the itching sensation at the bite. That's what makes you want to scratch the bite. But Giesler and Davidson did something clever. By using primates, Giesler applied histamine to the animals' feet. If the researchers itched the foot after applying the histamine, the message was disrupted in the spinal cord, meaning the brain didn't get the order to create the itching feeling. The hope is that by understanding how scratching and itching works, it will allow researchers to find better solutions soon.

Steve Davidson, Xijing Zhang, Sergey G Khasabov, Donald A Simone and Glenn J Giesler Jr. "Relief of itch by scratching: state-dependent inhibition of primate spinothalamic tract neurons," Nature Neuroscience.

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The Surprising Link Between Language and Depression
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Skim through the poems of Sylvia Plath, the lyrics of Kurt Cobain, or posts on an internet forum dedicated to depression, and you'll probably start to see some commonalities. That's because there's a particular way that people with clinical depression communicate, whether they're speaking or writing, and psychologists believe they now understand the link between the two.

According to a recent study published in Clinical Psychological Science, there are certain "markers" in a person's parlance that may point to symptoms of clinical depression. Researchers used automated text analysis methods to comb through large quantities of posts in 63 internet forums with more than 6400 members, searching for certain words and phrases. They also noted average sentence length, grammatical patterns, and other factors.

What researchers found was that a person's use (or overuse) of first-person pronouns can provide some insight into the state of their mental health. People with clinical depression tend to use more first-person singular pronouns, such as "I" and "me," and fewer third-person pronouns, like "they," "he," or "she." As Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Reading and the head of the study, writes in a post for IFL Science:

"This pattern of pronoun use suggests people with depression are more focused on themselves, and less connected with others. Researchers have reported that pronouns are actually more reliable in identifying depression than negative emotion words."

What remains unclear, though, is whether people who are more focused on themselves tend to depression, or if depression turns a person's focus on themselves. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people with depression also use more negative descriptors, like "lonely" and "miserable."

But, Al-Mosaiwi notes, it's hardly the most important clue when using language to assess clinical depression. Far better indicators, he says, are the presence of "absolutist words" in a person's speech or writing, such as "always," "constantly," and "completely." When overused, they tend to indicate that someone has a "black-and-white view of the world," Al-Mosaiwi says. An analysis of posts on different internet forums found that absolutist words were 50 percent more prevalent on anxiety and depression forums, and 80 percent more prevalent on suicidal ideation forums.

Researchers hope these types of classifications, supported by computerized methods, will prove more and more beneficial in a clinical setting.

[h/t IFL Science]

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The ‘Scully Effect’ Is Real: Female X-Files Fans More Likely to Go Into STEM
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FBI agent Dana Scully is more than just a role model for remaining professional when a colleague won't stop talking about his vast governmental conspiracy theories. The skeptical doctor played by Gillian Anderson on The X-Files helped inspire women to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers, according to a new report [PDF] from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which we spotted at Fast Company.

“In the world of entertainment media, where scientists are often portrayed as white men wearing white coats and working alone in labs, Scully stood out in the 1990s as the only female STEM character in a prominent, prime-time television role,” the report explains. Previously, anecdotal evidence has pointed to the existence of a “Scully effect,” in which the measured TV scientist—with her detailed note-taking, evidence-based approach, and desire to autopsy everything—inspired women to seek out their own science careers. This report provides the hard data.

The Geena Davis Institute surveyed more than 2000 women in the U.S. above the age of 25, a significant portion of whom were viewers of The X-Files (68 percent) and women who had studied for or were in STEM careers (49 percent). While the survey didn’t ask women whether watching Dana Scully on The X-Files directly influenced their decision to be a scientist, the results hint that seeing a character like her on TV regularly did affect them. Women who watched more of the show were more likely to say they were interested in STEM, more likely to have studied a STEM field in college, and more likely to have worked in a STEM field after college.

While it’s hard to draw a direct line of causation there—women who are interested in science might just be more inclined to watch a sci-fi show like The X-Files than women who grow up to be historians—viewers also tended to say Scully gave them positive impressions of women in science. More than half of respondents who were familiar with Scully’s character said she increased their confidence in succeeding in a male-dominated profession. More than 60 percent of the respondents said she increased their belief in the importance of STEM. And when asked to describe her, they were most likely to say she was “smart” and “intelligent” before any other adjective.

STEM fields are still overwhelmingly male, and governments, nonprofits, schools, activists, and some tech companies have been pushing to make the field more diverse by recruiting and retaining more female talent. While the desire to become a doctor or an engineer isn’t the only thing keeping STEM a boy’s club, women also need more role models in the fields whose success and accomplishments they can look up to. Even if some of those role models are fictional.

Now that The X-Files has returned to Fox, perhaps Dana Scully will have an opportunity to shepherd a whole new generation of women into the sciences.

[h/t Fast Company]

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