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Learning to Read as an Adult Changes Deep Regions of the Brain

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In the evolutionary history of humans, reading and writing are relatively new functions. As a result, in order to read written language, human brains have had to recruit and adapt parts of the visual system to interface with language centers. This is a process researchers have long believed occurred primarily in the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain. But in a new study where illiterate people in their thirties were trained to read over six months, researchers have discovered that reading actually activates much deeper brain structures as well, opening doors to a better understanding of how we learn, and possible new interventions for dyslexia. Their results were recently published in the journal Science Advances.

In order to learn to read, "a kind of recycling process has to take place in the brain," Falk Huettig, one of the collaborating researchers at Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, tells Mental Floss by email. "Areas evolved for the recognition of complex objects, such as faces, become engaged in translating letters into language.”

To study this process in the brain, researchers selected participants from India, where the literacy rate is about 63 percent, a rate influenced by poverty, which limits educational access, especially for girls and women. Most of the participants in this study were women in their thirties who came into the study unable to read a single word.

They divided the participants into a group that received reading training intervention and a control group that was not trained. Both groups underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans before and after the six-month study. Some participants were excluded due to incomplete scanning sessions, leaving a total of 30 participants in the final analysis.

They were taught to read Devanagari, the script upon which Hindi and some other languages of South Asia are based. It's an alpha-syllabic script composed of complex characters that describe whole syllables or words.

The instructor was a professional teacher who followed the locally established method of reading instruction. During the first month of instruction, the participants first were taught to read and write 46 primary Devanagari characters simultaneously. After learning the letters and reading single words, they were taught two-syllable words. In all, they studied approximately 200 words in the first month.

In the second month, the participants were then taught to read and write simple sentences, and in the third month, they learned more complex, three-syllable words. Finally, in the second half of the program, participants learned some basic grammar rules. "For example, the participants learned about the differences between nouns, pronouns, verbs, proverbs, and adjectives, and also about basic rules of tense and gender," Huettig says.

Within six months, participants who could read between zero and eight words even before the training had reached a first-grade level of reading, according to Huettig. "This process was quite remarkable," Huettig says. "Learning to read is quite a complex skill, as arbitrary script characters must be mapped onto the corresponding units of spoken language."

When the researchers looked at the brain scans taken before and after the six-month training, Huettig says they expected to simply replicate previous findings: that changes are limited to the cortex, which is known to adapt quickly to new challenges.

What they didn't expect was to see changes in deeper parts of the brain. "We observed that the learning process leads to a reorganization that extends to deep brain structures in the thalamus and the brainstem." More specifically, learning to read had an impact on a part of the brainstem called the superior colliculus as well as the pulivinar, located in the thalamus, which "adapt the timing of their activity patterns to those of the visual cortex," Heuttig explains.

These deep brain structures help the visual cortex filter important information from the flood of visual input—even before we consciously perceive it. "It seems that these brain systems increasingly fine-tune their communication as learners become more and more proficient in reading," he says.

In essence, the more these participants read, the better they became at it. The research also revealed that the adult brain is more adaptable than previously understood. "Even learning to read in your thirties profoundly transforms brain networks," Huettig says. "The adult brain is remarkably flexible to adapt to new challenges."

Even more promising, these results shed new light on a possible cause of dyslexia, a language-processing disorder, which researchers have long attributed to dysfunctions of the thalamus. Since just a few months of reading training can modify the thalamus, Huettig says, "it could also be that affected people show different brain activity in the thalamus, just because their visual system is less well-trained than that of experienced readers."

Huettig feels that the social implications of this kind of research are huge, both for people effected by dyslexia as well as the hundreds of millions of adults who are completely or functionally illiterate around the world. Huettig says the new findings could help "put together literacy programs that have the best chance of succeeding to help these people."

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Medicine
New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply
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Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]

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