Difficulties in learning for children caused by insufficient connectivity

According to a study published in Current Biology, learning difficulties in children’s brains cannot be related to specific regions of the brain itself but to the poor connectivity between the “hubs” that are present within the brain.
In this opinion a team of researchers from the University of Cambridge wanted to analyze the difficulties that many children, between 14 and 30% according to the article on the website of the same English university, face in terms of learning.

These difficulties can then often be linked to problems of a cognitive or behavioural nature. It is common opinion among neurobiologists that these difficulties can be linked to specific areas of the brain. For example, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has been linked to the anterior cingulate cortex and other areas such as the cerebellum, caudate nucleus, prefrontal cortex, etc.
Such a high number of regions related to this disorder has been explained by the fact that each diagnosis differs between one individual the next and each individual shows combinations of brain regions related to the disorder.

The Cambridge Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit team of researchers explains this differently: there would be no specific brain areas that cause these difficulties, rather the children’s brains are organized around “hubs”, like a kind of social network.
Those children who have well-connected hubs seem to have either very specific cognitive difficulties or no cognitive difficulties at all. On the other hand, children with not very well connected hubs show more widespread and severe cognitive problems.

The researchers conducted experiments on 479 children, 337 of whom had shown learning related cognitive problems. The researchers used machine learning and performed brain scans using MRI scans.

“Scientists have argued for decades that there are specific regions of the brain that have a particular learning disorder or difficulty, but we have shown that this is not the case,” says Duncan Astle, the senior author of the study. “In fact, it’s much more important to consider how these areas of the brain are connected, particularly if they are connected via hubs. The severity of learning difficulties has been strongly associated with the connection of these hubs, we believe that these hubs play a key role in sharing information between brain areas”.

New small crustacean living in the depths of the Pacific discovered by researchers

A new species of crustacean that frequents the deepest depths of the North Pacific has been discovered by two researchers, Torben Riehl, from the Senckenberg Naturmuseum, a German natural history museum, and Bart De Smet, from the University of Ghent.
The new species has been named Macrostylis metallicola (the second term is due to the rock band Metallica, of which Riehl is a fan).

This crustacean was discovered in the Clipperton fracture zone, a marine area off the coast of Mexico. It lives at great depths, between 4000 and 5000 meters, a marine area where the pressure is over 400 meters higher than we experience on the surface.
It is a small crustacean that does not exceed 6.5 mm in length and lives almost in absolute darkness. This is precisely why it has not developed eyes and its body has no colour.

It lives in an environment where manganese nodules dominate, metal elements often millions of years old that can vary greatly in size and contain precious elements such as copper, cobalt, manganese, nickel and rare earths.
In fact, it is expected that the seabed area of the Clarion-Clipperton fracture zone (CCFZ) in the Eastern Central Pacific Ocean may be exploited in the future because of its wealth of manganese nodules.

It is precisely with regard to the exploitation of environments that until a few decades ago no one would ever have thought to reach to extract minerals that the researcher Riehl intends to carry out a form of awareness raising: “Very few people are aware that the vast and largely unexplored depths of the oceans are home to bizarre and unknown creatures, just like our new crustacean Metallica. These species are part of the Earth’s system on which we all depend. The deep sea plays a role in this system linked to the climate and food networks of the oceans. While we cannot prevent mining, we must ensure that the exploitation of the manganese nodule is carried out in a sustainable manner by implementing appropriate management plans and protected areas designed to preserve biodiversity and ecosystem functioning.

Bilingualism can counteract dementia because it stimulates the alternation between languages.

Bilingualism, i.e. the ability to understand and speak two languages at the same time, can act to combat dementia according to a study conducted by researchers at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona together with colleagues from other Spanish institutions.
The researchers analysed more than 100 bilingual or monolingual patients with mild cognitive deficits with an average age of 73 years. The subjects spoke both Spanish and Catalan.

According to César Ávila, one of the authors of the study, the alternative use of these two languages simultaneously on a cognitive level is complex precisely because there are many similarities between them and therefore one needs to be more vigilant and more attentive in order not to get confused.
After following the evolution of the patients during seven months, the researchers found that the bilingual ones showed a lower loss of brain volume while maintaining generally better cognitive abilities.

According to the researchers “there is a cognitive reserve of bilingualism” and this mechanism exists thanks to the cognitive stimulation that is fostered by the alternation of use between languages.
These are interesting results, according to the authors themselves, because it is one of the first studies that shows the possibility that there is in fact a kind of protection by bilingualism against dementia and that explains its mechanism.
The possibilities of therapies to stimulate patients suffering from dementia on a cognitive level through practical exercises in the use of different languages are now becoming more concrete.

Dangerous cigarette compounds “travel” in every environment clinging to smokers’ clothes

A further study focuses on so-called “third-hand smoke”, i.e. that type of second-hand smoke in which the injured party is in an environment, usually closed, where someone has smoked. The most striking example may be the interior of a car in which someone has smoked and there are still cigarette butts and ashes in the ashtrays.

This new study confirms that the remains of smoked cigarettes can cling to the bodies or clothes of smokers and then be released into non-smoking environments.
The team of researchers, led by Drew Gentner of Yale, shows in this study that these cigarette compounds can literally travel, and even in abundant quantities, in indoor environments frequented by non-smokers transported by smokers themselves.

According to the researchers, a person, even if he or she is in a room where no one has smoked, can still be exposed to many of the chemical compounds found in a cigarette if a person who had previously smoked has entered that room.
As Gentner explains, “People are substantial carriers of third-hand smoke contaminants in other rooms. Therefore, the idea that someone is protected from the potential health effects of cigarette smoke because they are not directly exposed to second-hand smoke is not right”.

To reach these conclusions, the researchers analysed the traces of cigarette compounds in a movie theatre. The researchers found that the amounts of these substances left by smokers, for example through their clothes on armchairs or in the air, increased dramatically after the screening of R-rated films, i.e. films for adults who naturally saw more smokers in the cinema.

The quantities of these dangerous substances, of which nicotine was the largest representative, were not even to be overlooked, according to the researchers: they were comparable to those of exposure to second-hand smoke.
These compounds continue to make their way into enclosed spaces despite strong bans and numerous regulations in many states around the world prohibiting people from smoking not only inside public places but also near entrances or near air vents.

Tobacco also linked to worse mental health according to a new study

Often, when reference is made to the damage of cigarette smoking, mental health is hardly ever thought about, and yet cigarettes are also bad for you. This is suggested by a study by Professor Hagai Levine of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem published in PLOS ONE.

Levine and colleagues carried out a survey of 2000 Serbian university students from different social and economic backgrounds. The researchers found that students who smoked showed higher rates of clinical depression than their non-smoking peers, two to three times.

Taking into consideration only the students of the University of Pristina, the researchers found that 14% of the smoking students suffered from depression compared to 4% of the non-smoking peers, while for the University of Belgrade the percentages were 19% compared to 11% respectively.

The same students who smoked also showed lower mental health scores than non-smokers. According to Levine, this study adds further evidence that smoking and depression may be linked; although there is no direct evidence yet that smoking causes depression, it can be said that tobacco seems to have a non-positive effect on mental health.

One can evaluate hearing quality by analyzing pupil dilation according to researchers

It may prove to be a new and effective hearing test developed by a team of neuroscientists at the University of Oregon. According to a statement on the university’s website, it is possible to assess a person’s hearing level by measuring pupil dilation.

According to the same statement, this approach could be useful to understand the quality of hearing in infants, young adults with disabilities and adults with stroke or other diseases and in general in those people for whom direct responses are not possible. The researchers performed experiments on 31 adults by monitoring the size of their pupils with eye detection technology. The detection took place while the same people performed a hearing test and while staring at an object at a monitor.

The study, published in the Journal of the Association for Research in Otorhinolaryngology, explains that this system is inspired by a discovery made by the main author of the study, Avinash Singh Bala, 10 years ago when he noticed changes in the pupils of barn owls in response to unexpected noises in their natural environment.

“What we discovered was that pupil dilation was as sensitive as the button-press method,” Bala explains. “We had presented the first data analyses at the conferences and there was a lot of resistance to the idea that by using an involuntary response we could get results as good as the button-pressing data.”

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