Author Archives: Allison M. Hermann, Ph.D.

About Allison M. Hermann, Ph.D.

Manages research and extension outreach for the Laboratory for Rational Decision Making (LRDM), Human Neuroscience Institute, and the Department of Human Development.

In the early 1990s, Iris Murdoch was writing a new novel, as she’d done 25 times before in her life. But this time something was terribly off. Her protagonist, Jackson, an English manservant who has a mysterious effect on a circle of friends, once meticulously realized in her head, had become a stranger to her. As Murdoch later told Joanna Coles, a Guardian journalist who visited her in her house in North Oxford in 1996, a year after the publication of the book, Jackson’s Dilemma, she was suffering from a bad writer’s block. It began with Jackson and now the shadows had suffused her life. “At the moment I’m just falling, falling … just falling as it were,” Murdoch told Coles. “I think of things and then they go away forever.”

Jackson’s Dilemma was a flop. Some reviewers were respectful, if confused, calling it “an Indian Rope Trick, in which all the people … have no selves,” and “like the work of a 13-year-old schoolgirl who doesn’t get out enough.” Compared to her earlier works, which showcase a rich command of vocabulary and a keen grasp of grammar, Jackson’s Dilemma is rife with sentences that forge blindly ahead, lacking delicate shifts in structure, the language repetitious and deadened by indefinite nouns. In the book’s final chapter, Jackson sits sprawled on grass, thinking that he has “come to a place where there is no road,” as lost as Lear wandering on the heath after the storm.

Iris Murdoch and John Bayley

Iris Murdoch and her husband, John Bayley

Two years after Jackson’s Dilemma was published, Murdoch saw a neurologist who diagnosed her with Alzheimer’s disease. That discovery brought about a small supernova of media attention, spurred the next year by the United Kingdom publication of Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch (called Elegy for Iris in the United States), an incisive and haunting memoir by her husband John Bayley, and a subsequent film adaptation starring Kate Winslet and Judi Dench. “She is not sailing into the dark,” Bayley writes toward the end of the book. “The voyage is over, and under the dark escort of Alzheimer’s, she has arrived somewhere.”

In 2003, Peter Garrard, a professor of neurology, with an expertise in dementia, took a unique interest in the novelist’s work. He had studied for his Ph.D. under John Hodges, the neurologist who had diagnosed Murdoch with Alzheimer’s. One day Garrard’s wife handed him her copy of Jackson’s Dilemma, commenting, “You’re interested in language and Alzheimer’s; why don’t you analyze this?” He resolved he would do just that: analyze the language in Murdoch’s fiction for signs of the degenerative effects of Alzheimer’s.

Researchers believe cognitive impairment begins well before signs of dementia are obvious to outsiders.

Prior to his interest in medicine, Garrard had studied ancient literature at Oxford, at a time when the discipline of computational language analysis, or computational linguistics, was taking root. Devotees of the field had developed something they called the Oxford Concordance Program—a computer program that created lists of all of the word types and word tokens in a text. (Token refers to the total number of words in a given text, and the type is the number of different words that appear in that text.) Garrard was intrigued by the idea that such lists could give ancient literature scholars insight into texts whose authorship was in dispute. Much as a Rembrandt expert might examine paint layers in order to assign a painting to a forger or to the Old Master himself, a computational linguist might count word types and tokens in a text and use that information to identify a work of ambiguous authorship.

Garrard had the idea to apply a similar computational technique to books by Murdoch. Alzheimer’s researchers believe cognitive impairment begins well before signs of dementia are obvious to outsiders. Garrard thought it might be possible to sift through three of Murdoch’s novels, written at different points in her life, to see if signs of dementia could be read between the lines.

Scientists believe Alzheimer’s disease is caused by cell death and tissue loss as a result of abnormal build up of plaques and tangles of protein in the brain. Language is impacted when the brain’s Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas, responsible for language comprehension and production, are affected by the spread of disease. Language, therefore, provides an exceptional window on the onset and development of pathology. And a masterful writer like Murdoch puts bountiful language in high relief, offering a particularly rich field of study.

The artist, in fact, could serve science. If computer analysis could help pinpoint the earliest signs of mild cognitive impairment, before the onset of obvious symptoms, this might be valuable information for researchers looking to diagnose the disease before too much damage has been done to the brain.

Barbara Lust,  Professor of Human Development, Linguistics, and Cognitive Science at Cornell University, who researches topics in language acquisition and early Alzheimer’s, explains that understanding changes in language patterns could be a boon to Alzheimer’s therapies. “Caregivers don’t usually notice very early changes in language, but this could be critically important both for early diagnosis and also in terms of basic research,” Lust says. “A lot of researchers are trying to develop drugs to halt the progression of Alzheimer’s, and they need to know what the stages are in order to halt them.”

Before Garrard and his colleagues published their Murdoch paper in 2005, researchers had identified language as a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. As Garrard explains, a patient’s vocabulary becomes restricted, and they use fewer words that are specific labels and more words that are general labels. For example, it’s not incorrect to call a golden retriever an “animal,” though it is less accurate than calling it a retriever or even a dog. Alzheimer’s patients would be far more likely to call a retriever a “dog” or an “animal” than “retriever” or “Fred.” In addition, Garrard adds, the words Alzheimer’s patients lose tend to appear less frequently in everyday English than words they keep—an abstract noun like “metamorphosis” might be replaced by “change” or “go.”

Researchers also found the use of specific words decreases and the noun-to-verb ratio changes as more “low image” verbs (be, come, do, get, give, go, have) and indefinite nouns (thing, something, anything, nothing) are used in place of their more unusual brethren. The use of the passive voice falls off markedly as well. People also use more pauses, Garrard says, as “they fish around for words.”

In their 2005 paper, Garrard and colleagues point out that the assessment of language changes in Alzheimer’s patients was based in many cases on standardized tasks such as word fluency and picture naming, the kind of tests criticized for lacking a “real-world validity.” But writing novels is a more naturalistic activity, one done voluntarily and without knowledge of the disease. That eliminates any negative or compensatory response that a standardized test might induce in a patient. With Murdoch, he and his colleagues could analyze language, “the products of cognitive operations,” over the natural course of her novel-writing life, which stretched from her 30s to 70s. “I thought it would be fascinating to be able to show that language could be affected before the patient or anyone else was aware of symptoms,” Garrard says.

For his analysis of Murdoch, Garrard used a program called Concordance to count word tokens and types in samples of text from three of her novels: her first published effort, Under the Net; a mid-career highlight, The Sea, The Sea, which won the Booker prize in 1978; and her final effort, Jackson’s Dilemma. He found that Murdoch’s vocabulary was significantly reduced in her last book—“it had become very generic,” he says—as compared to the samples from her two earlier books.

The Murdoch paper by Garrard and his colleagues proved influential. In Canada, Ian Lancashire, an English professor at the University of Toronto, was conducting his own version of textual analysis. Though he’d long toiled in the fields of Renaissance drama, Lancashire had been inspired by the emergence of a field called corpus linguistics, which involves the study of language though specialized software. In 1985, he founded the Center for Computing in the Humanities at the University of Toronto. (Today Lancashire is an emeritus professor, though he maintains a lab at the University of Toronto.)

What he discovered astounded him: Agatha Christie’s use of vocabulary had “completely tanked.”

In trying to determine some sort of overarching theory on the genesis of creativity, Lancashire had directed the development of software for the purpose of studying language through the analysis of text. The software was called TACT, short for Textual Analysis Computing Tools. The software created an interactive concordance and allowed Lancashire to count types and tokens in books by several of his favorite writers, including Shakespeare and Milton.

Lancashire had been an Agatha Christie fan in his youth, and decided to apply the same treatment to two of Christie’s early books, as well as Elephants Can Remember, her second-to-last novel. What he discovered astounded him: Christie’s use of vocabulary had “completely tanked” at the end of her career, by an order of about 20 percent. “I was shocked, because it was so obvious,” he says. Even though the length of Elephants was comparable to her other works, there was a marked decrease in the variety of words she used in it, and a good deal more phrasal repetition. “It was as if she had given up trying to find le mot juste, exactly the right word,” he says.

Lancashire presented his findings at a talk at the University of Toronto in 2008. Graeme Hirst, a computational linguist in Toronto’s computer science department, was in the audience. He suggested to Lancashire that they collaborate on statistical analysis of texts. The team employed a wider array of variables and much larger samples of text from Christie and Murdoch, searching for linguistic markers for Alzheimer’s disease. (Unlike Murdoch, Christie was never formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.)

The Toronto team, which included Regina Jokel, an assistant professor in the department of Speech-Language Pathology at the University of Toronto, and Xuan Le, at the time one of Hirst’s graduate students, settled on P.D. James—a writer who would die with her cognitive powers seemingly intact—as their control subject. Using a program called Stanford Parser, they fed books by all three writers through the algorithm, focusing on things like vocabulary size, the ratio of the size of the vocabulary to the total number of words used, repetition, word specificity, fillers, grammatical complexity, and the use of the passive voice.

“Each type of dementia has its own language pattern, so if someone has vascular dementia, their pattern would look different than someone who has progressive aphasia or Alzheimer’s,” says Jokel. “Dementia of any kind permeates all modalities, so if someone has problems expressing themselves, they will have trouble expressing themselves both orally and in writing.”

To the researchers, evidence of Murdoch’s decline was apparent in Jackson’s Dilemma. A passage from The Sea, The Sea illustrates her rich language:

The chagrin, the ferocious ambition which James, I am sure quite unconsciously, prompted in me was something which came about gradually and raged intermittently.

In Jackson’s Dilemma, her vocabulary seems stunted:

He got out of bed and pulled back the curtains. The sun blazed in. He did not look out of the window. He opened one of the cases, then closed it again. He had been wearing his clothes in bed, except for his jacket and his shoes.

It seems that after conceiving of her character, Murdoch had trouble climbing back inside of his head. According to Lancashire, this was likely an early sign of dementia. “Alzheimer’s disease ... damages our ability to see identity in both ourselves and other people, including imagined characters,” Lancashire later wrote. “Professional novelists with encroaching Alzheimer’s disease will forget what their characters look like, what they have done, and what qualities they exhibit.”

The Toronto team’s “Three British Novelists” paper, as it came to be called, influenced a number of other studies, including one at Arizona State University. Using similar software, researchers examined non-scripted news conferences of former presidents Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush. President Reagan, they wrote, showed “a significant reduction in the number of unique words over time and a significant increase in conversational fillers and non-specific nouns over time,” while there was no such pattern for Bush. The researchers conclude that during his presidency, Reagan was showing a reduction in linguistic complexity consistent with what others have found in patients with dementia.

Brian Butterworth, a professor emeritus of cognitive neuropsychology at the Institute of Cognitive Neuropsychology at the University College London, also “diagnosed” Reagan in the mid ’80s, years before Reagan was clinically diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Butterworth wrote a report comparing Reagan’s 1980 debate performance with then-President Jimmy Carter, with that of his debate performance with democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale four years later.

“With Carter, Reagan was more or less flawless, but in 1984, he was making mistakes of all sorts, minor slips, long pauses, and confusional errors,” Butterworth says. “He referred to the wrong year in one instance.” If one forgets a lot of facts, as Reagan did, Butterworth says, that might be an effect of damage to the frontal lobes; damage to the temporal lobes and Broca’s area affects speech. “The change from 1980 to 1984 was not stylistic, in my opinion,” Butterworth says. Reagan “got much worse, probably because his brain had changed in a significant way. He had been shot. He had been heavily rehearsed. Even with all that, he was making a lot of mistakes.”

Thanks in part to the literary studies, the idea of language as a biomarker for Alzheimer’s has continued to gain credibility. In 2009, the National Institute on Aging and the Alzheimer’s Association charged a group of prominent neurologists with revising the criteria for Alzheimer’s disease, previously updated in 1984. The group sought to include criteria that general healthcare providers, who might not have access to diagnostic tools like neuropsychological testing, advanced imaging, and cerebrospinal fluid measures, could use to diagnose dementia. Part of their criteria included impaired language functions in speaking, reading, and writing; a difficulty in thinking of common words while speaking; hesitations; and speech, spelling, and writing errors.

The embrace of language as a diagnostic strategy has spurred a host of diagnostic tools. Hirst has begun working on programs that use speech by real patients in real time. Based on Hirst’s work, Kathleen Fraser, a Ph.D. student, and Frank Rudzicz, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Toronto, and a scientist at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute, who focuses on machine learning and natural language processing in healthcare settings, have developed software that analyzes short samples of speech, 1 to 5 minutes in length, to see if an individual might be showing signs of cognitive impairment. They are looking at 400 or so variables right now, says Rudzicz, such as pitch variance, pitch emphasis, pauses or “jitters,” and other qualitative aspects of speech.

Few of us are prolific novelists, but most of us are leaving behind large datasets of language, courtesy of email and social media.

Rudzicz and Fraser have co-founded a startup called Winterlight Labs, and they are working on similar software to be used by clinicians. Some organizations are already piloting their technology. They hope to capture the attention of pharmaceutical companies regarding using their program to help quickly identify the best individuals to be part of clinical trials—which tends to be a very expensive and laborious process—or to help track people’s cognitive states once they’ve been clinically diagnosed. They also hope one day to be able to use language as a lens to peer into people’s general cognitive states, so that researchers might gain a clearer understanding of everything from depression to autism.

Lust and other researchers agree, however, that the idea of using language as a biomarker for Alzheimer’s and other forms of cognitive impairment is still in its early stages. “We ultimately need some kind of low-cost, easy-to-use and noninvasive tool that can identify someone who should go on for more intensive follow-up, such as a cup on your arm can detect high-blood pressure that could indicative of heart disease,” says Heather Snyder, a molecular biologist and Senior Director of Medical and Scientific Operations at the Alzheimer’s Association. “At this point we don’t have that validated tool that tells us that something is predictive, at least to my knowledge.”

Howard Fillit, the founding executive editor and chief scientific officer of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, says language is a valid way to test for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. “If someone comes in complaining of cognitive impairment, and you want to do a diagnostic evaluation and see how serious their language problem is, I can see that [such software] would be useful,” he says. But he says the language analysis would have to be performed with other tests that measure cognitive function. “Otherwise,” Fillit says, “you might end up scaring a lot of people unnecessarily.”

One of the main reasons Garrard undertook the Murdoch study in the early 2000s was he saw her novels as a kind of large, unstructured dataset of language. He loved working with datasets, he says, “to see whether they tell a story or otherwise support a hypothesis.” Now, with computer programs that analyze language for cognitive deficits on the horizon, the future of Alzheimer’s diagnosis looks both beneficial and unnerving. Few of us are prolific novelists, but most of us are leaving behind large, unstructured datasets of language, courtesy of email, social media, and the like. There are such large volumes of data in that trail, Garrard says, “that it’s going to be usable in predicting all sorts of things, possibly including dementia.”

Garrard agrees a computer program that aids medical scientists in diagnosing cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s holds great promise. “It’s like screening people for diabetes,” he says. “You wouldn’t want to have the condition, but better to know and treat it than not.”

Adrienne Day is a Bay Area-based writer and editor. She covers issues in science, culture, and social innovation.

Corinna Loeckenhoff, Cornell University – Self-Continuity

Are you living in the past or the future?

Corinna Loeckenhoff, Associate Professor of Human Development at Cornell University, delves into whether our age determines where our mind may be.

Dr. Loeckenhoff received her undergraduate degree from the University of Marburg, Germany and her Ph.D. from Stanford University. She completed a post-doctoral fellowship in the intramural research program of the National Institute on Aging before joining Cornell University in 2009. She was recognized as a Rising Star by the Association for Psychological Science in 2011 and received the Margret M. and Paul B. Baltes Foundation Award in Behavioral and Social Gerontology from the Gerontological Society of America in 2014. In 2013, her efforts in teaching gerontology were honored by a SUNY Chancellors Award for Teaching Excellence.

Research conducted with:  Joshua Rutt, a former graduate student who is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Zurich. https://www.linkedin.com/in/joshuarutt

Self-Continuity

Most of us would agree that when we woke up this morning, we were the same person we were yesterday, and we will still be the same person tomorrow. But what about longer time intervals? Are we still the same person we were a year ago? Will we still be the same person 10 years from now? The term self-continuity refers to our perceived connections with our past and future selves, and self-continuity declines as we move away from the present. In fact, when we’re thinking of the distant past or future, it almost feels like we’re thinking about a different person.

Some recent work in our lab sheds new light on patterns of self-continuity. The study was the first to assess both past and future self-continuity and it covered time intervals from 1 month to 10 years. We found that past and future self-continuity are symmetrical: people who feel more similar to their past are more connected to their future as well. Also, most people view themselves as gradually emerging from the past and then slowly slipping away into the future without any sudden increases or drop-offs. Finally, we found that self-continuity increases with age. Younger people tend to see themselves as suspended between a distant past and an unknown future whereas older people are more likely to view themselves as part of an extended present.

These findings have practical implications: Prior studies have found that people who feel less connected to their future selves are worse at financial planning and more likely to behave in ways that jeopardize their future. At the same time, feeling immersed in an extended present could lead people to resist change and turn down promising opportunities.

So it turns out that who we are depends on where we have been and where we are going, and regardless of our age we should try to balance a sense of continuity with flexibility and openness for change.

AMico

What is love – and what does it have to do with meeting a bear in the woods? In the first of a five-part series, Dr Kevin Fong and Nathalie Nahai unpick the causes of emotions. But where’s the best place to start – history, culture, society or our bodies?

A sliced section of a human brain is displayed for a photograph at the Radiology Imaging Laboratory of The Brain Observatory at the University of California San Diego (USCD) in San Diego, California. Photographer: David Paul Morris/The Brain Observatory/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Dr Kevin Fong and Nathalie Nahai talk to historian Richard Firth-Godbehere, neuroscientist Adam Anderson at Cornell University and sociologist Doug Masseyfrom Princeton University to explore how different disciplines have approached the science of emotions.

There’s the evolutionary theory, the internal theory looking at the physiological and cognitive side, and also cultural and social factors that have an impact on how we understand feelings. But first they’ll have to pin down a useful definition of what an emotion actually is …

 whitlock460Online course brings self-injury to the surface                                                                     Janis Whitlock, Ph.D. ’03, director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery (CRPSIR) and a research scientist in the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, hopes to spotlight the issue by launching a set of web-based                                   education and training courses.
sad girlEarly puberty in girls raises the risk of depression                                                                   Perri Klass interviewed Jane Mendle in her NY Times' column, The Checkup, about Mendle's research with girls who begin puberty earlier than their peers. Read here about her findings and the risks these girls face in adolescence. 
LRDM lab members and 4-H Career Explorations studentsLearning to reduce risky behaviors leads to STEM careers                                                          The Laboratory for Rational Decision Making, led by Dr. Valerie Reyna in Human Development, welcomed 24 high school students from 18 different counties in New York State as part of  the 4-H Career Explorations Conference.
gsalogoGerontological Society selects experts on aging as fellows                     Professors Corinna Loeckenhoff and Elaine Wethington of human development, were two of 94 professionals named on May 31 to the society, which is the largest of its kind seeking to understand aging in the United States.

Students in the News

Sarah MooreHD graduate student in the news: Sarah R. Moore                                                             Sarah R. Moore, Ph.D. student of Dr. Richard A. Depue, was awarded the Early Career Outstanding Paper Award in Developmental Psychology. Read her summary of research on how people differ in their interaction with their environment.
MorenoMarcos Moreno '17 is named a 2016 Udall scholar                                                                  The Udall Scholarship supports undergraduates with excellent academic records and who show potential for careers in environmental public policy, health care and tribal public policy. Moreno is a human development major concentrating in neuroscience in                               the College of Human Ecology.
tumblr_inline_oab7iaDzqM1tqatqb_1280Summer Scholar Spotlight: Deborah Seok ‘17                                                                              In faculty research labs, in communities across the state, and at jobs and internships around the globe, Human Ecology undergrads are making a powerful impact this summer as they apply their knowledge and skills in real-world settings.

 Articles on the Web

Robert SternbergHow can current research inform the development of new methods to assess intelligence?                                                                                                                                    Read the fifth post from the six-part series, "Researching Human Intelligence" on fifteeneightyfour, the blog of Cambridge University Press, with Robert Sternberg,                                           professor of human development.

 Multimedia

video play buttonVideo introduces the Program for Research on Youth Development and Engagement (PRYDE), explaining it's mission and introducing key researchers and practitioners involved in the project.                                                                                                                                             
video play button                                                                                                                                                                    Professor Anthony Burrow Discusses Youth and Purpose with Karl Pillemer, Director of BCTR 

 

Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, May 25th, 2016

By Olivia M. Hall

The cuts, burns and scars of nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI) are rarely seen, as they are inflicted in private and hidden under pant legs and sleeves.

Janis Whitlock

Janis Whitlock, Ph.D.

Janis Whitlock, Ph.D. ’03, director of the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery (CRPSIR) and a research scientist in the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, hopes to spotlight the issue by launching a set of web-based education and training courses. Working with eCornell, the university’s online learning subsidiary, she is showing how researchers can use the internet to broaden their reach well beyond campus.

The curriculum, aimed at individuals who interact with youths in school, community and clinical settings, as well as parents, offers research-based information paired with intervention and prevention strategies to address a phenomenon that is widespread but not yet fully understood.

“It’s a scary thing to encounter,” said Whitlock. “It’s just not your typical, run-of-the-mill risk behavior.”

Individuals practicing NSSI – upward of 15 percent of adolescents and young adults try it at least once – deliberately damage their bodies, for example by cutting, burning or carving their skin or punching objects or themselves to inflict harm. Whitlock cites 15 to 17 percent lifetime prevalence of NSSI among Cornell students, according to surveys.

Although the surface wounds may look like suicide attempts, Whitlock pointed out that NSSI is, in fact, a coping mechanism for individuals trying to deal with intense feelings or attempting to reconnect from a sense of dissociation that stems from a history of trauma or abuse.

After first hearing about NSSI among otherwise functional, nonclinical adolescents more than a decade ago, Whitlock launched epidemiological studies, founded CRPSIR and brought together colleagues to form the International Society for the Study of Self-Injury in 2006. “Now we have so much literature coming out, I can’t keep up with it,” she said. But research on techniques for intervention in schools and families is still nascent, and findings do not always reach those in need.

“When I give presentations in schools, even elementary schools, I can pack a house talking about self-injury – it’s really pretty sad,” said Whitlock. “People come up to me asking for follow-up information. Clearly we need another dissemination vehicle.”

Paul Krause ’91, CEO of eCornell and associate vice provost for online learning, agreed: “We quickly recognized that it would make sense to work together because eCornell has all the capabilities to support the development, delivery and marketing of an online NSSI course.”

Best known for its professional development courses in such areas as marketing, finance and hospitality, eCornell also applies its experience and best practices to specialized curricula such as Whitlock’s to extend research-based education to learners beyond Ithaca.

Some 40 participants have enrolled since the first, self-paced version of the NSSI 101 courselaunched in February. This month, Whitlock is facilitating co-experts on NSSI by teaching the first iteration of a three-week version that offers eight to 10 hours of interactive instruction and continuing education credits. Shorter, abridged courses are also in development for medical professionals and parents of children who self-injure.

“This is an exciting opportunity for us,” said Krause, under whose leadership eCornell doubled the number of faculty members it works with to more than 100 over the past year. “We have faculty who are leading experts in their fields. eCornell’s mission is to help them use online learning to reach people all over the world.” (Whitlock’s first registrant was from South Korea.)

“The audiences with whom we seek to engage – be they parents, educators or others – need information that is high-quality, based in sound research, is compelling and that they can access on their own schedule,” added Rachel Dunifon, associate dean for research and outreach in theCollege of Human Ecology. “Working with eCornell to deliver research-based programming allows us to take a cutting-edge approach to our public engagement mission, broadening our reach and enhancing our impact as we seek to fulfill our college mission of improving lives.”

Olivia M. Hall, Ph.D. '12, is a freelance writer and anthropologist.

Reprinted from the New York Times, June 6, 2016

by Perri Klass, M.D.girl alone 2

When girls come in for their physical exams, one of the questions I routinely ask is “Do you get
your period?” I try to ask before I expect the answer to be yes, so that if a girl doesn’t seem to know about the changes of puberty that lie ahead, I can encourage her to talk about them with her mother, and offer to help answer questions. And I often point out that even those who have not yet embarked on puberty themselves are likely to have classmates who are going through these changes, so, again, it’s important to let kids know that their questions are welcome, and will be answered accurately.

But like everybody else who deals with girls, I’m aware that this means bringing up the topic when girls are pretty young. Puberty is now coming earlier for many girls, with bodies changing in the third and fourth grade, and there is a complicated discussion about the reasons, from obesity and family stress to chemicals in the environment that may disrupt the normal effects of hormones. I’m not going to try to delineate that discussion here — though it’s an important one — because I want to concentrate on the effect, rather than the cause, of reaching puberty early.

A large study published in May in the journal Pediatrics looked at a group of 8,327 children born in Hong Kong in April and May of 1997, for whom a great deal of health data has been collected. The researchers had access to the children’s health records, showing how their doctors had documented their physical maturity, according to what are known as the Tanner stages, for the standardized pediatric index of sexual maturation.

Before children enter puberty, we call it Tanner I; for girls, Tanner II is the beginning of breast development, while for boys, it’s the enlargement of the scrotum and testes and the reddening and changing of the scrotum skin. Boys and girls then progress through the intermediate changes to stage V, full physical maturity.

In this study, the researchers looked at the relationship between the age at which children moved from Tanner I to Tanner II — that is, the age at which the physical beginnings of puberty were noticed — and the likelihood of depression in those children when they were 12 to 15 years old, as detected on a screening questionnaire.

“What we found was the girls who had earlier breast development had a higher risk of depressive symptoms, or more depressive symptoms,” said Dr. C. Mary Schooling, an epidemiologist who is a professor at the City University of New York School of Public Health, and was the senior author on the study. “We didn’t see the same thing for boys.” Earlier onset of breast development in girls was associated with a higher risk of depression in early adolescence even after controlling for many other factors, including socioeconomic status, weight or parents’ marital status.

Other studies, including in the United States, have shown this same pattern, with girls who begin developing earlier than their peers vulnerable to depression in adolescence. Some studies have found this in boys, though it’s not as clear. But there is concern that girls whose development starts earlier than their peers are at risk in a number of ways, and across different cultural backgrounds.

“Early puberty is a challenge and a stress, and it’s associated with more than depression,” said Dr. Jane Mendle, a clinical psychologist in the department of human development at Cornell University. She named anxiety, disordered eating and self-injury as some of the risks for girls. In her studies of puberty, she has found associations between early development and depression in both genders in New York children. In boys, the tempo of puberty was significant, as well as the timing; boys who moved more rapidly from one Tanner stage to the next were at higher risk and the increased depression risk seemed to be related to changes in their peer relationships.

Before puberty, Dr. Mendle said, depression occurs at roughly the same rate in both sexes, but by the midpoint of puberty, girls are two and a half times more likely to be depressed than boys.

Some of these children may already be at risk; Dr. Mendle said that early puberty is more common in children who have grown up in circumstances of adversity, in poverty, in the foster care system. But some of it is heredity and some of it is body type and some of it, probably, is chance.

Researchers have wondered about hormonal associations with depression; Dr. Schooling pointed out that their study found that depression was associated with early breast development, controlled by estrogens, but not with early pubic hair development, controlled by androgens. “There is no physical factor that we know about that would explain this; estrogen has been eliminated as a driver of depression in earlier research,” she said in an email. “We probably need to explore social factors to seek an explanation.” They also plan to follow up with their study population at age 17.

The biological transition of puberty, of course, occurs in a social and cultural context. One very important effect of developing early, Dr. Mendle said, is that it changes the way that people treat you, from your peers to the adults in your life to strangers. “When kids navigate puberty they start to look different,” she said. “It can be hard for them to maintain friendships with kids who haven’t developed, and we also know that early maturing girls are more likely to be harassed and victimized by other kids in their grade.”

Parents should be aware of the difficulties that children may experience if they start puberty earlier than their peers, but lots of children handle early development with resiliency, and even pride.

Children who start puberty early – say, 8 instead of 12 — are faced with handling those physical changes while they are more childlike in their knowledge and their cognitive development, and in their emotional understanding of what goes on around them.

Parents should keep in mind that the same protective factors that help children navigate other challenges of growing up are helpful here: All children do better when they have good relationships with their parents, and when they feel connected at school. And we should be talking about the changes to their bodies before they happen, and make it clear that all of these topics are open for discussion.

HD-Today e-Newsletter, Summer 2016 Issue

By Allison M. Hermann, Ph.D.

LRDM lab members and 4-H Career Explorations students

LRDM lab members and 4-H Career Explorations students

The Laboratory for Rational Decision Making (LRDM), led by Dr. Valerie Reyna in Human Development, welcomed 24 high school students from 18 different counties throughout New York State as part of a 3-day course in decision making research called, “Getting the Gist.” The high school students journeyed to Cornell University as part of the 4-H Career Explorations Conference that offers secondary school students the opportunity to attend courses and workshops and learn about STEM research.

get-the-gist-add

James Jones-Rounds, Lab Manager of the HEP Lab

The high school students became guest LRDM lab members and learned how to turn their questions about risky decision making into experiments. They created an experiment, collected and analyzed the data, and discussed the results. The student career explorers also toured the Center for Magnetic Resonance Imaging Facility and the EEG and Psychophysics Laboratory and saw how decision research uses brain imaging technologies to examine what brain areas are activated when making risky decisions.

Dr. Reyna’s graduate students' David Garavito, Alisha Meschkow and Rebecca Helm, and research staff member, Bertrand Reyna-Brainerd, presented lectures on Dr. Reyna’s fuzzy trace theory and research design and led interactive discussions with the visiting students about the paths that led the graduate students to the LRDM at Cornell. In addition, three undergraduate members of the lab, Tristan Ponzo (’18), Elana Molotsky (’17) and Joe DeTello (’19) delivered poster presentations of current lab research projects. Feedback from one of the career explorers expressed the gist of the program, “Yes, I definitely feel like I have a better understanding of why I make the decisions I do.”

Reprinted from College of Human Ecology tumblr, June 20, 2016

For their work on aging, two College of Human Ecology faculty members have been named fellows for the Gerontological Society of America.

Corinna Loeckenhoff, Assistant Professor of Human Development (HDEV).

Corinna Loeckenhoff, Assistant Professor of Human Development (HDEV).

Corinna Loeckenhoff, associate professor of human development and associate professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College (WCMC), and Elaine Wethington, professor of human development and of sociology and professor of gerontology in geriatrics at WCMC, were two of 94 professionals named on May 31 to the society, which is the largest of its kind seeking to understand aging in the United States.

As fellows, Loeckenhoff and Wethington are being recognized for their “outstanding and continuing work in gerontology,” specifically in the behavioral and social sciences section of the

society.

Loeckenhoff, above, who directs the Laboratory for Healthy Aging and oversees Cornell’s gerontology minor, researches various topics related to health, personality, and emotions across the lifespan. She has taught undergraduate and graduate level courses on the various aspects of adult development and healthy aging.

Wethington, below, director of undergraduate studies for the Department of Human Development and associate director of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, focuses on stress and how outside factors can affect one’s physical and mental health.

Elaine Wethington, Professor in Human Development

Elaine Wethington, Professor in Human Development

The society will formally recognize Loeckenhoff, Wethington, and its other new fellows at its 2016 Annual Scientific Meeting in New Orleans this November.

- By Tyler Alicea ‘16, MPS ‘17

cornell human ecology gerontological society of america human development gerontologyaging psychology corinna loeckenhoff elaine wethington

DIV. 7 AWARD WINNERS

Early Career Outstanding Paper Award winner: Sarah R. Moore

A summary of Sarah R. Moore's research, “Neurobehavioral Foundation of Environmental Reactivity.”

By Sarah R. Moore

Sarah Moore, Ph.D. student in Human Development

Sarah R. Moore, Ph.D. student in Human Development

In this review article, I propose a framework for understanding the neurobiological processes that guide how individuals navigate and internalize environments. Previous work brought to attention the empirical evidence that some individuals with particular temperaments, physiological characteristics and, more recently, genetic polymorphisms, demonstrate heightened effects of social environments on development (Belsky & Pluess, 2009). My review article, published in Psychological Bulletin, steps beyond this question of whether individuals vary in responses to social environments, which is now well-established, to why individuals differ in their responses. In other words, I set out to address: What underlies this variation in sensitivity to experience, and how does it develop?

Since the publication of seminal work on gene-environment interactions (Caspi et al., 2002, 2003), gene-environment interaction has become quite common in investigations of individual differences in responsiveness to environmental factors. Collectively, the work suggests that particular genes encoding neurochemicals relate to the degree that social contexts have enduring consequences on developmental outcomes. What was missing in this area was an explanation as to how variation of these neurobiological systems shapes individual differences in the enduring consequences of environmental factors. The first part of my review article thus addresses the neurobiological functions of genes commonly implicated in gene-environment interaction studies of sensitivity. These functions bridge genetic variation affecting neural systems to actual differences in neuroplasticity processes to environmental inputs, explaining mechanistically why particular genotypes might be linked to larger effects of the environment on development.

Inherent to the notion of plasticity is the critical role of experience. Plasticity means that environments are interacting with biology in the development of traits. Despite this accepted view of development as plastic, and thus involving an ongoing interplay of biology and experience, there still exists a heavy emphasis on genetics, in and of itself, wherever one or more genes might be implicated. In the second part of my review, a developmental framework is proposed that accounts for the dynamic nature of the biological processes that are affected by genes. Simply put, if a genetic factor shapes plasticity to the environment, then the history of environmental effects on the biology of the brain is as important to understanding outcomes as the genetic susceptibility factor: Any long-term consequences of such a factor is intrinsically dependent on the surrounding environmental context.

Taken together, the importance of this article lies in its novel insights into the mechanisms that may account for individual variations in sensitivity at a point where the field is in need of such an analysis. For the increasing number of developmentalists turning to research on genetic and biological markers of sensitivity, this article serves to inform the biological role of the prominently studied genes in human development. It also highlights other biological systems relevant to how experiences are registered and internalized. The article advances the current literature's myopic focus on identifying genetic plasticity markers to understanding the plasticity processes at play. The plasticity of neurobiological systems directly accounts for who responds and adapts and to what in the environment. This is essential for understanding developmental change, and for identifying targetable mechanisms of risk. After all, changing genes is not an option.

Ultimately, this article is intended to jumpstart more in-depth research aimed at understanding the nuanced developmental trajectories of individuals with different susceptibilities and unique histories. Understanding how biological tendencies are modified by experience will pave the way for tailored interventions that target the specific needs of individuals and, ultimately, improve psychological and physical health outcomes. I will be continuing this work as a scholar at the Child and Family Research Institute at the University of British Columbia. In this next phase, I will investigate the epigenetic mediators bridging the interplay of genetic variation and experience to neurodevelopment.

References

Belsky, J., & Pluess, M. (2009). Beyond diathesis stress: Differential susceptibility to environmental influences. Psychological Bulletin, 135 (6), 885–908.

Caspi, A., McClay, J., Moffitt, T. E., Mill, J., Martin, J., Craig, I. W., et al. (2002). Role of genotype in the cycle of violence in maltreated children. Science, 297 (5582), 851–854.

Caspi, A., Sugden, K., Moffitt, T. E., Taylor, A., Craig, I. W., Harrington, H., et al. (2003). Influence of life stress on depression: Moderation by a polymorphism in the 5-HTT gene. Science, 301 (5631), 386–389.

Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, May 5, 2016

Moreno

Marcus Moreno '17

Marcos Moreno ’17 has received a 2016 Udall scholarship, which supports undergraduates with excellent academic records and who show potential for careers in environmental public policy, health care and tribal public policy.

Moreno, a human development major concentrating in neuroscience in the College of Human Ecology, was one of five health care scholars selected to receive the award. Overall, he was among the 60 candidates selected out of 482 candidates from 227 colleges and universities. The scholarship provides $7,000 for one year.

Moreno is a member of the Pascua Yaqui tribe, born and raised on the Pascua Yaqui reservation in southern Arizona. He is a pre-med student, studying neuroscience and American Indian studies, with extensive experience as a researcher.

He is currently working in two Cornell laboratories: the child development lab of Gary Evans, the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor in the Departments of Design and Environmental Analysis and of Human Development, and the integrative neuroethology lab of Alexander Ophir, assistant professor of psychology. Moreno has also been a part of a public health project for his tribe’s reservation in 2014, has participated in medical brigades in West Africa and has spent time volunteering in his tribe’s affiliate health clinics.

At Cornell, he is a resident adviser at Akwe:kon and a First in Class mobilizer with the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives program to support first-generation students. He also volunteers as a tutor for Native American students from the Onondaga Nation at Lafayette Junior and Senior High School in Lafayette, New York.

Upon completion of medical school, he intends to return to his Arizona reservation as a primary care physician with a focus on the interconnections between physical and mental health.

The 2016 Udall Scholars will assemble August 9-14 in Tucson, Arizona, to meet one another and program alumni, learn more about the Udall legacy of public service and interact with community leaders in environmental fields, tribal health care and governance.

The Udall Foundation is an independent federal agency established by Congress to honor Congressman Morris K. Udall and Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall. Its programs promote leadership, education, collaboration and conflict resolution in the areas of the environment, public lands, natural resources and Native nations.