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Valerie Reyna

Valerie Reyna was on the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine Committee that produced the report, Pain Management and the Opioid Epidemic. Here are links to media coverage of the report.


Panel calls on FDA to review safety of opioid painkillers

Associated Press

In a sweeping report Thursday, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine pushed the FDA to bolster a public health approach that already has resulted in one painkiller being pulled from the market. Last week, the maker of opioid painkiller Opana ER withdrew its drug at the FDA’s request following a 2015 outbreak of HIV and hepatitis C in southern Indiana linked to sharing needles to inject the pills.


The U.S. should rethink its entire approach to painkillers and the people addicted to them, panel urges

Los Angeles Times

In a comprehensive report on what must be done to staunch the toll of opiates in the United States, a report released by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine makes clear that steps taken to prevent the creation of future opiate addicts will drive some now dependent on these drugs toward street drugs such as fentanyl and heroin.


Expert panel to FDA: time to hold opioids to a new standard

Science Magazine

To help bolster its campaign against an epidemic of opioid abuse that now kills about 90 people a day, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last year called for help from an independent advisory panel. The resulting report, released today by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, makes some strong prescriptions. Among its assorted recommendations—from supporting state syringe exchange programs to increasing federal funding for neurobiology research—the panel suggests that FDA dramatically expand the types of evidence it requires from companies to show that an opioid is safe and effective, both before and after it gets market approval.


Major Science Report Lays Out a Plan to Tamp Down Opioid Crisis

Scientific American

When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration screens new opioid drugs it should better anticipate how people might abuse them in the real world, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine warns in a major report issued Thursday on the country’s opioid crisis, which kills 91 people a day—often via overdoses on prescription drugs. The FDA needs to move beyond its traditional focus on clinical studies about drug effectiveness and side effects, and to seek public health data on potential abuse, the Academies advises in its 400-page proposal for targeting the deadly issue.


Painkiller Misuse Remains a Pressing Problem Across U.S.

HealthDay

However, experts say there's no quick fix for the opioid epidemic. According to a new report from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, it will take years of coordinated effort on the part of local, state and federal agencies to halt and reverse the drug crisis.


Statement from FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D., on National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report on pain management and prescription opioid abuse

FDA Statement

In March 2016, the FDA asked the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) to outline the state of the science regarding prescription opioid abuse and misuse, as well as the evolving role that opioids play in pain management. We greatly appreciate all the work done by NASEM over the past year to produce the comprehensive report released today, which includes recommendations for the FDA and others on this important issue.

Reprinted from The Cornell Chronicle, September 14, 2017.

by Stephen D'Angelo

Stephen Ceci

Stephen Ceci, the Helen L. Carr Professor of Developmental Psychology in the Department of Human Development, will receive the American Psychological Associations’ G. Stanley Hall award for distinguished contributions to developmental science at APA’s August 2018 meeting in San Francisco.

The highest honor in the field of developmental psychology, the award is given to an individual or research team who has made distinguished contributions to developmental psychology in research, student training and other scholarly endeavors.

“Steve has made seminal contributions to the basic scientific research of the developing mind in young children and to the critical translation of research findings to real-life settings,” said Qi Wang, professor of human development and department chair. “His work best exemplifies the integrative approaches that we take in the use of scientific theories and methods to vigorously study real-world problems in diverse populations.”

The award is based on the scientific merit of the individual’s work, the importance of this work for opening up new empirical or theoretical areas of developmental psychology, and the importance of the individual’s work in linking developmental psychology with issues confronting society or with other disciplines.

Ceci has written approximately 450 articles, books, commentaries, reviews and chapters. He has served on the advisory board of the National Science Foundation for seven years and was a member of the National Academy of Sciences’ Board of Behavioral and Sensory Sciences. He is past president of the Society for General Psychology, serves on 11 editorial boards, including Scientific American Mind, and is senior adviser to several journals.

Ceci’s honors include the American Academy of Forensic Psychology’s Lifetime Distinguished Contribution Award (2000), the American Psychological Association’s Division of Developmental Psychology’s Lifetime Award for Science and Society (2002), the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award for the Application of Psychology (2003), the Association for Psychological Science’s James McKeen Cattell Award (2005), the Society for Research in Child Development’s lifetime distinguished contribution award (2013) and the American Psychological Association’s E.L. Thorndike Award for lifetime contribution to empirical and theoretical psychology (2015).

Stephen D’Angelo is assistant director of communications at the College of Human Ecology.

Reprinted from The Cornell Chronicle, June 5, 2017.

By Stephen D'Angelo

In stark contrast to adolescent daily life prior to the digital age, social media allows today’s youth to see and interact with myriad individuals, images and information at any time, from any place.

This new reality has profound impacts on our interactions. Less clear is what those effects are and how they may shape the later life and social relationships of the youth growing up in it.

Such was the focus of the Seventh Annual Youth Development Research Update, a forum that brought more than 50 Cornell Cooperative Extension educators and 4-H program leaders, youth service providers from community agencies and Cornell faculty members from across campus to discuss issues relevant to the well-being and development of children and adolescents on May 31 and June 1.

The event, sponsored by the Program for Research on Youth Development and Engagement (PRYDE), based in the College of Human Ecology, concentrated on productive social media use and youth development through research and evidence-based approaches.

Elaine Wethington

“The idea behind productive social media is that there are ways to encourage youth to develop positive and productive uses of social media,” said Elaine Wethington, professor of human

development and co-director of PRYDE. She also leads the research project Productive Use of Social Media by Youth, which focuses on learning how teens can be “nudged” to make positive uses of social media as they transition into adulthood.

“This is in contrast to the fears that we see in the news how social media is creating bad habits and getting into antisocial behavior, such as bullying, or using social media as a way to distract them from more positive developmental goals,” Wethington said.

The program brings together practitioners and researchers to explore major contributions in this field of research to better understand the impact of social media on youth, which in turn can drive research as well as extension and public outreach programs that help youth and their parents through the murky waters of growing up on social media.

Speakers, including those from the Departments of Human Development and Communication, covered research on youth development and social media in education, moral development, social engagement, health and well-being, career development, and citizenship.

Janis Whitlock, research scientist at the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, said youth today are not narcissistic, privacy driven, materialistic, antisocial, mean or especially savvy about these new digital platforms. In general, she said, they are very much like everybody else.

“They do however, live in a different world than most of us grew up in, largely due to changes in technology,” she said. “These affordances allow young people to see, experience, interact and learn and know things that were just simply never possible, not even just in the previous generation, but ever in human history.”

Whitlock continued, “This has created a landscape that is unusual, and none of us really know exactly what it means, and there are some amazing opportunities to research this.”

The forum further acted as an opportunity for practitioners to share their expertise with research experts to help guide ongoing and future studies. Brainstorming sessions provided opportunities for attendees to consult on new research projects that focus on youth or that apply current research on social media to youth populations. Topics discussed ranged from cyberbullying to the need for greater media literacy.

Wethington presses that “social media use is a major source of social interaction for youth and can contribute to positive, healthy adolescent development. We are looking forward to working with researchers and practitioner partners alike to promote greater digital literacy for youth – not only teaching kids how to be safe online, but engage with others and grow in positive ways.”

PRYDE is funded by The Morgan Foundation.

Stephen D'Angelo is assistant director of communications for the College of Human Ecology.

This interview with Dr. Gary Evans, Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor in the College of Human Ecologywas written for the Jacobs Foundation's BOLD initiative.

Reprinted from the Blog on Learning & Development, May 15, 2017.

Meeri Kim: Much of your work focuses on how children’s environment affects their health and well-being — in particular, the ways in which childhood poverty can lead to negative developmental outcomes. What are the components of poverty that tend to hit kids the hardest?

Gary Evans

Gary Evans: Throughout my work, I’ve tried to make the point that one of the reasons why poverty is harmful for kids is the chronic stress they experience as a result. One of the things that is unique and unfortunately quite powerful about childhood poverty is this accumulation of stressors, both physical and psychosocial. Physical stressors include housing issues, noise, crowding, and pollution. But the kids also experience psychosocial stressors like crime, family turmoil, and residential instability.

“Parts of the brain may change in children who grow up in poverty, leading to less efficient control and regulation of some cognitive and emotional processes than their wealthier peers.”

MK: How does constant exposure to such stressors impact the developing brain?

GE: The physiological response systems that are designed to handle relatively infrequent environmental stressors become overwhelmed for disadvantaged children. There is good evidence that parts of the brain linked to executive control — involved in coordinating things and keeping everything organized — are sensitive to chronic stress. Structurally as well as functionally, these regions may change in children who grow up in poverty, leading to less efficient control and regulation of some cognitive and emotional processes than their wealthier peers.

At the same time, other parts of the brain tied to automated, quick responses to stress and emergencies like the amygdala become over-developed and over-activated. So you have this bad mix of heightened emotional responses coupled with less regulation and control.

MK: Recently, you published a study on the link between childhood poverty and adult psychological well-being. What did you find?

GE: I looked at the psychological well-being of 24-year-olds in relation to their family income when they were 9 years old, finding relationships with a number of mental health and cognitive outcomes. Childhood poverty is linked to deficits in adult memory, greater psychological/physiological distress, and higher levels of aggression.

Another research interest is how motivation and helplessness differ for those who grew up in an impoverished environment. We have given both children and adults age-appropriate tasks to persist on, and we see consistently less persistence from the disadvantaged. When challenged, they’re much more likely to give up. To me, that unfortunately fits our model — if you grow up with a lot of stressors, your environment sets you up for feeling like you don’t have a sense of mastery or self-efficacy. This is a dynamic, particularly for children, that we need to look more at.

“If you grow up with a lot of stressors, your environment sets you up for feeling like you don’t have a sense of mastery or self-efficacy.”

MK: Given your findings on poverty, what kinds of policy changes could help enhance these children’s lives? Universal basic income?

GE: Various experiments have shown that when you increase the income of families in poverty, you may get better health outcomes, better parenting, and reductions in various negative outcomes. I believe any policy approach has to increase income in a way that is predictable and reliable, coupled with more available and affordable services for these families.

“Because poverty includes a convergence of multiple risk factors and stressors, it really means multiple interventions are necessary.”

Because poverty includes a convergence of multiple risk factors and stressors, it really means multiple interventions are necessary. You can’t just provide housing or job training. You really have to look across the board. A classic example is taking people off of welfare and giving them a low-income job, which is usually right around the minimum wage. However, if there is little or no childcare, the program winds up not being nearly as effective as it ought to be. Good-quality free or heavily subsidized childcare coupled with employment or job training may work better.

Jane Mendle, professor of Human Development, urges people to speak out about their mental illness and encourage others to seek help.

Reprinted from Motto from the Editors of Time, August, 30, 2017.

Jane Mendle, associate professor of human development

by Jane Mendle

A very specific image of Princess Diana comes to mind as we recognize the 20th anniversary of her death. We remember her as the “people’s princess” — from her jewel-studded wedding to her petrified final minutes in a Parisian tunnel. She walked through fields of landminesembraced an AIDS patient, introduced us to the vicious tenacity of the tabloid press and embodied the most glorious aspects of 1980s fashion.

But what is often forgotten is that Diana was also a paradox: under the magnificently poised image she presented to the world, she struggled with bulimia, self-injury and lingering feelings of worthlessness.

Princess Diana

In the early 1990s, toward the end of her marriage, Diana gave a series of interviews to promising to share “her true story.” In 1992, Andrew Morton published Diana: Her True Story (based on secret recordings Diana had an intermediary make for the author), which revealed that the princess was living with the eating disorder. In an 1995 interview with BBC, she described bulimia as a “symptom of what was going on in my marriage.”

Diana’s candid self-disclosures in these interviews may be her most powerful and unrecognized legacy. Her honesty helped chip away at the stigma surrounding mental health and encouraged others to get help. It is not an exaggeration to say that thousands of people changed their lives because Diana talked about hers.

Today, nearly one in six adults in the U.K. and one in five adults in the U.S. live with a mental illness. Millions in the U.K. and the U.S. currently have an eating disorder, which is often accompanied by depression or an anxiety disorder. But only a relatively small percentage of people will actually seek treatment. One of the biggest barriers is not access to help, but rather fear, shame and embarrassment. While a number of celebrities, including Demi Lovato and Catherine Zeta-Jones, have spoken out about living with mental illness in recent years, such frank disclosures were far less typical when Diana first opened up about her life experiences.

Even more unexpected was the clarity, honesty and depth with which Diana described her bulimia.“That’s like a secret disease,” she told the BBC in that 1995 interview. “You inflict it upon yourself because your self-esteem is at a low ebb, and you don’t think you’re worthy or valuable. You fill your stomach up four or five times a day — some do it more — and it gives you a feeling of comfort.”

“It’s like having a pair of arms around you,” she added, “but it’s temporarily, temporary.”

She said that she often came home from her official engagements “feeling pretty empty” and that she felt immense pressure to keep her marriage together despite the couple’s well-documented problems. “I was crying out for help, but giving the wrong signals, and people were using my bulimia as a coat on a hanger: they decided that was the problem — Diana was unstable,” she said.

For people who don’t understand why someone would feel compelled to binge and purge, Diana’s shockingly vulnerable explanations provided a simple answer. Binging, she said, functioned as a release valve for pressures and problems that seemed otherwise insurmountable. The stigma surrounding mental health can often be exacerbated by a lack of knowledge, and Diana’s candid interview allowed others to empathize and understand what it’s like to live with bulimia.

Diana’s disclosure had even more value for people with first-hand experience with bulimia. During the second half of the 20th century, rates of bulimia in Western, industrialized nations rose dramatically. Yet many women viewed bulimia as a private and deeply humiliating experience that should be kept hidden.

Remarkably, in the years during which Diana spoke publicly about her bulimia, rates of womenseeking treatment for bulimia in Great Britain more than doubled. The press dubbed this phenomenon the “Diana effect.” Mental health practitioners credited this shift to greater public awareness and dialogue about bulimia, as well as women identifying with Diana. If a princess could be bulimic, so could they. If she could explain why she hurt herself, they could recognize that side of themselves too. If she could overcome her eating disorder, they could too.

Self-disclosures, particularly of people in positions of power or visibility, can change how other people approach their own psychological health. Researchers have found that knowing someone else with a mental illness can encourage others to get help. “It is notable that the Princess’s death in 1997 coincided with the beginning of the decline in bulimia incidence,” researchers wrote in a 2005 study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry on time trends in eating disorder incidences. “Identification with a public figure’s struggle with bulimia might have temporarily decreased the shame associated with the illness, and encouraged women to seek help for the first time.”

Unfortunately, after Diana’s death in 1997, those rates slowly returned to baseline. By 2000, the “Diana effect” had vanished. Currently, in the United States, we are in the throes of a new mental health crisis. A study published in Pediatrics last year found that between 2005 and 2014, there was a 37% increase in the number of individuals aged 12-20 reporting a major depressive episode. But there hasn’t been a corresponding rise in treatment rates.

Hopefully, the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death will reignite conversations about why it’s so important to speak openly about mental health and encourage others to seek help. Her sons have already taken up that task. Earlier this year, Prince Harry spoke frankly about seeking counseling to address his grief over his mother’s death. Meanwhile, Prince William appeared in a documentary about anorexia, where he discussed his mother’s experience with bulimia.

“We need to normalize the conversation about mental health,” Prince William said in the documentary. “We need to be matter-of-fact about it, and not hide it in the dark where it festers.”

Diana did not set out to be a mental health advocate. She simply told her truth and her narrative resonated. These days, we could use more truth-tellers like her.

Reprinted from CBS News' Healthday, April 14, 2017

by Maureen Salamon

A pair of key differences in the brain may help distinguish which seniors are at risk of falling prey to financial scams, a small new study suggests.

The first-of-its-kind study found a biological basis -- rather than poor decision-making skills -- underlying financial exploitation in the elderly. These findings might lead to a way to predict which seniors are susceptible to scams, the researchers said.

Such scams affect about 5 percent of older adults after age 60, said study author Nathan Spreng. He’s director of Cornell University’s Laboratory of Brain and Cognition.

Spreng

Nathan Spreng

“We suspect these are brain changes that occurred prior to [seniors] being exploited that rendered them vulnerable to exploitation... It could have been something that emerged as they were aging,” Spreng said.

“We think it’s probably more of an age-related change to the brain,” he added. “We don’t necessarily think this is a lifelong brain difference.”

About 45 million Americans were age 65 and older in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The true incidence of financial scams in this age group is probably underestimated. Spreng said that many older adults are unaware that they were scammed or unwilling to report being exploited.

Prior research indicated that family members are the most common financial abusers of seniors. In Spreng’s study, a grandson continued to steal even after being confronted by the study participant. In other examples, a daughter charged $2,000 to a study participant’s account without permission, and a son’s girlfriend borrowed $4,000 and never paid it back.

Spreng and his team evaluated 13 older adults who had been robbed by family members or neighbors, or scammed online or by phone. The researchers compared that group to 13 peers who’d been exposed to a potentially exploitative scheme, but recognized and avoided it.

Forty-five behavioral tests were performed on both groups to measure aspects such as memory, personality, financial reasoning, and the ability to pay attention to information and evaluate it. Additionally, MRI scans were performed on the participants’ brains.

The only behavioral difference that emerged between the groups was more anger and hostility in those who’d been scammed. But the brain images were more telling: Exploited seniors showed more shrinkage and less connectivity in two key areas of the brain.

One brain region, known as the anterior insula, signals when something significant is happening. This area was significantly reduced in the exploited group of seniors, which suggests their brains weren’t signaling that they faced a risky situation, according to the study authors.

The other brain region, called the medial prefrontal cortex, helps read social cues, such as people’s intentions. The scammed seniors also showed more shrinkage and fewer neural connections in this area, the findings showed.

The researchers also found the networks of both affected brain regions were more connected to each other. This suggests the combination of effects might leave those seniors more vulnerable to scams.

S. Duke Han is a spokesperson for the American Federation for Aging Research. He said this study’s results are preliminary because of the small number of people studied.

“There also could be other reasons for why these brain imaging differences might be seen -- there may be differences in cardiovascular health, nutrition or another variable not accounted for, and this isn’t a large enough study to address those,” said Han.

Han and Spreng agreed that studying financial scams in the elderly is a difficult task.

“The topic can be seen as very embarrassing for older adults who become the victims of financial exploitation, so it’s hard to get them to agree to be recruited for this type of research,” Han said.

Larger studies are needed to confirm these findings and perhaps identify markers -- both biological and behavioral -- to identify who’s most at risk of scams, Spreng said.

“Overall, our objective is to help with identifying people who may be vulnerable but don’t know it, and help build up additional protections for them,” Spreng said.

“The consequences are just so devastating for people’s well-being and quality of life and, ultimately, their health when they lose their life savings. We’re trying to tackle this problem as a biological issue,” Spreng said.

The National Science Foundation's blog, Discovery. July 14, 2017

by Stanley Dambroski and Madeline Beal

From an outside perspective, understanding a spoken language versus a signed language seems like it might involve entirely different brain processes. One process involves your ears and the other your eyes, and scientists have long known that different parts of the brain process these different sensory inputs.

To scientists at the University of Chicago interested in the role rhythm plays in how humans understand language, the differences between these inputs provided an opportunity for experimentation. The resulting study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences helps explain that rhythm is important for processing language whether spoken or signed.

Previous studies have shown the rhythm of speech changes the rhythm of neural activity involved in understanding spoken language. When humans listen to spoken language, the brain's auditory cortex activity adjusts to follow the rhythms of sentences. This phenomenon is known as entrainment.

But even after researchers identified entrainment, understanding the role of rhythm in language comprehension remained difficult. Neural activity changes when a person is listening to spoken language -- but the brain also locks onto random, meaningless bursts of sound in a very similar way and at a similar frequency.

That's where the University of Chicago team saw an experimental opportunity involving sign language. While the natural rhythms in spoken language are similar to what might be considered the preferred frequency for the auditory cortex, this is not true for sign language and the visual cortex. The rhythms from the hand movements in ASL are substantially slower than that of spoken language.

The researchers used electroencephalography (EEG) to record the brain activity of participants as they watched videos of stories told in American Sign Language (ASL). One group was made up of participants who were fluent in ASL, while the other was made up of non-signers. The researchers then analyzed the rhythms of activity in different regions of the participants' brains.

The brain activity rhythms in the visual cortex followed the rhythms of sign language. Importantly, the researchers observed entrainment at the low frequencies that carry meaningful information in sign language, not at the high frequencies usually seen in visual activity.

Daniel Casasanto

"By looking at sign, we've learned something about how the brain processes language more generally," said principal investigator Daniel Casasanto, Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago (now Professor of Human Development at Cornell University). "We've solved a mystery we couldn't crack by studying speech alone."

While the ASL-fluent and non-signer groups demonstrated entrainment, it was stronger in the frontal cortex for ASL-fluent participants, compared to non-signers. The frontal cortex is the area of the brain that controls cognitive skills. The authors postulate that frontal entrainment may be stronger in the fluent signers because they are more able to predict the movements involved and therefore more able to predict and entrain to the rhythms they see.

"This study highlights the importance of rhythm to processing language, even when it is visual. Studies like this are core to the National Science Foundation's Understanding the Brain Initiative, which seeks to understand the brain in action and in context," said Betty Tuller, a program manager for NSF's Perception, Action, and Cognition Program. "Knowledge of the fundamentals of how the brain processes language has the potential to improve how we educate children, treat language disorders, train military personnel, and may have implications for the study of learning and memory."

Time, June 22, 2017

By Amanda MacMillan

Happiness isn't the only emotion that can help you stay healthy as you age. How excited, amused, proud, strong and cheerful you feel on a regular basis matters, too. In a new study, people who experienced the widest range of positive emotions had the lowest levels of inflammation throughout their bodies. Lower inflammation may translate to a reduced risk of diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

Past research has shown that positive emotions may have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body, but the new study, published in the journal Emotion, looks at whether the range and variety of those feelings play a role as well. Evolution suggests that they would; drawing on the evolutionary advantages of ecosystems with plenty of biodiversity, researchers from the United States and Germany wondered if similar perks may exist for variety within the human emotional experience. Such a range may improve physical and mental health by “preventing an overabundance or prolonging of any one emotion from dominating an individuals’ emotional life," they write.

The researchers asked 175 middle-age adults to keep a daily log of their emotional experiences for a month by recording how often and how strongly they experienced each of 32 different emotions: 16 positive (like being enthusiastic, interested and at ease) and 16 negative (such as being scared, upset, jittery and tired). Six months later, scientists tested their blood samples for markers of systemic inflammation, a known risk factor for many chronic health conditions and for early death.

Anthony Ong

Overall, people who reported a wide range of positive emotions on a day-to-day basis had less inflammation than people who reported a smaller range—even if their overall frequencies of positive emotions were similar. That was true even after researchers controlled for traits like extraversion and neuroticism, body mass index, medication use, medical conditions and demographics. (Surprisingly, a similar effect was not observed for the other end of the spectrum. It didn't seem to matter for inflammation whether people regularly experienced many or only a few variations of negative emotions.)

Lead author Anthony Ong, professor of human development at Cornell University, suspects that people may be able to maximize these benefits by more closely examining their emotions. “When it comes to infusing more diverse positive emotions into our lives, it may turn out to be a simple daily practice of labeling and categorizing positive emotions in discrete terms,” he says. “Pay attention to your inner emotions and be able to mentally recognize situations that make you feel calm versus, say, excited.”

The Cornell Chronicle, August 1, 2017.

By Stephen D'Angelo

Cornell researchers are working with Head Start Centers and day schools in New York City on early-intervention work to promote development of spatial skills and language acquisition in preschoolers.

Marianella Casasola

Marianella Casasola, associate professor of human development and a faculty fellow of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, said studies show those with better spatial skills are more likely to flourish in STEM fields.

“Working with children at Head Start in Harlem and through a partnership with the Audrey Johnson Day Care Learning Center in Brooklyn allows us to focus on families from a variety of demographics and backgrounds, and to target research on environmental factors within populations of various socioeconomic status,” Casasola said.

Casasola is examining the benefits of constructive play – using blocks, puzzles and shapes – and how language through narration of activities affects cognitive development and spatial skills. She hopes her research findings will inform early-education programs and lead to creation of ideal environments to develop children’s cognitive skills, no matter their demographic background.

“Our goal is to not only understand how early spatial and language skills develop, but also how best to promote their development both at home and in the classroom,” she said. “Designed for preschoolers from low-income families, these programs would be constructed to establish environments for the early development of these skills and promote parent interaction within day-to-day activities, such as counting, simple math and reading.”

Casasola and her team of students are collaborating with the Clinical and Translational Science Center at Weill Cornell Medicine to discover effective approaches to translate such findings for families. She and her students design and host monthly parent training workshops at Brooklyn’s Audrey Johnson day school.

“Children who both interacted and were narrated to saw at least a 30 percent increase in spatial gains over the group that still interacted with the same sorts of activities and games, but did not have language incorporated into their play by an adult,” she said. “Both groups improved, but those who heard items being labeled and actions described showed significantly greater gains.”

The hope is to integrate such development practices into the busyness of day-to-day life and positively impact a child’s language and learning development.

“Many people are surprised to hear that talking to infants really matters,” Casasola said. “The simple message is, remember to talk to your child. And have fun even for only a few minutes of play.”

The Cornell Chronicle, April 13, 2017.

By Stephen D'Angelo

Adam Anderson

New research by Adam Anderson, professor of human development at Cornell’s College of Human Ecology, reveals why the eyes offer a window into the soul.

According to the recent study, published in Psychological Science Feb. 1, Anderson found that we interpret a person’s emotions by analyzing the expression in their eyes – a process that began as a universal reaction to environmental stimuli and evolved to communicate our deepest emotions.

For example, people in the study consistently associated narrowed eyes – which enhance our visual discrimination by blocking light and sharpening focus – with emotions related to discrimination, such as disgust and suspicion. In contrast, people linked open eyes – which expand our field of vision – with emotions related to sensitivity, like fear and awe.

“When looking at the face, the eyes dominate emotional communication,” Anderson said. “The eyes are windows to the soul likely because they are first conduits for sight. Emotional expressive changes around the eye influence how we see, and in turn, this communicates to others how we think and feel.”

This work builds on Anderson’s research from 2013, which demonstrated that human facial expressions, such as raising one’s eyebrows, arose from universal, adaptive reactions to one’s environment and did not originally signal social communication.

Both studies support Charles Darwin’s 19th-century theories on the evolution of emotion, which hypothesized that our expressions originated for sensory function rather than social communication.

“What our work is beginning to unravel,” said Anderson, “are the details of what Darwin theorized: why certain expressions look the way they do, how that helps the person perceive the world, and how others use those expressions to read our innermost emotions and intentions.”

Anderson and his co-author, Daniel H. Lee, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Boulder, created models of six expressions – sadness, disgust, anger, joy, fear and surprise – using photos of faces in widely used databases. Study participants were shown a pair of eyes demonstrating one of the six expressions and one of 50 words describing a specific mental state, such as discriminating, curious, bored, etc. Participants then rated the extent to which the word described the eye expression. Each participant completed 600 trials.

Participants consistently matched the eye expressions with the corresponding basic emotion, accurately discerning all six basic emotions from the eyes alone.

Anderson then analyzed how these perceptions of mental states related to specific eye features. Those features included the openness of the eye, the distance from the eyebrow to the eye, the slope and curve of the eyebrow, and wrinkles around the nose, the temple and below the eye.

The study found that the openness of the eye was most closely related to our ability to read others’ mental states based on their eye expressions. Narrow-eyed expressions reflected mental states related to enhanced visual discrimination, such as suspicion and disapproval, while open-eyed expressions related to visual sensitivity, such as curiosity. Other features around the eye also communicated whether a mental state is positive or negative.

Further, he ran more studies comparing how well study participants could read emotions from the eye region to how well they could read emotions in other areas of the face, such as the nose or mouth. Those studies found the eyes offered more robust indications of emotions.

This study, said Anderson, was the next step in Darwin’s theory, asking how expressions for sensory function ended up being used for communication function of complex mental states.

“The eyes evolved over 500 million years ago for the purposes of sight but now are essential for interpersonal insight,” Anderson said.