A large and growing body of research shows that poor kids grow up to have a host of physical problems as adults.

Now add psychological deficits to the list, Cornell researchers say.

Childhood poverty can cause significant psychological deficits in adulthood, according to a sweeping new study. The research, conducted by tracking participants over a 15-year period, is the first to show this damage occurs over time and in a broad range of ways.

Impoverished children in the study had more psychological distress as adults, including more antisocial conduct like aggression and bullying and more helplessness behavior, than kids from middle-income backgrounds. Poor kids also had more chronic physiological stress and more deficits in short-term spatial memory.

Gary Evans, Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Development

“What this means is, if you’re born poor, you’re on a trajectory to have more of these kinds of psychological problems,” said Gary Evans, the author of the study and the Elizabeth Lee Vincent Professor of Human Ecology, and professor in the departments of design and environmental analysis, and human development.

Why? In a word, stress.

“With poverty, you’re exposed to lots of stress. Everybody has stress, but low-income families, low-income children, have a lot more of it,” Evans said. “And the parents are also under a lot of stress. So for kids, there is a cumulative risk exposure.”

Evans, a child psychologist who specializes in the effects of stress on children, is the author of “Childhood poverty and adult psychological well-being,” published Dec. 12 in the Proceedings of the National Academic of Sciences (PNAS).

The findings are important because kids who grow up in poverty are likely to stay impoverished as adults, Evans said. For example, there’s a 40 percent chance that a son’s income will be the same as his father’s income. That’s because the United States has the least social mobility of any wealthy Western democracy, he said.

“People walk around with this idea in their head that if you work hard, play by the rules, you can get ahead,” Evans said. “And that’s just a myth. It’s just not true.”

In his study, Evans tested 341 participants, all white, at ages 9, 13, 17 and 24.

Short-term spatial memory was tested by asking adult study participants to repeat increasingly complex sequences of lights and sounds by pressing four colored pads in the correct order – similar to the “Simon” game. The adults who grew up in poverty had a diminished ability to recall the sequences, compared to those who did not.

“This is an important result because the ability to retain information in short-term memory is fundamental to a host of basic cognitive skills, including language and achievement,” Evans wrote.

Although the participants were assessed on this measure only when they were adults, this test had the strongest association with childhood poverty of the four measures.

Helplessnesswas assessed by asking the participants to solve an impossible puzzle. Adults who grew up in poverty gave up 8 percent quicker than those who weren’t poor as kids. Previous research has shown chronic exposure to uncontrollable stressors – such as family turmoil and substandard housing – tends to induce helplessness.

Mental healthwas measured with a well-validated, standardized index of mental health with statements including “I argue a lot” and “I am too impatient.” Adults who grew up in poverty were more likely to agree with those questions than adults from a middle-income background.

Chronic physiological stress was tested by measuring the participants’ blood pressure, stress hormones and body mass index. Adults who grew up in poverty had a higher level of chronic physical stress throughout childhood and into adulthood.

The study has two implications, Evans said. First, early intervention to prevent these problems is more efficient and more likely to work.

“If you don’t intervene early, it’s going to be really difficult and is going to cost a lot to intervene later,” he said.

Second, increasing poor families’ incomes is the most efficient way to reduce a child’s exposure to poverty and, in turn, their risk of developing psychological problems. Evans supports the creation of a safety net, similar to Social Security’s supplemental income for the elderly and disabled. If a family is poor and has children, the federal government should provide them with supplementary income sufficient to participate in society, he said.

“It’s not true you can’t do anything about poverty. It’s just whether there’s the political will, and are people willing to reframe the problem, instead of blaming the person who is poor and – even more preposterous – blaming their children,” he said.

“This is a societal issue, and if we decide to reallocate resources like we did with the elderly and Social Security, we could change the kind of data this study is showing,” he said.

“Could we get rid of poverty? Probably not,” Evans said. “But I think we could change it dramatically.”

The research was supported by the W.T. Grant Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the National Institute for Minority Health and Health Disparities.

Reprinted from Ezra Magazine, September 2016 Issue

Camille Sims '15 says fate brought her to Cornell. And now it has propelled her to reign as Miss New York and to finish second runner-up in September's Miss America competition.

Camille Sims

Camille Sims '15 visits the College of Human Ecology Sept. 21. Photo: Mark Vorreuter.

As a teen growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, Sims volunteered with her mother in soup kitchens, joining the fight against hunger and homelessness. One day, while checking out books in an Atlanta public library, a Cornell recruiter approached her and encouraged her to attend an information session for the College of Human Ecology. There she discovered "how the college represents improving the human condition, solving social problems, and using research as a means to create social justice and to help people live better," she says.

"After that, I said, 'Mom, this is it, this is my school! I have to be there!'" Sims recalls.

As a freshman and a Meinig Family Cornell National Scholar, Sims sought out Anthony Burrow, assistant professor of human development, whose research on youth purpose and identity she had been tracking since high school. She took "every class that he offered" and conducted research and an independent study through his Purpose and Identity Processes Laboratory. Her project explored how mass incarceration impairs adolescent transitions into adulthood and sparked her to work with Ultimate Re-entry Opportunity of Tompkins County, which supports former inmates.

Today, she continues her work on reintegration and other social justice issues as a coordinator with Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Multicultural Resource Center.

"I wouldn't be doing the work that I am doing now had it not been for the conversations and experiences in Professor Burrow's classes and lab," Sims says.

"Because of her innovative scholarship and passion to contribute to the health of the communities in which she lives, Camille makes a formidable ally to those enduring imprisonment and who will eventually re-enter the community," Burrow says. "Her particular talents are noticeable and effective -- she's the kind of student who demands there always be greater meaning to the assignments in which she engages."

Crowned Miss New York in May, Sims is using her title to raise awareness for her platform, Ensuring Wellness and Fostering Food Justice. Sims was drawn to the cause from her early experiences fighting hunger, as well as her work as a Cornell undergraduate at Ithaca's Southside Community Center, where she has helped low-income families with eating healthfully on a budget. Sims credits Cornell's Public Service Center for matching her with local groups as a freshman and her Human Ecology education with making her more effective as an advocate.

"I took classes in nutrition and health, human development and nearly enough for a minor in policy analysis and management," Sims says. "I've been able to develop an understanding of the food system from all these perspectives and tie that into my Miss America platform."

A jazz singer and songwriter who plans to release her second album this fall, Sims hopes to use her winnings from the Miss New York and Miss America competitions to pay for graduate school, where she plans to continue her research in human development. Ultimately, she hopes to inspire others to engage with their communities and fight for social justice.

"Caring is crucial to moving anything forward," says Sims. "For us to move forward as a society, we must ask questions about the food system and start conversations about inequity. There can't be apathy about inequality and social justice if you want to thrive as a community."

-- Ted Boscia is director of communications and media for the College of Human Ecology.

Camille Sims joins teens building computers on The Ithaca Commons

Sims joins local teens learning how to build computers at an event on the Ithaca Commons hosted by Cornell University and the Southside Community Center during National Week of Making, June 17-23. Photo: provided.

Reprinted from the College of Human Ecology, NewsHub

By Tyler Alicea ’16, MPS ’17

Brian LaGrant ‘17; Photo by Mark Vorreuter

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.

Brian LaGrant ’17, a human development major from New Hartford, N.Y., discusses his research on factors surrounding imitation among children and adults:

What are you working on this summer?

I’m working on social learning in children and adults. I’m in the Affect and Cognition Lab. We work primarily on neuroscience research, but we’re also doing another project on social learning.

We have this apparatus like a puzzle box, and it’s supposed to simulate something that you haven’t seen before. People can watch somebody else see how to open it and then they can have their turn trying to open it. So that’s what we’re using to measure imitation.

When you copy somebody, they can have different characteristics, like they might be smart or they’re not sure how to open the box. They might be a very prestigious individual or a very well-respected individual or not so much. We want to see how those two factors—knowledge and prestige—can affect how much that model is imitated by children and adults.

How does this work relate to your coursework?

I’ve done a lot of neuroscience research, and this is a little different from what I’m used to, but I really like it because it ties into human culture and how we have evolved over many generations. Social learning is a very important aspect of development, especially a concept called the “ratchet effect,” which is how we innovate new technology over time. I haven’t really focused on social learning throughout my undergraduate years, but it’s a nice complement to the other kind of education I’ve been focusing on.

Who are your Human Ecology mentors?

I’ve formed a few close relationships within the College of Human Ecology as a whole, and specifically human development. Professor Marianella Casasola has been there with me since day one. When I lived in Donlon Hall, she was a faculty-in-residence and from there we formed a close relationship, and I was able to do some research with her, and she’s taught some of my classes over time. Professor Eve De Rosa, one of the principal investigators in my lab, has been a great help, and she’s so nice and so welcoming to any ideas that I have. They’ve both been very important to my development at Cornell.

What excites you about your research?

What excites me the most is that this is my first time having more of an independent role in the research where I can design the experiments and start running them on my own. Having that authority and independence is really, really exciting, and it makes me want to perform research in the future.

What societal impacts does your work have?

One thing I’ve been looking at recently is how autistic children might act differently at these tasks, and that’s something I could study in the future. For the area of research I’m focusing on, social learning, this kind of research hasn’t been done before. I think it’s important because looking at two or three different conflicting factors like I am is a better simulation of what the real world is like. Previous research has only looked at one factor, but there are so many different factors at play—whether a person is knowledgeable, prestigious, and things like that. I think my research is delving more into that area.

Brian’s summer project, The Influences of Model Social Status and Knowledge State on Imitation in Children and Adults, is funded by a College of Human Ecology summer research stipend, which provides undergraduate students will funding for full-time research with a faculty member.

By Tyler Alicea ’16, MPS ’17; photo by Mark Vorreuter.

By Nora Rabah, Allison M. Hermann, Thomas W. Craig, and David Garavito

David Garavito, graduate student in the Law, Psychology, and Human Development Program, under the supervision of Dr. Valerie Reyna, is working with communities in New York and around the country with support from an Engaged Cornell grant for student research. He is working with coaches and student athletes to study the effects of concussions on decision making about risks. For his dissertation research, Garavito is developing a model based upon Dr. Reyna’s Fuzzy Trace Theory (FTT) which integrates research on Alzheimer’s dementia (AD), behavioral economics and decision making, and neuroscience to study the perception of risks associated with sports-related concussions among people vulnerable to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Garavito and undergraduates in the Laboratory for Rational Decision Making are working with a growing number of students, coaches, and administrators from high schools and colleges in New York (including Watkins Glen and Moravia high schools, Cornell University, and Ithaca College), Colorado, and Minnesota. Engagement with sports communities has provided the team with the opportunity to educate--and listen to-- the public about current research on concussions and how values or principles can affect perceptions and decisions about concussion risk. Garavito has found that coaches are very supportive of research projects that aim to help keep athletes safe and further knowledge about concussions. Many athletes have enthusiastically agreed to volunteer in Garavito’s studies. The student team also has been working with the Ithaca Youth Bureau and the experiences of coaches and educators at the center have been essential in the development of interactive activities to teach youth about the brain and concussions. The ultimate goal of the concussion intervention is to strengthen healthy values and educate people about risks, and the importance of reporting symptoms of concussions.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a form of dementia, like Alzheimer’s, which results in an accumulation of tau proteins in the brain, however, the onset and progression of CTE is related to a history of concussions. Athletes in contact sports are particularly vulnerable to CTE because many athletes fail to report concussions and their symptoms – a very risky decision that could result in brain damage and cognitive impairment. Using the FTT framework, Garavito and his team of undergraduates are studying this underreporting phenomenon.

Although current research on the underreporting of concussions has brought about the creation of laws mandating concussion education nationwide, research based on FTT has shown that not all education programs are equal. How people process information can have a profound effect on how they make decisions (Mills, Reyna, Estrada, 2008; Widmer, Wolfe, Reyna et al., 2015). Dr. Reyna’s research has shown that adolescents are more likely to rely on verbatim, surface-level details, whereas adults tend to rely on qualitative reasoning and the bottom-line gist of information (Reyna & Farley, 2006; Reyna, Estrada, DeMarinis et al., 2011). For example, if told an athlete has a 2/3 chance of having another concussion if they go back out on the field after having had a concussion on the same day, adolescents make their decisions about risk by considering the numbers and take the chance in order to play more sports because the benefits, to them, outweigh the risks. Adults, on the other hand, get the point that the mere possibility of a catastrophic injury, no matter how small, of getting another concussion (which could result in permanent brain damage or death), is not worth the risk for more playing time. This difference in information processing has not been studied in the underreporting or the perception of risks in sports-related injuries.

Many educational programs emphasize the acquisition of verbatim fact-based knowledge in the hope that these details will help the public understand and make better decisions. Unfortunately, this can lead to the opposite effect – giving people more detailed information causes them to engage in greater precise deliberation and leads them to take unnecessary risks. Football players, for example, may know verbatim facts about the symptoms of concussions, but still “gamble” by not reporting their symptoms, instead of choosing the “sure thing” of being safe and reporting them. This risky decision-making among athletes, in turn, is exacerbated by impairment from prior concussions.

Currently, Garavito, Dr. Reyna, and their team of undergraduates, are using scales based on FTT, to test several important hypotheses. These scales are sensitive measures that can detect if a person is relying more on categorical than fact-based thinking. Fuzzy Trace Theory predicts that categorical or gist-based thinking is more developmentally advanced and can deter people from taking dangerous risks. Garavito hypothesizes that adolescents affected by cumulative concussions may rely less on categorical thinking than non-concussed adolescents. This could lead concussed adolescents to engage in greater risk-taking, in general. Garavito and Reyna are studying whether FTT measures can cue developmentally advanced categorical thinking. Cuing adolescents to engage in categorical thinking will lead them to approach dangerous risks like adults, and is consistent with Dr. Reyna’s research on other types of risk-taking behavior (Reyna, Wilhelms, McCormick et al., 2015).

Nora Rabah is a Biology and Society major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Allison M. Hermann is the Research and Outreach Manager for the Laboratory for Rational Decision Making.

Thomas W. Craig is the Law, Psychology and Human Development Program Assistant.

David Garavito is a graduate student in the Law, Psychology, and Human Development Program at the College of Human Ecology.

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.