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Simple questionnaire predicts unprotected sex, binge drinking

Valerie Reyna and Evan Wilhelms developed a new questionnaire for predicting who is likely to engage in risky behaviors, including, unprotected sex and binge drinking. Their questionnaire significantly outperforms 14 other gold-standard measures frequently used in economics and psychology.

  Study challenges model of Alzheimer's disease progression 

 The research of Professor Nathan Spreng and his collaborators sheds light on the basal forebrain region, where the degeneration of neural tissue caused by Alzheimer’s disease appears before cognitive and behavioral symptoms emerge.

 Social media boosts remembrance of things past

A new study – the first to look at social media’s effect on memory – suggests posting personal experiences on social media makes those events much easier to recall.

Experts Address Elder Financial Abuse as Global Problem

Financial exploitation of older people by those who should be protecting them results in devastating health, emotional and psychological consequences. International elder abuse experts met at Weill Cornell Medicine to map out a strategy for conducting research on this problem.

For kids, poverty means psychological deficits as adults

Childhood poverty can cause significant psychological deficits in adulthood, according to a sweeping new study by Professor Gary Evans. 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.


Miss New York Camille Sims fights for social justice     

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

Summer Scholar Spotlight: Brian LaGrant ‘17       

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

Risky decisions and concussions

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.


Alzheimer’s early tell: The language of authors who suffered from dementia has a story for the rest of us

Adrienne Day writes about how Barbara Lust, professor in Human Development, and other researchers are studying changes in language patterns in early Alzheimer’s disease.


Listen to Associate Professor Corinna Loeckenhoff discuss self-continuity, or our perceived connections with our past and future selves.

Hear Professor Adam Anderson talk about his research in the podcast, "Brain waves: The science of emotion" for The Guardian.

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.

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.

Remember HAL, the onboard computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” struggling to sing “Daisy, Daisy…” while astronaut Dave disables older and older memory modules until just one shred of HAL’s artificial intelligence remains?

Who could forget … except that’s not how language loss really happens to humans on the verge of Alzheimer’s disease, according to a team of psychologists and linguists with a paradigm-flipping test to predict the disease.

“It is now known that Alzheimer’s disease may develop for years, silently, before appearance of symptoms leading to clinical diagnosis,” explains Cornell’s Barbara Lust. “We’re searching for early signs in the spoken language of individuals, before Alzheimer’s is actually manifest.”

Together with research collaborators at Cornell and three other institutions, Lust published surprising findings in the April journal Brain & Language, “Reversing Ribot: Does regression hold in language of prodromal Alzheimer’s disease?”

Theodule Ribot was the 19th-century French psychologist who proposed a law of regression or reversion - essentially that “structures last formed are the first to degenerate ... the new perishes before the old.” Ribot’s law predicts what is often observed in Alzheimer’s patients, that recent memories may be lost before older memories.

The new study inquired whether there are also changes in language that occur during the prodromal course of Alzheimer’s disease – changes that possibly could be predictors of the disease. Prodromal refers to the period before appearance of initial symptoms and the full development of disease. The stage of prodromal Alzheimer’s, before dementia sets in, is called Mild Cognitive Impairment or MCI.

The researchers asked whether the course of language deterioration in prodromal Alzheimer’s would systematically reverse the course of acquisition of language among children, in accord with Ribot’s prediction.

The study compared earlier research – on the course of language development of complex sentences in children under age 5 – with new research assessing language patterns of MCI adults.

Researchers also tested young adults and healthy aging adults. Adults were asked to imitate sentences with complex structures, including various types of relative clauses, just as the children had.

As hypothesized by the researchers – but contrary to common belief – the linguistic structures children develop first are the ones MCI adult subjects struggle with the most.

For example, individuals with MCI found it more difficult to repeat a sentence like, “The office manager corrected what bothered the summer intern,” often giving responses like “The officer ... uh ... inspected ... and um ... corrected the intern.”

For children, sentences like “Fozzie Bear hugs what Kermit the Frog kisses” were the earliest produced. Whereas sentences like “Scooter grabs the candy which Fozzie Bear eats” were late-developed by children – but easiest for MCI adults.

In MCI, a first-developed structure is being lost first and a last-developed structure is being retained longest – contrary to Ribot’s prediction ... and HAL’s experience.

Next, researchers hope to incorporate linguistic assessments into potential predictive tests for early-stage Alzheimer’s, as they further test their results with additional subjects for verification.

Collaborating with Lust, a professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology, were Cornell senior research associate Charles R. Henderson, Jordan Whitlock ’11, Alex Immerman ’08, Aileen Costigan and James Gair, professor emeritus of linguistics. Collaborators from other institutions were Suzanne Flynn, M.A. ’80, Ph.D. ’83, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Janet Cohen Sherman, Ph.D. ’83, and Sarah Mancuso, Massachusetts General Hospital; and Zhong Chen, Rochester Institute of Technology.

Research was funded, in part, by Hatch Grants and Federal Formula Funds, as well as grants from the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging, and Cornell’s Institute for the Social Sciences.

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from Cornell Chronicle, August 6, 2012


 Children often use language differently than adults when referring to a person or thing, which can result in misleading testimony, according to a new Cornell study.

"This is the first study to examine developmental differences in referential language ability as a factor in children's ability to provide accurate testimony," said Stephen Ceci, professor of human development in Cornell's College of Human Ecology. He co-authored the study, which appears in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology (33:4), with lead author David Battin, Ph.D. '04, assistant professor at SUNY Institute of Technology, and Barbara Lust, professor of human development, also in the College of Human Ecology.

For the study, 63 children from 3 to 10 years old were shown a four-minute video in which a woman knocked down a stack of empty cans after being asked not to. The researchers compared the ability of the younger children (3-5 years old) with older children (6-10 years old) to explain who did it.

Children as old as 10 used words such as "a," "the" and "they" to refer to the woman. Small changes in the use of these words have big consequences in terms of meaning, including number and specificity, which is critical for legal testimony, the researchers said. Furthermore, the younger children were often incapable of correcting their misleading statements during follow-up questioning, because they don't understand what information listeners need for clarity. Overall, 13 percent of the younger children and 63 percent of the older children provided the information necessary for accurate identification of the wrong-doer.

"We found children lead adult conversational partners astray by using the definite article ['the'] to introduce a new person or a thing when they should have used the indefinite article ['a']," said Battin. "But, the big surprise in this research was the very high rate at which both younger and older children initially used the plural pronoun 'they' to refer to the person who committed the highly salient and disallowed act of knocking the cans down," he said.

Ceci, who has consulted for law enforcement and the legal system for several decades, elaborated: "When police interview young children in a suspected day care abuse investigation, they can be seriously misled when child after child keeps referring to the suspected perpetrator as 'they' rather than 'he' or 'she.' It can lead to the pursuit of multiple perpetrators when the actual situation had only one."

This research was funded by the Cornell Cognitive Studies Program.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

By Karene Booker
Reprinted from the Cornell Chronicle, October 31, 2011

Sri-Lankan child with researcher

Kamal de Abrew, Cornell Ph.D. '81, and a professor at the American National College in Sri Lanka, tests a child in the acquisition of the Sinhala language. Photo by James Gair

A new generation of cybertools developed at Cornell will help researchers share and analyze rare Sri Lankan language recordings important for studying language acquisition in children.

The Sinhala language, only spoken on the island of Sri Lanka, is "very precious" because of the unique way it is structured, said project leader Barbara Lust, professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology and director of the Cornell Language Acquisition Lab. It provides an invaluable opportunity to research which aspects of language acquisition are universal or biologically programmed and which are culturally determined, she said.

The electronic tools, which were developed in collaboration with Cornell's language acquisition program and other U.S. and international researchers, will be particularly helpful to researchers studying the world's nearly 7,000 languages, Lust said. "They may facilitate widespread archiving and research collaboration across languages and teach a new generation of students the collaborative process of data collection and data management, aided by these tools."

Lust's research team has partnered with Cornell's Albert R. Mann Library, where the Sinhala child language data archive is being used to test Internet-based data sharing tools. Using specialized software, semantic Web technologies and sound metadata systems and standards, the library's DataStaR project is designed to help researchers store, share and combine their data more easily, making it available for further analysis.

Of interest not only to language scholars but also to psychologists, anthropologists and scholars of South Asian studies, the Sinhala child language data include more than 150 hours of audio recordings from about 450 Sri Lankan children aged 2 to 6 years of age, collected between 1980 and 1989. The audio samples, including both natural speech and experimentally elicited sentences, are accompanied by transcriptions in Sinhala and English.

"This project would never have developed without the world-renown program of Sinhala linguistic study developed here at Cornell by Professor Emeritus James Gair and all the students who were part of that project," said Lust, also crediting Cornell undergraduates as being critical to the archiving process, and Maria Blume, Ph.D. '02, now assistant professor at University of Texas at El Paso, who led much of the cybertool development and is now developing a similar Spanish database.

The project was supported by the National Science Foundation and the American Institute of Sri Lankan Studies.

Karene Booker is an extension support specialist in the Department of Human Development.

Related Links:
Barbara Lust
Virtual Center for Language Acquisition
Albert R. Mann Library DataStaR project
College of Human Ecology

By:  Aileen Costigan

CLAL members of the Alzheimer's project

CLAL members of the Alzheimer's project

A known side-effect of healthy aging is having trouble finding the right word to say. But some older adults experience more rapid decline or other language difficulties not typically found in healthy aging.

A pilot study led by Barbara Lust, professor of human development and director of the Cornell Language Acquisition Laboratory, with collaborators Dr. Janet Cohen Sherman at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Professor Suzanne Flynn at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggests that older adults with early Alzheimer’s disease may be especially prone to difficulty constructing complex sentences as well as finding words. Such language problems make daily communication difficult and may also be an early marker for Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive impairments. 

“There is a distinct gap in the research on language decline in those with clinical conditions,” said Lust.  “Several studies have raised the possibility that very early Alzheimer’s disease may be associated with deterioration in written language as seen in the works of popular authors such as Iris Murdoch. One unique contribution of our project is that we are looking at what is happening in spoken language.  Another is that we are looking at sentence formation.”

Lust and the other researchers in the Cornell Language Acquisition Lab (CLAL) and the Virtual Center for Language Acquisition (VCLA) are comparing language and cognitive abilities in three groups: healthy aging adults, adults with signs of mild cognitive impairment, and young college-aged controls. Participants are asked to repeat a series of sentences and are tested on the accuracy of their repetition. So far they have tested 40 participants and they plan to test more.

Preliminary results show that the declines found in language abilities may be separate from declines in overall cognition (e.g., memory). Specifically, those with mild cognitive impairment show particular challenges with vocabulary (e.g., word finding difficulties, word substitutions) and in certain types of complex sentence formation.

Results from this research, may shed light on the mechanisms of language decline and lead to techniques for early diagnosis and interventions for both healthy and cognitively impaired older adults.

“We are also planning to compare our findings in older adults to language development in young children,” said Aileen Costigan, project manager of the Alzheimer’s project. “If the results are the same in the young and older populations, this could help us determine how language decline is likely to occur with older adults and people with Alzheimer’s disease.  We may then know more about what to expect as the disease progresses.”

The Cornell Language Acquisition Lab, led by Lust and her collaborators, Dr. Cohen Sherman, Professor Flynn, and undergraduate Jordan Whitlock, is a collaborative, interdisciplinary group of researchers, educators, and students. Together with faculty, a talented group of undergraduate students from across the University is actively engaged in gathering and analyzing the pilot data and presenting the results in regional and national conferences.

“The Alzheimer’s language project has given me the opportunity to become deeply involved in the research process beyond what I expected as an undergraduate student. I expect to use the skills I’ve developed in data analysis, management, and interdisciplinary collaboration as I enter graduate school next year,” said Jordan Whitlock, a senior majoring in Linguistics and Cognitive Studies in the College of Arts & Sciences and planning to enter the Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology program at Harvard-MIT’s Division of Health Sciences & Technology.

This research is supported in part by the Cornell Bronfenbrenner Center for Life Course Development, Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging [CITRA] Pilot Study Program, Cornell University Cognitive Science program, Cornell University Institute for Social Sciences, and Hatch Grant/Federal Formula Funds.

Aileen Costigan, Ph.D., is the project manager of the Alzheimer’s language project and researcher in the Cornell Language Acquisition Laboratory. 


Jordan WhitlockIs there a way to diagnosis Alzheimer’s disease before the symptoms start?

That is the question Jordan Whitlock, a senior working with Professor Barbara Lust’s research group, is trying to answer. If an earlier diagnosis were possible, then doctors could target this incurable disease in its beginning stages, prior to the onset of severe mental decline and brain damage. The goal of Whitlock’s research is to show if language dete­rioration can be an indicator of the early stages of Alzheimer’s. She says that the “loftiest ideal of this study is to learn about the progression of Alzheimer’s without any genetic testing.”

Professor Lust’s group uses several language testing methods while conducting this study. Whitlock focuses on a technique called Elicited Imitation, where she creates sentences that slightly vary in the specific part of speech she wishes to examine. Then, she will read these sentences aloud to a subject, who will repeat it back after a few moments. Subconsciously, the subject must reconstruct the sentence in their mind before answering.  Read the full story

Karene Booker

Alzheimers is a devastating disease, the more so because the onset can be confusing and difficult to detect.

Barbara Lust, professor of Human Development at Cornell University, and her colleagues want to discover and define changes in language function that occur in early and preclinical Alzheimer’s disease (AD) in order to contrast these changes with those that may occur normally with aging.

With a grant from the Institute for the Social Sciences, and seed grant funding from both CITRA (Cornell Institute for Translational Research) and  BLCC (Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center), the interdisciplinary team will complete collection and analysis of pilot data and share their initial findings. In addition to Barbara Lust, the team includes Janet Sherman, Massachusetts General Hospital; Suzanne Flynn, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Alexander Immerman, Cornell Language Acquisition Lab. For the study, the researchers will administer a set of language and thought tasks to participants and look for differences among three groups: a healthy aging group, a group of patients with early Alzheimers’ Disease, and a group of young adults, 20-29 years old. In addition, a study of the role of bilingualism will be initiated.

Results from the cognitive and linguistic tasks will be correlated to data from a detailed background questionnaire, designed to gather information about potential mediating social and personal factors. This will allow them test a wealth of hypotheses regarding the development and impairment of language and thought in normal aging and clinical AD.

If they find changes in language function in early and preclinical AD, it may facilitate the development of sensitive preclinical diagnostic tools that could aid in early detection of AD and assessment of its progress. In doing so, this project aims to contribute to the  development of appropriate clinical and social interventions.

Human Development Outreach & Extension

Sujin Yang and Barbara Lust

Insights for parents, teachers, educators, and policy makers from research by Dr. Barbara Lust, Professor in the Department of Human Development and Director of the Cornell Language Acquisition Lab and by Dr. Sujin Yang, former Post-Doctoral Research Associate at the Cornell Language Acquisition Lab One of the greatest feats of human development is the acquisition of language. Research at Cornell’s Language Acquisition Lab (CLAL), under the direction of Professor Barbara Lust and her students, addresses many aspects of how children acquire language. The research program explores fundamental questions such as which aspects of language acquisition are biologically endowed and which are learned, when and how language acquisition begins, and how multiple language acquisition affects cognitive development in children. Results from this research demonstrate how well equipped children are, beginning at birth, to accomplish the complex task of learning language.
The Cornell Language Acquisition Lab has long been a center of vigorous research which tries to unlock the mystery of how the child succeeds at this daunting task. At CLAL, language acquisition has been studied in young children across more than 20 different languages and cultures, by teams of graduate and undergraduate students working with collaborators across the world. Now, research within the CLAL is being merged with research being conducted in many other labs in institutions across the country and the world through a new Virtual Center for the study of Language Acquisition. The newly formed center aims to foster interdisciplinary research including diverse fields such as linguistics, developmental and experimental psychology, and neuroscience.

Current Research

Research results from labs across the world shed light on how the child accomplishes the immense task of language acquisition. They leave us in awe of the intellectual accomplishment of each and every child. In her book, Child Language: Acquisition and Growth, published in 2006, Dr. Lust summarizes many of these results. A few of the major discoveries are highlighted below.

Already at birth, even before they speak or understand language, infants begin processing the speech stream around them in order to determine the sounds of the language (phonology), and the form of the phrases and sentences of the language (syntax). By the time they are 12 months of age, they will have ‘cracked the code’ for many of these properties as they get ready to launch into their first produced words. Here they will show they are mapping what they know about the form of language to what language means (semantics). Over the first 12 months, the infant is conducting many different analyses of the speech stream, working on all the dimensions of language at once (phonology, syntax, semantics.)
Once children begin producing their first words and then combining them into sentences, they will show a complex and abstract ability to map between the sounds of language and its meaning. For example, experimental research has shown that children understand ambiguity in language (multiple possible meanings) and that they are constrained against making random ‘mistakes’ with language. When the English experiment shown in the sidebar was replicated with Chinese children in Taiwan, the results were similar, suggesting biological foundations for this knowledge. (Foley et al., 2003; Guo et al., 1996)
By the time the child is about 3 years old, she or he will have mastered much of the basic system of the language around them.
Children are creative with language. They may make certain ‘errors’ compared to adult language, e.g., the child who calls fruits and vegetables all ‘apples’, but these ‘errors’ are common among normally developing children. In fact, they show the child being abstract, categorical and creative with the language they are working on around them (Golinkoff, & Hirsh-Pasek, 1999).

Children understand many meanings of a sentence. For example, given a sentence like “Oscar (O) bites his banana and Bert (B) does too,” four possible interpretations are possible; (1) O bites O’s banana and B bites B’s banana, (2) O bites O’s banana and B bites O’s banana, (3) O bites B’s banana and B bites B’s banana, and (4) O bites Ernie’s (a 3rd persons) and B bites Ernie’s banana. However, there are six impossible interpretations as well such as “O bites B’s banana and B bites O’s banana.” Experiments show that children understand the multiple meanings of such sentences, but do not form the incorrect meanings. (Foley, et al., 2003, Guo et al., 1996).

Research on Multilingualism in Children

In the CLAL, in conjunction with the VCLA, several research projects are underway which study various aspects of the development of bilingualism/ multilingualism in the young child. One set of studies involves longitudinal case studies of several young children acquiring English for the first time at 3 years of age through immersion in local nursery schools, such as the Cornell Early Childhood Center at Cornell as well as others. Results show that children learning a second language in an immersion setting show an overall success rate of grammatical knowledge similar to English monolinguals. Initial deficit in vocabulary (word learning) was followed by a fast pace of development, ultimately reaching the monolingual mean. Children’s pragmatic competence (e.g., the ability to initiate or join a conversation with peers) progressed slowly during early exposure (e.g., 8th month) but at the later point (e.g., 18th month) considerable improvement over time and many similarities with English monolinguals were displayed.
Another path of research studies children who are developing bilingually and assesses the cognitive effects of bilingualism as compared to monolingualism. This research touches on the ongoing debate as to whether positive or negative cognitive consequences follow from dual or multiple language acquisition during early childhood. A series of research investigations led by Dr. Sujin Yang with children of 4 to 6 years of age and comparison adult groups have been conducted to learn whether learning two languages leads to beneficial outcomes in what is called, “executive function.” These cognitive features in children are of particular interest since they are responsible for selective and conscious cognitive processes to achieve goals in the face of distraction and play a key role in academic readiness and success in school settings (Blair & Razza, 2007, Diamond et al., 2007). Using a neuropsychological and behavioral measure with Korean-English bilinguals, results have already revealed that bilingualism enhances the development of executive attention and facilitates superior performance in bilinguals as compared to monolingual counterparts on executive attention test. (Yang and Lust 2005, 2007; Yang, 2007).
This collection of multilingualism projects, along with many research results from other labs across the world, affirms that children can learn more than one language and they will even do so naturally if surrounded by the languages (Espinosa, 2008; see Flynn, 2003 for third language acquisition). Although some parents and educators may have concerns about the potential for confusion, bilingual children do not suffer language confusion, language delay, or cognitive deficit (Werker, & Byes-Heinlein, 2008; Petitto & Holowka, 2002; Yang & Lust, 2005; Yang, 2007). The mystery of first language acquisition is intensified when we realize that a child can and does naturally acquire more than one language at once.
Tips for parents

♦ Surround the child with as much rich language and language exchange as possible, beginning from birth.

♦ Children learn not only from language you address to them, but from language they overhear around them (Au, Knightly, Jun, & Oh, 2002). Linguistic interaction, can add positive effects on linguistic development.

♦ Although exposure to language is essential, explicit “drilling” is not needed for the normally developing child; parents will not be ‘teaching’ the child so much as the child will discover language; they are as one scholar put it “spontaneous apprentices” (Miller, 1976).

♦ Read to children, encourage them to talk about what is read, and surround them with language through literacy.

♦ Share with your child the joy of words and language.
Raising a Bilingual Child

♦ Cognitive advantages follow from becoming bilingual. These cognitive advantages can contribute to your child’s future academic success.

♦ Social advantages follow from becoming bilingual. By fostering bilingualism (or multilingualism) in your child you make it possible for them to access other cultures and other worlds in ways monolinguals cannot.

♦ Learning and exposure to another language at an early age may produce the best outcomes in attaining native-like language proficiency

♦ Developing bilingualism (or multilingualism) does not impede language acquisition in any language.

♦ Conscious planning and effort may be needed in order to provide the child with an environment that will support more than one language.

♦ Surround the child with more than one language through conversations and social groups using different languages; the earlier the better.

♦ Maintain home (heritage) language when a 2nd language is being learned outside the home.

♦ Expose children to live multilingual settings, often with peers (e.g., play groups).

♦ Provide fun and interactive language learning environments in both languages, often with peers (e.g., music, dance, and film).

♦ Promote reading and story-telling in multiple languages.

♦ Maintain a positive attitude toward languages/cultures children learn.

♦ You do not need to maintain a one person-one language situation; your child will sort out the languages by themselves.

Worried About Delays or Dysfunctions?

♦ Be certain that your child’s hearing has been tested

♦ Be aware that there are large differences in the rate at which children reach their first words or first sentences. These developmental differences are generally perfectly normal.

♦ During the first few years of life, it takes time and a lot of cognitive work on the part of your child to acquire languages. This is essentially challenging since your child is acquiring everything else about the world at the same time.

♦Consult a professional if you are in doubt or concerned.
Further Resources

Cornell Language Acquisition Laboratory

Virtual Center for Language Acquisition

Multilingualism Matters

Bilingual Families Web Site

Au, T. K., Knightly, L. M., Jun, S.-A., & Oh, J. S. (2002). Overhearing a language during childhood. Psychological Science, 13, 238-243.

Blair, C. & Razza, R. P. (2007). Relating effortful control, executive function, and false belief understanding to emerging math and literacy ability in kindergarten, Child Development, 78, 647-663.

Diamond, A., Barnett, W.S., Thomas, J., & Munro, S. (2007). Preschool program improves cognitive control, Science, 318, 1387-1388.

Espinosa, L. (2008). Challenging Common Myths about Young English Language Learners. (FDC Policy Brief, Advancing PI-3, No. 8). New York: Foundation for Child Development.

Flynn, S. (2003). Simultaneous vs Sequential Third Language Acquisition Among Children. In Cohen, J., McAlister, K., Rolstad, K., & MacSwan, J. (eds). Selected Papers from the 4th International Symposium on Bilignualism (pp. 768-774). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.

Foley, C., Nunez del Prado, Q., Barbier, I & Lust, B. (2003). Knowledge of Variable Binding in VP Ellipsis: Language Acquisition Research and Theory Converge. Syntax, 6(1), 52-83.

Golinkoff, R.M. & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (1999). How Babies Talk. New York: Penguin Books.

Guo, F., Foley, C., Chien, Y-C, Lust, B. & Chiang, C-P. (1996). Operator Variable Binding in the Initial State. A Cross linguistic study of VP ellipsis structures in Chinese and English. In
Lucus, A. & Paul, W. (eds). Cahiers de Linguistique Asie Orientale 25(1), 3-34.

Lust, B. (2006). Child Language: Acquisition and Growth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Miller, G. A. (1976). Spontaneous apprentices: Children and language. New York: Seabury Press.

Petitto, L. A., & Holowka, S. (2002). Evaluating attributions of delay and confusion in young bilinguals: Special insights from infants acquiring a signed and spoken language. Sign Language Studies, 3, 4-33.

Werker, J. & Byes-Heinlein, K. (2008). Bilingualism in Infancy: First Steps in Perception and Comprehension. Trends in Cognitive Science, 12(4), 144-151.

Yang, S. & Lust, B. (2004). Testing effects of bilingualism on executive attention: comparison of cognitive performance on two non-verbal tests. Poster session presented at the Boston University Conference on Language Development 29, Boston, MA. Retrieved from

Yang, S. & Lust, B. (2007). Cross-linguistic differences in cognitive effects due to bilingualism: Experimental study of lexicon and executive attention in two typologically distinct language groups. Proceedings of the Boston University Conference on Language Development (BUCLD) 31. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.

Yang, S. (2007). Impacts of Early Childhood Bilingualism on the Development of Executive Attention: Evidence from the Attention Network Test (ANT). Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Cornell University.

Yip, V. & Matthews, S. (2007). The Bilingual Child: Early Development and Language Contact. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Recommended Readings

Baker, C. (2000). The Care and Education of Young Bilinguals: An introduction for professionals. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Bialystok, E. & Hakuta, K. (1995). In Other Words: The science and psychology of second-language acquisition. New York: Harper Collins.

Grosjean, F. (1982). Life with Two Languages. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pearson, B.Z. (2008). Raising a Bilingual Child: A step-by-step guide for parents. New York: Living Language.

Tabors, P.O. (1997). One Child, Two Languages. A Guide for preschool Educators. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Company.

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