Research Roundup

Animal faces

Concussions spell double trouble for soldiers

While most people fully recover from a concussion within three to six months, soldiers who suffer concussions in battle can experience symptoms for years following the injury, says Michael K. Rauls, an experimental psychology student at Augusta State University in Augusta, Ga. According to research he presented at APA's 2010 Annual Convention, combat-related stress may prolong soldiers' recovery, and, at the same time, concussions may hamper soldiers' ability to recover from stress.

In his research, Rauls examined post-combat medical records from 40 soldiers to inventory their executive functioning, memory, information processing skills and attention spans. He also inventoried the soldiers' reports of chronic pain, sleep problems and anxiety following combat.

Rauls found that the soldiers who complained the most of insomnia and anxiety also reported the most problems with chronic pain, especially headaches. In addition, the soldiers with no concussions reported significantly less pain and fewer sleep problems, while those with concussions tended also to experience depression, combat-related anxiety and high levels of chronic pain. The soldiers with past concussions also reported higher levels of post-traumatic stress disorder than other soldiers.

The results suggest that concussions may magnify or worsen the psychological effects of combat stress, perhaps increasing the likelihood of PTSD, Rauls says.

"Right now, a common impression among military psychologists is that [many] people are overplaying symptoms of combat-related stress, including PTSD and concussion, especially because their memory of traumatic events has a history of changing," said Rauls. "But a concussion coupled with a traumatic combat experience may be responsible for a lot of these cases."

They can see ewe

To the average adult, most animal faces look the same. But research has shown that 4- to 6-month-old infants can recognize subtle differences in the faces of primates, dogs and cats.

One problem with these studies, however, is that they tend to use faces with which infants may already be familiar, such as domesticated animals or human-like primate faces. To test the limits of infants' abilities, University of Georgia neuroscience and behavior student Elizabeth Simpson designed a study to see how babies did with sheep.

She used two sets of 26 infants; one group was 4 to 6 months old, and the second group was 9 to 11 months old. First, Simpson showed each group a photo of one sheep for 20 seconds. Then she showed them that photo alongside a new one for four seconds.

Simpson found that the younger infants all stared at the new face longer, and, because infants spend more time looking at novel stimuli, that means they differentiated between the new and old faces. The older group, in contrast, stared at the new and old faces for roughly equal amounts of time, showing no preference for the new or old.

"Face recognition prepares infants to recognize the world they first encounter," says Simpson. "As infants grow, they become accustomed to human faces, and their ability to spot slight differences in animal faces declines."

Infants recognize subtle differences in sheep's faces.

Strong friendships help teens overcome adversity

Adolescents are like a car without a good brake, says Kathryn Monahan, PhD, a postdoctoral student at the University of Washington. "They can get into a lot of risky situations, including unsafe sex, driving and substance use," she says.

Could healthy, strong social skills and friendships help explain why some kids excel during adolescence while others get involved in dangerous activities? Monahan sought to find out by analyzing data from the Eunice K. Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development for her dissertation at Temple University.

She examined data collected from 592 children 41/2 to 15 years of age, to see how social competence varied among children who changed schools or entered puberty before or after their peers. Interestingly, she found a child's level of peer social competence can help and hurt. For children who already have strong peer social skills, challenges such as moving or early puberty increased their social competence. The children who already struggled with poor peer relations actually worsened in the face of these challenges, she says.

Monahan's research helps explain conflicting research that found that children's social competence can either improve or decline during school changes and puberty. Because social competence in childhood predicts successful development when facing the challenges of adolescence, therapists and teachers may want to promote social competence in early childhood. Monahan presented her research at APA's 2010 Annual Convention in San Diego in August, where she received a Div. 7 (Developmental) Award for Outstanding Dissertation.

Polly wants to practice

A toddler who is learning to organize words and phrases will often practice speaking when left alone, a tendency that many believed to be uniquely human. But a study by the University of Georgia's Erin Colbert-White has challenged that assumption: She found that African gray parrots may also engage in self-speech that is functionally and structurally similar to that of children.

"We're not alone, and we're not as special as we thought," says Colbert-White, who presented her research at the International Conference on Comparative Cognition and the Southeastern Conference on Linguistics in March. "Other animals can do fascinating things, like practicing a completely foreign communications system when there's no reward for doing it."

To compare parrot and child self-speech, Colbert-White analyzed four hours of recordings of Emily, a 2-year-old girl, and four hours of Cosmo, a parrot. Colbert-White found that, when left alone, both the bird and the child corrected their language mistakes. For example, Cosmo was recorded saying "Betty has feathers and Cosmo has hair," before whistling and correcting the sentence. Emily engaged in similar exercises, correcting her words and phrases for pronunciation and syntax.

That said, Emily was more likely to use her vocabulary to create complex sentences with prepositions and conjunctions. Cosmo generally used nouns and created gibberish from a smaller pool of words, Colbert-White found.

"We think of [African gray] parrots as pets," says Colbert-White, "but they are a lot smarter than we give them credit for."