In Brief

  • Contrary to popular belief, music lessons may not make you smarter, finds a study at Harvard University.Contrary to popular belief, music lessons may not make you smarter, finds a study at Harvard University. Researchers randomly assigned 4-year-olds and their parents to 45-minute music or art classes, both taught by the same instructor. After six weeks of classes, the researchers tested the children on core mathematical skills, spatial navigation and linguistic abilities. Children from the music class showed greater spatial-navigational ability than those from the visual arts class, they found. However, a replication of the experiment that compared music class participants to a no-treatment control failed to confirm these findings. Overall, children who took music classes performed no better than those with visual arts or no classes on any cognitive assessments (PLOS ONE, Dec. 11).
  • Parental stress is linked to weight gain in children, according to a study conducted at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto. The researchers examined body mass index data of 5,500 children and asked parents to a complete a questionnaire asking about their stress levels and their ability to control important things in their lives over the past month. The study found that children whose parents had high stress levels had BMIs about 2 percent higher than children whose parents had low stress levels. Children with higher parental stress also gained 7 percent more weight during the study period than other children. These results are significant, say the authors, because the children's eating and exercise habits are still developing, and if these trends continue, the children could face obesity problems later in life (Pediatric Obesity, online Dec. 5).
  • Stepping away from media coverage of terrorist attacks or mass shootings may benefit your mental health, finds research conducted at the University of California, Irvine. Scientists surveyed a national sample of 4,675 adults two to four weeks after the 2013 Boston Marathon to assess acute stress responses to the bombings, the degree of direct exposure to the bombings, indirect exposure through media and prior exposure to other recent community-based traumas. Among other results, they found that participants exposed to six or more hours a day of bombing-related media coverage were nine times more likely to report high acute stress than those with less than one hour of daily media exposure (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, online Dec. 9).
  • Priming people to think about money makes them more likely to cheat, according to a study conducted at the Harvard Business School. Across four experiments, participants completed word scrambles, song lyric searching and counting tasks designed to implicitly activate the concept of money, time or something neutral. Participants then worked on several puzzles, receiving money for each puzzle they reported solving. The researchers staged the puzzle worksheets so that it seemed as though participants could easily cheat and overstate their performances. The researchers found that nearly 90 percent of participants who were primed to think of money cheated on the puzzles, compared with only 67 percent of those primed with neutral words. Conversely, only 42 percent of the participants primed with the concept of time overstated their performance on the task (Psychological Science, online Dec. 6).
  • iPads and other tablet devices can improve students' understanding of challenging scientific concepts, according to a study at Harvard University. The researchers looked at gains in learning among 152 high school students who used iPads to explore virtual 3-D simulations of the solar system, and compared them with 1,184 students who used more traditional instructional approaches. They found that students' understanding of the scale and spatial relationships of the solar system improved with as little as 20 minutes of iPad use, whereas those who learned via traditional classroom approaches showed no evident gain in understanding (Computers and Education, January).
  • The brains of infants who carry a gene associated with an increased risk for Alzheimer's disease develop differently than those of babies who don't have the gene, according to a study led by scientists at Brown University. The brains of infants who carry a gene associated with an increased risk for Alzheimer's disease develop differently than those of babies who don't have the gene, according to a study led by scientists at Brown University. Researchers examined the DNA of 162 healthy babies age 2 months to 25 months to see which variant of the apolipoprotein E (APOE) gene they carried. Then, using a special MRI technique designed to study sleeping infants, researchers compared the brains of the study's 60 E4 carriers — the variant linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease — with non-carriers. They found that children with the APOE E4 gene tended to have increased brain growth in areas in the frontal lobe and decreased growth in the middle and rear of the brain — areas that tend to be affected in older adults who have Alzheimer's disease. The authors note that this discovery is neither diagnostic nor predictive of disease development, but suggest it may be a step toward understanding how the gene variant APOE E4 leads to disease risk later in life (JAMA Neurology, online Nov. 25).
  • Prenatal exposure to alcohol severely disrupts brain development and could lead to more anxiety and poor motor functions, finds research at the University of California, Riverside. In the study, the neuroscientists found dramatic changes in the development of a network of connections in the brain's neocortex — the part of the brain responsible for higher-level sensory, motor, emotional and cognitive processes — in mice born to mothers who consumed ethanol during pregnancy. Alcohol exposure also affected the expression of genes known to be involved in brain development. These findings reinforce concerns about alcohol consumption during pregnancy in humans, the authors say (The Journal of Neuroscience, Nov. 27).
  • Conjuring up a visual image, like a sunny day or a night sky, has a corresponding effect on the size of our pupils, finds a study at the University of Oslo. The researchers asked participants to look at a screen while triangles of different levels of brightness appeared. Later, the researchers used an eye-tracking device to monitor participants' pupil size when they were asked to imagine those triangles. The researchers found that when participants imagined the brighter triangles, their pupils were smaller, and when imagining darker triangles, their pupils were larger (Psychological Science, online Nov. 27).
  • Female and male brains really are different, finds a study at the University of Pennsylvania. The researchers used diffusion tensor imaging to examine the brains of 949 children and young adults. They found that females had more connections between the two brain hemispheres than males. The researchers also found that males had more connective fibers within each hemisphere than females. These findings suggest that, in general, females might be better suited for multitasking and analytical thought, which requires coordination of activity in both hemispheres. Males, in turn, may tend to be more apt at focused tasks that require attention to one thing at a time (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, online Dec. 2).
  • Premarital education increases couples' later use of counseling, especially among high-risk populations, finds research led by University of California, Los Angeles psychologists. Investigators asked 2,126 married people whether they participated in premarital education or in couples therapy after they married. The researchers found that people who received premarital education were more likely to pursue couples counseling later on. The association was strongest for blacks and people with lower incomes and less formal education (Journal of Family Psychology, online Dec. 2).
  • People with post-traumatic stress disorder are more likely to have heart disease, according to research led by University of California, San Francisco, researchers. The study looked at 663 outpatients from two VA medical centers, who completed questionnaires and a blood test to determine their risk factors for cardiovascular disease. The researchers detected the presence of heart disease in 17 percent of participants with PTSD, but only in 10 percent of those without PTSD, even after controlling for cardiac risk factors, health behaviors such as alcohol use and sleep quality, and depression (Biological Psychiatry, December).
  • ADHD is linked to social and economic disadvantages, suggests a study led by researchers at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. The investigators analyzed data from more than 19,500 UK children born from 2000 to 2002, gathered when the children were 9 months old, and again at ages 3, 5, 7 and 11. The researchers found that more children with ADHD came from families below the poverty line than the UK population as a whole. The study also showed that parents living in subsidized housing were three times more likely to have a child with ADHD than parents who owned their own homes. They also found that younger mothers, those without degrees and single parents were significantly more likely to have children with ADHD (Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, online Nov. 26).
  • Suicide attempts early in life are linked to lifelong health and economic struggles, finds a study led by Duke University researchers. The study tracked more than 1,000 New Zealanders from birth to age 38 and found that those who attempted suicide before age 24 were twice as likely as their peers to develop metabolic syndrome in their 30s and had significantly higher levels of systemic inflammation. They were also three times more likely to have been hospitalized for a mental health problem, 2.5 times more likely to be convicted of a violent crime, consumed twice as much welfare support and were unemployed for twice as many months as the other study participants (JAMA Psychiatry, online Dec. 4).
  • Daily online testing boosts college performance and reduces achievement gaps, according to University of Texas at Austin psychologists. In their study, 901 introductory psychology students took brief multiple-choice quizzes on their laptops or tablets at the beginning of every class. The researchers compared these students' performance on the quizzes with 935 students enrolled in a previous, more traditional introductory psychology class, in which four exams accounted for the bulk of the final grade. The researchers found exam performance was about half a letter grade higher among the daily quiz cohort, and that these students also did better in other classes, both in the same semester and in subsequent semesters. They also found that daily quizzing resulted in a 50 percent reduction in the achievement gap as measured by grades among students of different socioeconomic status, and that the quizzes encouraged students to attend classes at much higher rates (PLoS ONE, Nov. 20).
  • Seeing just one pro-smoking message increases college-aged students' risk of using tobacco for seven days, according to a study led by psychologists at the RAND Corp. The researchers provided hand-held devices to 134 Pittsburgh college students — both nonsmokers and regular and occasional smokers — and asked them to document their exposure to pro-smoking media messages over a three-week period. The researchers found that after exposure to a single pro-smoking media message, the students' smoking intentions immediately increased by an average of 22 percent. Although the students' smoking intentions decreased with each passing day, they remained elevated for a full seven days (Journal of Adolescent Health, online Nov. 20).
  • Longer maternity leaves lower women's risk of postpartum depression, according to a study led by University of Maryland researchers. The study followed a group of more than 800 women in Minnesota over the course of the first postpartum year, with data on depressive symptoms and mental and physical health gathered at six weeks, 12 weeks, six months and 12 months postpartum. At six weeks, 12 weeks and six months, the women who were on maternity leave had significantly lower depression scores compared with their peers who had returned to work. The study also found that mothers who took a longer leave were also healthier once they returned to work (Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law, online Dec 4).
  • Children with autism learn better social skills when their peers invite them to play, according to a study by Vanderbilt University researchers. Children with autism learn better social skills when their peers invite them to play, according to a study by Vanderbilt University researchers. They studied more than 30 peer interactions in children ages 8 to 12 on a real playground by using remotely operated cameras and battery-operated microphones. In the study, a typically developing child with an ear microphone was directed by the researchers and was trained to invite a child with autism and another child without autism to play. The study found that while the children with autism initiated and engaged in less play overall than typically developing children, other children could facilitate and increase interactions with simple requests to play. Another portion of the study found that children with autism experienced more stress during social interactions than children without autism. It also found that children with higher cortisol levels showed less motivation to play with the other children (Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, online Dec. 12).

—Amy Novotney