1. Exercising can protect the brain from Alzheimer’s disease

    May 26, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of British Columbia Okanagan campus press release:

    The evidence is clear. Physical activity is associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease, says a panel of researchers and not-for-profit leaders, led by UBC’s Okanagan campus.

    The researchers also confirmed that regular physical activity may improve the performance of daily activities for people afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Their conclusions may have significant implications for the 1.1 million Canadians affected directly or indirectly by dementia.

    “As there is no current cure for Alzheimer’s, there is an urgent need for interventions to reduce the risk of developing it and to help manage the symptoms,” says study first author Kathleen Martin Ginis, professor in UBC Okanagan’s School of Health and Exercise Sciences. “After evaluating all the research available, our panel agrees that physical activity is a practical, economical and accessible intervention for both the prevention and management of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.”

    Martin Ginis and her cohort reviewed data from more than 150 research articles about the impact of physical activity on people with Alzheimer’s. Some of the work explored how physical activity improves the patient’s quality of life and the others examined the risk of developing Alzheimer’s based on the amount of activity in which an individual participated.

    The panel concluded that regular physical activity improves activities of daily living and mobility in in older adults with Alzheimer’s and may improve general cognition and balance. They also established that older adults not diagnosed with Alzheimer’s who are physically active, were significantly less likely to develop the disease compared to people who were inactive.

    “This is exciting work,” says Martin Ginis. “From here we were able to prepare a consensus statement and messaging which not only has community backing, but is also evidence-based. Now we have the tool to promote the protective benefit of physical activity to older adults. I’m hopeful this will move the needle on this major health concern.”

    Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, characterized by progressive neurodegeneration that results in severe cognitive impairment, compromised physical ability and loss of independence. The number of worldwide cases is expected to increase from 30.8 million in 2010 to more than 106 million in 2050.


  2. Cognitive scientist suggests numerical cognition is not biologically endowed

    by Ashley

    From the University of California San Diego press release:

    Clocks and calendars, sports scores and stock-market tickers — our society is saturated with numbers. One of the first things we teach our children is to count, just as we teach them their ABCs. But is this evidence of a biological drive? No, says cognitive scientist Rafael Nunez of the University of California San Diego. It is evidence of our cultural preoccupations. “Numerical cognition,” he says, “is not biologically endowed.”

    Writing in the June 2017 issue of Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Nunez takes on the conventional wisdom in the field right now — a widely accepted view in cognitive neuroscience, child psychology and animal cognition that there is a biologically evolved capacity for number and arithmetic that we share with other species.

    For example, Alex the African grey parrot wowed millions with his mathematical genius, not only on YouTube and TV but in scientific journals as well. Respected researchers are publishing studies suggesting that not only Alex but an incredible array of other animals can deal with numbers, too, from our evolutionary cousins the chimpanzees to more distant relatives like newborn chicks, salamanders and even mosquitofish. Human babies have also been shown to discriminate between different quantities at ages so young that it would seem language and culture couldn’t have yet played much of a role.

    That all points to a primordial ability for math, right? We’re wired for it like we are for language? Not so fast, says Nunez, professor of cognitive science in the UC San Diego Division of Social Sciences and director of the Embodied Cognition Laboratory.

    He believes that part of the problem is muddled terminology. There is a difference, he says, between number and quantity, between doing math and perceiving relative amounts of things. We — human and nonhuman animals alike — do seem to have a shared ability, grounded in our biology and helped along by evolutionary pressures, to tell apart “some” and “many” or even small amounts of something. But numbers, more strictly speaking, he says, need a symbolic system and the scaffold of culture.

    In the same issue of the journal, neuroscientist Andreas Nieder writes a rebuttal to Nunez. And Nunez, in turn, rebuts the rebuttal. Is this an argument for the birds, though? A debate only a specialist could love? Nunez says the implications go far beyond the field. As society seeks to apply findings from neuroscience to solve problems in education, for example, we need a clearer view of where to look for solutions.

    To support his argument that we and other animals don’t have an evolved capacity for number per se, Nunez cites several different strands of research in the current literature, including experimental work with humans from non-industrialized cultures, which suggests an imprecise approach to quantity.

    Many of the world’s languages, he points out, don’t bother with exact terms for numbers larger than a few and rely on quantifiers like “several” or “many.” People can get along surprisingly well with just those kinds of words and occasional linguistic emphasis like “really” to distinguish between “a lot” and “really a lot.” A survey of 193 hunter-gatherer languages from different continents found that most of these languages stop at the number five or below: 61 percent in South America, 92 percent in Australia and 41 percent in Africa. Nunez suspects that until the need arose to make precise counts of commodities, most humans throughout history just worked with “natural quantifiers.”

    He points also to brain-imaging research that shows native speakers of Chinese and native speakers of English process the same Arabic numerals in different parts of their brains, suggesting that language and culture influence even which neurons are recruited to deal with numbers.

    According to Nunez, as much as we might be wowed by what some trained animals can do, we have to remember that doesn’t necessarily point back to an evolved capacity. They are trained over many hours and months, and they’re trained by humans. “A circus seal may jump through a burning ring but it doesn’t tell us anything about the animal’s ability to deal with fire in its natural environment,” he said.

    To drive home his point about humans, Nunez uses what he describes as the “absurd” analogy of snowboarding. To be able to snowboard, we need our biology- “we need our limbs and our vestibular system for balance, we need optic flow navigation, but those don’t give an account of snowboarding and no one argues that we evolved to do it.” Without a culture that allows for thermal suits and ski lifts, he said, we wouldn’t be on the slopes at all.

    Nunez calls on researchers to become more precise with their terms and suggests that it could be productive to investigate “what seems to be nearly universal in human cultures and in many nonhuman animals too: a ‘quantical‘ ability and not a numerical one.”

    “Quantical skills,” he said, are a good candidate for more intensive study and might even be informative for education. We study early ability to count and draw correlations with later achievement in school. Perhaps there are even stronger correlations with the ability to quantify, he said.


  3. Spread of tau protein measured in brains of Alzheimer’s patients

    May 25, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Karolinska Institutet press release:

    In a new study presented in Molecular Psychiatry, researchers at Karolinska Institutet have measured how deposits of the pathological protein tau spread through the brain over the course of Alzheimer’s disease. Their results show that the size of the deposit and the speed of its spread differ from one individual to the next, and that large amounts of tau in the brain can be linked to episodic memory impairment.

    Already in a very early phase of Alzheimer’s disease there is an accumulation of tau in the brain cells, where its adverse effect on cell function causes memory impairment. It is therefore an attractive target for vaccine researchers. For the present study, Professor Agneta Nordberg at Karolinska Institutet’s Department of Neurobiology, Care Sciences and Society and her doctoral student Konstantinos Chiotis along with the rest of her team used PET brain imaging to measure the spread of tau deposits as well as the amyloid plaque associated with Alzheimer’s disease, and charted the energy metabolism of the brain cells. They then examined how these three parameters changed over the course of the disease.

    “There’s been an international race to measure tau spread, and we probably got there first,” says Professor Nordberg. “There are no previous reports on how tau deposits spread after 17 months into the disease. Our results can improve understanding of tau accumulation in Alzheimer’s disease, help ongoing research to quantify the effect of tau vaccines, and enable early diagnosis.”

    The study included 16 patients at different stages of Alzheimer’s disease from the memory unit at Karolinska Hospital in Huddinge. The patients were given a series of neurological memory tests and underwent PET scans at 17-month intervals. While all 16 participants had abundant amyloid plaque deposition in the brain, the size and speed of spread of their tau deposits differed significantly between individuals.

    “We also saw a strong direct correlation between size of deposit and episodic memory impairment,” continues Professor Nordberg. “This could explain why the disease progresses at such a varying rate from one patient to the other. That said, tau doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on the global general memory, which is more reasonably related to brain metabolism.”

    The study was conducted in collaboration with Uppsala University, where the PET scans were performed.


  4. Study reassesses Learning Styles

    May 24, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    What is the best way for teachers to teach so students will really learn? That’s an age-old question.

    Since the 1970s, one theory that has been popular among schoolteachers and pervasive in education research literature in the United Kingdom and the United States is the idea of “Learning Styles,” the notion that people can be categorized into one or more ‘styles’ of learning (e.g., Visual, Auditory, Converger) and that teachers can and should tailor their curriculum to suit individual students. The idea is that students will learn more if they are exposed to material through approaches that specifically match their Learning Style.

    But in recent years, many academicians have criticized Learning Styles saying there is no evidence it improves student understanding.

    Now comes a newly published study of 114 academics in higher education in the United Kingdom, led by education researchers Philip M. Newton, Ph.D., and Mahallad Miah, both of the Swansea University Medical School in Swansea, UK. Their study “Evidence-Based Higher Education — Is the Learning Styles ‘Myth’ Important?” was published March 27, 2017, in Frontiers in Psychology.

    Their findings are very interesting. Newton and Miah found while 58% of the academics surveyed believe Learning Styles to be beneficial — only 33% actually used the pedagogical tool.

    In other words, there is something about the idea of individualized education that appeals, but actually administering a Learning Styles questionnaire to students and then tailoring the class curriculum to suit individual students’ personal learning styles is only done by a handful of faculty.

    “There is a mismatch between the empirical evidence and the belief in Learning Styles,” said Newton. “Among those who participated in our study far more reported using a number of techniques that are demonstrably evidence-based.”

    These techniques include: assigning formative assessments (i.e., practice tests), peer teaching (i.e., having students teach each other), working problems and examples aloud, and microteaching (i.e., taking video footage of teachers in training so they can reflect on and adjust how they explain material and interact with students).

    Furthermore, 90% of the faculty surveyed said that Learning Styles as an approach is fundamentally flawed.

    “Learning Styles does not account for the complexity of ‘understanding,'” said Newton. “It is not possible to teach complex concepts such as mathematics or languages by presenting these subjects in only one style. This would be like trying to teach medical students to recognize different heart sounds using visual methods, or teaching them how to recognize different skin rashes using auditory methods.”

    Newton and Miah say those faculty who use Learning Styles may in fact represent certain disciplines or subject areas and that to truly evaluate the usefulness of this teaching method would require demographic studies of faculty. But that may not be worth the investment, they say.

    Part of the issue seems to lie in the fact that many respondents embrace a “looser definition” of Learning Styles, preferring to think of it as an overarching theme or general trend rather than a pedagogical tool. In other words: they operate from the standpoint that individual students have different ‘styles of learning’ — lowercase — but don’t formally change their teaching techniques. This philosophical leaning may also explain why some dedicated faculty continue to ‘believe in’ Learning Styles even when presented with the evidence that it doesn’t work.

    It appears Learning Styles has become more a point of awareness or point of view rather than a teaching tool. Thus, say Newton and Miah, rather than debunking Learning Styles — capital letters — a far better focus for education research would be to promote those evidence-based techniques that survey participants indicated they actually use and that are demonstrably effective.


  5. We buy what we grasp: How our hands lead us to choose certain products

    May 23, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Bocconi University press release:

    The things we touch while shopping can affect what we buy, according to studies by Bocconi Department of Marketing’s Zachary Estes and University of Innsbruck’s Mathias Streicher.

    In “Touch and Go: Merely Grasping a Product Facilitates Brand Perception and Choice,” published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, they conduct a series of experiments and show that blindfolded people induced to grasp familiar products (a bottle of Coke, for example) under the guise of a weight judgement task are then quicker in recognizing the brand name of the product when it slowly appears on a screen, include more frequently the product in a list of brands of the same category, and choose more often that product among others as a reward for having participated in the experiment.

    The authors suggest that tactile exposure to the object “activated the conceptual representation of that object, which then facilitated subsequent processing of the given object.

    In “Multisensory Interaction in Product Choice: Grasping a Product Affects Choice of Other Seen Products,” published in Journal of Consumer Psychology, via another series of experiments, Estes and Streicher demonstrate that grasping an object can facilitate visual processing and choice of other seen products of the same shape and size. “For instance,” explains Estes, “when you’re holding your mobile phone in your hand, you may be more likely to choose a KitKat than a Snickers, because the KitKat is shaped more like your phone. What we find is that consumers are significantly more likely to choose the product that is similar to the shape of whatever is in their hand. For instance, when confronted with a choice between a bottle of Coke and a can of Red Bull, participants who held a bottle of Fanta were more likely to choose a bottle of Coke, but those who held a can of Fanta more often chose the can of Red Bull. These studies show that our hands can lead us to choose certain products.”

    However, there are two caveats to this effect, one situational and one personal. The situational constraint has to do with visual density. That is, some product arrays are very sparse, with plenty of space between the products, whereas others are very dense, with many products placed right next to one another. It turns out that when the visual array is overcrowded the hands have an even larger influence on product choice. “As visual perception becomes less reliable,” the authors write, “tactile perception assumes a greater role in the recognition of object shape.”

    The second constraint is more personal: it depends on one’s “need for touch,” or how much people like to touch products while shopping. Some people really like to pick products up and feel them, and others don’t. As expected, the scholars find that the hands have much more influence on product choice among those consumers who really like to handle products.

    “These results have direct implications for product and package designers and marketing managers,” Estes concludes. “For one thing, distinctive product shapes like Coca-Cola’s iconic bottle design can provide a powerful source of brand identity and recognition. Second, consumers tend to choose products that are shaped like the things they often hold, like a mobile phone, a wallet, or a computer mouse when shopping online. Product designers could create packages that mimic those commonly held forms, and marketing managers can accentuate this effect of product touch by placing several products near one another, and by encouraging consumers to touch the products on display.”


  6. Dad’s involvement with baby early on associated with boost in mental development

    May 22, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Imperial College London press release:

    Fathers who interact more with their children in their first few months of life could have a positive impact on their baby’s cognitive development.

    In a study, published in the Infant Mental Health Journal, researchers from Imperial College London, King’s College London and Oxford University looked at how fathers interacted with their babies at three months of age and measured the infants’ cognitive development more than a year later.

    They found that babies whose fathers were more engaged and active when playing with them in their initial months performed better in cognitive tests at two years of age. The researchers say that while a number of factors are critical in a child’s development, the relatively unexplored link between quality father-infant interactions at a young age may be an important one.

    Professor Paul Ramchandani, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial and who led the research, said: “Even as early as three months, these father-child interactions can positively predict cognitive development almost two years later, so there’s something probably quite meaningful for later development, and that really hasn’t been shown much before.”

    In the study, researchers recorded video of parents interacting with their children, with mothers and fathers playing with their babies without toys, at three months, and then during a book-reading session at two years of age. The videos were then observed independently by trained researchers, with different researchers at three months and 24 months grading the fathers on their interactions.

    At two years of age, they scored the baby’s cognitive development using the standardised Bayley mental development index (MDI) — which involved tasks such as recognising colours and shapes.

    After analysing data for 128 fathers, and accounting for factors such as their income and age, they found a positive correlation between the degree to which dads engaged with their babies and how the children scored on the tests. Dads with more positive outlooks were also more likely to have babies who performed better on the MDI scales.

    What’s more, the positive link between involved dads and higher infant MDI scores were seen equally whether the child was a boy or a girl, countering the idea that play time with dad is more important for boys than girls, at an early age.

    Dr Vaheshta Sethna from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London, said: “We also found that children interacting with sensitive, calm and less anxious fathers during a book session at the age of two showed better cognitive development, including attention, problem-solving, language and social skills. This suggests that reading activities and educational references may support cognitive and learning development in these children.”

    Dr Sethna added: “Our findings highlight the importance of supporting fathers to interact more positively with their children in early infancy. Specifically, considering interventions which encourage increased father-infant engagement with shared positive emotions, and book sharing sessions supportive of cognitive development.”

    While the study provides a window into the effects of dad’s involvement with baby, there were a number of limitations. Parents recruited to the study were drawn from a relatively well educated population. In addition, the measure of interactions were taken from relatively short videos, so may not represent how they interact in other situations.

    The researchers are now working on a trial based on helping parents with their interactions with their children and then giving them positive feedback to help them deal with challenging behaviour.

    Professor Ramchandani concluded: “For those fathers who are more engaged it may be that there is a lot more positive stuff going on in their lives generally. That might be the reason for the link, but we can’t be sure of that. All we can say is that there is a signal here, and it seems to be an important one.

    “The clear message for new fathers here is to get stuck in and play with your baby. Even when they’re really young playing and interacting with them can have a positive effect.”


  7. Study links flower pesticides to neurobehavioral effects in children

    May 21, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of California – San Diego press release:

    Ecuador is the third largest producer of cut flowers in the world, primarily roses, many of which are destined to be sold for Mother’s Day. The industry employs more than 103,000 people, and relies heavily on agricultural pesticides.

    In a paper published in the May 2017 issue of the journal NeuroToxicology, researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Ecuador and Minnesota, have found altered short-term neurological behaviors in children associated with a peak pesticide spraying season linked to the Mother’s Day flower harvest. This study examined children who did not work in agriculture but who lived in agricultural communities in Ecuador.

    “Our findings are among the first in non-worker children to suggest that a peak pesticide use period (the Mother’s Day flower production) may transiently affect neurobehavioral performance,” said first author Jose R. Suarez-Lopez, MD, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

    “Children examined sooner after the flower harvest displayed lower performance on most measures, such as attention, self-control, visuospatial processing (the ability to perceive and interact with our visual world) and sensorimotor (eye-hand coordination) compared to children examined later in a time of lower flower production and pesticide use.”

    “This discovery is novel because it shows that pesticide spray seasons can produce short-term alterations in neurobehavioral performance in addition to the long-term alterations that have been previously described. This is troublesome because the altered mental functions observed are essential for children’s learning, and in May-July, students typically take their end-of-year exams. If their learning and performance abilities are affected in this period, they may graduate from high school with lower scores which may hinder their ability to access higher education or obtain a job.”

    Early exposure to commonly applied agricultural pesticides is associated with neurobehavioral delays in children, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Pesticide exposure has been linked to altered development of reflexes and psychomotor and mental function in newborns. Boys appear more susceptible than girls.

    Suarez-Lopez, who is principal investigator of the ESPINA study, an on-going, long-term study of environmental pollutants and child development in Ecuador, said past animal research had suggested that fluctuating levels of pesticide exposure might also produce corresponding, short-term neurobehavioral effects.

    He and colleagues tested 308 children, ages four to nine, living in floricultural communities in Ecuador (but who did not actually work in agriculture themselves) prior to peak Mother’s Day flower production and within 100 days after harvest. Behavior and blood tests were conducted.

    Organophosphate-based insecticides, commonly used to treat flowers for pests before export, inhibit an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase (AChE) that regulates acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter vital to promoting communications between nerve cells in the brain and body. The insecticides are also directly toxic to neurons and supporting cells called glia. In previous research, Suarez-Lopez and colleagues had shown that lower AChE activity is associated with lower attention, inhibitory control and memory scores, again affecting boys more than girls.

    The authors note that the study was cross-sectional, collecting and analyzing observational data on a representative population for a specific point in time. “Our findings need to be replicated in studies of children with assessments conducted before, during and after peak exposure periods,” said Suarez-Lopez. “But given the evidence thus far, and the potential for pesticide exposure to alter both short- and long-term learning abilities, cognition, social interactions and overall well-being, taking additional precautions to shield children from exposure is certainly advised.”

    Co-authors include: Harvey Checkoway, Wael K. Al-Delaimy, Sheila Gahagan, UC San Diego; and David R. Jacobs, Jr., University of Minnesota.


  8. Study suggests first year of grade school sharpens kids’ attention skills

    May 19, 2017 by Ashley

    From the UC Berkeley press release:

    The first year of elementary school markedly boosts a child’s attentiveness, according to new research from the University of California, Berkeley, and the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

    The study, led by the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, shows that children who transition earlier to a formal school environment learn to be more focused and less impulsive than their peers at play-based preschools. The findings are published today in the online issue of the journal Psychological Science.

    “These results demonstrate for the first time how environmental context shapes the development of brain mechanisms in 5-year-olds transitioning into school,” said study co-author Silvia Bunge, a UC Berkeley professor of psychology and neuroscience.

    Researchers hypothesized that a controlled educational setting in which young children must learn to sit still, follow directions and avoid distractions would boost certain cognitive skills, such as staying on task. The experiment, conducted in Germany where preschool is referred to as “kindergarten,” proved their theory.

    “Our results indicate that the structured learning environment of school has a positive effect on the development of behavioral control,” said study lead author Garvin Brod, a researcher at the German Institute for International Educational Research.

    For the study, researchers used computerized tests and brain imaging to track the cognitive performance of 62 children aged 5. In comparing the results of tests conducted at the beginning and end of a school and preschool year, the study found that the children who had gone to school showed greater improvement than their preschool peers at maintaining focus and following rules.

    Moreover, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of their brains during an attention control task showed the schoolgoers to have a more active right parietal cortex, which supports attentiveness, among other cognitive skills.

    While the findings reveal new information in the ongoing debate over the developmentally appropriate age to start school, the researchers are not necessarily advocating for early school start ages.

    “Those results should not be taken to mean that the elementary school setting is necessarily better for young children’s development than play-based early schooling,” Bunge said, citing research that shows children do well in hands-on, interactive learning environments.

    Moreover, there is enormous developmental variation across children of the same age, she said.


  9. New hope for patients with primary progressive aphasia

    May 18, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care press release:

    A Baycrest Health Sciences researcher and clinician has developed the first group language intervention that helps individuals losing the ability to speak due to a rare form of dementia, and could help patients maintain their communication abilities for longer.

    Primary Progressive Aphasia (PPA) is a unique language disorder that involves struggles with incorrect word substitutions, mispronounced words and/or difficulty understanding simple words and forgetting names of familiar objects and people. With PPA, language function declines before the memory systems, which is the opposite of Alzheimer’s disease.

    Dr. Regina Jokel, a speech-language pathologist at Baycrest’s Sam and Ida Ross Memory Clinic and a clinician-scientist with the Rotman Research Institute (RRI), has developed the first structured group intervention for PPA patients and their caregivers. This intervention could also help treat patients with other communication problems, such as mild cognitive impairment (a condition that is likely to develop into Alzheimer’s). The results of her pilot program were published in the Journal of Communication Disorders on April 14, 2017.

    “This research aims to address the needs of one of the most underserviced populations in language disorders,” says Dr. Jokel. “Individuals with PPA are often referred to either Alzheimer’s programs or aphasia centres. Neither option is appropriate in this case, which often leaves individuals with PPA adrift in our health care system. Our group intervention has the potential to fill the existing void and reduce demands on numerous other health services.”

    Language rehabilitation has made headway in managing the disorder, but there are limited PPA treatment options, adds Dr. Jokel.

    Dr. Jokel is one of the few researchers in the world studying this disease. She was motivated to acquire her PhD. and devise the intervention after encountering her first PPA patient more than 25 years ago.

    “When I realized the patient had PPA, I ran to the rehabilitation literature thinking that he needed to start some sort of therapy. I ran a search and came up with nothing. Absolutely nothing,” says Jokel. “That’s when I thought, ‘It’s time to design something.'”

    The 10-week intervention included working on language activities, learning communication strategies and receiving counselling and education for both patients and their caregivers. During the pilot program, patients either improved or remained unchanged on communication assessments for adults with communication disorders. Their caregivers also reported being better prepared to manage psychosocial issues and communication challenges and had more knowledge of PPA and the disease’s progression.

    “In progressive disorders, any sign of maintaining current level of function should be interpreted as success,” says Dr. Jokel. “Slowing the progression and maintenance of communication abilities should be the most important goal.”

    For the study’s next steps, Dr. Jokel has received support from a Brain Canada-Alzheimer’s Association partnership grant to assess the therapy’s impact on the language skills of PPA patients. With support from the Ontario Brain Institute, she is also collaborating with RRI brain rehabilitation scientist, Dr. Jed Meltzer, to explore the effect of brain stimulation on patients also undergoing language therapy.


  10. Men and women show equal ability at recognizing faces

    May 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Penn State press release:

    Despite conventional wisdom that suggests women are better than men at facial recognition, Penn State psychologists found no difference between men and women in their ability to recognize faces and categorize facial expressions.

    In the study, the researchers used behavioral tests, as well as neuroimaging, to investigate whether there is an influence of biological sex on facial recognition, according to Suzy Scherf, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience.

    “There has been common lore in the behavioral literature that women do better than men in many types of face-processing tasks, such as face recognition and detecting and categorizing facial expressions, although, when you look in the empirical literature, the findings are not so clear cut,” said Scherf. “I went into this work fully expecting to see an effect of biological sex on the part of the observer in facial recognition — and we did not find any. And we looked really hard.”

    Scherf said that facial recognition is one of the most important skills people use to navigate social interactions. It is also a key motivation for certain types of behavior, as well.

    “Within 30 milliseconds of looking at a face, you can figure out the age, the sex, whether you know the person or not, whether the person is trustworthy, whether they’re competent, attractive, warm, caring — we can make categorizations on faces that fast,” said Scherf. “And some of that is highly coordinated with our behavioral decisions of what we are going to do following those attributions and decisions. For example, Do I want to vote for this person? Do I want to have a conversation with this person? Where do I fit in the status hierarchy? A lot of what we do is dictated by the information we get from faces.”

    Scherf added that the importance of facial recognition for both sexes underlines the logic of why men and women should have equal facial recognition abilities.

    “Faces are just as important for men, you can argue, as they are for women,” said Scherf. “Men get all the same cues from faces that women do.”

    According to Scherf, the researchers did not find any evidence of another commonly held belief that women could recognize faces of their own biological sex more easily than the other, also referred to as “own gender bias.”

    The researchers, who report their findings in eNeuro (available online), used a common face recognition task called the Cambridge Face Memory Test, which measures whether a person can identify a male face out of a line up of three faces. They also created their own female version of the memory test. Because of previous concerns of an own gender bias in women, the Cambridge Face Memory Test features only male faces.

    “We couldn’t test the own gender bias without a female version of this test,” said Scherf, who worked with Daniel B. Elbich and Natalie V. Motta-Mena, both graduate students in psychology.

    In a second test, they scanned the brains of participants in an MRI machine while the subjects watched a series of short video clips of unfamiliar faces, famous faces, common objects and navigational scenes, such as a clip of the Earth from outer space; and in a separate task as they recognized specific faces.

    After the tests, the scans of neural activity happening in areas known for facial recognition — as well as other types of visual recognition — were statistically identical for both men and women.

    Participants were carefully selected for the study because certain conditions can affect facial recognition.

    “In order to enroll someone in our study, we went through a careful screening procedure to make sure that people did not have a history of neurological or psychiatric disorders in themselves, or in their first-degree relatives,” said Scherf. “This is important because in nearly all the affective disorders — depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar — face processing is disrupted.”

    The researchers also screened out participants with concussions, which can disrupt patterns of brain activation and function, Scherf added.

    Scherf, who also studies adolescents and pubertal development, began to investigate biological sex differences to further her own understanding of what sex differences — if any — exist in sexually mature men and women, compared to adolescents.

    The Social Science Research Institute and the National Science Foundation supported this work.