1. Study suggests girls’ social camouflage skills may delay or prevent autism diagnosis

    January 17, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Children’s National Health System press release:

    On parent-reporting measures, girls with autism seem to struggle more than boys with performing routine tasks like getting up and dressed or making small talk, even when the study group is normalized to meet similar basic clinical diagnostic criteria across sexes. The findings add to the growing evidence that girls with autism may show symptoms differently than boys, and that some of the social difficulties experienced by females with autism may be masked during clinical assessments.

    The new study, led by researchers from the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children’s National Health System, was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

    “Based on our research criteria, parents report that the girls in our study with autism seem to have a more difficult time with day-to-day skills than the boys,” says Allison Ratto, Ph.D., lead author of the study and a clinical psychologist within the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children’s National. “This could mean that girls who meet the same clinical criteria as boys actually are more severely affected by ongoing social and adaptive skill deficits that we don’t capture in current clinical measures, and that autistic girls, in general, may be camouflaging these types of autism deficits during direct assessments.”

    The study used an age-and IQ-matched sample of school-aged youth diagnosed with ASD to assess sex differences according to the standard clinical tests including the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) and the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R), as well as parent reported autistic traits and adaptive skills.

    “This study is one of the first to eliminate many of the variables that obscure how sex impacts presentation of autism traits and symptoms. Though today’s clinical tools do a really good job capturing boys at a young age, with a wide range of symptom severity, they do it less effectively for girls,” adds Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., director of the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders, and another study contributor. “This is a crucial issue considering how much we know about the success of early interventions on long-term outcomes. We have to find better ways to identify girls with autism so we can ensure the best approaches reach all who need them as early as possible.”

    Specific evidence of women more effectively masking or camouflaging social and communication deficits is limited, but autistic self-advocates theorize that the unique social pressures and demands on girls at a young age may teach them to “blend in” and “get by,” including maintaining successful, brief social interactions.

    As a research partner of an $11.7 million Autism Center of Excellence (ACE) grant from the National Institutes of Health to the George Washington University Autism and Neurodevelopment Disorders Institute, the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children’s National will continue investigations into sex differences, and aims to develop self-reporting measures for adolescents and adults that better capture additional populations — including females and non-cisgender males.

    “We hope the ACE studies will help us better understand the diversity of the autism spectrum by allowing us to focus on the ways in which differences in sex and gender identity might influence the expression of autistic traits, thereby enabling us to make more accurate diagnoses,” Dr. Ratto concludes.


  2. Study suggests eating more foods with choline during pregnancy could boost baby’s brain

    January 12, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Cornell University press release:

    When expectant mothers consume sufficient amounts of the nutrient choline during pregnancy, their offspring gain enduring cognitive benefits, a new Cornell University study suggests.

    Choline — found in egg yolks, lean red meat, fish, poultry, legumes, nuts and cruciferous vegetables — has many functions, but this study focused on its role in prenatal brain development.

    The researchers, who published their findings online in The FASEB Journal, used a rigorous study design to show cognitive benefits in the offspring of pregnant women who daily consumed close to twice the currently recommended amount of choline during their last trimester.

    “In animal models using rodents, there’s widespread agreement that supplementing the maternal diet with additional amounts of this single nutrient has lifelong benefits on offspring cognitive function,” said Marie Caudill, professor of nutritional sciences and the study’s first author. “Our study provides some evidence that a similar result is found in humans.”

    The finding is important because choline is in high demand during pregnancy yet most women consume less than the recommended 450 milligrams per day.

    “Part of that is due to current dietary trends and practices,” said Richard Canfield, a developmental psychologist in the Division of Nutritional Sciences and the senior author of the study. “There are a lot of choline-rich foods that have a bad reputation these days,” he said. Eggs, for example, are high in cholesterol, and health professionals, including those in the government, have raised caution about pregnant women consuming undercooked eggs, which may deter women from eating them altogether, even though such risks are low for pasteurized or cooked eggs, Canfield said. Red meats are often avoided for their high saturated fat content, and liver is not commonly eaten, he added.

    Two previous studies by other research teams had mixed results after examining cognitive effects of maternal choline supplementation, perhaps due to study designs that were not tightly controlled, Caudill said.

    In this study, 26 women were randomly divided into two groups and all the women consumed exactly the same diet. Intake of choline and other nutrients were tightly controlled, which was important since the metabolism of choline and its functions can overlap with such nutrients as vitamin B12, folic acid and vitamin B6.

    “By ensuring that all the nutrients were provided in equal amounts, we could be confident that the differences in the infants resulted from their choline intake,” Caudill said. In this study, half the women received 480 mg/day of choline, slightly more than the adequate intake level, and the other half received 930 mg/day.

    Canfield and co-author Laura Muscalu, a lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Ithaca College, tested infant information processing speed and visuospatial memory at 4, 7, 10 and 13 months of age. They timed how long each infant took to look toward an image on the periphery of a computer screen, a measure of the time it takes for a cue to produce a motor response. The test has been shown to correlate with IQ in childhood. Also, research by Canfield and others shows that infants who demonstrate fast processing speeds when young typically continue to be fast as they age.

    While offspring in both groups showed cognitive benefits, information processing speeds were significantly faster for the group of expectant mothers who consumed 930 mg/day when compared with the group that took 480 mg/day over the same period.

    Though the study has a small sample, it suggests that current recommendations for daily choline intake may not be enough to produce optimal cognitive abilities in offspring, Canfield said. Current choline intake recommendations are based on amounts required to prevent liver dysfunction, and were extrapolated from studies done in men in part because no studies had investigated requirements during pregnancy.

    The study was funded by the Egg Nutrition Center, the Beef Checkoff, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Institute for the Social Sciences, the Bronfenbrenner Life Course Center, and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.


  3. Study provides insight into how infants learn to walk

    January 3, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Lancaster University press release:

    Ten-week-old babies can learn from practising walking months before they begin walking themselves say researchers.

    They gave the infants experience at “reflex walking” which is a primitive instinct in babies which disappears around 12 weeks of age.

    When held by an adult at a slightly forward angle, and with the soles of their feet touching a flat surface, the infants will reflexively walk by placing one foot in front of the other.

    Psychologists at Lancaster University gave this “reflex walking” experience to one half of a group of 10 week old infants, who took an average of 23 steps in 3 minutes.

    The other half of the group did not share in the experience of walking.

    The researchers showed film of human figures walking and crawling to both groups of infants as they sat on their mothers’ laps in a dimly lit room.

    They then measured how the infants responded to this visual information by recording electrical activity in their brains.

    Only the brains of the infants who had experienced “reflex walking” were able to recognise the same movement in the film of figures walking.

    Their response was more similar to that of older children learning to walk rather than babies from younger ages.

    The group of infants who had not practised “reflex walking” did not show this more mature brain activity but they may have recognised filmed crawling movement.

    Psychologist Professor Vincent Reid said the research in Neuropsychologia showed a link between perceiving an action and carrying out that action even in early infancy.

    “This result strongly suggests that experience refines the perception of biological motion during early infancy.

    “The act of walking has therefore shifted the percept of biological motion for those infants who had experienced self produced stepping behaviour.

    “This suggests that the limited period of experience … altered the infant’s perception of walking, indicating a link between action perception and action production in early infancy.”


  4. Study suggests intervention offered in school readiness program boosts children’s self-regulation skills

    December 31, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Oregon State University press release:

    Adding a daily 20 to 30 minute self-regulation intervention to a kindergarten readiness program significantly boosted children’s self-regulation and early academic skills, an Oregon State University researcher has found.

    Self-regulation skills — the skills that help children pay attention, follow directions, stay on task and persist through difficulty — are critical to a child’s success in kindergarten and beyond. The intervention, co-developed and tested by OSU’s Megan McClelland, a nationally-recognized expert in child development, uses music and games to help preschoolers learn and practice self-regulation skills.

    The intervention was added to a three-week summer school readiness program at a large school district on the East Coast for children entering kindergarten that had no prior preschool experience. The school district asked McClelland and her colleagues to evaluate their use of the intervention. It was the first opportunity for researchers to evaluate the program’s effectiveness in a “real-world” setting, where teachers, rather than researchers, led the students through self-regulation games.

    The researchers found that use of these games daily for three weeks improved the children’s self-regulation skills. They also found that the children’s broader school readiness skills, including early math and literacy skills, improved as a result of the intervention and the children saw greater-than-expected growth in the months following the program.

    “It was a test to see if the results of this intervention look similar in a less-controlled environment, and it appears that they do,” said McClelland, the Katherine E. Smith Healthy Children and Families Professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences. “It helps demonstrate the feasibility and scalability of this kind of program.”

    The findings add to McClelland’s growing body of research demonstrating the value of teaching self-regulation skills to children entering kindergarten, particularly those who are at higher risk of struggling academically in school and opens the door for the intervention to be used more widely by teachers and schools.

    The evaluation of the school district program was published recently in the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly. Co-authors are Robert J. Duncan and Sara A. Schmitt of Purdue University and Maura Burke of Fairfax County Public Schools. Duncan and Schmitt both earned their doctorates at OSU.

    The school district added the self-regulation intervention at some schools participating in a summer “Bridge to Kindergarten” in 2013. It was also offered in 2014 and 2015. Researchers evaluated data from about 150 children from each year.

    “The school district wanted an explicit focus on self-regulation in this program designed to get children ready for kindergarten,” McClelland said.

    Teachers were trained to lead the children through the intervention, which uses movement and music-based games that increase in complexity over time and encourage the practice of self-regulation skills. The games require few materials and the children can help make the props as part of their lessons.

    One game is “Red Light, Purple Light,” which is similar to “Red Light, Green Light.” The instructor acts as a stoplight and holds up construction-paper circles to represent stop and go. Children follow color cues, such as purple is stop and orange is go, and then switch to the opposite, where purple is go and orange is stop.

    Other games include “Freeze,” where the children are encouraged to do the opposite of the teacher’s instructions; and “Sleeping,” where the children pretend to sleep and then wake up as something different and must remain in that character.

    Additional rules are added later to increase the complexity of the game. The game requires children to listen and remember instructions, pay attention to the adult leading the game and resist natural inclinations to stop or go.

    “The findings from this evaluation support our previous randomized controlled studies of this program, which is a promising sign that the intervention will also be effective in practical applications,” McClelland said. “If we can make the program more accessible to schools and teachers, and still ensure quality, it becomes more feasible to share it more widely.”


  5. Study suggests paternal rejection may increase child’s social anxiety, loneliness

    December 28, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Penn State press release:

    Healthy relationships with their parents are vital for adolescents’ development and well-being, according to Penn State researchers who say rejection from fathers may lead to increases in social anxiety and loneliness.

    The study — conducted by Hio Wa “Grace” Mak, doctoral student of human development and family studies — examined how parental rejection, as well as the overall well-being of the family unit, were related to changes in adolescents’ social anxiety, friendships and feelings of loneliness over time. Mak worked with Gregory Fosco, associate professor of human development and family studies, and Mark Feinberg, research professor of health and human development, at Penn State’s Prevention Research Center.

    The researchers found that adolescents whose fathers were more rejecting tended to have more social anxiety later on, and in turn experienced more loneliness.

    “We found that father rejection predicted increases in adolescents’ social anxiety, even when we controlled for social anxiety at an earlier time. In turn, this predicted increases in loneliness later on,” said Mak. “This suggests that fathers’ rejecting attitudes toward their adolescent children may make them more nervous about approaching social situations, which in turn is related to more social isolation and feelings of loneliness.”

    Forming and maintaining good relationships is essential to an adolescent’s well-being, according to the researchers. Previous studies have shown that adolescents with thriving social lives tend to be more psychologically healthy, while those that struggle with forming good friendships tend to perform worse academically and suffer from more depressive symptoms.


  6. Study suggests memory shifts into high gear when we think about raising our children

    December 27, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Binghamton University press release:

    Human memory has evolved so people better recall events encountered while they are thinking about raising their offspring, according to a new study conducted by researchers at Binghamton University, State University of New York.

    “Our ability to think and memorize information arises from our nervous systems,” said Binghamton University Distinguished Professor of Psychology Ralph Miller. “As our nervous systems are a product of evolution and past experiences, one can reasonably expect that how well we memorize information today is influenced by natural selection that occurred amongst our ancestors long ago.”

    Miller and his students, Ben Seitz and Cody Polack, replicated a previous experiment by having research subjects rate the relevance of words (e.g. rock, apple, ball, stick) in regards to a survival scenario on the ancient grasslands of Africa, and then tested them to see which words they could recall. Subjects were able to recall more words that were rated with respect to the survival scenario than alternative scenarios that involved activities unrelated to evolutionary success. Subjects also recalled more words when faced with a scenario that involved raising children but not a scenario about seeking out a mate, despite both activities relating to evolutionary sucess. According to Miller, the failure of the mating scenario may reflect our prehistoric ancestors not realizing that mating could result in children because of the nine months between mating and birth.

    Miller said that this research demonstrates that our genes not only influence our anatomy and physiology, but also the ways in which we think.

    “These findings testify to the remarkable effect that specific situations thousands of years ago, situations of which we have no conscious memory, have on the functioning of our brains today,” said Miller. “What is evident is that the specific functioning of our brains, like our height and hair color, is strongly influenced by genes that were selected for among our ancestors.”

    It is still unclear what aspects of the ancient grasslands survival and ancient child-rearing scenarios caused a more effective memory recall, but Miller and the other researchers believe it has to do with those scenarios being important to evolutionary success.

    Miller is planning to further explore this idea with new scenarios, to determine the memory difference between a biological child and an adopted one as well as raising a pet dog. They expect that the biological child scenario will have the highest recall, while the pet scenario will create the lowest recall.


  7. Study suggests children’s screen-time guidelines may be too restrictive

    by Ashley

    From the University of Oxford press release:

    Digital screen use is a staple of contemporary life for adults and children, whether they are browsing on laptops and smartphones, or watching TV. Paediatricians and scientists have long expressed concerns about the impact of overusing technology on people’s wellbeing. However, new Oxford University research suggests that existing guidance managing children’s digital media time may not be as beneficial as first thought.

    Earlier this year the team published a paper disputing digital device guidelines for teenagers and proposing that a moderate amount of screen-time, known as the ‘Goldilocks’ period, might actually boosts teenage wellbeing.

    In a new study, published in the journal Child Development, researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute and Cardiff University conducted a similar study, assessing the impact of screen-time on children aged two to five. The team tested screen use guidelines recommended by the American Academy of Paediatrics (AAP), which proposes a limit of one to two hours per day, as good for the psychological-wellbeing of young children.

    Using data from approximately 20,000 telephone interviews with parents, the authors assessed the relationship between their children’s technology use and wellbeing. Over the course of a month this relationship was measured in terms of caregiver attachment, impact on emotional resilience, curiosity and positive effect. The results revealed a number of interesting findings that suggest that limiting children’s digital device use is not necessarily beneficial for wellbeing.

    The team found no consistent correlations between either the 2010 or revised 2016 advised digital usage limits and young children’s wellbeing. While children aged two to five whose technology usage was limited in-line with AAP guidance showed slightly higher levels of resilience, this was balanced by lower levels of positive affect.

    Further research indicates similar results to those reported in the recent study of adolescents; that moderate screen-use above the recommended limits might actually be linked to slightly higher levels of children’s wellbeing.

    Lead author Dr Andrew Pryzbylski, of the Oxford Internet Institute, said: ‘Taken together, our findings suggest that there is little or no support for the theory that digital screen use, on its own, is bad for young children’s psychological wellbeing.

    ‘If anything, our findings suggest the broader family context, how parents set rules about digital screen time, and if they’re actively engaged in exploring the digital world together, are more important than the raw screen time. Future research should focus on how using digital devices with parents or care-givers and turning it into a social time can effect children’s psychological wellbeing, curiosity, and the bonds with the caregiver involved.’

    The paper’s other findings of note include observations that our digital screen use increases with age, is higher in boys, non-whites, children with less educated caregivers and children from less affluent households.

    The authors found the AAP guidelines themselves to be based on out-of-date research, conducted before digital devices had become so ingrained into everyday life. As a result of this time lapse, they are becoming increasingly difficult to justify and implement.

    Co-author Dr Netta Weinstein, a senior lecturer in psychology at Cardiff University, said: ‘Given that we cannot put the digital genie back in the bottle, it is incumbent on researchers to conduct rigorous, up-to-date research that identifies mechanisms by and the extent to which screen-time exposure might affect children.

    Pryzbylski adds in conclusion: ‘To be robust, current recommendations may need to be re-evaluated and given additional consideration before we can confidently recommend that these digital screen-time limits are good for young children’s mental health and wellbeing’.


  8. Study suggests eating together as a family helps children feel better, physically and mentally

    December 25, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Montreal press release:

    Children who routinely eat their meals together with their family are more likely to experience long-term physical and mental health benefits, a new Canadian study shows.

    Université de Montréal doctoral student Marie-Josée Harbec and her supervisor, pyschoeducation professor Linda Pagani, made the finding after following a cohort of Quebec children born between 1997 and 1998.

    The study is published today in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics.

    “There is a handful of research suggesting positive links between eating family meals together frequently and child and adolescent health,” Pagani said. “In the past, researchers were unclear on whether families that ate together were simply healthier to begin with. And measuring how often families eat together and how children are doing at that very moment may not capture the complexity of the environmental experience.”

    The study looked at children who had been followed by researchers since they were 5 months old as part of the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development. At age 6, their parents started reporting on whether or not they had family meals together. At age 10, parents, teachers and the children themselves provided information on the children’s lifestyle habits and their psycho-social well-being.

    “We decided to look at the long-term influence of sharing meals as an early childhood family environment experience in a sample of children born the same year,” Pagani said, “and we followed-up regularly as they grew up. Using a birth cohort, this study examines the prospective associations between the environmental quality of the family meal experience at age 6 and child well-being at age 10.”

    When the family meal environment quality was better at age 6, higher levels of general fitness and lower levels of soft-drink consumption were observed at age 10. These children also seemed to have more social skills, as they were less likely to self-report being physical aggressive, oppositional or delinquent at age 10.

    “Because we had a lot of information about the children before age 6 — such as their temperament and cognitive abilities, their mother’s education and psychological characteristics, and prior family configuration and functioning — we were able to eliminate any pre-existing conditions of the children or families that could throw a different light on our results,” said Harbec. “It was really ideal as a situation.”

    Added Pagani: “The presence of parents during mealtimes likely provides young children with firsthand social interaction, discussions of social issues and day-to-day concerns, and vicarious learning of prosocial interactions in a familiar and emotionally secure setting. Experiencing positive forms of communication may likely help the child engage in better communication skills with people outside of the family unit. Our findings suggest that family meals are not solely markers of home environment quality, but are also easy targets for parent education about improving children’s well-being.”

    “From a population-health perspective, our findings suggest that family meals have long-term influences on children’s physical and mental well-being,” said Harbec.

    At a time when fewer families in Western countries are having meals together, it would be especially opportune now for psycho-social workers to encourage the practice at home — indeed, even make it a priority, the researchers believe. And family meals could be touted as advantageous in public-information campaigns that aim to optimize child development.


  9. Study suggests certain books can increase infant learning during shared reading

    December 21, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Florida press release:

    Parents and pediatricians know that reading to infants is a good thing, but new research shows reading books that clearly name and label people and objects is even better.

    That’s because doing so helps infants retain information and attend better.

    “When parents label people or characters with names, infants learn quite a bit,” said Lisa Scott, a University of Florida psychology professor and co-author of the study published Dec. 8 in the journal Child Development. “Books with individual-level names may lead parents to talk to infants more, which is particularly important for the first year of life.”

    Scott and colleagues from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst studied infants in Scott’s Brain, Cognition, and Development Lab. Babies came into the lab twice: once at 6 months old and again at age 9 months. While in the lab, eye-tracking and electroencephalogram, or EEG, methods were used to measure attention and learning at both ages.

    In between visits, parents were asked to read with their infants at home according to a schedule that included 10 minutes of parent-infant shared book reading every day for the first two weeks, every other day for the second two weeks and then continued to decrease until infants returned at 9 months. Twenty-three families were randomly assigned storybooks. One set contained individual-level names, and the other contained category-level labels. Both sets of books were identical except for the labeling. Each of the training books’ eight pages presented an individual image and a two-sentence story.

    The individual-level books clearly identified and labeled all eight individuals, with names such as “Jamar,” “Boris,” “Anice,” and “Fiona.” The category-level books included two made-up labels (“hitchel,” “wadgen”) for all images. The control group included 11 additional 9-month-old infants who did not receive books.

    The infants whose parents read the individual-level names spent more time focusing and attending the images, and their brain activity clearly differentiated the individual characters after book reading. This was not found at 6 months (before book reading), for the control group, or for the group of infants who were given books with category-level labels.

    Scott has been studying how the specificity of labels affects infant learning and brain development since 2006. This longitudinal study is the third in a series. The eye tracking and EEG results are consistent with her other studies showing that name specificity improves cognition in infants.

    “There are lots of recommendations about reading books to babies, but our work provides a scientific basis for these recommendations and suggests that the type of book is also important,” she said. “Shared reading is a good way to support development in the first year of life,” “It creates an enjoyable and comforting environment for both the parents and the infant and encourages parents to talk to their infants.”


  10. Study suggests infant brain responses predict reading speed in secondary school

    December 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Jyväskylä press release:

    A study conducted at the Department of Psychology at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland and Jyväskylä Centre for Interdisciplinary Brain Research (CIBR) has found that the brain responses of infants with an inherited risk for dyslexia, a specific reading disability, predict their future reading speed in secondary school.

    The longitudinal study looked at the electrical brain responses of six-month-old infants to speech and the correlation between the brain responses and their pre-literacy skills in pre-school-age, as well as their literacy in the eighth grade at 14 years of age.

    The study discovered that the brain response of the infants with an inherited dyslexia risk differed from the brain responses of the control infants and predicted their reading speed in secondary school. The larger brain responses were related to a more fluent naming speed of familiar objects, better phonological skills, and faster reading.

    “The predictive effect of the infant’s brain response to the reading speed in secondary school is mediated by the pre-school-age naming speed of familiar objects, suggesting that if search of the words from the mental lexicon is hindered before school age, reading is still tangled in secondary school,” states researcher PhD Kaisa Lohvansuu.

    Atypical brain activation to speech in infants with inherited risk for dyslexia impedes the development of effective connections to the mental lexicon, and thus slows the naming and reading performances. Efficient/effortless search from the mental lexicon is therefore necessary in both fluent reading and naming.

    Developmental dyslexia, a specific reading disability, is the most common of the learning disabilities. It has a strong genetic basis: children of dyslexic parents are at great risk of encountering reading and/or writing difficulties at school.

    As speech stimuli, the current study used pseudo-words, i.e. words without meaning. The pseudo-words contained either a short or a long consonant (a double consonant). Phonemic length is a semantically distinguishing feature in the Finnish language, and differentiating it correctly would therefore be essential. However, the correct reading and writing of these contrasts have previously been found to be particularly difficult for Finnish dyslexics.

    The research was carried out as part of the Jyväskylä Longitudinal Study of Dyslexia (JLD). Half of the children who participated in the project had an inherited risk of dyslexia.