Archive for category Children and Teens

Gene Related to Autism Behavior ID’d in Mice Study


Gene Related to Autism Behavior ID'd in Mice StudyIn a new mouse study, University of California, Davis, researchers have found that a defective gene is responsible for brain changes that lead to the disrupted social behavior that accompanies autism.

Investigators believe the discovery could lead to the development of medications to treat the condition.

Prior research had determined that the gene is defective in children with autism, but its effect on neurons in the brain was not known.

The new studies in mice show that abnormal action of just this one gene disrupted energy use in neurons. The harmful changes were coupled with antisocial and prolonged repetitive behavior — traits found in autism.

The research is published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE.

“A number of genes and environmental factors have been shown to be involved in autism, but this study points to a mechanism — how one gene defect may trigger this type of neurological behavior,” said study senior author Cecilia Giulivi, Ph.D.

“Once you understand the mechanism, that opens the way for developing drugs to treat the condition,” she said.

The defective gene appears to disrupt neurons’ use of energy, Giulivi said, the critical process that relies on the cell’s molecular energy factories called mitochondria.

In the research, a gene called pten was modififed in the mice so that neurons lacked the normal amount of pten’s protein. The scientists detected malfunctioning mitochondria in the mice as early as 4 to 6 weeks after birth.

By 20 to 29 weeks, DNA damage in the mitochondria and disruption of their function had increased dramatically.

At this time, the mice began to avoid contact with their litter mates and engage in repetitive grooming behavior. Mice without the single gene change exhibited neither the mitochondria malfunctions nor the behavioral problems.

The antisocial behavior was most pronounced in the mice at an age comparable in humans to the early teenage years – a period in which schizophrenia and other behavioral disorders become most apparent, Giulivi said.

The research showed that, when defective, pten’s protein interacts with the protein of a second gene known as p53 to dampen energy production in neurons.

The interaction causes severe stress that leads to a spike in harmful mitochondrial DNA changes and abnormal levels of energy production in the cerebellum and hippocampus — brain regions critical for social behavior and cognition.

Investigators report that pten mutations previously have been linked to Alzheimer’s disease as well as a spectrum of autism disorders.

The new research shows that when pten protein was insufficient, its interaction with p53 triggered deficiencies and defects in other proteins that also have been found in patients with learning disabilities including autism.

Source: University of California – Davis Health System

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Can Thinking You Are Fat Make You Fat?


Can Thinking You Are Fat Make You Fat?  Researchers have found that normal-weight teens who think they are fat are more likely to grow up to be fat.

“Perceiving themselves as fat even though they are not may actually cause normal-weight children to become overweight as adults,” said Koenraad Cuypers, a researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Cuypers and his colleagues at the Department of Public Health and General Practice in NTNU’s Faculty of Medicine examined the obesity problem from a new angle: Their research looked at the relationship between perceived weights and actual weights in a study of teenagers and young adults.

The researchers note there are many reasons why teens who think they are fat — even when they are not — become overweight as adults.

One explanation may be related to psychosocial stress, which can be associated with gaining weight around the waist, the researchers said.

“Another explanation may be that young people who see themselves as fat often change their eating habits by skipping meals, for example. Research has shown that dropping breakfast can lead to obesity,” Cuypers said, adding that following a diet that you cannot maintain over time also is counterproductive, since the body strives to maintain the weight you had before you started the diet.

The researchers used data from the health survey Young-HUNT1, which was conducted from 1995-1997 and included 1,196 normal-weight teenagers of both sexes. Participants were later followed up in the Young-HUNT3 study, from 2006-2008, when they were between 24 and 30 years old.

Half of the participants still had normal weights as adults. But among those who were overweight, the researchers found that 59 percent of the girls who had felt fat as a teen became overweight in adulthood, as measured using body mass index or BMI. If waist circumference was used as the measure of obesity, then the percentage of teens who initially perceived themselves as fat and later became overweight as adults was 78 percent.

In contrast, 31 percent of the girls who did not consider themselves fat during adolescence were found in the follow-upstudy to be overweight as measured using BMI. That number was 55 percent as measured by waist circumference.

Normal-weight teens who rated themselves as fat in the initial HUNT study had a BMI in the followup study that was on average 0.88 higher than those who did not. They were also on average 3.46 centimeters larger as measured around the waist.

The study also shows that normal-weight girls were more likely than boys to rate themselves as overweight: 22 percent of girls and 9 percent of the boys saw themselves as fat in the first HUNT survey.

One explanation for this gender difference may be that the media’s focus on looks increasingly targets girls rather than boys, the researchers claim.

“Girls thus experience more psychosocial stress to achieve the ideal body,” Cuypers said. “Society needs to move away from a focus on weight, and instead needs to emphasize healthy eating habits, such as eating regular and varied meals and eating breakfast. Good sleep habits are also an advantage. And by reducing the amount that teens are transported to and from school and recreational activities, teens might also be able to avoid getting a ‘commuter belly.’”

Cuypers said he believes that the relationship between a perception of being overweight and the development of overweight is something that school systems and society as a whole must address to reverse the trend and reduce problems associated with obesity.

“The weight norms for society must be changed so that young people have a more realistic view of what is normal,” he said. “In school you should talk to kids about what are normal body shapes, and show that all bodies are beautiful as they are. And, last but not least, the media must cease to emphasize the supermodel body as the perfect ideal, because it is not.”

Cuypers’ results were published in the Journal of Obesity.

Source: Norwegian University of Science and Technology

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Challenges of Co-Parenting


Challenges of Co-ParentingDivorce frequently brings the challenge of how best to raise the kids. In today’s environment, it is common for both ex-spouses to share legal and physical custody of children after divorcing.

However, few studies have looked at the process of co-parenting, so little is known about how divorced parents negotiate the co-parenting process. A new study identifies factors that influence the success of co-parenting.

Researchers from Kansas State University discovered that the type of relationship a woman has with her ex-partner is a factor in how the couple shares custody of children.

Investigators followed divorced or separated mothers who were sharing physical custody of their children with their former partners.

Mindy Markham, Ph.D., an assistant professor of family studies and human services divided the study group into three patterns of co-parenting — continuously contentious, always amicable and bad to better.

Markham also looked at additional negative and positive factors that influenced the mothers’ co-parenting relationships.

The study included 20 predominately white, well-educated women between the ages of 26 to 49 who were divorced or separated from the father of their children.

The mothers, from two Midwestern states, shared with their former partners legal and physical custody of the children, who ranged in age from 21 months to 12 years.

At the time of the study, the couples had been separated or divorced from six months to 12 years.

“The findings of this study suggest that shared physical custody relationships are dynamic and can vary greatly,” Markham said.

In current study, nine mothers (45 percent) had continuously contentious co-parenting relationships with their ex-partners from the time of separation to the present.

This stressful negative relationship fueled the mother’s perception of her ex’s parenting abilities; financial concerns, including the ex not having a job or not paying child support; control or abuse by the ex-partner; and the inability of the ex to separate marital — or personal — issues from the co-parenting relationship.

“All mothers in this type of co-parenting relationship reported differences in parenting styles and were concerned with how the ex was raising the children,” Markham said.

“Parenting practices that concerned the mothers varied greatly and included putting children in harmful situations, not bathing the children, not disciplining them and having no rules or routines.

“It was especially difficult for these mothers to share custody with ex-partners who were uninvolved during the marriage. They didn’t believe their exes were responsible parents.”

Markham said eight of the women in the continuously contentious relationships didn’t want to share custody of the children with their ex-partner, but most were told by lawyers or the court that they would have to do so.

Twenty percent of mothers reported an amicable co-parenting relationship — where they reported always getting along with their ex-partners from separation to the present.

In this form of relationship the mothers believed their ex-partners were responsible parents, money wasn’t a source of conflict and the mothers chose to share physical custody.

Seven of the mothers in the study (35 percent) had bad-to-better co-parenting relationships, where co-parenting was contentious at the time of separation, but greatly improved over time.

At the time of the study, these women’s relationships were similar to those of women with always amicable relationships. These mothers wanted to share physical custody, thought the father was a responsible parent and most said money was not a source of conflict.

Significantly, all mothers in bad-to-better relationships said they were unable to co-parent amicably with their ex-partner in the beginning because personal issues were not kept separate from parenting responsibility.

“Although ex-partners with bad-to-better relationships originally allowed their feelings about one another to negatively affect their co-parenting, at some point they realized this was not beneficial and made a conscious effort to change the relationship for the sake of their children,” Markham said.

Being able to communicate with the ex-partner is a major factor during co-parenting. In the always amicable and bad-to-better relationships, mothers were able to communicate well with ex-partners.

The ability to communicate with the ex-partner made discussing differences in parenting styles easier, reported this group of women.

However, for women in continuously contentious relationships, lack of communication was a big issue, Markham said.

These mothers limited direct in-person or phone communication with their ex, preferring alternative methods like texting or email. They also avoided seeing their ex in person when it came time to exchange children by having them picked up at day care or school.

Markham said she was surprised by the level of animosity that accompanies shared custody, at least from some mothers’ perceptions.

“Nearly half of the mothers in this study continue to have conflicted relationships with their ex-partners, and conversations with these women negate the notion that shared physical custody ensures cooperative, less conflicted relationships,” she said.

“This study can be important for helping professionals recognize that shared physical custody is not a panacea for postdivorce problems — and that in some cases it exacerbates them.”

Source: Kansas State University

Parents arguing while child covrs his ears photo by shutterstock.

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Brain Scans Show Teen Drinking Impairs Brain Efficiency


Brain Scans Show Teen Drinking Impairs Brain EfficiencyNew research suggests brains scans can identify patterns of brain activity that may predict if a teen will develop into a problem drinker.

The study also confirms that heavy drinking affects a teenagers’ developing brain.

Using special MRI scans, researchers looked at forty 12- to 16-year-olds who had not started drinking yet, then followed them for about three years and scanned them again.

Researchers discovered that half of the teens started to drink alcohol fairly heavily during this interval.

Investigators also found that kids who had initially showed less activation in certain brain areas were at greater risk for becoming heavy drinkers in the next three years.

However, once the teens started drinking, their brain activity looked like the heavy drinkers’ in the other studies — that is, their brains showed more activity as they tried to perform memory tests.

“That’s the opposite of what you’d expect, because their brains should be getting more efficient as they get older,” said lead researcher Lindsay M. Squeglia, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Diego.

Researchers say an operational definition of heavy drinking typically included episodes of having four or more drinks on an occasion for females and five or more drinks for males.

The findings add to evidence that heavy drinking has consequences for teenagers’ developing brains. But they also add a new layer: There may be brain activity patterns that predict which kids are at increased risk for heavy drinking.

“It’s interesting because it suggests there might be some pre-existing vulnerability,” Squeglia said.

Researchers say they are not advocating for teens to receive MRIs to determine their risk of excessive alcohol consumption. But the findings do give clues into the biological origins of kids’ problem drinking.

Experts say the findings suggest that heavy drinking may affect young people’s brains right at the time when they need to be working efficiently.

“You’re learning to drive, you’re getting ready for college. This is a really important time of your life for cognitive development,” Squeglia said.

She noted that all of the study participants were healthy, well-functioning kids. It’s possible that teens with certain disorders — like depression or ADHD — might show greater effects from heavy drinking.

Source: Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs

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Upfront Bonus to Teachers Improves Student Performance


Upfront Bonus to Teachers Improves Student PerformanceEducational reform is receiving considerable attention these days, and a new study suggests prepaying teachers appears to improve student academic performance.

Paying an upfront bonus does come with a caveat as part of the money must be returned if student performance fails to improve, say University of Chicago researchers.

The study showed that students gained as much as a 10 percentile increase in their scores compared to students with similar backgrounds — if their teacher received a bonus at the beginning of the year, with conditions attached.

There was no gain for students when teachers were offered the bonus at the end of the school year, the research found.

“This is the first experimental study to demonstrate that teacher merit pay can have a significant impact on student performance in the U.S.,” said economist John List, Ph.D., an author of the study.

The study, published by the National Bureau of Economics Research, reflects the findings of other studies in psychology and behavioral economics.

“The results of our experiment are consistent with over 30 years of psychological and economic research on the power of loss aversion to motivate behavior: Students whose teachers in the ‘loss’ treatment of the experiment showed large and significant gains in their math test scores,” said List, a professor in economics at UChicago.

Timing of the incentive made a significant difference.

“In line with previous studies in the United States, we did not find an impact of teacher incentives that are framed as gains (the reward coming at the end of the year),” he added.

The study comes amid a growing wave of interest of finding ways to provide teacher incentives to increase student performance — as usually assessed by student achievement on standardized tests. Unfortunately, most of the current incentive programs have not shown value, the scholars said.

The new study depends on a formula developed by Dr. Derek Neal, professor of economics at UChicago, and Gadi Barlevy, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

They devised the “pay for percentile” method of measuring teacher performance by comparing individual students with similar backgrounds and achievement to see what impact a teacher had on their learning.

The scholars used the formula in an experiment in Chicago Heights, Ill., a community 30 miles south of Chicago. The community has nine kindergarten to eighth-grade schools with a total enrollment of 3,200 students. Its achievement rates are below state average, and 98 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunches.

At the beginning of the school year, the teachers were introduced to the experiment and offered an opportunity to participate. A total of 150 of the 160 teachers agreed to join in the study, which was supported by the local teachers union.

The teachers were randomly assigned to a control group as well as a group given a bonus at the beginning of the year, a group that could receive the bonus at the end of the year, and a group made up of teachers who worked in teams. Money for the bonuses was provided from private sources.

One group of teachers in the study was given a $4,000 bonus at the beginning of the year and told it would be reduced by an amount reflecting their students’ performance — the more the students’ standardized scores increased, the more of the bonus their teacher could keep. Another group of teachers was told they would receive a $4,000 bonus if their students improved during the year.

The incentives were based on rewarding teachers with $80 for each percentile of increase in their students’ mathematics performance over the district average. They could, depending on exceptional student performance, receive up to $8,000 under the plan — the equivalent of 16 percent of the average teacher salary in the district.

The students were tested with the ThinkLink Predictive Assessment, a standardized, non-high-stakes diagnostic tool that is aligned with state achievement tests.

Thomas Amadio, superintendent of Chicago Heights Elementary School District 170, where the experiment was conducted, said the study shows the value of merit pay as an encouragement for better teacher performance.

“Teachers do have challenges, and classes can vary from year to year in how well they perform. Testing students individually to see their growth is a valuable measure, however,” he said.

Teachers responsible for that growth should be rewarded, he said.

Source: University of Chicago

Teacher and students in a classroom photo by shutterstock.

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Physical Forms of Child Discipline More Common than Acknowledged


Physical Forms of Child Discipline More Common than AcknowledgedIn one of the first real-world studies of caregiver discipline, a new study reveals that parents actually use physical forms of punishment much more than they show in laboratory experiments and acknowledge in surveys.

Michigan State University researchers found that 23 percent of youngsters received some type of “negative touch” when they failed to comply with a parental request in public places such as restaurants and parks. Negative touch included arm pulling, pinching, slapping and spanking.

“I was very surprised to see what many people consider a socially undesirable behavior done by nearly a quarter of the caregivers,” said researcher Kathy Stansbury, Ph.D. “I have also seen hundreds of kids and their parents in a lab setting and never once witnessed any of this behavior.”

Stansbury is a psychologist and associate professor in MSU’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies. She performed the study to obtain a realistic view of how often parents use what she calls positive and negative touch in noncompliance episodes with their children.

In the study, a group of university student researchers anonymously observed 106 discipline interactions between caregivers and children ages 3-5 in public places and recorded the results.

The data were vetted, analyzed and published in the current issue of the research journal Behavior and Social Issues.

Male caregivers were found to touch children more during discipline settings than female caregivers. However, the touching was not in a negative manner, rather males used forms of positive touch included hugging, tickling and patting.

Stansbury says this positive approach contradicts the age-old stereotype of the father as the parent who lays down the law.

“When we think of Dad, we think of him being the disciplinarian, and Mom as nurturer, but that’s just not what we saw,” Stansbury said. “I do think that we are shifting as a society and fathers are becoming more involved in the daily mechanics of raising kids, and that’s a good thing for the kids and also a good thing for the dads.”

Ultimately, positive touch caused the children to comply more often, more quickly and with less fussing than negative touch, or physical punishment, Stansbury said. When negative touch was used, even when children complied, they often pouted or sulked afterward, she said.

“If your child is upset and not minding you and you want to discipline them, I would use a positive, gentle touch,” Stansbury said. “Our data found that negative touch didn’t work.”

Source: Michigan State University

Happy father and daughter photo by shutterstock.

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Early Relationships Key to Happiness


Positive social relationships in childhood and adolescence are the key to adult happiness, according to new research.

Researchers at Deakin University and the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Australia also found that academic achievement had little effect on adult well-being.

A team of researchers led by Craig Olsson, Ph.D., analyzed data for 804 people, who were followed for 32 years in the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study (DMHDS) in New Zealand.

They particularly focused on the relationship between social connectedness in childhood, language development in childhood, social connectedness in adolescence, academic achievement in adolescence, and well-being in adulthood.

Social connectedness in childhood was defined by parent and teacher ratings of the child being liked, not being alone, and the child’s level of confidence. Social connectedness in adolescence was demonstrated by social attachments with parents and peers, as well as participation in youth groups and sporting clubs.

The researchers found a strong connection between child and adolescent social connectedness and adult well-being, noting this illustrates the “enduring significance of positive social relationships over the lifespan to adulthood.”

The researchers also found that the connection from early language development, through adolescent academic achievement, to adult well-being was weak, which is in line with existing research showing a lack of association between socioeconomic prosperity and happiness.

The analysis also suggests that the social and academic paths are not related to one another, and may actually be parallel paths, the researchers said.

“If these pathways are separate, then positive social development across childhood and adolescence requires investments beyond development of the academic curriculum,” the researchers conclude.

The study is published online in Journal of Happiness Studies.

Source: Springer

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