Sunday, December 7, 2008

Elgan: We need a mobile broadband space race

By Mike Elgan

On Oct. 4, 1957, Russia launched Sputnik, the world's first-ever man-made satellite, into Earth orbit.

The launch sparked fear in the United States that America would fall behind the Soviet Union in science, technology and space exploration, giving birth to the "space race." President Dwight D. Eisenhower initiated the creation of NASA and a wide range of other programs designed to boost American technological know-how. His successor, John F. Kennedy, vowed to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s -- and we did.

It was understood at the time that space would eventually and inevitably be "conquered," and that developing the ability to travel into space would involve the invention of technologies that would boost the economy and benefit mankind generally.

That space would be explored was a foregone conclusion in the 1950s. The only question was who would lead the world into the Space Age: the "Evil Empire," or the "Free World"? And who would gain the economic advantages of overcoming all the technical hurdles required for a successful space flight?

The space race did, in fact, lead to countless unforeseen technologies and economic benefits that experts say paid for the whole thing and then some. NASA facilities in the South created employment and economic development. Technologies first created for the space race accelerated the development of computers, and made possible inventions such as the cell phone.

It also made possible what many consider the pinnacle of human achievement: men playing golf on the moon.

Although a federal agency and tax dollars drove the countless achievements and myriad benefits of space exploration, the trend these days is toward increasing privatization, with private companies launching satellites -- and soon, even tourists -- into space.

The 'Sputnik' of our age launched this week

An event happened this week that I consider the "Sputnik" of our own age. More than 50 years after the Russians launched the world's first orbiting satellite, HTC on Wednesday launched the HTC MAX 4G -- the world's first WiMax cell phone -- in Russia! The phone is in fact an integrated GSM and WiMax handset that will take advantage of Scartel's Yota WiMax network.

WiMax is considered one of the 4G technologies that will replace the current 3G mobile broadband systems available to iPhone 3G and BlackBerry Bold users in the United States.

Although U.S. carriers are working on 4G and WiMax -- Sprint, for example, will test a line of products and services to be branded Sprint 4G in Baltimore this month -- the nation is way behind in all aspects of mobile broadband.

The Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Europeans and now even the Russians are way ahead of the United States in the development of next-generation mobile broadband. While Japan is working on DSL speeds for high-definition movies on demand to cell phones, America hasn't figure out how to deliver an adequate connection for an iPhone in New York.

The U.S. is plagued by spotty service, incompatible technologies and vast regions where no service is possible. The country that invented both the cell phone and the Internet is floundering as a third-rate cell phone Internet backwater.

The next giant leap for mankind

The problem with mobile broadband mediocrity is that mobile data connectivity is the most important cultural development of our age. In the future, Internet access will be available to everyone all the time. Cars, wallets, wristwatches, bicycles, traffic lights, dog collars, augmented reality sunglasses and, most importantly, cell phones.

It will transform education, business, government, public safety -- in fact, no area of human life will remain unimproved by universal Internet access. The poorest, most remote corners of the country will have low-cost access to the full Internet, high-definition videoconferencing and video-on-demand.

There is no question that human life will be transformed by what we might call 5G or 6G mobile data technologies. The only questions are when will this technology be developed and implemented and who will reap the lion's share of its benefits?

The U.S. is currently on track for an Epic Fail in the most important leap forward of our time. The country is hindered by a wide range of limiting factors, including a huge number of geographically far-flung population centers, an antiquated and unresponsive regulatory environment and numerous incompatible technologies. The carriers we rely on to advance mobile broadband technology have demonstrated zero vision, and little more than a desire to fleece customers and milk antiquated technologies for every penny they can get.

It's time to stop slouching toward failure. Rather than idiotically following Europe and Asia into the future, we need to leapfrog them and put the U.S. back on top. We need nothing less than a new space race-scale effort to build the next-generation mobile data system in the United States.

We put a man on the moon a dozen years after Sputnik. Now we need to put fast Internet into every cell phone, no matter where that phone is. I'm not a big fan of big government or new agencies, but this new network is akin to the national highway system, or universal postal or telephone service -- except much more beneficial and important. We can't wait for the likes of AT&T, Sprint or Verizon. We need a nationwide, government-run, NASA-like agency to bring together all the best minds, pick a technology, then build the network (most likely satellite-based). Over time, it can be gradually privatized.

High-speed, low-cost universal Internet access would probably jolt the economy in the same way the distribution of electrical power did, or the terrestrial Internet. It will surely pay for itself, times 10.

Whether we like it or not, the new "Space race" for next-generation mobile broadband is on. The only question is, does the United States still have the vision to succeed?

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

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NASA space probe to track CO2 on Earth

The Orbiting Carbon Observatory, illustrated here, is slated to launch in January. The craft is designed to detect where carbon is absorbed and how much is in the atmosphere, with the aim of improving predictions of climate change.
The occasionally acrimonious debate about the planet's climate has been missing a key component: accurate measurements of how much carbon dioxide is in the air and how it is being recycled by Earth.

That is the heart of a new NASA mission called the Orbital Carbon Observatory, which is set to launch early next year.

"We will uncover all kinds of patterns and cycles in carbon dioxide that people never thought existed. It'll be just like when the first ozone measurements were made," said project scientist Chip Miller, with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

"We get at the question of the sources of carbon dioxide and see how much is pulled out (of the atmosphere) by land and how much by seas," he said.

Many scientists consider carbon dioxide to be the telltale gas of global warming. Once it is released into the air, there is little chemistry to remove it. Its presence traps reflected sunlight. Plants, soils and the oceans of Earth reabsorb the gas, but that takes a while. Miller says that the average lifetime for carbon dioxide is about 300 years. About 20 percent of atmospheric carbon dioxide, however, lasts for 10,000 years or longer.

Most carbon dioxide — about 97 percent — comes from natural sources. That's roughly 300 billion metric tons per year of CO2 gas from breathing animals, decaying plants, forest fires, volcanic eruptions and other naturally occurring phenomena.

Human activities, like driving cars, burning coal, farming, industrial production and other practices, account for 3 percent, or about 8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide production per year.

That may not sound like much, but it is widely believed that it is the human endeavors which are responsible for resetting Earth's temperature.

"It's such a small portion, but it does seem to be tilting the balance," Miller said.

What is missing, however, are precise measurements of how much carbon is being put into the atmosphere and how much is coming out. It's a measurement that is extremely difficult to make. Data so far comes from about 100 ground sites spread throughout the world and from extrapolations from reports such as oil, coal and natural gas sales.

The presumption is that these fossil fuels will be burned, emitting carbon dioxide in the process.

Scientists believe the economic data is accurate to about 10 percent. Not all countries will provide the information, however.

"When we add together what we know about the system, we can't account for about 2 billion metric tons from the atmosphere," Miller told Discovery News. "Balancing the carbon budget is one of the key things that scientists are trying to do now."

"This is an absolutely critical question," added David Crisp, the lead scientist for the Orbital Carbon Observatory, or OCO. "Where is the other half of the carbon dioxide that we emit into the air going over time and will the Earth continue to absorb (it) as we go into the future?"

Measuring carbon dioxide is not an easy task. OCO will attempt the work by using three high-resolution spectrometers to study sunlight reflected off Earth at the precise wavelengths that reveal the presence of carbon dioxide and molecular oxygen.

The observatory is sensitive enough to identify columns of carbon within an area as small as about three square kilometers. The goal is to find the areas where the concentration of carbon dioxide is less than 1 part per million different than overall background levels of carbon dioxide, which are about 383 parts per million.

"Our goal is to identify, on regional scales, where this atmospheric CO2 is actually going," said deputy project manager Ralph Basilio.

"These measurements have never been made from space before with this accuracy," Miller added. "We are a pathfinder, we are the first to try to demonstrate how this could be done."

OCO will fly over the planet in 16-day cycles from a 483-mile-high orbit in sync with the sun so that it is always the same time of day on the ground below — 1:26 p.m. On cloudy days, the measurements will not be able to reach all the way to the ground, but over time, scientists expect to collect enough data to identify particular sources of carbon dioxide and absorption spots, known as sinks.

Information will be stored on the spacecraft and radioed once a day to a collecting station in Alaska, then relayed to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., for processing. Analysis will take place at JPL and other science centers involved in the project.

Once in position, OCO will operate in formation with five other Earth-monitoring spacecraft that comprise what is called the "A-Train," or afternoon constellation, which cross the equator shortly after noon every day.

"We'll be able to create new and even more interesting data products," Miller said.

NASA is paying about $270 million for the observatory, its launch on an Orbital Sciences' Taurus booster and two years of operation. Launch is targeted for Jan. 30 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

© 2008 Discovery Channel

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Intelligent men have better quality sperm, research finds

By Fiona Macrae


Researchers found men of higher intelligence have better quality sperm

They can often be overlooked in favour of their handsome counterparts.

But brainboxes should stop despairing because research shows they are more virile than other men.

Scientists have shown that bright men have better sperm.

They produce more of it and it is of higher quality, suggesting they are better-equipped to start a family than their intellectually inferior friends and colleagues.

Researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London made the link after comparing archived data on 425 Vietnam War veterans.

This dated back to 1985, when the men had given sperm samples as part of an extensive medical and undergone intelligence testing.

Comparing the two clearly showed that the brainiest men had the best quality sperm.

Total sperm count was higher, as well as sperm concentration and ability to swim, the journal Intelligence reports.

What is more, the finding could not be explained by factors known to affect health such as smoking, drinking and obesity, said researcher Rosalind Arden.

She said: 'We took two characteristics that seemed, on the surface, unlikely to be associated with each other - intelligence and sperm quality - and tested whether there was a statistical relationship between them.

'We found a small positive relationship: brighter men had better sperm.

'This association wasn't caused by habits like avoiding smoking or drinking - the big hitters of health.'

The finding feeds into recent research showing intelligence is linked to many aspects of health, including lifespan.

While it could be argued that brainy folks lead healthier lives, Miss Arden believes IQ is an outward sign of good genes.

If the genes involved in intelligence also have many other functions in the body, brainy people could expect to be fitter and more fertile.

Similarly, flaws that impair intelligence could harm health and the ability to become a parent.

Miss Arden said: 'We were interested in testing the idea that if most of our genes act on many characteristics (not one gene, one trait), there might be a weak but discoverable relationship right across all of our characteristics - from nose to toes.

'This set of weak relationships would give rise to a "fitness factor" in evolutionary terms.

'This does not mean that men who prefer Play-Doh to Plato always have poor sperm: the relationship we found was marginal.

'But our results do support the theoretically important "fitness factor" idea.'

Fertility experts, however, said that straining to complete crossword puzzles and other brain-sharpening games was likely to do little to improve a man's chances of fatherhood.

Dr Allan Pacey, a male fertility expert from Sheffield University, said: 'The fact that it's possible to detect a statistical relationship between intelligence and semen quality in adult men probably says more about the co-development of brain and testicles when the man was in his mother' womb, and therefore how well they both function in adult life, rather than suggesting that playing Sudoku can somehow stimulate more sperm to be produced.

'The improvement in semen quality with intelligence observed in this paper is small and therefore it is unlikely to have a big impact on the ability of men of different intelligences to conceive.'

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Should Politicians Defer to Scientists?

That's among the questions a new high-powered group in Washington, D.C., will consider as it launches the first major nonpartisan effort to study how the government ought to use scientific information to make decisions. "We will be looking at what policymakers can do that is legitimate and what is beyond the pale," says David Goldston, an organizer for the 13-member panel. They'll meet for the first time next month and hope to release their one-and-only report in June.

Goldston says the group is not trying "to dissect what the Bush Administration has done right or wrong" in the consideration of scientific information for decision-making. Instead, it will examine federal advisory boards, conflict-of-interest policies, how different agencies consider scientific advice, and what role scientists should play in decisions by regulatory agencies such as the FDA or EPA.

So far, most of the work on the topic has been by journalists or the left-leaning nonprofit group Union of Concerned Scientists, whose reports have criticized the Bush Administration on issues including the editing of federal scientific reports and the pressure that government scientists may encounter as they seek to influence policy or speak to reporters about their findings. But this group includes former Bush Administration officials, former Science Committee chair Sherry Boehlert, former Science magazine editor-in-chief Don Kennedy, industrial officials, academics, and even, yes, the UCS, represented by its president, Kevin Knobloch.

Goldston, a former staff director for the House Science and Technology Committee, says the effort is sponsored by the Packard and Hewlett foundations as well as ExxonMobil and is run out of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a relatively new Washington group.

—Eli Kintisch

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How lizard spit aids diabetes cure

A year ago, when 58-year-old retiree B S Wig, saw the scales tip at 149 kg, he was dismayed. He was diabetic and also increasingly obese. His

blood sugar hit a dismal 350 mg/dl after meals. The normal should be under 140 mg/dl. "I had become weak and refused to socialise. My life had gone haywire," says Wig. Till he was put on to a new drug, which not only reduced his weight to a healthy 118 kg, but his sugar levels to normal. "I can now be dated," he says happily.

Wig is lucky. Most diabetics have difficult lives, with an unending cycle of ill health, weakness and obesity as the pancreas produce little or no insulin, the hormone that converts glucose to energy. Plus, diabetic drugs usually make the patient obese, which adds to the risk of high BP, heart problems and strokes. So it's essential to have drugs which control sugar levels and reduce weight.

And that's what a new injectable drug, Byetta, does, say experts. It's made from the saliva of the Gila monster, a venomous lizard found in Southwest America. It's the first in a new range of anti-diabetic medicines and is FDA-approved. However, it can be used only on Type 2 diabetics.

It came to India exactly a year back and now, experts can quantify its success. By 2009, an upgraded version may be available.

Unlike Type 1 diabetes where there's no insulin secretion, in Type 2, insulin production from the beta cells of the pancreas isn't sufficient. And for Byetta to work, viable beta cells are needed, says Dr Ambrish Mithal, senior endocrinologist, Apollo Hospital, Delhi.

It works in three ways: It signals the pancreas to make the right amount of insulin after a meal; stops the liver from making too much glucose when the body does not need it, reduces appetite and the amount of food eaten and slows the rate at which glucose leaves the stomach.

Type 2 diabetics form 90% of the estimated 40 million diabetic cases in India. Almost 80% of them are obese, says Mithal. Adds Dr Pradeep Talwalkar, professor, diabetology, Raheja Hospital, Mumbai. "It suppresses rise in sugar levels by suppressing glucogon, a hormone which has the opposite effect of insulin."

"Byetta" says Mithal, "can produce nausea and vomiting in some patients. It is a niche drug, not for all diabetics, but is a good choice for those who need to lose weight with high post-meal blood sugar rises that remain uncontrolled even on oral medicines."

"Byetta also carries a lower risk than insulin of causing hypoglycemia, a dangerous condition where the patient can lose consciousness and slip into coma as insulin drops to very low levels," says Talwalkar.

Wig's case is an ideal example. "I was not judicious about my medicines and kept oscillating between oral medicines and insulin. Meanwhile, my weight and sugar levels went for a toss till I started taking Byetta," he says.

It's important for obese diabetics to lose weight, says Chennai-based Dr A Ramachandran, president, India Diabetics Research Foundation, as obesity makes them resistant to diabetic treatment. "It is, in fact, an analog for hormones which produce insulin called incretin." A weight reduction of 5-6 kg a year is good, says Mithal. Byetta is normally given with oral medicines.

But it's expensive — around Rs 7,500 monthly. Rimi Dasgupta, a 41-year-old diabetic, who lost 12 kg and with sugar levels which came down to 140 mg/dl from 390 mg/dl, says, "It's easy to inject, but I don't know how long I can take it as it's expensive. I hope to continue it for a year."

Byetta comes in a prefilled injection pen which uses a small needle. This pen contains pre-measured doses, so the patient doesn't have to adjust the dose. It's injected twice daily before morning and evening meals.

Generally, the patient is started off on a dose of 5 micrograms (mcg) twice a day for at least 30 days, but this could be increased to 10 mcg based on individual results. In clinical trials, it was found that on an average, patients lost five pounds in 30 weeks. However, Byetta cannot be used simply for weight reduction.

Though there are other new medicines which stimulate the pancreas to make insulin without producing hypoglycemia such as Januvia and Glavus, says Ramachandran, these don't make a patient lose weight.

Byetta could just be that shot that makes a difference.

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Is it true that no two snowflakes are alike?

by Matt Soniak

iStock_000006919668-snowflake.jpgUp in the winter sky, water vapor in a cloud condenses into a droplet and freezes into a tiny bit of ice, with the water molecules bonding together as a hexagonal crystalline lattice with a six-fold symmetry. As water vapor condenses on its surfaces, the ice crystal grows into a hexagonal prism. As the crystal gets larger and larger, branches begin to form at the corners of the hexagon. When the crystal is heavy enough, it falls through the atmosphere toward the ground, where we call it a snowflake.

Many of those snowflakes have fallen onto the small town of Jericho, Vermont, the home of Wilson Alwyn Bentley. As a teenager, Bentley became interested in snowflakes, and he attempted to draw them while looking at them through a microscope his mother had given him. He found that he couldn’t get the complex structures of the flakes down on paper before they melted, so he attached a camera to a microscope using an adjustable bellows mechanism and photographed his first snowflake on January 15, 1885.

Over the next few decades, Bentley continued to study snowflakes, taking 5,381 photographs of them and developing a system to categorize over 80 different flake types and shapes. In 1920, he became a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society and was awarded the Society’s first research grant ($25). Bentley sometimes told people that he had never seen two snowflakes that looked alike and published several magazine articles arguing that no two flakes are identical. That idea stuck in the public imagination, which brings us to today’s question: was he right?

Scientists have discovered that as an ice crystal gets blown around in the air while it grows, the environmental conditions it is exposed to and the timing of the exposure determine the shape of the snowflake. With different factors determining the snowflake’s shape, and that shape changing as the growing snowflake moves through different conditions, you get a lot of variety in snowflake shape. Here’s a handy little graph from a Caltech physics professor that shows which shapes occur in which conditions:


If two growing snowflakes are exposed to the same temperatures and humidity and water saturation levels at the exact same time (live out the exact same lives, if you will), they may look exactly alike at the macroscopic level. In fact, in 1988, the Nancy Knight was studying snowflakes as part of her work with the National Center for Atmospheric Research and found two identical snowflakes of the hollow column type in a Wisconsin snowstorm.

But Caltech physics professor and snowflake expert Kenneth Libbrecht (the man who made the above graph) points out that if you look at any two flakes – even seemingly identical ones – on the atomic level, you’ll find numbers of water molecules and different layouts of those molecules (most water molecules contain an oxygen atom of 16O, but one molecule in every 500 has an 18O). One thing you won’t find? Two snowflakes that are exactly alike.

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What is truth serum?

INTERROGATION CHAIR: Can "truth serum" make criminals fess up?
© iStockPhoto / Stefan Klein

The baby-faced gunman of Mumbai, Azam Amir Kasab, now in the custody of Indian police, is the sole surviving attacker in the three-day rampage that began on the night of November 26 and left more than 170 people dead and scores of others injured.

After the attacks, Indian officials immediately began pointing fingers at longtime rival, Pakistan, as the source of the 10 militants—a charge that Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari disputed last night on CNN. During police interrogations, Kasab himself claimed to hail from the Punjab region of Pakistan and to have trained with the Pakistan-based extremist group, Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Of course, Kasab could be making this all up. The only way that interrogators can tap a man's memory is to ask him. But what if the person is unwilling to spill the beans or, at least, the real ones? If only there were only a way to plug a USB cable to the back of Kasab's head and just download the experiences.

While such technology may be the stuff of science fiction, Indian government officials have announced they will employ another technique that seems to leap from the pages of a 1940s pulp novel: truth serum. Also known as narcoanalysis, administering psychoactive drugs for interrogation purposes has been around for just under a century, but it has been viewed with skepticism from the start. Indeed, the practice is banned in most democracies, and evidence obtained from such an interrogation would have a hard time making it into an American court.

But could "truth serum" reliably extract the truth from this man and other criminal targets? We asked Alison Winter, a science historian at the University of Chicago, who has studied the origins and applications of truth serum.

What does the term "truth serum" mean?
That's a term that was used to describe the use of certain drugs, most commonly barbiturates like sodium amytal and sodium pentothal, to try to extract truthful statements from people about their past experiences. What the term really meant was that the people who used the serum believed that it made people unable to censor themselves and they would just empty their memories into a narrative statement.

Who discovered these effects?
In the mid-1910s, Dr. Robert House was an obstetrician who noticed that the popular obstetric anesthetic drug, scopolamine, also known as twilight sleep, would put his patients into a state where they would deliver information in a way that seemed automatic.

He didn't want to use it in interrogation, for the purpose of getting people to admit to criminal acts, so this is a quite different beginning from the association we have now. At the time, he wanted to use it to provide support for claims people made about their innocence -- not their guilt. If somebody said 'I wasn't at the crime, I was in the library but nobody saw me,' then, perhaps, this would give support for the claim, because you would think they could not lie under the drug's influence.

It was only later when other people used these drugs that they got the reputation for having the power to force people to provide information against their will.

How did they begin to be used for interrogation?
In the 1930s, there were these committees to evaluate corruption in American policing, and it first came out that police were using these drugs in interrogations to get suspects to incriminate themselves. But there's not a lot of documentation of that.

During World War II, these drugs were used in a very different way. They were the first intravenous anesthetics and were used to treat traumatized soldiers who had lost their memories or had aphasia [loss of the ability to speak or process language due to brain injury]. Doctors found that using these drugs would make it easier for people to say what happened, and this helped them feel better.

As a result, a lot of doctors who had been in the military during the war were familiar with these drugs. Sodium amytal and pentothal were no longer just used as surgical anesthetics, although that was their most common use, but they were sometimes used for this psychiatric purpose of getting people to talk. In most cases, the drugs were not used in interrogations, but to help people talk about their memories in psychiatric consultations. However, some of these military doctors eventually became consultants for police forces or they did psychiatric research for the government and began exploring different ways of using these drugs for interrogation.

Do experts believe they really work?
The idea of a "truth serum" has never been widely accepted. Although there have been waves of enthusiasm for the idea of a drug that can extract information reliably, there has been even more skepticism. Ever since the 1920s, many judges, psychiatrists, and scientists have rejected the idea that there is a drug that can get memories out intact. They have claimed, instead, that it makes people feel like talking, but it also puts them in a state of extreme suggestibility: people will pick up on cues about what questioners want to hear and repeat that back. This is one of the reasons that statements made under the influence of these drugs have never, as far as I know, been accepted in an American court.

After 9/11, there were discussions in the national papers about whether it's a good idea to interrogate suspects using these drugs. Every time there is a desperate need for information from people, you get speculation about whether these drugs are going to get that information. But you also get consistent warnings that the information may be less reliable than what you would get without the drugs. That skepticism was there right form the start 80 years ago.

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EEGs show brain differences between poor and rich kids

University of California, Berkeley, researchers have shown for the first time that the brains of low-income children function differently from the brains of high-income kids.

In a study recently accepted for publication by the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, scientists at UC Berkeley's Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and the School of Public Health report that normal 9- and 10-year-olds differing only in socioeconomic status have detectable differences in the response of their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is critical for problem solving and creativity.

Child wired for EEG to test brain functionElectroencephalography, or EEG, uses electrodes on the scalp and held in place by a cap to measure underlying brain activity. (Lee Michael Perry/UC Berkeley)
Brain function was measured by means of an electroencephalograph (EEG) - basically, a cap fitted with electrodes to measure electrical activity in the brain - like that used to assess epilepsy, sleep disorders and brain tumors.

"Kids from lower socioeconomic levels show brain physiology patterns similar to someone who actually had damage in the frontal lobe as an adult," said Robert Knight, director of the institute and a UC Berkeley professor of psychology. "We found that kids are more likely to have a low response if they have low socioeconomic status, though not everyone who is poor has low frontal lobe response."

Previous studies have shown a possible link between frontal lobe function and behavioral differences in children from low and high socioeconomic levels, but according to cognitive psychologist Mark Kishiyama, first author of the new paper, "those studies were only indirect measures of brain function and could not disentangle the effects of intelligence, language proficiency and other factors that tend to be associated with low socioeconomic status. Our study is the first with direct measure of brain activity where there is no issue of task complexity."

Co-author W. Thomas Boyce, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of public health who currently is the British Columbia Leadership Chair of Child Development at the University of British Columbia (UBC), is not surprised by the results. "We know kids growing up in resource-poor environments have more trouble with the kinds of behavioral control that the prefrontal cortex is involved in regulating. But the fact that we see functional differences in prefrontal cortex response in lower socioeconomic status kids is definitive."

Boyce, a pediatrician and developmental psychobiologist, heads a joint UC Berkeley/UBC research program called WINKS - Wellness in Kids - that looks at how the disadvantages of growing up in low socioeconomic circumstances change children's basic neural development over the first several years of life.

"This is a wake-up call," Knight said. "It's not just that these kids are poor and more likely to have health problems, but they might actually not be getting full brain development from the stressful and relatively impoverished environment associated with low socioeconomic status: fewer books, less reading, fewer games, fewer visits to museums."

Kishiyama, Knight and Boyce suspect that the brain differences can be eliminated by proper training. They are collaborating with UC Berkeley neuroscientists who use games to improve the prefrontal cortex function, and thus the reasoning ability, of school-age children.

"It's not a life sentence," Knight emphasized. "We think that with proper intervention and training, you could get improvement in both behavioral and physiological indices."

EEG maps of brain activityChildren of high socioeconomic status (SES) show more activity (dark green) in the prefrontal cortex (top) than do kids of low SES when confronted with a novel or unexpected stimulus. (Mark Kishiyama/UC Berkeley)
Kishiyama, Knight, Boyce and their colleagues selected 26 children ages 9 and 10 from a group of children in the WINKS study. Half were from families with low incomes and half from families with high incomes. For each child, the researchers measured brain activity while he or she was engaged in a simple task: watching a sequence of triangles projected on a screen. The subjects were instructed to click a button when a slightly skewed triangle flashed on the screen.

The researchers were interested in the brain's very early response - within as little as 200 milliseconds, or a fifth of a second - after a novel picture was flashed on the screen, such as a photo of a puppy or of Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

"An EEG allows us to measure very fast brain responses with millisecond accuracy," Kishiyama said.

The researchers discovered a dramatic difference in the response of the prefrontal cortex not only when an unexpected image flashed on the screen, but also when children were merely watching the upright triangles waiting for a skewed triangle to appear. Those from low socioeconomic environments showed a lower response to the unexpected novel stimuli in the prefrontal cortex that was similar, Kishiyama said, to the response of people who have had a portion of their frontal lobe destroyed by a stroke.

"When paying attention to the triangles, the prefrontal cortex helps you process the visual stimuli better. And the prefrontal cortex is even more involved in detecting novelty, like the unexpected photographs," he said. But in both cases, "the low socioeconomic kids were not detecting or processing the visual stimuli as well. They were not getting that extra boost from the prefrontal cortex."

"These kids have no neural damage, no prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol, no neurological damage," Kishiyama said. "Yet, the prefrontal cortex is not functioning as efficiently as it should be. This difference may manifest itself in problem solving and school performance."

The researchers suspect that stressful environments and cognitive impoverishment are to blame, since in animals, stress and environmental deprivation have been shown to affect the prefrontal cortex. UC Berkeley's Marian Diamond, professor of integrative biology, showed nearly 20 years ago in rats that enrichment thickens the cerebral cortex as it improves test performance. And as Boyce noted, previous studies have shown that children from poor families hear 30 million fewer words by the time they are four than do kids from middle-class families.

"In work that we and others have done, it really looks like something as simple and easily done as talking to your kids" can boost prefrontal cortex performance, Boyce said.

"We are certainly not blaming lower socioeconomic families for not talking to their kids - there are probably a zillion reasons why that happens," he said. "But changing developmental outcomes might involve something as accessible as helping parents to understand that it is important that kids sit down to dinner with their parents, and that over the course of that dinner it would be good for there to be a conversation and people saying things to each other."

"The study is suggestive and a little bit frightening that environmental conditions have such a strong impact on brain development," said Silvia Bunge, UC Berkeley assistant professor of psychology who is leading the intervention studies on prefrontal cortex development in teenagers by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Boyce's UBC colleague, Adele Diamond, showed last year that 5- and 6-year-olds with impaired executive functioning, that is, poor problem solving and reasoning abilities, can improve their academic performance with the help of special activities, including dramatic play.

Bunge hopes that, with fMRI, she can show improvements in academic performance as a result of these games, actually boosting the activity of the prefrontal cortex.

"People have tried for a long time to train reasoning, largely unsuccessfully," Bunge said. "Our question is, 'Can we replicate these initial findings and at the same time give kids the tools to succeed?'"

This research is supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke of the National Institutes of Health.

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Developing Oil from Canadian Tar Sands Could Kill 160 Million Migratory Birds by 2038