Four in 10 infants lack strong parental attachments

In a study of 14,000 U.S. children, 40 percent lack strong emotional bonds — what psychologists call “secure attachment” — with their parents that are crucial to success later in life, according to a new report. The researchers found that these children are more likely to face educational and behavioral problems.In a report published by Sutton Trust, a London-based institute that has published more than 140 research papers on education and social mobility, researchers from Princeton University, Columbia University, the London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of Bristol found that infants under the age of three who do not form strong bonds with their mothers or fathers are more likely to be aggressive, defiant and hyperactive as adults. These bonds, or secure attachments, are formed through early parental care, such as picking up a child when he or she cries or holding and reassuring a child.”When parents tune in to and respond to their children’s needs and are a dependable source of comfort, those children learn how to manage their own feeling and behaviors,” said Sophie Moullin, a joint doctoral candidate studying at Princeton’s Department of Sociology and the Office of Population Research, which is based at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. “These secure attachments to their mothers and fathers provide these children with a base from which they can thrive.”Written by Moullin, Jane Waldfogel from Columbia University and the London School of Economics and Political Science and Elizabeth Washbrook from the University of Bristol, the report uses data collected by the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, a nationally representative U.S. study of 14,000 children born in 2001. The researchers also reviewed more than 100 academic studies.Their analysis shows that about 60 percent of children develop strong attachments to their parents, which are formed through simple actions, such as holding a baby lovingly and responding to the baby’s needs. Such actions support children’s social and emotional development, which, in turn, strengthens their cognitive development, the researchers write. These children are more likely to be resilient to poverty, family instability, parental stress and depression. Additionally, if boys growing up in poverty have strong parental attachments, they are two and a half times less likely to display behavior problems at school.The approximately 40 percent who lack secure attachments, on the other hand, are more likely to have poorer language and behavior before entering school. …

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Marmoset monkeys know polite conversation

Oct. 17, 2013 — Humans aren’t the only species that knows how to carry on polite conversation. Marmoset monkeys, too, will engage one another for up to 30 minutes at a time in vocal turn-taking, according to evidence reported in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on October 17.”We were surprised by how reliably the marmoset monkeys exchanged their vocalizations in a cooperative manner, particularly since in most cases they were doing so with individuals that they were not pair-bonded with,” says Asif Ghazanfar of Princeton University. “This makes what we found much more similar to human conversations and very different from the coordinated calling of animals such as birds, frogs, or crickets, which is linked to mating or territorial defense.”In other words, both people and marmosets appear to be willing to “talk” to just about anyone, and without any rude interruptions. The discovery makes marmosets rather unique, the researchers say, noting that chimps and other great apes “not only don’t take turns when they vocalize, they don’t seem to vocalize much at all, period!”Ghazanfar and first author of the study Daniel Takahashi were especially interested in marmosets because of two features they hold in common with people: they are generally friendly with one another and they communicate primarily by producing vocal sounds. The scientists suspected that those features would support the self-monitored give and take that a good conversation requires.To find out, they placed marmosets in opposite corners of a room in which they could hear but not see each other and recorded the exchanges that ensued. They found that marmosets don’t call at the same time, but rather wait for about 5 seconds after one is finished calling to respond. In other words, they follow a set of unspoken rules of conversational etiquette.Further study of the marmosets could help to explain not only why humans communicate with each other as they do but also why conversation can sometimes break down.”We are currently exploring how very early life experiences in marmosets — including those in the womb and through to parent-infant vocal interactions — can illuminate what goes awry in human communication disorders,” Ghazanfar says.

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Small bits of genetic material fight cancer’s spread

Oct. 15, 2013 — A class of molecules called microRNAs may offer cancer patients two ways to combat their disease.Researchers at Princeton University have found that microRNAs — small bits of genetic material capable of repressing the expression of certain genes — may serve as both therapeutic targets and predictors of metastasis, or a cancer’s spread from its initial site to other parts of the body. The research was published in the journal Cancer Cell.MicroRNAs are specifically useful for tackling bone metastasis, which occurs in about 70 percent of patients with late-stage cancer, said senior author Yibin Kang, Princeton’s Warner-Lambert/Parke-Davis Professor of Molecular Biology. During bone metastasis, tumors invade the bone and take over the cells known as osteoclasts that normally break down old bone material as new material grows. These cells then go into overdrive and dissolve the bone far more quickly than they would during normal bone turnover, which leads to bone lesions, bone fracture, nerve compression and extreme pain.”The tumor uses the osteoclasts as forced labor,” explained Kang, who is a member of the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and adviser to Brian Ell, a graduate student in the Princeton Department of Molecular Biology and first author on the study. Kang and Ell worked with scientists at the IRCCS Scientific Institute of Romagna for the Study and Treatment of Cancer in Meldola, Italy, and the University Cancer Center in Hamburg, Germany. In this video, Ell describes his research on using small RNAs for treating and monitoring bone metastasis.MicroRNAs can reduce that forced labor by inhibiting osteoclast proteins and thus limiting the number of osteoclasts present. Ell and his colleagues observed that bones exhibiting metastasis developed significantly fewer lesions when injected with microRNAs. Their findings suggest that microRNAs could be effective treatment targets for tackling bone metastasis — and also may help doctors detect the cancer’s spread to the bone, Kang said. Samples collected from human patients revealed a strong correlation between elevated levels of another group of microRNAs and the occurrence of bone metastasis, the researchers found.In a commentary accompanying the study in Cancer Cell, researchers who were not associated with the work wrote, “This [study] represents significant insight into our understanding of the organ-specific function and pathological activity of miRNAs, which could lead to improvements in diagnosis, treatment and prevention of bone metastases and elucidates a unique aspect of the bone microenvironment to support tumor growth in bone.” The commentary was authored by David Waning, Khalid Mohammad and Theresa Guise of Indiana University in Indianapolis.Kang said he ultimately hopes to extend mice experimentation to clinical trials. …

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How red crabs on Christmas Island speak for the tropics

Oct. 10, 2013 — Each year, the land-dwelling Christmas Island red crab takes an arduous and shockingly precise journey from its earthen burrow to the shores of the Indian Ocean where weeks of mating and egg laying await.The crabs represent species that do not factor into a lot of climate-change research. The majority of studies focus on changes in temperate climates, such as the future severity and duration of summers and winters. Tropical animals migrate in response to wet-dry seasons. If fluctuations in rainfall become more extreme and frequent with climate change, then scores of animals could be in trouble.Native to the Australian territories of Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, millions of the crabs start rolling across the island roads and landscape in crimson waves when the November rains begin. After a two-week scuttle to the sea, the male crab sets up and defends a mating burrow for himself and a female of his kind, the place where she will incubate their clutch for another two weeks. Before the morning of the high tide that precedes the December new moon, the females must emerge to release their millions of eggs into the ocean. A month later, the next generation of crabs comes ashore.But a lack of rain can delay or entirely cancel this meticulous process, according to research conducted through Princeton University that could help scientists understand the consequences of climate change for the millions of migratory animals in Earth’s tropical zones.The researchers report in the journal Global Change Biology that the crabs’ reproductive cycle tracked closely with the amount and timing of precipitation. Writ large, these findings suggest that erratic rainfall could be detrimental to animals that migrate with the dry-wet seasonal cycle that breaks up the tropical year, the researchers report. If fluctuations in rainfall become more extreme and frequent with climate change, then scores of animals could be in trouble — not just the migrators themselves, but also the creatures reliant on them for food.Lead author Allison Shaw, who conducted the work as a Princeton doctoral student in ecology and evolutionary biology, explained that what scientists understand about the possible impact of a warming planet on animal movement is dominated by studies of how creatures that migrate with the summer-to-winter seasonal shifts of Europe and North America will be affected by changes such as the severity and duration of summers and winters. …

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Great Recession onset spurs harsh parenting

Aug. 5, 2013 — The onset of the Great Recession and, more generally, deteriorating economic conditions lead mothers to engage in harsh parenting, such as hitting or shouting at children, a team of researchers has found. But the effect is only found in mothers who carry a gene variation that makes them more likely to react to their environment.The study, conducted by scholars at New York University, Columbia University, Princeton University, and Pennsylvania State University’s College of Medicine, appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).”It’s commonly thought that economic hardship within families leads to stress, which, in turn, leads to deterioration of parenting quality,” said Dohoon Lee, an assistant professor of sociology at NYU and lead author of the paper. “But these findings show that an economic downturn in the larger community can adversely affect parenting — regardless of the conditions individual families face.”The researchers found that harsh parenting increased as economic conditions worsened only for those with what has been called the “sensitive” allele, or variation, of the DRD2 Taq1A genotype, which controls the synthesis of dopamine, a behavior-regulating chemical in the brain. Deteriorating economic conditions had no effect on the level of harsh parenting of mothers without the sensitive allele. Just more than half of the mothers in the study had the sensitive, or T, allele.Likewise, the researchers found that mothers with the sensitive allele had lower levels of harsh parenting when economic conditions were improving compared with those without the sensitive allele.”This finding provides further evidence in favor of the orchid-dandelion hypothesis that humans with sensitive genes, like orchids, wilt or die in poor environments, but flourish in rich environments, whereas dandelions survive in poor and rich environments,” said Irwin Garfinkel, a co-author of the paper and the Mitchell I. Ginsberg Professor of Contemporary Urban Problems at the Columbia University School of Social Work.The findings were based on data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFS), a population-based, birth cohort study conducted by researchers at Princeton and Columbia of nearly 5,000 children born in 20 large American cities between 1998 and 2000. Mothers were interviewed shortly after giving birth and when the child was approximately 1, 3, 5, and 9 years old. Data on harsh parenting were collected when the child was 3, 5, and 9 years old. In Year 9, saliva DNA samples were collected from 2,600 mothers and children.Harsh parenting was measured using 10 items from the commonly used Conflict Tactics Scale — five items measured psychological harsh parenting (e.g., shouting, threatening, etc.) and five gauged corporal punishment (e.g., spanking, slapping).The researchers supplemented these data with measurements of economic conditions in each of the 20 cities where the FFS mothers lived. …

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Intent to harm: Willful acts seem more damaging

July 29, 2013 — How harmful we perceive an act to be depends on whether we see the act as intentional, reveals new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.The new research shows that people significantly overestimate the monetary cost of intentional harm, even when they are given a financial incentive to be accurate.”The law already recognizes intentional harm as more wrong than unintentional harm,” explain researchers Daniel Ames and Susan Fiske of Princeton University. “But it assumes that people can assess compensatory damages — what it would cost to make a person ‘whole’ again — independently of punitive damages.”According to Ames and Fiske, the new research suggests that this separation may not be psychologically plausible:”These studies suggest that people might not only penalize intentional harm more, but actually perceive it as intrinsically more damaging.”In their first experiment, Ames and Fiske asked participants to read a vignette about a profit-sharing company in which the CEO made a poor financial investment and cost his employees part of their paycheck.Participants who were informed that the CEO made a poor investment intentionally — so that employees would work harder for profits in the future — perceived the paycheck cut as more damaging to employees and their families than participants who were told the CEO simply made an investment mistake, despite the fact that the employees suffered the same exact financial loss in each scenario.Participants were motivated to “build a case” against the CEO who caused intentional harm, so they exaggerated how much harm had been done, Ames and Fiske explain.In two additional studies, participants read about a town that was faced with a crippling water shortage, and were asked the estimate the sum of monetary damages caused by the drought as they appeared in quick succession on a computer screen (e.g. $80 to replace lost medical supplies, $600 worth of crop loss).Participants who thought that a drought caused the shortage estimated the amount of damages accurately — within about $100. But those who were told that a man intentionally diverted the water estimated way over the mark — about $2,200 dollars more. This bias persisted even when people were given a financial incentive to be accurate.The finding may have legal implications, indicating that the notions of compensatory and punitive damages are inextricably intertwined for most people. Even when participants were explicitly required to simply add up the sum of the numbers they just saw (compensatory damages) in one space, and give a separate estimate for punitive damages in another space, they still over-estimated the sum of the compensatory damages — the amount of harm that actually occurred — when they believed that the harm was intentional.The researchers believe that the findings also have implications for policy-related judgments, given that preventing harms almost always involves a tradeoff among limited resources:”Every wrong that is righted leaves another wrong left unchecked,” Ames and Fiske note. “Policymakers sometimes over-allocate resources to harms that feel highly intentional — like preventing murders and terrorist attacks — even when data suggest that humanitarian interests might be better served by dedicating some of those resources to other causes, like global warming and malnutrition.”According to Ames and Fiske, the new findings suggest a potential psychological mechanism for this phenomenon: “Intentional harms might receive more funding and attention, not just because of political imperatives and moral reactionism, but also because intent magnifies the perceived harms themselves,” they explain.This research was supported by a National Science Foundation Research Fellowship.

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A faster vessel for charting the brain

July 25, 2013 — Princeton University researchers have created “souped up” versions of the calcium-sensitive proteins that for the past decade or so have given scientists an unparalleled view and understanding of brain-cell communication.Reported July 18 in the journal Nature Communications, the enhanced proteins developed at Princeton respond more quickly to changes in neuron activity, and can be customized to react to different, faster rates of neuron activity. Together, these characteristics would give scientists a more precise and comprehensive view of neuron activity.The researchers sought to improve the function of proteins known as green fluorescent protein/calmodulin protein (GCaMP) sensors, an amalgam of various natural proteins that are a popular form of sensor proteins known as genetically encoded calcium indicators, or GECIs. Once introduced into the brain via the bloodstream, GCaMPs react to the various calcium ions involved in cell activity by glowing fluorescent green. Scientists use this fluorescence to trace the path of neural signals throughout the brain as they happen.GCaMPs and other GECIs have been invaluable to neuroscience, said corresponding author Samuel Wang, a Princeton associate professor of molecular biology and the Princeton Neuroscience Institute. Scientists have used the sensors to observe brain signals in real time, and to delve into previously obscure neural networks such as those in the cerebellum. GECIs are necessary for the BRAIN Initiative President Barack Obama announced in April, Wang said. The estimated $3 billion project to map the activity of every neuron in the human brain cannot be done with traditional methods, such as probes that attach to the surface of the brain. “There is no possible way to complete that project with electrodes, so you have to do it with other tools — GECIs are those tools,” he said.Despite their value, however, the proteins are still limited when it comes to keeping up with the fast-paced, high-voltage ways of brain cells, and various research groups have attempted to address these limitations over the years, Wang said.”GCaMPs have made significant contributions to neuroscience so far, but there have been some limits and researchers are running up against those limits,” Wang said.One shortcoming is that GCaMPs are about one-tenth of a second slower than neurons, which can fire hundreds of times per second, Wang said. The proteins activate after neural signals begin, and mark the end of a signal when brain cells have (by neuronal terms) long since moved on to something else, Wang said. A second current limitation is that GCaMPs can only bind to four calcium ions at a time. …

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Evolution picks up hitchhikers: Pervasive genetic hitchhiking and clonal interference in evolving yeast populations

July 22, 2013 — In a twist on “survival of the fittest,” researchers have discovered that evolution is driven not by a single beneficial mutation but rather by a group of mutations, including ones called “genetic hitchhikers” that are simply along for the ride. These hitchhikers are mutations that do not appear to have a role in contributing to an organism’s fitness and therefore its evolution, yet may play an important role down the road.Researchers from Princeton University found in a study of 1,000 generations of adaptation in 40 yeast populations that about five to seven specific mutations, rather than just a one, are needed for an organism to succeed. The knowledge of how mutations drive evolution can inform our understanding of how tumors resist chemotherapeutics and how bacteria evolve resistance to antibiotics. The study was published July 21 in the journal Nature.Evolution occurs when an individual experiences spontaneous beneficial mutations in its genome that improve its ability to adapt to its environment. The common view was that a single mutation could boost the survival of an individual, which would then reproduce and pass on the mutation to its offspring.Instead, the Princeton researchers found that rather than just one mutation causing enhanced survival, about five to seven mutations are required. These extra mutations are termed hitchhikers because they don’t appear to contribute to the enhanced fitness of the organism.”Our study indicates that evolution is more of a group effort,” said Gregory Lang, first author on the paper and an associate research scholar in the laboratory of David Botstein, the Anthony B. Evnin ’62 Professor of Genomics at Princeton University’s Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics. The research team included co-first author Daniel Rice at Harvard University, who made key contributions to the bioinformatics and data analysis; Michael Desai, an assistant professor at Harvard University and a former Lewis-Sigler Fellow at Princeton; Mark Hickman at Rowan University; and Erica Sodergren and George Weinstock at the Washington University School of Medicine.”The finding goes against the traditional view of evolution being determined by individual mutations that provide a large fitness advantage by themselves,” Desai said. “We found that small groups — which we call cohorts — of mutations were associated with increased survival. No single mutation is driving adaptation. …

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