Monthly Archives: January 2011

Study: Writing by hand helps brain

Don’t write off pen and paper just yet. New research shows the old-fashioned tools can make you a stronger learner.

For many, writing by hand seems a little retro. However, using a keyboard or touchscreen to write is a drastically different cognitive process from writing by hand, according to a study published in the journal Advances in Haptics.

Researchers Anne Mangen, of the University of Stavanger in Norway, and Jean-Luc Velay, a French neuroscientist, said their research indicates the increase in digital writing in schools needs to be examined more closely.

Jacob Payne, 28, may be typical of the new generation.

“I can’t tell you the last time I wrote more than a few sentences by hand,” said Payne, a journalist in Louisville. “It’s literally been years.”

Payne said he simply does not need to use paper and pen, since he can digitally record, report, edit and publish their work with iPads, laptops and phones.

With more careers, such as Payne’s, requiring a strong command of technology, schools are preparing students to be tech-savvy at an early age. Penmanship is not required to be taught in Illinois schools. And cursive is not part of the national Common Core State Standards Initiative, which is adopted by most U.S. states, while keyboarding skills are specifically required.

The researchers found that writing by hand is fundamentally different from typing on a computer. And people who are learning new letters — such as children learning to read for the first time, or as adults picking up a second language with new characters — retain the information best when writing the letters by hand, according to Velay’s research.

The physical act of holding a pencil and shaping letters sends feedback signals to the brain. This leaves a “motor memory,” which later makes it easier to recall the information connected with the movement, according to the study.

When adults in Velay’s study were asked, either through typing or handwriting, to learn 10 new, unfamiliar letters, those who had learned them by hand were more likely to remember the letters correctly. Brain scans showed that when they remember each letter, the motor-function part of their brain was also active.

Conversely, this did not happen for the people who learned new letters with a computer. Their minds had not connected the letter with a motor function.

The movement for “the typing of a T is no different than the typing of a Y,” Mangen said. Further, when “you write something on the keyboard, you get the visual output somewhere else, on the screen,” as opposed to you watching your hand when you write on paper, she said.

This means that learning to write by hand can strengthen reading skills.

Mangen said she understands the benefits of typing — it’s quite simply faster. However, the fact that writing by hand can be comparatively “long and difficult” might be the reason it can be so helpful to triggering brain processes, she said.

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Does Facebook make you sadder?

 Facebook is “like being in a play. You make a character,” one teenager told MIT professor Sherry Turkle in her new book on technology, “Alone Together,” as reported on the website Slate.

Turkle wrote about the exhaustion felt by teenagers as they constantly tweak their Facebook profiles for maximum cool. She called that “presentation anxiety,” and suggested that the site’s element of constant performance makes people feel alienated from themselves. (The book’s broader theory is that technology, despite its promises of social connectivity, actually makes us lonelier by preventing true intimacy.)

Facebook oneupsmanship may have particular implications for women. As Meghan O’Rourke noted in Slate, women’s happiness has been at an all-time low in recent years.

O’Rourke and two University of Pennsylvania economists who have studied the male-female happiness gap argue that women’s collective discontent may be due to too much choice and second-guessing — unforeseen fallout, they speculated, of the way women’s roles have evolved over the last half-century.

As the economists put it, “The increased opportunity to succeed in many dimensions may have led to an increased likelihood in believing that one’s life is not measuring up.”

According to Slate, if you’re already inclined to compare your own decisions to those of other women and to find yours wanting, believing that others are happier with their choices than they actually are is likely to increase your own sense of inadequacy. And women may be particularly susceptible to the Facebook illusion.

For one thing, the site is inhabited by more women than men, and women users tend to be more active on the site, as Forbes magazine reported.

According to a recent study out of the University of Texas at Austin, while men are more likely to use the site to share items related to the news or current events, women tend to use it to engage in personal communication (posting photos, sharing content “related to friends and family”).

This may make it especially hard for women to avoid comparisons that make them miserable. (Last fall, for example, the Washington Post ran a piece about the difficulties of infertile women in shielding themselves from the Facebook crowings of pregnant friends.)

Jordan, who is now a postdoctoral fellow studying social psychology at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, suggested women might do well to consider Facebook profiles as something akin to the airbrushed photos on the covers of women’s magazine. No, you will never have those thighs, because nobody has those thighs. You will never be as consistently happy as your Facebook friends, because nobody is that happy.

So remember, if you’re feeling particularly down, use Facebook for its most exalted purpose: finding fat exes.

Face transplant proves cost-effective

A new study published in the American Journal of Transplantation revealed that the cost of face transplantation in a very complicated patient is similar to the cumulative cost of multiple conventional reconstructions.

Led by Maria Siemionow, MD, PhD, DSc, of the Department of Plastic Surgery at the Cleveland Clinic, surgeons assessed a 46-year old Caucasian female who suffered significant facial trauma following a shotgun blast in September 2004.

For four years, she underwent 23 separate, traditional reconstructive operations. In December 2008, she became the recipient of the first U.S. face transplant. It provided the unique opportunity to analyze the cost of the multiple reconstructions and the first face transplant in the United States.

Results found that the cost of the first U.S. face transplant was similar to multiple conventional reconstructions. The combined cost of multiple reconstructive procedures was $353,480, and face transplantation was $349, 959, respectively.

“Although the cost of facial transplantation is considerable, the alleviation of psychological and physiological suffering, exceptional functional recovery and fulfillment of long-lasting hope for social reintegration may be priceless,” Siemionow said.

‘Fun’ Facebook info, photos could work against you

Now there’s another reason to be careful about what you post on Facebook: Your insurance company may be watching.

Nathalie Blanchard found out the hard way, according to a story in the Chicago Tribune.

Struggling with depression, the 30-year-old from Quebec, Canada, took a medical leave in early 2008 from her job as an IBM technician. Soon after, she began receiving monthly disability benefits from her insurer, Manulife Financial Corp.

A year later and without warning, the payments stopped.

A representative of the Toronto insurance company told Blanchard that Manulife used photos of her on Facebook — showing her frolicking at a beach and hanging out at a pub — to determine she was depression-free and able to work, said Tom Lavin, Blanchard’s attorney.

“They just assumed from the pictures that she was a fraud,” Lavin said, “without investigating further before terminating Nathalie’s benefits.”

Blanchard sued Manulife, accusing Manulife of failing to talk to her doctor and neglecting to inform her before cutting off payments. The case is scheduled for trial next January.

Manulife, citing ongoing legal proceedings, declined to comment on the case but said in a statement: “We would not deny or terminate a valid claim solely based on information published on websites such as Facebook.”

Social-networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace have become the go-to places where employers, college admissions officers and divorce lawyers can do background checks. Armed with the information, police have caught fugitives, lawyers have discredited witnesses and companies have discovered perfect-on-paper applicants engaged in illegal or simply embarrassing behavior.

And now insurance companies are exploiting the free, easily accessible websites.

Such sites have become the latest tools in detecting fraud, which the industry says costs the U.S. as much as $80 billion a year and accounts for 3 to 10 percent of total annual healthcare spending.

Investigators who once followed people with cameras now sit behind desks “mining databases and searching Facebook,” said Frank Scapili, spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a nonprofit that investigates suspect claims for insurance partners such as Allstate and State Farm.

“They look out for things that don’t add up,” he said, “like someone who claimed they hurt their back too badly to work and then bragged on Facebook about running a marathon.”

Social-networking sites have become such “standard tools” that Peter Foley, vice president of claims at American Insurance Assn., said that investigators could be considered negligent if they didn’t conduct at least “a quick scan of social media to check for contradictions.”

But the evidence gathered on these sites, Foley and other insurance experts caution, should be used only as a launch pad for further investigations and never as final proof of fraud.

More ambitious insurance companies are even exploring the possibility of using online data to help underwrite policies.

Celent, the insurance consulting arm of financial and insurance brokerage firm Marsh & McLennan Cos. recently published a study titled “Leveraging Social Networks: An In-Depth View for Insurers” and suggested that social-networking data could be used to help price policies.

Mike Fitzgerald, a Celent senior analyst, said life insurance companies could find social media especially valuable for comparing what people will admit about lifestyle choices and medical histories in applications, and what they reveal online.

That could range from “liking” a cancer support group online to signs of high-risk behavior.

“If someone claims they don’t go sky diving often, but it clearly indicates on their online profile that they do it every weekend they can get away,” Fitzgerald said, “That would raise a red flag for insurers.”

Social media is “part of a new and emerging risk to the insurance sector” that could affect pricing and rating of policies in the future, said Gary Pickering, sales and marketing director for British insurer Legal & General Group. But many insurance lawyers decry such practices and warn of a future when insurance companies could monitor online profiles for reasons to raise premiums or deny claims.

“The situation is coming up more and more in court where lawyers for insurance companies lay traps for the insured based on pictures or postings on Facebook or Twitter,” said Vedica Puri, a partner at Pillsbury & Levinson, a San Francisco law firm that specializes in insurance.

“Photos can be years old. People joke or write things in jest, but insurance companies use everything. Even if it’s not true, it can be very damning,” she said.

Lawyer John Beals of Piering Law Firm in Sacramento requires all his clients to either shut down or tighten privacy settings on their social media profiles as a precaution, he said.

Insurance companies will “bring up anything — photos of you drinking to prove that you have bad character,” he said. “Even if it’s unrelated, just the impression that you are doing something wrong can sink a case.”

Lawyers and industry experts said that one of the dangers for consumers is people’s desire to present themselves in the best light, even if it hurts an insurance claim.

Or as Lavin puts it: “No one puts pictures of themselves crying in a dark room, even if that’s what they’re doing 18 hours a day.”

The whole thing is just symptomatic of technology running ahead of the people who are using it,” he said. “It’s kind of like the early years of flight when planes are crashing all over the place. Society has not come to terms with how to manage social networking.”

Endothelial cells slow cancer growth in mice; humans will be tested

The cells that line blood vessels, called endothelial cells, regulate blood flow to tissues. At least, that’s what everyone thought until recently. Now researchers know that endothelial cells do much more and may even be harnessed for their power to stop cancer.

In a study published this week, researchers used endothelial cells to slow cancer growth in mice. In the 1980s, researchers realized endothelial cells did much more than serve as gatekeepers of blood flow. The cells influence the behavior of blood vessels, blood clotting, tissue repair and inflammation by releasing certain proteins.

Scientists at MIT and Harvard explored the idea that endothelial cells might also influence cancer growth because tumors rely on a blood supply to grow. In mice, they used secretions from endothelial cells to slow the growth and aggressiveness of cancerous tumors, also identifying the particular molecules in these secretions that were involved in the process.

The technology will be tested in humans, said the lead author of the study, Elazer Edelman, of the MIT-Harvard division of health sciences and technology. The treatment may boost the success of drugs that stop the growth of new blood vessels, a process called angiogenesis.

“The blood vessels feed the tumor but their endothelial cells control the cancer cells within,” Edelman said. “Giving the endothelial cells without the blood vessels provides the best of both worlds and perhaps one day could provide a new means of cancer therapy.”

Anti-nausea medication may help alcoholics

 Alcoholics who were given a medication approved for quelling nausea were able to cut back on their alcohol intake, researchers reported, according to a story in the Chicago Tribune. The medication, ondansetron (Zofran), could become a readily available therapy for helping some alcoholics become abstinent.

The study, published Wednesday in the American Journal of Psychiatry, is based on research on a gene known as 5-HTT that is important to the serotonin system of the brain. Certain variants of this gene can increase the risk of psychiatric disorders, such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and addiction.

Ondansetron is used to prevent nausea and vomiting caused by cancer chemotherapy. But it’s in a class of medications that work by blocking serotonin. The study tested the idea that a drug to block this neurotransmitter in genetically susceptible people might reduce the severity of their drinking.

Researchers analyzed the genotype of 283 alcoholics who were still drinking. They found that those with the 5-HTT LL genotype who received ondansetron took fewer drinks per day and had more days of abstinence over the 11-week study compared with people with the LL genotype who did not receive the drug. All the study participants received cognitive-behavioral therapy aimed at helping them become abstinent.

Among the patients who received ondansetron, those with the LL genotype or another variant called LL/TT cut back on their drinking enough to move out of the “high-risk” category of drinkers. But the drug did not seem to help patients who had other forms of the 5-HTT genotype.

The study was led by Bankole A. Johnson, chairman of the department of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences at the University of Virginia, and an expert in medications used to treat addiction. His paper on the use of topiramate — an anti-seizure medication — to treat alcoholism was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Study: Nutritional information on restaurant menus ignored

The theory behind posting nutritional information on restaurant menus is that consumers will change what they buy when they know their usual choices are high in calories, saturated fat or sodium, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal.

That theory may be wrong, however, according to a new study by researchers from Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School and the Seattle-area public-health department. The study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, tracked what happened at the Taco Time chain in the 13 months after a menu-labeling law went into effect in King County, which includes Seattle.

Researchers compared seven restaurants within King County to seven located outside of the county — and thus not subject to the new law. They found the law had no statistically significant impact on the amount of calories people purchased.

Lead author Eric Finkelstein, an associate professor of health services at Duke-NUS, said he was surprised to find no effect at all.

Taco Time already had a “Healthy Highlights” icon to indicate more healthful options. Adding more detailed calorie, fat and sodium data may be superfluous, he said. After all, the nutritional facts label introduced to packaged foods in the mid-1990s didn’t do anything to stem the rising tide of obesity.

This research has larger implications, because the health-care overhaul law specified that menu labeling will soon be the law of the land for chain restaurants with at least 20 locations. The study’s authors recommend further research “to identify the circumstances under which mandatory menu labeling is likely to be most effective.” (One Pacific Northwest burger chain is taking another tack, printing nutritional data on customer receipts.)

Rather than changing consumer behavior, the menu labeling law may instead be more effective on the supply side, Finkelstein says. Restaurants may be slightly embarrassed by having to call attention to the zillions of calories in their Super Fatty Burger, and might then try to rejigger their menu items to bring down calories, saturated fat or sodium.

“Chains are looking for small changes that improve the health content but don’t change taste,” he said.