Wednesday, July 29, 2009

SMALLER PLANTS PUNCH ABOVE THEIR WEIGHT IN THE FOREST

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New findings from Queen’s University biologists show that in the plant world, bigger isn’t necessarily better.

“Until now most of the thinking has suggested that to be a good competitor in the forest, you have to be a big plant,” says Queen’s Biology professor Lonnie Aarssen. “But our research shows it’s virtually the other way around.”

Previous studies revealed that larger plant species monopolize sunlight, water and other resources, limiting the number of smaller plant species that can exist around them. But new research has proven that this is not generally the case in natural vegetation.

In the Queen’s project, biology student Laura Keating targeted the largest individuals or “host plants” of 16 woody plant species growing in the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia. The research team calculated the number and variety of plants that neighboured each large host plant. They then randomly selected plots without host plants and calculated the plant species there as well. The research showed that the massive trees have no effect on the number of species with which they coexist.

“Think of the plants like professional boxers,” says Professor Aarssen. “To win the fight, you need more than a solid punch; you need to be able to tolerate all the punches you’re going to take. The winner may be the competitor with the superior ‘staying power’.”

Smaller plants have many advantages over their overbearing neighbours, Professor Aarssen notes. Larger species generate physical space niches under their canopies where smaller species thrive. Smaller plants are much more effective than large trees at utilizing available resources. They also produce seeds at a much younger age and higher rate than their bigger counterparts, and establish much more quickly – thus competing with the seedlings of larger species.

“A growing body of literature is calling for re-evaluation of traditional views on the role of plant size in affecting competitive ability, community assembly and species coexistence,” he adds.

(Photo: Queen’s U.)

Queen’s University

RESEARCHERS FIND EARLY MARKERS OF ALZHEIMER'S DISEASE

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A large study of patients with mild cognitive impairment revealed that results from cognitive tests and brain scans can work as an early warning system for the subsequent development of Alzheimer's disease.

The research found that among 85 participants in the study with mild cognitive impairment, those with low scores on a memory recall test and low glucose metabolism in particular brain regions, as detected through positron emission tomography (PET), had a 15-fold greater risk of developing Alzheimer's disease within two years, compared with the others in the study.

The results, reported by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, on Tuesday, July 14, at the Alzheimer's Association 2009 International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease in Vienna, Austria, are a major step forward in the march toward earlier diagnoses of the debilitating disease.

"Not all people with mild cognitive impairment go on to develop Alzheimer's, so it would be extremely useful to be able to identify those who are at greater risk of converting using a clinical test or biological measurement," said the study's lead author, Susan Landau, a post-doctoral fellow at UC Berkeley's Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

"The field, in general, is moving toward ways to select people during earlier stages of Alzheimer's disease, including those who show no outward signs of cognitive impairment," said Dr. William Jagust, a faculty member of UC Berkeley's Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and principal investigator of the study. "By the time a patient is diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, there is usually little one can do to stop or reverse the decline. Researchers are trying to determine whether treating patients before severe symptoms appear will be more effective, and that requires better diagnostic tools than what is currently available."

In the latest study, researchers compared a variety of measurements that had previously shown promise as early detectors of Alzheimer's. The measurements included scores on the Auditory Verbal Learning Test; the volume of the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with the formation of new memory; the presence of the apolipoprotein E4 gene, which has been linked to increased risk of Alzheimer's; certain proteins found in the cerebrospinal fluid; and glucose metabolism detected in PET brain scans. A low rate of glucose metabolism in a particular brain region is considered a sign of poor neural function, most likely due to the loss of synapses in that area.

"What's really novel about our study is that we evaluated all of these biomarkers in the same subjects, so we could more easily compare the predictive value of any one measure over the others," said Landau. "The Auditory-Verbal Learning Test, which measures memory recall ability, and the PET scans measuring glucose metabolism were the two markers that clearly stood out over the others."

The researchers pointed out that other measurements - in particular, hippocampus volume and the cerebrospinal fluid markers - also showed promise in predicting disease progression. However, when considering all the measurements together, PET scans and memory recall ability were the most consistent predictors. The researchers expect to have more complete information about which measures serve as the best predictors in a year as they continue to gather data for this ongoing study.

An earlier study led by Jagust, a professor with joint appointments at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, found that PET scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) could detect neurological changes in asymptomatic people who subsequently developed dementia or mental impairment, although it was too soon to say if those people would go on to develop Alzheimer's.

The research is part of the nationwide Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative, a 60-center study funded by the National Institute on Aging. The ultimate goal of the initiative is to find a biomarker for Alzheimer's that would predict individuals who will later develop Alzheimer's disease. Ideally, this marker would be identifiable very early, even in individuals who do not yet show signs of mental impairment.

(Photo: Cindee Madison and Susan Landau, UC Berkeley)

University of California, Berkeley

MAINTAINING OR INCREASING PHYSICAL ACTIVITY SLOWS COGNITIVE DECLINE IN ELDERS

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Elders who maintained or increased their level of physical activity showed significantly less cognitive decline over seven years than those who were not active or whose activity levels declined during that time, according to a study led by researchers at the San Francisco VA Medical Center and the University of California, San Francisco.

Elders whose activity rates fluctuated at times but who ultimately stayed physically active over the course of the study also showed less decline.

The results were reported at the 2009 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease in Vienna, Austria by lead author Deborah E. Barnes, PhD, MPH, a geriatric researcher at SFVAMC and an assistant professor of psychiatry at UCSF.
The study looked at the self-reported activity levels of 3,075 white and African-American non-demented elders, age 70 to 79, living in Memphis, Tenn. or Pittsburgh, Pa. Half were women, and one fourth had not graduated from high school. Study participants reported the number of minutes they typically walked per week at the beginning of the study and then at intervals of two, four, and seven years.

At each time point, the participants were classified as sedentary (zero minutes per week), low activity (less than 150 minutes per week), or high activity (150 minutes per week or more), based on the Surgeon General’s exercise guidelines. Their level of cognitive function was also measured at each time point using the Modified Mini-Mental State Exam, a standard test with a maximum score of 100.

After seven years, the adjusted scores of the participants who were consistently sedentary declined by an average of .62 points per year, while the scores of those whose activity level decreased over seven years declined by an average of .54 points per year.

In contrast, participants whose activity levels increased either consistently or in a fluctuating pattern over time showed a decline of only .44 points per year. The scores of those who were consistently active declined only .40 points annually.

The results indicate that overall activity level is not as important as a long-term commitment to being active, according to Barnes. “If you follow the Surgeon General’s guidelines of exercising 30 minutes a day, five days a week some of the time but not all of the time, you’re probably OK as long as you resume being active, preferably as soon as possible,” she says. “The fact that people in the fluctuating activity group ranked with the increasingly active and consistently active groups was something of a surprise to us, albeit a pleasant one.”

Barnes says that the physical benefits of exercise and activity are well known, and notes a growing body evidence showing that physical activity also improves mental function. “However, until now, little was known about the impact of changes in physical activity levels on rates of cognitive decline,” she says. “This tells us that it’s important to maintain or increase your activity level in order to better sustain cognitive function as you age.”

(Photo: UCSF)

University of California, San Francisco

HUMAN SPERM CREATED FROM EMBRYONIC STEM CELLS

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Human sperm have been created using embryonic stem cells for the first time in a scientific development which will lead researchers to a better understanding of the causes of infertility.

Researchers led by Professor Karim Nayernia at Newcastle University and the NorthEast England Stem Cell Institute (NESCI) have developed a new technique which has made the creation of human sperm possible in the laboratory.

The work is published (8th July 2009) in the academic journal Stem Cells and Development.

The NorthEast England Stem Cell Institute (NESCI) is a collaboration between Newcastle and Durham Universities, Newcastle NHS Foundation Trust and other partners.

Professor Nayernia says: “This is an important development as it will allow researchers to study in detail how sperm forms and lead to a better understanding of infertility in men – why it happens and what is causing it. This understanding could help us develop new ways to help couples suffering infertility so they can have a child which is genetically their own.”

“It will also allow scientists to study how cells involved in reproduction are affected by toxins, for example, why young boys with leukaemia who undergo chemotherapy can become infertile for life – and possibly lead us to a solution.”

The team also believe that studying the process of forming sperm could lead to a better understanding of how genetic diseases are passed on.

In the technique developed at Newcastle, stem cells with XY chromosomes (male) were developed into germline stem cells which were then prompted to complete meiosis - cell division with halving of the chromosome set. These were shown to produce fully mature, sperm called scientifically, In Vitro Derived sperm (IVD sperm).

In contrast, stem cells with XX chromosomes (female) were prompted to form early stage sperm, spermatagonia, but did not progress further. This demonstrates to researchers that the genes on a Y chromosome are essential for meiosis and for sperm maturation (see a video)

The IVD sperm will not and cannot be used for fertility treatment. As well as being prohibited by UK law, the research team say fertilization of human eggs and implantation of embryos would hold no scientific merit for them as they want to study the process as a model for research.

“While we can understand that some people may have concerns, this does not mean that humans can be produced ‘in a dish’ and we have no intention of doing this. This work is a way of investigating why some people are infertile and the reasons behind it. If we have a better understanding of what’s going on it could lead to new ways of treating infertility,” adds Professor Nayernia.

The Newcastle University team have developed a method for establishing early stage sperm from human embryonic stem cells in the laboratory.

The embryonic stem cells were cultured in a new medium containing vitamin A derivative (retinoic acid), in a new technique established by the team. Based on this technique, the cells differentiated into germline stem cells.

These expressed a protein which was stained with a green fluorescent marker and they were separated out by FACSTM (Fluorescence-activated cell sorting) using a laser.

After further differentiation, these in vitro derived germline stem cells expressed markers which are specific to primordial germ cells, spermatogonial stem cells, meiotic (spermatocytes) and post meiotic germ cells (spermatids and sperm).

These results indicated maturation of the primodial germ cells to haploid male gametes – called IVD sperm - characterised by containing half a chromosome set (23 chromosomes).

(Photo: Newcastle U.)

Newcastle University

NEW THEORY ON WHY MALE, FEMALE LEMURS SAME SIZE

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When it comes to investigating mysteries, Sherlock Holmes has nothing on Rice University biologist Amy Dunham. In a newly published paper, Dunham offers a new theory for one of primatology's long-standing mysteries: Why are male and female lemurs the same size?

In most primate species, males have evolved to be much larger than females. Size is an advantage for males that guard females to keep other males from mating with them, and evolutionary biologists have long wondered why lemurs evolved differently. Some theories have suggested that environment played a role or that lemur social development was altered due to the extinction of predatory birds.

"Scientifically, this is quite a big question that researchers have debated for over 20 years," said Dunham, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. "I actually started doing research on lemurs as an undergraduate, working in Ranomafana (National Park in Madagascar), and the question about size monomorphism has bugged me since then."

In a paper featured on the cover of this month's Journal of Evolutionary Biology, Dunham offers one of the first new theories on lemur monomorphism in more than a decade.

After an exhaustive review of the observational work done on lemurs, Dunham came to the conclusion that male lemurs do guard their mates, just like other primates. But unlike gorillas and other primates that fight for mating rights with females, male lemurs have evolved to passively guard their mates.

They do this by depositing a solid plug inside the female's reproductive tract just as they finish mating. The plug is deposited as a liquid protein but quickly hardens and stays in place for a day or two. Since many female lemurs are sexually responsive to males for only one day out of the entire year, the plug serves the purpose of preventing other males from mating with the female, while also freeing the male to mate with other females during the brief time they are available.

"If the female has a short receptivity period, as most lemurs do, then we hypothesize that this is likely to be an advantageous strategy," said Dunham, who co-authored the paper with Rice evolutionary biologist Volker Rudolf.

To test their hypothesis, Dunham and Rudolf examined 62 primate species and found that copulatory plugs were most likely to occur in species where female sexual receptivity was very brief and where males and females were the same size. This was true both for lemur species and for a few other species, like South American squirrel monkeys.

"Our idea needs further testing because it's new, but it's more parsimonious than some of the old theories, and we're very excited about looking into it further," Dunham said. "We've made some explicit predictions about the conditions where this strategy should be favored, so there are plenty of ways it can be tested."

Dunham said she hopes to travel to Madagascar within the next year to begin gathering data for a new project that will examine the impacts of climate change on lemur populations.

Lemurs evolved on the African island in isolation from other primates for 65 million years, and they are well-known for having odd traits not found in other primates. For example, some lemurs hibernate, storing fat in their tails, and all have toothcombs -- teeth that are perfectly shaped for grooming. Lemurs also differ from other primates in another key respect that has also stymied primatologists for years: The females are usually the dominant sex.

Dunham's investigations into the long-standing mystery of female dominance among lemurs led her to put forward another important theory last year. Published in the journal Animal Behavior, the theory suggests that female lemurs tend to dominate males because the females do all of the work in rearing the young and therefore have more will to fight and win.

"Game theory predicts that when the fighting abilities of two contestants are comparable, the outcome will depend upon the value that each contestant places on the resources they are fighting over," she said. "In this case, the females clearly have more at stake, but the only reason the females are in a position to compete for dominance is because they're roughly the same size and strength as the males."

Rice University

GLOBAL WARMING: OUR BEST GUESS IS LIKELY WRONG

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No one knows exactly how much Earth's climate will warm due to carbon emissions, but a new study this week suggests scientists' best predictions about global warming might be incorrect.

The study, which appears in Nature Geoscience, found that climate models explain only about half of the heating that occurred during a well-documented period of rapid global warming in Earth's ancient past. The study, which was published online today, contains an analysis of published records from a period of rapid climatic warming about 55 million years ago known as the Palaeocene-Eocene thermal maximum, or PETM.

"In a nutshell, theoretical models cannot explain what we observe in the geological record," said oceanographer Gerald Dickens, a co-author of the study and professor of Earth science at Rice University. "There appears to be something fundamentally wrong with the way temperature and carbon are linked in climate models."

During the PETM, for reasons that are still unknown, the amount of carbon in Earth's atmosphere rose rapidly. For this reason, the PETM, which has been identified in hundreds of sediment core samples worldwide, is probably the best ancient climate analogue for present-day Earth.

In addition to rapidly rising levels of atmospheric carbon, global surface temperatures rose dramatically during the PETM. Average temperatures worldwide rose by about 7 degrees Celsius -- about 13 degrees Fahrenheit -- in the relatively short geological span of about 10,000 years.

Many of the findings come from studies of core samples drilled from the deep seafloor over the past two decades. When oceanographers study these samples, they can see changes in the carbon cycle during the PETM.

"You go along a core and everything's the same, the same, the same, and then suddenly you pass this time line and the carbon chemistry is completely different," Dickens said. "This has been documented time and again at sites all over the world."

Based on findings related to oceanic acidity levels during the PETM and on calculations about the cycling of carbon among the oceans, air, plants and soil, Dickens and co-authors Richard Zeebe of the University of Hawaii and James Zachos of the University of California-Santa Cruz determined that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased by about 70 percent during the PETM.

That's significant because it does not represent a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Since the start of the industrial revolution, carbon dioxide levels are believed to have risen by about one-third, largely due to the burning of fossil fuels. If present rates of fossil-fuel consumption continue, the doubling of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels will occur sometime within the next century or two.

Doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide is an oft-talked-about threshold, and today's climate models include accepted values for the climate's sensitivity to doubling. Using these accepted values and the PETM carbon data, the researchers found that the models could only explain about half of the warming that Earth experienced 55 million years ago.

The conclusion, Dickens said, is that something other than carbon dioxide caused much of the heating during the PETM. "Some feedback loop or other processes that aren't accounted for in these models -- the same ones used by the IPCC for current best estimates of 21st Century warming -- caused a substantial portion of the warming that occurred during the PETM."

Rice University

ROBOT FISH TO HELP UNDERSTAND HOW REAL FISH SWIM AGAINST THE FLOW

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A major EU grant worth €1.8M has been awarded to a consortium of five European research institutions including the University of Bath to build a robot that will help researchers understand how fish can swim upstream.

The consortium, led by the Tallinn University of Technology (TUT), with partners Riga Technical University (RTU), Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) and the Universities of Verona (UV) and Bath (UB), will be using biology to inspire the design of a swimming robot that can react to changes in current or flow, such as a fish might encounter in a fast-flowing stream or near the seashore.

The robot could be used to film and study the diverse marine life near the seashore, where conventional propeller-driven submersible robots have difficulty manoeuvring due to the shallow water, kelp, and currents created by waves.

What makes the project unique is that the researchers will be trying to mimic the sense organ found in fish, called the lateral line, which allows the fish to detect the flow of water around it and react to it.

The robot and its propulsion system will be designed by TUT in Estonia and RTU in Latvia; researchers at IIT in Lecce, Italy, will be developing a sensor to mimic the fish’s lateral line that will detect the flow of water over the robot’s body.

The fish’s complex nervous system will be emulated by computer software, developed by the University of Verona, which will allow the robot to interpret changes in flow outside the robot so it can adjust its swimming behaviour to compensate accordingly.

A second team from the IIT, based in Genoa, will be designing the computer hardware and electronics to interpret the lateral line information and generally control the robot.

The researchers from the Ocean Technologies Lab at Bath in the University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering will be leading the fish biology for the project, looking at how fish respond to changes in flow.

Dr William Megill, Lecturer in Biomimetics at the University of Bath, explained: “Currently, most aquatic robots can’t manoeuvre very well in the shallow water near the shore because they just get smashed against the rocks by the force of the waves.

“However, even in a Tsunami, fish manage to sense and swim against the current so that they stay in the water, rather than ending up on the beach.

“So this project is interesting on two levels - firstly we want to understand more about how the fish manages to react to changes in current, and secondly we want to create a robot that mimics this artificially.”

When the robot hits the water in a few years’ time, it will provide a tool to safely study and monitor the wave-swept nearshore environment, which will find uses in biological research, demining activities, pollution control, and general monitoring of the world’s most productive ecosystems.

The FILOSE (Robotic FIsh LOcomotion and SEnsing) project is financed by the European Union 7th Framework Program.

(Photo: Mike Johnston)

University of Bath

SCIENTISTS DISCOVER LIGHT FORCE WITH “PUSH” POWER

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A team of Yale University researchers has discovered a "repulsive" light force that can be used to manipulate components on silicon microchips, meaning future nanodevices could be controlled by light rather than electricity.

The team previously discovered an "attractive" force of light and showed how it could be manipulated to move components in semiconducting micro- and nano-electrical systems-tiny mechanical switches on a chip. The scientists have now uncovered a complementary repulsive force. Researchers had theorized the existence of both the attractive and repulsive forces since 2005, but the latter had remained unproven until now. The team, led by Hong Tang, assistant professor at Yale's School of Engineering & Applied Science, reports its findings in the July 13 edition of Nature Photonics's advanced online publication.

"This completes the picture," Tang said. "We've shown that this is indeed a bipolar light force with both an attractive and repulsive component."

The attractive and repulsive light forces Tang's team discovered are separate from the force created by light's radiation pressure, which pushes against an object as light shines on it. Instead, they push out or pull in sideways from the direction the light travels.

Previously, the engineers used the attractive force they discovered to move components on the silicon chip in one direction, such as pulling on a nanoscale switch to open it, but were unable to push it in the opposite direction.

Using both forces means they can now have complete control and can manipulate components in both directions. "We've demonstrated that these are tunable forces we can engineer," Tang said.

In order to create the repulsive force, or the "push," on a silicon chip, the team split a beam of infrared light into two separate beams and forced each one to travel a different length of silicon nanowire, called a waveguide. As a result, the two light beams became out of phase with one another, creating a repulsive force with an intensity that can be controlled-the more out of phase the two light beams, the stronger the force.

"We can control how the light beams interact," said Mo Li, a postdoctoral associate in electrical engineering at Yale and lead author of the paper. "This is not possible in free space-it is only possible when light is confined in the nanoscale waveguides that are placed so close to each other on the chip."

"The light force is intriguing because it works in the opposite way as charged objects," said Wolfram Pernice, another postdoctoral fellow in Tang's group. "Opposite charges attract each other, whereas out-of-phase light beams repel each other in this case."

These light forces may one day control telecommunications devices that would require far less power but would be much faster than today's conventional counterparts, Tang said. An added benefit of using light rather than electricity is that it can be routed through a circuit with almost no interference in signal, and it eliminates the need to lay down large numbers of electrical wires.

(Photo: Hong Tang/Yale University)

Yale University

HOW NOISE AND NERVOUS SYSTEM GET IN WAY OF READING SKILLS

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A child’s brain has to work overtime in a noisy classroom to do its typical but very important job of distinguishing sounds whose subtle differences are key to success with language and reading.

But that simply is too much to ask of the nervous system of a subset of poor readers whose hearing is fine, but whose brains have trouble differentiating the “ba,” “da” and “ga” sounds in a noisy environment, according to a new Northwestern University study.

“The ‘b,’ ‘d’ and ‘g’ consonants have rapidly changing acoustic information that the nervous system has to resolve to eventually match up sounds with letters on the page,” said Nina Kraus, Hugh Knowles Professor of Communication Sciences and Neurobiology and director of Northwestern's Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory, where the work was performed.

In other words, the brain’s unconscious faulty interpretation of sounds makes a big difference in how words ultimately will be read. “What your ear hears and what your brain interprets are not the same thing,” Kraus stressed.

The Northwestern study is the first to demonstrate an unambiguous relationship between reading ability and neural encoding of speech sounds that previous work has shown present phonological challenges for poor readers.

The research offers an unparalleled look at how noise affects the nervous system’s transcription of three little sounds that mean so much to literacy.

The online version of the study was published July 13 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) (http://www.pnas.org/papbyrecent.shtml).

The new Northwestern study as well as much of the research that comes out of the Kraus lab focuses on what is happening in the brainstem, an evolutionarily ancient part of the brain that scientists in the not too distant past believed simply relayed sensory information from the ear to the cortex.

As such, much of the earlier research relating brain transcription errors to poor reading has focused on the cortex -- associated with high-level functions and cognitive processing.

Focusing earlier in the sensory system, the study demonstrates that the technology developed during the last decade in the Kraus lab now offers a neural metric that is sensitive enough to pick up how the nervous system represents differences in acoustic sounds in individual subjects, rather than, as in cortical-response studies, in groups of people. Importantly, this metric reflects the negative influence of background noise on sound encoding in the brain.

“There are numerous reasons for reading problems or for difficulty hearing speech in noisy situations, and we now have a metric that is practically applicable for measuring sound transcription deficits in individual children,” said Kraus, the senior author of the study. “Auditory training and reducing background noise in classrooms, our research suggests, may provide significant benefit to poor readers.”

For the study, electrodes were attached to the scalps of children with good and poor speech-in-noise perception skills. Sounds were delivered through earphones to measure the nervous system’s ability to distinguish between “ba,” “da” and “ga.” In another part of the study, sentences were presented in increasingly noisy environments, and children were asked to repeat what they heard.

“In essence, the kids were called upon to do what they would do in a classroom, which is to try to understand what the kid next to them is saying while there is a cacophony of sounds, a rustling of papers, a scraping of chairs,” Kraus said.

In a typical neural system there is a clear distinction in how “ba,” “da” and “ga” are represented. The information is more accurately transcribed in good readers and children who are good at extracting speech presented in background noise.

“So if a poor reader is having difficulty making sound-to-meaning associations with the ‘ba,’ ‘da’ and ‘ga’ speech sounds, it will show up in the objective measure we used in our study,” Kraus said.

Reflecting the interaction of cognitive and sensory processes, the brainstem response is not voluntary.

“The brainstem response is just what the brain does based on our auditory experience throughout our lives, but especially during development,” Kraus said. “The way the brain responds to sound will reflect what language you speak, whether you’ve had musical experience and how you have used sounds.”

The Auditory Neuroscience Lab has been a frontrunner in research that has helped establish the relationship between sound encoding in the brainstem, and how this process is affected by an individual’s experience throughout the lifespan. In related research with significant implications, recent studies from the Kraus lab show that the process of hearing speech in noise is enhanced in musicians.

“The very transcription processes that are deficient in poor readers are enhanced in people with musical experience,” Kraus said. “It makes sense for training programs for poor readers to involve music as well as speech sounds.”

Northwestern University

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