Post List

  • September 15, 2014
  • 04:50 PM
  • 27 views

Religion And Morality: Belief Isn't Better

by Alexis Delanoir in How to Paint Your Panda

It's no secret that when it comes to what the public thinks, atheists are usually at the bottom of the "nice" list. A survey in 2006 found that atheists were the least trusted minority group in America. Similar studies find that atheists are mistrusted and are seen as more immoral than their religious counterparts. But are these views justified? A new study by Hofmann et al. (2014) suggests they aren't, and this conclusion is consistent with other available data.... Read more »

Gervais WM, Shariff AF, & Norenzayan A. (2011) Do you believe in atheists? Distrust is central to anti-atheist prejudice. Journal of personality and social psychology, 101(6), 1189-206. PMID: 22059841  

Hofmann W, Wisneski DC, Brandt MJ, & Skitka LJ. (2014) Morality in everyday life. Science (New York, N.Y.), 345(6202), 1340-3. PMID: 25214626  

  • September 15, 2014
  • 03:45 PM
  • 18 views

SARS-CoV Nucleocapsid protein and Mitochondria: a personal story

by thelonevirologist in Virology Tidbits

The SARS-CoV N protein has been reported to induce Mitochondria dependent apoptosis is some cell lines. Here results are reported from a study from 2004 which was never published, suggesting that SARS-CoV might induce mitochondrial fusion rather than fission. ... Read more »

Moshynskyy I, Viswanathan S, Vasilenko N, Lobanov V, Petric M, Babiuk LA, & Zakhartchouk AN. (2007) Intracellular localization of the SARS coronavirus protein 9b: evidence of active export from the nucleus. Virus research, 127(1), 116-21. PMID: 17448558  

Zhang L, Wei L, Jiang D, Wang J, Cong X, & Fei R. (2007) SARS-CoV nucleocapsid protein induced apoptosis of COS-1 mediated by the mitochondrial pathway. Artificial cells, blood substitutes, and immobilization biotechnology, 35(2), 237-53. PMID: 17453707  

Wlodkowic D, Skommer J, & Darzynkiewicz Z. (2012) Cytometry of apoptosis. Historical perspective and new advances. Experimental oncology, 34(3), 255-62. PMID: 23070010  

  • September 15, 2014
  • 12:58 PM
  • 32 views

The Genetic Roots of Schizophrenia

by Gabriel in Lunatic Laboratories

I have a friend who lost an eye — not in a war zone like you might suspect given my background — but to his brother. Yes, you read that correctly, his brother tried to kill him and in the process he lost his eye. I’ve told this story before, but whenever new schizophrenia research comes out I feel the need to tell it again. While he has forgiven his brother (partly because not long after, he was diagnosed as schizophrenic), he will not be able to see him again until he is released from prison. A tragedy that could’ve been avoided had he been diagnosed sooner.... Read more »

avier Arnedo, M.S.; Dragan M. Svrakic, M.D., Ph.D.; Coral del Val, Ph.D.; Rocío Romero-Zaliz, Ph.D.; Helena Hernández-Cuervo, M.D.; Molecular Genetics of Schizophrenia Consortium; Ayman H. Fanous, M.D.; Michele T. Pato, M.D.; Carlos N. Pato, M.D., Ph.D. (2014) Uncovering the Hidden Risk Architecture of the Schizophrenias: Confirmation in Three Independent Genome-Wide Association Studies. The American Journal of Psychiatry. info:/10.1176/appi.ajp.2014.14040435

  • September 15, 2014
  • 12:06 PM
  • 15 views

Poop Transplants Let Pack Rats Eat Poison

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Can’t eat poison without dying? Maybe your gut microbes are to blame. Rodents in the Mojave Desert have evolved to eat toxic creosote bushes with the help of specialized gut bacteria. Although scientists had long suspected that bacteria might be key to the rats’ power, they proved it by feeding the rodents antibiotics and ground-up […]The post Poop Transplants Let Pack Rats Eat Poison appeared first on Inkfish.... Read more »

Kohl KD, Weiss RB, Cox J, Dale C, & Denise Dearing M. (2014) Gut microbes of mammalian herbivores facilitate intake of plant toxins. Ecology letters, 17(10), 1238-46. PMID: 25040855  

  • September 15, 2014
  • 09:49 AM
  • 21 views

Great Apes Share Our Ability to Predict Goal-Oriented Actions

by amikulak in Daily Observations

Within a year after birth, human infants develop the ability to direct their attention to the anticipated goal of another person’s movement, before it has occurred.  So, for example, our […]... Read more »

  • September 15, 2014
  • 08:13 AM
  • 30 views

Pupils benefit from praise, but should teachers give it to them publicly or privately?

by BPS Research Digest in BPS Research Digest

There's a best practice guide for teachers, produced by the Association of School Psychologists in the US, that states praise is best given to pupils in private. This advice is not based on experimental research - there hasn't been any - but on surveys of student preferences, and on the rationale that pupils could be embarrassed by receiving praise in public.Now, in the first study of its kind, John Blaze and his colleagues have systematically compared the effect of public and private praise (also known as "loud" and "quiet" praise) on classroom behaviour. They found that praise had a dramatic beneficial effect on pupils' behaviour, and it didn't matter whether the praise was private or public.The research was conducted at four high-school public classrooms in rural south-eastern United States (the equivalent to state schools in the UK). The classes were mixed-sex, with a mixture of mostly Caucasian and African American pupils, with between 16 and 25 pupils in each class. The children were aged 14 to 16. Three of the teachers were teaching English, the other taught Transition to Algebra.The teachers were given training in appropriate praise: it must be contingent on good behaviour; make clear to the pupil why they are being praised; immediate; and effort-based. During the test sessions of teaching, the teachers carried a buzzer on their belt that prompted them, once every two minutes, to deliver praise to one of their pupils, either loudly so the whole class could hear (in the loud condition) or discreetly, by a whisper in the ear or pat on the shoulder, so that hopefully only the child knew they were being praised (in the quiet condition). For comparison, there were also baseline teaching sessions in which the teachers simply carried out their teaching in their usual style.Trained observers stationed for 20-minute sessions in the classrooms monitored the teachers' praise-giving and the behaviour of the pupils across the different conditions. They found that frequent praise increased pupils' on-task behaviours, such as reading or listening to the teacher, by 31 per cent compared with baseline, and this improvement didn't vary according to whether the praise was private or public. Frequent praise of either manner also reduced naughty behaviours by nearly 20 per cent.Blaze and his team said that the debate over praise will likely continue, but they stated their results are clear: "both loud and quiet forms of praise are effective tools that can have dramatic effects at the secondary level." A weakness of the study is that the researchers didn't monitor the teachers' use of reprimands, which likely reduced as they spent more time delivering praise._________________________________ Blaze JT, Olmi DJ, Mercer SH, Dufrene BA, & Tingstom DH (2014). Loud versus quiet praise: A direct behavioral comparison in secondary classrooms. Journal of school psychology, 52 (4), 349-60 PMID: 25107408 Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Blaze JT, Olmi DJ, Mercer SH, Dufrene BA, & Tingstom DH. (2014) Loud versus quiet praise: A direct behavioral comparison in secondary classrooms. Journal of school psychology, 52(4), 349-60. PMID: 25107408  

  • September 15, 2014
  • 08:00 AM
  • 28 views

Sweating Is The Pits

by Mark E. Lasbury in The 'Scope

New research is delving into the possible negative aspects of antiperspirants and deodorants. A 2014 study indicates that bacterial fauna is altered by the use of antiperspirants and can lead to overgrowth of bacteria that actually produce more foul smelling chemicals. On a more important note, research is showing that aluminum from antiperspirants may contribute to breast cancer growth, including promotion of estrogen hormone production, altered iron metabolism, and increased oxygen radical formation. However, no definitive proof shows that antiperspirants cause breast cancer, and a 2013 study showed no difference in aluminum levels from normal to diseased tissue.... Read more »

Callewaert C, Hutapea P, Van de Wiele T, & Boon N. (2014) Deodorants and antiperspirants affect the axillary bacterial community. Archives of dermatological research. PMID: 25077920  

  • September 15, 2014
  • 04:57 AM
  • 27 views

How to increase children’s patience in 5 seconds

by Richard Kunert in Brain's Idea

A single act increases adults’ compliance with researchers. The same act makes students more likely to volunteer to solve math problems in front of others. Moreover, it makes four-year-olds more patient. What sounds like a miracle cure to everyday problems is actually the oldest trick in the book: human touch. How do researchers know this? […]... Read more »

  • September 15, 2014
  • 04:47 AM
  • 28 views

Zinc and copper and autism

by Paul Whiteley in Questioning Answers

The paper by Li and colleagues [1] looking at serum copper (Cu) and zinc (Zn) levels in a group of participants diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the source material for today's post. Highlighting how "mean serum Zn levels and Zn/Cu ratio were significantly lower in children with ASD compared with normal cases... whereas serum Cu levels were significantly higher" the continued focus on the metallome in autism carries on at a pace. I should at this point out that I'm not in favour of the use of the word 'normal' in this or any context (anyone who feels that they are normal, please make themselves known to the population at large)."Bring me... the bore worms!"Anyhow... I've talked zinc and autism / other conditions on this blog quite a few times (see here and see here). Alongside other more recent data [2] there is a growing realisation that zinc deficiency present in at least some diagnosed on the autism spectrum might have quite a few implications. With this thought in mind, I might also draw your attention to the recent paper by Chaves-Kirsten and colleagues [3] talking about how zinc might also show some connection to the protein kinase of the hour, mTOR (see here) and in particular reducing mTOR levels in a rodent model of autism. This follows other work in this area [4].The Li paper alongside looking at individual levels of zinc and copper and how they seemed to correlate with presented symptoms according to the Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS) also talks about the zinc/copper ratio which is something that has been previously discussed in the peer-reviewed literature with reference to autism and various other conditions as per the excellent review by Osredkar & Sustar [5] (open-access). The paper by Faber and colleagues [6] for example, indicated that a low Zn/Cu ratio may "indicate decrement in metallothionein system functioning". They also talked about how issues with this ratio "may be a biomarker of heavy metal, particularly mercury, toxicity in children with ASDs" as per the various biological uses of metallothionein [7]. I know this moves discussions into some quite uncomfortable realms but science is science (see here) and one should not be afraid to have scientific discourse on any topic. Importantly too, the Faber results also seemed to show more than a passing similarity to those presented by Li et al. Same goes for the paper by Russo and colleagues [8].The other interesting point recorded by Li and colleagues was their use of the good 'ole ROC curve as a means to indicate an "auxiliary diagnosis of autism". More frequently linked to a certain Egyptian-Saudi autism research group (see here), ROC curves - "a fundamental tool for diagnostic test evaluation" - basically plots the true positive rate against the false positive rate for a test. Li et al projected the cut-off value for the Zn/Cu ratio to be 0.665 for a diagnosis, with "a sensitivity of 90.0% and a specificity of 91.7%". Bearing in mind the relatively small participants included for analysis (n=60), those aren't bad figures for sensitivity and specificity remembering my recent discussions on the observation-based classifier (OBC) from Wall and colleagues [9] (see here) and what they got.There's little more for me to say about the Li data that I haven't already said here and in other posts on this topic. If you want to read a little more about the possible role of zinc and copper in cases of autism, the report by Bjorklund [10] covers quite a bit of the literature on possible links. The next question is what might we be able to do about any issues in this area? [11]So then, The Last of the Famous International Playboys? (not me of course..)----------[1] Li SO. et al. Serum copper and zinc levels in individuals with autism spectrum disorders. Neuroreport. 2014 Aug 26.[2] Grabrucker S. et al. Zinc deficiency dysregulates the synaptic ProSAP/Shank scaffold and might contribute to autism spectrum disorders. Brain. 2014 Jan;137(Pt 1):137-52.[3] Chaves-Kirsten GP. et al. Prenatal zinc prevents mTOR disturbance in a rat model of autism induced by prenatal lipopolysaccharide. Brain, Behavior & Immunity. 2014; 40: e11-e12.[4] McClung JP. et al. Effect of supplemental dietary zinc on the mTOR signaling pathway in skeletal muscle from post-absorptive mice. FASEB J. 2006; 20 (Meeting Abstract Supplement) A627.[5] Osredkar J. & Sustar N. Copper and Zinc, Biological Role and Significance of Copper/ZincImbalance. Journal of Clinical Toxicology. 2011; S3.[6] Faber S. et al. The plasma zinc/serum copper ratio as a biomarker in children with autism spectrum disorders. Biomarkers. 2009 May;14(3):171-80.[7] Coyle P. et al. Metallothionein: the multipurpose protein. Cell Mol Life Sci. 2002 Apr;59(4):627-47.[8] Russo AJ. et al. Plasma copper and zinc concentration in individuals with autism correlate with selected symptom severity. Nutr Metab Insights. 2012 Feb 28;5:41-7.[9] Duda M. et al. Testing the accuracy of an observation-based classifier for rapid detection of autism risk. Transl Psychiatry. 2014 Aug 12;4:e424.[10] Bjorklund G. The role of zinc and copper in autism spectrum disorders. Acta Neurobiol Exp (Wars). 2013;73(2):225-36.[11] Russo AJ. & Devito R. Analysis of Copper and Zinc Plasma Concentration and the Efficacy of Zinc Therapy in Individuals with Asperger's Syndrome, Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS) and Autism. Biomark Insights. 2011;6:127-33.----------... Read more »

  • September 15, 2014
  • 12:05 AM
  • 26 views

Acute Gains in Motion After Single Bout of Stretching Predicts Short-Term Gains

by Jane McDevitt in Sports Medicine Research (SMR): In the Lab & In the Field

Acute changes in flexibility after either static or PNF stretching predict the gains in flexibility after a 7-day stretching program.... Read more »

  • September 14, 2014
  • 06:57 PM
  • 43 views

JUST PUBLISHED: The Dance of Communication: Retaining Family Membership Despite Non-Speech Dementia

by Mark Rubin in The University of Newcastle's School of Psychology Newsline

As the majority of people in developed countries will be touched in some way by dementia in the 21st century, current ways of interacting in dementia care may no longer be acceptable. In particular, when people with dementia appear uncommunicative, their retained awareness and ability to interact is often dismissed or overlooked. Facing social isolation and further decline, many languish with unmet needs for human interaction. However, the intimacies of family interaction in dementia care settings point to a brighter future. A recently published article by Bruce Walmsley and Lynne McCormack filmed speech and non-speech relational communication within families that included a member with severe dementia and limited or absent speech. Exploring the phenomenon of retained awareness, the researchers sought to understand the reciprocal efforts used by all family members to engage in alternative patterns of communication. Interactive patterns revealed ‘in-step’ interactions that stimulated spontaneity and reciprocity and ‘out-of-step’ interactions that heightened frustration and anxiety. Family interactions could be ‘in-step’ and ‘out-of-step’ depending on relatives’ presumptions of awareness, timing of response, perceived interpretation, and what appeared to be pre-existing relational patterns. This study also found that retained awareness may exist at a level previously unrecognised in people with minimal or absent speech as a result of severe dementia. Awareness fluctuated from sensory and perceptual levels to complex movement, goal directed behaviour and self-awareness. This study recognised the difficulty of interpreting awareness related to individual experience, especially in light of minimal speech. However, interactions and expressions of emotion were considered to represent underlying awareness in light of the observed family interactions. By exploring the lived experience of families, it revealed the efforts and willingness of all family members to retain family membership. As a pilot study, it offered a platform for future studies exploring changes in awareness and communication as individuals move from moderate to severe dementia. Importantly, this study reminds us that people with dementia may be more aware and communicative than first assumed.  For more information about this work please see the following journal article:Walmsley, B., & McCormack, L. (2013). The dance of communication: Retaining family membership despite severe non-speech dementia Dementia, 13 (5), 626-641 DOI: 10.1177/1471301213480359 or contact Dr Lynne McCormack at Lynne.McCormack@newcastle.edu.au... Read more »

  • September 14, 2014
  • 02:24 PM
  • 44 views

Biospleen Helps Clean Blood to Prevent Sepsis

by Gabriel in Lunatic Laboratories

When a patient has sepsis Things can go downhill fast. A life-threatening condition in which bacteria or fungi multiply in a patient's blood -- sepsis is often too fast for antibiotics to help. But that's all about to change with the introduction of a new device -- inspired by the human spleen -- that may radically transform the way doctors treat sepsis.... Read more »

Kang JH, Super M, Yung CW, Cooper RM, Domansky K, Graveline AR, Mammoto T, Berthet JB, Tobin H, Cartwright MJ.... (2014) An extracorporeal blood-cleansing device for sepsis therapy. Nature medicine. PMID: 25216635  

  • September 14, 2014
  • 10:03 AM
  • 42 views

Sound Aggression

by Rodney Steadman in Gravity's Pull

Maybe it was all the Who noise that made the Grinch so aggressive. Recent research out of Bulgaria suggests a link between noise pollution and displaced aggression.... Read more »

  • September 14, 2014
  • 01:00 AM
  • 19 views

Telepathy is Almost Here

by Viputheshwar Sitaraman in Draw Science

Telepathy is under works; it's just super clunky right now. Non-invasive technology enables brain-to-brain communication by converting words into binary and from binary into pulses of light and back.... Read more »

Grau C, Ginhoux R, Riera A, Nguyen TL, Chauvat H, Berg M, Amengual JL, Pascual-Leone A, & Ruffini G. (2014) Conscious Brain-to-Brain Communication in Humans Using Non-Invasive Technologies. PloS one, 9(8). PMID: 25137064  

  • September 13, 2014
  • 01:13 PM
  • 57 views

Need a Kidney? Lab Grown Kidneys Coming Soon!

by Gabriel in Lunatic Laboratories

Stem cells offered the promise of having a patents own organ grown to replace a failing or damaged one. Unfortunately the road to that future has been paved with seemingly insurmountable challenges. Thankfully now we are one step closer, researchers have addressed a major challenge in the quest to build replacement kidneys in the lab. Working with human-sized pig kidneys, the scientists developed the most successful method to date to keep blood vessels in the new organs open and flowing with blood.... Read more »

In Kap Ko,, Mehran Abolbashari,, Jennifer Huling,, Cheil Kim,, Sayed-Hadi Mirmalek-Sani,, Mahmoudreza Moradi,, Giuseppe Orlando,, John D. Jackson,, Tamer Aboushwareb,, Shay Soker,.... (2014) Enhanced re-endothelialization of acellular kidney scaffolds for whole organ engineering via antibody conjugation of vasculatures. Technology . info:/10.1142/S2339547814500228

  • September 13, 2014
  • 10:14 AM
  • 57 views

Solving the puzzle of Greenland melting 20,000 years ago

by Jonathan Trinastic in Goodnight Earth

New computer modeling and experimental ice core data shed light on the mystery of Greenland melting 20,000 years ago. This information will be helpful in refining current climate models.... Read more »

Buizert C, Gkinis V, Severinghaus JP, He F, Lecavalier BS, Kindler P, Leuenberger M, Carlson AE, Vinther B, Masson-Delmotte V.... (2014) Greenland temperature response to climate forcing during the last deglaciation. Science (New York, N.Y.), 345(6201), 1177-80. PMID: 25190795  

  • September 12, 2014
  • 09:52 PM
  • 53 views

The Re-emergence of the Minimal Running Shoe

by Craig Payne in Running Research Junkie

The Re-emergence of the Minimal Running Shoe ... Read more »

Davis IS. (2014) The Re-emergence of the Minimal Running Shoe. The Journal of orthopaedic and sports physical therapy, 1-19. PMID: 25211531  

  • September 12, 2014
  • 03:44 PM
  • 60 views

Inflammation of the Brain and Memory Problems

by Gabriel in Lunatic Laboratories

Neurological disorders typically involve memory issues. Most of the problems are attributed to plaques that build up in the brain (which are typically prions), yet some causes are unknown. New research however sheds some light on at least one cause of memory problems. As it turns out brain inflammation can rapidly disrupt our ability to retrieve complex memories of similar but distinct experiences.... Read more »

  • September 12, 2014
  • 11:47 AM
  • 55 views

Insulin, growth hormone and risk of schizophrenia?

by Paul Whiteley in Questioning Answers

"Overall, the present findings suggest that metabolic and hormonal disturbances such as effects on insulin and growth hormone may represent a vulnerability factor to develop mental disorders". That was the conclusion reported by van Beveren and colleagues [1] (open-access) looking at "disruption of insulin and growth factor signaling pathways as an increased risk factor for schizophrenia"."Years ago you served my father in the Clone Wars"Drawing on data derived from participants taking part in the Genetic Risk and Outcome of Psychoses (GROUP) study [2] researchers looked at blood serum samples "to measure the levels of 184 molecules in serum from 112 schizophrenia patients, 133 siblings and 87 unrelated controls". Multiplex immunoassay was the analytical weapon of choice.The results indicated that "10 proteins were present at significantly different levels between schizophrenia patients and controls" which can be seen here. The insulin synthesis pathway showed more than a passing connection to group differences as per the appearance of insulin and precursor molecules such as proinsulin and C-peptide (connecting peptide). Some of these pathway molecules were also reported to be altered in the sibling group(s) too. Growth hormone also featured as a potentially distinguishing marker, as did adiponectin among others.The authors conclude (again) their findings for "the presence of a molecular endophenotype involving disruption of insulin and growth factor signaling pathways as an increased risk factor for schizophrenia". Perhaps even more interesting is their view of the body of work [3] suggesting that "antipsychotic drugs are known to increase peripheral glucose levels" and how, in light of their findings, "these effects may be intrinsically related to the therapeutic mechanism of action by increasing the peripheral blood glucose levels and thereby increasing glucose availability in the brain".As the authors point out, there is still quite a bit more to do in this area including examining larger samples sizes and importantly, looking at blood glucose levels as a measure of insulin resistance to further complement their findings. I note however that issues with insulin function being potentially related to mood and other psychiatric conditions are nothing new as per the various literature in this area. Anderson and colleagues [4] for example, talked about a diagnosis of diabetes doubling the odds of comorbid depression. Bearing in mind, the possible interfering effect of medication, Verma and colleagues [5] found that in drug-naive (unmedicated) patients with first-episode psychosis there was a significantly increased likelihood of diabetes to be present compared with age and sex-matched asymptomatic control participants. I don't doubt however, that any relationship is going to be complicated.Finally, and bearing in mind the prime directive of this blog (no medical or clinical advice given or intended), there is the question of how this research might translate into therapeutic intervention. A final quote from the authors on this and the possibility of: "novel disease prevention approaches, which could involve nutrition modification, stress reduction and pharmaco-therapeutic interventions, including the application of well-tolerated drugs that combat insulin resistance". Alongside the dietary aspect (which is something very favourable to this blog for lots of reasons), I am wondering whether we could also learn something from times gone by [6]? Perhaps even the appliance of prophylactic psychiatry [7]?Music to close and Andrea Bocelli sings Funiculì, Funiculà...----------[1] van Beveren NJM. et al. Evidence for disturbed insulin and growth hormone signaling as potential risk factors in the development of schizophrenia. Translational Psychiatry. 2014; 4: e430.[2] Korver N. et al. Genetic Risk and Outcome of Psychosis (GROUP), a multi-site longitudinal cohort study focused on gene-environment interaction: objectives, sample characteristics, recruitment and assessment methods. Int J Methods Psychiatr Res. 2012 Sep;21(3):205-21.[3] Wirshing DA. et al. The effects of novel antipsychotics on glucose and lipid levels. J Clin Psychiatry. 2002 Oct;63(10):856-65.[4] Anderson RJ. et al. The prevalence of comorbid depression in adults with diabetes: a meta-analysis. Diabetes Care. 2001 Jun;24(6):1069-78.[5] Verma SK. et al. Metabolic risk factors in drug-naive patients with first-episode psychosis. J Clin Psychiatry. 2009 Jul;70(7):997-1000.[6] Anderson K. et al. Salsalate, an old, inexpensive drug with potential new indications: a review of the evidence from 3 recent studies. Am Health Drug Benefits. 2014 Jun;7(4):231-5.[7] Sawa A. & Seidman LJ. Is Prophylactic Psychiatry around the Corner? Combating Adolescent Oxidative Stress for Adult Psychosis and Schizophrenia. Neuron. 2014; 83: 991-993.----------van Beveren NJ, Schwarz E, Noll R, Guest PC, Meijer C, de Haan L, & Bahn S (2014). Evidence for disturbed insulin and growth hormone signaling as potential risk factors in the development of schizophrenia. Translational psychiatry, 4 PMID: 25158005... Read more »

  • September 12, 2014
  • 11:18 AM
  • 71 views

Psychologists have compared the mental abilities of Scrabble and crossword champions

by BPS Research Digest in BPS Research Digest

Completed Scrabble (left) and crossword grids (image from Toma et al 2014).Every year, hundreds of word lovers arrive from across the US to compete in the American Crossword Puzzle tournament. They solve clues (e.g. "caught some Z's") and place the answers (e.g. "sleep") in a grid. Meanwhile, a separate group of wordsmiths gather regularly to compete at Scrabble, the game that involves forming words out of letter tiles and finding a suitable place for them on the board.Both sets of players have exceptional abilities, but how exactly do they differ from each other and from non-players of matched academic ability? Some answers are provided by Michael Toma and his colleagues, who have performed the first detailed comparison of the mental skills of the most elite crossword and Scrabble players in the US. Previous studies on gaming expertise have mostly involved chess players, so this is a refreshing new research angle.Toma's team recruited 26 elite Scrabble players (in the top two per cent of competitive players, on average; 20 men) and 31 elite crossword players (in the top 7 per cent, on average; 22 men) to complete several tests of working memory - the kind of memory that we use to juggle and use information over short time-scales.For example, there was a visuospatial task that involved judging whether images were symmetrical, while also remembering highlighted locations in a series of grids that always appeared after each symmetry image. Another challenge was the reading span task (a test of verbal working memory), which involved judging the grammatical sense of sentences, while also remembering the order of individual letters that were flashed on-screen after each grammatical challenge.The researchers anticipated that the Scrabble players would outperform the crossworders on visuospatial working memory, whereas they thought the crossword players might be superior on verbal working memory. These predictions were based on the contrasting skills demanded by the two games. Scrabble players often spend hours learning lists of words that are legal in the game, but unlike crossword players, they don't need to know their meaning. In fact many Scrabble players admit to not knowing the meaning of many of the words they play. On the other hand, Scrabble players need skills to rearrange letters and to find a place for their words on the board (a visuospatial skill), whereas crossword players do not need these skills so much because the grid is prearranged for them.The researchers actually uncovered no group differences on any of the measures of visuospatial and verbal working memory. However, in line with predictions, the crossword competitors outperformed the Scrabble players on an analogies-based word task - identifying a pair of words that have the same relation to each other as a target pair - and the crossworders also had higher (self-reported) verbal SAT scores than the Scrabble players (SAT is a standardised school test used in the US). The two groups also differed drastically in the most important strategies they said they used during game play - for instance, mental flexibility was far more important for crossworders, whereas anagramming was important for Scrabble players but not mentioned by crossworders.Both expert groups far outperformed a control group of high-achieving students on all measures of verbal and visuospatial working memory. This was despite the fact the students had similar verbal SAT levels to the expert players. So it seems the elite players of both games have highly superior working memory relative to controls, but this enhancement is not tailored to their different games.Toma and his team said that by looking beyond chess and studying experts in cognitively demanding verbal games, their research "helps to build a more general understanding of the cognitive mechanisms that underlie elite performance." From a theoretical perspective, their finding of no working memory differences between Scrabble and crossword competitors is supportive of a domain general account of working memory - the idea that there exists a single mechanism that supports the processing of verbal and visuospatial information. _________________________________ Toma, M., Halpern, D., & Berger, D. (2014). Cognitive Abilities of Elite Nationally Ranked SCRABBLE and Crossword Experts Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.3059 Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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