Latest Research News

A 12-year study following the drinking and smoking habits of 22,524 people aged 39-79 has found that in non-smokers, people who consumed moderate amounts of alcohol were 37% less likely to develop stroke than non-drinkers. This association was not found among smokers. The finding may explain the inconsistency in previous studies into the relationship between light to moderate drinking and stroke.

Data from more than 20,000 18-year-old Israeli men has revealed that IQ scores are lower in male adolescents who smoke compared to non-smokers, and in twin brothers who smoke compared to their non-smoking brothers. The average IQ for a non-smoker was about 101, while the smokers' average was about 94, with those who smoked more than a pack a day being lower still, at about 90. 28% of the sample smoked one or more cigarettes a day, 3% identified as ex-smokers, and 68% said they never smoked.

A study in which nearly 50 participants consumed either alcohol (.4 or .8 g/kg, around 2 or 4 glasses of wine) or a placebo drink, performed a memory task, then were shown a video of serious road traffic accidents, has found that those given the smaller amount of alcohol experienced more flashbacks during the next week than those given the larger amount of alcohol, and those given no alcohol.

It’s well established that we are better at recognizing faces of our own racial group, but a new study shows that this ability disappears when we’re mildly intoxicated. The study tested about 140 university students of Western European and east-Asian descent and found that recognition of different-race faces was unaffected by alcohol, yet both groups showed impaired recognition of own-race faces, bringing it down to about the same level of accuracy as for different-race faces. Those given a placebo drink were unaffected.

An imaging study reveals why older adults are better at remembering positive events. The study, involving young adults (ages 19-31) and older adults (ages 61-80) being shown a series of photographs with positive and negative themes, found that while there was no difference in brain activity patterns between the age groups for the negative photos, there were age differences for the positive photos.

A study assessing the performance of 200 people on a simulated freeway driving task, with or without having a cell phone conversation that involved memorizing words and solving math problems, has found that, as expected, performance on both tasks was significantly impaired. However, for a very few, performance on these tasks was unaffected (indeed their performance on the memory task improved!). These few people — five of them (2.5%) — also performed substantially better on these tasks when performed alone.

Examination of the brains from 9 “super-aged” — people over 80 whose memory performance was at the level of 50-year-olds — has found that some of them had almost no tau tangles. The accumulation of tau tangles has been thought to be a natural part of the aging process; an excess of them is linked to Alzheimer’s disease. The next step is to work out why some people are immune to tangle formation, while others appear immune to the effects. Perhaps the first group is genetically protected, while the others are reaping the benefits of a preventive lifestyle.

An imaging study involving 79 volunteers aged 44 to 88 has found lower volumes of gray matter and faster rates of decline in the frontal and medial temporal

Love this one! A series of experiments with college students has revealed that a glowing, bare light bulb can improve your changes of solving an insight problem. In one experiment, 79 students were given a spatial problem to solve. Before they started, the experimenter, remarking “It’s a little dark in here”, either turned on a lamp with an unshaded 25-watt bulb or an overhead fluorescent light. Twice as many of those exposed to the bare bulb solved the problem in the allotted three minutes (44% vs 22%).

A study in which 60 young adult mice were trained on a series of maze exercises designed to challenge and improve their working memory ability (in terms of retaining and using current spatial information), has found that the mice improved their proficiency on a wide range of cognitive tests, and moreover better retained their cognitive abilities into old age.

A new study provides more support for the idea that cognitive decline in older adults is a product of a growing inability to ignore distractions. Moreover, the study, involving 21 older adults (60-80) shown random sequences of pictures containing faces and scenes and asked to remember only the scene or the face, reveals that being given forewarning about which specific pictures would be relevant (say the second, or the fourth) did not help.

Perhaps we should start thinking of language less as some specialized process and more as one approach to thought. A study involving native signers of American Sign Language (which has the helpful characteristic that subject-object relationships can be expressed in either of the two ways languages usually use: word order or inflection) has revealed that there are distinct regions of the brain that are used to process the two types of sentences: those in which word order determined the relationships between the sentence elements, and those in which inflection was providing the information.

Visual

An intriguing set of experiments showing how you can improve perception by manipulating mindset found significantly improved vision when:

A study involving five patients with severe amnesia due to damage in the

The role of the catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) gene in cognitive function has been the subject of some debate. The gene, which affects dopamine, comes in two flavors: Val and Met.

A variant of a gene called the fat mass and obesity associated (FTO) gene causes people to gain weight and puts them at risk for obesity. The gene variant is found in nearly half of all people in the U.S. with European ancestry, around one-quarter of U.S. Hispanics, 15 percent of African Americans and 15 percent of Asian Americans. A new study involving 206 healthy elderly subjects from around the U.S. now suggests that this gene variant is also associated with loss of brain tissue. It’s not clear why, but the gene is highly expressed in the brain.

It’s now well established that sleep plays an important role in memory and learning. Now a new study suggests that dreams also play a part in consolidating memories. The study involved 99 subjects training for an hour on a computerized maze task, and then either taking a 90-minute nap or engaging in quiet activities. Intermittently, subjects were asked to describe what was going through their minds, or what they had been dreaming about. Five hours after training, the subjects were retested on the maze task.

A study involving 136 healthy institutionalized infants (average age 21 months) from six orphanages in Bucharest, Romania, has found that those randomly assigned to a foster care program showed rapid increases in height and weight (but not head circumference), so that by 12 months, all of them were in the normal range for height, 90% were in the normal range for weight, and 94% were in the normal range of weight for height. Caregiving quality (particularly sensitivity and positive regard for the child, including physical affection) positively correlated with catch-up.

As we all know, being interrupted during a task greatly increases the chance we’ll go off-kilter (I discuss the worst circumstances and how you can minimize the risk of mistakes in my book Planning to remember). Medication errors occur as often as once per patient per day in some settings, and around one-third of harmful medication errors are thought to occur during medication administration.

The largest ever trial of fish oil supplements has found no evidence that they offer benefits for cognitive function in older people. The British study enrolled 867 participants aged 70-80 years, and lasted two years. After two years, those receiving fish oil capsules had significantly higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood than those receiving placebo capsules. However, cognitive function did not decline in either group over the period. The researchers caution that it may be that more time is needed for benefits to show.

A study involving 236 persons with multiple sclerosis has found that only 7% of those with secondary-progressive MS showed sufficient vitamin D in their blood, compared to 18.3% of patients with the less severe relapsing-remitting type, and that higher levels of vitamin D3 and its byproducts were associated with better scores on cognitive tests (especially reasoning and planning), and less brain atrophy and fewer brain lesions. Lower-than-normal vitamin D status is known to be associated with a higher risk of developing MS

A five-year study involving 214 children born to healthy, non-smoking Caucasian women in Krakow, Poland, has found that those prenatally exposed to high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) had a significant reduction in scores on a standardized test of reasoning ability and intelligence at age 5 (an estimated average decrease of 3.8 IQ points). The mothers wore small backpack personal air monitors for 48 hours during pregnancy to estimate their babies' PAH exposure.

Great news for those who crave the benefits of meditation but find the thought a bit intimidating! While a number of studies have demonstrated that long-term mindfulness meditation practice promotes executive functioning and the ability to sustain attention, now a small study involving 49 students has found that as little as four sessions of 20 minutes produced a significant improvement in critical cognitive skills, compared to those who spent an equal amount of time listening to Tolkien's The Hobbit being read aloud.

A six-week study got a lot of press last month. The study involved some 11,000 viewers of the BBC's science show "Bang Goes the Theory", and supposedly showed that playing online brain games makes you no smarter than surfing the Internet to answer general knowledge questions. In fact, the main problem was the media coverage.

In other words, what's important is the time of day you hear/see/read something, not when you try and remember it.

  • information learned in the morning shows better immediate retention, but worse long-term retention
  • short-term memory appears to improve as arousal levels fall

Three experiments investigated whether the time of day had an effect on short-term or long-term memory.

Folkard, S. & Monk, T.H. (1978). Time of day effects in immediate and delayed memory. In M. M. Gruneberg, P. E. Morris & R.N. Sykes (eds.). Practical aspects of memory. London: Academic Press.

Despite the popularity of brainstorming as a strategy for producing ideas and new perspectives, it appears that participation in a group actually reduces the number of ideas produced (compared to the number of ideas that would be produced if the participants thought independently)1.

Three possible explanations have been investigated:

Basden, B.H., Basden, D.R., Bryner, S. & Thomas, R.L. III (1997). A comparison of group and individual remembering: Does collaboration disrupt retrieval strategies? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 23, 1176-1189.

It is common for people to feel as they get older that they more frequently experience occasions when they cannot immediately retrieve a word they know perfectly well ("it's on the tip of my tongue").

Burke, D.M., MacKay, D.G., Worthley, J.S. & Wade, E. (1991). On the tip of the tongue: What causes word finding failures in young and older adults. Journal of Memory and Language, 30, 542-579.

Although we initially tend to pay attention to obvious features such as hair, it has been long established that familiar faces are recognized better from their inner (eyes, nose, mouth) rather than their outer (hair, hairline, jaw, ears) parts1. Studies have shown that this advantage of inner features does not occur in children until they’re around 10—11 years old. Children younger than this tend to use outer features to recognize people they know2.

Campbell, Ruth, Coleman, Michael, Walker, Jane, Benson, Philip J., Wallace, Simon, Michelotti, Joanne & Baron-Cohen, Simon. 1999. When does the inner-face advantage in familiar face recognition arise and why? Visual Cognition, 6(2), 197-216.

It has been well-established that, compared to younger adults, older adults require more practice to achieve the same level of performance1. Sometimes, indeed, they may need twice as much2.

In the present study, two groups of adult subjects were given paired items to learn during multiple study-test trials. During each trial items were presented at the subject's pace. Afterwards the subjects were asked to judge how likely they were to be able to recall each item in a test.

Dunlosky, J. & Connor, L.T. (1997). Age differences in the allocation of study time account for age differences in memory performance. Memory and Cognition, 25, 691-700.

The effect of smell on learning and memory was investigated in an experiment that used three different ambient odors (osmanthus, peppermint, and pine).

Osmanthus was used to see whether there was a difference in performance depending on whether the smell was novel or familiar. Peppermint and pine were used to see whether the appropriateness or inappropriateness of the smell made a difference to memory.

Herz, R.S. (1997). The effects of cue distinctiveness on odor-based context dependent memory. Memory and Cognition, 25, 375-380.

There is a pervasive myth that every detail of every experience we've ever had is recorded in memory. It is interesting to note therefore, that even very familiar objects, such as coins, are rarely remembered in accurate detail1.

We see coins every day, but we don't see them. What we remember about coins are global attributes, such as size and color, not the little details, such as which way the head is pointing, what words are written on it, etc. Such details are apparently noted only if the person's attention is specifically drawn to them.

Modigliani, V., Loverock, D.S. & Kirson, S.R. (1998). Encoding features of complex and unfamiliar objects. American Journal Of Psychology, 111, 215-239.

When we tell people about things that have happened to us, we shape the stories to our audience and our purpose. The amount of detail we give and the slant we give to it depends on our perceptions of our audience and what we think they want to hear. Does this change our memory for the event? Certainly we are all familiar with the confusion we get after we have been telling a particular story for years — we’re no longer sure what really happened and what we’ve added or subtracted to make a better story.

Tversky, Barbara & Marsh, Elizabeth J. 2000. Biased retellings of events yield biased memories. Cognitive Psychology, 40, 1-38.

A number of studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of the keyword mnemonic for short-term recall, for example:

Wang, A.Y. & Thomas, M.H. (1995). Effect of keywords on long-term retention: help or hindrance? Journal of Educational Psychology, 87, 468-475.

When a group of people work together to remember an event, the group do appear to recall more than an individual working alone, but do they recall more than the sum of the memories each individual recalls?

Studies have found that "brainstorming" groups actually produce fewer ideas than groups that are groups in name only1. And in many tasks, from rope-pulling to vigilance tasks, it has been found that people contribute less when they are part of a group than when they are working alone2.

Weldon, M.S. & Bellinger, K.D. (1997). Collective and individual processes in remembering. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 23, 1160-1175.

It has long been known that spacing practice (reviewing learning or practicing a skill at spaced intervals) is far more effective than massed practice (in one heavy session). It is also well-known that people commonly over-estimate the value of massed practice, and tend not to give due recognition to the value of spacing practice, despite the fact that most memory improvement and study programs advise it.

Landauer, T.K. & Ross, B.H. (1977). Can simple instructions to use spaced practice improve ability to remember a fact? An experimental test using telephone numbers. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 10, 215-218.

Seventh graders given 20 mg zinc, five days per week, for 10 to 12 weeks showed improvement in cognitive performance, responding more quickly and accurately on memory tasks and with more sustained attention, than classmates who received no additional zinc. Those who received only 10mg a day did not improve their performance. Previous studies have linked zinc nutrition to motor, cognitive and psychosocial function in very young children and adults, but this is the first study of its effect in adolescents.

A preliminary study suggests that a regime of high doses of folic acid, B12 and B6 reduces levels of homocysteine in people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s. A larger study, recruiting 400 participants from all over the U.S., is to be undertaken to assess whether such a vitamin regime can slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease. In the meantime, it is not advised that people take high doses of these vitamins, as there are possible side-effects, including peripheral nerve damage.

A study of over 3,100 older men (49-71) from across Europe has found that men with higher levels of vitamin D performed consistently better in an attention and speed of processing task. There was no difference on visual memory tasks. Although previous studies have suggested low vitamin D levels may be associated with poorer cognitive performance, findings have been inconsistent. Vitamin D is primarily synthesised from sun exposure but is also found in certain foods such as oily fish.

A review described as “definitive” has concluded that there is ample biological evidence to suggest an important role for vitamin D in brain development and function, and that supplementation for groups chronically low in vitamin D is warranted. Vitamin D has long been known to promote healthy bones, but more recently has been found to have a much broader role — over 900 different genes are now known to be able to bind the vitamin D receptor.

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