Insights: News

News from dementia to good behavior.

By Tarah Knaresboro, Katherine Schreiber, Jenny Merkin, published on January 1, 2011 - last reviewed on March 14, 2011

Business Minded

The intriguing link between dementia and your daily grind

Science nerds and artsy types may be at risk of lopsided brain decay. One form of dementia appears to affect the brain region least used in a person's career, a new study in Neuropsychologia reveals.

Frontotemporal lobar degeneration (FTLD), which is associated with uninhibited behavior and language deficits, tends to affect the brain asymmetrically. Researchers Nathan Spring and Brian Levine of the University of Toronto noticed that their FTLD-afflicted study subjects often had "extreme" careers: "They were composers, cartographers—professions that tended to have specific skills in one area," Levine says.

They crunched the numbers and found that career expertise indeed dictates in which side of the brain dementia takes hold. Math skills, for example, are focused in the left side of the brain, so those in number-heavy professions see degeneration first in the right hemisphere.

Researchers aren't sure whether the added practice makes a brain area particularly resistant to damage or whether predisposed weaknesses in a certain hemisphere dictate career choice from the get-go. "It's a chicken-and-egg thing," Levine says. —Tarah Knaresboro

Sad at the Top

Living in the clouds may come with some mental health risks.

The Intermountain West, for all its gorgeous peaks and forests, has the nation's highest suicide rate. Turns out, people living at higher altitudes are at greater risk of self-induced death, according to new research from the University of Utah. Suicide rates at an elevation of 2,000 meters are about 68 percent higher than at sea level.

Lead researcher Perry Renshaw initially suspected isolation or socio-economic status might explain the findings, but he quickly realized the strength of predictors like population density, SES, gun ownership, and even access to psychiatric help pale in comparison to altitude.

Scientists aren't sure of the mechanisms, but "reduced oxygen levels' effects on brain chemistry may be to blame," Renshaw says. It's possible the limited 02 somehow exacerbates pre-existing mood disorders.

"We're certainly not saying everyone in the mountains should move to lower altitudes," Renshaw says. But he hopes mental health professionals will take his findings into account when assessing patients or conducting subsequent research. "This link is significant," he says. "Now the race is on to figure out why." —Katherine Schreiber

Talked Out of Tantrums

How baby babbling leads to good behavior

Reading to your kids may help keep them from throwing fits, suggests a new study in Early Childhood Research Quarterly. Researchers measured toddlers' spoken vocabulary and self-regulation, or ability to control behavior and emotions. They found that vocab at 24 months serves as a very strong predictor of self-regulation at the three-year mark, especially for boys.

Researchers controlled for overall cognitive skills, ruling out the possibility that tots with better lexicons are just smarter. Instead, they suspect that when kids can voice their thoughts, they take charge of their situation instead of growing frustrated. Kids may also use words as mental tools to figure things out or calm themselves down. "Self-talk is a trick adults use, too," says study author Claire Vallotton.

Boys probably benefit more because they're extra-vulnerable to self-control problems to begin with; the boost from thinking and communicating in words is especially dramatic. —Jenny Merkin

children reading