Insights: News

The lastest news on Alzheimer's research, sexual harassment and decision making.

By Nancy Ryerson, Karina Grudnikov, Sarah Henrich, published July 3, 2011 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Tough Cell

Manufactured neurons may help scientists battle Alzheimer's disease.

 Petrie dish w/ the word Memory in it
Scientists are one step closer to halting the memory devastation brought on by Alzheimer's disease. Northwestern University researchers transformed human stem cells into basal forebrain cholinergic neurons, important cells that help the hippocampus retrieve memories—and, for unknown reasons, die early in the brains of Alzheimer's sufferers.

Neurons can't survive long in petri dishes, so scientists aim to find drugs that keep the cells alive, figuring the same sustainer could help Alzheimer's-threatened cells in the brain, explains researcher Jack Kessler. By mass-producing the neuron, scientists can test thousands of drugs directly on the cell, upping their chances of finding one that keeps the neurons alive.

Initially, Kessler's lab coaxed normal embryonic stem cells into neurons, but they've also turned skin cells from patients with Alzheimer's into stem cells and then neurons. Working with cells from diseased patients may provide a hint about why those neurons die in Alzheimer's patients.

Someday, scientists may transplant new neurons into the brains of patients, but such a possibility is at least 10 to 15 years away, Kessler says. Until then, he hopes scientists will develop innovative treatments using the newly generated neuron: "This is an exciting advance to create tools for treating Alzheimer's disease." —Nancy Ryerson

Hear No Evil

The dulling effects of chronic catcalls

 Wolf in a red bow tie whistling
Sexual harassment may be so commonplace for women that they've built up psychological resistance to it. Michigan State University researchers examined how different kinds of sexual harassment affect mental well-being in both women and men, using data from a military survey. For women, harassment viewed as "bothersome" (annoying and offensive) isn't associated with distress; only "frightening" (scary and threatening) harassment impairs psychological well-being. For men, both bothersome and frightening harassment lead to distress.

"Women may expect low-level harassment," says lead investigator Isis H. Settles. "A lifetime of being sexually harassed leads women to develop coping mechanisms that downplay the distress." Perceiving certain types of harassment as merely bothersome can help mitigate the known damage to health and well-being. Men, on the other hand, may be less prepared to deal with offensive comments and behavior.

Dianne Quinn, a University of Connecticut psychologist who studies sexual harassment, agrees. "There's ample evidence that, from an early age, women are regularly exposed to sexist commentary," she says. "They may come to see it as normative." Women also learn not to complain about it so they aren't perceived as weak or whiny. The study does not, Settles adds, suggest that harassment is ultimately less detrimental to women than to men. —Karina Grudnikov

Freedom's Foible

Do choices make us meaner?

 Road sign w/ conflicting arrows
Just reflecting on the choices that led you to this moment may make you unsympathetic toward those less fortunate. Americans primed to think about decision-making oppose affirmative action, taxes on gas-guzzling cars, and other laws supporting the common good, according to a study in Psychological Science. But when researchers conducted similar experiments in India, participants' takes on social issues remained unaffected.

U.S. culture dictates that options—like career paths and marriage partners—should be abundant and available to every citizen, explains Krishna Savani, a researcher at Columbia University. "For Americans, minor choices are very significant because they offer uniqueness and control," he says. In India, options aren't connected to a sense of self. "Indians are less concerned about expressing personality through purchases."

Thus, when we're primed to think about decision-making, we tend to assume what people do and what happens to them is under their control—so the consequences are their problem. Since Indians may not feel that each choice exhibits control, they're less apt to believe that fellow humans determine their own fate—and their sympathy remains intact.

Savani points out that political rhetoric centering around choice—e.g., speeches lauding multiple options for health insurance—may reduce our concern for improving society. —Sarah Henrich