Reason no. 20,746 to thank mom for raising you: Her touch isn’t just soothing—it directly shapes a baby’s brain. Scientists have long known that parental bonding plays an important role in neural development, but a group of NYU Langone researchers have become the first to study that process in real time. They watched 100 hours of video of mama rats tending to their young, and compared the footage to brain scans from rat babies, or “pups,” outfitted with miniature wireless transmitters.
The takeaway? Brain wave patterns changed depending on whether the pups were nursing or left alone—and researchers believe such variations caused by nurturing interactions with mom help hard-wire a healthy brain for life. In fact, when mother rats groomed their pups, brain activity spiked by more than 100 percent. (Awww.)
MDMA…E…X—whatever you call it, ecstasy remains popular among adolescents and young adults despite an overall decline in its use since the peak period of the late 1990s and early 2000s. A recent study by NYU researchers found that 4.4% of high school seniors reported using ecstasy within the last year, with boys at particularly high risk for use.
Analyzing data from a survey administered nationwide in 130 schools, they concluded that previous use of other drugs was the biggest predictor of ecstasy use, drowning out other socioeconomic factors. In addition, girls and religious students were at lower odds for use, as were black and Hispanic students and those residing with two parents—unless they were already using other substances.
Money matters, too: Odds of using ecstasy increased for students with a job paying more than $50 per week.
Gazing into the eyes of a potential mate is a time-honored pastime of lovers everywhere. But what if that ritual also involved checking your partner’s face for differently colored eyebrow patches, ear tufts, and nose spots?
Some types of Old World monkeys use those visual markers, which have evolved over time, to avoid interbreeding with similar species, NYU researchers have found. The anthropologists used facial recognition algorithms to compare 1,400 photographs of guenons—a group of more than two dozen species of monkeys who live side-by-side in the forests of Central and West Africa—to explore differences in their facial features.
The results showed that the face patterns of various guenon species sharing the same territory have evolved to appear distinct from one another, cutting down on the risk of hybridization and infertile offspring.
No one likes the feeling that there’s not enough money to go around. But a new study by NYU psychologists found that a sense of scarcity can lead to more than penny pinching: In lean economic times, African Americans tend to appear “blacker” to whites.
In one experiment, non-black study participants were asked to view 110 computer-generated images of faces ranging from light- to dark-skinned. Those who’d indicated through survey questions that they believed that “when blacks make economic gains, whites lose out economically” had a lower threshold for identifying mixed-race faces as black.
In another, adults randomly selected from a city park were asked to divide up $15 between imaginary people (represented by composite faces) gave significantly less money to the face that looked blacker.
Here’s something you didn’t see coming as a kid who dreamt of flying to the moon: Space travel could give you poor eyesight.
The nerves that move the eyes are very sensitive to changes in pressure in the brain, which could explain why astronauts exposed to elevated pressure in space suffer from visual impairment. Back here on Earth, weaknesses in those nerves can be a symptom of concussion or other traumatic brain injury.
That’s why biotech whizzes at Oculogica, co-founded by Stern grad Robert Ritlop (MBA’14) and the School of Medicine’s Uzma Samadani, are developing EyeBox, a diagnostic tool that uses eye tracking to detect problems in the brain.
The National Space Biomedical Research Institute recently funded further development of EyeBox through a $250,000 SMARTCAP grant—used to encourage the development of products to meet a need in space and on Earth.
Forget paper cranes.
Chemistry professor Nadrian Seeman and colleagues at NYU and the University of Melbourne are practicing the delicate art of manipulating shapes at a much, much smaller scale.
Using DNA origami, which employs two hundred short DNA strands to direct longer strands into forming specific shapes, the researchers created amyloid fibrils—aggregated proteins as strong as spider’s silk—and a tiny nanotube (just one billionth of a meter in diameter) to house them. Their results are published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.
Creating two-dimensional shapes like these on the nanoscale could enhance fiber optics and electronic devices by reducing their size and increasing their speed.
“Small is so exciting—you can make better structures on the tiniest chemical scales,” Seeman says.
BREAKING—The Graduate was indeed ahead of its time, because the future can still be summed up in one word: plastics. The flexible, inexpensive material could one day replace the silicon used in computer and phone processors—and thanks to new research by NYU physicists, that day is closer than ever.
Researchers focused on overcoming one big obstacle to making these plastic devices cheaply: the large amount of energy required to read information stored on them. (The trick is in converting data stored magnetically to light for fiber optic transmission.) In a recent experiment, they managed to transfer information between a magnet and an organic light-emitting diode, without electrical current flowing between the two.
The catch? Their device wasn’t petite—so the technology will have to be miniaturized before it can make its way into our favorite mobile gadgets.
Leonardo da Vinci was onto something when he noticed that water falling into a pond created eddies of motion. The phenomenon he observed in the swirling currents is what scientists call turbulence—and it remains mysterious to physicists and mathematicians even today.
Turbulence is all around us: the efficiency of a jet engine, for example, depends on it. But other forms of this kind of fluid motion are much less familiar. NYU’s Katepalli Sreenivasan is part of a team of researchers studying quantum turbulence—the very chaotic motion of fluids at temperatures close to zero. These fluids are unlike ordinary air or water in that there’s no resistance to hinder their flow.
By studying these differences—between quantum and classical turbulence—Sreenivasan and colleagues could uncover phenomena not yet known to physics. Talk about making waves!
They do not go gentle into that good night! Picture stripped-envelope supernovae as brilliant as a billion suns and gamma-ray bursts that launch particles moving at nearly the speed of light. Both are symptoms of stellar collapse, but astronomers so far have been unable to figure out which stars produce these types of explosions on their way out.
That’s where NYU physicist Maryam Modjaz comes in. She’s won a 5-year, $500,000 NSF CAREER Award for a scientific investigative method she calls “stellar forensics.” By studying the mass and metallicity (the proportion of matter made of elements other than hydrogen and helium) of the celestial habitats of the explosions, her research team will be able to deduce the makeup of the stars producing the big outbursts. And that, in turn, could help trace the chemical history of the universe.
Who needs a police-department sketch artist when scientists can pluck a suspect’s face directly from the mind of an eyewitness (no psychic required!)?
Thanks to advances in fMRI technology, a trio of researchers including NYU’s Brice Kuhl are honing the art of mindreading. In a recent study, the scientists scanned the brains of six volunteers as they viewed images of 300 different “training” faces, and then repeated the process with 30 new faces. By comparing these new scans to the previous 300, the researchers were able to produce recognizable images of the faces as they appeared in volunteers’ minds.
The pictures aren’t perfect yet, but a more advanced version of this method could one day be used to help understand how autistic children respond to faces, to assess racial prejudice, or even to recreate faces from dreams.
Alarming, though not especially surprising: People tend to dehumanize members of groups they don’t belong to. NYU and Harvard researchers recently showed undergrads pictures of human faces that had been morphed together with inanimate objects (like dolls or statues). The students were more likely to deem a hybrid image as “having a mind” if it was labeled as belonging to their “in-group.”
So a Democrat might imagine a Republican to be mindless, unless—and here’s the new wrinkle—the Democrat views the Republican as threatening, the researchers found. NYU students who identified strongly with their school were more likely to perceive faces labeled as Boston University students as rivals, and were therefore more likely than other NYU students to report that the BU students had minds. The same held for ardent political party supporters who viewed their adversaries as threatening.
Even women seeking to date men who’ll treat them as equals can be shy to ask those guys out, a new study by NYU sociologist Ellen Lamont found. She interviewed 38 female college graduates—average age 31—who described their ideal relationship as one in which partners equally shared economic, housework, and childcare responsibilities. Three quarters of those who had or wanted children said they had not interrupted or would not interrupt their careers to become stay-at-home moms.
But despite their egalitarian ideals, the women clung to traditional gender roles in the realm of dating: They said that men are responsible for asking women out, paying for dates, and proposing marriage. Many feared rejection when pursuing relationships, and expressed a preference for being pursued and desired. Take notice, rom-com screenwriters!
Sure, your baby could be the next great Tolstoy scholar—but don’t count on him to crack open War and Peace just yet. A Steinhardt study has busted the myth that, with a little help from educational DVDs and flashcards, infants can learn to read.
The researchers studied 117 infants aged nine to 18 months, some of whom received a baby media product—DVDs, flashcards, or flipbooks—to be used daily for seven months.
When the babies who’d been given the educational materials were tested on their capacity to recognize letter names, letter sounds, and words by sight, they scored just as poorly as those in the control group, who hadn’t been “studying.”
The products did have one profound effect—on parents, who in exit interviews expressed the belief that their precocious progeny were well on their way to literacy.
Nine percent of new HIV infections originate from drug use, and 70 to 77 percent of people who inject drugs have hepatitis C, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That’s why researchers at NYU’s Center for Drug Use and HIV Research have studied the behaviors of people who’ve injected drugs for 8 to 15 years and not contracted these diseases.
Aiming to reduce disease transmission among all addicts, colleagues from the National Development Research Institutes drew on this 2005 research for a new intervention with 68 drug users from the Lower East Side. The program both taught safe injection practices and helped users reduce weekly drug intake. And the best news? Knowledge can be contagious. Researchers noted that study participants have been spreading the word on safer drug use within their communities.
What’s that phone number again? Some psychologists argue that there is a finite number of items that we can hold in our minds at once, while others insist that working memory is focused on quality, not quantity.
NYU’s Weiji Ma recently scored a point for the latter camp by analyzing the results of experiments in which subjects were asked to recall one of up to eight colors they’d seen a few seconds ago. The quality of memories gradually diminished as subjects were asked to recall more and more colors.
Ma concluded that working memory doesn’t suddenly max out: We’re more likely to remember “everything a little bit” than to remember some things perfectly and forget others entirely.
Now what happened to those car keys?
Which relative should inherit grandma’s wedding silver? And when a couple splits, which spouse gets the car? Such questions can quickly lead to bickering, as there’s no magic formula for divvying up prized possessions.
But with a pair of elegant algorithms, NYU politics professor Steven Brams and colleagues may have devised the next-best thing: an “envy-free” guide to dividing belongings fairly in divorce and inheritance disputes.
Unlike other methods that ask the two quarreling parties to give detailed information about what they want, these algorithms are efficient and simple to use. In the first, the two players choose between items; in the second, they rank their preferences. The algorithms are “envy free” because each party prefers its items to those of the other party.
Does this guarantee there will be no hurt feelings? Probably not—but it beats throwing dishes.
Birds fly; fish swim. People talk—but with just half a brain? A new study by NYU and NYU Langone Medical Center researchers has just upended the long-standing scientific assumption that you only need one side of your brain to have a real conversation.
Using data from NYU ECoG, where neural activity is measured by placing specialized electrodes directly on the brain, the scientists proved that speech is, in fact, bilateral—it involves both sides. To isolate mere speech (talking and listening) from meaningful language (constructing and understanding sentences), the researchers had study subjects repeat nonsense words like “kig” and “pob.” As they spoke, the researchers observed activity on both sides of the brain. The findings were published in Nature.
These insights could lead to more effective rehabilitation of patients with brain damage caused by strokes or epilepsy.
Watergate. The Iran-Contra Affair. Hurricane Katrina. Does that sound like a greatest-hits of American scandals and screw-ups? It is—and there are 97 more. As part of his new book Government by Investigation (Brookings Institution Press), Wagner’s Paul Light has compiled a list of the federal government’s 100 most significant inquiries since 1945.
What do communists in Hollywood (1947), the Kent State campus shootings (1970), and steroid abuse in baseball (2005) have in common? They all made Light’s cut, along with probes into Pearl Harbor (1945), Ku Klux Klan activities (1965), the space shuttle Challenger accident (1986), and President Clinton’s impeachment (1998).
Light counts 20 investigations from the 2000s alone, among them the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the 2008 financial collapse, and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
How many controversies can you name? See the full list here.
Voter turnout for U.S. presidential elections hovers around an unimpressive 60 percent. But who exactly is doing the voting? Most often, it’s the rich: A study by NYU’s Jonathan Nagler with American University colleague Jan Leighley found that nearly 80 percent of high-income citizens vote, compared to barely 50 percent of those considered low-income.
Studying data from every presidential election from 1972 to 2008, the researchers found that while the gap in voting between blacks and whites has largely disappeared, income inequality between voters and non-voters has remained stable. And election reforms designed to boost voter turnout have resulted in modest increases of just 2 or 3 percent.
Upending previous research, Leighley and Nagler demonstrated that voters are substantially more conservative in their economic views than are non-voters—an imbalance that may well influence policy decisions to the detriment of the poor.
The stats on childhood obesity—nearly a quarter of 6- to 11-year-olds don’t meet U.S. guidelines for physical activity—indicate that perhaps kids aren’t spending enough time outdoors. That’s why a team of Steinhardt researchers set out to discover who’s using NYC’s parks and playgrounds, and how often.
In 2010-11, the team examined 10 parks or playgrounds and counted 37,412 users, 53 percent of them children. While 60 percent of parents said these were the main places their kids played outdoors, there were significant differences among racial and socioeconomic groups: non-whites and those with household incomes of less than $20,000 were more likely to turn to playgrounds for their children’s needs.
While the vast majority of parents were pleased with playground cleanliness and maintenance, some groups—including Hispanics and women—were more likely than others to report feeling unsafe there.
Anyone with the misfortune to wind up in an overcrowded hospital emergency room might reasonably look around and wonder, “Who are all these people?”
Not who you might expect, according to a new NYU Wagner study that debunked an urban legend about emergency department “frequent fliers.” While it’s widely assumed that addled drug addicts put the greatest burden on emergency facilities, the researchers analyzed 212,259 NYC emergency department visits and found that substance abuse and mental illness accounted for only a small share of ER traffic.
Instead, those visiting the emergency department most often were the very sick—those carrying a substantial burden of disease, with chronic conditions requiring multiple hospitalizations. These repeat users were shown to have visited primary and secondary caregivers more often than the emergency department, shattering the stereotype of patients who rely on the ER for all medical needs.
Crack or powder? Not all teenage cocaine users are alike, according to a recent study by Steinhardt and NYU Langone Medical Center researchers.
Examining data from a survey of seniors at 130 high schools, the researchers found that 6.2 percent had used powder cocaine and 2.5 percent had used crack. Students who earned more than $50 per week were significantly more likely to use either form, whereas girls reported less use of powder cocaine, and students who identified as religious preferred crack.
Users of only powder cocaine—not crack, as the stereotype would have it—were more likely to live in urban areas.
Possession of 500 grams of powder results in a five-year prison term, while just 28 grams of crack carries the same sentence—and yet the two are commonly collapsed into a common “cocaine use” category in research.
Here’s something to think about the next time you see a minivan hurtling down the highway: the fatality rate for child passengers in U.S. car crashes is at least double that of other wealthy nations. About 2,000 die each year.
Vague and insufficient state child restraint laws could be to blame, according to a study by Steinhardt researchers.
Laws in Arizona, Michigan, and South Dakota only mentioned children under the age of four, though the American Association of Pediatrics recommends that kids keep using special seats until they’re tall enough—usually between the ages of 8 and 12—to buckle up safely in just a seatbelt.
Other state laws didn’t distinguish between rear-facing infant seats and forward-facing booster seats, and 33 states granted exceptions for commercial vehicles carrying children.
Making the laws clearer could potentially save young lives.
The middle-schooler, as anyone who has chaperoned an 8th-grade dance knows, is a highly social animal. But what you might not guess is that interacting with peers can also boost academic performance in traditionally solitary realms.
A study of middle-schoolers led by Steinhardt’s Jan Plass found that playing a math video game competitively or collaboratively with another player—as compared to playing alone—enhanced both mastery of the subject and the student’s enjoyment of the game.
“We found support for claims that well-designed games can motivate students to learn less popular subjects such as math,” Plass said, “and can broaden their focus beyond just collecting stars and points.”
Students who played with others reported greater interest in mastering the skills the game taught, and those who played in a competitive situation performed the best of all.
“Got into an altercation with a guy in the kitchen....My initial response was to fight. Then I thought about the consequences.”
Those are the words of a participant in a study led by the College of Nursing’s Noelle Leonard, which found that mindfulness training can improve attention skills among incarcerated youth, leading to better control over emotions and actions.
Researchers followed 267 16- to 18-year-old incarcerated males for four months.
When combined with cognitive-behavioral therapy, meditation-based training helped the teens resist impulsive and risky decision-making induced by stress. The findings suggest that mindfulness could be key to reducing recidivism among young offenders.
Study participants were taught to focus on the sensation of breathing. “By repeatedly returning attention back to the breath,” Leonard says, they learned to “interrupt the cycle of automatic and reactive thoughts.”
Kitten ears? Ghoulish makeup? Those are so last Halloween.
To get the hippest haunted look this year, you’ll need some digital assistance—in the form of 3D virtual masks developed by NYU-Poly instructor Mark Swarek and grad student Animesh Anad.
To wear one, you just clip a four-inch square barcode into your hair or hat, and friends who have downloaded an app can hold up their mobile devices to see your spooky skeleton skull or giant pumpkin head.
Using similar technology, 4,000 kids “dressed” as dinosaurs and monsters at the Brooklyn Art Fair recently ran through Prospect Park while parents watched on iPad and iPhone screens.
Swarek, a researcher at MAGNET and augmented reality pioneer, predicts that future gamers will get up from the couch and head to public parks to battle each other in virtual forts and castles.
What your firefighter doesn’t know can hurt him—and you. Today’s homes, with their open-plan layouts and synthetic furnishings, are prone to blazes unlike the house fires of the past, which is why it’s so important that volunteer and career squads learn the latest science on how fires spread.
Enter ALIVE, an online training tool developed by NYU-Poly researchers that’s now being adopted by 50 fire departments nationwide. ALIVE’s game-like modules simulate the real-time decision-making process and can be completed via computer, tablet, or smartphone—allowing firefighters, many of whom work additional full-time jobs, to proceed at their own pace.
The best part? In addition to being cheaper than face-to-face instruction, the new training has also proved more effective, with ALIVE users consistently outscoring peers who have studied in the classroom.
Imagine a biological stoplight that could halt birth defects in their tracks.
No such mechanism yet exists, but NYU’s Andreas Hochwagen may have brought us one step closer with the discovery of an enzyme that plays “traffic cop” with cell division involved in sexual reproduction.
Most cells in an organism contain two sets of chromosomes—one from the mother and one from the father. But eggs and sperm have just one set, and they’re produced through meiosis, the process in which maternal and paternal genes are replicated and “reshuffled” into new combinations of DNA.
By studying meiosis in yeast, Hochwagen and a colleague found one enzyme that sends out a molecular “wait” signal to another that triggers DNA reshuffling. The enzyme acts as a “traffic cop” by preventing the disruptions to chromosome replication that can lead to Down syndrome.
On an expedition to the far reaches of Antarctica, an international group of scientists confirmed that, when it comes to climate change, we’re all skating on thin ice.
Courant’s David Holland was among the researchers who traveled 500 meters down into the underbelly of the Pine Island Glacier to measure the effects of the warm seawater currents melting its ice shelf from below. They found that the channel through Pine Island is melting at a rate of about six centimeters per day—a startling finding given that the breakup of this ice shelf could significantly contribute to rising sea levels worldwide.
Holland’s plan is to use the new measurements to improve computer models that predict changes in the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet. Understanding how glaciers melt will be key to figuring out just how watery our future will be.
Ever popped into the grocery store for a gallon of milk and walked out with a whole cartful of treats? Impulse buying: It happens to the best of us. But why? The Stern School’s Sam Hui and colleagues recently zeroed in on the causes of this budget-busting behavior—by videotaping grocery stores from the shopper’s point-of-view.
They found that items that are on promotion, need to be refrigerated, or are high in “hedonicity” (like chocolate) are prime candidates for unplanned purchases, and that shoppers who stand close to shelves or browse store circulars are more likely to stray from their shopping lists.
“Retailers can employ several strategies to convert shoppers from passive browsers to buyers,” says Hui. But it takes two to tango: The researchers also found that customers often leave room for unplanned purchases in their mental budgets.
Here’s yet another reason to renew that gym membership: A third of the nation’s new cancer cases this year will be related to obesity, physical inactivity, and poor diet—and Steinhardt nutritional epidemiologist Niyati Parekh may have the key to why that is.
In a recent study, Parekh explored the link between body fatness and cancers of the esophagus, pancreas, colorectum, and breast. Her theory? Obesity causes higher concentrations of both insulin and glucose, which can encourage cancer cells to grow and multiply faster than they would in a slimmer person. Going forward, she says, scientists could use these findings to develop lifestyle guidelines to simultaneously control cancer and address America’s weight problem.
Meantime, just keep moving: Sedentary living, Parekh says, is a chief culprit in creating the excess body fat that can disrupt insulin regulation.
When it comes to what we eat, the world’s people can be divided into two groups: “stuffed” and “starved.”
As Steinhardt’s Amy Bentley puts it, “Westerners are eating enormous quantities of sugar, beef, chicken, wheat, and dairy products”—and in addition to being bad for our health, that diet has bred overconsumption, leading to severe food shortages in parts of the world. Meat is so central to the Western diet that our “ecological footprint” exceeds the biocapacity of the entire planet.
Reversing the trend will be difficult, according to Bentley and her colleagues, who’ve written “Sustainable Consumption: Reworking the Western Diet,” a TED Studies analysis that describes the genesis of the modern food system and offers alternative approaches for a sustainable future.
Their first steps for change? Interest in food origins and technologies that track food from “farm to table.”
It sounds like the predicament of a Woody Allen character—you seek therapy for anxiety, but you’re too stressed to practice the calming techniques your therapist recommends. A team of NYU neurologists led by Elizabeth Phelps observed this phenomenon in a two-day experiment showing that even mild amounts of stress can thwart cognitive-behavioral therapies commonly prescribed to control emotions.
The researchers first conditioned participants to fear images of snakes or spiders by pairing the pictures with mild electric shocks, and then taught them strategies for combating that fear. The next day half the group had their hands plunged into icy water to induce stress. When exposed to the spooky images again, those with icy hands were unable to calm themselves using the strategies they’d learned, whereas a control group made effective use of the previous day’s training to reduce fear.
It’s the bread and butter of every police procedural from Dragnet to Law & Order: Two witnesses give differing accounts of the same crime. Duplicitous accomplices aside, psychologists have long understood memory recall to be complex and sometimes unreliable. Luckily, rats seem to have the same problem—which allows researchers like NYU’s André Fenton to peer into their minds and better understand what goes on in ours.
By monitoring the electrical activity in rats’ brains, Fenton and SUNY Downstate’s Eduard Kelemen observed that when the animals explore a new environment, their brain activity sometimes matches that of a previous one. The findings suggest neurons carry stored memories, environmental circumstances, and current state of mind—a mixture that might cause one to pick the wrong guy in a lineup but that can also, Fenton says, “amount to valuable insight and knowledge.”