Posts tagged with "University of Washington"

Sweet as a baby: Altruism begins in infancy

February 11, 2020

Most of us would prefer to believe that people are fundamentally good. Now, researchers from the University of Washington’s Learning & Brain Sciences division (I-LABS) have found evidence that babies and toddlers actually are altruistic—that they will give away something desirable, such as food, even at a cost to themselves.

The researchers studied nearly 100 19-month old infants, and discovered that the babies were quick to share their food with the study’s authors, even when they themselves were undoubtedly hungry.

And not only did they find that this generous and kind behavior starts in infancy, but they believe their work suggests that social experiences very early in one’s life can shape our behavior towards others later on in adolescence and adulthood.

“We think altruism is important to study because it is one of the most distinctive aspects of being human. It is an important part of the moral fabric of society,” says lead author Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, a postdoctoral researcher at I-LABS, in a release. “We adults help each other when we see another in need and we do this even if there is a cost to the self. So we tested the roots of this

Kindness towards others at one’s own expense is a uniquely human trait. Indeed, the researchers say, nonhuman primates have been found to cooperate, and to share resources under restricted conditions. But nonhuman primates, such as chimpanzees, don’t actively hand over delicious food that they need themselves.

For this study, researchers chose kid-friendly fruits—including bananas, blueberries, and grapes—and set up an interaction between child and researcher. The goal: to determine whether the child would, without encouragement, verbal instruction or reinforcement, spontaneously give an appealing food to an unfamiliar person.

In the experiment, the child and the adult researcher faced each other across a table at I-LABS, and the researcher showed the child a piece of fruit. What happened next was determined by whether the child was in the control group, or the test group. In the control group, the researcher gently tossed the piece of fruit onto a tray on the floor beyond reach but within the child’s reach. The researcher showed no expression and made no attempt to retrieve the fruit.

In the test group, the researcher pretended to accidentally drop the fruit onto the tray, then reach for it unsuccessfully. A video clip from the experiment shows a 19-month-old child offering a strawberry to study lead author Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, after Barragan pretends to drop the fruit.

That reaching effort—the adult’s apparent desire for the food—seemed to trigger a helping response in the children, researchers said: More than half the children in the test group picked up the fruit and gave it to the adult, compared to 4% of children in the control group.

In a second experiment with a different sample of children, parents were asked to bring their child just before their scheduled snack or mealtime—when the child was likely to be hungry. Researchers reasoned that this would raise the “cost to self” that defines altruism. The control and test group scenarios were repeated, but with children who were now more motivated to take the fruit for themselves. The results mirrored those from the previous study. Fully 37% of the test group offered the fruit to the researcher while none of the children in the control group did so.

“The infants in this second study looked longingly at the fruit, and then they gave it away!” said Andrew Meltzoff, who is co-director of I-LABS and holds the Job and Gertrud Tamaki Endowed Chair in psychology. “We think this captures a kind of baby-sized version of altruistic helping.”

The research team also analyzed the data in different ways—whether children offered fruit on the first trial of the experiment or got better during the process, for example, and whether children from particular types of family environments helped more.

The researchers found that infants helped just as much on the very first trial of the experiment as on later trials, which Barragan said shows that the children did not have to learn to help during the study and needed no training. Indeed, children spontaneously and repeatedly helped a person from outside of their immediate family.

The study has been published in the February 4 editon of Scientific Reports.

Research contact: @uwashington

UW team devises first smartphone app that can ‘hear’ ear infections in children

May 17, 2019

Ear infections send more children to the pediatrician than any other ailment, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Even the youngest child may pull or tug at his or her ear when pressure and pain start to build up inside. This condition, usually caused by a bacterial infection, occurs when fluid gets trapped in the middle ear behind the eardrum. The same type of problem also is common in another condition called otitis media with effusion—where the infection is gone, but the fluid has not drained.

Any kind of fluid buildup in the ears can hurt and make it hard for children to hear, which is especially detrimental when they are learning to talk.

But now, researchers at the University of Washington have created a new smartphone app that can detect fluid behind the eardrum, when used along with three easily available aids: a piece of paper and the smartphone’s microphone and speaker.

The smartphone makes a series of soft audible chirps into the ear through a small paper funnel and—depending on the way the chirps rebound to the phone—the app determines the likelihood of fluid present with a probability of detection of 85% (similar to the results achieved with more sophisticated processes used currently, including acoustics and puffs of air).

When there is no fluid behind the eardrum, the eardrum vibrates and sends a variety of sound waves back. These sound waves mildly interfere with the original chirp, creating a broad, shallow dip in the overall signal. But when the eardrum has fluid behind it, it doesn’t vibrate as well and reflects the original sound waves back. They interfere more strongly with the original chirp and create a narrow, deep dip in the signal.

 “Designing an accurate screening tool on something as ubiquitous as a smartphone can be game-changing for parents as well as healthcare providers in resource-limited regions,” said co-author Shyam Gollakota, an associate professor in the UW’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. “A key advantage of our technology is that it does not require any additional hardware other than a piece of paper and a software app running on the smartphone.”

A quick screening at home could help parents decide whether or not they need to take their child to the doctor.

“It’s like tapping a wine glass,” said co-first author Justin Chan, a doctoral student at the Allen School. “Depending on how much liquid is in [the ear], you get different sounds. Using machine learning on these sounds, we can detect the presence of liquid.”

To train an algorithm that detects changes in the signal and classifies ears as having fluid or not, the team tested 53 children between the ages of 18 months and 17 years at Seattle Children’s Hospital. About half of the children were scheduled to undergo surgery for ear tube placement, a common surgery for patients with chronic or recurrent incidents of ear fluid. The other half were scheduled to undergo a different surgery unrelated to their ears, such as a tonsillectomy.

Among the children getting their ear tubes placed, surgery revealed that 24 ears had fluid behind the eardrum, while 24 ears did not. For children scheduled for other surgeries, two ears had bulging eardrums characteristic of an ear infection, while the other 48 ears were fine. The algorithm correctly identified the likelihood of fluid 85% of the time, which is comparable to current methods that specialized doctors use to diagnose fluid in the middle ear.

Then the team tested the algorithm on 15 ears belonging to younger children between 9 and 18 months of age. It correctly classified all five ears that were positive for fluid—as well as nine out of the ten ears, or 90%, that did not have fluid.

“Even though our algorithm was trained on older kids, it still works well for this age group,” said co-author Dr. Randall Bly, an assistant professor of otolaryngology at the UW School of Medicine who practices at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “This is critical because this group has a high incidence of ear infections.”

Because the researchers want parents to be able to use this technology at home, the team trained parents how to use the system on their own children. Parents and doctors folded paper funnels, tested 25 ears and compared the results. Both parents and doctors successfully detected the six fluid-filled ears. Parents and doctors also agreed on 18 out of the 19 ears with no fluid. In addition, the sound wave curves generated by both parent and doctor tests looked similar.

Rajalakshmi Nandakumar, a doctoral student in the Allen School, is also a co-author on this paper. This research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Seattle Children’s Sie-Hatsukami Research Endowment.

The team published its results on May 15 in the journal, Science Translational Medicine.

Research contact: earhealth@uw.edu.

Strong-arm tactics: Bottle feeding is linked to left-handedness

January 11, 2019

Bottle feeding infants is associated with left-handedness, according to findings of a study conducted at the University of Washington and released on January 7.

The study found that the prevalence of left-handedness is lower among breastfed infants, as compared to bottle-fed babies. This finding was identified in about 60,000 mother-infant pairs and accounted for known risk factors for handedness.

The results provide further insight into the development of complex brain functions which ultimately determine which side of the batter box the infant likely will choose.

“We think breastfeeding optimizes the process the brain undergoes when solidifying handedness,” said Philippe Hujoel, the study’s author, a professor at the UW’s School of Dentistry and an adjunct professor of Epidemiology at the School of Public Health. “That’s important because it provides an independent line of evidence that breastfeeding may need to last six to nine months.”

The study does not imply, however, that breastfeeding leads to right-handedness, Hujoel said. Handedness, whether it be right- or left-handed, is set early in fetal life and is at least partially determined by genetics. The research does sheds light on when the region of the brain that controls handedness localizes to one side of the brain, a process known as brain lateralization. Possibly, the research shows, breastfeeding optimizes this lateralization towards becoming right- or left-handed.

According to Scientific American magazine, about 15% of people are left-handed—and males are more than twice as likely to be left-handed as females. How does that match up with statistics for breastfeeding and bottle feeding? Based on data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , among U.S. children born between the years 2009 and 2015, 10% were exclusively bottle-fed for the first six months of life; while 30% were bottle-fed exclusively up to the age of three months.

The good news, according to Daily Infographic, is that left-handers are more likely to be geniuses and left-handed men are, on average, 15% more affluent than their right-handed peers.

Interestingly enough, statistically, the older a mother is, the more likely she is to give birth to left-handed children. But we don’t know how likely older mothers are to bottle-feed versus breastfeed.

Research contact: @UWMedicine