What Makes Kids Generous? Neuroscience Has Some Answers.

It’s no secret that people are judgmental, and young children are no exception. When children witness “good” or “bad” behavior, their brains show an immediate emotional response. But, according to a study appearing in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on December 18, it takes more than that kind of automatic moral evaluation for kids to act with generosity and share their stickers.

By recording kids’ brain activity, the study found that generous behavior requires a controlled thought process. The neurodevelopmental findings are the first to link implicit moral evaluations to actual moral behavior and to identify the specific neural markers of each, the developmental neuroscientists say. “Moral evaluation in preschool children, similar to adults, is complex and constructed from both emotion and cognition,” says Jean Decety, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Chicago. “However, we found that only differences in neural markers of the latter predict actual generosity.”

The study may offer useful insight for parents this holiday season looking for their children to join in the spirit of giving, Decety suggests. “These findings provide an interesting idea that by encouraging children to reflect upon the moral behavior of others, we may be able to foster generosity,” he said.

Read the full article here.

Genetic Study Reveals Surprising Ancestry of Many Americans

In the United States, almost no one can trace their ancestry back to just one place. And for many, the past may hold some surprises, according to a new study. Researchers have found that a significant percentage of African-Americans, European Americans, and Latinos carry ancestry from outside their self-identified ethnicity. The average African-American genome, for example, is nearly a quarter European, and almost 4% of European Americans carry African ancestry. Until recently, “human population geneticists have tended to ignore the U.S.,” says Joanna Mountain, a geneticist and senior director of research at 23andMe, a company in Mountain View, California, that offers genetic testing. With its long history of migrations from around the world, she says, the country was “considered to be kind of messy in terms of genetics.” But Mountain and her colleagues thought they might have a fighting chance of deciphering Americans’ complex genetic ancestry. Their secret weapon? 23andMe’s huge database of genetic information.

The team started by looking at the average genetic ancestry of the three largest groups in the United States: European Americans, African-Americans, and Latinos. Those categories are based on how 23andMe customers defined themselves. But as you might expect in a country where different groups of people have been meeting and mixing for hundreds of years, the genetic lines between the groups are quite blurred. “You see all of those different ancestries in each of these groups,” Bryc explains. The average African-American genome, for example, is 73.2% African, 24% European, and 0.8% Native American, the team reports online today in The American Journal of Human Genetics. Latinos, meanwhile, carry an average of 18% Native American ancestry, 65.1% European ancestry (mostly from the Iberian Peninsula), and 6.2% African ancestry.

The new study is “a beautiful piece of work,” says Andrés Moreno-Estrada, a population geneticist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who has studied genetic diversity in Mexico and wasn’t involved with the new research. “The U.S. has a very particular genetic imprint compared to the rest of the Americas.” The 23andMe study “is one of steps forward in asserting that it’s possible to disentangle that complex scenario.”

Read the full article here.

University of Toronto Cell Biologists Discover On-off Switch for Key Stem Cell Gene

Consider the relationship between an air traffic controller and a pilot. The pilot gets the passengers to their destination, but the air traffic controller decides when the plane can take off and when it must wait. The same relationship plays out at the cellular level in animals, including humans. A region of an animal’s genome – the controller – directs when a particular gene – the pilot – can perform its prescribed function. A new study by cell and systems biologists at the University of Toronto (U of T) investigating stem cells in mice shows, for the first time, an instance of such a relationship between the Sox2 gene which is critical for early development, and a region elsewhere on the genome that effectively regulates its activity. The discovery could mean a significant advance in the emerging field of human regenerative medicine, as the Sox2 gene is essential for maintaining embryonic stem cells that can develop into any cell type of a mature animal.

Read the full article here.

Genes Tell Story of Birdsong and Human Speech

His office is filled with all sorts of bird books, but Duke neuroscientist Erich Jarvis didn’t become an expert on the avian family tree because of any particular interest in our feathered friends. Rather, it was his fascination with how the human brain understands and reproduces speech that brought him to the birds.

“We’ve known for many years that the singing behavior of birds is similar to speech in humans — not identical, but similar — and that the brain circuitry is similar, too,” said Jarvis, an associate professor of neurobiology at the Duke University Medical School and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “But we didn’t know whether or not those features were the same because the genes were also the same.”  Now scientists do know, and the answer is yes — birds and humans use essentially the same genes to speak.  After a massive international effort to sequence and compare the entire genomes of 48 species of birds representing every major order of the bird family tree, Jarvis and his colleagues found that vocal learning evolved twice or maybe three times among songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds.

“This is an exciting moment,” said Jarvis, who is also a member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. “Lots of fundamental questions now can be resolved with more genomic data from a broader sampling. I got into this project because of my interest in birds as a model for vocal learning and speech production in humans, and it has opened up some amazing new vistas on brain evolution.”

Read the full article here.

Genome sequencing for newborns: What do new parents think?

A study published this week in Genetics in Medicine is the first to explore new parents’ attitudes toward newborn genomic testing. The findings suggest that if newborn genomic testing becomes available, there would be robust interest among new parents, regardless of their demographic background.  ”Several other studies have measured parents’ interest in newborn genomic screening, but none focused on new parents in the first 48 hours,” said Robert C. Green, MD, MPH, a geneticist and researcher at BWH and Harvard Medical School and senior author of the study. “Since this is when genomic testing would be of the greatest value, it is especially important to study parents’ attitudes immediately post-partum.”

The researchers surveyed 514 parents at the well baby nursery at BWH within 48 hours of their child’s birth. After receiving a brief orientation to the genome and its impacts on human health, 82.7 percent of parents reported being somewhat (36 percent), very, (28 percent) or extremely (18 percent) interested in newborn genomic testing. Results were similar regardless of parents’ age, gender, race, ethnicity, level of education, family history of genetic disease, or whether or not the infant was a first-born child. Parents who had experienced concerns about the health of their newborn, however, were less likely to be interested in genomic testing. The study was also the first to investigate whether asking parents about their interest in newborn genomic testing would cause them to reject existing, state-mandated newborn genetic screening (NBS), one of the most established and successful public health programs in the world.

Read the full article here.

Mapping Human Disease: ‘Not All Pathogens Are Everywhere’

Researchers at North Carolina State University have for the first time mapped human disease-causing pathogens, dividing the world into a number of regions where similar diseases occur. The findings show that the world can be separated into seven regions for vectored human diseases – diseases that are spread by pests, like mosquito-borne malaria – and five regions for non-vectored diseases, like cholera.

“This is about more than just the movement of people – climate, history and geography all seem to be important factors in how diseases survive and thrive across the globe,” said Michael Just, an NC State Ph.D. student in plant and microbial biology and lead author of a paper describing the research. “Understanding that not all pathogens are everywhere could have consequences for public health and the global society as a whole.” The researchers examined the world’s 229 countries for the presence or absence of 301 diseases – 93 vectored and 208 non-vectored. It found two more vectored-disease regions than non-vectored disease regions, which is likely due to the fact that the vectors – the pests that carry disease – sometimes have limited mobility. Think of a warm-weather pest that can’t handle the cold, like the mosquito.

Read the full article here.

Book Launch | Misbehaving Science: Controversy and the Development of Behavior Genetics

The Institute for Public Knowledge invites you to join us for a conversation with Aaron Panofsky, Ann Morning, and Dalton Conley on Panofsky’s new book, Misbehaving Science: Controversy and the Development of Behavior Genetics.

Behavior genetics has always been a breeding ground for controversies. From the “criminal chromosome” to the “gay gene,” claims about the influence of genes like these have led to often vitriolic national debates about race, class, and inequality. Many behavior geneticists have encountered accusations of racism and have had their scientific authority and credibility questioned, ruining reputations, and threatening their access to coveted resources.

Panofsky argues that persistent, ungovernable controversy in behavior genetics is due to the broken hierarchies within the field. All authority and scientific norms are questioned, while the absence of unanimously accepted methods and theories leaves a foundationless field, where disorder is ongoing. Critics charge behavior geneticists with political motivations; champions say they merely follow the data where they lead. But Panofsky shows how pragmatic coping with repeated controversies drives their scientific actions. Ironically, behavior geneticists’ struggles for scientific authority and efforts to deal with the threats to their legitimacy and autonomy have made controversy inevitable—and in some ways essential—to the study of behavior genetics.

Aaron Panofsky is an Associate Professor in Public Policy and the Institute for Society and Genetics. Prior to joining UCLA in January of 2008, he was a Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Scholar at UC Berkeley from 2006 through 2007. Panofsky received his Ph.D. in sociology from New York University in 2006. Panofsky’s main research interest is in the sociology of science and knowledge with a special focus on genetics.

Ann Morning is an Associate Professor of Sociology at New York University and the author of The Nature of Race (University of California Press, 2011).  She has published many scholarly articles on the topics of census racial classification as well as individuals’ concepts of racial difference, and at NYU she teaches courses on the sociology of race, the sociology of science, and sociological research methods.

Dalton Conley is University Professor at New York University. He holds faculty appointments in NYU’s Sociology Department, School of Medicine and the Wagner School of Public Service. He also serves as an Adjunct Professor of Community Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and as a Research Associateat the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). In a pro bono capacity, he is Dean of Arts and Sciences for the University of the People–a tuition-free institution committed to expanding access to higher education. He has previously served as Dean for the Social Sciences and Chair of Sociology at NYU. Conley’s research focuses on the determinants of economic opportunity within and across generations.

Date –         Wednesday, November 05, 2014  
                      6:00 PM – 08:00 PM
Location - The Institute for Public Knowledge 
                     20 Cooper Square, 5th Floor, New York, NY 10003, USA

2014 | Soraya de Chadarevian, et.al – Special Section on “Heredity and The Study of Human Populations After 1945″

ISG professor, Soraya de Chadarevian, recently co-edited  “Heredity and The Study of Human Populations After 1945” in the Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences.

The essays in this issue look at the contested history of human heredity after 1945 from a new analytical angle, that of populations and the ways in which they were constructed and studied. One consequence of this approach is that we do not limit our attention to the disciplinary study of genetics. After the Second World War, populations became a central topic for an array of fields, including demography, anthropology, epidemiology, and public health. Human heredity had a role in all of these: demographers carried out mental surveys in efforts to distinguish hereditary from environmental factors, doctors screened newborns and tested pregnant women for chromosome disorders; anthropologists collected blood from remote locations to gain insights into the evolutionary history of human populations; geneticists monitored people exposed to radiation. Through this work, populations were labelled as clinical, normal, primitive, pure, vulnerable or exotic. We ask: how were populations chosen, who qualified as members, and how was the study of human heredity shaped by technical, institutional and geopolitical conditions? By following the practical and conceptual work to define populations as objects of research, the essays trace the circulation of practices across different fields and contexts, bringing into view new actors, institutions, and geographies. By doing so the collection shows how human heredity research was linked to the broader politics of the postwar world, one profoundly conditioned by Cold War tensions, by nationalist concerns, by colonial and post-colonial struggles, by modernisation projects and by a new internationalism.