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Multilingual people have advantage over those fluent in only two languages

In addition to demystifying the seemingly herculean genius of multilinguals, researchers say these results provide some of the first neuroscientific evidence that language skills are additive, a theory known as the cumulative?enhancement model of language acquisition.

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Multilingual people have trained their brains to learn languages, making it easier to acquire more new languages after mastering a second or third. In addition to demystifying the seemingly herculean genius of multilinguals, researchers say these results provide some of the first neuroscientific evidence that language skills are additive, a theory known as the cumulative?enhancement model of language acquisition.

“The traditional idea is, if you understand bilinguals, you can use those same details to understand multilinguals. We rigorously checked that possibility with this research and saw multilinguals’ language acquisition skills are not equivalent, but superior to those of bilinguals,” said Professor Kuniyoshi L. Sakai from the University of Tokyo, an expert in the neuroscience of language and last author of the research study recently published in Scientific Reports. This joint research project includes collaboration with Professor Suzanne Flynn from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a specialist in linguistics and multilanguage acquisition, who first proposed the cumulative?enhancement model.

Neuroscientists measured brain activity while 21 bilingual and 28 multilingual adult volunteers tried to identify words and sentences in Kazakh, a language brand new to them.

All participants were native speakers of Japanese whose second language was English. Most of the multilingual participants had learned Spanish as a third language, but others had learned Chinese, Korean, Russian or German. Some knew up to five languages.

Fluency in multiple languages requires command of different sounds, vocabularies, sentence structures and grammar rules. Sentences in English and Spanish are usually structured with the noun or verb at the start of a phrase, but Japanese and Kazakh consistently place nouns or verbs at the end of a phrase. English, Spanish and Kazakh grammars require subject-verb agreement (she walks, they walk), but Japanese grammar does not.

Instead of grammar drills or conversation skills in a classroom, researchers simulated a more natural language learning environment where volunteers had to figure out the fundamentals of a new language purely by listening. Volunteers listened to recordings of individual Kazakh words or short sentences including those words while watching a screen with plus or minus symbols to signal if the sentence was grammatically correct or not. Volunteers were given a series of four increasingly difficult listening tests while researchers measured their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

In the simplest test, volunteers had to determine if they were hearing a word from the earlier learning session or if it was a grammatically different version of the same word; for example: run/ran or take/takes. In the next test levels, volunteers listened to example sentences and were asked if the sentences were grammatically correct and to decipher sentence structures by identifying noun-verb pairs. For example, “We understood that John thought,” is translated in Kazakh as “Biz John oyladï dep tu?sindik.” The sentence would be grammatically incorrect if volunteers heard tu?sindi instead of tu?sindik. The correct noun-verb pairs are we understood (Biz tu?sindik) and John thought (John oyladï).

Volunteers could retake the learning session and repeat the test an unlimited number of times until they passed and progressed to the next level of difficulty.

Multilingual participants who were more fluent in their second and third languages were able to pass the Kazakh tests with fewer repeated learning sessions than their less-fluent multilingual peers. More-fluent multilinguals also became faster at choosing an answer as they progressed from the third to fourth test level, a sign of increased confidence and that knowledge acquired during easier tests was successfully transferred to higher levels.

“For multilinguals, in Kazakh, the pattern of brain activation is similar to that for bilinguals, but the activation is much more sensitive, and much faster,” said Sakai.

The pattern of brain activation in bilingual and multilingual volunteers fits current understanding of how the brain understands language, specifically that portions of the left frontal lobe become more active when understanding both the content and meaning of a sentence. When learning a second language, it is normal for the corresponding areas on the right side of the brain to become active and assist in efforts to understand.

Multilingual volunteers had no detectable right-side activation during the initial, simple Kazakh grammar test level, but brain scans showed strong activity in those assisting areas of bilingual volunteers’ brains.

Researchers also detected differences in the basal ganglia, often considered a more fundamental area of the brain. Bilingual volunteers’ basal ganglia had low levels of activation that spiked as they progressed through the test and then returned to a low level at the start of the next test. Multilingual volunteers began the first test level with similarly low basal ganglia activity that spiked and then remained high throughout the subsequent test levels.

The UTokyo-MIT research team says this activation pattern in the basal ganglia shows that multilingual people can make generalizations and build on prior knowledge, rather than approach each new grammar rule as a separate idea to understand from scratch.

Prior studies by Sakai and others have found a three-part timeline of changes in brain activation while learning a new language: an initial increase, a high plateau and a decline to the same low level of activation required to understand the native language.

These new results confirm that pattern in multilinguals and support the possibility that prior experience progressing through those stages of language learning makes it easier to do again, supporting the cumulative-enhancement model of language acquisition.

“This is a neuroscientific explanation of why learning another new language is easier than acquiring a second. Bilinguals only have two points of reference. Multilinguals can use their knowledge of three or more languages in their brains to learn another new one,” said Sakai.

Sakai and his colleagues are continuing to expand their study of the multilingual brain with their collaborators at MIT.

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Gene therapy has potential to cure thalassemia patients from blood disorder

Thalassemia is a blood disorder that affects the body’s ability to produce red blood cells, and hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen in red blood cells. Even with blood transfusion and appropriate iron chelation therapy; patients can develop iron overload, with potential to damage the liver, heart, and endocrine system.

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Gene therapy could pave the way for patients with the inherited blood disorder thalassemia to stop or significantly reduce blood transfusions and transform their daily lives, says an expert at a top American hospital, Cleveland Clinic.

Dr. Rabi Hanna, a pediatric hematologist-oncologist, said: “Thalassemia is a disease that can be cured, with gene therapy as a novel step that uses the patients’ own hematopoietic stem cells to produce healthier red blood cells and fix their blood disorder. Thalassemia patients who have received gene therapy have either eliminated or significantly reduced the amount of blood transfusions needed to manage their condition. With gene therapy, we can remove the challenges that thalassemia patients face to give them the courage to pursue their goals and dreams, whether in education, careers, or families.”

Thalassemia is a blood disorder that affects the body’s ability to produce red blood cells, and hemoglobin, the protein that carries oxygen in red blood cells. Even with blood transfusion and appropriate iron chelation therapy; patients can develop iron overload, with potential to damage the liver, heart, and endocrine system.

There are two type of thalassemia, alpha and beta, depending on the defects that can occur in the protein chains that make up hemoglobin. Patients with alpha thalassemia tend to be silent carriers without symptoms, while patients with beta thalassemia major will have major symptoms early after birth and require frequent red blood transfusions. Moderate and severe thalassemia cases are usually diagnosed with early childhood blood tests. Married couples can also have genetic tests that can predict the risk of thalassemia and related blood disorders.

Worldwide, there are 270 million carriers with abnormal hemoglobin and thalassemia, with 300,000-400,000 babies born with serious hemoglobin disorders annually, according to the US National Institute of Health. It is estimated that 90 percent of those births are in low- or middle-income countries, especially in the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, the Mediterranean, Africa, and the South Pacific. Recognizing this, International Thalassemia Day’s theme for 2021 is “Addressing Health Inequalities Across the Global Thalassemia Community.”

In contrast to time-consuming, life-long blood transfusions, gene therapy could be a one-time therapy and provide a potential cure. Despite that, the allogeneic bone marrow transplant is currently the only available option with the potential to correct the genetic deficiency in Transfusion-dependent Thalassemia (TDT), but it has possible complications such as graft failure, graft-versus-host disease (GvHD), and opportunistic infections, particularly in patients who undergo non-sibling matched allogeneic HSCT. Gene therapy, in contrast, uses the patient’s own cells and eliminates the risk of GVHD.

The challenge in Dr. Hann’s opinion is how we can make this therapy available worldwide, especially in developing countries, where most of the patients are, globally.

The European Medicines Agency has given conditional marketing authorization to one form of genetically modified products for beta-thalassemia. In the United States, there are currently clinical trials for gene therapy, and this therapy is under review by Food and Drug Administration – which experts hope could lead to authorization later in 2021.

In recent phase 1-2 studies of gene therapy for 22 patients, all of them had reduced or eliminated the need for long-term red blood cell transfusions. Of the 13 alpha-thalassemia patients, 12 stopped receiving red blood cell transfusions. For the nine beta-thalassemia patients, three stopped red blood cell transfusions, and the remaining six patients saw their median annualized transfusion volume decrease by 73 percent.

“While gene therapy is a promising cure for transfusion-dependent thalassemia, many patients do not know the whole process – including chemotherapy to get rid of the old bone marrow and create space for the new modified stem cells. This will currently require admission to hospital for four to 6 weeks until new the stem cells are working and able to produce white blood cells, platelets and healthier red blood cells,” added Dr. Hanna. “We are hopeful that in the future we can target the bone marrow more selectively using reduced intensity chemotherapy or other medication to avoid the acute and long-term toxicity associated with high doses of chemotherapy.”

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Asthma both under-diagnosed and misdiagnosed

Proper medical diagnosis of asthma could mean that about one-third of people assumed to suffer from the disease could be weaned off long-term medications, impacting millions of people worldwide, says an expert at a top American hospital, Cleveland Clinic.

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Proper medical diagnosis of asthma could mean that about one-third of people assumed to suffer from the disease could be weaned off long-term medications, impacting millions of people worldwide, says an expert at a top American hospital, Cleveland Clinic.

Dr. Joe Zein, who specializes in pulmonary medicine at Cleveland Clinic, said: “Asthma impacts millions of people, and proper diagnoses and treatment are vital to treat asthma early before any damage occurs to the airway. Studies show that one-third of patients thought to have asthma are misdiagnosed by doctors, and 15% of asthma patients taking medication long term do not have an objective diagnosis. Proper diagnosis can ensure that patients receive the right treatment, reduce triggers, and lead healthier lives.”

A study in the Journal of American Medicine (JAMA) found that 33% of randomly tested asthma patients could be safely weaned off their medications, and did not need long-term inhaled steroids.

Asthma is one of the world’s major chronic diseases, impacting more than 339 million people globally, and the most common, non-communicable disease among children, according to the World Health Organization. At the same time, studies have found that asthma is under-diagnosed and under-treated.

Commenting on World Asthma Day 2021’s theme of “Uncovering Asthma Misconceptions,” Dr. Zein emphasized that while some people assume otherwise, asthma tests are often quick and easy. Common diagnostic methods include a spirometry test that measures the airflow through the lungs, and a methacholine challenge test that evaluates how reactive lungs are to changes in the environment. Healthcare practitioners may also request chest x-rays, and blood, skin, or allergy tests.

Asthma patients can suffer from chest tightness, pain, or pressure; coughing; and shortness of breath or wheezing. An asthma attack restricts airflow due to tightened and inflamed airways, and mucus clogs.

Treatment can include anti-inflammatory medicines that make it easier for air to enter and exit the lungs, bronchodilators that relax the airway muscles, or biologic therapies that target specific molecules.

Asthma, which has both genetic and environmental causes, has a wide range of triggers – especially in people’s own homes and neighborhoods. The most common asthma triggers are dust mites, pet dander, pollen and ragweed, pests such as cockroaches and mice, and mold. Tobacco smoke from the patient themselves or from secondhand smoke, air pollution, and exercise can also all trigger asthma attacks.

“People with asthma may not want to get rid of their pets, especially cats or dogs,” added Dr. Zein. “If asthma patients have to keep their pets in the house, they should keep pets outside of the bedroom, and replace any thick carpets with tile or hardwood to reduce pet dander. Asthma patients should also wash their bedding with hot water, vacuum often to remove dust, and put in de-humidifiers in any damp areas of the house.”

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Does listening to calming music at bedtime actually help you sleep?

Listening to calming music at bedtime improved sleep quality in older adults, and calming music was much better at improving sleep quality than rhythmic music.

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A new study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society has found that listening to music can help older adults sleep better.

Researchers from the National Cheng Kung University Hospital in Taiwan combined the results of past studies to understand the effect that listening to music can have on the quality of older adults’ sleep. Their work suggests that:

  • Older adults (ages 60 and up) living at home sleep better when they listen to music for 30 minutes to one hour at bedtime.
  • Calm music improves older adults’ sleep quality better than rhythmic music does.
  • Older adults should listen to music for more than four weeks to see the most benefit from listening to music.

Why Older Adults Have Trouble Getting a Good Night’s Sleep

As we age, our sleep cycles change and make a good night’s sleep harder to achieve. What does it really mean to get a good night’s sleep? If you wake up rested and ready to start your day, you probably slept deeply the night before. But if you’re tired during the day, need coffee to keep you going, or wake up several times during the night, you may not be getting the deep sleep you need. According to the National Institute on Aging, older adults need seven to nine hours of sleep each night.

But studies have shown that 40 to 70 percent of older adults have sleep problems and over 40 percent have insomnia, meaning they wake up often during the night or too early in the morning. Sleep problems can make you feel irritable and depressed, can cause memory problems, and can even lead to falls or accidents.

How the Researchers Studied the Effect of Music on Older Adults’ Quality of Sleep

For their study, the researchers searched for past studies that tested the effect of listening to music on older adults with sleep problems who live at home. They looked at five studies with 288 participants. Half of these people listened to music; the other half got the usual or no treatment for their sleep problems. People who were treated with music listened to either calming or rhythmic music for 30 minutes to one hour, over a period ranging from two days to three months. (Calming music has slow tempo of 60 to 80 beats per minute and a smooth melody, while rhythmic music is faster and louder.) All participants answered questions about how well they thought they were sleeping. Each participant ended up with a score between 0 and 21 for the quality of their sleep.

The researchers looked at the difference in average scores for:

  • people who listened to music compared to people who did not listen to music;
  • people who listened to calm music compared to people who listened to rhythmic music;
  • and people who listened to music for less than four weeks compared to people who listened to music for more than four weeks.

What the Researchers Learned

Listening to calming music at bedtime improved sleep quality in older adults, and calming music was much better at improving sleep quality than rhythmic music. The researchers said that calming music may improve sleep by slowing your heart rate and breathing, and lowering your blood pressure. This, in turn helps lower your levels of stress and anxiety.

Researchers also learned that listening to music for longer than four weeks is better at improving sleep quality than listening to music for a shorter length of time.

What this Study Means for You

If you’re having trouble sleeping, listening to music can be a safe, effective, and easy way to help you fall and stay asleep. It may also reduce your need for medication to help you sleep.

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