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In like Flynn
Cognitive specialists are already familiar with what is known as the ‘Flynn effect’, whereby a trend of rising performance in standard IQ tests has been noted from generation-to-generation.
Some of this has been attributed to lifestyle and nutritional influences; for example, a study by the University of Aberdeen and NHS Grampian noted that children who grew up during WWII showed significantly higher intelligence levels than those born just 15 years before them. This was attributed to the fact that children who grew up during the war had healthier diets, with very limited access to sugary and fatty foods, which had a positive impact on their growing brains.
However, in modern times there are factors aside from the Flynn effect that are making middle-aged people sharper and their brains ‘younger’, according to new research by the International Institute for Applied Systems in Austria (IIASA).
The researchers found that due to the demands of modern technology, people over the age of 50 years are scoring higher on cognitive function tests due to the extra intellectual stimulation required to operate ‘smart’ mobile phones, increasingly sophisticated computers, and other gadgets.
A population study carried out in UK people over the age of 50 found that test scores of today’s middle-aged generation show their brains are up to eight years ‘younger’ than people who were tested only six years ago.
They hypothesised that this is because the average person now needs to remember approximately 10 passwords each day to access work and personal computers, email accounts, mobile phones, Internet banking, social networking sites and online bill-pay services, among other things.
Once they have access to these services, middle-aged people are presented with a wide range of options and need to make an array of decisions. Overall, this has led to a significant improvement in cognitive functioning.
“We show for the first time that although compositional changes of the older population in terms of education partly explain the Flynn effect, the increasing use of modern technology such as computers and mobile phones… contributes considerably to its explanation,” said Dr Valeria Bordone, IIASA Programme Researcher.
The findings were published recently in PLOS One.
Cats don’t care?
More research from PLOS One indicates what many dog-lovers have suspected all along — cats do not actually need humans in order to feel secure and protected and show no signs of separation anxiety when they are apart from their owners.
A team at the University of Lincoln, UK, observed 20 cats and assessed how they reacted when put into an unfamiliar environment, either with their owner or with a stranger. Factors studied included signs of distress when the owner was absent, the level of passive behaviour and the amount of contact sought by the cat.
“Although the cats were more vocal when the owner rather than the stranger left them with another individual, we did not see any additional evidence to suggest that the bond between a cat and its owner is one of secure attachment,” commented Prof Daniel Mills, Professor of Veterinary Behavioural Medicine at the University.
“The domestic cat has recently passed the dog as the most popular companion animal in Europe, with many seeing a cat as an ideal pet for owners who work long hours. It seems that what we interpret as separation anxiety might actually be signs of frustration.”
He added: “In strange situations, attached individuals seek to stay close to their carer, show signs of distress when they are separated and demonstrate pleasure when their attachment figure returns, but these trends weren’t apparent in our research.”
However, offering a crumb of comfort for cat owners, feline behaviouralist Ms Celia Haddon remarked: “The study shows that cats do not need their humans to feel safe; they don’t depend on us, they look after themselves. If they are scared, a cat won’t come to its owner, it will jump on a wardrobe or hide under a bed.
“But in a way, that’s a real compliment. Cats won’t live in an unhappy home — they’ll just walk out and abandoned or feral cats get on just fine on their own.”
Hope for speech in paralysis
There may be hope for paralysis patients who have suffered severe speech loss, as engineers and physicians are striving to develop a device that interprets changes in breathing and transforms the patterns into language.
Paralysis victims have previously had to rely on their ability to blink or sniff to communicate, but mechanical and manufacturing engineers at Loughborough University, UK, are developing a mask that can interpret breathing changes and transform these into language via a voice synthesiser.
Consultant Anaesthetist at the Glenfield Hospital, Leicester, Dr Atul Gaur, is collaborating with the engineers on the project. “We’re working on a concept where the patient does not have to make any efforts, so he is breathing effortlessly but differently to generate or trigger a different sentence,” Dr Gaur told The Telegraph.
“In an intensive care setting, the technology has the potential to be used to make an early diagnosis of locked-in syndrome by allowing patients, including those on ventilators, to communicate effectively for the first time by breathing — an almost effortless act which requires no speech, limb or facial movements.
“This could have a very significant emotional and psychological impact on society.”
An extra dimension in surgery
Pioneering surgery, aided by 3D printing technology, has enabled a six-year-old boy in China with brittle bone disease to stand properly and without trepidation for the first time in his life.
“My son had fractures every two or three days. He had to walk very carefully to avoid the situation,” the boy’s father told China Daily.
However, the boy is now back on his feet following an operation in June, whereby a 3D printed model of the skeleton was used to examine the illness in precise detail and the bones were cut in advance, minimising pain and the length of time required to perform the operation. It represented China’s first orthopaedic surgery procedure using 3D technology.
“Due to severe malformation, even making a standard x-ray film became impossible, which made it very difficult to work out an operational plan,” commented Dr To Kai-tsun, Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon at the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Hospital, following the successful procedure.