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Knowing the stages of neurological development can make you a better parent
There are four main stages. Each has its own particular set of advancements and challenges.
Don't you wish you could predict your child's behavior with 100 percent accuracy? Any realistic parent knows it's an impossible daydream, but an appealing one nonetheless. Kids will always surprise you. There are so many factors that go into behavior, not to mention the fact that internal and external forces can sometimes make kids act out of character.
What you can do is come to understand the stages of their neurological development and what it means for their learning and behavior. Turns out, those parents who get a good grip on how we develop neurologically, are better able to guide their children toward positive outcomes. Here's a rundown of the stages of neurological development and what they mean for parenting.
The first is the sensorimotor stage. This takes places between birth and two-years. A child at this stage is getting used to experiencing the environment through their senses. Through trial and error and from experiences with objects and sensations, they begin to master the world around them. Around age one, the child learns object permanence, the concept that an object continues to exist, even when it's left the field of vision.
According to Sarah Lytle, PhD., from the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, what many parents don't fully realize is that babies are also developing socially and emotionally. As such, they usually look to their parent for support. If you've ever engaged with a baby you didn't know, you'll notice the child usually turns to their parent to gauge how to respond. This act is called social referencing or social cognition. Be sure to be supportive when the child does this. This allows for more confidence and independence.
Young children understand the world through interaction with their senses. Getty Images.
A child's first word is uttered around six months of age. To help a baby develop language skills further, remember that they follow your gaze. Emphasize with your eyes by moving them slowly when introducing a new word. According to Dr. Lytle, it's okay to use a baby-talk tone. We're actually genetically programmed to talk that way. But make sure you use words correctly, in full, and in complete, grammatically correct sentences.
From age two to six or seven, a child enters the preoperational stage. Here, language skills ramp up. The child can start to think in terms of symbols, develop a numerical understanding, and begin to grasp the distinction between past and future. Children at this age do well with concrete situations. Abstract concepts, however, are difficult to grasp.
It's at age two that humans become amazed by the idea that others don't see the world quite like they do. As the parents of two-year olds are all too well aware of, this self-centered viewpoint makes it difficult for the child to share and care about others. Although a 2016 poll showed that most parents think two-year olds can control their emotions, psychologists say quite the contrary. Having a toy that they love on hand to distract them when they pull a temper tantrum is probably the best strategy.
Two year-olds can't control their emotions very well. Luckily, they're distracted easily. Getty Images.
To help build empathy, parents can work at developing a child's theory of mind. This is coming to understand the perspective of others. Note this doesn't develop until the child is three or four. One famous example is the “Sally-Anne test."
Here, a child is told that Sally has a basket and Anne a box. Sally puts an object in her basket, then goes for a walk. Anne takes the object and puts it in her box. The child is asked, “Once Sally returns, where will she look for the object?" If the child understands Sally's point of view, they will say, “In the basket." Another tactic it to read them stories where they have to put themselves in a character's shoes.
From age six or seven to 11 or 12, a child enters the concrete operations stage. Seven is supposed to be the age of reason. Here, he or she can grasp abstract concepts, understand sequences of events, and empathize with others whose experiences are different from their own. Children at this stage can learn abstract mathematical concepts, but they aren't good at breaking down complex problems which require systematic reasoning. Lytle suggests keeping in mind a child's emotional development at this stage. Parents often don't realize how affected their children are by marital spats or a parent suffering something like a bout of depression.
From age 12 throughout the teen years, the child enters the formal operations stage, where he or she develops greater capacities for hypothetical thinking, abstract reasoning, and deductive reasoning. Generally, people have a good grasp of these by age 15. Moral issues like social justice and abstract ideas, such as probabilities, can be understood. Although for parents, few stages can be quite as challenging.
Dealing with teens is challenging because of how their brains work. Getty Images.
Teens are often moody and hypersensitive. This is usually chalked up to hormones, but it's also because their midbrain is highly active in this stage. The brain develops from back to front.
The midbrain is responsible for memory, emotion, and sexuality. It may surprise you to know that the rational part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, isn't fully developed until around age 25. This is responsible for things like decision-making, planning, impulse control, and risk avoidance.
Teens are more likely to evaluate situations with their amygdala or emotional center. This is why they tend to get overwhelmed by their emotions, but might have a hard time expressing them. It also explains their intermittent bend toward risky behavior. Make sure to talk to them often about drugs and alcohol, the risks of unprotected sex, and so on, and give them vocabulary they can use to avoid social pressures. When a teen does make a mistake, instead of scolding or lecturing, use it as a teachable moment. Walk them through it logically. Find out in their own words what they should have done differently. This can help them develop decision-making skills.
Also, work on giving them frontal lobe tasks or doing it with them. Give them opportunities to practice problem-solving, make judgment calls, or to plan things out. Do it together or debrief once they've completed the task. Sure, raising kids is far from easy, but knowing a little neuroscience can make a real difference.
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"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
David Schmidt, a geology professor at Westminster College, had just arrived in the South Dakota Badlands in summer 2019 with a group of students for a fossil dig when he received a call from the National Forest Service. A nearby rancher had discovered a strange object poking out of the ground. They wanted Schmidt to take a look.
"One of the very first bones that we saw in the rock was this long cylindrical bone," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "The first thing that came out of our mouths was, 'That kind of looks like the horn of a triceratops.'"
After authorities gave the go-ahead, Schmidt and a small group of students returned this summer and spent nearly every day of June and July excavating the skull.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"
Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about 8.2 feet long.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a Triceratops prorsus, one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the Tyrannosaurus rex. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made headlines after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.
Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the New York Times.
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
The Badlands aren't the only spot in North America where paleontologists have found dinosaurs. In the 1870s, Colorado and Wyoming became the first sites of dinosaur discoveries in the U.S., ushering in an era of public fascination with the prehistoric creatures — and a competitive rush to unearth them.
Since, dinosaur bones have been found in 35 states. One of the most fruitful locations for paleontologists has been the Morrison formation, a sequence of Upper Jurassic sedimentary rock that stretches under the Western part of the country. Discovered here were species like Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus, to name a few.
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
As for "Shady" (the nickname of the South Dakota triceratops), Schmidt and his team have safely transported it to the Westminster campus. They hope to raise funds for restoration, and to return to South Dakota in search of more bones that once belonged to the triceratops.
Studying dinosaurs helps scientists gain a more complete understanding of our evolution, illuminating a through-line that extends from "deep time" to present day. For scientists like Schmidt, there's also the simple joy of coming to face-to-face with a lost world.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "You don't ever think that these things will ever happen."
Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."