Trilobites: Why Scientists Are Battling Over Pleasure

Do you have an alternate idea? Do you think the pleasure is the same as a dab of sugar on your tongue? https://t.co/QYDwAtk4AC

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Basics: A Baby Wails, and the Adult World Comes Running

The new study is just one in a series of recent reports that reveal the centrality of crying to infant survival, and how a baby’s bawl punches through a cluttered acoustic landscape to demand immediate adult attention.

The sound of an infant’s cry arouses a far quicker and stronger response in action-oriented parts of the adult brain than do similarly loud or emotionally laden noises, like a dog barking or a neighbor weeping.

Scientists also have shown that the cries of many infant mammals share a number of basic sonic properties.

Susan Lingle, a biologist at the University of Winnipeg, and her co-workers have conducted field studies in which they broadcast through loudspeakers the amplified crèche cries of a panoply of animals, including a baby bat, a baby eland, a sea lion pup, a baby marmot, a kid goat and a domestic kitten.

Sometimes the cry was played as is. Sometimes a single feature — the cry’s pitch — was raised or lowered while everything else remained the same. No matter the infantile source of the S.O.S., the reaction of a mother deer grazing nearby was the same: She would bound at top speed toward the speaker as though to her own fawn in distress.

Deer aren’t the only ones to be bamboozled. At a conference on infant wailing held earlier this summer in Italy, Dr. Lingle played an audio clip of cries from a kid, fawn and baby, and asked the audience which was human.

“The majority got it right,” Dr. Lingle said, “but many admitted they really weren’t sure.”

Not all infant mammals keen with the choir. “When a cheetah cub is separated from its mother, it chirps like a bird,” said Patrick Thomas, curator of mammals at the Bronx Zoo. The cry of a baby kangaroo sounds like a cough.

Researchers are searching for any telltale variations in the cries of human infants that might be used diagnostically to identify conditions like autism long before behavioral symptoms arise.

Photo

Credit Anita Kunz

Stephen Sheinkopf and Barry Lester of Brown University and their colleagues recently showed that environmental factors, too, may subtly shape the sound of a baby’s cry by impinging on a gene involved in an infant’s response to cortisol, a critical stress hormone.

Harried parents might prefer the scientists focus on a simple translation manual. What is my screaming angel trying to tell me?

Mariano Chóliz, a psychologist at the University of Valencia, and his co-workers have made a first-pass attempt to categorize infant cries. In The Spanish Journal of Psychology, the researchers described laboratory studies in which infants were subjected to various unpleasant procedures known to elicit different emotional states. The resulting cries were videotaped and analyzed.

To provoke anger, the investigators pinned down the babies’ hands or feet and prevented them from moving. To arouse fear, the researchers clapped their hands loudly or dropped a book on the floor. A cry of pain followed “the obligatory vaccination,” according to the study.

Dr. Chóliz found that angry babies tended to keep their eyes half-closed, gazing off to the side as they cried. They steadily amped up the volume of vocalized umbrage. Frightened babies, after an initial hesitation and tensing up of the facial muscles, emitted an explosive cry and kept their eyes open and searching the whole time.

Babies pained by a needle prick cried out immediately, at full force, and squeezed shut their eyes. They maintained that expression and volume for the entire crying bout.

The take-home message for parents: If you happen to drop a heavy object on the floor while the pediatrician is pinning down your baby’s leg for a shot, your child will be in therapy for life.

That humans and other infant mammals are painfully dependent on their elders for survival is reflected in the distinctive spectrographic contours of a cry. An infant cry is characterized by a simple, clear, fundamental tone and a relatively long, unbroken “melodic structure,” as it is perversely called, that falls and rises and falls and tails off in unpredictable ways.

“If a stimulus stays the same, it’s easy to tune out,” said Katherine S. Young, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “But something that changes over time is very difficult to ignore.”

Police sirens and other alert sounds mimic this pattern of a slow increase and decrease in pitch, said Dr. Young, “because it grabs and holds your attention.”

By the look of it, the adult brain is primed to be buttonholed.

Studying both superfast brain scans of healthy volunteers and direct electrode measurements in adult patients who were undergoing neurosurgery for other reasons, Dr. Young, with Christine E. Parsons of Aarhus University in Denmark, Morten L. Kringelbach of Oxford University and other colleagues, has tracked the brain’s response to the sound of an infant cry.

The researchers found that within 49 thousandths of a second of a recorded cry being played, the periaqueductal gray — an area deep in the midbrain that has long been linked to urgent, do-or-die behaviors — had blazed to attention, twice as fast as it reacted to dozens of other audio clips tested.

The investigators also detected rapid firing in brain regions that check a stimulus for its emotional salience and in motor areas that control movement. Is this sound important? Yes. Should I do something about it? Absolutely.

This spur to caretaking action — this antsy, subliminal desire to solve the dilemma presented by the wailing infant — could explain why a crying infant on an airplane is especially distressing. Passengers want to help; they can’t, and they can’t even run away.

One solution: Break out the video games.

In another study, volunteers were asked to play a lab version of the popular game Whac-a-Mole by pressing down on an ever-shifting target button as rapidly as possible. Subjects then listened to recordings of babies crying, adults crying or birds singing, and played the game again.

“We saw better scores and more effortful pressing after the infant cries,” Dr. Young said.

Candy Crush and a crybaby: sounds like the perfect pair.

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Dave Duerson Found to Have the Brain Trauma He Suspected

Although the precise motivations behind Duerson’s suicide remain unknown, he had complained of headaches, blurred vision and a deteriorating memory in the months before his death.  His final note to his family finished with a handwritten request: “Please, see that my brain is given to the N.F.L.’s brain bank.”

The N.F.L. does not run the Boston University research group but did donate $1 million to its financing last year, after the league acknowledged long-term effects of football brain trauma.

C.T.E., a condition previously associated mostly with boxers and manifested in behavior more commonly known as dementia pugilistica, is a degenerative and incurable disease that compromises neural activity and is linked to memory loss, depression and dementia. Although groups at Boston University and elsewhere are pursuing tests for living patients, the condition can currently be detected only after death, by brain autopsy.

“We hope these findings will contribute more to the understanding of C.T.E.,” the N.F.L. said in a statement. “Our Head, Neck and Spine Medical Committee will study today’s findings, and as a league, we will continue to support the work of the scientists at the Boston University Center and elsewhere to address this issue in a forthright and effective way.”

DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the players association, said in a telephone interview that Duerson’s having C.T.E. “makes it abundantly clear what the cost of football is for the men who played and the families.”

He added: “It seems to me that any decision or course of action that doesn’t recognize that as the truth is not only perpetuating a lie, but doing a disservice to what Dave feared and what he wanted to result from the donation of his brain to science.”

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Dave Duerson in 1988. Credit NFL Photos, via Associated Press

Duerson’s death rattled players both active and retired, who after years of news media coverage are more aware that the damage done to their brains could be permanent. Pete Kendall, a recently retired offensive lineman, said, “The whole issue of C.T.E. is something that players young and old have no choice but to think about.”

Duerson’s former wife, Alicia, attended the Boston news conference with their four children. Their son Tregg, 25, made a brief statement, saying, “It is our hope that through this research questions that go beyond our interest may be answered — questions that lead to a safer game of football from professionals to Pop Warner.”

He added with regard to his father, “It is my greatest hope that his death will not be in vain and that through this research, his legacy will live on and others won’t have to suffer in the same manner.”

Duerson was an all-American defensive back at Notre Dame before spending most of his 11 N.F.L. seasons with the Bears. He played safety on the famed 46 defense that fueled their Super Bowl championship in the 1985 season, and he won the 1991 Super Bowl with the Giants.

Duerson retired after the 1993 season and became successful in the food-services industry before his businesses collapsed, his marriage failed and he went bankrupt. He began showing symptoms of repetitive brain trauma, including memory loss, poor impulse control and abusive behavior toward loved ones.

Another son, Brock, 22, said that the diagnosis of C.T.E. provided an explanation for his father’s decline and final act.

“I don’t want people to think just because he was in debt and broke he wanted to end it,” he said. “C.T.E. took his life. He changed dramatically, but it was eating at his brain. He didn’t know how to fight it.”

Duerson’s case is unique beyond the circumstances of his suicide. Since 2006, he had served on the six-member panel that considered claims for disability benefits filed by former N.F.L. players. Although individual votes are kept confidential, that board has been sparing in awarding benefits, including those for neurological damage.

Duerson himself told a Senate subcommittee in 2007 that he questioned whether players’ cognitive and emotional struggles were related to football.

However, Duerson’s legacy will almost certainly be how he apparently came to believe he had C.T.E., acted upon it and requested that his brain tissue be examined for confirmation and contribution to science.

Dr. Robert Stern, along with McKee a co-director of the Boston University research group, cautioned that C.T.E. could not explain all of a player’s actions.

“When it comes to suicide and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, it is possible that in some individuals the combination of C.T.E.-related symptoms of poor impulse control, depression and cognitive impairment may indeed lead to suicide,” Stern said. “However, we can never clearly point to any cause-and-effect relationship in any one case.”

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