Health & Science

Proof that vaccinations do not cause autism; Walking improves the brain … and so do videogames; A feathered, humpback dinosaur?

Proof that vaccinations do not cause autism

A now-discredited 1998 study on 12 children suggested that thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative then used in many vaccines, was responsible for the surge in autism cases. Many parents and autism activists seized on that explanation, and have refused to believe otherwise, despite numerous studies that have found no link between vaccinations and autism. A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may finally put the myth to rest, says the Los Angeles Times. CDC researchers reviewed and compared the medical histories of 1,008 children—256 with autism and 752 without—born between 1994 and 1999, when thimerosal was still commonly used in childhood vaccines. (It no longer is.) They found that children exposed to relatively high levels of thimerosal from multiple vaccinations were no more likely to develop the condition, regardless of when the exposure occurred—during pregnancy through a vaccination of the mother or in early childhood. Indeed, for reasons that are not understood, kids exposed to the preservative between birth and 20 months had slightly lower odds of developing the condition. Nine previous studies had also found no connection between vaccinations and autism, but tens of thousands of parents remain so unsure that they’ve shied away from letting their kids get recommended shots—causing a resurgence of diseases like measles. “This study should reassure parents about following the recommended immunization schedule,” says lead author Frank Destefano.

Walking improves the brain …

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It’s obvious that walking boosts physical fitness, but a new study found that it can also sharpen your mind, says A team of scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign followed a group of 65 previously sedentary adults, ranging in age from 59 to 80, for a year. Half the adults walked three times a week for 40 minutes at their own pace; the other half did regular stretching and toning exercises. Using an MRI to track neural activity, the team found that over time, the walkers showed improved connections between brain regions responsible for integrating different kinds of information. “As a function of aerobic fitness, the networks became more coherent,” says psychologist and team leader Art Kramer. Tests revealed that the walkers “also improved in memory, attention, and a variety of other cognitive processes,” more so than the stretch-and-tone group. Although walking seems easy, it requires the brain to coordinate information from the muscles, eyes, ears, and other sources. Giving those brain networks a regular workout ultimately helps keep planning, memory, and multitasking skills sharp. “It’s that old concept: If you don’t use it you lose it,” says sports-medicine researcher Lynn Millar.

… and so do videogames

Videogames don’t enjoy a great reputation—especially the shoot-’em-up kind. But playing such games could help hone your decision-making skills, scientists now say. Unlike deliberative puzzle or strategy games, action games require players to respond quickly and spontaneously to unexpected events, a skill called “probabilistic inference.” In the real world, that skill enables people to assimilate many small pieces of information to make good decisions. “What’s surprising in our study is that action games improved probabilistic inference not just for the act of gaming, but for unrelated and rather dull tasks,” Daphne Bavelier, a psychologist at the University of Rochester, tells Science News. In her study, Bavelier found that videogame players were more adept at tests of motion and pattern perception and quick decision-making. “The videogame players weren’t just ‘trigger happy,’ which would have led to a decrease in accuracy,” says co-author Shawn Green. Researchers found that when nongamers played 50 hours’ worth of action games, their scores on decision-making tests improved, too.

A feathered, humpback dinosaur?

Paleontologists in Spain have uncovered the most complete fossil to date of a meat-eating dinosaur in Europe, and it’s a curious creature. For one thing, the 12-foot-long meat eater named Concavenator corcovatus had a hump or fin on its back, consisting of several extra-long vertebra. Scientists aren’t sure what the structure might have been used for. “We have no idea if this hump had flesh tissues; if so it could have been a fat-like deposit,” team leader Francisco Ortega tells The New York Times. “Or if it was decoration, it was used as a display.” Whatever its purpose, says paleontologist Roger Benson, “the back fin is just plain weird.” Equally intriguing are bumps on its limbs that may once have held feathers. Feathers have been attributed to certain other dinosaurs that lived when Concavenator corcovatus did, about 130 million years ago, but they belonged to an altogether different group of dinosaurs than this species. That suggests that their common ancestor may have been feathered, too—and that feathers evolved much earlier than previously thought, Ortega says. “We’re pushing back the time when bird-like structures appear.”

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