TIME neuroscience

You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish

No longer can we boast about 12 seconds of coherent thought

The average attention span for the notoriously ill-focused goldfish is nine seconds, but according to a new study from Microsoft Corp., people now generally lose concentration after eight seconds, highlighting the affects of an increasingly digitalized lifestyle on the brain.

Researchers in Canada surveyed 2,000 participants and studied the brain activity of 112 others using electroencephalograms (EEGs). Microsoft found that since the year 2000 (or about when the mobile revolution began) the average attention span dropped from 12 seconds to eight seconds.

“Heavy multi-screeners find it difficult to filter out irrelevant stimuli — they’re more easily distracted by multiple streams of media,” the report read.

On the positive side, the report says our ability to multitask has drastically improved in the mobile age.

Microsoft theorized that the changes were a result of the brain’s ability to adapt and change itself over time and a weaker attention span may be a side effect of evolving to a mobile Internet.

The survey also confirmed generational differences for mobile use; for example, 77% of people aged 18 to 24 responded “yes” when asked, “When nothing is occupying my attention, the first thing I do is reach for my phone,” compared with only 10% of those over the age of 65.

And now congratulate yourself for concentrating long enough to make it through this article.

MONEY consumer psychology

This is Your Brain on Expensive Wine

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Scott Camazine—Getty Images

Here's one reason why you might get more pleasure from wines with extravagant price tags.

A new study in the Journal of Marketing Research confirms what prior research (and, in some cases, gut feeling) has told us for years: Most people can’t really taste the difference between cheap and expensive wine.

These new findings, by INSEAD marketing professor Hilke Plassmann and University of Bonn neuroscience professor Bernd Weber, go a step further than previous studies in explaining why people get more enjoyment from a wine they’re told is expensive and less pleasure from one they’re told is cheap—even if they are actually drinking the same wine.

“Expectations truly influence neurobiological responses,” write the authors.

But how much we’re swayed by that influence ranges from person to person. One key factor, the researchers found, is the structure of your brain. Everyone is somewhat suggestible to the placebo effect from being told wine is cheap or expensive, but some brains are more suggestible than others.

Specifically, people with more volume in areas of the brain controlling sensory awareness are less susceptible to marketing placebo effects. (That’s logical: They’re more likely to sense, on their own, if a wine tastes cheap.)

On the other hand, people with more volume in parts of the brain associated with reward seeking and emotional self-evaluation are more susceptible to marketing placebo effects from price tags. The authors theorize that expectations have a bigger effect on these people: As soon as they see an high price, it appears, they start anticipating a luxurious experience, whether consciously or not.

One big grain of salt? Neuroscientists don’t all agree that using brain structure to infer behavior or personality makes for sound science—and Plassmann and Weber acknowledge in their study that some researchers are skeptical of that methodology in general.

Though the authors used MRI brain scans to arrive at their conclusions, they also asked subjects to answer questions as another way of measuring how personality was correlated with susceptibility to prices. For example, they asked subjects how much they agreed with statements like “when I get something I want, I feel excited and energized” as a second way of determining how “reward-seeking” they were—and found a similar effect as in the MRI section of the study.

Previous blind tasting studies have also found that when prices are hidden, most people don’t enjoy expensive wines more than cheaper bottles. Surprisingly, they even tend to rate inexpensive bottles slightly higher.

TIME Research

Air Pollution May Make Your Brain Age Faster, Study Says

Air pollution can also increase your risk of a stroke

Long-term exposure to air pollution may cause your brain to age more quickly and put you at higher risk for a stroke, a new study suggests.

Exposure to higher levels of air pollution may be linked to lower total cerebral brain volume, according to a study published in the May issue of Stroke, which analyzed health data from nearly 1,000 men and women over 60 who did not have dementia and had not had a stroke.

Total cerebral brain volume naturally decreases as humans age, resulting in declines in ability to learn new things and retrieve information, but the researchers found that air pollution exposure may be linked to premature brain aging and higher risks for certain brain strokes.

The findings add new knowledge to the impact of air pollution on the structure of the brain, a link that has remained largely unclear in research.

Specifically, a 2 microgram per square meter increase in PM2.5 (particulate matter in the air that is less than 2.5 micrometers wide) was associated with a 0.32% lower total cerebral brain volume, the study said. To put that in context, brain volume decreases at about 0.5% per year after age 40, and PM2.5 levels can vary widely across the world. For example, the PM2.5 in Beijing is about 175 micrograms per square meter, while the PM2.5 in New York City is about 30 micrograms per square meter.

TIME neuroscience

Alzheimer’s May Be Caused by Misfiring Immune System, Study Suggests

Breakthrough may lead to innovative approaches to treatment

New research suggests that deprivation of an amino acid called arginine may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease — a finding that could help usher in new treatment strategies for patients suffering from the debilitating illness.

A team at Duke University focusing on the immune system found that cells designed to protect the brain from infection will uncharacteristically consume arginine during the early stages of Alzheimer’s, according to Agence France-Presse.

“Our approach is recognized as unique and opens new avenues to think about what causes Alzheimer’s disease and new ways to treat the disease,” senior author Dr. Carol Colton told TIME.

The team was also able to block the arginine consumption process using a drug called difluoromethylornithine, which is used to treat cancer. But according to Colton, they eventually need to find a more suitable agent.

Nevertheless, the mice that underwent the therapy performed better on memory tests.

“The response to this potential new mechanism … is favorable,” Colton said. “[We are] cautiously optimistic.”

The next step for researchers will be to test older mice that already have an advanced form of Alzheimer’s.

The study was published in the April 15 issue of Journal of Neuroscience.

In 2013, Alzheimer’s affected as many as 5 million Americans and in 2050 the number is projected to rise to 14 million people, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

TIME neuroscience

Here’s a New Trick to Help Babies Learn Faster

Surprise them. Not by jumping out of a closet but by challenging her developing notions about the world, and avoiding the same-old same-old

We know that babies like new things. Present them with something they haven’t seen before and they’ll gravitate toward it, touch it, bang it around, put it in their mouths. It’s all part of the learning process so they can build a database of knowledge about the world around them.

But for babies to really learn about how the world works, it takes more than novelty. In a series of experiments with 11 month olds published Thursday in the journal Science, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that surprising information—things that went against babies’ assumptions about concepts like gravity and the solidness of objects—forms the seed for future learning.

Aimee Stahl, a PhD candidate in the department of psychological and brain science at Johns Hopkins University, and her colleague Lisa Feigenson conducted a set of experiments with 110 infants to tease out this effect of surprise in how babies learn. The studies began with the assumption that babies are born with certain core knowledge about how the world works — that objects are solid so other things can’t pass through them, for example, or that dropping things causing things to fall rather than float.

MORE: Naps May Help Babies Retain Memories, Study Finds

First, Stahl challenged these concepts with some babies by strategically using a screen to hide a wall as they rolled ball. When they lifted the screen, some babies saw the ball stopped in front the wall, as they would expect. Other babies, however, saw the ball on the other side of the wall. When both groups were then presented with something entirely new to learn — associating a squeaking sound with a new toy — the babies who saw the contrary event (the ball on the other side of the wall) learned to link the sound to the new toy more quickly than those who saw the expected event (the ball on the correct side of the wall).

To ensure that the babies weren’t just enthralled with the novelty of the new toy, Stahl and Feigenson then repeated the experiment, except this time during the testing phase they played a different, rattling sound instead of the squeaking noise. The learning scores in the first experiment were still higher than those in the second version, strongly suggesting that the babies were actually making new connections and learning something about the objects, rather than just paying attention to the new-ness of them.

MORE: How to Improve a Baby’s Language Skills Before They Start to Talk

This was supported by the other experiments Stahl and Feigenson conducted, in which babies tried to find an explanation for the contrary results; for the balls that appeared to melt through the solid wall, they bounced and banged the balls to verify their solidity. For situations in which objects seemed to defy gravity and float, they dropped them. “It seemed like they were seeking an explanation to the kind of surprising events they witnessed,” says Stahl. “If it was just novelty that was attracting them, they wouldn’t be so specific in the way they handled the objects.”

These are the first experiments to test the idea that learning involves more than just exploring new things; Stahl’s results indicate that surprising or contradictory information helps them to confirm and test their knowledge, and try to explain events that seem to go against what they know.

“It raises exciting questions about whether surprise is something educators, parents and doctors can harness to enhance and shape learning,” says Stahl. She’s exploring, for example, how surprise can help in learning even with older children in more naturalistic environments, outside of artificial lab experiments. “Our research shows that when babies’ predictions about the world don’t match what they observe, that signals a special opportunity to update and revise their knowledge and to learn something new.”

Video: Johns Hopkins University Office of Communications; Len Turner, Dave Schmelick and Deirdre Hammer

TIME neuroscience

How Air Pollution Affects Babies in the Womb

Silhouette of Pregnancy
Getty Images

A new study finds evidence that prenatal exposure to common pollutants can contribute to hyperactivity, aggression and more in kids

It makes sense that an expectant mom’s exposure to pollutants in the air can affect her still-growing baby’s lungs and respiratory system. But there’s increasing evidence that such compounds can also harm brain development and contribute to behavioral and cognitive problems later in childhood.

In the latest study on the subject, published in JAMA Psychiatry, researchers for the first time pinpointed exactly which areas of the brain are affected if a baby is exposed to car exhaust and the byproducts of burning home heating oil. These polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) have previously been linked to developmental delays, lower verbal IQ. signs of anxiety depression and problems with attention. But researchers haven’t been able to identify which areas of the brain are most vulnerable.

MORE: Children Exposed to More Brain-Harming Chemicals Than Ever Before

In this study, they recruited 40 mothers and their children living in the inner city who were participating in an ongoing study of pollution’s effect on development. They were selected because they had low exposure to environmental factors other than PAHs that could affect development, such as tobacco smoke, lead, insecticides and other chemicals. Based on measurements of PAH in their surroundings, about half of the mothers had PAH exposures below the median of those in the larger group, and half had PAH exposures higher than the median.

“The effects were extraordinarily powerful,” says Dr. Bradley Peterson, director of the Institute for the Developing Mind at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and lead author of the study. “The more prenatal exposure to PAH, the bigger the white matter problems the kids had. And the bigger the white matter problems, the more severe symptoms of ADHD, aggression and slow processing they had on cognitive tasks.”

MORE: Mom’s Exposure to Air Pollution Can Increase Kids’ Behavior Problems

White matter is made up of the fibrous connections between nerve cells and is critical to helping neurons from one part of the brain communicate with their counterparts in other regions, and the babies with the highest exposure to PAH in the womb showed a dramatically lower volume of white matter in the left side of their brains. The entire left hemisphere, from the front to the back, was affected. “You would assume that an environmental exposure brought in by the blood and circulating to the brain would affect both sides of the brain,” says Peterson. “But the adverse effects of PAHs is located on one side; that’s surprising.”

The asymmetrical effect speaks volumes about how PAHs target brain tissue. Like other neurotoxins, they may preferentially seek out actively developing tissue. During gestation, the left side of the brain, which houses language capabilities, may be undergoing more intense structural changes in preparation for birth. This was supported by the fact that in the larger group of children in the study, those who were exposed to PAHs around age five didn’t show the same left-sided bias; in the older children, the pollutants affected both sides equally because the right hemisphere of the brain is undergoing active development at that time as well.

MORE: ADHD Linked to the Air Pregnant Women Breathe

Peterson suspects that the connection between PAHs and later behavioral and cognitive symptoms such as inattention, hyperactivity and slow processing speed may be due to how PAHs disrupt the normal communication between nerves in the left side of the brain and elsewhere.

The problem, he admits, is that moms-to-be can’t easily change where they live or work. And most people aren’t aware of how many PAHs they absorb on a daily basis. There are ways to minimize the risk of exposure, however. Expectant mothers can avoid secondhand smoke, a major source of the compounds. Not directly inhaling exhaust from cars on busy streets or smoke from fireplaces can also help, as can spending as much time as possible in parks or other areas free of burning fuels. It won’t eliminate the risk from living in an inner city and being surrounded by car emissions, but it can help, Peterson says. “Even if you can reduce your exposure from moderately high to moderate levels, it’s going to have a beneficial effect on the developing fetus,” he says.

TIME neuroscience

Your Brain Learns New Words By Seeing Them Not Hearing Them

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Chris Ryan—Getty Images/Caiaimage

To be a really proficient reader, it’s not enough to “hear” words. You also have to see them

We start to talk before we can read, so hearing words, and getting familiar with their sounds, is obviously a critical part of learning a language. But in order to read, and especially in order to read quickly, our brains have to “see” words as well.

At least that’s what Maximilian Riesenhuber, a neuroscientist at Georgetown University Medical Center, and his colleagues found in an intriguing brain-mapping study published in the Journal of Neuroscience. The scientists recruited a small group of college students to learn a set of 150 nonsense words, and they imaged their brains before and after the training.

Before they learned the words, their brains registered them as a jumble of symbols. But after they were trained to give them a meaning, the words looked more like familiar words they used every day, like car, cat or apple.

MORE: Mistakes to Avoid When Learning a Foreign Language

The difference in way the brain treated the words involved “seeing” them rather than sounding them out. The closest analogy would be for adults learning a foreign language based on a completely different alphabet system. Students would have to first learn the new alphabet, assigning sounds to each symbol, and in order to read, they would have to sound out each letter to put words together.

In a person’s native language, such reading occurs in an entirely different way. Instead of taking time to sound out each letter, the brain trains itself to recognize groups of letters it frequently sees together — c-a-r for example — and dedicates a set of neurons in a portion of the brain that activates when these letters appear.

In the functional MRI images of the volunteers’ brains, that’s what Riesenhuber saw. The visual word form area, located in the left side of the visual cortex, is like a dictionary for words, and it stores the visual representation of the letters making up thousands of words. This visual dictionary makes it possible to read at a fast pace rather than laboriously sounding out each letter of each word every time we read. After the participants were trained to learn the meaningless words, this part of their brains was activated.

MORE: An Infant’s Brain Maps Language From Birth, Study Says

“Now we are seeing words as visual objects, and phonetics is not involved any more,” he says. “We recognize the word as a chunk so we go directly from a visual pattern to the word’s meaning, and we don’t detour to the auditory system.”

The idea of a visual dictionary could also help researchers to better understanding reading or learning disorders like dyslexia. More research could reveal whether the visual word form area in people with such disabilities is different in any way, or whether they tend to read via more auditory pathways. “I helps us understand in a general way how the brain learns, the fastest way of learning, and how to build on prior learning,” says Riesenhuber.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: March 12

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Protecting whistleblowers protects national security.

By Mike German at the Brennan Center for Justice

2. Could we treat pain by switching off the region of the brain controlling that feeling?

By the University of Oxford

3. Small businesses are booming in China, and it might save their economy.

By Steven Butler and Ben Halder in Ozy

4. Not so fast: Apps using Apple’s new health technology could require FDA approval. That doesn’t come quick.

By Jonathan M. Gitlin in Ars Technica

5. We might feel better about driving electric cars, but they’re still not good for the environment.

By Bobby Magill in Quartz

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME neuroscience

Teen Pot Smokers Have More Memory Damage, Study Says

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Getty Images

Chronic pot smoking may alter the shape of a region in the brain involved in memories

Smoking marijuana as a teenager can harm long-term memory, a new study suggests.

In the new research, published in the journal Hippocampus, researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine looked at 97 people and found that those who smoked marijuana every day for about three years performed worse on long-term memory assessments. A region of their brain associated with long-term memory—the hippocampus—also looked abnormal in an MRI.

“We focused on the brains of young adults who were teenagers when they began abusing cannabis,” says study author Matthew J. Smith, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “We were interested in evaluating whether former cannabis abusers were characterized by differences in brain anatomy and memory performance after a period of abstinence.”

The researchers found that young adults in their 20s who were heavy marijuana smokers in their teenage years scored 18% worse on long-term memory tests that assessed their ability to code, file and recall memories, compared to young adults who had never smoked marijuana. The longer the person’s history of marijuana use, the more the shape of their hippocampus looked altered.

“The generalization we can make is that the greater the differences in the hippocampus shape associated with cannabis, the poorer the participants performed on the memory assessment,” says Smith.

The researchers also looked specifically at marijuana smokers with schizophrenia and found that they scored about 26% worse than the people with the disorder who did not smoke marijuana when they were younger.

According to Smith, components in marijuana can interfere with receptors in the brain that can impair brain chemistry and possibly impact the brain structure. This change, he says, could be what’s causing memory issues.

The study is still preliminary, since its sample size is small and the researchers only looked at one point in time. The hippocampus could also have changed before a young person started heavily using marijuana, the study authors acknowledge, which could make them more susceptible to the memory-related effects. Still, Smith says, the study suggests that smoking as a teen may not be benign for the developing brain.

TIME neuroscience

A Drug Has Been Found That Reverses a Precursor to Alzheimer’s

Researchers now want to proceed to substantial clinical trials

Researchers at John Hopkins University have found that low doses of a drug more commonly used to treat epilepsy can reverse a condition that increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

According to statements issued Wednesday, the epilepsy drug, called antiepileptic levetiracetam, calms hyperactivity in the brain — a well-documented symptom of people with amnestic mild cognitive impairment, which is a condition that heightens the possibility of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

The team, lead by neuroscientist Michela Gallagher, now wants to pursue substantial clinical trials.

“What we want to discover now, is whether treatment over a longer time will prevent further cognitive decline and delay or stop progression to Alzheimer’s dementia,” Gallagher said.

The researchers studied 84 people with an average age of 70. Participants received various doses of the drug, as well as a placebo, and the scientists used imaging technology to map brain activity.

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