LA Times cites York researcher in bilingualism story

Neuroscience researchers are increasingly coming to a consensus that bilingualism has many positive consequences for the brain, wrote the Los Angeles Times Feb. 26, in story that also appeared in the Chicago Tribune and on numerous US television news websites. Several such researchers travelled to this month’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, DC, to present their findings, wrote the Times.

These benefits come from having a brain that’s constantly juggling two – or even more – languages, said Ellen Bialystok, [Distinguished Research Professor in Psychology, Faculty of Health] at York University in Toronto, who spoke at the AAAS annual meeting. For instance, a person who speaks both Hindi and Tamil can’t turn Tamil off even if he’s speaking to only Hindi users, because the brain is constantly deciding which language is most appropriate for a given situation.

This constant back-and-forth between two linguistic systems means frequent exercise for the brain’s so-called executive control functions, located mainly in the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain tasked with focusing one’s attention, ignoring distractions, holding multiple pieces of information in mind when trying to solve a problem, and then flipping back and forth between them.

“If you walk into a room, there are a million things that could attract your attention,” Bialystok said. “How is it we manage to focus at all? How does our mind pay attention to what we need to pay attention to without getting distracted?”

To test one’s ability to identify pertinent nuggets while being bombarded with extraneous information, scientists use something called the Stroop test. Subjects are presented with a word for a particular colour and asked to identify the colour of ink it’s printed in. So if the word is “blue” and it’s printed in blue, no problem. If, on the other hand, the word “blue” is printed in red, they have to sort out which piece of information – the colour of the ink, or the colour being spelled out – is the one they need.

“This is extremely hard to do, because it’s terribly difficult to block out the information from the word,” Bialystok said.

In monolingual speakers, this kind of mental curveball will add 240 milliseconds to their reaction time – a significant delay, in brain reaction terms. Bilingual people, on the other hand, take just 160 extra milliseconds to sort this out. Bialystok theorizes that it’s because they’re used to prioritizing information in potentially confusing situations all day.

Those advantages aren’t just useful for schoolchildren – they last over the course of a lifetime. A study published last year in the journal Neurology surveyed 211 patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and found that those who spoke only one language saw the onset of their first symptoms four to five years earlier than their bilingual peers. While knowing two languages doesn’t fight the disease, it does strengthen those parts of the brain that are susceptible to dementia’s early attacks, allowing them to withstand the assault much longer.

Free journals often promote costly or problematic drugs, study finds

Medical publications distributed freely to health professionals often promote drugs that are costly or have potential problems, says a new study warning that such practices could influence which drugs doctors prescribe, wrote The Globe and Mail Feb. 28.

Their findings, published on Monday in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, show that free journals are much more likely than other publications to display ads for new drugs that are more expensive than older, generic versions as well as drugs that are linked to some concerns over effectiveness.

But the researchers also discovered that free journals frequently print editorial content that directly recommends the drugs that are advertised in the journal.

“It’s pretty well drug company advertising,” said Joel Lexchin, a professor in the School of Health Policy & Management [Faculty of Health] at York University in Toronto and one of the study’s authors. “These journals probably have a role in influencing prescribing behaviour.”

LSAT here to stay: Ontario schools

The Law School Admission Test is here to stay in Ontario despite moves south of the border to loosen requirements to use it, wrote The Globe and Mail Feb. 28, citing comments by law school administrators in Ontario.

The American Bar Association is reconsidering a rule that requires law schools to make the LSAT mandatory in order to gain accreditation in the wake of studies indicating that reliance on it is undermining diversity efforts, wrote the Globe.

According to Jane Emrich, assistant dean of students at the Queen’s University Faculty of Law, the problem is less pronounced in Ontario because most universities have alternative processes to increase the proportion of historically disadvantaged groups in their classes.

Applicants in every category had to submit an LSAT score, but Emrich says it doesn’t have any particular weight in the faculty’s holistic admissions process. [York’s] Osgoode Hall Law School and the University of Toronto both use the same word to describe their admissions processes.

Correlation studies by the Law School Admission Council that administers the test show the LSAT is a better predictor of first-year performance than a student’s grade point average.

York student helps rehabilitate burned-out forest in Israel

Among the many groups of volunteers from Israel and abroad that have been participating in Carmel Forest rehabilitation after the terrible December fire, we met a group of six Canadian students who came to Israel for a week of working and visiting [Keren Kayemeth – LeIsrae Jewish National Fund] sites throughout the country, wrote The Jerusalem Post March 1.

The trip was initiated by Ilan Mann, 21, a senior at York University in Toronto, [in the] Fine Arts Cultural Studies [Program]. Although Ilan is very identified with Israel and has been in the country five or six times previously, he had a unique and very personal reason for wanting to come now: “I heard about the Carmel fire and was thinking about how I could help when my mother called and told me that my cousin Topaz, who was studying to be a prison guard, was one of the 44 people who were killed when their bus went up in flames near Beit Oren. When I heard the terrible news, I knew that I needed to go to Israel and be part of whatever was being done to restore the Carmel and help prevent such fires in the future.”

On air

  • Paul Delaney, senior lecturer in the Department of Physics & Astronomy in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering, spoke about the final flight of the space shuttle Discovery and the future of NASA’s space program on Kitchener’s 570News Radio Feb. 28.