Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Dogs process numerical quantities in similar brain region as humans

Emory neuroscientist Gregory Berns is researching how dogs think and view the world. (Photo by Kay Hinton)

Dogs spontaneously process basic numerical quantities, using a distinct part of their brains that corresponds closely to number-responsive neural regions in humans, finds a study at Emory University.

Biology Letters published the results, which suggest that a common neural mechanism has been deeply conserved across mammalian evolution.

“Our work not only shows that dogs use a similar part of their brain to process numbers of objects as humans do — it shows that they don’t need to be trained to do it,” says Gregory Berns, Emory professor of psychology and senior author of the study.

“Understanding neural mechanisms — both in humans and across species — gives us insights into both how our brains evolved over time and how they function now,” says co-author Stella Lourenco, an associate professor of psychology at Emory.

Such insights, Lourenco adds, may one day lead to practical applications such as treating brain abnormalities and improving artificial intelligence systems.

Lauren Aulet, A PhD candidate in Lourenco's lab, is first author of the study.

Read the full story here.

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Friday, December 13, 2019

Emory soil analysis project leads to EPA site investigation

Emory professor Eri Saikawa (left) in the field with Historic Westside Gardens member and Westside resident Rosario Hernandez (center) and Xinyi Yao (right), an Emory student pursuing a master's degree in environmental sciences who is involved in the research project. (Photo by Carol Clark)

An Emory University collaboration with members of Atlanta’s Westside community, to test urban soil for contaminants, has led to a site investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The ongoing community collaboration is funded by Emory’s HERCULES Exposome Research Center, dedicated to understanding how environmental exposures affect health and community well-being.

The EPA told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that it is continuing to collect samples and has so far identified 64 sites where the soil contains elevated levels of lead — a dangerous neurotoxin. The agency plans to begin decontaminating properties, possibly by removing and replacing soil, in the first quarter of next year, at no expense to residents or homeowners, according to the AJC. The report also appeared in Georgia Health News.

“It’s important for people to know that soil contamination by heavy metals can be serious,” says Eri Saikawa, an associate professor of environmental sciences at Emory and the lead researcher on the original project that sparked the EPA investigation. “If you are thinking about gardening in an urban area, or if children are playing in your yard, it makes sense to test your soil and make sure that it’s not contaminated.”

Read the full story here.

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Wednesday, December 4, 2019

What is a scream? The acoustics of a primal human call

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Screams are prompted by a variety of emotions — from joyful surprise to abject terror. No matter what sparks them, however, human screams share distinctive acoustic parameters that listeners are attuned to, suggests a new study published by the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior.

“Screams require a lot of vocal force and cause the vocal folds to vibrate in a chaotic, inconsistent way,” says senior author Harold Gouzoules, a professor of psychology at Emory University. “Despite the inherent variation in the way that screams are produced, our findings show that listeners can readily distinguish a scream from other human calls. And we are honing in on how they make that distinction.”

Jay Schwartz is first author of the paper and Jonathan Engleberg is a co-author. They are both Emory PhD candidates in Gouzoules’ Bioacoustics Lab. Gouzoules began researching monkey screams in 1980, before becoming one of the few scientists studying human screams about 10 years ago. He is interested in the origins of screams and the role they played in human development.

“Animal screams occur almost always in the context of a fight or in response to a predator,” Gouzoules says. “Human screams happen in a much broader array of contexts, which makes them much more interesting.”

Gouzoules' Bioacoustics Lab has amassed an impressive library of high-intensity, visceral sounds — from TV and movie performances to the screams of non-actors reacting to actual events posted to online sites such as YouTube.

For the current study, the researchers presented 182 participants with a range of human calls. Some of the calls were screams of aggression, exclamation, excitement, fear or pain. Others calls included cries, laughter and yells.

The participants showed strong agreement for what classified as a scream. An acoustical analysis for the calls the participants classified as screams, compared to those they did not, included a higher pitch and roughness, or harshness, to the sound; a wider variability in frequency; and a higher peak frequency.

The current paper is part of an extensive program of research into screams by Gouzoules. In another recently published article, his lab has found that listeners cannot distinguish acted screams from naturally occurring screams. Listeners can, however, correctly identify whether pairs of screams were produced by the same person or two different people.

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