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One type of brain cell might hold key to inflammation after head injury

Ohio State University

Nov. 8, 2018

Study in mice suggests potential target for treating traumatic brain injury

SAN DIEGO – By eliminating one type of immune cell in the brain, researchers were able to erase any evidence of inflammation following traumatic brain injury, according to a new study from The Ohio State University.

“We used a drug to wipe out cells called microglia in mice that had experienced brain injury, and the inflammation that is a hallmark of traumatic brain injury vanished,” said Kristina Witcher, the Ohio State graduate student who led the study, which was presented Nov. 7 in San Diego at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting.

Finding potential targets for treatment of serious brain injury is a major goal of neuroscience because there are currently no known approved medications to treat it, Witcher said. Furthermore, understanding cellular-level changes associated with sports-related concussion and other brain injuries could give health care providers better scientific support for post-injury recommendations, such as how long an athlete should stay off the field, she said.

The study was designed to mimic the type of traumatic brain injury a person would experience after hitting his or her head with enough force to briefly lose consciousness.

“Chronic inflammation with brain injury is harmful, and in this study we were able to eliminate that inflammatory response of the immune system by targeting just one specific cell type,” said Jonathan Godbout, the study’s senior author and assistant director for basic science at Ohio State’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research.

“Now, we have a specific cell to aim for when looking at potential interventions to decrease the harm caused by concussions,” Godbout said.

Though other cell types, including those that make up blood vessels, have been previously implicated in the inflammation following serious head injury, this study offers detailed proof that immune cells called microglia play a key role, said Godbout, a professor of neuroscience who is part of Ohio State Wexner Medical Center’s Neurological Institute.

The drug used in the study to eliminate the microglia from the mouse brain isn’t likely a potential treatment for brain injury in humans because it would cause too much damage to other vital functions of these cells, which make up about 10 to 15 percent of all brain cells, he said.

“We don’t know the long-term effects of eliminating these immune cells, but we are doing more physiological, biochemical and behavioral analysis to get to the bottom of that question,” Godbout said.

The research team also is seeking more details about the inflammatory response at different periods of time after injury.

“You have to understand the changing nature of what’s happening in these cells in order to better determine where and when to intervene,” Witcher said.

Previous efforts to treat traumatic brain injury with anti-inflammatories have been unsuccessful in humans, Witcher said, highlighting the need for neuroscientists to explore novel treatment approaches.

The research also uncovered an anomaly in the microglia cells in the brain after injury: They were elongated.

“For now, we don’t really know what that structure means and whether it has any functional significance, but those are questions we’d like to explore,” Witcher said.

She and Godbout also said they’re interested in understanding if some of the cells are “good guys” and others are “bad guys.”

“It’s possible that some promote inflammation and others work against it, maybe even by keeping neurons alive,” Godbout said.

The study, which will appear in the journal GLIA was supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

The Conversation

Think you’re bad at math? You may suffer from ‘math trauma’

November 1, 2018

Author

Jennifer Ruef

Assistant Professor of Education Studies, University of Oregon

Disclosure statement

Jennifer Ruef does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Partners

University of Oregon provides funding as a member of The Conversation US.

I teach people how to teach math, and I’ve been working in this field for 30 years. Across those decades, I’ve met many people who suffer from varying degrees of math trauma – a form of debilitating mental shutdown when it comes to doing mathematics.

When people share their stories with me, there are common themes. These include someone telling them they were “not good at math,” panicking over timed math tests, or getting stuck on some math topic and struggling to move past it. The topics can be as broad as fractions or an entire class, such as Algebra or Geometry.

The notion of who is – and isn’t – a math person drives the research I do with my colleagues Shannon Sweeny and Chris Willingham with people earning their teaching degrees.

One of the biggest challenges U.S. math educators face is helping the large number of elementary teachers who are dealing with math trauma. Imagine being tasked with teaching children mathematics when it is one of your greatest personal fears.

Math trauma manifests as anxiety or dread, a debilitating fear of being wrong. This fear limits access to life paths for many people, including school and career choices.

While math trauma has multiple sources, there are some that parents and teachers have power to influence directly: outdated ideas of what it means to be good at math. These include speed and accuracy, which were important in decades past when humans were actual computers.

But research has confirmed what many people share with me anecdotally: Tying speed with computation debilitates learners. People who struggle to complete a timed test of math facts often experience fear, which shuts down their working memory. This makes it all but impossible to think which reinforces the idea that a person just can’t do math – that they are not a math person.

What’s more, students who succeed at tests of timed math facts may believe that being good at math means simply being fast and accurate at calculating. This belief can lead to a fragile math identity. Students fear revealing they don’t know something or aren’t that fast, so may shy away from more challenging work. No one wins.

The myth that fast recall of basic math facts is good for learning has deep and pernicious roots. It comes from the best of intentions – who wouldn’t want kids to be good at calculating? But research shows that fact fluency – the ability to easily recall facts, like 3 x 5 = 15 – is best developed from first making sense of arithmetic operations. In other words, the first step in building a mathematical memory is understanding how that math works.

Skipping the sensemaking step makes for fragile understanding and cognitively expensive memorization. When someone only memorizes, every new fact is like an island unto itself, and is more readily forgotten. In contrast, understanding patterns in math facts compresses the cognitive load required to recall related facts. Sensemaking promotes deep, robust and flexible understanding, allowing people to apply what they know to new problems.

So what can parents and teachers do to support fact fluency?

First, find the wonder and joy. Games and puzzles that get people playing with numbers, such as Sudoku, KenKen or certain card games, create an intellectual need to use math facts that helps kids develop fact fluency. Asking kids to explain their thinking – using words, pictures or objects – validates the importance of their ideas.

Reframe mistakes as explorations. Not having a correct answer doesn’t mean all thinking is incorrect. Asking kids to explain their thinking also helps in understanding what they know now, and what they might learn next. Questions about how a kid got an answer can get them thinking about what does not quite work and is worthy of revision. When you ask these questions, it’s good to have a poker face; if you broadcast that an answer is wrong or right, it can reinforce the belief that only right answers count.

Second, do no harm. It’s important that parents avoid giving kids messages that they are not math people. This can have a negative impact on kids’ beliefs about their own ability to learn. Also, beware claims that kids must suffer to learn mathematics.

For many adults, today’s math classes are very different from those we experienced. U.S. schools have moved away from speed and accuracy – sometimes called “drill and kill” – and toward discussing and making sense of mathematics. Mathematics teacher educators are in agreement that these are good things. Look for the deeper meaning in what your child is learning, knowing that deeper understanding comes from connecting multiple ways to solve problems.

If you recognize that you are a survivor of math trauma, take heart. You are not alone, and there are ways to heal. It starts with understanding that mathematics is broad and beautiful – most of us are much more mathematical than we think.

Why your number of romantic partners mirrors your mother

Moms may pass on relationship skills, other key characteristics

COLUMBUS, Ohio – A new national study shows that people whose mothers had more partners – married or cohabiting – often follow the same path.

Results suggest that mothers may pass on personality traits and relationship skills that make their children more or less likely to form stable relationships.

“Our results suggest that mothers may have certain characteristics that make them more or less desirable on the marriage market and better or worse at relationships,” said Claire Kamp Dush, lead author of the study and associate professor of human sciences at The Ohio State University.

“Children inherit and learn those skills and behaviors and may take them into their own relationships.”

The study was published today (11-13-18) in PLOS ONE.

While a lot of research has found that children of divorce are also more likely to divorce, this new study broadens the picture, Kamp Dush said.

“It’s not just divorce now. Many children are seeing their parents divorce, start new cohabiting relationships, and having those end as well,” she said.

“All of these relationships can influence children’s outcomes, as we see in this study.”

Data came from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 (NLSY79) and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth Child and Young Adult (NLSY79 CYA). Both surveys have followed the same participants for at least 24 years.

All the people in the NSL79 CYA survey were the biological children of women in the NLSY79, so the researchers could get a long-term look at the number of partners for people in both generations. The surveys included information on not just marriage and divorce, but also cohabiting relationships and dissolutions.

The surveys are run by Ohio State’s Center for Human Resource Research.

This study included 7,152 people in the NLSY79 CYA survey.

Both the number of marriages and the number of cohabiting partners by mothers had similar effects on how many partners their children had, the study found.

However, results showed that siblings exposed to their mothers’ cohabitation for longer periods had more partners than their siblings exposed to less cohabitation.

“You may see cohabitation as an attractive, lower-commitment type of relationship if you’ve seen your mother in such a relationship for a longer time,” Kamp Dush said.

“That may lead to more partners since cohabitating relationships are more likely to break-up.”

The study discussed three theories about why children tend to follow their mothers in terms of the number of relationships.

One theory has been that many people dissolve relationships because of the economic instability associated with divorce and cohabitation dissolution; one partner’s income is usually lost. Economic hardship can lead to poorer child outcomes and a more difficult transition to adulthood, leading to more unstable partnerships in adulthood, the theory says.

While economic instability was indeed related to the number of partners a person had, controlling for economic factors in the study did not significantly reduce the mother-child link in the number of partners. This means money problems were likely not the main reason behind why many people follow the path of their mothers when it comes to relationships.

A second theory suggests that the actual experience of observing your mother going through a divorce or breaking up a cohabitation – or multiple breakups – leads children to have more partners themselves. According to this theory, an older half-sibling who saw his or her mother go through multiple partners should be more at risk than a younger half-sibling who wasn’t exposed to as many partners.

But this wasn’t the case, Kamp Dush said. A sibling who experienced his or her mother moving from relationship to relationship did not have a statistically greater number of partners compared to a sibling who did not experience instability.

So what does explain why mothers and their children share partnering trends?

“What our results suggest is that mothers may pass on their marriageable characteristics and relationship skills to their children – for better or worse,” Kamp Dush said.

“It could be that mothers who have more partners don’t have great relationship skills, or don’t deal with conflict well, or have mental health problems, each of which can undermine relationships and lead to instability. Whatever the exact mechanisms, they may pass these characteristics on to their children, making their children’s relationships less stable.”

Kamp Dush conducted the study with three former Ohio State graduate students: Rachel Arocho, now at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Sara Mernitz, now at the University of Texas; and Kyle Bartholomew, now at TEKsystems in Greensboro, North Carolina.

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Staff Reports