OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

scientific research and advances

Autistic children with better motor skills more adept at socializing

CORVALLIS, Ore. – In a new study looking at toddlers and preschoolers with autism, researchers found that children with better motor skills were more adept at socializing and communicating.

Published online today in the journal Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, this study adds to the growing evidence of the important link between autism and motor skill deficits.

Lead author Megan MacDonald is an assistant professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University. She is an expert on the movement skills of children with autism spectrum disorder.

Researchers tested 233 children ages 14 to 49 months diagnosed with autism.

“Even at this early age, we are already seeing motor skills mapping on to their social and communicative skills,” MacDonald said. “Motor skills are embedded in everything we do, and for too long they have been studied separately from social and communication skills in children with autism.”

Developing motor skills is crucial for children and can also help develop better social skills. MacDonald said in one study, 12-year-olds with autism were performing physically at the same level as a 6-year-old.

“So they do have some motor skills, and they kind of sneak through the system,” she said. “But we have to wonder about the social implications of a 12-year-old who is running like a much younger child. So that quality piece is missing, and the motor skill deficit gets bigger as they age.”

In MacDonald’s study, children who tested higher for motor skills were also better at “daily living skills,” such as talking, playing, walking, and requesting things from their parents.

“We can teach motor skills and intervene at young ages,” MacDonald said. “Motor skills and autism have been separated for too long. This gives us another avenue to consider for early interventions.”

MacDonald said some programs run by experts in adaptive physical education focus on both the motor skill development and communicative side. She said because autism spectrum disorder is a disability that impacts social skills so dramatically, the motor skill deficit tends to be pushed aside.

“We don’t quite understand how this link works, but we know it’s there,” she said. “We know that those children can sit up, walk, play and run seem to also have better communication skills.

This study was coauthored by Catherine Lord of Weill Cornell Medical College and Dale Ulrich of the University of Michigan. It was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the Simons Foundation, First Words and Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Michigan.

Media Contact: 
Source: 

Megan MacDonald, 541-737-3273

Multimedia Downloads
Multimedia: 

Megan MacDonald
Researcher Megan MacDonald practices important motor skills, like throwing a ball, with a child. (photo courtesy of OSU College of Public Health and Human Sciences)

Statins being overprescribed for growing number of kidney disease patients

PORTLAND, Ore. – A new analysis concludes that large numbers of patients in advanced stages of kidney disease are inappropriately being prescribed statins to lower their cholesterol – drugs that offer them no benefit and may increase other health risks such as diabetes, dementia or muscle pain.

The findings, which were published in the American Journal of Cardiovascular Drugs as a review of multiple studies, raise serious questions about the value of cholesterol-lowering therapies in kidney disease.

The issue is important, the researchers say, because the incidence of chronic kidney disease is rising in the United States at what they called “an alarming rate.” Also, kidney disease patients are 23 times more likely to get cardiovascular disease, and for them it’s the leading cause of death.

But for these patients, the frequent decision to prescribe statin drugs to lower cholesterol in order to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease is not supported by the wider body of research, experts say.

“There is very little benefit to statin drugs for patients in the early stages of kidney disease, and no benefit or possible toxicity for patients in later stages,” said Ali Olyaei, a professor of pharmacotherapy in the College of Pharmacy at Oregon State University, and lead author on the new report.

“I believe the evidence shows that the majority of people with chronic kidney disease are taking statins inappropriately,” Olyaei said. “They may help a little in early-stage disease, but those people are not the ones who generally die from cardiovascular diseases. And by the end stages the risks outweigh any benefit. More drugs are not always better.”

Some of the particular risks posed by statin use, especially at higher doses, include severe muscle pain known as rhabdomyolysis, an increase in dementia and a significant increase in the risk of developing diabetes. The body of research also shows that statins do nothing to slow the progression of kidney disease, contrary to some reports that it might.

The impetus to use statin drugs – some of the most widely prescribed medications in the world to lower cholesterol – is obvious in end-stage kidney disease, because those patients have a mortality rate from coronary heart disease 15 times that of the general population. Unfortunately, evidence shows the drugs do not help prevent mortality in that situation. There is also no proven efficacy of the value of statins in patients using dialysis, researchers said.

If statins are prescribed in early-stage kidney disease, the study concluded that low dosages are more appropriate.

Collaborators on this report, which was supported by OSU, included researchers from the Oregon Health and Science University and the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Media Contact: 
Source: 

Ali Olyaei, 503-494-1308

Overgrazing turning parts of Mongolian Steppe into desert

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Overgrazing by millions of sheep and goats is the primary cause of degraded land in the Mongolian Steppe, one of the largest remaining grassland ecosystems in the world, Oregon State University researchers say in a new report.

Using a new satellite-based vegetation monitoring system, researchers found that about 12 percent of the biomass has disappeared in this country that’s more than twice the size of Texas, and 70 percent of the grassland ecosystem is now considered degraded. The findings were published in Global Change Biology.

Overgrazing accounts for about 80 percent of the vegetation loss in recent years, researchers concluded, and reduced precipitation as a result of climatic change accounted for most of the rest. These combined forces have led to desertification as once-productive grasslands are overtaken by the Gobi Desert, expanding rapidly from the south.

Since 1990 livestock numbers have almost doubled to 45 million animals, caused in part by the socioeconomic changes linked to the breakup of the former Soviet Union, the report said. High unemployment led many people back to domestic herding.

The problem poses serious threats to this ecosystem, researchers say, including soil and water loss, but it may contribute to global climate change as well. Grasslands, depending on their status, can act as either a significant sink or source for atmospheric carbon dioxide.

“This is a pretty serious issue,” said Thomas Hilker, an assistant professor in the OSU College of Forestry. “Regionally, this is a huge area in which the land is being degraded and the food supply for local people is being reduced.

“Globally, however, all ecosystems have a distinct function in world climate,” he said. “Vegetation cools the landscape and plays an important role for the water and carbon balance, including greenhouse gases.”

Even though it was clear that major problems were occurring in Mongolia in the past 20 years, researchers were uncertain whether the underlying cause was overgrazing, climate change or something else. This report indicates that overgrazing is the predominant concern.

Mongolia is a semi-arid region with harsh, dry winters and warm, wet summers. About 79 percent of the country is covered by grasslands, and a huge surge in the number of grazing animals occurred during just the past decade - especially sheep and goats that cause more damage than cattle. Related research has found that heavy grazing results in much less vegetation cover and root biomass, and an increase in animal hoof impacts.

Collaborators on this research included Richard H. Waring, a distinguished professor emeritus of forest ecology from OSU; scientists from NASA and the University of Maryland; and Enkhjargal Natsagdorj, a former OSU doctoral student from Mongolia. The work has been supported by NASA and OSU.

Media Contact: 
Source: 

Thomas Hilker, 541-737-2608

Multimedia Downloads
Multimedia: 

Overgrazing in Mongolia

Grazing in Mongolia


Grazing in Mongolia

Mongolian herders

Study: Young women with sexy social media photos seen as less competent

BEND, Ore. – Girls and young women who post sexy or revealing photos on social media sites such as Facebook are viewed by their female peers as less physically and socially attractive and less competent to perform tasks, a new study from Oregon State University indicates.

“This is a clear indictment of sexy social media photos,” said researcher Elizabeth Daniels, an assistant professor of psychology who studies the effect of media on girls’ body image. Daniels’ findings are based on an experiment she conducted using a fictitious Facebook profile.

“There is so much pressure on teen girls and young women to portray themselves as sexy, but sharing those sexy photos online may have more negative consequences than positive,” Daniels said.

Girls and young women are in a “no-win” situation when it comes to their Facebook photos, Daniels said. Those who post sexy photos may risk negative reactions from their peers, but those who post more wholesome photos may lose out on social rewards, including attention from boys and men, she said.

“Social media is where the youth are,” she said. “We need to understand what they’re doing online and how that affects their self-concept and their self-esteem.”

Daniels’ research was published today in the journal “Psychology of Popular Media Culture.” The article, titled “The price of sexy: Viewers’ perceptions of a sexualized versus non-sexualized Facebook profile photo,” was co-authored by Eileen L. Zurbriggen of the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Daniels conducted the research while on the faculty at OSU-Cascades and received two Circle of Excellence grants from OSU-Cascades to support the study. She is now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs.

For the study, Daniels created two mock Facebook profiles for the fictitious 20-year-old Amanda Johnson. In both versions, Amanda liked musicians such as Lady Gaga, books such as “Twilight,” and movies like “The Notebook,” that would be appropriate for a person her age.

The only difference between the two was the profile photo. The photos were actual high school senior portrait and prom photos of a real young woman who allowed the photos to be used for the experiment.

In the sexy photo, “Amanda” is wearing a low-cut red dress with a slit up one leg to mid-thigh and a visible garter belt. In the non-sexy photo, she’s wearing jeans, a short-sleeved shirt and a scarf draped around her neck, covering her chest. 

Study participants were 58 teen girls, ages 13-18, and 60 young adult women no longer in high school, ages 17-25. They were randomly assigned one of the profiles and asked questions based on that profile.

The participants were asked to assess Amanda’s physical attractiveness (I think she is pretty), social attractiveness (I think she could be a friend of mine), and task competence (I have confidence in her ability to get a job done) on a scale from 1-7, with one being strongly disagree and 7 being strongly agree.

In all three areas, the non-sexy profile scored higher, indicating that those who viewed that photo thought Amanda was prettier, more likely to make a good friend and more likely to complete a task. The largest difference was in the area of task competence, suggesting a young woman’s capabilities are really dinged by the sexy photo, Daniels said.

The research underscores the importance of helping children and young people understand the long-term consequences of their online posts, Daniels said. Parents, educators and other influential adults should have regular conversations about the implications of online behavior with teens and young adults, Daniels suggested.

“We really need to help youth understand this is a very public forum,” she said.

The research also highlights the need for more discussion about gender roles and attitudes, particularly regarding girls and young women, she said.

“Why is it we focus so heavily on girls’ appearances?” she said. “What does this tell us about gender? Those conversations should be part of everyday life.”

Daniels’ advice for girls and young women is to select social media photos that showcase their identity rather than her appearance, such as one from a trip or one that highlights participation in a sport or hobby.

“Don’t focus so heavily on appearance,” Daniels said. “Focus on who you are as a person and what you do in the world.”

Media Contact: 
Source: 

Elizabeth Daniels, 831-345-8447 or daniels.psychology@gmail.com

OSU receives federal grant to study academic outcomes of Oregon’s English learners

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University has won a grant of nearly $400,000 from the U.S. Department of Education to investigate what happens to Oregon students who begin school as English language learners.

Researchers will use the grant to examine the academic performance of current and former English language learners and determine how best to support their academic achievement, said Karen Thompson, an assistant professor in OSU’s College of Education, who will lead the study.

“Being able to see, over a long period of time, how a student is doing is very important,” Thompson said. “Some students might need ongoing assistance even after they are considered proficient in English, while others might achieve at very high levels.”

Students who do not speak English proficiently when they enter school are considered English language learners. When students master the language, they are no longer considered English language learners and are reclassified as English proficient students.

Some states continue to monitor former English language learners throughout their school careers, but until recently, Oregon has only monitored them for two years, as required by the federal government, Thompson said.

The grant, from the education department’s research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences, will give investigators the opportunity to assess the longer-term academic success of students who enter school as English language learners, including graduation rates, she said. Researchers will also collect and analyze data about how current and former English language learners are faring in different types of programs, including dual-language programs, which have greatly expanded in Oregon schools in recent years, Thompson said.

The grant runs from Aug. 1 through July 31, 2016. The Oregon Department of Education and WestEd, a nonprofit education research agency, are partnering with OSU on the project. David Bautista, an assistant superintendent at the Oregon Department of Education, will serve as co-principal investigator.

The three agencies have established the Oregon English Learner Alliance in an effort to improve educational outcomes for Oregon’s English language learners. The alliance is part of a larger effort by the Oregon Department of Education to improve educational outcomes for students learning English.

The number of English language learners in Oregon has grown dramatically over the last 20 years and now makes up about 10 percent of the state’s kindergarten- through 12th-grade population. The number of reclassified students also has grown, making it more important than ever to understand how those students do in school once they’re no longer receiving extra help to learn English, Thompson said.

If researchers identify areas where current and former English language learners do well, they want to examine practices in those classrooms or schools and share the best of them with other educators, Thompson said.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This work will be supported by U.S. Department of Education grant number R305H140072. The amount of federal funding is $399,928, the non-federal funding for the project is $29,009 and the project’s total funding is $428,937. Of the total funding, 93 percent is federal and 7 percent is non-federal.

Media Contact: 
Source: 

Karen Thompson, 541-737-2988, Karen.Thompson@oregonstate.edu

Iron, steel in hatcheries may distort magnetic “map sense” of steelhead

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Exposure to iron pipes and steel rebar, such as the materials found in most hatcheries, affects the navigation ability of young steelhead trout by altering the important magnetic “map sense” they need for migration, according to new research from Oregon State University.

The exposure to iron and steel distorts the magnetic field around the fish, affecting their ability to navigate, said Nathan Putman, who led the study while working as a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, part of OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

Just last year Putman and other researchers presented evidence of a correlation between the oceanic migration patterns of salmon and drift of the Earth’s magnetic field. Earlier this year they confirmed the ability of salmon to navigate using the magnetic field in experiments at the Oregon Hatchery Research Center. Scientists for decades have studied how salmon find their way across vast stretches of ocean.

“The better fish navigate, the higher their survival rate,” said Putman, who conducted the research at the Oregon Hatchery Research Center in the Alsea River basin last year. “When their magnetic field is altered, the fish get confused.”

Subtle differences in the magnetic environment within hatcheries could help explain why some hatchery fish do better than others when they are released into the wild, Putman said. Stabilizing the magnetic field by using alternative forms of hatchery construction may be one way to produce a better yield of fish, he said.

“It’s not a hopeless problem,” he said. “You can fix these kinds of things. Retrofitting hatcheries with non-magnetic materials might be worth doing if it leads to making better fish.”

Putman’s findings were published this week in the journal Biology Letters. The research was funded by Oregon Sea Grant and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, with support from Oregon State University. Co-authors of the study are OSU’s David Noakes, senior scientist at the Oregon Hatchery Research Center, and Amanda Meinke of the Oregon Hatchery Research Center.

The new findings follow earlier research by Putman and others that confirmed the connection between salmon and the Earth’s magnetic field. Researchers exposed hundreds of juvenile Chinook salmon to different magnetic fields that exist at the latitudinal extremes of their oceanic range.

Fish responded to these “simulated magnetic displacements” by swimming in the direction that would bring them toward the center of their marine feeding grounds. In essence, the research confirmed that fish possess a map sense, determining where they are and which way to swim based on the magnetic fields they encounter.

Putman repeated that experiment with the steelhead trout and achieved similar results. He then expanded the research to determine if changes to the magnetic field in which fish were reared would affect their map sense. One group of fish was maintained in a fiberglass tank, while the other group was raised in a similar tank but in the vicinity of iron pipes and a concrete floor with steel rebar, which produced a sharp gradient of magnetic field intensity within the tank. Iron pipes and steel reinforced concrete are common in fish hatcheries.

The scientists monitored and photographed the juvenile steelhead, called parr, and tracked the direction in which they were swimming during simulated magnetic displacement experiments. The steelhead reared in a natural magnetic field adjusted their map sense and tended to swim in the same direction. But fish that were exposed to the iron pipes and steel-reinforced concrete failed to show the appropriate orientation and swam in random directions.

More research is needed to determine exactly what that means for the fish. The loss of their map sense could be temporary and they could recalibrate their magnetic sense after a period of time, Putman said. Alternatively, if there is a critical window in which the steelhead’s map sense is imprinted, and it is exposed to an altered magnetic field then, the fish could remain confused forever, he said.

“There is evidence in other animals, especially in birds, that either is possible,” said Putman, who now works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “We don’t know enough about fish yet to know which is which. We should be able to figure that out with some simple experiments.”

Media Contact: 
Source: 

Nathan Putman, 205-218-5276 or Nathan.putman@gmail.com; or David Noakes, 541-737-1953, David.noakes@oregonstate.edu

Reflections on wilderness featured at Corvallis Science Pub

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Fifty years ago, Congress passed the Wilderness Act, which today protects nearly 110 million acres in the United States. At the June 9 Corvallis Science Pub, Cristina Eisenberg, an Oregon State University conservation biologist, will discuss why intact wilderness areas matter more today than they did in 1964.

The Science Pub presentation is free and open to the public and begins at 6 p.m. in the Majestic Theater, 115 S.W. Second St. in Corvallis.

Eisenberg’s intimate acquaintance with wilderness stems from 20 years of living with her family in a cabin adjacent to the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana. At 1 million acres, it comprises the second-largest wilderness area in the lower 48 states.

In her research, she studies interactions among wolves, elk, aspen and fire. In Rocky Mountain ecosystems, she has shown that relatively intact, large tracts of land are essential to create ecologically resilient landscapes. Such landscapes typically consist of extensive protected wilderness.

She will also read and show images from her recently published book, The Carnivore Way, in which she profiles the Crown of the Continent ecosystem, a 28-million-acre wildlife corridor that runs along the mountainous spine of North America.

Sponsors of Science Pub include Terra magazine at OSU, the Downtown Corvallis Association and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

Media Contact: 
Source: 

Cristina Eisenberg, 541-737-7524

Businesses need to plan for, address impacts on biodiversity, new report indicates

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Businesses large and small need to begin the difficult work of assessing and addressing their impact on biodiversity and ecosystem services in order to reduce risk to natural resources in the future, according to a new report from Oregon State University researchers.

Biodiversity and ecosystem services refer to the variety and diversity of plants and animals in the ecosystem and the benefits that nature provides, respectively. They should be part of companies’ strategic planning, said Sally Duncan, director of the OSU Policy Analysis Lab in the School of Public Policy.

“This is an issue of risk management – it has to be part of a strategic plan,” Duncan said. “As one pioneer company leader put it, the greatest risk of all is not doing anything.”

The report, “The New Nature of Business: How Business Pioneers Support Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services,” provides a framework for companies to begin identifying and addressing their potential impacts on the ecosystem.

The report was published this month and is available at www.newnatureofbusiness.org. Partners in the multidisciplinary, international project include Oregon State University and the University of Sydney Business School. Funding comes from the National Science Foundation’s National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, with additional support from the University of Sydney Business School.

Biodiversity of plants, animals and microorganisms is essential to a properly functioning ecosystem. Ecosystem services are the benefits of such a system, and include goods such as food and fiber or services such as flood control or pest management.

But biodiversity is threatened by environmental degradation due to things such as habitat destruction and climate change. That, in turn, poses challenges for business leaders, who will have to deal with the ramifications, including pressure from consumers to improve business practices.

“There are many, many companies that have started doing important work on water conservation and energy conservation,” Duncan said. “Biodiversity and ecosystem services are much more complicated. They’re very hard to measure and most companies haven’t even thought about it yet.”

Corporate giants Dow Chemical Co., Pfizer Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and smaller organizations such as the Eugene Water and Electric Board, are among the pioneers who are taking steps to address their impacts on biodiversity. Their efforts are highlighted in the report.

Pfizer created a Wildlife Management Team and employees are working to restore and enhance the wildlife on the company’s 2,200-acre manufacturing site in Michigan. Eugene Water and Electric is working with landowners and local government to change land management practices, rather than build a new water treatment plant and charge higher rates.

Researchers developed a decision-making framework to help other companies get started addressing their own impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems services. The hope is that business leaders will use and test the framework and share their experiences on the project website, Duncan said.

“Any change to a big organization is extremely difficult,” Duncan said. “If business leaders see a story on the website that they can relate to, it might seem less scary.”

Developing a tool to measure companies’ impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems services and making that tool available to companies around the world are some of the next steps for the project, she said.

Media Contact: 
Source: 

Sally Duncan, 541-737-9931 or Sally.duncan@oregonstate.edu

Study: Targeted funding can help address inequities in early child care programs

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The quality of early child care and education programs is influenced both by funding and by the characteristics of the communities in which the programs operate, new research from Oregon State University shows.

The findings indicate that law- and policy-makers may need to consider the demographics of communities when making funding decisions about early childhood programs, said Bridget Hatfield, an assistant professor in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences.

That’s especially important now because many states, including Oregon, are adopting or revising quality ratings systems that tie funding to program quality, Hatfield said.

Her findings were published recently in “Early Childhood Research Quarterly.” Co-authors were Joanna K. Lower of Lower & Company, Deborah J. Cassidy of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Richard A. Faldowski of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Lower received funding for the research from the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Hatfield received funding for the research from the Institute of Education Sciences at the University of Virginia.

Hatfield studied about 7,000 licensed early child care and education programs in North Carolina, which has one of the nation’s oldest quality rating and improvement systems for early child care and education programs. These systems are used by many states to determine how much government funding an early child care and education program receives.

Oregon and many other states are in the midst of implementing a quality rating system.

Hatfield found that children from low-income communities have less access to high-quality early child care and preschool, even though they are likely to gain more benefits from it.

“There are a lot of barriers to high-quality education in disadvantaged communities,” she said. “Hiring teachers with bachelor’s degrees, providing appropriate school supplies and play equipment – you need money to do all those things.”

Her research also showed that additional government funding can provide a significant boost to the quality of programs in disadvantaged communities. Those programs make bigger quality improvements when they receive extra funding than programs that are in more affluent communities, Hatfield found.

“Just because a program is in a disadvantaged community doesn’t mean it can’t attain high quality,” she said. “The extra money helps the programs in disadvantaged communities close the gap.”

Hatfield studied family child care homes, where child care is provided in a private home, as well as child care centers and preschool programs, including federal programs such as Head Start.

The research shows that quality of child care can vary based on funding, but other factors also affect program quality, Hatfield said. For example, in other research projects, she is studying the interactions between teachers and children in the classroom. That kind of research will help child care program leaders determine how best to spend money they receive to improve their programs.

“If we give people more money, what’s the best way to spend it?” she said. “Do we buy more puzzles for the children or train the teachers to better use the puzzles they have?”

Media Contact: 
Source: 

Bridget Hatfield, 541-737-6438, Bridget.hatfield@oregonstate.edu

Multimedia Downloads
Multimedia: 

Bridget Hatfield

Bridget Hatfield

Corvallis Science Pub focuses on the future of the oceans

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Warming ocean temperatures, rising acidity and reduced biological productivity threaten the livelihoods of about 2 billion people who depend on marine ecosystems, according to a report by an international team of 29 scientists last fall.

At the May 12 Corvallis Science Pub, Andrew Thurber, a post-doctoral researcher at Oregon State University who helped to conceive the study, will discuss how the oceans are responding to a changing climate. The Science Pub presentation, which is free and open to the public, begins at 6 p.m. in the Majestic Theater located at 115 S.W. Second St. in Corvallis.

“What is really sobering about these findings is that they don’t even include other impacts to the world’s oceans such as sea level rise, pollution, over-fishing, and increasing storm intensity and frequency,” he said. “All of these could compound the problem significantly.”

Thurber’s research focuses on deep-sea ecosystems, particularly the role of invertebrates in recycling nutrients and sequestering carbon. He has conducted experiments under seasonal sea ice in Antarctica and explored communities that live around methane seeps near New Zealand and Costa Rica.

Thurber received his Ph.D. from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego. His work has been supported by the National Science Foundation.

Sponsors of Science Pub include Terra magazine at OSU, the Downtown Corvallis Association and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

Media Contact: 
Source: 

Andrew Thurber, 541-737-8251