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C-sections and autism

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The observation that autism prevalence has been increasing, beyond what would be explained by improved diagnosis alone, has launched the quest to identify the factors responsible. In spite of an increasing list of such factors, few can actually stand up to serious scrutiny. However, the media rarely miss a chance to report any potential risk factor, most of the time based on inconclusive studies, which can then have dramatic effects on health choices. The most extreme example was the suggested link between MMR vaccinations and autism, alimenting the anti-vaccination movement and leading to measles outbreaks. The list of putative risk factors includes mercury, pollutants, parenting strategies, dairy products and video games. Emily Willingham, scientist and blogger, has reviewed up to 50 factors, inclduing relevant references, in this caustic post, and Research The Headlines recently covered a story suggesting siblings born closer together are at higher risk for autism.

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What does sex have in common with learning a new language?

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The punchlines almost write themselves…

As someone married to a non-native English speaker, I feel duty-bound to attempt to learn my wife’s language. But, as with so many things in life, my motivation to actually knuckle down and learn is ever an issue. Perhaps because of this, the Daily Mail’s online headline “Yes! Oui! Si! Learning a new language activates the same part of the brain as SEX” certainly caught my monolingual eye. It goes on to further claim that “A new study suggests that learning a new language stimulates the same part of the brain as having sex or eating chocolate.” So how do these claims match up to the science behind the story?

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Lack of evidence for “brain training” claims

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“We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do.” That’s how a group of the world’s leading researchers interested in the brain and how it ages signed off a consensus statement this week. In it, the researchers highlighted how the claims made by those marketing brain training games and products currently go well beyond the accrued evidence, and therefore seriously questioned whether the industry was fairly representing the benefits that these games might bring. Read more…

How to “Research the Headlines”: Part 9

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Through our How to “Research the Headlines” series, we’ve provided some simple suggestions to assist with your critical consumption of research reported in the media. Most of the time, we’ve focused on specific things to look out for when reading any particular media article. Given that many of us get our news online, it is of course easier than ever to access multiple reports about the same topic. If more than one media outlet has covered a story, how might the consistency of reporting, or indeed inconsistency, help us to better appraise that research? Read more…

Acrylamide on Toast – Carcinogen or Chemophobia?

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All too often, public perception rather than actual scientific data sway policy over the use of certain chemicals. Aspartame, Bisphenol A and fructose have all taken a pasting in the last decade, and it now looks like acrylamide, a by-product of cooking starchy foods, is set to join this unhappy brethren. So with claims of carcinogenicity and a lawsuit on the way, is acrylamide a genuine problem or just another example of chemophobia?

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Does charging your phone overnight make you fat?

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I doubt it.

The Independent reports that “Charging your phone in your bedroom could make you put on weight”. It goes on to state that “artificial light from phone screens, street lights, laptops or television stops the body generating a hormone that combats obesity”.  This is not a new story – similar headlines were making the rounds earlier this year (see NHS Choices for that coverage). Read more…

Stand up for health!

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Nobody would argue against the invitation of standing up for health, if only that was it. Instead the title of a scientific paper published in The British Journal of Sports Medicine went a bit further: Stand up for health—avoiding sedentary behaviour might lengthen your telomeres: secondary outcomes from a physical activity RCT in older people. Such a title can only invite bad science reporting. Telomeres are a favourite target for media hype as they provide many attractive characteristics to stimulate a writer’s imagination. Read more…

Do children born too close together face autism risk?

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There has been a fair bit of media attention (e.g. Telegraph and Daily Mail) on a study that has suggested that children born very close in time to their siblings face a increased risk of developing autism. In all of the media articles on this study, it has been reported that children conceived within 2 months of each other were 150% more at risk than children whose births were spaced further apart.  But what does this actually mean? Read more…

Is it true that Muslims in Britain are not ‘integrated’ and how can we measure this?

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In recent months, a number of commentators have restated concerns over the ‘integration’ of Britain’s Muslims. In particular it is claimed that Muslims in Britain have less favourable views of – and therefore attachment to – Britain, and that Muslims seek to cluster together in self-segregating communities. Both of these tendencies, it is alleged, place Britain’s Muslims at risk of becoming ‘radicalised’, and perhaps even encourage political violence at home and abroad.

For example, The Telegraph, tells us that Too many of Britain’s Muslims are failing to integrate. We need to find out why. The Daily Express argues that the state has encouraged Muslims to live apart and that in place of integration it has promoted division and separatism. The Guardian, meanwhile, shares the view that there has not been sufficient emphasis on Muslim integration. Both Daily Mail and The Times have repeated this view too, complaining that Instead of greater integration, the state has promoted separatism by emphasising differences and calling for greater integration and opportunity, respectively. Does the evidence support these concerns? To answer this we need to agree on what we mean by ‘integration’.

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