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News Briefs

New MRI scans for autism

A new test developed by researchers at Harvard University could diagnose autism in as few as 10 minutes. The test, performed using MRI machines, scans a person’s brain to see how well different parts of the brain are communicating with one another. People with autism suffer from weaker connections in the brain, which leads to difficulties in learning and communicating. The scan looks at how water molecules move along a brain’s wiring; based on these measurements, scientists can tell if someone has the disorder.

The scan isn’t currently available in hospitals, but trials have shown promise. In a study of 60 people ages 7 to 26, the test was 94 percent accurate. Researchers plan to test children as young as 3 years old. The test would also require no additional equipment other than MRI machines already in hopsitals.

The test will save parents looking for autism diagnoses money as well as time: This short scan is estimated to cost between $100 and $200. Current conventional diagnosis can cost upward of $3,000.

Source: Mail Online,

More PE waivers belie obesity worry

Despite the national concern with childhood obesity, more states than ever are allowing students to forgo physical education classes. Since 2006, the number of states that allow waivers or substitutions for PE classes has risen from 27 to 32.

Students in the 32 states that allow waivers can participate in interscholastic activities such as sports, cheerleading and marching band instead of PE. Some states even offer online PE classes that students can take on their own time.

The increase stems from efforts to save money and get students to take more academic classes during the school day.

Source: USA Today

“Did I do that?”

Schools around the country have been trying to solve a specific dress code issue for years: how to keep students from “sagging” their pants. While the city of Dublin, Ga., passed a law late last year making the offense punishable by up to $200 in fines, school districts in other states have found different ways to deal with the problem.

One principal in Memphis, Tenn., was inspired by the 1990s TV show Family Matters—specifically the character Steve Urkel, who was known for his high-waisted pants. If students at Westside Middle School show up to school with sagged pants, they are asked to pull their pants up to the bottom of their ribcage. The pants are then tightened with zip ties strung through the belt loops. The practice is known as getting “Urkeled.”

The number of students getting “Urkeled” at the beginning of the school year was around 80 per week; in December, the number had dropped to 18 per week.


A shock does a brain good?

A recent study has shown that electrical currents can make people better at math for a period of up to six months. The study used transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS), which is a noninvasive procedure that passes a very slight amount of electricity through the skull into the outer portions of the brain for a period of no more than 15 minutes.The amount is so small that most patients don’t even know it’s happening. Depending on the level of current, neuron activity in the brain is increased or decreased.

During the study, TDCS was directed into the parietal lobe of the brain, which is involved with number processing. Researchers gave participants a set of symbols that represent numbers and asked them to organize them while TDCS was being applied. The participants’ abilities to organize number symbols increased.

Scientists hope that TDCS might also be beneficial to language learning. The process is currently used to improve brain functions involving pain management and post-trauma rehabilitation.


The harder to learn, the better

A new study on cognition—the process of thought—shows that the mind actually absorbs information better when it has to work at it. The study looked at “disfluency,” or the process of making material harder to learn, through an experiment in Chesterfield, Ohio, classrooms.

The study challenges the common assumption that easier is better when it comes to learning. Researchers conducted the study in a variety of classrooms, including those devoted to English, chemistry and U.S. history, by changing the typefaces used on standard worksheets and PowerPoint presentations. Some paragraphs were in Comic Sans Italicized or Monotype Corsiva, while others were in Haettenschweiler. The materials were then passed to the students to study. (Another set of students learning the same subject were given the standard materials and served as the control group.) After several weeks, the students were tested for retention. In all of the classes except chemistry, the students with the “disfluent” materials performed better.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Eating right in 2011

The U.S. Department of Education released proposed guidelines for healthy school lunches in January. The guidelines are based on the Institute of Medicine’s October 2009 recommendations, which were sought by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.

The USDA is accepting comments on the proposed rules through April 13 at!documentDetail;D=FNS-2007-0038-0001.

After that time, the final rules will be released. The proposed changes include substituting lower-fat items for high-fat ones and adding more fruits, vegetables and whole grains. For example:

  • On Monday, instead of a bean-and-cheese burrito with mozzarella cheese, applesauce, orange juice and 2-percent milk, students would eat a turkey sandwich with cheese on a whole-wheat roll with mustard and/or low-fat mayonnaise, refried beans, jicama, green pepper strips, cantaloupe wedges, and low-fat ranch dressing.
  • On Tuesday, instead of a hot dog on a bun with ketchup, canned pears, raw celery and carrots with ranch dressing, and 1-percent chocolate milk, students would eat whole-wheat spaghetti with meat sauce, a whole-wheat roll with soft margarine, cooked green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, kiwi halves, 1-percent milk, and low-fat ranch dressing.
  • On Friday, instead of cheese pizza, canned pineapple, tater tots with ketchup, and 1-percent chocolate milk, students would eat whole-wheat cheese pizza, baked sweet potato fries, raw grape tomatoes with low-fat ranch dressing, applesauce, and 1-percent milk.

Source: Education Week,

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