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Université de Montréal News Digest
Stories from the December 13th 2004 edition of Forum
UdeM's French-language weekly

See the original story in French by clicking on the link at the end of the summary.

This week:

Autism’s fogged-up mirror
A neuron that helps us mirror taught behaviour is weaker in autistic people, according to a study about to be published. More >>>

Some touching music
A University eye centre could soon make sheet music written in Braille commercially available to the public. More >>>

The turkey and stuffing lecture series
When someone at the Christmas party asks ‘What do you do?’ but your work needs an hour and a half to describe, things could turn very boring. An astrophysicist, a neuroscientist and a mathematician explain how to survive. More >>>

Growing up premature
Two long-term studies paint both a distressing and hopeful picture for premature babies. The studies’ author says we must focus on improving special-needs care. More >>>

Question of the Week. Do children receive too many toys?
Our expert weighs in on the question, offering some advice to the gift-toting parents. More >>>


For media inquiries on any of the stories below, please contact:

Marc Tulin
Press Officer
Université de Montréal
(514) 343-7593


Autism’s fogged-up mirror

People with autism experience less activity in the brain neurons that specifically trigger human empathy, according to a new study by UdeM researcher Hugo Théoret. The professor in the Department of Psychology is trying to understand the link between ‘mirror neurons’ and autism.

Mirror neurons, a theory developed in the ‘90s, are at the basis of all imitative learning such as language acquisition. So, a person who watches another performing a certain activity actually experiences the same activity in their brain circuitry. The theory also explains why laughing can become so contagious.

Théoret says since mirror neurons trigger human empathy and one of autism’s main characteristic’s is not being able to put oneself in another person’s shoes, the researcher decided to apply the mirror neuron theory to autism.

He had two groups stay still and observe a video recording of a hand with one finger moving. He then had both repeat the gesture. He also took a reading of the brain activity in their brain cortex. Among the autistic subjects, mirror neurons showed weaker activity and showed for the first time no difference in neuron activity in both movement and observation of the autistic.

The results of his study will be published in the upcoming issue of Current Biology.

To see the longer version of this story in French: Click here



Some touching music

The university’s visual impairment centre could soon be offering a service for blind musicians as it explores a new software program that converts sheet music into braille.

The Nazareth and Louis Braille Institute has been testing out a program that can make any music, from children’s to Tchaikovsky, readable to a braille-reading blind person. The real time program, called Toccata –from the Italian word toccare, meaning ‘to touch’ –works though a keyboard played by a sighted musician and then prints out the Braille notes from a computer.

Manon Dubé, a lawyer and musician who has been blind from birth, has been working with the institute to look at the ins and outs of a conversion service. She has been finding much enthusiasm from several visually impaired students at the Institute and believes the Institute will be able to offer the service commercially by next fall.

To see the longer version of this story in French: Click here



The turkey and stuffing lecture series

With an interest in how to survive the Christmas party without having to scribble exponential numbers on the festive napkins, Forum spoke to an astrophysicist, a neuroscientist and a mathematician to ask them how, at Christmas-time, they explain their work to friends and family.

Astrophysicist Anthony Moffat is a true popularizer. At Christmas time, if you asked him to explain basic astronomy, he could grab a glass a dish and a bowl on the table, call them planets and spin them around each other. Look up at the star on the Christmas tree and he could tell you about the inconclusive evidence that the North Star was a super nova. If you’re outside with him during a holiday snowfall, he could talk about how every snowflake is six-sided and completely different from the other, due to the randomness and semi chaos of its growth process.

In looking at the way the brain perceives music, Isabelle Peretz works with the most complex area of our body and so much of the field is still inconclusive. That does not stop people from jumping to conclusions about music’s effect on the brain. “They think music has magical powers.” Prof. Peretz says the Christmas turkey could be a good analogy for the brain. “The central brain location for music is not found in one area. Wings can represent rhythm. White meat can represent the association with melody. All our emotions might be found be in the stuffing.”

François Lalonde, UdeM’s Canada Research Chair in Differential Geometry and Topology says when he watches people at Christmas playing instruments, he sees various lengths of sound waves interacting. Music is beautiful geometry, he says, and geometry a beautiful symphony.

So, with planets as dishes, the brain represented by a turkey, and music as geometry, our academics working with complex theories seem to be perfectly capable of making sure Christmas partyers don’t feel like they’ve landed in a year-end exam.

To see the longer version of this story in French: Click here

To see the longer version of this story in English: Click here


Growing up premature

A UdeM neonatologist who has spent several years tracking groups of premature babies has released her latest findings.

Dr. Francine Lefebvre has been conducting longitudinal studies of two groups of ‘preemies’, the first, a group of 657 babies aged 23 to 28 months (a baby is deemed premature if born before 37 weeks of gestation), the second cohort, 82 babies, weighed less than a kilogram at birth.

The study presents both hopeful and distressing findings.

In the first group, 39 per cent of those born between 1987 and 1990 suffer from cerebral palsy. However that rate did go down to 22 per cent for those born between 1998 and 2000. At seven years of age, their weight and IQs were slightly lower and many had auditory abilities that were compromised.

One of the interesting areas of her study was schooling. In the second group, who had been followed for 18 years, 76 per cent were in mainstream schools at the age of seven, with 33 per cent from that group showing learning difficulties. The other 24 per cent needed special education classes. Sixty-one per cent of the entire group did receive a high school diploma, compared with 87 per cent of those who were full-term babies.

Dr. Lefebvre says the survival and quality of life rates have improved. She says the problems associated with premature births have more to with the lack of adequate resources to families with special-needs children.

Her findings will be published this spring in Acta Paediatrica.

To see the longer version of this story in French: Click here



Question of the Week. Do children receive too many toys?

Francine Ferland thinks that might be the case. This Christmas, $1.3 billion worth of toys will be handed out to children and Prof Ferland, an author of a book on children’s play, says too many gifts can turn a child’s room into a toy store. She thinks all that handing out of gifts puts us at risk of raising children who are never satisfied.

Prof Ferland, who teaches in UdeM’s School of Rehabilitation, thinks many gifts are simply a reflection of the parent’s desires, like the example of the race car set the father ends up playing with while his child sits in the corner having fun with the box it came in.

For this season, she offers some advice to parents. She suggests handing out one gift at a time and making sure the gift is age-appropriate. She also says it’s important that the parent be with the child and to put the accent on discovery.

To see the longer version of this story in French: Click here







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