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Better sleep and behavior, short-term and long-term

July 27, 2009

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Children who have trouble sleeping often have behavior and attention problems during the day, research has shown. When a breathing disorder is the culprit in disrupting sleep, surgery to remove tonsils and adenoids (glands in the back of the throat) can help, but for how long has been a question.

Dr. Julie Wei of the University of Kansas School of Medicine and her colleagues already have reported that six months after surgery, children showed improvement both in sleep and behavior, according to questionnaires their parents filled out. Now the researchers have checked back in with 44 of the 71 children who participated in the study.

After 2 1/2 years, the children still were doing better than they were before surgery on measures of sleep, inattention, and oppositional behavior. But the frequency of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder did not change, and other gains parents reported were not as great as they were six months after surgery.

BOTTOM LINE: Children who had surgery to treat sleep-related breathing disorders had better sleep and behavior 2 1/2 years after their operations, but the improvements weren’t as great as six months after the procedures.

CAUTIONS: The follow-up study included only 44 of the 71 children in the first study.

WHAT’S NEXT: Future research could measure children’s sleep using sleep testing equipment rather than questionnaires.

WHERE TO FIND IT: Archives of Otolaryngology - Head & Neck Surgery, July

Think you're multitasking? Think again.

We all try to do more than one thing at a time. Now scientists from Vanderbilt University have shed light on what our brains do when we’re multitasking.

Paul Dux and his colleagues designed an experiment to see what parts of the brain were involved in multitasking. Other researchers have theorized that as tasks become familiar, they require less thinking and get shifted to another part of the brain.

Researchers trained volunteers on two tasks. First, the volunteers had to press a certain button in response to each of two different faces. Second, they had to say the nonsense syllables “tay’’ or “koo’’ when they heard one of two different sounds. Then they were asked to do both tasks simultaneously. Over two weeks they had three scans of their brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging while they were performing the tasks.

At the end of the two weeks, the volunteers were faster at doing the two tasks together. But the brain scans showed they weren’t doing two things at once. Instead, they were doing the tasks one at a time, in one part of the brain.

“Even after extensive practice, our brain does not really do two tasks at once,’’ Dux said. “It is still processing one task at a time, but it does it so fast, it gives us the illusion we are doing two tasks simultaneously.’’

BOTTOM LINE: Training can improve multitasking speed, but only by speeding up how quickly we perform mental tasks one after another.

CAUTIONS: Changes in brain activity could have been too subtle to be captured by the experiment.

WHAT’S NEXT: Further research might reveal whether more abstract tasks require different responses in the brain.

WHERE TO FIND IT: Neuron, July 16

ELIZABETH COONEY

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