Jon Hamilton

Jon Hamilton has served as a correspondent for NPR's science desk since 1998. His current beat includes neuroscience, health risks, behavior, and bioterrorism. Recent pieces include a series on the chemical perchlorate, which is turning up in California's water supply; a government effort to find out just how many autistic children there are in the U.S.; and an exploration of "neuromarketing."

Before joining NPR in 1998, Hamilton was a media fellow with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation studying health policy issues. He completed a project on states that have radically changed their Medicaid programs for the poor by enrolling beneficiaries in private HMOs.

From 1995-1997, Hamilton wrote on health and medical topics as a freelance writer, after having been a medical reporter for both The Commercial Appeal and Physician's Weekly.

Hamilton graduated with honors from Oberlin College in Ohio with a B.A. in English. As a student, he was the editor of the Oberlin Review student newspaper. He earned his master's degree in journalism from Columbia University where he graduated with honors, won the Baker Prize for magazine writing, and earned a Sherwood traveling fellowship.

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11:51am

Thu May 28, 2015
Shots - Health News

Depression Treatments Inspired By Club Drug Move Ahead In Tests

Originally published on Thu May 28, 2015 2:35 pm

Experimental medicines related to ketamine, an anesthetic and club drug, are making progress in clinical tests.
Wikipedia

Antidepressant drugs that work in hours instead of weeks could be on the market within three years, researchers say.

"We're getting closer and closer to having really, truly next-generation treatments that are better and quicker than existing ones," says Dr. Carlos Zarate, a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health.

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3:52am

Mon May 18, 2015
Shots - Health News

Deaf Jam: Experiencing Music Through A Cochlear Implant

Originally published on Mon May 18, 2015 12:16 pm

Sam Swiller and his dog, Sully, in their home in Washington, D.C.
Meredith Rizzo/NPR

When Sam Swiller used hearing aids, his musical tastes ran to AC/DC and Nirvana — loud bands with lots of drums and bass. But after Swiller got a cochlear implant in 2005, he found that sort of music less appealing.

"I was getting pushed away from sounds I used to love," he says, "but also being more attracted to sounds that I never appreciated before." So he began listening to folk and alternative music, including the Icelandic singer Bjork.

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3:35am

Thu May 14, 2015
Shots - Health News

A Database Of All Things Brainy

Originally published on Thu May 14, 2015 12:15 pm

The Allen Cell Types Database catalogs all sorts of details about each type of brain cell, including its shape and electrical activity. These cells, taken from the visual area of a mouse brain, are colored according to the patterns of electrical activity they produce.
Courtesy of Allen Institute for Brain Science

When the brain needs to remember a phone number or learn a new dance step, it creates a circuit by connecting different types of neurons.

Scientists still don't know how many types of neurons there are or exactly what each type does.

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5:49am

Mon April 27, 2015
History

The Shipwreck That Led Confederate Veterans To Risk All For Union Lives

Originally published on Mon April 27, 2015 11:47 am

On April 27, 1865, the steamboat Sultana exploded and sank while traveling up the Mississippi River, killing an estimated 1,800 people.

The event remains the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history (the sinking of the Titanic killed 1,512 people). Yet few know the story of the Sultana's demise, or the ensuing rescue effort that included Confederate soldiers saving Union soldiers they might have shot just weeks earlier.

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12:15pm

Thu April 23, 2015
Shots - Health News

Thoughts Can Fuel Some Deadly Brain Cancers

Originally published on Thu April 23, 2015 7:03 pm

A color-enhanced cerebral MRI showing a glioma tumor.
Scott Camazine Science Source

The simple act of thinking can accelerate the growth of many brain tumors.

That's the conclusion of a paper in Cell published Thursday that showed how activity in the cerebral cortex affected high-grade gliomas, which represent about 80 percent of all malignant brain tumors in people.

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3:45pm

Tue April 14, 2015
Shots - Health News

No Rest For Your Sleeping Brain

Originally published on Thu April 30, 2015 4:28 pm

There's new evidence that the brain's activity during sleep isn't random. And the findings could help explain why the brain consumes so much energy even when it appears to be resting.

"There is something that's going on in a very structured manner during rest and during sleep," says Stanford neurologist Dr. Josef Parvizi, "and that will, of course, require energy consumption."

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6:12pm

Wed April 8, 2015
Shots - Health News

Sushi Science: A 3-D View Of The Body's Wasabi Receptor

Originally published on Wed April 8, 2015 7:33 pm

The same nerve receptor that responds to the green paste on your sushi plate is activated by car exhaust, the smoke of a wildfire, tear gas and other chemical irritants.
iStockphoto

Researchers have discovered the exact structure of the receptor that makes our sensory nerves tingle when we eat sushi garnished with wasabi. And because the "wasabi receptor" is also involved in pain perception, knowing its shape should help pharmaceutical companies develop new drugs to fight pain.

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2:36pm

Tue March 31, 2015
Shots - Health News

Hackers Teach Computers To Tell Healthy And Sick Brain Cells Apart

Originally published on Wed April 8, 2015 11:17 am

The Allen Institute for Brain Science hosted its first BigNeuron Hackathon in Beijing earlier this month. Similar events are planned for the U.S. and U.K.
Courtesy of Allen Institute for Brain Science

Brain researchers are joining forces with computer hackers to tackle a big challenge in neuroscience: teaching computers how to tell a healthy neuron from a sick one.

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4:58am

Tue March 31, 2015
Shots - Health News

No Easy, Reliable Way To Screen For Suicide

Originally published on Wed April 1, 2015 6:57 pm

About twice a year, statistics suggest, a pilot somewhere in the world — usually flying alone — deliberately crashes a plane. The Germanwing flight downed last week may be one such case. But most people who fit the psychological profile of the pilots in these very rare events never have problems while flying.
Patrik Stollarz AFP/Getty Images

Even a careful psychiatric examination of the co-pilot involved in last week's Germanwings jetliner crash probably would not have revealed whether he intended to kill himself, researchers say.

"As a field, we're not very good at accurately predicting who is at risk for suicidal behavior," says Matthew Nock, a psychology professor at Harvard. He says studies show that mental health professionals "perform no better than chance" when it comes to predicting which patients will attempt suicide.

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5:08pm

Wed March 25, 2015
Shots - Health News

University And Biotech Firm Team Up On Colorblindness Therapy

Originally published on Wed April 8, 2015 7:23 pm

A simulation from the Neitz lab of what colorblindness looks like, with normal color vision on the left and red-green colorblindness on the right.
Courtesy of Neitz Laboratory

More than 10 million Americans have trouble distinguishing red from green or blue from yellow, and there's no treatment for colorblindness.

A biotech company and two scientists hope to change that.

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3:44am

Tue March 24, 2015
Shots - Health News

Many Doctors Who Diagnose Alzheimer's Fail To Tell The Patient

Originally published on Tue March 24, 2015 1:01 pm

When combined with results of other neurological tests, and in the context of a thorough medical history, atrophy of the brain (shown here in an MRI scan) sometimes indicates Alzheimer's.
Simon Fraser Science Source

Doctors are much more likely to level with patients who have cancer than patients who have Alzheimer's, according to a report released this week by the Alzheimer's Association.

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7:25pm

Mon March 16, 2015
Shots - Health News

Clues To Autism, Schizophrenia Emerge From Cerebellum Research

Originally published on Tue March 17, 2015 4:27 pm

Jonathan Keleher talks with a colleague, Rafael Wainhaus, at work. Keleher was born without a cerebellum, but his brain has developed work-arounds for solving problems of balance and abstract thought.
Ellen Webber for NPR

A new understanding of the brain's cerebellum could lead to new treatments for people with problems caused by some strokes, autism and even schizophrenia.

That's because there's growing evidence that symptoms ranging from difficulty with abstract thinking to emotional instability to psychosis all have links to the cerebellum, says Jeremy Schmahmann, a professor of neurology at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital.

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3:08am

Mon March 16, 2015
Shots - Health News

A Man's Incomplete Brain Reveals Cerebellum's Role In Thought And Emotion

Originally published on Wed April 1, 2015 6:40 pm

Jonathan Keleher is one of a handful of people who have lived their entire lives without a cerebellum.
Ellen Webber for NPR

Since his birth 33 years ago, Jonathan Keleher has been living without a cerebellum, a structure that usually contains about half the brain's neurons.

This exceedingly rare condition has left Jonathan with a distinctive way of speaking and a walk that is slightly awkward. He also lacks the balance to ride a bicycle.

But all that hasn't kept him from living on his own, holding down an office job and charming pretty much every person he meets.

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4:38pm

Mon March 9, 2015
Shots - Health News

Mad Cow Research Hints At Ways To Halt Alzheimer's, Parkinson's

Originally published on Tue March 10, 2015 9:18 am

Prion protein can be infectious, spreading from cell to cell in the brain. Here four nerve cells in a mouse illustrate how infectious prion protein moves within cells along neurites — wire-like connections the nerve cells use for communicating with adjacent cells.
Science Source

Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis ravage the brain in very different ways. But they have at least one thing in common, says Corinne Lasmezas, a neuroscientist and professor at Scripps Research Institute, in Jupiter, Fla. Each spreads from brain cell to brain cell like an infection.

"So if we could block this [process], that might prevent the diseases," Lasmezas says.

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5:10pm

Wed February 18, 2015
Shots - Health News

Pain Really Is All In Your Head And Emotion Controls Intensity

Originally published on Thu February 19, 2015 2:57 pm

iStockphoto

When you whack yourself with a hammer, it feels like the pain is in your thumb. But really it's in your brain.

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3:42am

Mon February 16, 2015
Shots - Health News

Beyond BPA: Court Battle Reveals A Shift In Debate Over Plastic Safety

Originally published on Tue February 17, 2015 4:56 pm

Eastman Chemical went a step beyond calling Tritan plastic BPA-free, setting off a legal challenge.
Eastman

BPA-free isn't good enough anymore if you're trying to sell plastic sippy cups, water bottles and food containers.

The new standard may be "EA-free," which means free of not only BPA, short for bisphenol A, but also free of other chemicals that mimic the hormone estrogen.

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3:39am

Wed February 4, 2015
Shots - Health News

Once A Vaccine Skeptic, This Mom Changed Her Mind

Originally published on Thu February 5, 2015 8:16 am

Juniper Russo walks her dogs with her daughter Vivian (left).
Courtesy of Juniper Russo

The ongoing measles outbreak linked to Disneyland has led to some harsh comments about parents who don't vaccinate their kids. But Juniper Russo, a writer in Chattanooga, Tenn., says she understands those parents because she used to be one of them.

"I know what it's like to be scared and just want to protect your children, and make the wrong decisions," Russo says.

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4:06pm

Fri January 23, 2015
Shots - Health News

Leaky Blood Vessels In The Brain May Lead To Alzheimer's

Originally published on Tue January 27, 2015 9:00 am

Leaks in a barrier between blood vessels and brain cells could contribute to the development of Alzheimer's.
VEM Science Source

Researchers appear to have found a new risk factor for Alzheimer's disease: leaky blood vessels.

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4:33pm

Wed January 14, 2015
Shots - Health News

From The Mouths Of Apes, Babble Hints At Origins of Human Speech

Originally published on Fri January 16, 2015 8:56 am

Tilda the orangutan, relaxing between gabfests at the Cologne Zoo.
Cologne Zoo

An orangutan named Tilda is providing scientists with fresh evidence that even early human ancestors had the ability to make speechlike vocalizations.

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5:19pm

Wed January 7, 2015
Shots - Health News

Brain Scans May Help Predict Future Problems, And Solutions

Originally published on Thu January 8, 2015 5:55 pm

By measuring activity in different parts of the brain, neuroscientsts can get a sense of how some people will respond to treatments.
John Lund Getty Images

Brain scans may soon be able to help predict a person's future — some aspects of it, anyway.

Information from these scans increasingly is able to suggest whether a child will have trouble with math, say, or whether someone with mental illness is going to respond to a particular treatment, according to a review of dozens of studies published Wednesday in the journal Neuron.

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3:52am

Tue January 6, 2015
The Salt

How Anglers Are Learning To Save Fish That Get 'The Bends'

Originally published on Tue January 6, 2015 11:35 am

Barotrauma can cause a fish's eyes to pop out of its head and its stomach to be pushed out of its mouth, according to Chris Lowe, a marine scientist at California State, Long Beach.
Jon Hamilton NPR

3:43am

Mon December 22, 2014
Shots - Health News

A Family's Long Search For Fragile X Drug Finds Frustration, Hope

Originally published on Fri February 6, 2015 3:36 pm

Katie Clapp shares a laugh with her son Andy Tranfaglia, 25, at their home in West Newbury, Mass. Andy has a rare genetic condition called fragile X syndrome.
Ellen Webber for NPR

For a few weeks last year, Michael Tranfaglia and Katie Clapp saw a remarkable change in their son, Andy, who'd been left autistic and intellectually disabled by fragile X syndrome. Andy, who is 25, became more social, more talkative and happier. "He was just doing incredibly well," his father says.

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9:21am

Wed December 10, 2014
Shots - Health News

A Crowd Of Scientists Finds A Better Way To Predict Seizures

Originally published on Thu December 11, 2014 8:12 am

Mathematician Phillip Adkins (left) and Drew Abbot, a software engineer at AiLive. They were members of the winning team.
Courtesy of Phillip Adkins

An online contest for data scientists has produced a great leap forward in efforts to predict when someone with epilepsy is going to have a seizure. The winning team used data on electrical activity in the brain to develop an algorithm that predicted seizures 82 percent of the time.

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5:08am

Mon December 8, 2014
Shots - Health News

Medicine's Subtle Art Gives A Man The Chance To Breathe Again

Originally published on Tue December 9, 2014 4:57 pm

Bob Smithson, 79, can now hold his head upright and breathe on his own, thanks to a medication for myasthenia gravis.
M. Scott Brauer for NPR

Bob Smithson had been in the critical care unit at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston for more than a week. He had a rare neuromuscular disease, and his 78-year-old body was being kept alive by tubes that delivered air to his lungs and food to his stomach.

Then Bob's wife, Pat, got some really disturbing news. The hospital's medical staff wanted Bob to have a tracheostomy, a surgical procedure that would carve a hole in his neck and allow doctors to keep him on a breathing machine indefinitely.

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4:32pm

Wed December 3, 2014
Shots - Health News

A Drug Might Heal Spinal Injuries By Sparking Nerve Growth

Originally published on Sun January 4, 2015 2:56 pm

A scientist who chose to ignore the mainstream nearly 30 years ago has found a new way to regenerate nerves in the spinal cord, at least in animals. A drug that Jerry Silver, a professor of neuroscience at Case Western Reserve University, helped design a drug that has allowed paralyzed rats to regain bladder function and even walk.

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4:19am

Fri November 21, 2014
Shots - Health News

Blind From Birth, But Able To Use Sound To 'See' Faces

Originally published on Thu December 4, 2014 2:04 pm

A brain area that recognizes faces remains functional even in people who have been blind since birth, researchers say. The finding, presented at the Society for Neuroscience meeting this week, suggests that facial recognition is so important that evolution has hardwired it into the human brain.

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9:56am

Thu November 20, 2014
Shots - Health News

Sleep's Link To Learning And Memory Traced To Brain Chemistry

Originally published on Thu November 20, 2014 5:23 pm

Almost a century after the discovery that sleep helps us remember things, scientists are beginning to understand why.

During sleep, the brain produces chemicals that are important to memory and relives events we want to remember, scientists reported this week at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington D.C.

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3:06am

Mon November 10, 2014
Goats and Soda

Ebola Today Could Mean Illiteracy Tomorrow In West Africa

Originally published on Mon November 10, 2014 10:05 am

Mariama and Fomba Kanneh play in an open space in Barkedu, Liberia. With schools closed across the country, many kids spend their time playing outside every day.
Tommy Trenchard for NPR

Ebola is threatening to reverse years of educational progress in West Africa. The virus has kept school closed for months in a part of the world where literacy rates are low and school systems are only now recovering from years of civil war.

In Liberia, many children have been put to work while schools are closed, and Ebola is hurting the economy, says Laurent Duvillier, a communication specialist at UNICEF. The fear now, he says, is that many of these children will never return to school.

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4:39am

Tue October 28, 2014
Goats and Soda

An Ebola Strategy Brings Good News To One Liberian Town

Originally published on Thu October 30, 2014 3:49 pm

The nursing staff get a break at the Ebola care center run by Doctors Without Borders in Foya, Liberia. The center has helped stop the spread of the virus.
Michealeen Doucleff NPR

In one corner of Liberia, a community has come together to change the course of the deadly epidemic. New cases have been brought to a standstill. This success shows that it's going to take more than extra beds at a ward to stop Ebola.

When Doctors Without Borders arrived in the northern district of Foya in early August, Ebola was out of control. Foya was the first area in Liberia to report cases, and the community has been hit hard.

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4:47am

Thu October 23, 2014
Goats and Soda

Ebola Is Keeping Kids From Getting Vaccinated In Liberia

Originally published on Mon November 10, 2014 10:12 am

A mom at the Community Clinic in Louisiana Township, about 15 miles from Monrovia, says all of her children have been vaccinated.
Jon Hamilton NPR

When Ebola began killing people in the Monrovia suburb of Clara Town several months ago, some residents blamed vaccines.

One vaccinator in the town says mothers didn't want her near their babies.

"They had a notion that when the people come to the hospital, we would inject them and kill them," says vaccinator Che Che Richardson at the Clara Town Health Center, "because it was the hospital giving the people Ebola."

Rumors like that, combined with the closing of many health facilities, have caused childhood vaccination rates to plummet in Liberia.

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