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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3:57am

Mon July 27, 2015
Shots - Health News

A Scientist Deploys Light And Sound To Reveal The Brain

Originally published on Mon July 27, 2015 2:29 pm

A nanosecond pulsed laser beam starts the photoacoustic imaging process.
Geoff Story/Courtesy of Washington University in St. Louis

Lihong Wang creates the sort of medical technology you'd expect to find on the starship Enterprise.

Wang, a professor of biomedical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, has already helped develop instruments that can detect individual cancer cells in the bloodstream and oxygen consumption deep within the body. He has also created a camera that shoots at 100 billion frames a second, fast enough to freeze an object traveling at the speed of light.

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3:47am

Thu July 23, 2015
Shots - Health News

Younger Adults With Alzheimer's Are Key To Drug Search

Originally published on Thu July 23, 2015 4:42 pm

Giedre (left) and Tal Cohen in March 2013, while Giedre was still healthy. Since then, she's begun having symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. In Giedre's case, the illness is tied to a rare genetic mutation she inherited.
Courtesy of Tal Cohen

The face of Alzheimer's isn't always old. Sometimes it belongs to someone like Giedre Cohen, who is 37, yet struggles to remember her own name.

Until about a year ago, Giedre was a "young, healthy, beautiful" woman just starting her life, says her husband, Tal Cohen, a real estate developer in Los Angeles. Now, he says, "her mind is slowly wasting away."

People like Giedre have a rare gene mutation that causes symptoms of Alzheimer's to appear before they turn 60.

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4:21pm

Tue July 21, 2015
Shots - Health News

Women's Brains Appear More Vulnerable To Alzheimer's Than Men's

Originally published on Thu July 23, 2015 6:05 am

Women with mild cognitive impairment, which can be a precursor to Alzheimer's, tend to decline faster than men.
Lizzie Roberts Getty Images/Ikon Images

There's new evidence suggesting that women's brains are especially vulnerable to Alzheimer's disease and other problems with memory and thinking.

Women with mild cognitive impairment, which can lead to Alzheimer's, tend to decline faster than men, researchers reported this week at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference in Washington, D.C.

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9:38am

Sun July 19, 2015
Shots - Health News

Alzheimer's Drugs In The Works Might Treat Other Diseases, Too

Originally published on Tue July 21, 2015 5:31 pm

In this colorized image of a brain cell from a person with Alzheimer's, the red tangle in the yellow cell body is a toxic tangle of misfolded "tau" proteins, adjacent to the cell's green nucleus.
Thomas Deerinck/NCMIR Science Source

Efforts to find a treatment for Alzheimer's disease have been disappointing so far. But there's a new generation of drugs in the works that researchers think might help not only Alzheimer's patients, but also people with Parkinson's disease and other brain disorders.

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12:04pm

Thu July 16, 2015
Shots - Health News

Screaming For Science: The Secrets Of Crying Babies And Car Alarms

Originally published on Fri July 17, 2015 5:08 pm

It's almost impossible to ignore a screaming baby. (Click here if you doubt that.) And now scientists think they know why.

"Screams occupy their own little patch of the soundscape that doesn't seem to be used for other things," says David Poeppel, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at New York University and director of the Department of Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute in Frankfurt.

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2:09pm

Wed July 8, 2015
Shots - Health News

Genetic Tweaks Are Restoring Hearing In Animals, Raising Hopes For People

Originally published on Fri July 10, 2015 8:02 am

Researchers have taken another step toward reversing deafness using gene therapy.

The latest success involves mice with an inherited form of deafness, a team reports Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine. And a similar approach is already being tried in people with hearing loss caused by damage to cells in the inner ear.

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4:39pm

Wed July 1, 2015
Shots - Health News

How Your Brain Remembers Where You Parked The Car

Originally published on Mon July 6, 2015 2:48 pm

The experiment used a fake photo of actor Clint Eastwood and Pisa's leaning tower to test how the brain links person and place.
Courtesy of Matias Ison/Neuron

If you run into an old friend at the train station, your brain will probably form a memory of the experience. And that memory will forever link the person you saw with the place where you saw him.

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4:51am

Sat June 13, 2015
Shots - Health News

Science Of Sadness And Joy: 'Inside Out' Gets Childhood Emotions Right

Originally published on Mon June 15, 2015 2:26 pm

Joy (left, voiced by Amy Poehler) and Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith) catch a ride on the Train of Thought in Pixar's Inside Out. The movie opens in theaters nationwide June 19.
Disney/Pixar

Hollywood's version of science often asks us to believe that dinosaurs can be cloned from ancient DNA (they can't), or that the next ice age could develop in just a few days (it couldn't).

But Pixar's film Inside Out is an animated fantasy that remains remarkably true to what scientists have learned about the mind, emotion and memory.

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2:35pm

Wed June 3, 2015
The Salt

Chimps Are No Chumps: Give Them An Oven, They'll Learn To Cook

Originally published on Thu June 4, 2015 12:34 am

Kanzi the bonobo (a species closely related to chimps) holds a pan of vegetables he cooked at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, November 2011. Kanzi was taught to cook. However, a new study is the first to show that animals can acquire a cooking-like skill on their own.
Laurentiu Garofeanu Barcroft Media /Landov

If you give a chimp an oven, he or she will learn to cook.

That's what scientists concluded from a study that could help explain how and when early humans first began cooking their food.

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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 Mon June 1, 2015 7:36 am

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 Mon June 1, 2015 7:52 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

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