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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12:01am

Mon February 27, 2012
Shots - Health Blog

New Methods Could Speed Up Repair Of Injured Nerves

Originally published on Mon February 27, 2012 11:07 am

Pinwheels like these are often used to test nerve responses.
iStockphoto.com

When a nerve is injured, it's often hard to get it to regrow fast enough to restore function.

But now researchers say they can speed up that process, so that damaged nerves can be healed in days instead of months — at least in rats.

The scientists say they've developed a technique that reconnects the severed ends of a nerve, allowing it to begin carrying messages again very quickly. Usually, severed nerves must regrow from the point of injury — a process that can take months, if it ever happens.

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12:01am

Fri February 3, 2012
Shots - Health Blog

Addicts' Brains May Be Wired At Birth For Less Self-Control

Originally published on Tue February 7, 2012 5:37 pm

iStockphoto.com

Many addicts inherit a brain that has trouble just saying no to drugs.

A study in Science finds that cocaine addicts have abnormalities in areas of the brain involved in self-control. And these abnormalities appear to predate any drug abuse.

The study, done by a team at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., looked at 50 pairs of siblings. One member of each pair was a cocaine addict. The other had no history of drug abuse.

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12:01am

Tue January 31, 2012
Shots - Health Blog

'I Wanted To Live': New Depression Drugs Offer Hope For Toughest Cases

Originally published on Thu March 27, 2014 9:52 am

Chris Stephens, 28, who has been battling depression all of his life, plays with his dogs at home in Concord, Calif., on Friday. After a dose of ketamine, Stephens says, "I actually wanted to do things. I wanted to live life."
Lianne Milton for NPR

A club drug called "Special K" is generating a lot of buzz among researchers who study depression.

That's because "Special K," which is actually an FDA-approved anesthetic named ketamine, can relieve even suicidal depression in a matter of hours. And it works on many patients who haven't responded to current antidepressants like Prozac.

Those traditional drugs, which act on the brain's serotonin system, can take more than a month to kick in, and don't work for up to 40 percent of people with major depression.

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12:01am

Mon January 30, 2012
Shots - Health Blog

Could A Club Drug Offer 'Almost Immediate' Relief From Depression?

Ketamine has been used as an anesthetic for decades. It's also a widely popular but illegal club drug known as "Special K." When administered in low doses, patients report a rapid reduction in depression symptoms.
Huw Golledge flickr

There's no quick fix for severe depression.

Although antidepressants like Prozac have been around since the 1970s, they usually take weeks to make a difference. And for up to 40 percent of patients, they simply don't work.

As a result, there are limited options when patients show up in an emergency room with suicidal depression.

The doctors and nurses at Ben Taub General Hospital in Houston say they see this problem every day.

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4:05pm

Tue January 24, 2012
Shots - Health Blog

Common Chemicals Could Make Kids' Vaccines Less Effective

Originally published on Tue January 24, 2012 6:07 pm

iStockphoto.com

The more exposure children have to chemicals called perfluorinated compounds, the less likely they are to have a good immune response to vaccinations, a study just published in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association shows.

The finding suggests, but doesn't prove, that these chemicals can affect the immune system enough to make some children more vulnerable to infectious diseases.

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11:46am

Fri January 6, 2012
Shots - Health Blog

Middle-Aged Brains Are Already Past Their Prime

iStockphoto.com

You may want to read this twice if you're older than 45. In fact, you may have to.

That's because your mental abilities are already in decline, according to a study of 7,390 British civil servants just published in BMJ, the British Medical Journal.

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10:39am

Thu December 29, 2011
Science

Debunked Science: Studies In 2011 Take Heat

2011 may go down as the year of the retraction in the scientific world.

Among the highly publicized discoveries that got debunked this year: a genetic basis for longevity; a new form of life; an explanation for autism; and a link between a virus and chronic fatigue syndrome.

All of these non-discoveries have something in common. They involved findings that both scientists and the public badly wanted to believe.

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12:01am

Fri December 23, 2011
Animals

Myth Busting: The Truth About Animals And Tools

Originally published on Fri December 23, 2011 1:28 pm

A tufted capuchin uses a stone hammer to crack open a nut in Brazil's Parnaiba Headwaters National Park.
Ben Cranke Getty Images

9:41am

Thu December 15, 2011
Shots - Health Blog

Experimental Magnetic Pulses May Help Heal A Brain After Stroke

A stroke affecting the right side of the brain can lead a person to be visually unaware of what's happening on the left.
Wikimedia Commons

A little brain stimulation seems to speed up recovery from a stroke.

This isn't the sort of brain stimulation you get from conversation. It's done using an electromagnetic coil placed against the scalp.

Researchers think the treatment encourages brain cells to form new connections, allowing the brain to rewire itself to compensate for damage caused by a stroke.

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5:05pm

Tue November 22, 2011
The Salt

Eating Canned Soup Makes BPA Levels Soar

The soup aisle at a grocery store in Washington, D.C.
Maggie Starbard NPR

If you read the ingredient list on a can of soup, you're likely to see items like carrots, wild rice, perhaps some noodles. What you won't see listed: BPA.

But a little canned soup for lunch can dramatically increase exposure to the chemical, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study confirms that canned food is a source of BPA exposure. But it does nothing to clear up the question of whether this sort of exposure to BPA has health consequences.

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12:01am

Thu November 17, 2011
Shots - Health Blog

Why Brain Injuries Are More Common In Preemies

Originally published on Thu November 17, 2011 8:26 pm

The most common cause of brain injury in premature infants is a lack of oxygen in the days and weeks after birth, researchers say.
Ibrahim Usta AP

Scientists say they are beginning to understand why brain injuries are so common in very premature infants — and they are coming up with strategies to prevent or repair these injuries.

The advances could eventually help reduce the number of premature babies who develop cerebral palsy, epilepsy or behavioral disorders such as ADHD, researchers told the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington, D.C., this week.

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3:17pm

Wed September 21, 2011
The Salt

What's In That Wine Glass May Not Prevent Aging After All

Originally published on Wed September 21, 2011 5:43 pm

Red wine's rep as a fountain of youth is facing a challenge.
iStockphoto.com

If you've been counting on your daily dose of merlot to stave off mortality, you might want to consider Plan B.

The links between red wine and longevity aren't nearly as strong as they once seemed, according to new research in the journal Nature. In fact, the research calls into question the whole mechanism used to explain wine's power to extend life.

Sorry, oenophiles.

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11:55am

Tue September 13, 2011
Shots - Health Blog

One Price Of Fatherhood: Low Testosterone

Originally published on Fri September 16, 2011 5:30 pm

You can almost see the testosterone slipping away.
iStockphoto.com

It turns out daddies are losing more than just sleep after a child arrives. New fathers also experience a sharp decline in levels of the male sex hormone testosterone.

At least that's what scientists have concluded from a long-term study of more than 600 men in the Philippines.

The scientists found that single men who started out with relatively high testosterone levels were more likely than other men to become fathers. But once a baby arrived, testosterone levels plummeted.

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12:01am

Mon September 12, 2011
Animals

How A Clever Virus Kills A Very Hungry Caterpillar

A healthy gypsy moth caterpillar on a leaf. Outbreaks of gypsy moths damage roughly 1 million acres of forest in the U.S. each year.
Michael Grove Science/AAAS

Scientists say they have figured out how a very clever virus outwits a very hungry caterpillar.

The caterpillar is the gypsy moth in its larval stage, and the invasive species damages roughly a million acres of forest in the U.S. each year by devouring tree leaves.

But the damage would be greater if it weren't for something called a baculovirus that can infect these caterpillars and cause them to engage in reckless, even suicidal behavior, scientists say. The virus is so effective that the government actually sprays it on trees to help control gypsy moth outbreaks.

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5:19pm

Thu September 1, 2011
Science

Human Brain Responds To Animals, Cute Or Creepy

The brain "seems to be specialized in alerting us to things that are emotionally important to us — either positive or because they're scary," a scientist says.
iStockphoto.com

Animals have a special place in the human heart. Now, researchers are reporting that creatures great and small also have a special place in our heads.

A team led by researchers at Caltech has found individual brain cells that respond when a person sees an animal, but not when that person sees another person, a place, or an object.

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12:01am

Fri August 26, 2011
Science

Big-Box Stores' Hurricane Prep Starts Early

A convoy of Walmart trucks waited to enter New Orleans on Sept. 1, 2005, after the city was battered by Hurricane Katrina. Government agencies said the massive storm taught them that big-box retailers need to be an integral part of hurricane preparation and relief efforts.
Nicholas Kamm AFP/Getty Images

Forecasters don't expect Hurricane Irene to make landfall until Saturday. But for nearly a week now, big-box retailers like Walmart and Home Depot have been getting ready.

They've deployed hundreds of trucks carrying everything from plywood to Pop-Tarts to stores in the storm's path. It's all possible because these retailers have turned hurricane preparation into a science — one that government emergency agencies have begun to embrace.

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4:57pm

Wed August 24, 2011
Research News

El Nino Seen As Trigger For Violence In The Tropics

This image shows the the above-normal water temperature in the Pacific Ocean during the December 1997 El Nino. Green-blue colors represent normal temperatures; dark red indicates hotter water.
NOAA

Scientists say there's a link between climate and violent conflict.

A statistical analysis of civil conflicts between 1950 and 2004 found that in tropical countries, conflicts were twice as likely to occur in El Nino years. The analysis appears in the journal Nature.

El Nino occurs when there is unusually warm water in the Pacific Ocean near the equator. But it affects weather patterns in tropical countries around the globe.

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4:59am

Wed August 3, 2011
Environment

NASA's Eyes In The Sky Study Pollution On Earth

The P-3B NASA research aircraft, seen on the tarmac at Baltimore Washington International Airport on June 28, will gather data as it flies spirals over six ground stations in Maryland.
Paul E. Alers NASA

NASA, the agency best known for exploring space, is trying to answer some urgent questions about air pollution right here on Earth.

For much of July, the agency flew research planes between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore as part of a mission known as DISCOVER-AQ. The planes, along with weather balloons and ground stations, were gathering data on how pollutants such as ozone and particulates behave in the atmosphere.

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3:51pm

Wed July 27, 2011
Research News

Parkinson's Treatment Could Work For OCD, Too

The letters O-C-D have become a punch line to describe people who make lists or wash their hands a lot. But for some people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, the intrusive thoughts and rituals are severely disabling and don't respond to drugs or behavioral therapies.

So doctors have been trying a new treatment for OCD: deep brain stimulation.

Deep brain stimulation is best known as a way to reduce the tremors of Parkinson's disease. A surgeon places wires deep in the brain that carry electrical impulses from an implanted device a bit like a pacemaker.

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4:09pm

Fri July 22, 2011
Research News

New Device Reduces Seizures, No Surgery Required

A experimental device that delivers electrical pulses to the forehead can help control epileptic seizures, say scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The device works by stimulating the trigeminal nerve, which runs just beneath the skin covering the eyebrows. Electrical signals follow that nerve to areas in the brain where seizures often begin, researchers say.

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12:23pm

Mon July 18, 2011
Health

Rising Costs Complicate Vaccine Guidelines

The group that advises the U.S. government on vaccination thinks some new vaccines may not be worth the cost.

In 2009, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, or ACIP, decided it's not cost effective to routinely vaccinate boys for human papillomavirus, though they do recommend the vaccine for girls. Now the group is struggling to decide whether infants and toddlers should get costly new vaccines to prevent a form of meningitis caused by bacteria.

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5:20pm

Thu July 7, 2011
Animals

Have Sex To Stay One Evolutionary Step Ahead

Scientists have finally demonstrated that sex is useful.

A team from Indiana University found that worms that have sex were better able than asexual worms to stay one evolutionary step ahead of dangerous parasites.

The finding, published in the journal Science, provides the first direct evidence that sexual reproduction improves a species' ability to survive in a fast-changing environment. And it suggests that parasites, including bacteria and viruses, are one reason species developed sexual reproduction in the first place.

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3:45pm

Thu June 30, 2011
Environment

Snow Delay At The Airport? Blame Planes And Clouds

The next time you're delayed by rain or snow at an airport, consider this: it's possible that an airplane actually caused the bad weather.

When aircraft fly though certain clouds, they can trigger a chain of events that causes precipitation for miles around, according to a study in the journal Science.

The idea for the study came in 2007, when a plane full of weather scientists flew through a very odd snowstorm near Denver International Airport.

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3:53pm

Fri June 17, 2011
Science

Blind Eye In The Sky: Weather Satellites Lose Funding

This image from April 27 shows a series of tornadoes forming over Alabama and Mississippi. Captured from a satellite orbiting located at a fixed location above earth, images like these help track trends in weather patterns. Another set of polar-orbiting satellites are useful for long-term forecast predictions.
NASA Earth Observatory

Government officials are forecasting a turbulent future for the nation's weather satellite program.

Federal budget cuts are threatening to leave the U.S. without some critical satellites, the officials say, and that could mean less accurate warnings about events like tornadoes and blizzards. In particular, officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric are concerned about satellites that orbit over the earth's poles rather than remaining over a fixed spot along the equator.

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4:03am

Fri June 17, 2011
Science

Advanced Tornado Technology Could Reduce Deaths

This tornado touched down near Chickasha, Okla., on May 24. In addition to being tracked by the existing NEXRAD radar system, this storm was also being monitored by an experimental radar system that provided more precise information about the tornado's behavior and path.
Heather Mosher Courtesy National Weather Service/NOAA

Tornadoes have killed at least 530 people in the U.S. this year, the highest death toll since 1950.

But researchers say they are working on new detection and forecasting technologies that could help reduce tornado deaths in the future.

One of those technologies got put to the test on May 24 when a tornado touched down near Chickasha, Okla., and began heading northeast at near freeway speed.

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4:52pm

Thu June 9, 2011
Research News

The Skinny On Smoking: Why Nicotine Curbs Appetite

Originally published on Fri June 10, 2011 4:13 am

Scientists have known for a long time that nicotine decreases appetite among smokers, but they didn't know why. A new study finds that nicotine triggers a response in certain specific brain cells known to regulate appetite.
iStockphoto.com

Scientists say they have finally figured out how smoking helps people keep off extra pounds.

It turns out that nicotine activates a pathway in the brain that suppresses appetite, according to a study in the journal Science. This discovery should lead to better diet drugs, the researchers say.

The finding comes after decades of research showing that smokers tend to be a bit thinner than nonsmokers, and that smokers who quit tend to put on weight.

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6:04pm

Thu June 2, 2011
Children's Health

Looking For Early Signs Of Autism In Brain Waves

An infant and his mother demonstrate electroencephalography, or EEG, technology at Children's Hospital in Boston. The technology could help detect the risk of autism in infants.
Courtesy of Michael Carroll

A technology that monitors electrical activity in the brain could help identify infants who will go on to develop autism, scientists say.

The technology, known as electroencephalography, or EEG, is also providing hints about precisely how autism affects the brain and which therapies are likely to help children with autism spectrum disorders.

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3:00pm

Thu June 2, 2011
NPR Story

EEG Could Help ID Infants With Autism

Scientists say electroencephalography or EEG could help identify infants who are likely to develop autism. The technology detects unusual electrical patterns in the brain that are associated with autism.

1:25pm

Sun May 29, 2011
Research News

Study Of Arsenic-Eating Microbe Finds Doubters

A group of scientists has formally challenged the conclusions of a highly publicized report describing a mysterious microbe that seemed to thrive on a diet of arsenic.

The report, published in December by the journal Science, suggested that a bacterium found in California's Mono Lake was able to substitute arsenic for phosphorous, one of several elements considered essential for life.

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6:28pm

Mon May 23, 2011
Science

Scientists At A Loss To Predict Bad Tornado Seasons

There have been nearly 1,200 tornadoes in the U.S. so far this year. That's nearly twice the usual number of twisters, and it comes as something of a surprise to the scientists who study them. It turns out there is still no good way to predict tornado outbreaks more than a couple of days ahead of time.

Every year, government meteorologists tell the public about how many hurricanes to expect during the Atlantic season. But the government doesn't do that with tornadoes.

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