Feb 132015

Learning a foreign language can increase the size of your brain.

scientist performing brain experiment

This is what Swedish scientists discovered when they used brain scans to monitor what happens when someone learns a second language. The study is part of a growing body of research using brain imaging technologies to better understand the cognitive benefits of language learning. Tools like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electrophysiology, among others, can now tell us not only whether we need knee surgery or have irregularities with our heartbeat, but reveal what is happening in our brains when we hear, understand and produce second languages.

The Swedish MRI study showed that learning a foreign language has a visible effect on the brain. Young adult military recruits with a flair for languages learned Arabic, Russian or Dari intensively, while a control group of medical and cognitive science students also studied hard, but not at languages. MRI scans showed specific parts of the brains of the language students developed in size whereas the brain structures of the control group remained unchanged. Equally interesting was that learners whose brains grew in the hippocampus and areas of the cerebral cortex related to language learning had better language skills than other learners for whom the motor region of the cerebral cortex developed more.

In other words, the areas of the brain that grew were linked to how easy the learners found languages, and brain development varied according to performance. As the researchers noted, while it is not completely clear what changes after three months of intensive language study mean for the long term, brain growth sounds promising.

Looking at functional MRI brain scans can also tell us what parts of the brain are active during a specific learning task. For example, we can see why adult native speakers of a language like Japanese cannot easily hear the difference between the English “r” and “l” sounds (making it difficult for them to distinguish “river” and “liver” for example). Unlike English, Japanese does not distinguish between “r” and “l” as distinct sounds. Instead, a single sound unit (known as a phoneme) represents both sounds.

When presented with English words containing either of these sounds, brain imaging studies show that only a single region of a Japanese speaker’s brain is activated, whereas in English speakers, two different areas of activation show up, one for each unique sound.

For Japanese speakers, learning to hear and produce the differences between the two phonemes in English requires a rewiring of certain elements of the brain’s circuitry. What can be done? How can we learn these distinctions?

Early language studies based on brain research have shown that Japanese speakers can learn to hear and produce the difference in “r” and “l” by using a software program that greatly exaggerates the aspects of each sound that make it different from the other. When the sounds were modified and extended by the software, participants were more easily able to hear the difference between the sounds. In one study, after only three 20-minute sessions (just a single hour’s worth), the volunteers learned to successfully distinguish the sounds, even when the sounds were presented as part of normal speech.

This sort of research might eventually lead to advances in the use of technology for second-language learning. For example, using ultrasound machines like the ones used to show expectant parents the features and movements of their babies in the womb, researchers in articulatory phonetics have been able to explain to language learners how to make sounds by showing them visual images of how their tongue, lips, and jaw should move with their airstream mechanisms and the rise and fall of the soft palate to make these sounds.

Ian Wilson, a researcher working in Japan, has produced some early reports of studies of these technologies that are encouraging. Of course, researchers aren’t suggesting that ultrasound equipment be included as part of regular language learning classrooms, but savvy software engineers are beginning to come up with ways to capitalise on this new knowledge by incorporating imaging into cutting edge language learning apps.

Kara Morgan-Short, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, uses electrophysiology to examine the inner workings of the brain. She and her colleagues taught second-language learners to speak an artificial language – a miniature language constructed by linguists to test claims about language learnability in a controlled way.

In their experiment, one group of volunteers learned through explanations of the rules of the language, while a second group learned by being immersed in the language, similar to how we all learn our native languages. While all of their participants learned, it was the immersed learners whose brain processes were most like those of native speakers. Interestingly, up to six months later, when they could not have received any more exposure to the language at home because the language was artificial, these learners still performed well on tests, and their brain processes had become even more native-like.

In a follow-up study, Morgan-Short and her colleagues showed that the learners who demonstrated particular talents at picking up sequences and patterns learned grammar particularly well through immersion. Morgan-Short said: “This brain-based research tells us not only that some adults can learn through immersion, like children, but might enable us to match individual adult learners with the optimal learning contexts for them.”

Brain imaging research may eventually help us tailor language learning methods to our cognitive abilities, telling us whether we learn best from formal instruction that highlights rules, immersing ourselves in the sounds of a language, or perhaps one followed by the other.

However we learn, this recent brain-based research provides good news. We know that people who speak more than one language fluently have better memories and are more cognitively creative and mentally flexible than monolinguals. Canadian studies suggest that Alzheimer’s disease and the onset of dementia are diagnosed later for bilinguals than for monolinguals, meaning that knowing a second language can help us to stay cognitively healthy well into our later years.

Even more encouraging is that bilingual benefits still hold for those of us who do not learn our second languages as children. Edinburgh University researchers point out that “millions of people across the world acquire their second language later in life: in school, university, or work, or through migration or marriage.” Their results, with 853 participants, clearly show that knowing another language is advantageous, regardless of when you learn it.

Feb 132015

Tests found that trained animals correctly identified 71 per cent of people who had the disease and correctly dismissed 93 per cent of those who were healthy.

They were able to distinguish between people who had tumours and those who had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a separate condition also linked to smoking, according to a paper published in the European Respiratory Journal.

Scientists at Schillerhoehe Hospital in Germany believe that dogs, long used by police to sniff out drugs, are able to use their sensitive noses to detect chemicals known as volatile organic compounds that are present in cancer sufferers and exhaled in their breath.

The study author, Thorsten Walles, said: “In the breath of patients with lung cancer, there are likely to be different chemicals to normal breath samples and the dogs’ keen sense of smell can detect this difference at an early stage of the disease. Our results confirm the presence of a stable marker for lung cancer.

“This is a big step forward in the diagnosis of lung cancer, but we still need to precisely identify the compounds observed in the exhaled breath of patients. It is unfortunate that dogs cannot communicate the biochemistry of the scent of cancer!”

Feb 132015

Specially trained “glycaemia alert dogs” were able to detect when their owners’ blood sugar levels were outside their normal range and warn them of the fact, researchers found.

It is believed that the dogs are able to detect potential danger because their keen sense of smell can detect chemical changes in their owner’s sweat or breath.

Similar studies have suggested that dogs may be able to detect cancer by catching the scent of chemical compounds released by tumours.

In the new project, funded by pet training specialists The Company of Animals, studied seventeen dogs which had been trained to spot when their owner’s blood sugar levels began to drop too low or rise too high.

Some of the dogs had been donated and trained by the Medical Detection Dogs charity, while others belonged to participants and were specially trained for the study.

Results published in the PLOS ONE journal showed that all seventeen patients reported benefits, including fewer ambulance call-outs and fainting episodes, and greater independence.

Data recorded by the patients suggested that the dogs had been able to warn their owners of high or low blood sugar with an accuracy significantly above the level of chance, although the success rate varied from animal to animal.

Dr Nicola Rooney, who led the study, said current electronic systems designed to do the same job have “numerous limitations” and that dogs could offer “significant improvements”.

She added: “Some of the owners also describe their dogs respond[ing] even before their blood sugars are low but as they start to drop, so it is possible that the dogs are even more effective than this study suggests.

“While it is believed that dogs use their acute sense of smell to detect changes in the chemical composition of their owner’s sweat or breath to respond to glycaemic control, further research is now needed to further understand how dogs carry out this amazing task.”

Feb 132015

A specially trained female black Labrador retriever picked out early stage bowel cancer in 33 out of 36 cases by smelling the patients’ breath alone – a 90 per cent success rate.

The dog was even more accurate when given stool to smell, correctly identifying the faeces of someone with early stage bowel cancer with 98 per cent accuracy (37 out of 38 cases).

However, the former is potentially more exciting as it holds out the possibility that a person could be “breathylised” for early stage bowel cancer.

This would be a much more pleasant and less invasive testing method than is currently available.

At the moment in England, all men and women aged 60 to 74 are eligible for screening every two years.

They are sent do-it-yourself kits to test for tiny amounts of blood in their stool, called faecal occult blood (FOB) tests.

The result indicates whether a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy is required, which involves putting a probe up the anus to check for abnormalities.

However, the FOB tests are unpleasant to do and not particularly accurate.

The researchers, from Kyushu University in Japan, believed their black Lab was able to identify certain chemicals – called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – produced by cancerous cells.

While one option would be to train up teams of dogs, they thought this was impractical “owing to the expense and time required”.

Writing in the journal Gut, they concluded: “It is therefore necessary to identify the cancer-specific VOCs detected by dogs and to develop an early cancer detection sensor that can be substituted for canine scent judgement.”

Bowel cancer is Britain’s second biggest cancer killer, claiming over 16,000 lives every year.

Mark Flannagan, chief executive of the charity Beating Bowel Cancer said: “This study looks interesting but it is for the scientists to verify whether these findings could lead to future developments for screening.”

Feb 132015

Women at high risk of breast cancer could be screened for the disease by simply breathing into a tube which is then sniffed by a specially trained dog, in a new clinical trial after UK scientists found the animals are highly accurate at detecting other cancers.


A charity is now embarking on a landmark trial to establish if the dogs can accurately detect breast cancer from samples of breath which if proven would ‘revoluntionise’ how doctors think about the diagnosis of all cancers, the researchers said.

The animals working for Medical Detection Dogs in Buckinghamshire have already been shown to be more reliable at detecting prostate cancer than current blood tests, with 93 per cent accuracy when sniffing urine samples.

The results of the prostate cancer trial were published in the British Medical Journal and other reputable scientific publications so now the team are moving on to breast cancer.

Dr Claire Guest, a behavioural psychologist and founder of the charity, said her dog Daisy alerted her to her own breast cancer when they were working on the prostate cancer trial.

Daisy, a fox red labrador, persisted in jumping at Dr Guest’s chest and after medical tests, a deep seated early tumour was found.

Daisy has worked on 6,000 urine samples and has been found to be 93 per cent reliable in detecting prostate cancer.

Early studies, published in medical literature, have suggested dogs can detect bowel and lung cancer in breath samples.

Now six other dogs will be trained to sniff for breast cancer in breath samples for the new trial, which has alreday begun.

The best four will taken forward and tested in the trial using samples from 1,500 women.

Dr Guest said: “We use high drive, working breeds of dogs, like labradors and spaniels. They work for treats and biscuits but they genuinely love to work. They all live in people’s homes, they come in to work in a lab and then go home at the end of the day.”

The dogs are trained to stare intently at the sample when they believe it is positive for cancer.

It is thought the dogs, which can detect scent in one part per trillion, are sniffing out volatile substances given off by cancerous cells.

Dr Guest said: “It is logical that the dogs can detect prostate, bladder and renal cancer in urine samples but detecting breast cancer in breath is something different.

“I genuinely do not know what we are going to find. It is a question that needs answering. If it is found that dogs can detect it, it will change what we know about the diagnosis of all cancers. After all the blood flows around the tumour and then around the lungs.

“If proven it would have a significant impact on what we consider possible in the diagnosis of cancer.

“High risk young women, who are too young for routine, regular mammograms could breathe into a tube every six months and find out quickly and painlessly if they have cancer.”

In the long-term it is hoped the substances that the dogs are detecting can be identified and electronic noses created to pick them up.

But in the medium-term dogs can be used, Dr Guest said.

The charity also trains dogs for use by diabetic patients as they can spot signs their blood sugar is dipping and prompt them to take action. There are 50 medical assist dogs working in this way in the UK at present.

Sally Greenbrook, senior policy officer at Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said: “We know that work has been ongoing in this area for some time and we welcome any research that could improve the early detection of breast cancer.

“We will be watching this trial with interest to see if medical detection dogs can make a real difference to the early detection of breast cancer in the future, although it is likely to be several years before the results of this trial are available.

“Mammography is the gold standard for screening women aged over 50, so in the meantime we encourage all women to attend their breast screening appointments when invited. Women younger than 50 are not routinely invited to breast screening as it is not as effective in younger age groups, this is why we recommend that all women are breast aware. This means looking out for any changes and reporting anything unusual to their doctor.”

Dr Kat Arney, Cancer Research UK’s science information manager, said: “It’s nice to see that our four-legged friends are being recruited to help in the fight against cancer, as we know that some dogs can sniff out the molecules given off by tumours.

“But although it’s not practical to use dogs to detect cancer in the general population, the results of this study – once it’s completed – could inform laboratory tests to develop ‘electronic noses’ that might diagnose cancer earlier.”