Jon Hamilton

Jon Hamilton is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. Currently he focuses on neuroscience, health risks, and extreme weather.

Following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Hamilton was part of NPR's team of science reporters and editors who went to Japan to cover the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

Hamilton contributed several pieces to the Science Desk series "The Human Edge," which looked at what makes people the most versatile and powerful species on Earth. His reporting explained how humans use stories, how the highly evolved human brain is made from primitive parts, and what autism reveals about humans social brains.

In 2009, Hamilton received the Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award for his piece on the neuroscience behind treating autism.

Before joining NPR in 1998, Hamilton was a media fellow with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation studying health policy issues. He reported on states that have improved 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 Bachelor of Arts degree 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 During his time at Columbia, Hamilton was awarded the Baker Prize for magazine writing and earned a Sherwood traveling fellowship.

An experimental blood test can identify people in their 70s who are likely to develop Alzheimer's disease within two or three years. The test is accurate more than 90 percent of the time, scientists reported Sunday in Nature Medicine.

Maybe BPA isn't so bad after all.

The plastic additive has been vilified by environmental advocacy groups. But the chemical had no effect on rats fed thousands of times the amount a typical person ingests, government scientists are reporting in the journal Toxicological Sciences.

Parents do a lot more than make sure a child has food and shelter, researchers say. They play a critical role in brain development.

The clinical definition for when a child has some form of autism has been tightened. And these narrower criteria for autism spectrum disorder probably will reduce the number of kids who meet the new standard.

But researchers say the changes, which were rolled out last May, are likely to have a bigger effect on government statistics than on the care of the nation's children.

Want to get away? Thinking about a place with warm water and soft sand? Sounds nice. But think twice before you wade into that inviting surf. Chances are there are stingrays in the area.

Every year, these timid, shellfish-eating cousins of the shark inflict excruciating injuries on thousands of swimmers and surfers from the Bahamas to Bahrain to both coasts of the United States.

For President Obama, 2013 wasn't just the year of Obamacare. It was also the year of the brain.

In April, Obama announced his Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative — an effort to unlock "the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears."

When President Obama announced his BRAIN Initiative in April, he promised to give scientists "the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action."

An early version of one of those tools already exists, scientists say. It's a relatively new set of techniques called optogenetics that allows researchers to control the activity of brain cells using light.

Veterans who smoke marijuana to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder may be onto something. There's growing evidence that pot can affect brain circuits involved in PTSD.

Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro. The 2013 Atlantic hurricane season ends tomorrow. It'll be remembered as one of the quietest on record. Since June, there have been just two hurricanes, both were relatively weak. As NPR's Jon Hamilton reports, forecasters were expecting something very different.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told Americans to expect an unusually active year with between seven and 11 hurricanes. Other forecasters offered variations on that theme.

Think back to an important event in your life: a graduation, a birth, a special Thanksgiving dinner. Chances are you're remembering not only what happened, but also where it happened. And now scientists think they know why.

As we form so-called episodic memories, the brain appears to be using special cells in the hippocampus to "geotag" each event, researchers report in Science. The process is similar to what some digital cameras do when they tag each picture with information about where the image was taken.

Lots of studies have shown that cigarette smoke isn't good for a fetus. So many pregnant women use nicotine gum or skin patches or inhalers to help them stay away from cigarettes.

A few years ago, Megan Stern became one of those women. "I smoked heavily for the first seven weeks of my pregnancy because I didn't know I was pregnant," she says. "It was an accidental pregnancy, and I found out while I was in the emergency room for another issue."

When President Obama announced his plan to explore the mysteries of the human brain seven months ago, it was long on ambition and short on details.

Now some of the details are being sketched in.

The BRAIN Initiative will include efforts to restore lost memories in war veterans, create tools that let scientists study individual brain circuits and map the nervous system of the fruit fly.

It's not just people who go on trial these days. It's their brains.

More and more lawyers are arguing that some defendants deserve special consideration because they have brains that are immature or impaired, says Nita Farahany, a professor of law and philosophy at Duke University who has been studying the use of brain science in court.

Moving your body may be the best way to protect your brain.

Physical exercise can ease depression, slow age-related memory loss and prevent Parkinson-like symptoms, researchers reported at the Society for Neuroscience meeting underway in San Diego.

The findings — some in animals, some in people — suggest that people may be making a mistake if they're relying primarily on crossword puzzles and brain-training games for mental wellness.

Maltreatment during childhood can lead to long-term changes in brain circuits that process fear, researchers say. This could help explain why children who suffer abuse are much more likely than others to develop problems like anxiety and depression later on.

Anthropologist Lynne Isbell was running through a glade in central Kenya in 1992 when something suddenly caused her to freeze in her tracks. "I stopped just in front of a cobra," she says. "It was raised with its hood spread out."

Isbell, who is at the University of California, Davis, says she has spent the past couple of decades trying to understand how she could have reacted before her conscious brain even had a chance to think — cobra!

While the brain sleeps, it clears out harmful toxins, a process that may reduce the risk of Alzheimer's, researchers say.

During sleep, the flow of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain increases dramatically, washing away harmful waste proteins that build up between brain cells during waking hours, a study of mice found.

The government shutdown is likely to mean an early death for thousands of mice used in research on diseases such as diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer's.

Federal research centers including the National Institutes of Health will have to kill some mice to avoid overcrowding, researchers say. Others will die because it is impossible to maintain certain lines of genetically altered mice without constant monitoring by scientists. And most federal scientists have been banned from their own labs since Oct. 1.

California scientists are reporting a pair of victories in the epic struggle between man and mosquito.

A team at the University of California, Riverside, appears to have finally figured out how bugs detect the insect repellent known as DEET. And the team used its discovery to identify several chemical compounds that promise to be safer and cheaper than DEET, according to the report in the journal Nature.

There has been a lot of extreme weather in the Northern Hemisphere this year, including the recent torrential rains in Colorado, flooding in Europe, bitter cold in Florida and a heat wave in Alaska. And scientists say all of it is related to some odd behavior by the powerful air currents called the polar jet stream.

Pregnant women hear a lot about things they should avoid: alcohol, tobacco, chemical exposures, stress. All of those have the potential to affect a developing fetus. And now scientists are beginning to understand why.

One important factor, they say, is something called epigenetics, which involves the mechanisms that turn individual genes on and off in a cell.

For several weeks now, two unmanned spy planes have been flying over the Atlantic on an unusual mission: gathering intelligence about tropical storms and hurricanes.

The two Global Hawk drones are a central part of NASA's five-year HS3 (Hurricane and Severe Storm Sentinel) Mission investigating why certain weather patterns become hurricanes, and why some hurricanes grow into monster storms.

A brain that trains can stay in the fast lane. That's the message of a study showing that playing a brain training video game for a month can rejuvenate the multitasking abilities of people in their 60s, 70s and 80s.

"After training, they improved their multitasking beyond the level of 20-year-olds," says Adam Gazzaley, one of the study's authors and a brain scientist at the University of California, San Francisco.

If you're finding it harder to remember where you put the car keys, the culprit could be a brain protein with a name that's easy to forget: RbAp48.

A shortage of this protein appears to impair our ability to remember things as we age, researchers report in the current issue of Science Translational Medicine. And boosting levels of RbAP48 in aging brains can reverse memory loss, at least in mice, they say.

Research intended to help people with muscle-wasting diseases could be about to launch a new era in performance-enhancing drugs.

The research has produced several muscle-building drugs now being tested in people with medical problems, including muscular dystrophy, cancer and kidney disease. The drugs all work by blocking a substance called myostatin that the body normally produces to keep muscles from getting too big.

A gene that affects the brain's dopamine system appears to have influenced mothers' behavior during a recent economic downturn, researchers say.

At the beginning of the recession that began in 2007, mothers with the "sensitive" version of a gene called DRD2 became more likely to strike or scream at their children, the researchers say. Mothers with the other "insensitive" version of the gene didn't change their behavior.

Scientists and lawyers are scheduled to debate the safety of certain "BPA-free" plastics this week in a U.S. District Court in Austin, Texas.

At issue is whether a line of plastic resins marketed by Eastman Chemical contains chemicals that can act like the hormone estrogen, and perhaps cause health problems.

The U.S. is ready for tornadoes, but not tsunamis.

That's the conclusion of a panel of scientists who spoke this week on "mega-disasters" at the American Geophysical Union's science policy meeting in Washington, D.C.

The nation has done a good job preparing for natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes, which occur frequently but usually produce limited damage and relatively few casualties, the panelists said. But government officials are just beginning to develop plans for events like a major tsunami or a large asteroid hurtling toward a populated area.

The human voice appears to trigger pleasure circuits in the brains of typical kids, but not children with autism, a Stanford University team reports. The finding could explain why many children with autism seem indifferent to spoken words.

Barton Holmes was 16 months old when he had his first seizure. "He was convulsing and his eyes were rolling in the back of his head," his mother, Catherine McEaddy Holmes, says. "His lips were blue. I thought he was dying."

The seizure ended in less than a minute. And by the time an ambulance arrived, Barton was back to his old self. Even so, doctors at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where the family lives, kept him overnight while they tried, without success, to figure out what had caused the seizure.

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