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.

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Shots - Health Blog
2:31 pm
Wed July 11, 2012

Gene Mutation Offers Clue For Drugs To Stave Off Alzheimer's

A PET scan of the brain of a person with Alzheimer's disease.
U.S. National Institute on Aging via Wikimedia Commons

Originally published on Thu July 12, 2012 3:03 pm

Finally, there's some good news about Alzheimer's disease.

It turns out that a few lucky people carry a genetic mutation that greatly reduces their risk of getting the disease, an Icelandic team reports in the journal Nature.

The mutation also seems to protect people who don't have Alzheimer's disease from the cognitive decline that typically occurs with age.

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Shots - Health Blog
3:34 pm
Mon July 2, 2012

A Parasite Carried By Cats Could Increase Suicide Risk

What's the link between cats and madness?
Hans Martens iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Wed July 4, 2012 2:31 am

There's fresh evidence that cats can be a threat to your mental health.

To be fair, it's not kitties themselves that are the problem, but a parasite they carry called Toxoplasma gondii.

A study of more than 45,000 Danish women found that those infected with this feline parasite were 1.5 times more likely to attempt suicide than women who weren't infected.

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The Salt
12:17 pm
Tue June 19, 2012

Why You Shouldn't Panic About Pesticide In Produce

Apples made the top of the list for produce containing pesticide residue, but how much is unsafe?
iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Tue June 19, 2012 1:37 pm

The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit health advocacy organization, says you should be concerned about pesticide residues in fruits and vegetables, but not so concerned that you stop eating these foods.

That's the mixed message delivered in the eighth edition of EWG's annual Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce released today.

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Shots - Health Blog
12:43 am
Mon June 4, 2012

What's Different About The Brains Of People With Autism?

Jeff Hudale, who is autistic, demonstrates a face recognition test at the University of Pittsburgh in 2010. Researchers use eye tracking devices to monitor and record what he is looking at.
Rebecca Droke Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Originally published on Wed June 6, 2012 11:21 am

Like a lot of people with autism, Jeff Hudale has a brain that's really good at some things.

"I have an unusual aptitude for numbers, namely math computations," he says.

Hudale can do triple-digit multiplication in his head. That sort of ability helped him get a degree in engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. But he says his brain struggles with other subjects like literature and philosophy.

"I like working with things that are rather concrete and structured," he says. "Yeah, I like things with some logic and some rules to it."

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The Fracking Boom: Missing Answers
12:41 pm
Wed May 16, 2012

Town's Effort To Link Fracking And Illness Falls Short

NPR

Originally published on Thu May 24, 2012 9:35 am

Quite a few of the 225 people who live in Dish, Texas, think the nation's natural gas boom is making them sick.

They blame the chemicals used in gas production for health problems ranging from nosebleeds to cancer.

And the mayor of Dish, Bill Sciscoe, has a message for people who live in places where gas drilling is about to start: "Run. Run as fast as you can. Grab up your family and your belongings, and get out."

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The Fracking Boom: Missing Answers
1:04 am
Wed May 16, 2012

Medical Records Could Yield Answers On Fracking

William Reigle has fibrosis, a disease that may be aggravated by nearby fracking. He's one of more than 2 million Pennsylvanians who get their health care from Geisinger Health System. The system wants to use its extensive database of patient records to study the health impact of natural gas production.
Maggie Starbard NPR

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 8:50 am

A proposed study of people in northern Pennsylvania could help resolve a national debate about whether the natural gas boom is making people sick.

The study would look at detailed health histories on hundreds of thousands of people who live near the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation in which energy companies have already drilled about 5,000 natural gas wells.

If the study goes forward, it would be the first large-scale, scientifically rigorous assessment of the health effects of gas production.

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Shots - Health Blog
1:39 am
Mon April 23, 2012

Children With Autism Are Often Targeted By Bullies

Abby Mahoney, 13, has Asperger's syndrome. She says she has memorized nearly everything there is to know about Star Wars. Her enthusiasm for the subject helped make her the target of a bullying boy.
Courtesy of the Mahoney family

Originally published on Mon April 23, 2012 7:42 am

Lots of kids get bullied. But kids with autism are especially vulnerable.

A new survey by the Interactive Autism Network found that nearly two-thirds of children with autism spectrum disorders have been bullied at some point. And it found that these kids are three times as likely as typical kids to have been bullied in the past month.

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Shots - Health Blog
10:08 pm
Sun April 8, 2012

Study Warns Of Autism Risk For Children Of Obese Mothers

A pregnant woman measures her stomach.
iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Tue April 10, 2012 7:18 am

Scientists have found one more reason that pregnancy and obesity can be a bad combination.

A new study in the journal Pediatrics suggests that moms who are obese or have diabetes are more likely to have a child with autism or another developmental problem.

The finding is "worrisome in light of this rather striking epidemic of obesity" in the U.S., says Irva Hertz-Picciotto from the MIND Institute at the University of California, Davis, one of the study's authors.

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The Salt
8:59 am
Fri March 30, 2012

Feds To Decide On Banning BPA From Food And Other Products

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Environmental groups say a ban would protect consumers from the health effects of BPA that leaches from products including some soup cans.
Chip Somodevilla Getty Images

Originally published on Fri March 30, 2012 3:26 pm

UPDATE 4:23 p.m.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has denied a call to ban the plastic additive BPA from food packaging. The action comes after government scientists found little reason to think people are being harmed by the chemical.

The FDA was responding to a petition from the Natural Resources Defense Council, which called for the ban on BPA, also known as bisphenol A, from any use where it comes in contact with food.

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Science
2:00 am
Fri March 30, 2012

How Much BPA Exposure Is Dangerous?

Originally published on Fri March 30, 2012 9:01 am

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

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Shots - Health Blog
1:19 pm
Thu March 29, 2012

How Your Brain Is Like Manhattan

This image shows the grid structure of the major pathways of the brain. It was created using a scanner that's part of the Human Connectome Project, a five-year effort which is studying and mapping the human brain.
MGH-UCLA Human Connectome Project

It turns out your brain is organized even if you're not.

At least that's the conclusion of a study in Science that looked at the network of fibers that carry signals from one part of the brain to another.

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Shots - Health Blog
10:01 pm
Sun February 26, 2012

New Methods Could Speed Up Repair Of Injured Nerves

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

Originally published on Mon February 27, 2012 9:07 am

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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Shots - Health Blog
10:01 pm
Thu February 2, 2012

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

iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Tue February 7, 2012 3:37 pm

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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Shots - Health Blog
10:01 pm
Mon January 30, 2012

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

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

Originally published on Thu March 27, 2014 7:52 am

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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Shots - Health Blog
10:01 pm
Sun January 29, 2012

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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Shots - Health Blog
2:05 pm
Tue January 24, 2012

Common Chemicals Could Make Kids' Vaccines Less Effective

iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Tue January 24, 2012 4:07 pm

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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Shots - Health Blog
9:46 am
Fri January 6, 2012

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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Science
8:39 am
Thu December 29, 2011

Debunked Science: Studies Take Heat In 2011

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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Animals
10:01 pm
Thu December 22, 2011

Myth Busting: The Truth About Animals And Tools

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

Originally published on Fri December 23, 2011 11:28 am

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Shots - Health Blog
7:41 am
Thu December 15, 2011

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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The Salt
3:05 pm
Tue November 22, 2011

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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The Salt
1:17 pm
Wed September 21, 2011

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

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

Originally published on Wed September 21, 2011 3:43 pm

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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Shots - Health Blog
9:55 am
Tue September 13, 2011

One Price Of Fatherhood: Low Testosterone

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

Originally published on Fri September 16, 2011 3:30 pm

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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Animals
10:01 pm
Sun September 11, 2011

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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Science
10:01 pm
Thu August 25, 2011

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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Research News
2:57 pm
Wed August 24, 2011

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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Environment
2:59 am
Wed August 3, 2011

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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