Today in Research: Predicting Flu Outbreaks; Babies Are Lip Readers

Discovered: La Niña weather patterns could cause pandemics, when men outnumber women they tend to spend more, and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle gets an update.

  • La Niña brings pandemics. New research suggests that La Niña, weather-pattern cousin of El Niño, makes global pandemics more likely. La Niña periodically brings cool water to the surface of the Pacific Ocean making for warmer, dryer winters. More importantly, the U.S. researchers posit, it alters the migratory patterns of flu-carrying birds, which might explain why the four most recent outbreaks -- in 1918, 1957 and 1958, and most recently in 2009 with the swine flu -- were preceeded by periods of La Niña. This is less than awesome news as we're in the middle of a La Niña episode right now. Researchers note, though, that there are many incidents when La Niña doesn't precede a flu outbreak, so more research should be done to explain why certain periods result in the spread of disease. Luckily, the fear inspired by swine flu, bird flu, and Gwyneth Paltrow mean we've stepped up efforts to monitor pigs, people, and flu genes, so research into its spread should only move more quickly. [BBC, Houston Chronicle]
  • Babies can learn language by lip reading. Previous research held that babies learned language primarily through hearing it, but a new study says babies learn langauge partly by watching the mouth move, and the new finding could help us diagnose autism earlier. Researchers at Florida Atlantic University tracked the eyeballs of infants less than 12 months old and found that their eyes moved to the speaker's mouth more often than older babies or adults. Other research has shown that older autistic children keep paying close attention to a speaker's mouth even after most infants stop the habit after about one year, potentially allowing earlier diagnoses of the condition. [ABC News]

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