June 13, 2022 - Podcast

Episode 278 — Infant word learning, and naloxone beliefs

Much is unknown about how infants begin to connect names with objects, a critical skill for later language development. A new study by IU researchers offers a fresh perspective on how infants reach this milestone in human development. The work is led by Distinguished Professor Linda Smith and Postdoctoral Researcher Elizabeth Clerkin of IU's Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. It was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Before they can speak, infants between the ages of 7 and 11 months begin to pair the words they hear with the everyday objects in their surroundings. To explain this phenomenon, the field of developmental psychology has focused on "naming moments," when the names and objects are presented to the infant at the same time. However, the names of objects are rarely spoken in tandem with the objects. And the brain's hippocampal memory system, which can form strong memories from singular events, may not be mature enough in infants for them to form durable memories of those rare direct co-occurrences between objects and names. Smith and Clerkin's study shows that early language learning may be tied to memory representations of the objects that build up over time, rather than to repeated connections between words and objects. Well-known objects have memories that can capture and bind to a heard name when given just one or a few pairings of the name and object. A full understanding of the learning environment could enable researchers and clinicians to develop interventions for children who are considered "late talkers," revealing ways in which the environment could be augmented to help children who are learning language more slowly than their peers. The researchers say their work also has significant implications for machine-learning researchers, who are designing and building artificial intelligence to recognize object categories. 

In other news, overdose education and naloxone distribution are key parts of a comprehensive response to the opioid epidemic. But the overdose reversal drug, naloxone, still appears to be insufficiently available and underutilized. A recent study by IU researchers, published in BMC Public Health, explored people in the U.S.'s beliefs about overdose and naloxone as a step toward understanding why some communities aren't using the reversal medication. The study found there are still several misconceptions about naloxone, particularly that it encourages more drug use. Public Health Associate Professor Jon Agley says their findings indicate that most people in the U.S. believe trained bystanders can prevent an overdose with naloxone. However, some also held unsupported beliefs that might make them less comfortable with having overdose education and naloxone distribution programs in their communities. The researchers found that many people believed opioid users will use more opioids or be less likely to seek treatment if they know they have access to naloxone -- an idea Agley says has been contradicted by research. Other misconceptions held by study participants included the idea that people who experience nonfatal overdose once will usually die of another overdose within the year, and that take-home naloxone can be used to get high, which isn't possible. Agley says it's encouraging to see the widespread belief that bystanders can use naloxone to help prevent overdose. But he says more work is needed to eliminate the public's misconceptions about life-saving overdose education and naloxone distribution programs and to encourage communities to use them.