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Crack babies? Another look. A decade ago headlines screamed that crack babies, children born to cocaine-using mothers, were damaged for life -- unable to pay attention, learn, or love. Although study after study refuted that diagnosis, recent research by Ruth Rose-Jacobs, an adjunct assistant professor of pediatrics at the School of Medicine, reveals that stereotyping of cocaine-exposed children persists, even among trained assessors.

Rose-Jacobs and her associates arranged for trained assessors to use a battery of standardized cognitive and behavioral assessments to test 163 children who were relatively healthy at birth. The assessors labeled 111 of the children as cocaine-exposed, although only 87 of the children had had prenatal exposure to cocaine. The assessors did not report why they classified certain children as cocaine-exposed, but children with significantly lower scores on all the administered assessments were identified by the assessors as cocaine-exposed, whether they had been exposed or not.

The authors emphasize that data from recent studies suggest that for children from urban and impoverished areas, maladaptive behavior and developmental delay are not uniquely associated with prenatal cocaine exposure, and conversely, prenatal cocaine exposure is not inevitably associated with developmental delay or behavioral disturbance.

“Children may be at developmental risk for many reasons, including poverty, malnutrition, or prenatal exposure to cigarettes or alcohol as well as cocaine,” says Rose-Jacobs. “Early identification of at-risk children should lead to treatment and nurturing, not a stigmatizing label. The challenge is to provide accurate and relevant information about the effects of cocaine without creating an inflexible stereotype that may handicap children as they continue to develop.”

This study was funded by grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Foundation for Physical Therapy, Inc., and the National Center for Research Resources. It was reported in the October issue of the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.

Dogs and cats and mice, oh my. In the sentence, The mouse that the dog that the cat scratched bit ran away, what did the dog bite? Most people who hear the sentence (which is a grammatical English sentence) cannot answer the question. The reason, says Gloria Waters, a Sargent College professor of communication disorders and chairman of the department of health sciences, is that there appears to be a limit on the number of cognitive operations the human brain can perform at one time.

Working memory is the term used by psychologists to describe the specialized memory system that simultaneously holds information in memory and operates on this information. Working memory is not only limited, it is also specific to a particular type of information. “People who are good at mental arithmetic,” says Waters, “may not necessarily be good at other tasks, such as figuring the way out of a maze without using a pencil -- a process that requires visual-spatial working memory.”

Waters, an expert in aphasia, a language disorder that interferes with the generation and understanding of speech, is interested in how aging and dementia affect language processing. Her previous research suggests that a separate division within verbal working memory may be devoted solely to comprehending language. She and colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital will be characterizing this specialized function with new funding from the National Institute on Aging, totaling just over million.

They will examine language processing in three groups of subjects -- college students with typically high working memory capacity, elderly individuals with typically lower capacity, and people with dementia, who have extremely reduced capacity. Subjects in each group will be asked to determine whether sentences of varying complexity are grammatically acceptable.

If there is just one verbal working memory system, individuals with low capacity should have extreme difficulty comprehending sentences with complex syntactic structures. This, says Waters, does not seem to be the case. She and her associates will also use neuroimaging techniques to see which areas of the brain are active during language processing. They will compare differences among the groups to determine if different areas of the brain are used by people with differing levels of working memory.

“With a better understanding of how we process language,” says Waters, “we may in the long term be able to develop strategies to help those with diminished language capacity.”

"Research Briefs" is written by Joan Schwartz in the Office of the Provost. To read more about BU research, visit


15 May 2003
Boston University
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