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 News
2:41 pm
Fri April 18, 2014

One Scientist's Quest To Vanquish Epileptic Seizures

The dream of epilepsy research, says neurobiologist Ivan Soltesz, is to stop seizures by manipulating only some brain cells, not all.
Steve Zylius UC Irvine Communications

Originally published on Fri April 18, 2014 5:13 pm

In the early 1990s, a young brain researcher named Ivan Soltesz heard a story that would shape his career.

His adviser told him about a school for children whose epileptic seizures were so severe and frequent that they had to wear helmets to prevent head injuries. The only exception to the helmet rule was for students who received an award.

"The big deal for them is that they can take the helmet off while they're walking across the stage," Soltesz says. "And that thing struck me as just wrong."

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Shots - Health News
4:00 pm
Mon April 14, 2014

Gene Linked To Alzheimer's Poses A Special Threat To Women

Women make up nearly two-thirds of the people in the U.S. diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.
iStockphoto

Originally published on Mon April 14, 2014 5:35 pm

A gene associated with Alzheimer's disease appears especially dangerous to women and may be one reason that more women than men are diagnosed with the disease.

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Shots - Health News
3:25 pm
Tue April 8, 2014

The Forgotten Childhood: Why Early Memories Fade

Francis Csedrik remembers details of being bonked hard on the head when he was 4, and having to go to the emergency room.
Meg Vogel NPR

Originally published on Wed April 9, 2014 4:13 am

Francis Csedrik, who is 8 and lives in Washington, D.C., remembers a lot of events from when he was 4 or just a bit younger. There was the time he fell "headfirst on a marble floor" and got a concussion, the day someone stole the family car ("my dad had to chase it down the block"), or the morning he found a black bat (the furry kind) in the house.

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Shots - Health News
1:00 pm
Wed April 2, 2014

Map Of The Developing Human Brain Shows Where Problems Begin

Images of the developing fetal brain show connections among brain regions.
Allen Institute for Brain Science; Bruce Fischl, Martinos Center for Biomedial Imaging, Massachusetts General Hospital

Originally published on Fri April 4, 2014 10:21 am

A high-resolution map of the human brain in utero is providing hints about the origins of brain disorders including schizophrenia and autism.

The map shows where genes are turned on and off throughout the entire brain at about the midpoint of pregnancy, a time when critical structures are taking shape, researchers reported Wednesday in the journal Nature.

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Shots - Health News
1:18 pm
Thu March 27, 2014

Jump In Autism Cases May Not Mean It's More Prevalent

State numbers on autism probably don't accurately reflect children's health status, researchers say.
iStockphoto

Originally published on Thu March 27, 2014 2:39 pm

The government's latest estimate shows that 1 in 68 children in the U.S. has an autism spectrum disorder. That's a remarkable jump from just two years ago, when the figure was 1 in 88, and an even bigger jump from 2007, when it was just 1 in 150.

But officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the agency's skyrocketing estimates don't necessarily mean that kids are more likely to have autism now than they were 10 years ago.

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Shots - Health News
4:56 pm
Wed March 26, 2014

Brain Changes Suggest Autism Starts In The Womb

Researchers say intervention in early childhood may help the developing brain compensate by rewiring to work around the trouble spots.
iStockphoto

Originally published on Thu March 27, 2014 9:03 am

The symptoms of autism may not be obvious until a child is a toddler, but the disorder itself appears to begin well before birth.

Brain tissue taken from children who died and also happened to have autism revealed patches of disorganization in the cortex, a thin sheet of cells that's critical for learning and memory, researchers report in the New England Journal of Medicine. Tissue samples from children without autism didn't have those characteristic patches.

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Shots - Health News
4:34 pm
Wed March 19, 2014

Alzheimer's Diagnosis Expanding To Catch Early Warning Signs

Doctors may eventually be able to diagnose "preclinical" Alzheimer's in patients who have abnormal brain scans but who aren't yet showing behavioral symptoms of the disease.
iStockphoto

Originally published on Thu March 20, 2014 6:17 am

Alzheimer's disease isn't what it used to be. After 30 years of having doctors diagnose the disease by symptoms alone, researchers and advocacy groups are calling for new diagnostic criteria that recognize changes in the brain as well as changes in behavior.

The goal is to eventually allow doctors to diagnose "preclinical" Alzheimer's in patients who do not have problems with memory or thinking, but who do have an abnormal brain scan or some other sign that the disease may be developing.

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Shots - Health News
12:04 pm
Sun March 9, 2014

Alzheimer's Blood Test Raises Ethical Questions

Scientists have long sought a way to detect Alzheimer's before symptoms appear.
iStockphoto

Originally published on Mon March 10, 2014 7:59 am

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.

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The Salt
3:49 pm
Wed February 26, 2014

Maybe That BPA In Your Canned Food Isn't So Bad After All

Should you fear a chemical inside metal food containers like the ones that hold beans? Government scientists say no.
Chip Somodevilla Getty Images

Originally published on Thu February 27, 2014 10:08 am

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.

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Shots - Health News
1:35 am
Mon February 24, 2014

Orphans' Lonely Beginnings Reveal How Parents Shape A Child's Brain

In the Institute for the Unsalvageable in Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania, shown here in 1992, children were left in cribs for days on end.
Tom Szalay

Originally published on Tue February 25, 2014 10:07 am

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

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Shots - Health News
1:00 pm
Mon January 27, 2014

Stricter Autism Criteria Unlikely To Reduce Services For Kids

Clinical specialist Catey Funaiock took notes while observing a 5-year-old boy at the Marcus Autism Center, part of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, in September.
David Goldman AP

Originally published on Tue January 28, 2014 11:55 am

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.

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Shots - Health News
1:16 am
Tue January 21, 2014

Mild-Mannered Stingrays Can Inflict A World Of Hurt

The round stingray is native to the eastern Pacific coast and is notorious for injuring swimmers and surfers.
laszlo-photo/Flickr

Originally published on Wed January 22, 2014 6:08 am

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.

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Shots - Health News
1:22 am
Fri December 27, 2013

Can A Fruit Fly Help Explain Autism?

A newly discovered neural circuit in the brain of the common fruit fly seems to serve as a sort of "volume control," turning up and down the perception of sound and light.
Nicholas Monu iStockphoto

Originally published on Fri December 27, 2013 8:54 am

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."

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Shots - Health News
2:36 pm
Thu December 26, 2013

Experimental Tool Uses Light To Tweak The Living Brain

A technique called optogenetics is being used in the laboratory to observe and control what brain circuits are doing in real time.
Henning Dalhoff Getty Images/Science Photo Library RM

Originally published on Mon December 30, 2013 6:09 am

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.

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Shots - Health News
1:40 pm
Tue December 24, 2013

Could Pot Help Veterans With PTSD? Brain Scientists Say Maybe

There's data to support the notion that pot, or a drug based on its active ingredient, could help ease the fears of PTSD.
Ted S. Warren AP

Originally published on Wed December 25, 2013 9:50 am

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.

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Environment
12:55 pm
Fri November 29, 2013

'Forecast Bust:' Why 2013 Hurricane Predictions Were So Wrong

Originally published on Fri November 29, 2013 4:49 pm

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.

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Shots - Health News
12:03 pm
Thu November 28, 2013

Brain Cells 'Geotag' Memories To Cache What Happened — And Where

Benjamin Arthur for NPR

Originally published on Mon December 2, 2013 4:13 am

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.

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Shots - Health News
12:54 am
Mon November 25, 2013

In Pregnancy, What's Worse? Cigarettes Or The Nicotine Patch?

Illustration by Daniel Horowitz for NPR

Originally published on Tue November 26, 2013 11:41 am

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."

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Shots - Health News
2:01 pm
Fri November 15, 2013

Federal Brain Science Project Aims To Restore Soldiers' Memory

President Obama has pledged millions of dollars to fuel research into understanding the workings of the human brain.
Zephyr Science Source

Originally published on Fri November 15, 2013 6:07 pm

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.

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Shots - Health News
1:02 am
Tue November 12, 2013

The Case Against Brain Scans As Evidence In Court

When researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College scanned teenage brains, they found that the area that regulates emotional responses has to work harder to keep impulses in check.
Courtesty Kristina Caudle Developmental Neuroscience

Originally published on Tue November 12, 2013 3:39 pm

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.

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Shots - Health News
7:27 am
Mon November 11, 2013

Sweat Your Way To A Healthier Brain

He feels smarter already.
iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Tue November 12, 2013 6:14 am

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.

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Shots - Health News
3:46 pm
Mon November 4, 2013

Childhood Maltreatment Can Leave Scars In The Brain

Girls are particularly vulnerable to brain changes caused by stress or trauma, researchers say.
Allen Johnson iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Tue November 5, 2013 10:21 am

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.

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Shots - Health News
1:48 pm
Mon October 28, 2013

Eeek, Snake! Your Brain Has A Special Corner Just For Them

Illustration by Daniel Horowitz for NPR

Originally published on Wed October 30, 2013 3:17 pm

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!

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Shots - Health News
2:59 pm
Thu October 17, 2013

Brains Sweep Themselves Clean Of Toxins During Sleep

Katherine Streeter for NPR

Originally published on Fri October 18, 2013 3:35 pm

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.

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Shots - Health News
6:33 pm
Thu October 10, 2013

Shutdown Imperils Costly Lab Mice, Years Of Research

Bob Adams is a lab animal veterinarian at Johns Hopkins University.
Maggie Starbard NPR

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.

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Shots - Health News
3:33 pm
Wed October 2, 2013

A DEET-Like Mosquito Spray That Smells Like Jasmine Or Grapes?

Scientists have discovered four new DEET-like mosquito repellents. Three of them are safe to eat.
Courtesy of Pinky Kai/University of California, Riverside

Originally published on Fri October 4, 2013 7:56 am

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.

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Environment
1:43 am
Wed September 25, 2013

Wild Weather Tied To Unusual Jet Stream Activity

Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio NASA

Originally published on Wed September 25, 2013 4:25 am

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.

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Shots - Health News
1:37 am
Mon September 23, 2013

How A Pregnant Woman's Choices Could Shape A Child's Health

Does a glass or two of wine during pregnancy really increase the child's health risks? Epigenetics may help scientists figure that out.
Katherine Streeter for NPR

Originally published on Tue September 24, 2013 6:58 am

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.

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Environment
4:38 pm
Fri September 13, 2013

Spy Drones Turning Up New Data About Hurricanes And Weather

A Global Hawk unmanned aircraft comes in for a landing at the Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Va., on Sept. 7, 2012, after studying Hurricane Leslie. The remotely controlled planes can stay in the air for as long as 28 hours and fly over hurricanes at altitudes of more than 60,000 feet.
NASA

Originally published on Fri September 13, 2013 4:57 pm

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.

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Shots - Health News
3:27 pm
Wed September 4, 2013

Multitasking After 60: Video Game Boosts Focus, Mental Agility

Strenuous mental exercise like reading difficult books, solving tricky math problems — or, maybe, playing the right video game — can help keep a healthy brain sharp, research suggests.
Images.com/Corbis

Originally published on Tue September 10, 2013 3:22 pm

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.

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