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
10:15 am
Thu April 23, 2015

Thoughts Can Fuel Some Deadly Brain Cancers

A color-enhanced cerebral MRI showing a glioma tumor.
Scott Camazine Science Source

Originally published on Thu April 23, 2015 5:03 pm

The simple act of thinking can accelerate the growth of many brain tumors.

That's the conclusion of a paper in Cell published Thursday that showed how activity in the cerebral cortex affected high-grade gliomas, which represent about 80 percent of all malignant brain tumors in people.

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Shots - Health News
1:45 pm
Tue April 14, 2015

No Rest For Your Sleeping Brain

Originally published on Thu April 30, 2015 2:28 pm

There's new evidence that the brain's activity during sleep isn't random. And the findings could help explain why the brain consumes so much energy even when it appears to be resting.

"There is something that's going on in a very structured manner during rest and during sleep," says Stanford neurologist Dr. Josef Parvizi, "and that will, of course, require energy consumption."

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Shots - Health News
4:42 pm
Wed April 8, 2015

Sushi Science: A 3-D View Of The Body's Wasabi Receptor

The same nerve receptor that responds to the green paste on your sushi plate is activated by car exhaust, the smoke of a wildfire, tear gas and other chemical irritants.
iStockphoto

Originally published on Wed April 8, 2015 5:33 pm

Researchers have discovered the exact structure of the receptor that makes our sensory nerves tingle when we eat sushi garnished with wasabi. And because the "wasabi receptor" is also involved in pain perception, knowing its shape should help pharmaceutical companies develop new drugs to fight pain.

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Shots - Health News
1:11 pm
Tue March 31, 2015

Hackers Teach Computers To Tell Healthy And Sick Brain Cells Apart

The Allen Institute for Brain Science hosted its first BigNeuron Hackathon in Beijing earlier this month. Similar events are planned for the U.S. and U.K.
Courtesy of Allen Institute for Brain Science

Originally published on Wed April 8, 2015 9:17 am

Brain researchers are joining forces with computer hackers to tackle a big challenge in neuroscience: teaching computers how to tell a healthy neuron from a sick one.

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Shots - Health News
2:58 am
Tue March 31, 2015

No Easy, Reliable Way To Screen For Suicide

About twice a year, statistics suggest, a pilot somewhere in the world — usually flying alone — deliberately crashes a plane. The Germanwing flight downed last week may be one such case. But most people who fit the psychological profile of the pilots in these very rare events never have problems while flying.
Patrik Stollarz AFP/Getty Images

Originally published on Wed April 1, 2015 4:57 pm

Even a careful psychiatric examination of the co-pilot involved in last week's Germanwings jetliner crash probably would not have revealed whether he intended to kill himself, researchers say.

"As a field, we're not very good at accurately predicting who is at risk for suicidal behavior," says Matthew Nock, a psychology professor at Harvard. He says studies show that mental health professionals "perform no better than chance" when it comes to predicting which patients will attempt suicide.

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Shots - Health News
2:39 pm
Wed March 25, 2015

University And Biotech Firm Team Up On Colorblindness Therapy

A simulation from the Neitz lab of what colorblindness looks like, with normal color vision on the left and red-green colorblindness on the right.
Courtesy of Neitz Laboratory

Originally published on Wed April 8, 2015 5:23 pm

More than 10 million Americans have trouble distinguishing red from green or blue from yellow, and there's no treatment for colorblindness.

A biotech company and two scientists hope to change that.

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Shots - Health News
1:44 am
Tue March 24, 2015

Many Doctors Who Diagnose Alzheimer's Fail To Tell The Patient

When combined with results of other neurological tests, and in the context of a thorough medical history, atrophy of the brain (shown here in an MRI scan) sometimes indicates Alzheimer's.
Simon Fraser Science Source

Originally published on Tue March 24, 2015 11:01 am

Doctors are much more likely to level with patients who have cancer than patients who have Alzheimer's, according to a report released this week by the Alzheimer's Association.

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Shots - Health News
4:33 pm
Mon March 16, 2015

Clues To Autism, Schizophrenia Emerge From Cerebellum Research

Jonathan Keleher talks with a colleague, Rafael Wainhaus, at work. Keleher was born without a cerebellum, but his brain has developed work-arounds for solving problems of balance and abstract thought.
Ellen Webber for NPR

Originally published on Tue March 17, 2015 2:27 pm

A new understanding of the brain's cerebellum could lead to new treatments for people with problems caused by some strokes, autism and even schizophrenia.

That's because there's growing evidence that symptoms ranging from difficulty with abstract thinking to emotional instability to psychosis all have links to the cerebellum, says Jeremy Schmahmann, a professor of neurology at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital.

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Shots - Health News
1:08 am
Mon March 16, 2015

A Man's Incomplete Brain Reveals Cerebellum's Role In Thought And Emotion

Jonathan Keleher is one of a handful of people who have lived their entire lives without a cerebellum.
Ellen Webber for NPR

Originally published on Wed April 1, 2015 4:40 pm

Since his birth 33 years ago, Jonathan Keleher has been living without a cerebellum, a structure that usually contains about half the brain's neurons.

This exceedingly rare condition has left Jonathan with a distinctive way of speaking and a walk that is slightly awkward. He also lacks the balance to ride a bicycle.

But all that hasn't kept him from living on his own, holding down an office job and charming pretty much every person he meets.

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Shots - Health News
2:38 pm
Mon March 9, 2015

Mad Cow Research Hints At Ways To Halt Alzheimer's, Parkinson's

Prion protein can be infectious, spreading from cell to cell in the brain. Here four nerve cells in a mouse illustrate how infectious prion protein moves within cells along neurites — wire-like connections the nerve cells use for communicating with adjacent cells.
Science Source

Originally published on Tue March 10, 2015 7:18 am

Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis ravage the brain in very different ways. But they have at least one thing in common, says Corinne Lasmezas, a neuroscientist and professor at Scripps Research Institute, in Jupiter, Fla. Each spreads from brain cell to brain cell like an infection.

"So if we could block this [process], that might prevent the diseases," Lasmezas says.

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Shots - Health News
2:49 pm
Wed February 18, 2015

Pain Really Is All In Your Head And Emotion Controls Intensity

iStockphoto

Originally published on Thu February 19, 2015 12:57 pm

When you whack yourself with a hammer, it feels like the pain is in your thumb. But really it's in your brain.

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Shots - Health News
1:42 am
Mon February 16, 2015

Beyond BPA: Court Battle Reveals A Shift In Debate Over Plastic Safety

Eastman Chemical went a step beyond calling Tritan plastic BPA-free, setting off a legal challenge.
Eastman

Originally published on Tue February 17, 2015 2:56 pm

BPA-free isn't good enough anymore if you're trying to sell plastic sippy cups, water bottles and food containers.

The new standard may be "EA-free," which means free of not only BPA, short for bisphenol A, but also free of other chemicals that mimic the hormone estrogen.

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Shots - Health News
1:39 am
Wed February 4, 2015

Once A Vaccine Skeptic, This Mom Changed Her Mind

Juniper Russo walks her dogs with her daughter Vivian (left).
Courtesy of Juniper Russo

Originally published on Thu February 5, 2015 6:16 am

The ongoing measles outbreak linked to Disneyland has led to some harsh comments about parents who don't vaccinate their kids. But Juniper Russo, a writer in Chattanooga, Tenn., says she understands those parents because she used to be one of them.

"I know what it's like to be scared and just want to protect your children, and make the wrong decisions," Russo says.

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Shots - Health News
2:33 pm
Wed January 14, 2015

From The Mouths Of Apes, Babble Hints At Origins of Human Speech

Tilda the orangutan, relaxing between gabfests at the Cologne Zoo.
Cologne Zoo

Originally published on Fri January 16, 2015 6:56 am

An orangutan named Tilda is providing scientists with fresh evidence that even early human ancestors had the ability to make speechlike vocalizations.

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Shots - Health News
2:58 pm
Wed January 7, 2015

Brain Scans May Help Predict Future Problems, And Solutions

By measuring activity in different parts of the brain, neuroscientsts can get a sense of how some people will respond to treatments.
John Lund Getty Images

Originally published on Thu January 8, 2015 3:55 pm

Brain scans may soon be able to help predict a person's future — some aspects of it, anyway.

Information from these scans increasingly is able to suggest whether a child will have trouble with math, say, or whether someone with mental illness is going to respond to a particular treatment, according to a review of dozens of studies published Wednesday in the journal Neuron.

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The Salt
1:52 am
Tue January 6, 2015

How Anglers Are Learning To Save Fish That Get 'The Bends'

Barotrauma can cause a fish's eyes to pop out of its head and its stomach to be pushed out of its mouth, according to Chris Lowe, a marine scientist at California State, Long Beach.
Jon Hamilton NPR

Originally published on Tue January 6, 2015 9:35 am

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Shots - Health News
1:43 am
Mon December 22, 2014

A Family's Long Search For Fragile X Drug Finds Frustration, Hope

Katie Clapp shares a laugh with her son Andy Tranfaglia, 25, at their home in West Newbury, Mass. Andy has a rare genetic condition called fragile X syndrome.
Ellen Webber for NPR

Originally published on Fri February 6, 2015 1:36 pm

For a few weeks last year, Michael Tranfaglia and Katie Clapp saw a remarkable change in their son, Andy, who'd been left autistic and intellectually disabled by fragile X syndrome. Andy, who is 25, became more social, more talkative and happier. "He was just doing incredibly well," his father says.

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Shots - Health News
7:21 am
Wed December 10, 2014

A Crowd Of Scientists Finds A Better Way To Predict Seizures

Mathematician Phillip Adkins (left) and Drew Abbot, a software engineer at AiLive. They were members of the winning team.
Courtesy of Phillip Adkins

Originally published on Thu December 11, 2014 6:12 am

An online contest for data scientists has produced a great leap forward in efforts to predict when someone with epilepsy is going to have a seizure. The winning team used data on electrical activity in the brain to develop an algorithm that predicted seizures 82 percent of the time.

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Shots - Health News
3:08 am
Mon December 8, 2014

Medicine's Subtle Art Gives A Man The Chance To Breathe Again

Bob Smithson, 79, can now hold his head upright and breathe on his own, thanks to a medication for myasthenia gravis.
M. Scott Brauer for NPR

Originally published on Tue December 9, 2014 2:57 pm

Bob Smithson had been in the critical care unit at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston for more than a week. He had a rare neuromuscular disease, and his 78-year-old body was being kept alive by tubes that delivered air to his lungs and food to his stomach.

Then Bob's wife, Pat, got some really disturbing news. The hospital's medical staff wanted Bob to have a tracheostomy, a surgical procedure that would carve a hole in his neck and allow doctors to keep him on a breathing machine indefinitely.

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Shots - Health News
2:32 pm
Wed December 3, 2014

A Drug Might Heal Spinal Injuries By Sparking Nerve Growth

Originally published on Sun January 4, 2015 12:56 pm

A scientist who chose to ignore the mainstream nearly 30 years ago has found a new way to regenerate nerves in the spinal cord, at least in animals. A drug that Jerry Silver, a professor of neuroscience at Case Western Reserve University, helped design a drug that has allowed paralyzed rats to regain bladder function and even walk.

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Shots - Health News
2:19 am
Fri November 21, 2014

Blind From Birth, But Able To Use Sound To 'See' Faces

Originally published on Thu December 4, 2014 12:04 pm

A brain area that recognizes faces remains functional even in people who have been blind since birth, researchers say. The finding, presented at the Society for Neuroscience meeting this week, suggests that facial recognition is so important that evolution has hardwired it into the human brain.

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Shots - Health News
7:56 am
Thu November 20, 2014

Sleep's Link To Learning And Memory Traced To Brain Chemistry

Originally published on Thu November 20, 2014 3:23 pm

Almost a century after the discovery that sleep helps us remember things, scientists are beginning to understand why.

During sleep, the brain produces chemicals that are important to memory and relives events we want to remember, scientists reported this week at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington D.C.

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Goats and Soda
1:06 am
Mon November 10, 2014

Ebola Today Could Mean Illiteracy Tomorrow In West Africa

Mariama and Fomba Kanneh play in an open space in Barkedu, Liberia. With schools closed across the country, many kids spend their time playing outside every day.
Tommy Trenchard for NPR

Originally published on Mon November 10, 2014 8:05 am

Ebola is threatening to reverse years of educational progress in West Africa. The virus has kept school closed for months in a part of the world where literacy rates are low and school systems are only now recovering from years of civil war.

In Liberia, many children have been put to work while schools are closed, and Ebola is hurting the economy, says Laurent Duvillier, a communication specialist at UNICEF. The fear now, he says, is that many of these children will never return to school.

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Goats and Soda
2:39 am
Tue October 28, 2014

An Ebola Strategy Brings Good News To One Liberian Town

The nursing staff get a break at the Ebola care center run by Doctors Without Borders in Foya, Liberia. The center has helped stop the spread of the virus.
Michealeen Doucleff NPR

Originally published on Thu October 30, 2014 1:49 pm

In one corner of Liberia, a community has come together to change the course of the deadly epidemic. New cases have been brought to a standstill. This success shows that it's going to take more than extra beds at a ward to stop Ebola.

When Doctors Without Borders arrived in the northern district of Foya in early August, Ebola was out of control. Foya was the first area in Liberia to report cases, and the community has been hit hard.

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Goats and Soda
2:47 am
Thu October 23, 2014

Ebola Is Keeping Kids From Getting Vaccinated In Liberia

A mom at the Community Clinic in Louisiana Township, about 15 miles from Monrovia, says all of her children have been vaccinated.
Jon Hamilton NPR

Originally published on Mon November 10, 2014 8:12 am

When Ebola began killing people in the Monrovia suburb of Clara Town several months ago, some residents blamed vaccines.

One vaccinator in the town says mothers didn't want her near their babies.

"They had a notion that when the people come to the hospital, we would inject them and kill them," says vaccinator Che Che Richardson at the Clara Town Health Center, "because it was the hospital giving the people Ebola."

Rumors like that, combined with the closing of many health facilities, have caused childhood vaccination rates to plummet in Liberia.

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Goats and Soda
2:52 pm
Tue October 21, 2014

For Healthy Liberians, Life Continues — With Some Adjustments

Angie Gardea depends on her job at a hair salon to put food on the table. But because of the Ebola outbreak, business has been slow. Customers are afraid to come in.
Michaeleen Doucleff NPR

Originally published on Wed October 22, 2014 5:01 am

Ebola has killed more than 1,300 people in Liberia's capital of Monrovia. But for the million-plus residents who aren't sick, life goes on even as their city is reshaped by death.

On market day, the downtown is teeming with shoppers and merchants and people just hanging out. It almost looks like commerce as usual until you notice all the "Ebola buckets," elevated plastic containers with spigots that deliver a chlorine solution for hand-washing.

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Goats and Soda
2:23 am
Mon October 20, 2014

Ebola In Church: A Reverend's Quarantine Spreads The Word

The Rev. Herman Browne voluntarily quarantined himself for 21 days after his wife's friend tested positive for Ebola. On Sunday, he returned to his church, Trinity Cathedral, to preach to his congregation about Ebola prevention.
Jon Hamilton NPR

Originally published on Mon October 20, 2014 7:26 am

Night clubs have shut their doors. Soccer leagues have been suspended. And a strict curfew is keeping the streets empty at night.

But there's one place in Monrovia where people continue to gather despite the threat of Ebola: Sunday church service.

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Shots - Health News
3:06 pm
Tue September 30, 2014

BRAIN Initiative Bets on Wearable Scanners, Laser-Controlled Cells

Andrew Ostrovsky iStockphoto

Originally published on Thu October 2, 2014 9:46 am

Eighteen months after its launch, President Obama's plan to explore the mysteries of the human brain is finally taking shape. During separate events Tuesday, the White House and National Institutes of Health offered details about which projects are being funded and why.

At a morning press conference, NIH officials announced $46 million in grant awards to more than 100 investigators. Most of the researchers are working on tools that can "transform how we study the brain," said NIH Director Francis Collins.

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Shots - Health News
1:26 am
Mon September 29, 2014

A Doctor Unlocks Mysteries Of The Brain By Talking And Watching

Dr. Allan Ropper speaks with residents and fellows as they do rounds at the neuroscience intensive care unit at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
M. Scott Brauer for NPR

Originally published on Mon September 29, 2014 1:23 pm

The heavyset man with a bandage on his throat is having trouble repeating a phrase. "No ifs ..." he says to the medical students and doctors around his bed at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

"Can I hear you say no ifs, ands or buts?" says Dr. Allan Ropper, the Harvard neurologist in charge. The patient tries again. "No ifs, buts, ands or," he says.

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Shots - Health News
1:34 am
Tue September 23, 2014

Death Cuts Short The Life Of An Alzheimer's Research Volunteer

Justin McCowan poses for a portrait outside of his house in Santa Monica, Calif., on Aug. 14.
Benjamin B. Morris for NPR

Originally published on Mon September 29, 2014 2:45 pm

If you're a regular Shots reader or Morning Edition listener, you may remember a recent story about Justin McCowan, a man with Down syndrome who wanted to help researchers find a treatment for Alzheimer's disease. McCowan died in his sleep on Thursday at his home in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 40.

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