UC Merced Connect: Researcher examines how babies communicate

October 2, 2012 

From burps to babbling, cognitive science Professor Anne S. Warlaumont studies how children develop their ability to verbally communicate in the first year of their lives.

"I've always been interested in the origin of complex human behavior," Warlaumont said, "and communication is one of the most important human behaviors."

Newborns mostly cry, burp and grunt, and, shortly after, produce some simple, quiet, vowellike sounds. After a couple of months, they begin to expand their pitch and volume, she said.

Babies also begin incorporating consonantlike elements, which involve tongue and lip movements. By about seven months, they babble in well-formed syllables and can usually say their first words by their first birthdays.

Warlaumont studies these developments with the help of a 2-ounce digital language processor that can capture up to 16 hours of language every day. The device can be used in multimonth and multiyear studies, offering a fuller picture of children's development.

The research could someday be used to develop speech-therapy treatments for children.

The device also allows researchers to study children in their normal environments rather than a laboratory. After collecting the data, Warlaumont uses computers running speech-processing and other algorithms to study the sounds children make.

It's time-consuming for humans to listen to and code the large amount of data gathered, Warlaumont said.

Warlaumont, who earned her doctorate in speech language science from the University of Memphis, is the newest professor in UC Merced's cognitive science group. She is one of the 26 faculty members who joined UC Merced this academic year.

She is exploring research collaborations with the Early Childhood Education Center as well as preparing to get her research with human subjects approved through the campus's Institutional Review Board.

Study sheds light on bacterial cell division

Staph, E. coli, meningitis, methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus and botulism are a few of the thousands of bacterial infections that plague people all over the world.

For example, almost 23,300 people in the United States were sickened by food-borne bacterial illnesses in 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But a recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by a UC Merced professor and colleagues at Stanford University describes how a critical component of bacterial cell division works. That research could lead to figuring out how to control bacterial population growth.

"It's not the first few bacteria that get you," physics Professor Ajay Gopinathan said, "it's when they multiply."

The ability to manipulate bacterial growth could have huge implications for preventing and treating a multitude of medical conditions.

Gopinathan got involved in this project while on sabbatical at Stanford University in spring of 2011.

He joined his Stanford bioengineering colleague K.C. Huang and Huang's postdoctoral student Jennifer Hsin, who were performing detailed simulations of a protein essential to divide bacterial cells.

UC Merced Connect is a collection of news items written by the University Communications staff. To contact them, e-mail communications@ucmerced.edu.

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