Category: Internet

iPads and Teens with Autism

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As adults, individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be highly dependent on family members or assistance programs for their day-to-day living needs. It has been reported that following high school and up to eight years after, only 17 percent of adults with ASD live independently. Developing skills like cooking, getting dressed and cleaning are essential to promoting autonomy and self-determination and improving quality of life. For some individuals with ASD, completing daily tasks can be challenging because they often involve sequential steps.

Research has shown that people with ASD are strong visual learners. With technological advances, devices such as smartphones and tablets have become more portable and ultimately, accessible to caregivers. However, few studies have examined whether parents can learn to effectively deliver evidence-based practices using portable, mainstream devices like an iPad.

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Researchers from Florida Atlantic University and collaborators conducted a small, novel study to examine whether video prompting interventions using an iPad could be effective in increasing parents’ competence and confidence to use mobile devices to interact with their adolescent children with ASD. The objective was to evaluate the effects of behavior skills training with follow-along coaching to instruct parents to deliver video prompting with an iPad to teach daily living skills to their children. What makes this study unique is that parents of adolescents were coached and learned to use an iPad in their own homes. While other studies have been successful in teaching parents to implement evidence-based practices, they largely targeted parents of young children.

For the study, published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, researchers targeted parents of adolescents with ASD who would be transitioning into adulthood in the near future and who needed to cultivate independent living skills to decrease dependency on others, while improving self-esteem and confidence. Each child, between the ages of 12 and 17 years old, had to complete a skill selected by the parents: make a bed, cook pasta or tie shoelaces. Parents received guidance on using an iPad and implementing the intervention. They learned how to guide their child to watch the instructional video, imitate what they viewed, and then provide appropriate feedback.

Depending on the outcome, parents were asked to provide praise, correct the errors or demonstrate the step themselves if the child made two or more consecutive errors on the same task step. Lead researcher of the study Elisa Cruz-Torres, Ed.D., in the Department of Exceptional Student Education in FAU’s College of Education, visited families’ homes three times a week for one hour for each family’s intervention, which lasted between five to seven weeks.

Results of the study showed that all of the children substantially improved correct and independent completion of their daily living skills, which validates that video prompting procedures are effective in ameliorating skill deficits.

While parents were successful in implementing the video prompting preparation and procedures, they were inconsistent with the consequence strategies such as social praise and error correction. None-the-less, the children still mastered their skills and maintained the skill three weeks after the end of the intervention.

“Our findings show that video prompting interventions produced both immediate and lasting effects for children with autism spectrum disorder and that parents can be powerful delivery agents to increase independence in their children,” said Cruz-Torres. “While it is desirable that parents follow steps exactly, we learned that even with slight variations in parent delivery, the teens still mastered the intended skills.”

Data from this study also revealed that none of the children required more than 17 interventions to reach mastery criteria. In addition, this study draws attention to the importance of evidence-based practices for families of older children with ASD.

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“Now, when I’m working with my son to learn a new skill or even talk about a new skill, because of this study I have learned to break it down into smaller pieces rather than asking him to do the whole thing. We use this concept for other things like doing laundry. I’ve also learned that he is very responsive to praise,” said Susan Freeman, a parent in the study. “John is a very visual learner so being able to see what each step should look like enables him to complete the task. He’s still making his bed and we’re working on changing the sheets, which is a new skill. I don’t have to make his bed anymore.”

Freeman’s son Johnathon “John” DiFusco also is pleased with this instructional method, which makes him feel good about himself as well as proud.

“Now, I can be on time for school and I also know how to vacuum,” said DiFusco.  

Co-authors of the study are Mary Louise Duffy, Ph.D., a retired professor; Michael P. Brady, Ph.D., a professor and chair; and Peggy Goldstein, Ed.D.; an associate professor, all within FAU’s Department of Exceptional Student Education; and Kyle D. Bennett, Ed.D., associate professor, Department of Teaching and Learning, Florida International University.  

– FAU – 

About Florida Atlantic University:

Florida Atlantic University, established in 1961, officially opened its doors in 1964 as the fifth public university in Florida. Today, the University, with an annual economic impact of $6.3 billion, serves more than 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students at sites throughout its six-county service region in southeast Florida. FAU’s world-class teaching and research faculty serves students through 10 colleges: the Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters, the College of Business, the College for Design and Social Inquiry, the College of Education, the College of Engineering and Computer Science, the Graduate College, the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College, the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing and the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. FAU is ranked as a High Research Activity institution by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The University is placing special focus on the rapid development of critical areas that form the basis of its strategic plan: Healthy aging, biotech, coastal and marine issues, neuroscience, regenerative medicine, informatics, lifespan and the environment. These areas provide opportunities for faculty and students to build upon FAU’s existing strengths in research and scholarship. For more information, visit www.fau.edu.

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Halloween Costumes at Work?

Halloween is a dicey time of year for managers and employees alike. A well-planned celebration can boost morale, energize the staff, and help to build connections between co-workers. But an inappropriate costume, or a party that goes off the rails, can damage reputations and even lead to terminations and legal problems.

Jessica Methot, an associate professor of human resource management in the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations (SMLR), separates the tricks from the treats.

When is it OK to wear a costume to work?

Employees should only wear a Halloween costume if company leadership has clearly communicated an invitation to do so. If you have recently joined the company and you are not yet familiar with its culture and policies, ask multiple sources for advice (including your boss). Don’t rely on just one co-worker for guidance. An office jokester may try to trick you into dressing up when no one else does.

If you do wear a costume, bring a change of clothes to work if you expect to have any meetings or videoconferences with external stakeholders. If you know the client personally and you have established an informal relationship, the costume could be appropriate and funny. But meeting a new client dressed as the Charlie Chaplin might not set the most professional tone.

Which costumes are too risqué for the office?

Some employees see dressing up as an opportunity to “bring their whole selves to work”—a chance to express an aspect of their identity typically left at home. But this can be tricky.

Company leadership and HR managers should communicate their policy on costumes and props (including fake guns and knives). Generally speaking, avoid anything that may be interpreted as too revealing, provocative, politically-charged, or inappropriate for a professional setting. Not sure? Check with HR.

Beyond what you wear to the office, it’s also important to think about what you post on social media. We often forget how much our professional contacts can see about us online. Posting a picture of yourself wearing a risqué costume can blur personal and professional boundaries.

What are the consequences for going overboard?

Wearing an inappropriate costume can damage your professional image. In extreme cases, it could even pose legal and safety risks.

Workplace violence is a very real issue today. If your costume includes a weapon and you joke about hurting people, your co-workers may disagree with the humor and find it threatening. They could take legal action against the organization for allowing a hostile work environment.

A provocative or revealing costume raises concerns about sexual harassment, especially in the heightened awareness of the #MeToo era. You could be disciplined if your outfit violates company guidelines. Co-workers who make sexually-explicit remarks, or engage in other harassing behaviors toward you, could face serious consequences including termination.

Importantly, companies must be careful not to victim-blame. Discipline should not be framed as though the employee wearing the revealing costume “invited” the comments or was at fault for being on the receiving end.

The bottom line? HR must enforce costume guidelines consistently across the workforce and the discipline should always fit the infraction.

Is there an upside for employers?

Absolutely. Despite these risks, there is a good business case for throwing Halloween celebrations and welcoming costumes.

If implemented strategically, they can strengthen the company’s culture, reinforce its emphasis on fun, improve employee relationships, and even boost employee well-being and productivity. Celebrations give employees a chance to recharge, which also spills over into improved life and family satisfaction. In the long run, these types of celebrations, and a “fun” organizational culture, can help attract new employees, improve employee commitment, and reduce turnover rates.

However, it is important to align these celebrations with the organizational culture. A fun work environment is defined by consistent access to workplace activities, games, and group outings. If a Halloween celebration is an isolated event, it might be perceived as a superficial attempt at engaging employees.

Contact: To schedule an interview with Jessica Methot, please contact Steve Flamisch at 848.252.9011 (cell) or steve.flamisch@smlr.rutgers.edu.

Broadcast Interviews: Rutgers University–New Brunswick has broadcast-quality TV and radio studios available for remote live or taped interviews

A super tool helps kids with autism improve socialization skills

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A team of NIH-funded researchers at Stanford University Medical School has found that children with autism improved measurably on a test of socialization and learning when their therapy included an at-home intervention with Google Glass. Google Glass is a headset worn like eyeglasses that provides augmented reality on a miniature screen, with sound. The smart system of eye wear and mobile-phone-based games helped the children with autism understand emotions conveyed in facial expressions.

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Autism is a complex neurological and developmental spectrum disorder that affects how children interact with others, communicate, and learn. Many children affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are unable to discern facial expressions, so miss out on important cues that aid in learning and socialization.

The Stanford team, led by Dennis P. Wall, Ph.D., associate professor of Pediatrics, Psychiatry and Biomedical Data Sciences, used Google Glass’s built-in camera along with software customized to run on a smart phone as an intervention that care givers used with their children at home to supplement clinic-based therapy.  The study was published March 25, 2019, in JAMA Pediatrics.

“Technology can be a terrific asset to the therapy process, for both physical and neurodevelopmental gains,” said Tiffani Lash, Ph.D., director of the NIBIB programs in Connected Health (mHealth and Telehealth), and Point-of-Care Technologies. “This is a heartwarming achievement and a promising example using a bioengineering approach. The innovative software and hardware solution coupled with the therapeutic component meets a dire need for many children and their parents.”

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Google Glass is lens-less, non-invasive, and peripheral—sitting off to the right side of view for the child. “The system acts as a true augmentation to their reality, keeping them in their natural social world, as opposed to taking them out of it,” Wall said. “In contrast to virtual or mixed reality, augmented reality is potentially a powerful vehicle through which we can teach children social skills to rescue some of these deficits early in their development.”

A camera in the device captures the facial expression of family members in the glasses’ field of view, reinforcing what the child sees by providing an image and audio prompt. It detects up to eight emotions: happy, sad, angry, scared, surprised, disgusted, “meh,” and neutral. The glasses are wirelessly connected to a smartphone device that may be operated in three different play modes. There is ‘find the smile’ game, where the child is prompted to say something that prompts an expression in the family member’s face; the ‘guess the emotion’ game, where the family member asks the child to guess the emotion from the family member’s face; and free play, an unstructured mode of identifying facial expressions.

The device also records a video that parents can observe at a later time to monitor the progress that their child makes with the activities. “Our hope was that the video playback would be a good source of reinforcement learning with the children,” Wall said. “It provides the opportunity for the learner to focus in on certain human emotions that they may or may not be getting right, so they might become more adept at detecting those emotions in real time.”

The researchers recruited 71 children between the ages of six and 12 who all had been enrolled in a program of applied behavioral analysis therapy—the standard care for most children with ASD. Experts recommend 20 hours per week of the standard therapy, in which the child interacts with a therapist who leads learning activities to improve social, motor, and verbal behaviors, as well as reasoning skills through observation and positive reinforcement. The authors cite the current cost for this standard therapy to be between $40,000 and $60,000 per year, noting that parents can often wait up to 18 months for their child to gain access to the therapy.

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Experts suggest that it is important for children with ASD to receive a diagnosis early—which can be assessed by the age of two—so that children can begin treatment as early as possible. According to the authors, learning aids such as the type tested in the study could begin to address this difficult challenge of accessing therapy more immediately, outside the clinic.

Of the 71 enrolled in the study, 40 children also received the augmented reality device to play the programmed games or freely play during 20-minutes sessions, four times per week. After six weeks, the team assessed all 71 children on a standard socialization scale.

The researchers found that children receiving the smart-glasses intervention along with standard therapy scored significantly better in the post-study assessment than those in the control group. Children who used the smart glasses improved 4.58 points on the standard scale above those who did not use the Google Glass intervention. Authors unrelated to the work by Wall and colleagues recently published in Autism Research that changes of 2 to 3.75 points on the scale represent a clinically important difference.

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“This is based on a statistically rigorous approach to the analysis of the data,” Wall said. “We should be excited about the result. While the overall effect is modest, the positive change seen in the treated children is significant and points to a new direction that could help more children get the care they need, when they need it.”

Wall noted that the device represents a short-term learning aid and predicts that in the not-too-distant-future there will be a wider array of available augmented reality wearables. “After a period of time, they take the glasses off and they grow on their own into more complex social scenarios.”

Though a playful intervention, families in the treatment group missed a portion of the prescribed hours in which to practice with Google Glass, and most preferred the structured games over the unstructured free-play option. But the activity was positively received to the point that children who participated in the study created a new name for the tool, calling it Superpower Glass, a moniker the authors adopted in writing their report on the study. The researchers have begun to plan for a larger, follow up study.

For more about autism spectrum disorder, go to: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/autism-spectrum-disorders-asd/in…

The research was conducted with support from NIBIB (EB025025) and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (HD091500), both at NIH.

The study: Effect of Wearable Digital Intervention for Improving Socialization in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Voss C, Schwartz J, Daniels J, Kline A, Haber N, Washington P, Tariq Q, Robinson TN, Desai M, Phillips JM, Feinstein C, Winograd T, Wall DP. JAMA Pediatrics. 2019 Mar 25

First Large-Scale Study of Universal Screening for Autism Raises Critical Questions about Accuracy, Equity

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Researchers urge continued screening for all toddlers, while recommending changes to M-CHAT screening method to improve accuracy, address disparities

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Newswise — Philadelphia, September 27, 2019 –

In the first large, real-world study of universal screening for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in toddlers, researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) have found that the most widely used and researched screening tool is less accurate than shown in previous studies conducted in research laboratory settings. The new study also revealed significant disparities in detecting early autism symptoms in minority, urban and low-income children. The findings were published online today in the journal Pediatrics.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends screening all toddlers for ASD at their 18- and 24-month primary care check-ups using the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers with Follow-Up (M-CHAT/F), a two-stage parent survey to determine whether a child may have autism, with the follow-up designed to eliminate false positives. However, most studies to evaluate the accuracy of the M-CHAT/F have been conducted in research settings rather than in real-world clinical settings. Therefore, very little was known about screening in the recommended primary care setting, nor about longer-term outcomes for children who screened negative on the M-CHAT/F. The CHOP study is the first to look at outcomes of truly universal screening in a real-world primary care setting.

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“As part of a large pediatric network implementing universal screening, we found ourselves in a unique position to find answers to critical questions about the accuracy of the M-CHAT, and to determine how many children are missed by early, universal screening,” said lead author Whitney Guthrie, PhD, a clinical psychologist specializing in early diagnosis at CHOP’s Center for Autism Research. “Early intervention has been shown to improve outcomes, potentially into adulthood. We know that early and accurate screening and diagnosis is the crucial first step in helping children access those effective, autism-specific therapies.”

The CHOP research team studied the electronic health records (EHR) of 25,999 patients screened in primary care using the M-CHAT/F between the ages of 16 and 26 months, and systematically followed these children until 4 through 8 years of age using the EHR. Ninety-one percent of these children were screened using the M-CHAT/F, meaning that nearly universal screening of all children in primary care was achieved.

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The study showed that the M-CHAT/F detected only about 40% of children who went on to be diagnosed with ASD. However, children who screened positive were diagnosed seven months earlier than those who screened negative, suggesting that early screening may facilitate early intervention. Overall, 2.2% of children in the study were ultimately diagnosed with ASD, which is consistent with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates nationally.

“Although our findings reveal significant shortcomings in current screening tools, we want to be clear that we are not recommending that pediatricians stop universal screening,” said Guthrie. “Instead, clinicians should continue to screen using the M-CHAT/F, while being aware that this screening tool does miss some children with ASD. Any clinical or parental concerns should be taken seriously, and warrant continued surveillance even if a child screens negative on the M-CHAT/F. And of course, a screen positive on the M-CHAT/F warrants referral so that children with ASD can be diagnosed and receive early intervention.

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“Pediatricians should also be aware of disparities in screening practices and results in children of color and from low-income backgrounds.”

The CHOP study found that the 9% of children who did not receive screening at 18 or 24 months were disproportionately from racial minority groups; from non-English speaking households; and from households with lower median income and who receive Medicaid. When screening was administered, these same children were more likely to receive a false positive result. The M-CHAT was also less accurate in girls than in boys.

“Persistent racial and economic disparities in autism screening and diagnosis are a cause for great concern, and are consistent with previous research showing that black and Hispanic children tend to be diagnosed years later than white children,” said co-author Kate Wallis, MD, MPH, a developmental pediatrician and researcher at CHOP’s PolicyLab who is also studying disparities in referrals for autism services. “This study revealed important limitations and provides us with new knowledge that we can use to make critical improvements to autism screening tools and screening processes, so pediatricians can properly detect and support more children with autism and reduce disparities in diagnosis and care.”

Guthrie et al, “Accuracy of Autism Screening in a Large Pediatric Network.” Pediatrics, online 27 September 2019. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2019-0925.

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About Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia: Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia was founded in 1855 as the nation’s first pediatric hospital. Through its long-standing commitment to providing exceptional patient care, training new generations of pediatric healthcare professionals, and pioneering major research initiatives, Children’s Hospital has fostered many discoveries that have benefited children worldwide.  Its pediatric research program is among the largest in the country.  In addition, its unique family-centered care and public service programs have brought the 564-bed hospital recognition as a leading advocate for children and adolescents. For more information, visit http://www.chop.edu

Autism CARES Act of 2019

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WASHINGTON, Sept. 19, 2019 /PRNewswire/ —

Autism Speaks applauds the final passage of the Autism Collaboration, Accountability, Research, Education and Support Act of 2019 (Autism CARES Act of 2019) (H.R.1058). The bill now goes to the President’s desk for his signature. Autism CARES is the foundation of the federal government’s efforts around autism, serving as the primary source of federal funding for autism research, services, training and monitoring.

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The bipartisan, bicameral legislation received broad support with 173 house members and 41 senators having signed on as co-sponsors of the legislation. Autism Speaks is grateful to have worked hand-in-hand with the measure’s congressional champions and advocates across the country in order to ensure support for the life-enhancing research and high-quality services authorized under the Autism CARES Act.

“Autism Speaks, alongside the millions of people with autism and their families, celebrates the passage of the Autism CARES Act of 2019,” said Autism Speaks President and CEO Angela Geiger. “Thanks to the leadership of Senator Bob Menendez, Senator Michael Enzi, Congressman Chris Smith and Congressman Mike Doyle, this legislation ensures sustained funding to better support people with autism across the spectrum and at every stage of life.”

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The CDC estimates that 1 in 59 U.S. children have autism, according to surveillance and prevalence studies authorized by Autism CARES. A recent study by Autism Speaks researchers also found that children with autism have nearly four times higher odds of having unmet health care needs compared to children without disabilities. “We know autism is a lifelong condition and these unmet needs can and often do continue into adulthood,” said Autism Speaks Senior Vice President of Advocacy Stuart Spielman. “The Autism CARES Act of 2019 not only renews federal support for existing autism research and programs but also expands these activities, placing an increased emphasis on reducing health disparities and improving services throughout the life span.”

Under the authority of the Autism CARES Act of 2014 and predecessor legislation, over $3.1 billion has been dedicated for autism to the National Institute of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) since 2006. The Autism CARES Act of 2019 authorizes more than $1.8 billion in funding over the next five years. This funding primarily supports autism research grants awarded by NIH which advance the scientific understanding of autism, expand efforts to develop treatments for medical conditions often associated with autism and address the needs of people affected by it. The NIH Autism Centers of Excellence also fosters collaboration within and among research centers, increasing the power and efficiency of their efforts.

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The Autism CARES Act of 2019 also reauthorizes and supports numerous programs across the country focused on ensuring high-quality services for people with autism. Through 52 Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Other Related Disabilities (LEND) programs and 12 Developmental Behavioral Pediatric Training Programs, the legislation has and will continue to enhance education, early detection and intervention activities at HRSA through the training of future leaders and healthcare professionals. Likewise, collaborative programs such as the Autism Intervention Research Network on Physical Health (AIR-P) will continue to help translate research into improved care and tangible resources for families and clinicians.

Under Autism CARES, the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) is empowered to advise on federal autism activities, and tasks the federal government with surveying and reporting to Congress on the current landscape of autism services. The 2014 legislation resulted in a report to Congress on young adults with autism and the challenges related to transitioning from school-based services to those available during adulthood. The 2019 legislation mandates another report, this time focused on the health and well-being of individuals with autism spectrum disorder, emphasizing their needs throughout the life span.

Autism Speaks looks forward to working with Congress and its community partners to deliver on the promise of Autism CARES through renewed appropriations for these programs. 

SOURCE Autism Speaks

Yoga and Autism

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Motor development would be the first phase that comes to mind when we talk about yoga and autism, but this is only one of the many facets of yoga. Breath control, useful for stabilizing emotions, mastering one’s body and therefore greater manual skills.

Yoga practice allows children to develop stability, balance and motor skills. Some asanas require children to learn to balance their weight well between their legs and arms, to try to keep their balance on one foot or to keep their head and spine aligned, always respecting their age and their abilities physical.

Free online yoga

Yoga can improve sensory integration skills so that it is useful to train stimuli or stimuli in children with autism. Sensory integration itself is the brain’s ability to read and translate various stimuli from the five senses, namely vision, smell, touch, hearing and taste.

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In children with autism, altered sensory integration causes children to have difficulty interpreting the sensory stimuli they receive. Through yoga positions, children will learn to recognize and interpret various types of sensory stimuli.

Jurassic fossil

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Discovery of a new fossil in China sheds light on when early mammal ancestors first evolved sophisticated thyroid bones that gave them the ability to swallow food like modern-day mammals.

The 165-million-year-old fossil of Microdocodongracilis, a tiny, shrew-like animal, shows the earliest example of modern hyoid bones in mammal evolution The hyoid bones link the back of the mouth, or pharynx, to the openings of the esophagus and the larynx. The hyoids of modern mammals, including humans, are arranged in a “U” shape, similar to the saddle seat of children’s swing, suspended by jointed segments from the skull. It helps us transport and swallow chewed food and liquid – a crucial function on which our livelihood depends.

Mammals as a whole are far more sophisticated than other living vertebrates in chewing up food and swallowing itone small lump at a time, instead of gulping down huge bites or whole prey like an alligator.

“Mammals have become so diverse today through the evolution of diverse ways to chew their food, weather it is insects, worms, meat, or plants. But no matter how differently mammals can chew, they all have to swallow in the same way,” said Zhe-Xi Luo, PhD, a professor of organismal biology and anatomy at the University of Chicago and the senior author of a new study of the fossil, published this week in Science.

“Essentially, the specialized way for mammals to chew and then swallow is all made possible by the agile hyoid bones at the back of the throat,” Luo said.

‘A pristine, beautiful fossil’

This modern hyoid apparatus is mobile and allows the throat muscles to control the intricate functions to transport and swallow chewed food or drink fluids. Other vertebrates also have hyoid bones, but their hyoids are simple and rod-like, without mobile joints between segments. They can only swallow food whole or in large chunks.

When and how this unique hyoid structure first appeared in mammals, however, has long been in question among paleontologists. In 2014, Chang-Fu Zhou, PhD, from the Paleontological Museum of Liaoning in China, the lead author of the new study, found a new fossil of Microdocodon preserved with delicate hyoid bones in the famous Jurassic Daohugou site of northeastern China.Soon afterwards, Luo and Thomas Martin from the University of Bonn, Germany, met up with Zhou in China to study the fossil.

“It is a pristine, beautiful fossil. I was amazed by the exquisite preservation of this tiny fossil at the first sight. We got a sense that it was unusual, but we were puzzled about what was unusual about it,”Luo said. “After taking detailed photographs and examining the fossil under a microscope, it dawned on us that this Jurassic animal has tiny hyoid bones much like those of modern mammals.”

This new insight gave Luo and his colleagues added context on how to study the new fossil. Microdocodonis a docodont, from an extinct lineage of near relatives of mammals from the Mesozoic Era called mammaliaforms. Previously, paleontologists anticipated that hyoids like this had to be there in all of these early mammals, but it was difficult to identify the delicate bones.  After finding them in Microdocodon, Luo and his collaborators have since found similar fossilized hyoid structures in other Mesozoic mammals.

“Now we are able for the first time to address how the crucial function for swallowing evolved among early mammals from the fossil record,” Luo said. “The tiny hyoids of Microdocodonare a big milestone for interpreting the evolution of mammalian feeding function.”

New insights on mammal evolution as a whole

Luo also worked with postdoctoral scholar Bhart-Anjan Bhullar, PhD, now on the faculty at Yale University, and April Neander, a scientific artist and expert on CT visualization of fossils at UChicago, to study casts of Microdocodonand reconstruct how it lived.

The jaw and middle ear of modern mammals are developed from (or around) the first pharyngeal arch, structures in a vertebrate embryo that develop into other recognizable bones and tissues. Meanwhile, the hyoids are developed separately from the second and the third pharyngeal arches. Microdocodonhas a primitive middle ear still attached to the jaw like that of other early mammals like cynodonts, which is unlike the ear of modern mammals. Yet its hyoids are already like those of modern mammals.

“Hyoids and ear bones are all derivatives of the primordial vertebrate mouth and gill skeleton, with which our earliest fishlike ancestors fed and respired,” Bhullar said. “The jointed, mobile hyoid of Microdocodoncoexists with an archaic middle ear — still attached to the lower jaw. Therefore, the building of the modern mammal entailed serial repurposing of a truly ancient system.”

The tiny, shrew-like creature likely weighed only 5 to 9 grams, with a slender body, and an exceptionally long tail. The dimensions of its limb bonesmatch up with those of modern tree-dwellers.

“Its limb bones are as thin as matchsticks, and yet this tiny Mesozoic mammal still lived an active life in trees,” Neander said.

The fossil beds that yielded Microdocodonare dated 164 to 166 million years old. Microdocodonco-existed with other docodonts like the semiaquatic Castorocauda, the subterranean Docofossor, the tree-dwellingAgilodocodon, as well as some mammaliaform gliders.

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The study, “New Jurassic mammaliaform sheds light on early evolution of mammal-like hyoid bones,” was published in Scienceon July 19, 2019. The research was supported by the University of Chicago Division of Biological Sciences (Luo); the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (Martin); and the National Natural Science Foundation and Ministry of Land Resources of China, Shenyang Normal University, and Shandong University of Science and Technology (Zhou).