Saturday, December 3, 2016

Pacific islanders invented new kind of society at Nan Madol

New dating on the stone buildings of Nan Madol suggests the ancient coral reef capital in the Pacific Ocean was the earliest among the islands to be ruled by a single chief. The discovery makes Nan Madol a key locale for studying how ancient human societies evolved from simple societies to more complex societies, said lead archaeologist Mark D. McCoy, Southern Methodist University, Dallas.

The finding was uncovered as part of a National Geographic expedition to study the monumental tomb said to belong to the first chief of the island of Pohnpei.

McCoy deployed uranium series dating to determine that when the tomb was built it was one-of-a-kind, making it the first monumental scaled burial site on the remote islands of the Pacific.

The discovery enables archaeologists to study more precisely how societies transform to more and more complex and hierarchical systems, said McCoy, an expert in landscape archaeology and monumental architecture and ideology in the Pacific Islands.

“The kind of society that we live in today, it wasn’t born last year, or even 100 years ago,” McCoy said. “It has its roots in a pre-modern era like Nan Madol where you have a king or chief. These islanders invented a new kind of society — that is a socially creative achievement. The idea of chiefs, someone in charge, is not a new thing, but it’s an extremely important precursor. We know tribes and bands predate chiefdoms and states. But it’s not a straight line. By looking at these intermediate stages we get insight into that social phenomenon.”

The analysis is the first time uranium-thorium series dating, which is significantly more precise than previously used radiocarbon dating, was deployed to calculate the age of the stone buildings that make up the famous site of Nan Madol (pronounced Nehn Muh-DOLL) – the former capital of the island of Pohnpei.

“The thing that makes this case special is Nan Madol happened in isolation, it happened very recently, and we have multiple lines of evidence, including oral histories to support the analysis,” McCoy said. “And because it’s an island we can be much more specific about the natural resources, the population, all the things that are more difficult when people are on a continent and all connected. So we can understand it with a lot more precision.”

Nan Madol, which UNESCO this year named a World Heritage Site, was previously dated as being established in A.D. 1300. McCoy’s team narrowed that to just a 20-year window more than 100 years earlier, from 1180 to 1200.

The finding pushes back even earlier the establishment of the powerful dynasty of Saudeleur chiefs who asserted authority over the island society for more than 1,000 years.

First chief was buried in Pohnpei tomb by A.D. 1200

An ancient city built atop a coral reef, Nan Madol has been uninhabited for centuries now. Located in the northwestern Pacific on the remote island of Pohnpei, it’s accessible via a 10-hour flight from Hawaii interspersed with short hops from atoll to atoll, including a stop at a U.S. military installation. Nan Madol is the largest archaeological site in Micronesia, a group of islands in the Caroline Archipelago of Oceania.

Uranium dating indicates that by 1180, massive stones were being transported from a volcanic plug on the opposite side of the island for construction of the tomb. And by 1200, the burial vault had its first internment, the island’s chief. Manipulate two 3D models of the burial monument, one with foliage and one without, at and

Construction of monumental buildings followed over the next several centuries on other islands not in the Saudeleur Dynasty across Oceania.

McCoy, an associate professor in the SMU Department of Anthropology, and his team reported their discovery in the journal Quaternary Research in “Earliest direct evidence of monument building at the archaeological site of Nan Madol identified using 230Th/U coral dating and geochemical sourcing of megalithic architectural stone.” An inactive volcano that hasn’t erupted in at least one million years, Pohnpei Island is much larger than its neighbouring atolls at 128 square miles (334 square kilometres).

Now part of the 607-island nation of the Federated States of Micronesia, Pohnpei Island and its nearby atolls have a population of 34,000.

Pohnpei monument indicates invention of a new kind of society

How Nan Madol was built remains an engineering mystery, much like Egypt’s Pyramids.

“It’s a fair comparison to the Pyramids, because the construction, like the Pyramids, didn’t help anyone — it didn’t help society be fairer, or to grow crops or to provide any social good. It’s just a really big place to put a dead person,” McCoy said.

It’s important to document such things, he said, because this architectural wonder indicates that independently of Egypt, another group of people put effort into building a monument.

“And we think that’s associated with the invention of a new kind of society, a new kind of chiefdom that ruled the entire island,” McCoy said.

Unlike Egypt and the Pyramids however, Nan Madol was invented much more recently in the big story of human prehistory, he said.

“At A.D. 1200 there are universities in Europe. The Romans had come and gone. The Egyptians had come and gone,” he said. “But when you’re looking at Pohnpei, it’s very recent, so we still have the oral histories of the descendants of the people who built Nan Madol. There’s evidence that you just don’t have elsewhere.”

Monumental city built of coral and stone

Pohnpei was originally settled in A.D. 1 by islanders from the Solomon or Vanuatu island groups. According to local oral history, the Saudeleur Dynasty is estimated to have begun its rule around 1160 by counting back generations from the modern day.

To build the tomb and other structures, naturally formed boulders of basalt, each weighing tons, were somehow transported far from existing quarries on the other side of the island to a lagoon overgrown with mangrove and stretching across 205 acres (83 hectares).

The basalt blocks formed when hot lava cooled and adopted the shape of long, column-shaped boulders and cobbles. Formed from 1 million to 8 million years ago, they came from a number of possible quarry locations on the island.

The city’s stone structures were built atop 98 shallow artificial coral reef islets, each one built by the Saudeleur people. The structures were constructed about three feet above waterline by laying down framing stones, filling the void between them with crushed coral, then laying up double parallel walls and again filling the gap between with crushed coral. The islets are separated by tidal canals and protected from the ocean by 12 sea walls.

“The structures are very cleverly built,” said McCoy. “We think of coral as precious, but for the architects of Nan Madol it was a building material. They were on a little island surrounded by huge amounts of coral reef that grows really quickly in this environment, so they could paddle out at low tide and mine the coral by smashing some off and breaking it up into rubble.”

The largest and most elaborate architecture in the city is the tomb of the first Saudeleur, measuring 262 feet by 196 feet (80 metres by 60 metres), basically the size of a football field. It is more than 26 feet (8 metres) tall, with exterior walls about six feet to 10 feet (1.8 to 3 metres) thick. A maize of walls and interior walkways, it includes an underground crypt capped with basalt.

“The architecture is meant to be extremely impressive, and it is,” McCoy said. “The structures were built to last — this is one of the rainiest places on earth, so it can be muddy and slippery and wet, but these islets on the coral reef are very stable.”

Portable X-ray technology provides clue to source of megalithic stones

McCoy and his team used portable X-ray fluorescence (XRF) to geochemically match the columnar-shaped basalt stones to natural sources on the island. The uranium-thorium technique calculates a date based on characteristics of the radioactive isotope thorium-230 and its radioactive parent uranium-234. That enabled them to determine the construction chronology of a tomb that oral histories identify as the resting place of the first chief to rule the entire island.

“We used an X-ray gun, which looks like a 1950s-styled ray gun,” McCoy said. “It allows you — at a distance and without destroying the thing you’re interested in — to bounce X-rays off it and work out what the chemistry is. The mobile technology has gotten much more affordable, making this kind of study feasible.”

Using uranium series dating on coral emerged in the last decade. Accuracy — superior to radiocarbon — is plus or minus a few years of when the coral died. A very good radiocarbon date only will get within 100 years.

“That’s a monumental shift in terms of the precision with which we talk about things,” McCoy said. “If Nan Madol had not been made of the kind of stone we could source, if the architects hadn’t chosen to use coral, we wouldn’t have been able to get this date. So it’s a happy coincidence that the evidence at the site came together.”

McCoy suggests that future research look at finding the cause for this major turning point on Pohnpei, and what sparked this new hierarchy of rule and monumental building in this society.

Past Horizons. 2016. “Pacific islanders invented new kind of society at Nan Madol”. Past Horizons. Posted: October 21, 2016. Available online:

Friday, December 2, 2016

Neanderthal inheritance helped humans adapt to life outside of Africa

As the ancestors of modern humans made their way out of Africa to other parts of the world many thousands of years ago, they met up and in some cases had children with other forms of humans, including the Neanderthals and Denisovans. Scientists know this because traces of those meetings remain in the human genome. Now, researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on November 10 find more evidence that those encounters have benefited humans over the years.

All told, the new study identifies 126 different places in the genome where genes inherited from those archaic humans remain at unusually high frequency in the genomes of modern humans around the world. We owe our long-lost hominid relatives for various traits, and especially those related to our immune systems and skin, the evidence shows.

"Our work shows that hybridization was not just some curious side note to human history, but had important consequences and contributed to our ancestors' ability to adapt to different environments as they dispersed throughout the world," says Joshua Akey of University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle.

Akey says it's relatively straightforward today to identify sequences that were inherited from archaic ancestors. Studies show that non-African individuals inherited about 2% of their genomes from Neanderthals. People of Melanesian ancestry inherited another 2% to 4% of their genomes from Denisovan ancestors. But it hasn't been clear what influence those DNA sequences have had on our biology, traits, and evolutionary history.

In the new study, the researchers took advantage of recently constructed genome-scale maps of Neanderthal and Denisovan sequences identified in more than 1,500 geographically diverse people. Their sample included close to 500 individuals each from East Asia, Europe, and South Asia. They also analyzed the genomes of 27 individuals from Island Melanesia, an area including Indonesia, New Guinea, Fiji, and Vanuatu. The researchers were searching for archaic DNA sequences in those human genomes at frequencies much higher than would be expected if those genes weren't doing people any good.

While the vast majority of surviving Neanderthal and Denisovan sequences are found at relatively low frequencies (typically less than 5%), the new analyses turned up 126 places in our genomes where these archaic sequences exist at much higher frequencies, reaching up to about 65%. Seven of those regions were found in parts of the genome known to play a role in characteristics of our skin. Another 31 are involved in immunity.

"The ability to increase to such high population frequencies was most likely facilitated because these sequences were advantageous," Akey explains. "In addition, many of the high-frequency sequences span genes involved in the immune system, which is a frequent target of adaptive evolution."

Generally speaking, the genes humans got from Neanderthals or Denisovans are important for our interactions with the environment. The evidence suggests that hybridization with archaic humans as our ancient ancestors made their way out of Africa "was an efficient way for modern humans to quickly adapt to the new environments they were encountering."

The researchers say they'd now like to learn more about how these genes influenced humans' ability to survive and what implications they might have for disease. They are also interested in expanding their analysis to include geographically diverse populations in other parts of the world, including Africa.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Neanderthal inheritance helped humans adapt to life outside of Africa”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 10, 2016. Available online:

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Inequality threatens our wellbeing

Poverty, unemployment and other forms of exclusion adversely affect people's wellbeing, reveals the Swiss Social Report 2016, which is published by the Swiss Centre of Expertise in the Social Sciences (FORS), with support from the Swiss National Science Foundation.

By and large, people in Switzerland are satisfied and happy and feel their lives are meaningful. If we take a closer look, however, stark differences soon become apparent. This is the conclusion reached by the Social Report 2016 on wellbeing. The report is published by the Swiss Centre of Expertise in the Social Sciences (FORS) with support from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF). It focuses on how the inhabitants of Switzerland feel about their lives. In particular, it looks at how satisfied they are with different aspects of their lives - such as work, family and leisure - and at what makes them happy and what worries them. To understand the concept of wellbeing in all its complexity, the FORS researchers had to analyse various national and international databases.

No one gets used to poverty and exclusion

The report shows that a person's wellbeing comes under serious strain when they are faced with exclusion, for instance after dropping out of the education system or the job market, or if their financial situation leads them into poverty. This is why the unemployed, the poor and those who are retired due to disability are far less happy about their lives. Though the dire circumstances in which they live can persist for years, they generally do not manage to come to terms with them.

People in Switzerland are very positive about the education system and most of them feel good about their jobs and work conditions. Unsurprisingly, those with a higher income are more satisfied with their financial situation and spend less time worrying about it. However, all aspects of life considered, they are not more satisfied than people who do not earn quite as much.

Marriage and parenthood only a temporary boost

Those surveyed were also happy about their social environment. The immediate family plays a key role here. People who are in a relationship tend to be more satisfied, more often joyful and less often sad than singles. 

Life events such as marriage or the birth of the first child increase the subjective feeling of wellbeing in the run-up to the event, but this effect often wears off quickly. Married couples enjoy greater wellbeing than divorcees or widows and widowers. By far the lowest levels of wellbeing are experienced by estranged couples - periods of transition appear to pose the biggest threat to wellbeing.

Young people feel healthy, old people enjoy more leisure time

Our satisfaction with different aspects of our lives changes over time. As people grow older they begin to worry more about their health, but tend to be more satisfied with their financial situation. Both the old and the young say they enjoy their leisure time. Middle-aged people, however, are less satisfied with their leisure time because their days are packed with work and family commitments, leaving them with very little spare time. That said, a general sense of wellbeing and of living a meaningful life has little to do with age.

The results of the Social Report on wellbeing among the people of Switzerland show that the inclusion of subjective aspects can add another facet to the analysis of inequality and enrich social reporting.
Reference: 2016. “Inequality threatens our wellbeing”. Posted: October 4, 2016. Available online:

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Humans spread around the world in a single wave of migration

The largest genetic study to date concludes that all humans alive today are descendants from a single wave of migration.

Anatomically modern humans arose in Africa around 200,000 years ago. Most scientists think that a small group left Africa between 50,000 to 100,000 years ago and colonised the rest of the planet.

But the question is, why did they wait so long and were there other migration waves?

A triad of studies by three international teams of scientists have now mapped the genetics of hundreds of genomes from people around the world and reached an answer.

They have mapped more human genetic variation than ever before and collectively, they conclude that all people alive today outside of Africa are the descendants of a single wave of migration that occurred less than 80,000 years ago.

One of the studies also found evidence for an earlier wave of migration more than 100,000 years ago, as a trace of ‘old’ DNA embedded within the genomes of Aboriginal people from Australia and the Philippines.

The discovery shows how deep and complex our shared history is and may even have included other, older, migrations for which no genetic evidence survives.

“The articles help to give us a qualified basis which is necessary to understand where we come from and to determine where we’re going,” says Professor Peter Kjærgaard, Director of the Danish Natural History Museum, Copenhagen. He was not involved in any of the new studies.

All three articles are published in the scientific journal Nature.

People’s long history written in DNA

The studies have collectively mapped 787 new genomes from more than 280 different populations.

They have covered as many different languages and cultural groups as possible, and included data from often overlooked aboriginal groups including Basques, Pygmies, Bedouins, Pima Indians, Sherpa, and Australian Aborigines.

Their results show that all non-African peoples today are descendants from early humans who left Africa in a single wave of migration.

Old African DNA embedded in chromosomes

But there are still nuances to the story.

“We find a small footprint--at least two per cent--of a previous migration in the genomes of people from Papua New Guinea,” says one of the co-authors Mait Metspalu, Director at the Estonian Biocentre, University of Tartu, Estonia.

This suggests that people from Papua New Guinea and the Negritos from the Philippines have an earlier split time than other non-African groups.

“If everyone alive today came out of Arica at the same time, then we should all have the same split-time,” says Metspalu.

The two per cent comes from an older population of humans who probably lived around 120,000 years ago.

Climate allowed people to migrate

In another new study, also published in Nature, a team of scientists investigated the timing of this migration. The scientists behind this study analysed climate data from around the world since the last ice age and produced models of how and when groups of people migrated, according to climate conditions, desertification, and primary productivity of the land.

They discovered pulses of migration at 100,000; 80,000; 55,000; and 37,000 years ago from humans moving in and out of Africa, through the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant.

These pulses coincide with 20,000-year-cycles in the Earth’s orbit, where the planet wobbles on its axis, causing changes in sunlight, monsoons, and desertification.

“It’s fascinating that astronomical effects have been such an important pace-maker of where and when Homo sapiens migrated,” says Axel Timmermann, co-author on one of the other new studies.

Small seemingly insignificant changes in the planet’s climate history could have had huge implications for the history of our species, says Kjærgaard.

“We might not even be here,” he says. “But we are here, and unlike other animals we have the tools to understand our own history and it’s consistency with other species, as well as our species’ deep dependence on the conditions for life that the world has given us.”

“This is where we are today in the science of human development. And this is where we stand today with the ability to make some crucial choices about our continued shared history in what we call the Anthropocene era,” says Kjærgaard.

Jakobsen, Rasmus Kragh. 2016. “Humans spread around the world in a single wave of migration”. Science Nordic. Posted: October 3, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Bragging as a strategy: What boasting buys, and costs, a candidate

Life is full of auditions in which it might seem advantageous, if not outright required, to describe oneself as above average. Think of job interviews, dating or running for president of the United States. A new study that measured how people judge those who made such boasts and those who didn't, however, showed that making self-superiority or self-effacement claims is a strategy with considerable complexity and risk, often requiring a person to know whether evidence of their true ability could come to light.

Probably the most intuitive result of the study is that there is a significant tradeoff, a "humility paradox," in which individuals who claim to be of above-average ability will be perceived as more competent, but sometimes less moral, than those who remain humble. And once actual evidence of ability comes into play, those who unduly inflate their self-image pay the steepest price on both aspects of their character.

"Our biggest theoretical contribution is that the paper casts the decision to claim to be better than others as a strategic choice," said Patrick Heck, lead author of the study in Social Psychology and a graduate student in Brown University's Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences. "It turns out that if you know the evidence isn't ever going to show up, then your reputation as a competent person is in good shape when you claim to be better than others -- but the opposite is true for your reputation as a moral person."

And with its multidimensional framework, the study goes much further in revealing more nuanced scenarios in which sometimes the best idea is to keep one's mouth shut.

Self-evaluation and others' perceptions

To do the research, Heck and Brown Professor Joachim Krueger conducted a series of online experiments involving a total of 400 volunteers over two main phases.

In the first phase, participants read single-page descriptions of people who said they scored better than average on an ability test and people who said they did worse. For each one the volunteers also learned their test scores so they'd know whether any bragging -- or self-effacement -- was based in truth. Half the volunteers were told the tested ability was intelligence while the other half were told that the test was of morality.

In every case the hypothetical subjects were male, to control for potentially confounding effects of gender.

The volunteers were then asked to rate the competence and the morality of the four different categories of individuals -- those who bragged and scored high, those who bragged but scored low, those who self-effaced and scored high, and those who self-effaced and scored low.

The participants judged the people who bragged about their intelligence and scored high as the most competent. They were even judged as more competent than people who scored high but said they scored low, suggesting that when competence is the issue, it pays to advertise. But correct braggers were not seen as any more moral than people who self-effaced, whether the self-effacers were actually smart or not. In fact, those who claimed to be worse than average were seen as more moral than those who claimed to be better.

Participants reserved harsh judgment for individuals who bragged about their performance but were proven wrong by the evidence. Such people were deemed significantly less competent and less moral than any other man. The same was true for undeserving braggers when the test was of their morality, rather than their intelligence.

"In all cases, claiming to be better than average when the evidence shows otherwise is the worst strategic move you can make," Heck said.

In a second phase, half of an entirely new group of 200 volunteers did the same thing as participants in the first experiment, though now all the hypothetical men were all talking and testing on intelligence, not morality. Given essentially the same experimental procedure, these volunteers produced very similar results as the participants in the first phase, showing that the results could be replicated in a new group of volunteers.

But the other half of the new second-phase group were given something different to consider. Some of them got information on the individuals' test results, but didn't know whether they bragged or self-effaced. Others learned who claimed to be better than average and who claimed to be worse, but didn't see their test results. These volunteers were asked to judge the competence and morality of the different types of hypothetical men.

Not surprisingly, people who scored high on the intelligence test were seen as more competent but not any more moral than those who scored low. But when scores were not known, they were caught in the humility paradox: those who bragged about their intelligence were believed to be more competent, but less moral, than those who said they didn't do well.

Combining the results, it was clear in the data that men who were smart and said so were perceived as more competent than men who were smart but didn't say so, or men who said they were smart but for whom evidence wasn't available.

Meanwhile, self-effacers were perceived as less competent when their scores were not known than men who self-effaced when their scores were known, regardless of what the scores showed. In other words, just declaring oneself to be not particularly smart is worse for one's perceived competence than being shown to be right about not being smart, or being shown to be smart despite one's gloomy self-assessment.

"This pattern holds an intriguing lesson for a person of low self-confidence," Heck and Krueger wrote. "The winning strategy might be to abstain from making any self-related assessment unless objective results are at hand."

Scenarios and strategies

Indeed, the paper is rife with such guidance, Heck said. People who want to know whether to brag, to self-efface or to say nothing need to know whether their goal is to improve their perceived competence or morality, and whether the facts back them up, contradict them, or will never be known.

"The answer depends on which aspect of your reputation you are concerned with," Heck said. "If you are more concerned with your perceived morality -- your likability, trustworthiness and ethics -- the answer is simple: avoid self-enhancing claims, even if the evidence supports them. Here, humility is the best option.

"If you are more concerned with your perceived competence -- your intelligence or capability to get the job done -- things are more nuanced," he said. "Here, you should only claim to be better than average if you are sure (or fairly certain) that (a) the evidence will support this claim, or (b) supporting evidence will never be revealed. If there is a possibility that the evidence will invalidate your self-enhancing claim, the best option is to simply remain humble."

That can pose a problem for many political candidates, who rarely remain humble, even as they are subjected to fact-checks that don't always go their way.

2016. “Bragging as a strategy: What boasting buys, and costs, a candidate”. Science Daily. Posted: October 5, 2016. Available online:

Monday, November 28, 2016

Probiotics improve cognition in Alzheimer's patients

For the first time, scientists have shown that probiotics -- beneficial live bacteria and yeasts taken as dietary supplements -- can improve cognitive function in humans. In a new clinical trial, scientists show that a daily dose of probiotic Lactobacillusand Bifidobacteriumbacteria taken over a period of just 12 weeks is enough to yield a moderate but significant improvement in the score of elderly Alzheimer's patients on the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) scale, a standard measure of cognitive impairment.

Probiotics are known to give partial protection against certain infectious diarrheas, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, eczema, allergies, colds, tooth decay, and periodontal disease. But scientists have long hypothesized that probiotics might also boost cognition, as there is continuous two-way communication between the intestinal microflora, the gastrointestinal tract, and the brain through the nervous system, the immune system, and hormones (along the so-called "microbiota-gut-brain axis"). In mice, probiotics have indeed been shown to improve learning and memory, and reduce anxiety and depression- and OCD-like symptoms. But prior to the present study there was very limited evidence of any cognitive benefits in humans.

Here, the researchers, from Kashan University of Medical Sciences, Kashan, and Islamic Azad University, Tehran, Iran, present results from a randomized, double-blind, controlled clinical trial on a total of 52 women and men with Alzheimer's between 60 and 95 years of age. Half of the patients daily received 200 ml milk enriched with four probiotic bacteria Lactobacillus acidophilus, L. casei, L. fermentum, and Bifidobacterium bifidum(approximately 400 billion bacteria per species), while the other half received untreated milk.

At the beginning and the end of the 12-week experimental period, the scientists took blood samples for biochemical analyses and tested the cognitive function of the subjects with the MMSE questionnaire, which includes tasks like giving the current date, counting backwards from 100 by sevens, naming objects, repeating a phrase, and copying a picture.

Over the course of the study, the average score on the MMSE questionnaire significantly increased (from 8.7 to 10.6, out of a maximum of 30) in the group receiving probiotics, but not in the control group (from 8.5 to 8.0). Even though this increase is moderate, and all patients remained severely cognitively impaired, these results are important because they are the first to show that probiotics can improve human cognition. Future research, on more patients and over longer time-scales, is necessary to test if the beneficial effects of probiotics become stronger after longer treatment.

"In a previous study, we showed that probiotic treatment improves the impaired spatial learning and memory in diabetic rats, but this is the first time that probiotic supplementation has been shown to benefit cognition in cognitively impaired humans," says Professor Mahmoud Salami from Kashan University, the senior author of the study.

Treatment with probiotics also resulted in lower levels of triglycerides, Very Low Density Lipoprotein (VLDL), high-sensitivity C-Reactive Protein (hs-CRP) in the blood of the Alzheimer patients, and likewise a reduction in two common measures (called "Homeostatic Model Assessment", HOMA-IR and HOMA-B) of insulin resistance and the activity of the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.

"These findings indicate that change in the metabolic adjustments might be a mechanism by which probiotics affect Alzheimer's and possibly other neurological disorders," says Salami. "We plan to look at these mechanisms in greater detail in our next study."

Walter Lukiw, Professor of Neurology, Neuroscience and Ophthalmology and Bollinger Professor of Alzheimer's disease at Louisiana State University, who reviewed the study but was not involved in the research, said: "This early study is interesting and important because it provides evidence for gastrointestinal (GI) tract microbiome components playing a role in neurological function, and indicates that probiotics can in principle improve human cognition. This is in line with some of our recent studies which indicate that the GI tract microbiome in Alzheimer's is significantly altered in composition when compared to age-matched controls, and that both the GI tract and blood-brain barriersbecome significantly more leaky with aging, thus allowing GI tract microbial exudates (e.g. amyloids, lipopolysaccharides, endotoxins and small non-coding RNAs) to access Central Nervous System compartments." The study is published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Probiotics improve cognition in Alzheimer's patients”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 10, 2016. Available online:

Sunday, November 27, 2016

What's in a name? For young Chinese consumers, it's about culture mixing

Bringing a product to the Chinese market can be a major hurdle for a burgeoning company looking to expand abroad. But according to new research from a University of Illinois expert in consumer behavior and global marketing, for a Western brand to crack the Chinese market, the name's the thing.

Young, educated Chinese consumers who are highly bicultural - that is, conversant with both Eastern and Western cultures - tend to more favorably evaluate brand translations that keep both the sound and the meaning of the original name, says Carlos J. Torelli, a professor of business administration at Illinois.

"China is challenging for Western companies, and the name-translation issue is particularly challenging. But there is the potential to strategically decide whether you want to be seen as more of a Western brand, more of a Chinese brand, or seen as a brand seeking a happy medium," he said.

The study, which will be published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, examines how integrative responses to culture mixing, in the context of Western brand names translated into Chinese, can influence consumer evaluations of products.

"Specifically, we examine young, educated Chinese consumers' evaluations of three types of brand name translations: by sound, by meaning and by sound plus meaning," Torelli said.

Results show that younger, more educated and more cosmopolitan Chinese consumers tend to favor "phonosemantic" brand translations, which integrate both sound and meaning into a product's name.

"What we found is that if you're targeting young Chinese consumers, they tend to be more bicultural," he said. "The established view of Chinese consumers is that they are conservative in the sense that they value tradition and conformity, whereas Westerners tend to be more open to new experiences or are individualistic in the sense that they emphasize new things like autonomy and pursuing one's own goals."

Younger Chinese consumers, however, were born after the one-child policy and have much more exposure to the West than previous generations.

"When they are the target, since they are much more Westernized in their values, they have a more bicultural mindset. So young Chinese consumers fall somewhere in the middle, modulating between those two poles of valuing tradition and embracing what's new."

Because of that, the researchers hypothesized that young Chinese consumers would respond much more favorably to cultural mixing.

"We found that the foreign name connects them with that aspect of cosmopolitanism that they valued, but the Chinese understanding of the brand also connects with their Chinese identity, which is also important to them," Torelli said.

It also signals that the company is being sensitive to their language.

"It's a foreign brand that's making an effort, and is respecting and valuing the culture, thereby integrating the Western values of self-expression and autonomy while also paying tribute to traditional Chinese value of conservatism," he said. "So there's a double path that leads to positive feelings toward brands."

But why go to the extra effort if you could just do a phonetic translation?

"That's what most American companies do when they go somewhere else - they don't rebrand, they simply translate the name," Torelli said. "If the country uses the alphabet, then you don't have to do anything. It's maybe how you pronounce it that changes."

The problem is that Chinese is a logographic language.

"There are no letters in Chinese. There are characters that have sounds," he said. "So the project started out of the notion that, when you translate to Chinese, you have a decision to make at the get-go. And that decision is, when you tell whoever it is who's going to take that name in China, do you translate it phonetically? If you take that route, then it's going to sound weird to Chinese consumers. It will sound similar to how it sounds in the home market, but it will sound foreign to Chinese consumers. OK, then why don't you just translate the meaning? Many brands have meaning, like Pampers or Suave. Others, like 7UP, don't. These are names that are suggestive in the home language. So you can't do a straightforward translation." According to Torelli, it all points to the broader cultural mixing phenomenon.

"The idea is that, more and more in everyday situations, we're starting to see symbols of two cultures juxtaposed in the same place. Sometimes we like that, sometimes we don't. And that has marketing and branding implications."

For marketers, the benefit is if you're an American or Western European company trying to break into the Chinese market, "you might want to think carefully about adopting a phonosemantic translation for your product," he said.

"That might be the best approach, especially if you're targeting this young, affluent, cosmopolitan market."

2016. “What's in a name? For young Chinese consumers, it's about culture mixing”. Posted: October 3, 2016. Available online: