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Game on – Can video games make your brain level up?

By Amy Reichelt

The violent content that many computer games contain and engrossing nature for players can lead to increased aggressive thoughts.

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But other studies have said that the root of any video game induced violence is actually due to frustration, as many of these games are challenging and require complex motor skills.

Aside from the frustration of getting beaten by the end of level boss again, the challenge of these games is part of the appeal. The sense of accomplishment having completed a game or getting that bit further through a level activates the brain’s reward system, causing release of dopamine, which keeps people coming back for more.

But recent studies have shown that video games might actually be good for your brain, leading to increases in grey matter in regions involved in co-ordination, decision making and memory.

Brain training

As with any challenging task – practice makes perfect. Take playing the piano for example. Brain scanning with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has shown that concert pianists have less activationin regions responsible for motor control.

This indicates that their brain has become more efficient when it comes to playing that piano than non-musicians. So, over time the brain can functionally adapt to task demands, an example of neuroplasticity.

Video games often involve fine motor co-ordination, sustained attention and problem solving, often under pressure, all of which give the brain a work out. Frequently playing video games has been shown to make our brains more efficient at the tasks involved in the game.

Game on? (JDevaun/Flickr)

In a recent study, researchers observed that the greater the amount of time people spent playing video games was associated with a greater brain volume in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and frontal eye fields. These brain regions are important in rapidly deciding what to do in a new situation, and in visual attention and rapid eye movements to targets.

Level up your brain with Super Mario

Playing video games has been shown to improve visual attention and memory, and also enhance spatial and motor skills. Last year, a study showed brain changes in adults who didn’t normally play computer games.

Participants played Mario 64 on the Nintendo DS for 30 minutes per day for two months and afterwards had increased brain volume in both the hippocampus and portions of the right prefrontal cortex.

The hippocampus is important in spatial navigation and memory, and the right prefrontal cortex is important in decision making and attention.

In addition, brain volume increases were greater in the subjects who reported really enjoying playing Mario 64 and found the experience rewarding. This indicates that activation of the reward system, which leads to dopamine release, could facilitate the neuroplasticity process.

Virtual world to real world

Whether enhancement of brain function from playing video games extends to the real world is currently being tested. Enhanced visual attention has been associated with playing action video games, which leads to the proposal that gamers could show improved response times and vigilance when it comes to everyday activities like driving a car.

If video games are able to improve brain function, then they could be a useful tool in the treatment of memory disorders and to help boost cognitive skills. In particular, video games may help prevent memory deterioration associated with ageing.

Researchers at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), created a video game called Neuroracer to help older people boost mental skills.

Healthy volunteers aged 60-85 played the game, which involves controlling the speed and direction of a virtual car along a hilly, twisting road. Simultaneously, coloured shapes on road signs appear and the player must push a button only when a particular kind of sign appears.

Playing the game significantly improved short-term memory and multitasking skills in the participants.

The jury is still out whether “brain training” computer games can make you smarter as improvements are attributed to practice effects. But video games are easily accessible and could prove a useful tool in keeping our minds active.

There is great interest in the development of specialised video games that could boost mental abilities. Video games that can increase attention could benefit children with attention deficit disorder, and games promoting social interaction could help children with autism.

Amy Reichelt does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

A Muslim perspective on race law changes

By Shamsul Khan, University of South Australia

The markers of identification of communities have clearly moved from just race, colour and national or ethnic origin to include religion – in the case of Muslims, their faith and culture and all that it entails.

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Although religious discrimination was not, per se, made unlawful by the Racial Discrimination Act, it prohibits discrimination on the grounds of “ethnic origin”. The twist in safeguarding Muslims under this act comes from the fact that Australia is yet to decide whether Muslims constitute a group with a common ethnic origin.

With most Muslims being non-white, Islamophobia gets merged with racism. Since Muslims are not a race but followers of a universal faith across the racial and language divide, it does not help to describe attacks on them as “racist attacks”. Doing so dilutes the specific concerns of Muslims living in a non-Muslim majority country with more general issues of race and ethnicity.

“Cultural racism”, in which religion is an important element, is real and must be accorded the attention it deserves. It is critical, then, to add “religious vilification” to the offences that the amended RDA will prohibit.

‘White Australia’ was once seen as reasonable

The exposure draft of amendments takes the position that whether an act vilifies or intimidates will “be determined by the standards of an ordinary reasonable member of the Australian community, not by the standards of any particular group within the Australian community”.

This is disturbing. Why? One only needs to recall the “White Australia” policy, which many an “ordinary reasonable member of the Australian community” accepted for a long time.

That Islamophobia or anti-Muslim racism is increasing has been documented by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and the Scanlon-Monash Index of Social Cohesion. If acts of anti-Muslim racism are to be judged only by the standard of an ordinary reasonable member of the community and not “by the standards of any particular group within the Australian community”, this does not bode well for Muslims.

 

‘White Australia’ restrictions on migration were once widely thought to be reasonable. Protection from discrimination should reflect the changes since then. Wikimedia Commons/National Archives, CC BY

The exposure draft seems to go overboard in protecting free speech by way of a weakened version of current provisions. The exempted words, sounds, images or writing will no longer have to be “ a fair and accurate report” as the act currently requires. Nor must they be based on “genuine belief held by the person making the comment”. It is, in effect, a carte blanche to vilify.

In this context, consider a German opera house production of a Mozart opera that included a scene depicting the severed head of the Prophet Muhammad. Many in the political and cultural arena defended this depiction, which was not part of the original piece but added by the director, as an expression of artistic freedom. But it was yet another example of pushing boundaries to deliberately provoke hatred by abusing freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression with few or no adequate safeguards to protect religious beliefs needs to be revisited. If not, the danger of escalating and more provocative portrayals is very real.

The limitations of liberty

With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself … while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men… Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name — liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names — liberty and tyranny.

The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty … Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty.

These words of Abraham Lincoln resonate strongly with Muslims who face the real prospect of experiencing more spewing of hatred toward them and their religion – all in the name of freedom of expression.

We earnestly hope that “the Emperor has no clothes” will not prove an apt metaphor for anti-discrimination legislation in Australia. The time to make the necessary changes for striking the right balance between freedom of expression and prevention of religious and racial discrimination is now, not later. Together, the community and the government need to get this right so Australia can be a beacon of hope in a world too eager at times to make fellow human beings victims of their own limitless freedom.

Perhaps we should all recall the age-old wisdom: “Don’t do unto others what you don’t want others to do unto you.”


This article was co-authored by Mahjabeen Ahmad, an Australia-based independent researcher and policy advocate who was formerly a professor of business administration at the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The key area of her interest is issues confronting Muslims living in the West.

Shamsul Khan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. Shamsul Khan is an individual member of the Multicultural Communities Council of South Australia, Inc. (MCCSA)

Breasfeeding reduces inflammatioun risk

Babies denied their mothers’ milk are more likely to suffer from chronic inflammation as adults, increasing their chances of disease, disability and early death, a study has found.

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On-going body-wide inflammation is also associated with low birth weight, the same research showed.

Chronic inflammation, caused by a hyperactive immune system, has been linked to heart disease and strokes, Type-2 diabetes, late-life disability, and a greater risk of dying.

The new research found that adult levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), an inflammation blood marker, rose with shorter durations of breastfeeding in infancy.

Compared with receiving no mothers’ milk at all, being breastfed for less than three months reduced CRP levels by a fifth.

Breastfeeding for three to six months lowered CRP levels by 26.7 per cent, six to 12 months by 29.6 per cent, and more than 12 months by 29.8 per cent.

The effect was at least the same as that produced by treatment with cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, which have been shown to reduce CRP, said the scientists.

Higher birth weight was also associated with lower CRP for individuals who weighed more than 2.5 kilograms when they were born.

CRP was 9.2 per cent greater for those weighing in at 2.8 kilograms than for those born a kilogram heavier.

The findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, come from a US study of almost 7,000 US men and women aged 24 to 32. Fewer than half the participants (44.8 per cent) were breastfed for any length of time as infants.

Dr Thomas McDade, from Northwestern University, and his team of researchers wrote: “We present evidence that lower birth weight and shorter durations of breastfeeding both predict elevated concentrations of CRP in young adulthood, indicating increased risk for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases that are major health burdens in the US and the UK.

“Clinical trials have demonstrated that statin therapy reduces CRP in healthy adults by 14.8 per cent – 17.4 per cent. Our results suggest that the effects of breastfeeding on adult CRP are comparable, or larger, in magnitude.”

Consumption of breast milk may have lasting effects on inflammation by shaping regulatory biological pathways during sensitive phases of immune development, said the scientists.

The Department of Health recommends exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months of a baby’s life.

Thereafter, mothers are encouraged to continue feeding their babies breast milk alongside solid food into at least their second year.

“Efforts to improve birth outcomes, and to increase the initiation and duration of breastfeeding in accordance with current recommendations, may reduce levels of chronic inflammation in adulthood and lower risk for chronic degenerative diseases of ageing,” the researchers concluded.

Bangladesh factory victims get fund payout

A fund created to compensate victims of Bangladesh’s worst industrial disaster has made its first payments as the country prepares to mark the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse.

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The payments were made as a Geneva-based international labour group blasted Western retailers for their “woefully inadequate” contributions to the fund set up by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

An injured survivor and the mother of a deceased worker were each given about 50,000 taka ($A690) at a ceremony.

“I’m happy. I want to use the money to set up a shop as I can’t work in a garment factory any longer,” Jesmin Akhter, 22, an unemployed survivor, told AFP after getting the cheque.

Akhter suffered backbone and leg injuries in the disaster.

Bangladesh’s deputy labour minister Mujibul Haque Chunnu and the ILO deputy director general, Gilbert Fossoun Houngbo, handed out the cheques at the ceremony.

The fund is paying about 3000 people – survivors or families of the dead – 50,000 taka each as an advance against their claims.

Bangladesh labour secretary Mikail Shipar said the maximum compensation is expected to total three million taka.

The nine-storey factory complex, where dozens of Western retailers were making clothing, collapsed on April 24 last year, killing 1138 people and injuring more than 2000.

The tragedy highlighted appalling safety conditions in Bangladesh’s $US22-billion garment industry, the world’s second largest after China.

So far retailers have pledged $US15 million to the proposed $US40-million ILO-managed trust fund.

In a statement, global labour group IndustriALL slammed global retailers for not putting enough money into the fund.

“They share a collective responsibility for this profoundly unsustainable production model and its hazards,” said its general secretary, Jyrki Raina.

“Brand contributions to the Rana Plaza Donors Trust Fund remain woefully inadequate.”

Syria chemical handover at 86.5%: watchdog

Syria has handed over 86.

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5 per cent of its chemical weapons, the global chemical watchdog has said, amid new claims that Damascus may have launched attacks with an industrial chemical earlier this month.

The latest update comes five days before a self-imposed cut-off of April 27, by which Damascus aimed to have its stockpile removed from Syrian soil, ahead of a June 30 deadline to destroy it.

A further consignment of chemicals was delivered to the main Syrian port of Latakia on Tuesday, raising “the overall portion of chemicals removed from Syria to 86.5 per cent of the total”, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said in a statement.

“Today’s consignment was the 17th to date and the sixth consignment since April 4, making a significant acceleration in the pace of deliveries to Latakia this month,” the Hague-based OPCW added.

Upon arrival, the chemicals were “immediately” put onto cargo ships and “removed from the country”.

OPCW director general Ahmet Uzumcu said the latest consignment was encouraging..

“We hope that the remaining two or three consignments are delivered quickly to permit destruction operations to get under way in time to meet the mid-year deadline for destroying Syria’s chemical weapons.”

Under the terms of a US-Russia brokered deal reached last year, Syria has until the end of June to destroy its chemical weapons if it wants to ward off the threat of US air strikes.

The agreement was reached after deadly chemical attacks outside Damascus last August which the West blamed on President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

However, new claims have emerged that the regime may have launched attacks with chlorine gas this month, including in an opposition-held part of the country.

Women’s army service remembered

As Australia prepares to remember the 99th anniversary of the landings in Gallipoli, time is also sadly catching up on those from another part of our military history.

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From 1941 until the middle of 1947, more than 24,000 women enlisted in the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS).

A non-medical women’s service, the AWAS was created to release men from certain military duties so they could join fighting units.

Over the six years of its existence, AWAS members performed various functions on the home front including logistics, intelligence and vehicle maintenance.

These women would lay the platform for the eventual acceptance of females in the armed forces through their service during World War II.

The AWAS also created history when a detachment was sent to Papua New Guinea shortly before the war’s end in 1945.

While the government had initially restricted members of AWAS from serving overseas, the 385 women sent to Lae would become Australia’s only non-medical women’s personnel to serve overseas.

Sadly it wasn’t always a warm welcome from the men stationed at the base, as AWAS member Lynne Hennessy recalled.

“They thought we were just up there to entertain the troops,” Ms Hennessy said.

“We had to put them straight … the girls were there to work, not to play.”

Ms Hennessy was part of a group of AWAS members who forged strong friendships long after the war was over, regularly meeting at Currumbin RSL on the Gold Coast.

Sadly, with the number of surviving members dwindling, the group’s regular meeting was cancelled in February last year.

At that final meeting however, the RSL recorded Ms Hennessy and her cohorts, ensuring their contribution to Australia’s military record won’t be forgotten, even when there are no longer any AWAS members to tell the story.

Organisations underestimate cyber risks

Organisations must dramatically improve their response to cyber risks to avoid a new global shock on the scale of the financial crisis that rocked the world in 2008, a study shows.

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Zurich Insurance said in a statement that even cyber security professionals did not have a clear overview of all the interconnected risks organisations can face.

The Swiss insurance group, which has produced a report on cyber risks in cooperation with the Atlantic Council think tank, warned that “a build-up in these risks could create a failure on a similar scale to the 2008 financial crisis”.

Subprime mortgages were at the root of that crisis which began when the US housing market collapsed, dragging down major banks and causing panic on world financial markets.

The Zurich Cyber Risk Report said IT risks could pose a threat of a similar scale.

“Few people truly understand their own computers or the internet, or the cloud to which they connect, just a few truly understood the financial system as a whole or the parts to which they are most directly exposed,” said Zurich risk chief Axel Lehmann.

Outsourcing of server management or creating direct connections between organisations for things like corporate joint ventures makes it more difficult to get an overview of the risks involved, the statement said.

The risk of disruption in the internet infrastructure itself, malware attacks and major international conflicts can also create system-wide risk, it added.

“The internet is the most complex system humanity has ever devised.

“Although it has been incredibly resilient for the past few decades, the risk is that the complexity which has made cyberspace relatively risk-free can, and likely will, backfire,” Lehmann said.

Stocks to watch on Wednesday

Stocks to watch on the Australian stock exchange on Wednesday, Feb 26:

AGO – ATLAS IRON – down 2.

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5 cents, or 2.3 per cent, at $1.06

Atlas Iron is confident that the iron ore price will trade around $US120 per tonne over the next half year as Chinese demand continues to hold up.

AVJ – AVJENNINGS – up 4.5 cents, or 7.5 per cent, at 64.5 cents

Home builder AV Jennings is back in the black, making an $8.4 million profit in the six months to December 31.

BRL – BATHURST RESOURCES – down 5.6 cents, or 40 per cent, at 8.4 cents

Coal miner Bathurst Resources is making 29 staff redundant as it rides out the lowest world prices for coking coal in the last nine years and it delays production from its controversial Escarpment open-cut mine near Westport.

CAB – CABCHARGE – up 24 cents, or six per cent, at $4.27

Taxi payments company Cabcharge says improved economic conditions and the growing popularity of `tap-and-go’ card technology contributed to an eight per cent rise in its half year profit.

CHC – CHARTER HALL GROUP – in a trading halt, last traded at $3.94

Property investor Charter Hall has lifted its half year earnings and aims to raise $140 million to pay down debt through the issue of new securities to institutional shareholders.

GNC – GRAINCORP – down four cents, or 0.5 per cent, at $7.77

GrainCorp expects its yearly profit to tumble as drought conditions in Queensland and northern NSW hit grain volumes.

OSH – OIL SEARCH – in a trading halt, last traded at $8.57

Oil Search has gone into a trading halt ahead of an acquisition announcement and the release of its 2013 financial results.

QAN – QANTAS AIRWAYS – up 0.5 cents, or 0.4 per cent, at $1.235

Qantas is refusing to confirm or deny reports it will axe up to 5,000 jobs as part of its efforts find $2 billion in savings.

Meanwhile, federal transport minister Warren Truss says the government is drafting laws to allow Qantas to be majority foreign-owned.

QBE – QBE INSURANCE – up 62 cents, or 5.3 per cent, at $12.27

QBE boss John Neal says it will take some time to turn around the insurance giant from its first full year loss since the September 11 attacks in the US.

RHC – RAMSAY HEALTH CARE – up $2.98, or 6.7 per cent, at $47.54

Australia’s largest private hospitals operator, Ramsay Health Care, is looking forward to more expansion overseas, particularly in Asia.

Campbell-Brown given all clear by CAS

Jamaican athletics great Veronica Campbell-Brown is free to compete again after The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) confirmed the two-time Olympic 200 metre champion had been found not guilty of a doping violation.

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The 31-year-old – only the second woman athlete after East German Barbel Wockel (1976/80) to win successive 200m Olympic titles when she won in 2004 and 2008 – missed last year’s outdoor world championships after she tested positive for a banned diuretic, hydrochlorothiazide, last May.

Campbell-Brown – who was one of several high profile Jamaican athletes to fail drugs tests last year with former men’s 100m world record holder Asafa Powell among them – is likely to compete at next month’s World Indoor Championships in Sopot, Poland, where she will bid to make it a hat-trick of 60m titles.

For Campbell-Brown – a two-time world outdoor individual gold medallist in the 100m in 2007 and then the 200m in 2011 – it represented a personal triumph as it was she who had demanded CAS judge her case after the Jamaican authorities handed her a two year suspension earlier this month on the recommendation of the IAAF anti-doping commission after initially only giving her a slap on the wrist.

Campbell-Brown – who has accrued seven Olympic medals in all and nine world outdoor championship medals – contested that the rules of the sport’s governing the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) had not been respected in her case and ‘had compromised the integrity of the urine sample she gave’.

She said that there was no proof that she had violated the anti-doping laws – the three person CAS panel agreed with her.

They will not publish the reasons for their ruling for several weeks.

Ali hits Twitter on 50th anniversary

Muhammad Ali has posted his first Twitter message, 50 years to the day after he stopped Sonny Liston at Miami Beach to win his first heavyweight boxing title.

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“I shook up the world against Liston, now 50 years later I’m taking it to Twitter,” Ali wrote with the hashtag AliTweet showing it was from the Ali himself and a link to a photo of him screaming with his arms upraised seconds after the historic triumph.

Ali, who was then named Cassius Clay, stopped Liston in the seventh round to claim the world heavyweight crown at age 22, launching a career that would see him become a global sports icon.

Ali’s official website prepared to launch a Twitter quote of the day, collecting the wit and poetry from 72-year-old’s amazing career, including such lines as “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

The Muhammad Ali Center, a museum in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, posted the Twitter message, “Today marks 50 yrs since Ali became hvywt champ! HE SHOOK UP THE WORLD!” with a link to YouTube video highlights of the Liston fight.

The Center also rewteeted a photo image from the fight with Clay landing a left to the face of a bloodied Liston.

The day after beating Liston, Clay changed his name and the legend of Ali began. It included refusing to be drafted into the US Army that was sending soldiers to fight in Vietnam, being stripped of his titles and banned from boxing for 3 1/2 years until a US Supreme Court ruling upheld his conscientious objector status to the Vietnam War.

Ali finished 56-5 with 37 knockouts and won the heavyweight crown three times in all, notably in the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire in 1974 with an eighth-round knockout of George Foreman and in 1978, when he lost the crown to Leon Spinks in February by split decision but reclaimed it with a unanimous 15-round decision seven months later.

Ali retired after that, coming back to lose two later bouts before finally calling it quits for good in 1981.

It was in 1984 when Ali announced that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, which silenced the snappy banter that had been his youthful trademark but did not dim his status in sports or humanitarian efforts.

In 1990, Ali visited Iraq and negotiated the release of 14 US hostages from Saddam Hussein.

At the 1996 Centennial Olympics in Atlanta, it was Ali – a gold medal winner from the 1960 Rome Olympics – who lit the torch at the opening ceremony.

In 2005, Ali received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest US civilian honour.

One of the most iconic photos in sport, Ali standing above a flattened Liston, came not from their first fight but from a rematch in Lewiston, Maine, in May of 1965, which Ali won by knockout in the first round.