Jon Hamilton

Jon Hamilton is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. Currently he focuses on neuroscience, health risks, and extreme weather.

Following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Hamilton was part of NPR's team of science reporters and editors who went to Japan to cover the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant.

Hamilton contributed several pieces to the Science Desk series "The Human Edge," which looked at what makes people the most versatile and powerful species on Earth. His reporting explained how humans use stories, how the highly evolved human brain is made from primitive parts, and what autism reveals about humans social brains.

In 2009, Hamilton received the Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award for his piece on the neuroscience behind treating autism.

Before joining NPR in 1998, Hamilton was a media fellow with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation studying health policy issues. He reported on states that have improved their Medicaid programs for the poor by enrolling beneficiaries in private HMOs.

From 1995-1997, Hamilton wrote on health and medical topics as a freelance writer, after having been a medical reporter for both The Commercial Appeal and Physician's Weekly.

Hamilton graduated with honors from Oberlin College in Ohio with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. As a student, he was the editor of the Oberlin Review student newspaper. He earned his master's degree in journalism from Columbia University, where he graduated with honors During his time at Columbia, Hamilton was awarded the Baker Prize for magazine writing and earned a Sherwood traveling fellowship.

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Shots - Health News
3:36 am
Mon December 17, 2012

Experts Argue Against Proposed Ban On Vaccine Preservative

A boy in Lima, Peru, receives a hepatitis B vaccine during an immunization drive in 2008. The United Nations is considering a ban on the preservative thimerosal, which is often used in hepatitis B and other vaccines in developing countries.
Martin Mejia AP

Originally published on Mon December 17, 2012 8:55 am

An old complaint about the safety of childhood vaccines is finding new life at the United Nations.

The U.N. Environment Program is considering a ban on thimerosal, a vaccine preservative that is widely used in developing countries. The program expects to make a decision sometime after a final meeting on the issue in January.

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Shots - Health News
4:28 pm
Mon November 19, 2012

Matching DNA With Medical Records To Crack Disease And Aging

A light micrograph image of telomeres, shown in yellow, at the end of human chromosomes. Women tend to have longer telomeres than men and tend to outlive men, according to new research matching genetic information with medical records.
Peter Lansdorp Visuals Unlimited/Corbis

Originally published on Wed November 21, 2012 5:29 pm

A massive research project in California is beginning to show how genes, health habits and the environment can interact to cause diseases. And it's all possible because 100,000 people agreed to contribute some saliva in the name of science.

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Shots - Health News
3:21 am
Thu November 8, 2012

The Beatles' Surprising Contribution To Brain Science

The Beatles rehearse for that night's Royal Variety Performance at the Prince of Wales Theatre in 1963.
Central/Hulton Achive/Getty Images

Originally published on Thu November 8, 2012 11:18 am

The same brain system that controls our muscles also helps us remember music, scientists say.

When we listen to a new musical phrase, it is the brain's motor system — not areas involved in hearing — that helps us remember what we've heard, researchers reported at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in New Orleans last month.

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Superstorm Sandy: Before, During And Beyond
5:02 pm
Tue November 6, 2012

Protection From The Sea Is Possible, But Expensive

Residents of the Colonial Place neighborhood watch as heavy rain from Hurricane Sandy floods the Lafayette River in Norfolk, Va., on Oct. 28.
Rich-Joseph Facun Reuters/Landov

Originally published on Wed November 7, 2012 9:14 am

While New York City and other places along the Northeast coast are still recovering from Superstorm Sandy, they're also looking ahead to how they can prevent flooding in the future, when sea level rise will make the problem worse. They may be able to take some lessons from coastal Norfolk, Va., which is far ahead of most cities when it comes to flood protection.

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Superstorm Sandy: Before, During And Beyond
3:19 am
Tue November 6, 2012

Norfolk, Va., Puts Flooding Survival Plan To The Test

Motorists drive through standing water at an intersection flooded from the remnants of Tropical Storm Ida in the Ocean View area of Norfolk, Va., in November 2009.
Steve Helber AP

Originally published on Tue November 6, 2012 12:18 pm

Superstorm Sandy got officials in New York and New Jersey talking about how to prevent flooding in a time of global warming and sea level rise.

But the place on the East Coast that's most vulnerable to flooding is several hundred miles south, around Norfolk, Va. — and Norfolk has already spent many years studying how to survive the rising waters.

Scientists say what Norfolk has learned is especially important in light of new research showing that the coastline from North Carolina to Boston will experience even more sea level rise than other areas.

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Science
5:34 pm
Wed October 31, 2012

High-Def Storm Models Yielded Accurate Predictions

These computer models from Oct. 26 of then-Hurricane Sandy show different predictions for the storm's path.
NOAA

Originally published on Wed October 31, 2012 6:53 pm

Better satellites, smarter computer models and faster computers helped government forecasters correctly predict the devastation from Hurricane Sandy, scientists say.

It's unlikely the forecast would have been nearly as accurate just a couple of decades ago, they say.

"The National Hurricane Center did a fantastic job, particularly with the track forecast and the intensity forecast as it was moving toward the Northeast," says Sharan Majumdar, an associate professor of meteorology and physical oceanography at the University of Miami.

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The Two-Way
5:30 am
Sat October 27, 2012

Storm's Uncertain Track Defies Weather Rules

In this satellite image provided Friday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Hurricane Sandy's huge cloud extent of up to 2,000 miles churns over the Bahamas, as a line of clouds associated with a powerful cold front approaches the East Coast of the U.S.
Handout Getty Images

Originally published on Sat October 27, 2012 7:53 pm

It's still unclear whether Sandy will be a devastating storm or just a bad one.

It is clear, however, that Sandy will be remembered as the storm that broke all the rules and baffled the nation's top weather forecasters.

Early Saturday morning, the National Weather Service downgraded the storm from a hurricane to a tropical storm — only to return it to hurricane status a few hours later. Either way, forecasters warn, "widespread impacts" are expected along the coast.

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Animals
4:56 pm
Wed October 24, 2012

In Animal Kingdom, Voting Of A Different Sort Reigns

A school of manini fish passes over a coral reef at Hanauma Bay in 2005, in Honolulu. Researchers say schooling behavior like the kind seen in fish helps groups of animals make better decisions than any one member of the group could.
Donald Miralle Getty Images

Originally published on Thu October 25, 2012 9:57 am

As part of NPR's coverage of this year's presidential election, All Things Considered asked three science reporters to weigh in on the race. The result is a three-part series on the science of leadership. In Part 1, Alix Spiegel looked at the personalities of American presidents.

Voters could learn some things about choosing a leader from a fish. Or a chimp. Or an elephant.

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Shots - Health News
6:31 pm
Wed October 17, 2012

Treatment For Alzheimer's Should Start Years Before Disease Sets In

Alexis McKenzie, executive director of the Methodist Home of the District of Columbia Forest Side, an Alzheimer's assisted-living facility, puts her hand on the arm of resident Catherine Peake.
Charles Dharapak AP

Originally published on Thu October 18, 2012 11:12 am

Treatment for Alzheimer's probably needs to begin years or even decades before symptoms of the disease start to appear, scientists reported at this week's Society for Neuroscience meeting in New Orleans.

"By the time an Alzheimer's patient is diagnosed even with mild or moderate Alzheimer's there is very, very extensive neuron death," said John Morrison of Mount Sinai Medical School in New York. "And the neurons that die are precisely those neurons that allow you to navigate the world and make sense of the world."

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Shots - Health News
10:38 am
Tue October 16, 2012

Teenage Brains Are Malleable And Vulnerable, Researchers Say

Brain scans are showing researchers why it's important to treat problems like depression in teens.
iStockphoto.com

Adolescent brains have gotten a bad rap, according to neuroscientists.

It's true that teenage brains can be impulsive, scientists reported at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in New Orleans. But adolescent brains are also vulnerable, dynamic and highly responsive to positive feedback, they say.

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Shots - Health Blog
12:05 pm
Mon October 15, 2012

Brain Scientists Uncover New Links Between Stress And Depression

Scientists say they're learning more about how to keep stress from damaging mental health.
iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Mon October 15, 2012 1:10 pm

Even extreme stress doesn't have to get you down.

That's the message from brain scientists studying the relationship between stress and problems such as depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Researchers at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in New Orleans presented studies showing how stress caused by everything from battlefield trauma to bullying can alter brain circuitry in ways that have long-term effects on mental health.

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Shots - Health Blog
4:56 pm
Thu October 4, 2012

Ketamine Relieves Depression By Restoring Brain Connections

A rat neuron before (top) and after (bottom) ketamine treatment. The increased number of orange nodes are restored connections in the rat's brain.
Ronald Duman/Yale University

Originally published on Thu October 4, 2012 5:12 pm

Scientists say they have figured out how an experimental drug called ketamine is able to relieve major depression in hours instead of weeks.

Researchers from Yale and the National Institute of Mental Health say ketamine seems to cause a burst of new connections to form between nerve cells in parts of the brain involved in emotion and mood.

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Shots - Health Blog
3:19 pm
Mon September 24, 2012

Experimental Drug Is First To Help Kids With Premature Aging Disease

Sam Berns, 15, who has the very rare premature-aging disease progeria, plays the drums in his high school's marching band.
Courtesy of the Progeria Research Foundation

Originally published on Tue September 25, 2012 5:11 pm

Researchers have found the first drug to treat progeria, an extremely rare genetic disease that causes children to age so rapidly that many die in their teens.

The drug, called lonafarnib, is not a cure. But in a study published Monday of 28 children, it reversed changes in blood vessels that usually lead to heart attacks and strokes.

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Shots - Health Blog
3:33 am
Thu September 20, 2012

New Experimental Drug Offers Autism Hope

Andy Tranfaglia, 23, who has Fragile X syndrome, rides a horse with his mother, Katie Clapp.
Katie Clapp

Originally published on Thu September 20, 2012 10:10 am

An experimental drug that helps people who have Fragile X syndrome is raising hopes of a treatment for autism.

The drug, called arbaclofen, made people with Fragile X less likely to avoid social interactions, according to a study in Science Translational Medicine. Researchers suspect it might do the same for people with autism.

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Shots - Health Blog
4:59 pm
Tue September 18, 2012

Link Between BPA And Childhood Obesity Is Unclear

Canned food is a source of BPA exposure, but researchers aren't sure whether it causes childhood obesity. Above, the soup isle at a grocery store in Washington, D.C.
Maggie Starbard NPR

Originally published on Tue September 18, 2012 8:23 pm

BPA could be making kids fat. Or not.

That's the unsatisfying takeaway from the latest study on bisphenol A — the plastic additive that environmental groups have blamed for everything from ADHD to prostate disease.

Unfortunately, the science behind those allegations isn't so clear. And the new study on obesity in children and teens is no exception.

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Shots - Health Blog
2:36 pm
Thu August 16, 2012

CDC Recommends Hepatitis C Testing For All Boomers

Originally published on Thu August 16, 2012 6:19 pm

Listen up, baby boomers. The government wants every one of you to get tested for the hepatitis C virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made a sweeping recommendation official amid growing concern about the estimated 2 million boomers infected with the virus, which can cause cirrhosis and liver cancer. The advice was published in the latest Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

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Shots - Health Blog
5:15 pm
Tue August 14, 2012

Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Exposed Nearby City To Little Radiation

Care managers tend elderly people in March 2012 in Minamisoma, Japan. The home's residents were evacuated eight days after the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power station was crippled by the March 11, 2011 tsunami.
Koji Sasahara AP

After a tsunami disabled the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant in March of 2011, residents of the nearby city of Minamisoma, just 14 miles from the plant, were evacuated.

But within a few months, most returned to their homes. Still, many communities near the plant have remained skeptical and concerned about possible radiation exposure.

To find out how much radiation exposure these people have received, Japanese researchers measured levels of radioactive cesium in nearly 10,000 residents starting six months after the incident.

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Shots - Health Blog
3:32 am
Tue August 14, 2012

How A Virus In Snakes Could Offer Clues To Ebola In Humans

A newly discovered disease in boa constrictors could provide the missing link in the latent Ebola virus.
iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Tue August 14, 2012 1:55 pm

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Shots - Health Blog
4:36 pm
Tue August 7, 2012

Scientists See Progress In Alzheimer's Despite Growing List of Drug Failures

A PET scan of the brain of a person with Alzheimer's disease.
U.S. National Institute on Aging via Wikimedia Commons

Another once-promising Alzheimer's drug has just been tossed on the pharmaceutical scrap heap.

This time it's a drug called bapineuzumab. Like several previous experimental drugs, it was designed to attack the plaques that build up in the brains of people with Alzheimer's.

And like those earlier drugs, it failed.

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Shots - Health Blog
4:02 pm
Mon July 30, 2012

Legal Battle Erupts Over Whose Plastic Consumers Should Trust

CamelBak-brand water bottles on display at an outdoor supply store in Arcadia, Calif., in 2008. The company removed BPA from the plastic in its bottles.
David McNew Getty Images

Originally published on Mon July 30, 2012 5:46 pm

In 2007, Eastman Chemical began marketing a tough new BPA-free plastic called Tritan. Business was good, says Lucian Boldea, a vice president at Eastman.

"We were able to make the statement that our product is not made with BPA and would release data to consumers to support that fact," he says.

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Shots - Health Blog
4:47 pm
Thu July 19, 2012

How You Move Your Arm Says Something About Who You Are

Researchers studying brains want to know what's happening in an area called the premotor cortex — the place in the brain that gears up for something the body is about to do, like swimming. Above, Michael Phelps dives off the starting blocks in the final heat of the men's 400-meter individual medley during the 2012 U.S. Olympic Swimming Team Trials in Omaha, Neb., on June 25.
Jamie Squire Getty Images

Originally published on Thu August 9, 2012 1:47 pm

When Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps steps onto a starting block a few days from now, a Stanford scientist named Krishna Shenoy will be asking himself a question: "What's going on in Michael Phelps' brain?"

Specifically, Shenoy would like to know what's happening in an area called the premotor cortex. This area doesn't directly tell muscles what to do. But it's the place where the brain gears up for something the body is about to do, like swimming.

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The Salt
1:54 pm
Tue July 17, 2012

FDA Bans Chemical BPA From Sippy Cups And Baby Bottles

FDA makes it official, banning the chemical BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups.
Fabrizio Balestrieri iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Tue July 17, 2012 3:04 pm

It's been years since manufacturers voluntarily stopped using the plastic additive BPA (Bisphenol A) in sippy cups and baby bottles. But now they have no choice. The FDA announced it has formally banned BPA from these products.

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Shots - Health Blog
4:31 pm
Wed July 11, 2012

Gene Mutation Offers Clue For Drugs To Stave Off Alzheimer's

A PET scan of the brain of a person with Alzheimer's disease.
U.S. National Institute on Aging via Wikimedia Commons

Originally published on Thu July 12, 2012 5:03 pm

Finally, there's some good news about Alzheimer's disease.

It turns out that a few lucky people carry a genetic mutation that greatly reduces their risk of getting the disease, an Icelandic team reports in the journal Nature.

The mutation also seems to protect people who don't have Alzheimer's disease from the cognitive decline that typically occurs with age.

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Humans
4:30 pm
Tue July 3, 2012

Common Parasite May Influence Human Behavior

Originally published on Tue July 3, 2012 7:06 pm

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Scientists say a parasite carried by cats appears to influence the behavior of humans, in this case, women infected with the parasite were slightly more likely to attempt suicide.

NPR's Jon Hamilton reports this is just the latest study suggesting that parasites can cause subtle changes in our brains.

JON HAMIILTON, BYLINE: This parasite is called Toxoplasma and its primary home is in the intestine of a cat. People can get infected when they eat under-cooked meats or sometimes when they change the litter in a cat box.

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Shots - Health Blog
5:34 pm
Mon July 2, 2012

A Parasite Carried By Cats Could Increase Suicide Risk

What's the link between cats and madness?
Hans Martens iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Wed July 4, 2012 4:31 am

There's fresh evidence that cats can be a threat to your mental health.

To be fair, it's not kitties themselves that are the problem, but a parasite they carry called Toxoplasma gondii.

A study of more than 45,000 Danish women found that those infected with this feline parasite were 1.5 times more likely to attempt suicide than women who weren't infected.

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The Salt
2:17 pm
Tue June 19, 2012

Why You Shouldn't Panic About Pesticide In Produce

Apples made the top of the list for produce containing pesticide residue, but how much is unsafe?
iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Tue June 19, 2012 3:37 pm

The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit health advocacy organization, says you should be concerned about pesticide residues in fruits and vegetables, but not so concerned that you stop eating these foods.

That's the mixed message delivered in the eighth edition of EWG's annual Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce released today.

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Shots - Health Blog
2:43 am
Mon June 4, 2012

What's Different About The Brains Of People With Autism?

Jeff Hudale, who is autistic, demonstrates a face recognition test at the University of Pittsburgh in 2010. Researchers use eye tracking devices to monitor and record what he is looking at.
Rebecca Droke Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Originally published on Wed June 6, 2012 1:21 pm

Like a lot of people with autism, Jeff Hudale has a brain that's really good at some things.

"I have an unusual aptitude for numbers, namely math computations," he says.

Hudale can do triple-digit multiplication in his head. That sort of ability helped him get a degree in engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. But he says his brain struggles with other subjects like literature and philosophy.

"I like working with things that are rather concrete and structured," he says. "Yeah, I like things with some logic and some rules to it."

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The Fracking Boom: Missing Answers
2:41 pm
Wed May 16, 2012

Town's Effort To Link Fracking And Illness Falls Short

NPR

Originally published on Thu May 24, 2012 11:35 am

Quite a few of the 225 people who live in Dish, Texas, think the nation's natural gas boom is making them sick.

They blame the chemicals used in gas production for health problems ranging from nosebleeds to cancer.

And the mayor of Dish, Bill Sciscoe, has a message for people who live in places where gas drilling is about to start: "Run. Run as fast as you can. Grab up your family and your belongings, and get out."

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The Fracking Boom: Missing Answers
3:04 am
Wed May 16, 2012

Medical Records Could Yield Answers On Fracking

William Reigle has fibrosis, a disease that may be aggravated by nearby fracking. He's one of more than 2 million Pennsylvanians who get their health care from Geisinger Health System. The system wants to use its extensive database of patient records to study the health impact of natural gas production.
Maggie Starbard NPR

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:50 am

A proposed study of people in northern Pennsylvania could help resolve a national debate about whether the natural gas boom is making people sick.

The study would look at detailed health histories on hundreds of thousands of people who live near the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation in which energy companies have already drilled about 5,000 natural gas wells.

If the study goes forward, it would be the first large-scale, scientifically rigorous assessment of the health effects of gas production.

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Shots - Health Blog
3:39 am
Mon April 23, 2012

Children With Autism Are Often Targeted By Bullies

Abby Mahoney, 13, has Asperger's syndrome. She says she has memorized nearly everything there is to know about Star Wars. Her enthusiasm for the subject helped make her the target of a bullying boy.
Courtesy of the Mahoney family

Originally published on Mon April 23, 2012 9:42 am

Lots of kids get bullied. But kids with autism are especially vulnerable.

A new survey by the Interactive Autism Network found that nearly two-thirds of children with autism spectrum disorders have been bullied at some point. And it found that these kids are three times as likely as typical kids to have been bullied in the past month.

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