11:52 AM

Human brains pre-wired for words is coolest science story of 2020

The polls have closed, the ballots have been counted, and when it comes to the coolest Ohio State science story of the year, we’re thrilled to report that the word nerds win.

The award for coolest science story of 2020 goes to researchers who discovered that the human brain is “pre-wired” to see words and letters, a finding that suggests the brain is fertile ground for humans to learn to read and write – even before they are exposed to language.

The winning research team was led by Zeynep Saygin, an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio State. The team analyzed brain scans of newborns, all less than a week old, and found that a part of the human brain called the “visual word form area” is already connected to the language network of the brain.

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports. Ohio State News featured it in an Oct. 22 story by Jeff Grabmeier.

That research received 216 votes, beating out the second-place story, which was about the development of soft robots that fold up like origami to deliver medications and other therapies to cells inside the body. The other three finalists included stories about research on gut bacteria, babies mimicking songs and winning streaks. (Links to all the stories are below. Click here to see video interviews with each of the nominated researchers.)

Thanks to all our researchers, and to all who voted. We at Ohio State News are excited about the cool new research coming in 2021!


How good gut bacteria help reduce the risk for heart disease: Scientists discovered that one of the good bacteria found in the human gut has a benefit that has remained unrecognized until now: the potential to reduce the risk for heart disease.

Babies mimic songs, study finds: Researchers — and parents — have long known that babies learn to speak by mimicking the words they hear. But a study this year showed that babies also might try to imitate the singing they hear in songs.

People love winning streaks by individuals — teams, not so much: People enjoy witnessing extraordinary individuals – from athletes to CEOs – extend long runs of dominance in their fields, this study suggested. But they aren’t as interested in seeing similar streaks of success by teams or groups. The reason? Individual success inspires awe in a way that group success does not.

Soft robots, origami combine for potential way to deliver medical treatments: Researchers found a way to send tiny, soft robots into humans, potentially opening the door for less invasive surgeries and ways to deliver treatments for conditions ranging from colon polyps to stomach cancer to aortic artery blockages. The robots make use of the ancient Japanese practice of origami.

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