This Week in Research: Immigrant Children Outperform Peers; Restoring a Lost Sense of Smell

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Nearly a quarter of all American children come from immigrant families. And while the U.S. census has traditionally found that immigrant families have lower socioeconomic status, recent research out of Johns Hopkins shows that there’s plenty of good factors that come along with immigrant status as well — namely the new finding that children born to U.S. immigrants are excelling academically and making smoother transitions to adulthood. Put simply, the children of immigrants are doing better than their U.S.-born peers.

Two Hopkins sociologists, Lingxin Hao and Han S. Woo, tracked more than 10,000 children over more than a decade — from their early teens to their early 30s. When they looked at children from similar socioeconomic backgrounds and comparable school conditions, they found that the top students were those who’d been born outside the U.S. and immigrated here before the teenage years. They continued to be successful as young adults. Children born in the U.S. to immigrant parents had similarly successful trajectories.

Hao’s explanation for this immigration success story? The greater sense of community among families, a solidarity that’s often born out of necessity and hardship. To that end, community ties and cultural or ethnic role models serve as protective factors to help inspire and challenge immigrant children. “My hope is that policymakers will look at our findings and work on ways to create similar ‘protective factors’ for all racial minority children,” Hao said, “because these factors allow children from immigrant families to do well and be resilient despite their lower socioeconomic and racial-minority backgrounds.”

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A world without smell would be a terrible thing. Food would taste flatter, flowers would be pointless. If anosmia (the loss of the sense of smell) is something that terrifies you, you can sleep a little easier tonight:  Johns Hopkins scientists have figured out how to use gene therapy to restore the sense of smell in mice, and the technique might soon be applied to humans as well.

The anosmia-targeted gene therapy — the first successful application of that method in live mammals — was able to restore the crucial, tiny, hair-like structures that enable cells in the olfactory system to do its job. Those hair-like cilia contain receptors for odorants; when they’re damaged, the olfactory cells become a broken link in the smell-detection chain.

While Johns Hopkins olfaction expert Randall Reed cautions that the human version of the gene therapy is still years away, he does note that it would probably be most successful in those with genetically inherited anosmia. Furthermore, “our work has already contributed to a better understanding of the cellular factors involved in anosmia, and that will give us insights into other neurological disorders, as well,” he says. We have cilia not just in our olfactory cels, but also in our kidneys, eyeballs, and all over the place.



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