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.

For a few days this week, a convention center in Chicago became the global epicenter of brain science.

Nearly 30,000 scientists swarmed through the vast hallways of the McCormick Place convention center as part of the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting. Among them were Nobel Prize winners, the director of the National Institutes of Health, and scores of researchers regarded as the international rock stars of neuroscience.

On April 27, 1865, the steamboat Sultana exploded and sank while traveling up the Mississippi River, killing an estimated 1,800 people.

The event remains the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history (the sinking of the Titanic killed 1,512 people). Yet few know the story of the Sultana's demise, or the ensuing rescue effort that included Confederate soldiers saving Union soldiers they might have shot just weeks earlier.

Researchers have discovered the exact structure of the receptor that makes our sensory nerves tingle when we eat sushi garnished with wasabi. And because the "wasabi receptor" is also involved in pain perception, knowing its shape should help pharmaceutical companies develop new drugs to fight pain.

Even a careful psychiatric examination of the co-pilot involved in last week's Germanwings jetliner crash probably would not have revealed whether he intended to kill himself, researchers say.

"As a field, we're not very good at accurately predicting who is at risk for suicidal behavior," says Matthew Nock, a psychology professor at Harvard. He says studies show that mental health professionals "perform no better than chance" when it comes to predicting which patients will attempt suicide.

A new understanding of the brain's cerebellum could lead to new treatments for people with problems caused by some strokes, autism and even schizophrenia.

That's because there's growing evidence that symptoms ranging from difficulty with abstract thinking to emotional instability to psychosis all have links to the cerebellum, says Jeremy Schmahmann, a professor of neurology at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Brain scans may soon be able to help predict a person's future — some aspects of it, anyway.

Information from these scans increasingly is able to suggest whether a child will have trouble with math, say, or whether someone with mental illness is going to respond to a particular treatment, according to a review of dozens of studies published Wednesday in the journal Neuron.

Bob Smithson had been in the critical care unit at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston for more than a week. He had a rare neuromuscular disease, and his 78-year-old body was being kept alive by tubes that delivered air to his lungs and food to his stomach.

Then Bob's wife, Pat, got some really disturbing news. The hospital's medical staff wanted Bob to have a tracheostomy, a surgical procedure that would carve a hole in his neck and allow doctors to keep him on a breathing machine indefinitely.

Ebola has killed more than 1,300 people in Liberia's capital of Monrovia. But for the million-plus residents who aren't sick, life goes on even as their city is reshaped by death.

On market day, the downtown is teeming with shoppers and merchants and people just hanging out. It almost looks like commerce as usual until you notice all the "Ebola buckets," elevated plastic containers with spigots that deliver a chlorine solution for hand-washing.

Dan Reiter, 37, is a long-board surfer and contractor who used to live in Tampa, Fla. Then he discovered the surf breaks along a stretch of coast south of Cape Canaveral. "It's one of the most beautiful places in the world to live and surf and raise your kids," says Reiter, 37, as we watch head-high waves roll into Hightower Beach.

But there's trouble in this coastal paradise. It's on a low-lying barrier island that's getting lower as sea level rises. So the cities here are looking for ways to keep the water at bay or retreat from it.

You can't just open up a living brain and see the memories inside.

So Roberto Malinow, a brain scientist at the University of California, San Diego, has spent years trying to find other ways to understand how memories are made and lost. The research — right now being done in rats – should lead to a better understanding of human memory problems ranging from Alzheimer's to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Germany's famous Max Planck Society has opened a brain research institute in Jupiter, Fla. It's another move in the international competition to attract the best brain researchers.

In the early 1990s, a young brain researcher named Ivan Soltesz heard a story that would shape his career.

His adviser told him about a school for children whose epileptic seizures were so severe and frequent that they had to wear helmets to prevent head injuries. The only exception to the helmet rule was for students who received an award.

"The big deal for them is that they can take the helmet off while they're walking across the stage," Soltesz says. "And that thing struck me as just wrong."

A gene associated with Alzheimer's disease appears especially dangerous to women and may be one reason that more women than men are diagnosed with the disease.

Francis Csedrik, who is 8 and lives in Washington, D.C., remembers a lot of events from when he was 4 or just a bit younger. There was the time he fell "headfirst on a marble floor" and got a concussion, the day someone stole the family car ("my dad had to chase it down the block"), or the morning he found a black bat (the furry kind) in the house.

The symptoms of autism may not be obvious until a child is a toddler, but the disorder itself appears to begin well before birth.

Brain tissue taken from children who died and also happened to have autism revealed patches of disorganization in the cortex, a thin sheet of cells that's critical for learning and memory, researchers report in the New England Journal of Medicine. Tissue samples from children without autism didn't have those characteristic patches.

Maybe BPA isn't so bad after all.

The plastic additive has been vilified by environmental advocacy groups. But the chemical had no effect on rats fed thousands of times the amount a typical person ingests, government scientists are reporting in the journal Toxicological Sciences.

When President Obama announced his BRAIN Initiative in April, he promised to give scientists "the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action."

An early version of one of those tools already exists, scientists say. It's a relatively new set of techniques called optogenetics that allows researchers to control the activity of brain cells using light.

Think back to an important event in your life: a graduation, a birth, a special Thanksgiving dinner. Chances are you're remembering not only what happened, but also where it happened. And now scientists think they know why.

As we form so-called episodic memories, the brain appears to be using special cells in the hippocampus to "geotag" each event, researchers report in Science. The process is similar to what some digital cameras do when they tag each picture with information about where the image was taken.

Lots of studies have shown that cigarette smoke isn't good for a fetus. So many pregnant women use nicotine gum or skin patches or inhalers to help them stay away from cigarettes.

A few years ago, Megan Stern became one of those women. "I smoked heavily for the first seven weeks of my pregnancy because I didn't know I was pregnant," she says. "It was an accidental pregnancy, and I found out while I was in the emergency room for another issue."

When President Obama announced his plan to explore the mysteries of the human brain seven months ago, it was long on ambition and short on details.

Now some of the details are being sketched in.

The BRAIN Initiative will include efforts to restore lost memories in war veterans, create tools that let scientists study individual brain circuits and map the nervous system of the fruit fly.