In The News
New research has discovered a link between a particular gene variant in children and wider mood swings.
Children with this variant tend to react with more aggression in negative situations but also react more positively during the good times, according to the researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).
In any random group of people (children and adults), some will react more strongly to stress, while others will maintain their composure in nearly any situation. Genes can at least partly explain this phenomenon, and in this particular case, the gene being studied is involved in dopamine breakdown in the brain.
For the study, the researchers, led by Beate W. Hygen of NTNU’s Department of Psychology and NTNU Social Research, found a correlation between aggression and a particular gene variant present in children whether or not they had experienced serious life events.
This finding was a confirmation of previous studies, but the Norwegian researchers also found that children who were more aggressive when they were exposed to stress were the least aggressive when they were not exposed to stress. This indicated that they had a tendency to greater variation in behavior in both directions than their less aggressive counterparts.
The findings help support “differential susceptibility,” a theory which suggests that some individuals are more susceptible to environmental conditions, for better or for worse, partly because of their genotype.
Previously, scientists thought that some children are more vulnerable than others when experiencing trauma or stress, and that these vulnerable children function on an equal footing with others in positive environmental conditions.
Differential susceptibility theory, however, suggests that those individuals most affected by adverse conditions may also benefit most from positive conditions. In other words, these individuals function better under positive environmental influences than those who are not as susceptible to environmental conditions.
The researchers suggest that having more emotionally intense or aggressive individuals among us may not be such a bad thing. In fact, it may be a helpful adaptation to society.
For example, in a stable situation with adequate resources, people with a stable temperament will have an advantage, while those with more aggressive temperaments are more likely to overreact to slighter problems.
However, as soon as conditions change, such as an increase in the struggle for resources, those who react more strongly to external influences may have the advantage. Therefore, the best scenario, according to some experts, would be for a population to have a broad mix of people with varying tendencies to react aggressively.
The results of the Norwegian study were recently published in Developmental Psychology.
Teens who identify very strongly with goth culture at age 15 are three times more likely to be clinically depressed and five times more likely to self-harm at age 18 than their non-goth peers, according to new research published in the journal The Lancet Psychiatry.
“Our study does not show that being a goth causes depression or self-harm, but rather that some young goths are more vulnerable to developing these conditions,” said lead author Dr. Lucy Bowes from the University of Oxford in the UK.
Previously, researchers had linked contemporary goth youth subculture with deliberate self harm, but until now whether this association was more attributable to the traits of young people, their families, or their circumstances was unclear.
The study used data from the UK Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children to investigate whether identifying with the goth subculture at age 15 is linked with depression and self-harm in early adulthood.
The analysis involved 3694 teenagers who provided information on self-harm and depressive mood and the extent to which they identified as a goth at 15 years, as well as their levels of depression and self-harm at age 18.
Participants were also asked about identification with a variety of other youth subcultures (i.e., sporty, popular, skaters, loners, etc.). The researchers found that the more young people identified with the goth subculture, the higher their likelihood of self-harm and depression.
For example, compared to young people who did not identify as a goth at age 15, those who “somewhat” identified as a goth were 1.6 times as likely to have scores in the clinical range for depression at age 18, and teenagers who “very much” identified with the goth subculture were more than three times as likely to be depressed.
While a few other subcultures were also associated with adult depression and self-harm (i.e., skaters and loners), the associated was strongest for goths. Young people who self-identified as “sporty” were least likely to have depression or self-harm at age 18.
Goth identification remained a strong predictor of future self-harm and depression even when a wide range of other individual, family, and social factors that are known to increase the risk of self-harm and depression were taken into account.
These included previous depression and self-harm, early emotional and behavioral difficulties, psychiatric disorder, history of bullying, and the mental health of their mothers.
As this is an observational study, no definitive conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect, and the findings cannot be used to claim that becoming a goth causes an increased risk of self-harm and depression, say the researchers.
The researchers speculate that the goth subculture may provide an important source of validation and a community within which young people who do not conform with societal norms can be understood.
“Teenagers who are susceptible to depression or with a tendency to self-harm might be attracted to the goth subculture which is known to embrace marginalized individuals from all backgrounds, including those with mental health problems,” said co-author Dr. Rebecca Pearson from the University of Bristol in the UK.
“Alternatively, the extent to which young people self-identify with the goth subculture may represent the extent to which at-risk young people feel isolated, ostracized, or stigmatized by society. These young people may be attracted to like-minded goths who face similar stressors.”
Source: The Lancet
A new study has found that children who are exposed to toxic air pollutants at home are more likely to have lower grade point averages (GPAs).
Researchers at the University of Texas at El Paso analyzed academic performance and sociodemographic data for 1,895 fourth and fifth grade children who were attending the El Paso Independent School District (EPISD).
They then used the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Air Toxics Assessment to estimate children’s exposure to toxic air pollutants, such as diesel exhaust, around their homes.
The researchers found that children who were exposed to high levels of motor vehicle emissions from cars, trucks, and buses on roads and highways were found to have significantly lower GPAs, even when accounting for other factors known to influence school performance.
“There are two pathways that can help us to explain this association,” said the study’s co-author, Sara E. Grineski, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology and anthropology.
“Some evidence suggests that this association might exist because of illnesses, such as respiratory infections or asthma. Air pollution makes children sick, which leads to absenteeism and poor performance in school. The other hypothesis is that chronic exposure to air toxics can negatively affect children’s neurological and brain development.”
This is the ninth study to emerge from a 2012 children’s respiratory health survey developed at UTEP that was mailed to the homes of fourth and fifth graders enrolled in all 58 elementary schools in the district.
Parents and guardians answered questions about their children’s grades in reading, language arts, math, social studies, and science. The survey also asked about the family’s income, household size, parent’s education level, and if the child qualified for free or reduced-price meals.
Grineski notes that this isn’t a phenomenon unique to this particular school district.
“What makes our study different is that we are actually studying kids in their home setting, but there’s a body of literature where they have studied levels of air pollution at schools in California and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, instead of at children’s homes,” she said.
“A study on the Los Angeles Unified School District showed that schools with higher levels of pollution have lower standardized test scores.”
The study was published in the academic journal Population and Environment.
Source: University of Texas at El Paso
Shortening the school week to only four days appears to boost elementary school students’ math performance, according to a new study by researchers at Georgia State University and Montana State University.
The study evaluated the impact of a four-day school week on student achievement by comparing fourth-grade reading and fifth-grade math test scores from the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) to those of students who attended a traditional five-day school week.
The findings showed that a four-day school week had a statistically significant positive impact on math scores for fifth-grade students. Reading scores were not affected.
The study suggests there is little evidence that moving to a four-day week would harm student academic achievement, an important finding for U.S. school districts seeking ways to cut costs without hindering learning.
“What interested me about our results is they were completely opposite to what we anticipated,” said Mary Beth Walker, Ph.D., dean of the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State.
“We thought that especially for the younger, elementary school kids, longer days on a shorter school week would hurt their academic performance because their attention spans are shorter. Also, a longer weekend would give them more opportunity to forget what they had learned.”
While the shorter school week did not have a measurable impact on reading outcomes, “the idea that the change in the calendar did not have negative effects we thought was an important result,” Walker said.
Several school districts in the U.S. have transitioned from the traditional Monday through Friday schedule to a four-day week schedule as a cost-saving measure to reduce overhead and transportation costs.
The four-day school week requires school districts to lengthen the school day to meet minimum instructional hour requirements. Until now, however, there was a lack of information on whether the four-day school week affects student performance, Walker said.
The researchers have speculated on why the shortened school week positively affected students but there is not enough data to draw definite conclusions.
“We thought the longer days might give teachers an opportunity to use different kinds of instructional processes,” Walker said. “We also speculated that a four-day school week lowered absenteeism, so students who had dentist’s appointments or events might be able to put those off until Friday and not miss school. We thought there might be less teacher absenteeism.
“My own personal hypothesis is teachers liked it so much — they were so enthusiastic about the four-day week — they did a better job. There’s some evidence in other labor studies that four-day work weeks enhance productivity.”
Walker notes that the findings are only applicable to smaller and more rural school districts. Further studies should be performed to understand the effects on urban school districts, she said.
The research is published in the journal Education, Finance and Policy.
Source: Georgia State University
A breakthrough discovery improves the odds that medications can be developed to cure or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
Researchers affiliated with the University of Montreal Hospital Research Centre (CRCHUM) discovered people with Alzheimer’s disease have fat deposits in the brain. Although Alzheimer’s disease was first described 109 years ago, the discovery of accumulated fat droplets in the brain of patients who died from the disease is new. Moreover, researchers have identified the nature of the fat which may lead to potential remedies.
This finding, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, opens up a new avenue in the search for a medication to cure or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
“We found fatty acid deposits in the brain of patients who died from the disease and in mice that were genetically modified to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Our experiments suggest that these abnormal fat deposits could be a trigger for the disease”, said Karl Fernandes, a researcher at the CRCHUM and a professor at University of Montreal.
Over 47.5 million people worldwide have Alzheimer’s disease or some other type of dementia, according to the World Health Organization. Despite decades of research, the only medications currently available treat the symptoms alone.
Investigators are hopeful that the new findings may prove to be a missing link in the field. Researchers initially tried to understand why the brain’s stem cells, which normally help repair brain damage, are unresponsive in Alzheimer’s disease.
Doctoral student Laura Hamilton was astonished to find fat droplets near the stem cells, on the inner surface of the brain in mice predisposed to develop the disease.
“We realized that Dr. Alois Alzheimer himself had noted the presence of lipid accumulations in patients’ brains after their death when he first described the disease in 1906. But this observation was dismissed and largely forgotten due to the complexity of lipid biochemistry,” said Laura Hamilton.
The researchers examined the brains of nine patients who died from Alzheimer’s disease and found significantly more fat droplets compared with five healthy brains. A team of chemists from University of Montreal led by Pierre Chaurand then used an advanced mass spectrometry technique to identify these fat deposits as triglycerides enriched with specific fatty acids, which can also be found in animal fats and vegetable oils.
“We discovered that these fatty acids are produced by the brain, that they build up slowly with normal aging, but that the process is accelerated significantly in the presence of genes that are predispose to Alzheimer’s disease”, explained Karl Fernandes.
In mice predisposed to the disease, we showed that these fatty acids accumulate very early on, at two months of age, which corresponds to the early twenties in humans. Therefore, we think that the build-up of fatty acids is not a consequence but rather a cause or accelerator of the disease.”
Investigators are excited as there are medications that can inhibit the enzyme that produces these types of fatty acids. These molecules, which are currently being tested for metabolic diseases such as obesity, could be effective in treating Alzheimer’s disease.
“We succeeded in preventing these fatty acids from building up in the brains of mice predisposed to the disease. The impact of this treatment on all the aspects of the disease is not yet known, but it significantly increased stem cell activity,” explained Karl Fernandes.
“This is very promising because stem cells play an important role in learning, memory, and regeneration.”
Investigators explain that this discovery lends support to the argument that Alzheimer’s disease is a metabolic brain disease, similar to obesity or diabetes which are peripheral metabolic diseases.
The research team is continuing its experiments to verify whether this new approach can prevent or delay the problems with memory, learning, and depression associated with the disease.
Aspects of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may persist into adulthood, even when current diagnostic measures fail to identify its presence, according to new research published in the journal European Child Adolescent Psychiatry.
The findings show that young adults who had been diagnosed with ADHD in adolescence have differences in brain structure and perform poorly in memory tests compared to their peers.
Some experts have speculated that as the brain develops in adulthood, children may grow out of ADHD, but until now there has been minimal rigorous research to support this.
So far, most studies that have followed up on children and adolescents with ADHD into adulthood have focused on interview-based assessments, leaving questions of brain structure and function unanswered.
Current estimates suggest that between 10-50 percent of children with ADHD still have it as adults. Diagnosis in adulthood is currently reliant on meeting symptom checklists (such as the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual).
For the new study, researchers from the University of Cambridge, UK, and the University of Oulu, Finland followed 49 adolescents diagnosed with ADHD at age 16. They examined their brain structure and memory function in young adulthood, at 20-24 years old, and compared the findings to a control group of 34 young adults.
The researchers found that the group diagnosed in adolescence still had problems in terms of reduced brain volume and poorer memory function, regardless of whether or not they still met diagnostic checklist criteria for ADHD.
Through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans, the researchers found that the adolescents with ADHD had reduced grey matter in the caudate nucleus, a key brain region that integrates information across different parts of the brain, and supports important cognitive functions, including memory.
To find out whether these grey matter deficits were of any importance, the researchers conducted a functional MRI experiment (fMRI), which measured brain activity while the participants took a test of working memory inside the scanner.
One-third of the adolescents with ADHD failed the memory test compared to less than one in twenty of the control group (an accuracy of less than 75 percent was classed as a fail).
Even among the adolescent ADHD sample who passed the memory test, the scores were on average six percentage points less than controls. There were no differences in brain structure or memory test scores between those young adults previously diagnosed with ADHD who still met the diagnostic criteria and those who no longer met them.
“In the controls, when the test got harder, the caudate nucleus went up a gear in its activity, and this is likely to have helped solve the memory problems. But in the group with adolescent ADHD, this region of the brain is smaller and doesn’t seem to be able to respond to increasing memory demands, with the result that memory performance suffers,” says study leader Dr. Graham Murray from the Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge.
“We know that good memory function supports a variety of other mental processes, and memory problems can certainly hold people back in terms of success in education and the workplace. The next step in our research will be to examine whether these differences in brain structure and memory function are linked to difficulties in everyday life, and, crucially, see if they respond to treatment.”
The fact that the study was set in Finland, where medication is rarely used to treat ADHD, meant that only one of the 49 ADHD adolescents had been treated with medication. Therefore, the researchers were able to confidently rule out medication as a confounding factor.
Source: University of Cambridge
Given the often tragic daily news, determining when a severely depressed individual is at risk for suicide has become an important societal issue.
While experts explain that only a small minority of people who faces challenges or who live with severe depression commits suicide, they recognize that some people are more vulnerable than others.
A series of studies has now shown that the way in which a person makes decisions may be a factor that determines whether that person is protected from or vulnerable to suicide.
Investigators discovered high-risk decision-making was prevalent among many parents of individuals who committed suicide, which may serve to explain its apparent “inheritability”.
The work by Dr. Fabrice Jollant, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at McGill University and collegues, appears in the Journal of Psychiatric Research. In the article, Jollant explains how difficulty making effective decisions can predispose an individual to suicide, and by the same token, can lead to potential solutions for prevention.
Suicidal thoughts must be studied indirectly, say the researchers. Previous studies have focused on individuals who have attempted suicide. Here, in order to understand the vulnerability to suicide and study the family dimension, Dr. Jollant and his colleagues focused on the close relatives of individuals who committed suicide, including parents, brothers, and sisters who are in good mental health.
In the study, family members underwent neuropsychological tests. “We know that the close relatives of people who commit suicide carry certain traits linked to suicide vulnerability, even if they have never expressed them through a suicidal attempt,” Dr. Jollant explained.
One of these tests is a betting game, where the players must win as much money as possible by choosing cards from among several piles. Some piles carry more risk: they sometimes pay off big, but they lose over the long term. Other piles are safer: the pay offs are small, but the losses are also small.
Researchers discovered that individuals from families without suicides learn to choose the piles that pay off over the long term, the relatives of suicide completers continue to make high-risk choices, even after numerous attempts. This behavior suggests a higher degree of difficulty in learning from their experiences.
Functional MRI scans of the brain confirmed that certain areas of the prefrontal cortex used for decision-making function differently among these individuals — with brain involvement similar to those who have attempted suicide.
According to Dr. Jollant, “People who have a tendency to make risky decisions lean toward solutions that provide short-term benefits despite the high risk, instead of solutions that are safer over the long term. They also have difficulty identifying alternative solutions when faced with a problem.”
This can explain the link between decision-making and suicide. “Within the context of a major depression, this difficulty making good decisions can translate into choosing death, which is a solution that ends the suffering immediately, despite its irreparable consequences, without seeing any alternative solutions.”
Researchers also believe that poor life choices in general creates a variety of stress factors. “We have specifically demonstrated that individuals who make risky decisions experience more problems in their personal relationships, which represent classic triggers for suicidal crises,” Dr. Jollant added.
The study also points toward possible solutions for at-risk individuals, which must be confirmed by additional research over the coming years.
Dr. Jollant went on to say, “Beyond decision-making, we also found that the close relatives of suicide victims who were in good mental health performed very well in other tests, demonstrating the ability to control their thoughts.
“This may counterbalance their difficulty in making proper decisions, and may have protected them from suicide. We can foresee developing psychotherapies that focus on decision-making and other cognitive functions in order to reduce the vulnerability to suicide.”
Another option may be the use of neurostimulation to help individuals who exhibit suicidal tendencies. Dr. Berlim, a Researcher at the Douglas Institute, and Dr. Jollant have already demonstrated that the decision-making test scores for individuals who are in good mental health can be improved by stimulating certain areas of the brain with a mild electric current using electrodes affixed to the skull.
Medications that target decision-making represent another research approach.
All together investigators believe that improving decision-making, while not the only factor to prevent suicide, is a promising new approach for therapeutic interventions.
While it has been ten years since Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf coast, researchers are still learning how the disaster influenced the mental health of local residents.
Specifically, researchers have discovered that about 10 percent of mothers experienced chronic, persistent depressive symptoms two years after Hurricane Katrina killed more than 1,800 people, displaced hundreds of thousands, and caused widespread damage estimated at more than $100 billion.
While most people don’t develop persistent depression after a major disaster like that, a small but significant number will, according to a study led by Dr. Betty S. Lai, assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the School of Public Health at Georgia State University.
The study, titled “Hurricane Katrina: Maternal Depression Trajectories and Child Outcomes,” was published recently in the journal Current Psychology.
Researchers tracked 283 mothers and their children who were living in southern Louisiana during the storm. Researchers examined their depression levels during the two years following the event.
“Overall, our findings indicate that the majority of mothers did not report elevated depressive symptom trajectories post-disaster,” the report stated. However, 10 percent of the mothers reported “chronic, persistent depressive symptoms more than two years postdisaster.”
Because maternal depression has been linked to negative parenting practices and increased behavioral problems in children, “understanding maternal depression following a disaster is necessary for developing interventions for improving maternal adjustment,” the report said.
Researchers focused specifically on low-income women, the majority of whom are single parents. In their report, investigators noted that mothers, in general, may report higher levels of depression after large-scale disasters because they often place the needs of their children above their own.
Impoverished mothers face an even greater risk of developing depression in those circumstances because they may have scant support resources.
The study also examined how maternal depression affected children, focusing on symptoms such as posttraumatic stress, depression, and anxiety. Surprisingly, maternal depression trajectories were not associated with differences in children’s distress symptoms,” the report stated.
Researchers noted that studies examining fathers’ distress symptoms are needed to better understand the family dynamic after disasters.
New research finds that a work culture that allows frequent sexist wisecracks, or an office environment where women are ignored, are both as damaging to women as single instances of sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention.
The findings come from an analysis of 88 independent studies of a combined 73,877 working women. The study appears in the journal The Psychology of Women Quarterly.
“Norms, leadership, or policies, that reduce intense harmful experiences may lead managers to believe that they have solved the problem of maltreatment of women in the workplace,” wrote the study authors Dr. Victor E. Sojo, Dr. Robert E. Wood and Anna E. Genat.
“However, the more frequent, less intense, and often unchallenged gender harassment, sexist discrimination, sexist organizational climate, and organizational tolerance for sexual harassment appeared at least as detrimental for women’s wellbeing. They should not be considered lesser forms of sexism.”
Researchers found the following associations:
- Sexism and gender harassment were just as harmful to working women’s individual health and work attitudes as common job stressors such as work overload and poor working conditions;
- When women are the targets of sexism and harassment in the workplace, they are more dissatisfied with supervisors than co-workers;
- There was a trend of a more negative effect of sexism and harassment in male-dominated workplaces, such as the armed forces and financial and legal services firms. However, the authors suggested this required further research.
Study authors believe covert and overt sexism are both damaging to women.
“Our results suggest that organizations should have zero tolerance for low intensity sexism, the same way they do for overt harassment. This will require teaching workers about the harmful nature of low intensity sexist events, not only for women, but also for the overall organizational climate.”
A new study from the University of Kent finds that people with low self-esteem use a variety of escape mechanisms to avoid thinking about their own mortality.
Unfortunately, most of the the practices are unhealthy and may even be habit-forming.
Dr. Arnaud Wisman and researchers from Kent found evidence in five studies that people with low self-esteem respond to reminders of their own mortality by directing their focus away from the self.
Investigators determined that people with low self-esteem have unconscious concerns about their own mortality, and often employ a variety of ways to escape from self-awareness. The study demonstrated this link both inside and outside the laboratory.
For example, the escape from self-awareness may be expressed by avoiding writing about oneself, increasing alcohol consumption, and having less self-related thoughts, say the researchers.
In addition to drinking more alcohol in response to a mortality reminder, people with low self-esteem may be more likely to choose to engage in any number of health risk behaviors such as drug use, binge eating, smoking, and cutting that are conducive to escaping self-awareness.
These behaviors would enable them to, at least in the short term, avoid negative self-awareness.
Researchers believe the findings may help inform future health policy discussion leading to more proactive strategies for those with low self-esteem.
Two prominent researchers have sounded the alarm again about Americans’ unhealthy, even lethal, sedentary lifestyles.
A new commentary, “Regular Physical Activity: Forgotten Benefits,” published online ahead of print in the American Journal of Medicine, laments the lack of physical activity by Americans. In the paper, Florida Atlantic University’s Steven Lewis, Ph.D., and Charles H. Hennekens, M.D., Dr. P.H., stress how lack of physical activity in Americans poses important clinical, public health, and fiscal challenges for the nation.
“Lack of physical activity accounts for 22 percent of coronary heart disease, 22 percent of colon cancer, 18 percent of osteoporotic fractures, 12 percent of diabetes and hypertension, and five percent of breast cancer,” said Hennekens.
“Furthermore, physical inactivity accounts for about 2.4 percent of U.S. health care expenditures or approximately $24 billion a year.”
The statistics of physical inactivity in the U.S. are staggering. According to Healthy People 2020, approximately 36 percent of adults do not engage in any leisure-time physical activity, despite the fact that walking may be comparable to more vigorous exercise in preventing a cardiovascular event.
Even in patients who have had a heart attack and who undergo cardiac rehabilitation, it’s estimated that less than 15 percent actually participate in cardiac rehabilitation following discharge.
Men and women who engage in regular physical activity experience statistically significant and clinically important reductions in the risk of dying from coronary heart disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S.
The authors point out that brisk walking every day for only 20 minutes, which can be practiced even among the oldest adults, confers a 30 to 40 percent reduced risk of a heart attack.
The benefits of physical activity also include improved mental health and stronger muscles, bones, and joints in all Americans from childhood to the elderly.
“There’s a lot more that we can do to address this national epidemic among people of all ages,” said Lewis.
“For example, clinicians should screen and refer obese patients to programs that offer intensive counseling for weight control and physical activity. This simple, straightforward and easily achievable objective may be the first necessary step to lower rates of obesity and physical inactivity in the U.S. today.”
Patients commonly ask their physicians questions such as, “What exercise should I do?” “How long should I do the exercise, how often and how hard do I need to exercise?”
These questions need to be answered better, say the authors. They emphasize the need for better defined guidelines for the types, intensities, frequencies, and durations of exercise for clinicians to provide to their patients.
“Unfortunately, most Americans prefer prescription of pills to proscription of harmful lifestyles such as physical inactivity,” said Hennekens.
“In general, any pharmacologic intervention should be an adjunct, not alternative, to therapeutic lifestyle changes such as increasing levels of physical activity. Based on the current totality of evidence, when compared with most pharmacologic therapies, exercise is more readily available at a low cost and relatively free of adverse effect.”
Researchers say an automated speech analysis program can determine the risk of a young person developing psychosis.
In a new study, scientists at Columbia University Medical Center, New York State Psychiatric Institute, and the IBM T. J. Watson Research Center found that a computerized analysis program correctly differentiated between at-risk young people who developed psychosis over a two and a half year period and those who did not.
Researchers say the proof-of-principle study found that the computerized analysis provided a more accurate classification than clinical ratings. The study appears in NPJ-Schizophrenia.
Experts explain that about one percent of the population between the age of 14 and 27 is considered to be at clinical high risk (CHR) for psychosis. CHR individuals have symptoms such as unusual or tangential thinking, perceptual changes, and suspiciousness.
About 20 percent will go on to experience a full-blown psychotic episode. Identifying who falls in that 20 percent category before psychosis occurs has been an elusive goal. Early identification could lead to intervention and support that could delay, mitigate, or even prevent the onset of serious mental illness.
Interestingly, speech provides a unique window into the mind, giving important clues about what people are thinking and feeling. Participants in the study took part in an open-ended, narrative interview in which they described their subjective experiences.
These interviews were transcribed and then analyzed by computer for patterns of speech, including semantics (meaning) and syntax (structure).
Researchers explain that the software established each patient’s semantic coherence (how well he or she stayed on topic), and syntactic structure, such as phrase length and use of determiner words that link the phrases.
A clinical psychiatrist may intuitively recognize these signs of disorganized thoughts in a traditional interview, but a machine can augment what is heard by precisely measuring the variables.
The participants were then followed for two and a half years.
Investigators found key speech features were predictive of future mental problems. Specifically, speech characteristics that predicted psychosis onset included breaks in the flow of meaning from one sentence to the next, and speech that was characterized by shorter phrases with less elaboration.
The speech classifier tool developed in this study to mechanically sort these specific, symptom-related features achieved 100 percent accuracy. That is, the computer analysis correctly differentiated between the five individuals who later experienced a psychotic episode and the 29 who did not.
Investigators believe these results suggest that this method may be able to identify thought disorder in its earliest, most subtle form, years before the onset of psychosis. Thought disorder is a key component of schizophrenia, but quantifying it has proved difficult.
For the field of schizophrenia research, and for psychiatry more broadly, the approach opens the possibility that new technology can aid in prognosis and diagnosis of severe mental disorders, and track treatment response.
Automated speech analysis is inexpensive, portable, fast, and non-invasive. It has the potential to be a powerful tool that can complement clinical interviews and ratings.
Nevertheless, investigators say that additional research with a second, larger group of at-risk individuals is needed to see if this automated capacity to predict psychosis onset is both robust and reliable.
This research can also facilitate additional diagnostic interventions as automated speech analysis could be used in conjunction with neuroimaging to obtain a better understanding of early thought disorder(s) and new approaches for treatment.
New research discovers that when occasions call for the brain to make sudden changes, we often fail to remember why we halted the original action.
For example, you’re driving on a busy road and you intend to switch lanes when you suddenly realize that there’s a car in your blind spot. You have to put a stop to your lane change and quickly.
Duke University researchers found that this type of scenario makes a person less likely to remember what halted the action; for example, the make and model of the car in the blind spot.
People and non-human primates excel at “response inhibition.” Our sophisticated brains allow us to cancel an action even when it’s something engrained. For instance, although it’s not easy, we can override the inclination to drive on the right side of the road when we drive in foreign countries with left-hand traffic.
The new results appears in the Journal of Neuroscience. The findings lend insight into how the ability to inhibit an action — a fundamental aspect of everyday life — affects other important brain functions such as attention and memory.
Researchers believe this knowledge may eventually help to improve the treatment of disorders characterized by difficulty inhibiting actions, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and addiction.
Last year, for a study published in Psychological Science, Tobias Egner, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke, and postdoctoral researcher Yu-Chin Chiu, Ph.D., decided to test how response inhibition affected memory.
In that study, participants completed a computer-based task in which they were asked to press a button if they saw a male face but withhold a response if they saw a female face. (Some subjects were asked to do the reverse.) They looked at a total of 120 different faces.
After five minutes of a filler task that had nothing to do with faces, the participants were then given a surprise memory test in which they viewed faces and were asked to indicate whether a face was new or familiar from the earlier task.
“We didn’t really know which way that would go,” said Egner, who is a member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. “You could argue quite easily that canceling a response to a stimulus might actually make that stimulus more memorable.”
However, they found the exact opposite: Memory was a little worse on the faces for which participants had to inhibit their responses.
In the latest study, Egner and Chiu saw the same results. But this time they wanted to understand why.
Researchers hypothesized that one potential reason people were forgetting the faces was that withholding a response was siphoning off their attention.
Egner and Chiu tested this belief by scanning the brains of participants, using functional magnetic resonance imaging as they completed the tasks. The trial successfully showed that the particular faces that people later forgot were the same ones in which fMRI was showing that a known inhibition network in the brain had been strongly activated.
In addition, the brain areas that are known to be active when a person is committing something to memory — including a region in the front of the brain called the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex — were suppressed on those trials in which the participants had to inhibit their responses strongly.
Not surprisingly, the subjects had poorer memory for those faces. “You don’t encode those stimuli well when you have a high inhibitory demand,” Egner said.
The new result supports Egner and Chiu’s original idea of a see-saw relationship in the required brain demand that underlies response inhibition and memory. They think this can help explain variations in the participants’ recall ability.
In addition, although such a connection is speculative, the findings may help support the observation that children with ADHD who are trying to override their inclination to fidget may not be able to focus as well.
“Trying to inhibit these habitual actions might take a lot of resources, which takes away from paying attention,” Egner said. That is, allowing kids with ADHD to jiggle around may be helpful for maintaining attention and improving memory.
Response inhibition is only one of many forms of control the brain exerts in everyday life. Egner’s group is now studying whether and how other modes of control, such as rapidly switching tasks, affect memory.
Source: Duke University/EurekAlert
A new study has found that employees experience a boost in creativity when management encourages them to network beyond their immediate business contacts.
“Social networks can be important sources of information and insight that may spark employee creativity,” say the researchers.
“The cross-fertilization of ideas depends not just on access to information and insights through one’s direct network — the people one actually interacts with — but at least as much on access to the indirect network one’s direct ties connect to.”
The study was conducted by management experts at Rice University in Houston, Australian National University (ANU), Erasmus University Rotterdam, Monash University in Clayton, Australia, and the University of Los Andes in Bogota, Colombia.
The findings show that it is the “nonredundant ties,” those people we do not interact with directly but with whom our direct ties interact, that offer the greatest source for gathering novel information.
This information can then be used as the raw material for the employee to generate creative ideas, said the researchers, who believe the findings are applicable to U.S. companies.
“More specifically, when networking, building two-step nonredundant ties, which means one’s two direct network ties are not connected by the same third person, is the most efficient way for obtaining nonredundant information and generating creative ideas,” said Dr. Jing Zhou, the Houston Endowment Professor of Management at Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business.
“Thus, employees need to proactively build network ties with such people.”
For the study, the researchers identified sales representatives of a pharmaceutical corporation in China who had developed extensive networks and so were likely to build networks in geographic regions beyond the organization’s territory. These reps would later play key roles building sales networks in these regions.
The researchers then examined the creativity of sales representatives. Sales representatives displayed creativity by developing new ways to promote company products, devising strategies to cross-sell products, figuring out ways to connect with hard-to-access sales targets, and developing ideas or strategies to enhance client sales.
Such examples of creativity are increasingly recognized as essential to gaining competitive advantage and are therefore essential to pharmaceutical marketing and sales the authors said. They then matched measures of sales representatives’ direct and indirect ties in their social networks to managers’ creativity ratings.
The authors said the results have timely implications for management practice.
“Organizations may benefit from developmental efforts helping employees build the efficiency of their direct networks, meaning the proportion of direct ties in an individual’s network that are not interconnected, and guiding employees to establish nonredundant ties, because such networks are likely to result in indirect networks of high-reach efficiency that are conducive to creativity,” they said.
The research is published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
Source: Rice University
Researchers have discovered a potential link between microbes (bacteria, viruses, and fungi) in the throat and schizophrenia, according to a new comprehensive study at George Washington University.
The findings show that people with schizophrenia harbor different proportions of oral bacteria than those without the disease.
Schizophrenia is a serious mental disorder, characterized by hallucinations, delusions, and disordered thought. It is a relapsing and remitting condition often controlled with medication. The disease affects approximately one in 100 people.
Recently, there has been a strong, growing body of research demonstrating that micro biomes — the communities of microbes living within our bodies — can affect the immune system and may be connected to our mental health.
Research linking immune disorders and schizophrenia has also been published, and this new study furthers the possibility that changes in oral communities are associated with schizophrenia.
“The oropharynx of schizophrenics seems to harbor different proportions of oral bacteria than healthy individuals,” said Eduardo Castro-Nallar, a Ph.D. candidate at George Washington University’s Computational Biology Institute (CBI) and lead author of the study.
“Specifically, our analyses revealed an association between microbes such as lactic-acid bacteria and schizophrenics.”
The researchers conducted the study to try to identify any potential microbes associated with schizophrenia, as well as components that may be linked to or contribute to changes in the immune state of the person. Their findings showed a distinct difference between the microbiomes of healthy people and schizophrenic patients.
As of now, it is too soon to tell what the connection is between the throat microbiome and schizophrenia. But with additional studies, researchers may be able to determine if the microbiome changes are a contributing factor to schizophrenia, are a result of schizophrenia or do not have a connection to the disorder.
Once established, the information may help identify potential contributing factors to schizophrenia and offer a way to identify causes of the disease, lead to diagnostic tests and develop new types of treatments.
“Our results suggesting a link between microbiome diversity and schizophrenia require replication and expansion to a broader number of individuals for further validation,” said Dr. Keith Crandall, director of the CBI and contributing author of the study.
“But the results are quite intriguing and suggest potential applications of biomarkers for diagnosis of schizophrenia and important metabolic pathways associated with the disease.”
Source: George Washington University
New research finds that romantic opportunities seem to influence women’s sexual identities — but not men’s.
“This indicates that women’s sexuality may be more flexible and adaptive than men’s,” said study author Dr. Elizabeth Aura McClintock, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame.
The study was presented at the 110th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA).
McClintock’s study reviews data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health). Her team analyzed data from the first (1994-1995), third (2001-2002), and fourth (2007-2008) waves of the Add Health surveys.
Researchers tracked 5,018 women and 4,191 men as they moved from adolescence to young adulthood. Participants in the study population were, on average, 16-years-old in Wave I, 22 years old in Wave III, and 28 years old in Wave IV.
Confirming previous research, McClintock found that women were more likely than men to report bisexuality, while men were more likely to report being either “100 percent heterosexual” or “100 percent homosexual.”
She also found that women were three times more likely than men to change their sexual identities from the general ages of 22 years to 28 years old.
Investigators discovered study participants, who were not asked about their sexual identities until Wave III (22 years old), could identify as 100 percent heterosexual, mostly heterosexual, bisexual, mostly homosexual, and 100 percent homosexual.
In each wave of the study that McClintock reviewed, participants were asked if they had ever experienced same-sex attraction or participated in same-sex sexual activity.
“Women have a greater probability than men of being attracted to both men and women, which gives them greater flexibility in partner choice,” said McClintock.
“Having flexible sexual attractions may grant greater importance to contextual and experiential factors when it comes to sexual identity.”
McClintock’s research showed that women with more education and women who were more physically attractive (as rated by their study interviewers) had higher probabilities of identifying as “100 percent heterosexual” than other women in Waves III and IV.
In addition, women who had a child by Wave III were less likely than other women to identify as “100 percent heterosexual” in Wave IV.
McClintock speculated that women who avoided young motherhood, were physically attractive, or had high levels of education may have been less likely to explore relationships with same-sex partners because they had more romantic opportunities with male partners.
In other words, their social position facilitated a hetero-conformist identity and thus discouraged alternative sexual identities, according to McClintock.
“Women with some degree of attraction to both males and females might be drawn into heterosexuality if they have favorable options in the heterosexual partner market,” McClintock said.
“Women who are initially successful in partnering with men, as is more traditionally expected, may never explore their attraction to other women. However, women with the same sexual attractions, but less favorable heterosexual options might have greater opportunity to experiment with same-sex partners. Women who act on same-sex attraction are more likely to incorporate same-sex sexuality into their sexual identities.”
Interestingly, for men: higher levels of education were associated with a lower likelihood of identifying as “100 percent heterosexual” in Waves III and IV of Add Health. Physical attractiveness had no clear association with sexual identity, and those who became fathers by Wave III were more likely to identify as “100 percent heterosexual” in Wave IV.
“Men are less often attracted to both sexes,” McClintock said. “Men’s sexuality is, in this sense, less flexible. If a man is only attracted to one sex, romantic opportunity would little alter his sexual identity.”
McClintock said sexual identity is a social construct.
“It is important to emphasize that I am not suggesting that same-sex unions are a second-best option to heterosexual unions,” McClintock said.
“And I do not think that women are strategically selecting an advantageous sexual identity or that they can ‘choose’ whether they find men, women, or both sexually attractive. Rather, social context and romantic experience might influence how they perceive and label their sexual identity.”
New research suggests a man’s self-perceived image can increase the risk that they will commit violence.
Investigators found that men whose image of themselves falls short of the traditional masculine gender norms, and who feel that others think this about them too, may have violent tendencies.
Study findings appear online in the journal Injury Prevention.
Experts explain that the way in which men perceive traditional male gender norms and masculinity can affect their behavior. In general, ‘macho,’ highly masculine men are more likely to engage in stereotypical male behaviors, such as risk taking, substance misuse, and acts of aggression, say the researchers.
In the new study, researchers wanted to find out if ‘male discrepancy stress’ — which describes men who see themselves as not only falling short of traditional masculine gender norms but who also worry that others view them in this light as well — had any impact on these behaviors.
To do this, investigators analyzed the responses of 600 US men in 2012 to an online survey about their perceptions of male gender and how their own self-image fitted in with this, and risky behaviors.
The prevalence of injury sustained through violence and risky behaviors is highest in men aged 18 to 44, which also happens to be the largest male age group in the US, so all the survey participants were aged between 18 and 50.
Remarkably, men who considered themselves less masculine than average and who experienced male discrepancy stress were more likely to say they had committed violent assaults with a weapon as well as assaults resulting in injury to the victim.
There was no association between discrepancy stress and average daily use of alcohol or drugs. Moreover, men who felt less masculine, and who weren’t worried about it were the least likely to report violence or driving while under the influence.
“This may suggest that substance use/abuse behaviors are less salient methods of demonstrating traditional masculinity in contrast to behaviors related to sex and violence, perhaps due to the potentially private nature of the habit,” suggest the researchers.
While highly masculine men are at high risk of violence, less masculine men who experience discrepancy stress may be equally at risk, say the researchers.
“This data suggest that efforts to reduce men’s risk of behavior likely to result in injury should, in part, focus on the means by which masculine socialization and acceptance of gender norms may induce distress in boys and men,” they conclude.
New research dispels earlier studies on the benefits of omega-3 supplements.
A large clinical trial by researchers at the National Institutes of Health found that omega-3 supplements did not slow cognitive decline in older persons.
In one of the largest and longest studies of its kind, researchers followed 4,000 patients over a five-year period. The study appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
“Contrary to popular belief, we didn’t see any benefit of omega-3 supplements for stopping cognitive decline,” said Emily Chew, M.D., deputy director of the Division of Epidemiology and Clinical Applications and deputy clinical director at the National Eye Institute (NEI), part of NIH.
Chew leads the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS), designed to investigate a combination of nutritional supplements for slowing age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Macular degeneration is a major cause of vision loss among older Americans.
The study established that daily high doses of certain antioxidants and minerals, called the AREDS formulation, can help slow the progression to advanced AMD.
A later study, called AREDS2, tested the addition of omega-3 fatty acids to the AREDS formula. But the omega-3’s made no difference.
Omega-3 fatty acids are made by marine algae and are concentrated in fish oils; they are believed to be responsible for the health benefits associated with regularly eating fish, such as salmon, tuna, and halibut.
Where studies have surveyed people on their dietary habits and health, they’ve found that regular consumption of fish is associated with lower rates of AMD, cardiovascular disease, and possibly dementia.
“We’ve seen data that eating foods with omega-3 may have a benefit for eye, brain, and heart health,” Chew explained.
Omega-3 supplements are available over the counter and often labeled as supporting brain health. A large 2011 study found that omega-3 supplements did not improve the brain health of older patients with preexisting heart disease.
In AREDS2, Dr. Chew and her team saw another opportunity to investigate the possible cognitive benefits of omega-3 supplements. In this study, all participants had early or intermediate AMD. They were 72 years old on average and 58 percent were female.
Researchers randomly assigned to one of the following groups:
- placebo (an inert pill);
- omega-3 [specifically docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, 350 mg) and eicosapentaenoic acid (650 mg)];
- lutein and zeaxanthin (nutrients found in large amounts in green leafy vegetables);
- omega-3 and lutein/zeaxanthin.
Because all participants were at risk for worsening of their AMD, they were also offered the original or a modified version of the AREDS formulation (without omega-3 or lutein/zeaxanthin).
Research methods included giving all participants cognitive function tests at the beginning of the study to establish a baseline, then at two and four years later. The tests, all validated and used in previous cognitive function studies, included eight parts designed to test immediate and delayed recall, attention and memory, and processing speed.
The cognition scores of each subgroup decreased to a similar extent over time, indicating that no combination of nutritional supplements made a difference.
Scientists and researchers are actively searching for a way to combat Alzheimer’s disease (AD). AD is the most common cause of dementia and affects as many as 5.1 million Americans age 65 and older in the U.S. — experts are worried AD may triple in the next 40 years.
Some research has examined the potential benefits of DHA (omega-3) for Alzheimer’s. Studies in mice specially bred to have features of the disease found that DHA reduces beta-amyloid plaques, abnormal protein deposits in the brain that are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s. However, a clinical trial of DHA showed no impact on people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease.
“The AREDS2 data add to our efforts to understand the relationship between dietary components and Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline,” said Lenore Launer, Ph.D., senior investigator in the Laboratory of Epidemiology and Population Science at the National Institute on Aging.
“It may be, for example, that the timing of nutrients, or consuming them in a certain dietary pattern, has an impact. More research would be needed to see if dietary patterns or taking the supplements earlier in the development of diseases like Alzheimer’s would make a difference.”
Although prior studies have found benefit in the clinical use of mobile devices to manage depression, a new study finds that depressed people who turn to their smart phones for brief emotional relief may only be making things worse.
A team of researchers, from Michigan State University’s (MSU) College of Communication Arts and Sciences, found that people who substitute electronic interaction for the real-life human kind find little if any satisfaction.
That is, using a cell phone to contact someone for emotional support has its limits.
As discussed in a paper published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, the researchers argue that relying on a mobile phone to ease one’s woes just doesn’t work.
Using a mobile phone for temporary relief from negative emotions could worsen psychological conditions and spiral into unregulated and problematic use of mobile phones, or PUMP, said MSU’s Prabu David.
“The research bears out that despite all the advances we’ve made, there is still a place for meaningful, face-to-face interaction,” he said.
“The mobile phone can do a range of things that simulate human interaction. It seduces us into believing it’s real, but the fact remains it’s still synthetic.”
Lead author Jung-Hyun Kim, with Sogang University, Seoul, South Korea, said the study shows that face-to-face interaction can buffer the negative effects of heavy mobile phone use.
“Engaging in more face-to-face interaction can work as an antidote to the development of problematic mobile phone use,” Kim said.
The researchers examined two pathways for habitual use of a smart phone: To either pass the time or entertain, or to alleviate feelings of sadness or depression by seeking out others.
It’s the second reason, David said, that can cause trouble.
“This suggests that problematic use of mobile phone is fueled in part by the purposeful or deliberate use of the mobile phone to relieve or alleviate negative feelings,” he said, “whereas habitual or ritualistic use to pass time is not strongly associated with it.”
David and the researchers agree that using a mobile phone in moderation — to stay in touch with family or friends, for example — is not a bad thing. But don’t let it replace real human interaction.
“If you have a chance to see someone face-to-face, take it,” David said. “Life is short.”
Source: Michigan State University
New imaging research provides quantifiable evidence of the wisdom of political leaders, scientists, educators, and parents on the valuable role of failure.
That is, failure is a rewarding experience when the brain has a chance to learn from its mistakes.
Scientists have long understood that the brain has two ways of learning. One is avoidance learning, which is a punishing, negative experience that trains the brain to avoid repeating mistakes.
The other is reward-based learning, a positive, reinforcing experience in which the brain feels rewarded for reaching the right answer.
A new MRI study by University of Southern California (USC) and a group of international researchers has found that having the opportunity to learn from failure can turn it into a positive experience, if the brain has a chance to learn from its mistakes.
“We show that, in certain circumstances, when we get enough information to contextualize the choices, then our brain essentially reaches towards the reinforcement mechanism, instead of turning toward avoidance,” said Dr. Giorgio Coricelli, a USC associate professor of economics and psychology.
For the study, researchers engaged 28 subjects, each around 26 years old, in a series of questions that challenged them to maximize their gains by providing the right answers. If they chose a wrong answer, they lost money, while right answers helped them earn money.
One trial prompted their brains to respond to getting the wrong answer with avoidance learning. A second trial prompted a reward-based learning reaction, and a third but separate trial tested whether participants had learned from their mistakes, allowing them to review and understand what they got wrong.
In that third round, the participants responded positively, activating areas in their brains that some scientists call the “reward circuit” or the ventral striatum.
This experience mimicked the brain’s reward-based learning response — as opposed to an avoidance-learning response, an experience that involves different parts of the brain that together comprise the anterior insula.
Coricelli said this process is similar to what the brain experiences when feeling regret: “With regret, for instance, if you have done something wrong, then you might change your behavior in the future,” he said.