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Mentors Can Help Young Female Athletes Deal with Sexism, Bullying

Mon, 08/13/2018 - 4:10pm

When young female athletes have a strong relationship with a mentor, they are better able to handle discrimination, sexism and other problematic behaviors they may encounter in the sport, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Kansas (KU).

“Mentorship and the feeling of mattering is really important to female athletes in dealing with issues of discrimination or bullying that can impede women’s full participation in sports, such as playing on a mostly male team or confronting sexual harassment,” said Kathryn Vaggalis, the study’s co-author and a KU doctoral candidate in American Studies.

The study shows that when mentors instill self-esteem and a feeling of mattering in female student athletes, it can boost athletic ability, provide opportunities for leadership, and leave a positive effect on women’s continued involvement in sports.

For the study, Vaggalis and co-author Dr. Margaret Kelley, KU associate professor of American Studies, conducted 42 interviews with college undergraduates who were former high school athletes and who had identified having a teacher or coach as a natural mentor. Natural mentors were considered non-kin adults from the school environment, such as a teacher or coach, rather than one assigned through a formal mentoring program.

The findings show that mentors gave students a safe space to receive advice and guidance from a trusted non-family adult. Mentorship provided multiple benefits such as emotional support, reducing delinquency and instilling a positive work ethic.

Yet despite the positive findings that female athletes expressed about how mentors helped empower them socially and athletically, the researchers found mixed results in other areas, including that mentors could reinforce problematic gendered aspects of sport socialization.

Young male athletes, for example, reported less emotional support and open communication with their mentors than their female counterparts. And male-to-male mentors of young men tended to reinforce ideas of sports education through rhetoric of traditional masculinity, they found, though the participants expressed that this education improved self-esteem and work ethic, and also enhanced athletic ability and performance.

However, the findings show that mentors, in reinforcing traditional masculinity, can exacerbate the problematic perception of sports being inherently male or masculine.

“Not all sports mentors are positive mentors. They can be problematic, too,” Kelley said. “And the gender role socialization differences really spoke to us from the data in this regard.”

Still, the study finds that natural mentorship and the idea of mattering are crucial in providing a positive influence on young athletes that can help reduce problem behavior and improve life chances.

“Sometimes kids are almost being discouraged from these relationships because there are so many boundaries in place between possible mentors,” Kelley said. “Then they are losing out on these mentorships that can be deeply instructive.”

The gender differences in the study can provide a caution for coaches and teachers who are in a position to mentor younger athletes, the researchers said.

“We need to be careful about recognizing sometimes we’re continuing differences in inequalities in the way we treat boys and girls,” Kelley said. ” Looking at this allows us to be critical of the mentoring context and critically self-aware of how help young people learn about gender and the world.”

Ultimately, the findings suggest that mentorship is still positive for several reasons including curbing sexism that can impede women’s participation in sports and serving as a positive influence for male students. The relationship between mentorship and mattering can be important in conversations surrounding how to prevent violence in schools and among youth, the researchers added.

“As adults we can make commitments to young people,” Kelley said, “to reach out and to nurture them, make them feel like they are important, especially as natural mentors outside their families.”

The researchers recently presented their findings at the American Sociological Association’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia.

Source: University of Kansas

Female Veterans with Fibromyalgia Show High Rates of Childhood Abuse

Sun, 08/12/2018 - 10:57am

Female veterans being treated for fibromyalgia exhibit high rates of childhood abuse, according to a new study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine. The findings suggest that screening all female veterans with fibromyalgia for childhood abuse can yield important information that may improve treatment success.

Fibromyalgia is a chronic disorder characterized by widespread pain with associated fatigue, sleep and mood issues. Although it can occur in anyone, the disorder is most prevalent in females with 75 to 90 percent of fibromyalgia patients being women. The condition has also been linked to exposure to interpersonal trauma.

As females now represent an increasing number of American veterans, the standardized screenings for military sexual trauma (MST) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are helpful in providing complete care to patients diagnosed with fibromyalgia. However, there is currently no standard screening practice for childhood abuse history in these patients.

For the study, researchers from the VA (Veterans Affairs) Boston Healthcare System and Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) looked at a subset of women from a larger study focused on women veterans’ fibromyalgia care experiences at the VA to evaluate the link between child abuse history and MST in this patient population.

The findings show that among all female veterans with fibromyalgia, 90.9 percent reported experience of MST (of which 68.2 percent reported history of sexual assault). In addition, the average Child Trauma Questionnaire (CTQ) score for these patients indicated moderate to high exposure to abuse in childhood, with many experiencing sexual abuse and emotional neglect.

Female veterans with greater MST exposure reported higher degrees of both childhood abuse and PTSD severity. The researchers conclude that screening for childhood trauma in women veterans being treated for fibromyalgia would yield important information that may enhance treatment.

“Our fibromyalgia patients have often told us that their disease feels ‘invisible’ at times,” said corresponding author Megan Gerber, M.D., M.P.H., medical director of women’s health at VA Boston Healthcare System (VABHS) and associate professor of medicine at BUSM.

“We believe these preliminary study results may help female veterans with fibromyalgia seek treatment for both their physical symptoms and trauma histories.”

“The VA is uniquely positioned to treat a complex condition like fibromyalgia and additional research is underway here to better understand interventions for this disabling chronic pain syndrome.”

Source: Boston University School of Medicine

Expecting Work Email After Hours Can Stress Employees & Families

Sun, 08/12/2018 - 10:50am

Monitoring work email during non-work hours is detrimental to the health and well-being of not only employees, but their family members as well, according to new research.

“The competing demands of work and non-work lives present a dilemma for employees, which triggers feelings of anxiety and endangers work and personal lives,” said William Becker, Ph.D., a Virginia Tech associate professor of management in the Pamplin College of Business, who co-authored the new study.

Other studies have shown that the stress of increased job demands leads to strain and conflict in family relationships when the employee is unable to fulfill non-work roles at home because they brought work home.

However, the new study demonstrates that employees do not need to spend actual time on work in their off-hours to experience the harmful effects, according to the researcher.

The mere expectations of availability increases the strain for employees and their significant others, even when employees do not engage in actual work during non-work time, he explained.

“The insidious impact of ‘always on’ organizational culture is often unaccounted for or disguised as a benefit — increased convenience, for example, or higher autonomy and control over work-life boundaries,” Becker said.

“Our research exposes the reality: ‘Flexible work boundaries’ often turn into ‘work without boundaries,’ compromising an employee’s and their family’s health and well-being.”

As negative health outcomes are costly, what can employers do to mitigate the adverse effects identified by the study? Becker said policies that reduce expectations to monitor electronic communication outside of work would be ideal.

When that is not an option, the solution may be to establish boundaries on when electronic communication is acceptable during off-hours by setting up off-hour email windows or schedules when employees are available to respond.

Additionally, organizational expectations should be communicated clearly, he said.

“If the nature of a job requires email availability, such expectations should be stated formally as a part of job responsibilities,” he said.

Knowing these expectations upfront may reduce anxiety in employees and increase understanding from their family members, he said.

Employees also should try practicing mindfulness, which has been shown to be effective in reducing anxiety, according to Becker.

Mindfulness may help employees “be present” in family interactions, which could help reduce conflict and improve relationship satisfaction, he explained. Additionally, mindfulness is within the employee’s control when email expectations are not, he said.

“Employees today must navigate more complex boundaries between work and family than ever before,” said Becker.

“Employer expectations during non-work hours appear to increase this burden, as employees feel an obligation to shift roles throughout their non-work time. Efforts to manage these expectations are more important than ever, given our findings that employees’ families are also affected by these expectations.”

Source: Virginia Tech

Photo: A new study demonstrates that employees do not need to spend actual time on work in their off-hours to experience the harmful effects. The mere expectations of availability increase strain for employees and their significant others — even when employees do not engage in actual work during nonwork time. Credit: Virginia Tech.

Palliative Care May Reduce Suicide Risk in Veterans with Lung Cancer

Sun, 08/12/2018 - 7:17am

Veterans with advanced lung cancer face a significantly higher risk of suicide compared to the already high rate among veterans. But this suicide risk is greatly reduced when they receive at least one palliative care visit, according to a new study published in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society.

Palliative care is specialized medical care for patients with severe illness. It aims to relieve physical pain and discomfort and to address psychological issues like anxiety that diminish quality of life for those with life-threatening illnesses.

The new study is based on the data of thousands of veterans with advanced lung cancer enrolled in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Central Cancer Registry. Of the 20,900 veterans with advanced lung cancer enrolled in the registry, 30 patients committed suicide, a rate more than five times greater than the average among all veterans of a similar age and gender who use VA health care.

However, the data showed that those with lung cancer who had at least one palliative care visit after their diagnosis were 81 percent less likely to die by suicide.

Lead author Donald Sullivan, M.D., M.A, M.C.R., said the psychological impact of a cancer diagnosis — particularly a lung cancer diagnosis — is underappreciated and largely overlooked in the medical community.

“Suicide is a significant national public health problem, especially among lung cancer patients and among veterans,” said Sullivan, an assistant professor of medicine (pulmonary and critical care medicine) in the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) School of Medicine.

“As a result, manifestations of this impact like social isolation, depression, anxiety, can go undiagnosed and untreated.”

Sullivan believes this study is the first to investigate the link between palliative care and suicide risk in cancer patients. He said that while several medical societies recommend palliative care for all patients with advanced stage lung cancer, there is often a gap between recommendations and practice.

“There are many barriers to palliative care, and unfortunately, some are related to clinician referrals,” he said. “Not all doctors are aware of the benefits of palliative care.”

Sullivan believes that palliative care should be offered to all patients shortly after receiving a diagnosis of advanced stage lung cancer. The best scenario would be an integrated approach in which patients with serious illness receive palliative care at the same time they receive other treatment therapies like chemotherapy, he said.

He emphasized that clinicians need to be vigilant for additional conditions or disorders, such as comorbid psychological illness, in their patients and to become familiar with local resources.

“For patients and families, it’s important to understand these risks exist and not to be afraid to reach out to your providers for help,” Sullivan said.

“We really can’t afford to wait for more data,” he said.

“I would like to see more efforts to screen and treat comorbid psychological illness among patients with lung cancer for which there is good evidence. I also believe more efforts are needed to integrate palliative care earlier in the lung cancer treatment paradigm.”

Source: Oregon Health & Science University


Digital Distraction Can Leave You Feeling Distant and Drained

Sun, 08/12/2018 - 6:30am

Our digital lives make us more distracted, distant, and drained, according to several new studies presented at the 2018 convention of the American Psychological Association in San Francisco.

For instance, even minor phone use during a meal with friends was enough to make the diners feel distracted and reduced their enjoyment of the experience, one study found.

“People who were allowed to use their phones during dinner had more trouble staying present in the moment,” said Ryan Dwyer, M.A., of the University of British Columbia, lead author of a study that was presented during a symposium on how digital technology is affecting relationships.

“Decades of research on happiness tell us that engaging positively with others is critical for our well-being. Modern technology may be wonderful, but it can easily sidetrack us and take away from the special moments we have with friends and family in person.”

Dwyer and his research team conducted two studies, a field experiment in a restaurant and a survey.

The restaurant experiment included more than 300 adults and university students in Vancouver, British Columbia. Participants were either asked to keep their phones on the table with the ringer or vibration on or to put their phones on silent and place them in a container on the table during the meal.

After eating, the participants filled out a questionnaire detailing their feelings of social connectedness, enjoyment, distraction, and boredom, as well as the amount of phone use and what they did on their phones during the meal.

The study’s findings show that people who had their phones easily accessible during the experiment not only used them more than those with their phones put away, but they also reported feeling more distracted and enjoyed the experience less.

The survey portion of the research included more than 120 participants from the University of Virginia. Participants were surveyed five times a day for one week. They were asked to report on how they were feeling and what they had been doing in the 15 minutes before completing the survey.

The results showed that people reported feeling more distracted during face-to-face interactions if they had used their smartphone compared with face-to-face interactions where they had not used their smartphone. The students also said they felt less enjoyment and interest in their interaction if they had been on their phone, the researchers report.

“The survey findings were especially notable because of the negative effects of phone use among university students, who are commonly known as digital natives,” said Elizabeth Dunn, Ph.D., of the University of British Columbia and co-author of the study. “We assumed that this generation would be more adept at multi-tasking between using their phones and interacting with others, but we found out even moderate levels of phone use undermined the benefits of engaging with others.”

Another study presented in the session found that compassionate people spend less time on social media than people who are more self-centered and narcissistic.

That study also found that people with lower emotional intelligence, or those who have difficulty identifying, describing and processing their emotions, used social media more often than those who are more in touch with their feelings.

“People who are uncomfortable with their own and others’ emotions may be more comfortable online,” said Sara Konrath, Ph.D., of Indiana University. “We think that they may prefer text-based interactions that allow them more time to process social and emotional information.”

This study built upon previous research that has shown that more narcissistic people use social media more often than less narcissistic people. Virtually no research has been done on how emotional intelligence relates to social media use, according to Konrath.

She and her colleagues analyzed data from four studies of more than 1,200 adult participants and used existing scales that assessed narcissism, empathy, emotional intelligence, and emotion recognition. The studies also asked questions about how frequently participants checked and posted on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

More empathic people used Twitter less frequently than those who were not as caring and compassionate toward others, the researchers found.

Also, people who were more likely to be able to see the world from another’s perspective did not spend as much time on Facebook and Instagram, according to the study’s findings.

The study also discovered that people who scored high on a test of reading others’ emotions used Twitter and Facebook less often.

Conversely, more narcissistic people and those who feel overwhelmed by the emotional experiences of others spent more time on all three social media sites.

“Does being more emotionally intelligent and empathic cause people to avoid social media, or are lower empathy people more drawn to it? It could also be the opposite: Perhaps frequently using social media can impair empathy and emotional intelligence,” said Konrath.

“We cannot determine causality with this study. We need more research to better understand how online digital technology affects people, for better or for worse.”

Other research presented found that pre-teens became better at reading non-verbal cues from their peers after five days with no screen time, and college-age participants bonded better with their friends during in-person interactions versus video chat, audio chat, or instant messaging.

Source: The American Psychological Association

Feeling in Control of Life May Be Key to Staying Young

Sun, 08/12/2018 - 6:00am

New research shows that having a greater sense of control over their lives may help older adults feel younger and that, in turn, could help improve their cognitive abilities, longevity and overall quality of life.

“Research suggests that a younger subjective age, or when people feel younger than their chronological age, is associated with a variety of positive outcomes in older individuals, including better memory performance, health and longevity,” said Jennifer Bellingtier, Ph.D., of Friedrich Schiller University in Germany, who presented her research at the 2018 American Psychological Convention.

“Our research suggests that subjective age changes on a daily basis and older adults feel significantly younger on days when they have a greater sense of control.”

For the study, Bellingtier and co-author Shevaun Neupert, Ph.D., of North Carolina State University, recruited 116 older adults between the ages of 60 and 90 and 106 younger adults between the ages of 18 and 36 and asked them to complete surveys each day for nine days.

Participants were asked to respond to a series of statements on the level of control they felt they had each day (for example, “In the past 24 hours, I had quite a bit of influence on the degree to which I could be involved in activities,”) and were asked how old they felt that day.

The researchers found significant day-to-day variability in subjective age in both groups over the course of the study. They also found a significant association between perceived level of control each day and subjective age in the older adult group, but not the younger group.

“Shaping the daily environment in ways that allow older adults to exercise more control could be a helpful strategy for maintaining a youthful spirit and overall well-being,” said Bellingtier.

“For example, some interventions could be formal, such as a regular meeting with a therapist to discuss ways to take control in situations where individuals can directly influence events, and how to respond to situations that they cannot control. Smartphone apps could be developed to deliver daily messages with suggestions for ways to enhance control that day and improve a person’s overall feeling of control.”

An intervention could also be something as simple as giving nursing home residents the opportunity to make more choices in their daily lives so that they can exercise more control, she noted.

Source: The American Psychological Association

When Teen Depression Eases With Treatment, So Does Parent’s

Sat, 08/11/2018 - 11:00am

New research shows that when a teen’s depression improves through treatment, so did depression experienced by the parent.

“More young people today are reporting persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness and suicidal thoughts,” said Kelsey R. Howard, M.S., of Northwestern University, who presented the findings at the 2018 annual convention of the American Psychological Association. “At the same time, suicide rates have climbed in nearly all U.S. states. This research may help health care providers as we grapple as a nation with how to address these alarming trends.”

The long-term study included 325 teens who had been diagnosed with depression and 325 of their parents or caregivers.

The teens were randomly assigned to one of three groups: those who received cognitive behavioral therapy; those who took an antidepressant; or those who used a combination of both.

The first treatment period ran for nearly one year, with an additional year of follow-up visits.

According to Howard, 25 percent of the parents who participated in the study also reported moderate to severe levels of depression before the treatment period.

The treatment process was not family-based, though some portions included the parent. Nonetheless, the results showed a positive ripple effect because when the severity of a teen’s depression lessened, so did similar symptoms in the parent, regardless of what treatment was used, the study found.

“Depression is a massive public health concern that will take a variety of approaches to better manage. We believe our study is among the first to evaluate how the emotional health of a child can impact that of the parent,” said Mark A. Reinecke, Ph.D., a co-author of the study.

The findings could be useful for clinicians, as they may want to assess a parent’s level of depression when treating his or her child, or provide appropriate referrals, according to Howard.

“The concept of emotions being ‘contagious’ and spreading from person to person is well-known by psychologists,” Howard added. “This work opens up a range of possibilities for future research on the family-wide effects of treatment for adolescent depression.”

Source: American Psychological Association

Deficient Social Skills May Hamper Single Men

Sat, 08/11/2018 - 8:00am

New research suggests that in the modern Western world men need appropriate social skills to flirt with and impress prospective marital partners. Investigators note that in the past, forced or arranged marriages meant that socially inept, unattractive men did not have to acquire social skills in order to find a long-term love interest.

Today, men must be able to turn on the charm if they want to find a partner.

In the study, Menelaos Apostolou, Ph.D., of the University of Nicosia in Cyprus analyzed more than 6,700 comments left by men on the popular social news and media aggregation internet site Reddit.

He discovered men who have difficulty flirting, or are unable to impress the opposite sex may remain single because their social skills have not evolved to meet today’s societal demands. The study appears in the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science.

Up to 35 per cent of people in North American and European societies are single or live on their own. To understand why singlehood is so widespread in these Western societies, Apostolou analyzed 6,794 of the 13,429 comments that were received following an anonymous post on Reddit in 2017 that asked: “Guys, why are you single?”

His findings indicate that most of the men commenting on the thread were not willingly single but wanted to be in a relationship.

Apostolou established at least 43 reasons why these men thought they were single. Having poor looks and being short or bald were the most frequent reasons they put forward, followed by lack of confidence.

Not making the effort and simply not being interested in long-term relationships were also high on the list, along with a lack of flirting skills and being too shy. Some said that they had been so badly burnt in previous relationships that they did not dare to get into another.

Others felt that they were too picky, did not have the opportunity to meet available women or had different priorities. Some of the men had experienced mental health issues, sexual problems, or struggled with illness, disability or addiction.

Apostolou believes there are evolutionary reasons why some modern men are unable to successfully approach women. According to the so-called mismatch argument, their social skills do not align with the qualities needed today to make a good impression.

He explains that in a pre-industrial context, marriages were arranged, male-male competition was strong, and wives were sometimes obtained by force. While in one respect this left men with little choice about who would be their wives, it also meant that their looks were irrelevant, and they did not need to know how to attract the opposite sex.

Socially inept and unattractive men may not have been single because their relationships were regulated by their parents.

“Single modern men often lack flirting skills because in an ancestral pre-industrial context, the selection pressures on mechanisms which regulated mating effort and choosiness were weak,” Apostolou said.

“Such skills are needed today, because in post-industrial societies mate choice is not regulated or forced, but people have to instead find mates on their own.”

Source: Springer

Older Adults Face High Rates of Dementia After Starting Kidney Dialysis

Sat, 08/11/2018 - 6:30am

A new study uncovers high rates of dementia in older adults after they begin hemodialysis, a treatment purifying the blood of a patient whose kidneys are not functioning normally.

The findings, published in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology (CJASN), also show that dementia in dialysis patients is tied to a greater risk of early death.

Older patients on hemodialysis often experience a significant decline in cognitive function while undergoing the treatment, which puts them at high risk for developing dementia. For the study, researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health analyzed information on 356,668 hemodialysis patients aged 66 and older.

According to the findings, the 1- and 5-year risks of being diagnosed with dementia after initiating hemodialysis are 4.6 percent and 16 percent for women and 3.7 percent and 13 percent for men. The respective risks of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease are 0.6 percent and 2.6 percent for women and 0.4 percent and 2.0 percent for men.

The researchers estimated that the 10-year risk of a post-hemodialysis dementia diagnosis is 19 percent for patients aged 66 to 70 years, rising to 28 percent for those 76-80 years.

The strongest risk factors for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease were being over the age of 86, black, female, and institutionalized (such as living in a nursing home). Also, older hemodialysis patients with a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease had a 2-fold higher risk of dying.

“We wanted to shed light on the high burden of diagnosed dementia in older patients with kidney failure who initiate hemodialysis,” said study leader Dr. Mara McAdams-DeMarco. “While we were able to study diagnosed dementia, there is a great need to also identify patients with mild cognitive impairment as well as undiagnosed dementia.”

In an accompanying editorial, Judy Weintraub of Los Angeles offered her perspective as a dialysis patient and chaplaincy candidate. She noted the need to emphasize a culture of respect and dignity for all, regardless of physical and cognitive abilities. Her recommendations for dialysis facilities include encouraging a sense of community, introducing music, and communicating with patients.

“This is a call for facility administrators and medical directors to institute policies from the top down to foster a shift in the way care is delivered,” she wrote. “Let’s institute in our policies and procedures not just what care is delivered, but how that care is delivered.”

Source: American Society of Nephrology


Can A Video Game Boost Empathy in Teens?

Sat, 08/11/2018 - 6:00am

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin (UW)-Madison have developed a new video game specifically designed to boost empathy in kids.

The game, called “Crystals of Kaydor,” features a space-exploring robot who ends up crashing on a distant planet. In order to gather the pieces of its damaged spaceship, it needs to build emotional rapport with the local inhabitants. As part of the mission, the players need to identify a variety of emotions in the alien residents’ human-like expressions.

In a new study, the team put the game to the test with a group of middle school players. The researchers wanted to see whether the game could actually boost kids’ empathy skills. They also looked at the teens’ brain scans (before and two weeks after playing the game) to determine whether learning such skills can change neural connections in the brain.

The findings, published in npj Science of Learning, reveal for the first time that, in just two weeks, kids who played the video game showed greater connectivity in brain networks related to empathy and perspective taking. Some of the participants also showed altered neural networks commonly linked to emotion regulation, a crucial skill that this age group is beginning to develop, the study authors say.

“The realization that these skills are actually trainable with video games is important because they are predictors of emotional well-being and health throughout life, and can be practiced anytime  — with or without video games,” said Tammi Kral, a UW-Madison graduate student in psychology who led the research at the Center for Healthy Minds.

Dr. Richard Davidson, director of the center and a professor of psychology and psychiatry at UW-Madison, said empathy is the first step in a sequence that can lead to prosocial behavior, such as helping others in need.

“If we can’t empathize with another’s difficulty or problem, the motivation for helping will not arise,” Davidson says. “Our long-term aspiration for this work is that video games may be harnessed for good and if the gaming industry and consumers took this message to heart, they could potentially create video games that change the brain in ways that support virtuous qualities rather than destructive qualities.”

It is estimated that young people aged 8 to 18 play more than 70 minutes of video games each day, on average, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. This spike in gameplay during adolescence coincides with an explosion in brain growth as well as a time when kids are susceptible to first encounters with depression, anxiety and bullying.

Through the study, the researchers wanted to see whether there were ways to use video games as a vehicle for positive emotional development during this critical period.

The researchers randomly assigned 150 middle schoolers to one of two groups. The first group played the empathy video game Crystals of Kaydor, while the second group played a commercially available and entertaining control game called “Bastion” that does not target empathy.

In Crystals of Kaydor, the young players interacted with aliens on a distant planet and learned to identify the intensity of emotions they witnessed on their human-like faces, such as anger, fear, happiness, surprise, disgust and sadness.

The researchers measured how accurate the players were in identifying the emotions of the characters in the game. The activity was also intended to help the kids practice and learn empathy.

In the game Bastion, the players were guided through a storyline in which they collected materials needed to build a machine to save their village, but tasks were not designed to teach or measure empathy. Researchers used the game because of its immersive graphics and third-person perspective.

The researchers also examined functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans taken in the laboratory in both groups before and after two weeks of gameplay. They looked at connections among different areas of the brain, including those associated with empathy and emotion regulation. The kids in the study also completed tests during the brain scans that measured how well they could empathize with others.

The findings reveal stronger connectivity in empathy-related brain networks after the middle schoolers played Crystals of Kaydor compared to Bastion. In addition, Crystals players who showed strengthened neural connectivity in key brain networks for emotion regulation also improved their score on the empathy test. Those who did not show increased neural connectivity in the brain did not improve on the test of empathic accuracy.

“The fact that not all children showed changes in the brain and corresponding improvements in empathic accuracy underscores the well-known adage that one size does not fit all,” Davidson said. “One of the key challenges for future research is to determine which children benefit most from this type of training and why.”

Teaching empathy skills in such an accessible way may benefit populations who find these skills challenging, including individuals on the autism spectrum, Davidson added.

Although the game Crystals of Kaydor is not available to the public, it has been used to inform similar games currently seeking approval.

Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison

Psychedelic Drugs Show Promise for Treating Anxiety, Depression, PTSD

Fri, 08/10/2018 - 6:00am

New findings add to the growing body of evidence suggesting that psychedelic drugs may be effective at treating a variety of psychological disorders, including depression, social anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and could one day be prescribed to patients.

The research was presented recently at the American Psychological Association’s annual meeting and included studies on the use of LSD, psilocybin (magic mushrooms), MDMA (ecstacy) and ayahuasca (used by indigenous Amazonian people for spiritual ceremonies).

After the discovery of LSD in the 1940s, American researchers began studying hallucinogens for their potential healing benefits, but this research mostly came to a halt after psychedelics were outlawed in the late 1960s.

A shift may be coming soon, however, as MDMA is beginning its third and final phase of clinical trials in an effort to win Food and Drug Administration approval for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, said Adam Snider, MA, of Alliant International University Los Angeles, and co-chair of the symposium.

“Combined with psychotherapy, some psychedelic drugs like MDMA, psilocybin and ayahuasca may improve symptoms of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Cristina L. Magalhaes, PhD, of Alliant International University Los Angeles, and co-chair of a symposium on psychedelics and psychotherapy.

“More research and discussion are needed to understand the possible benefits of these drugs, and psychologists can help navigate the clinical, ethical and cultural issues related to their use.”

Findings from another study suggest that symptoms of social anxiety in adults with autism may be treatable with a combination of psychotherapy and MDMA. Twelve autistic adults with moderate to severe social anxiety who were given two treatments of pure MDMA, plus ongoing therapy, showed significant and long-lasting reductions in their symptoms.

“Social anxiety is prevalent in autistic adults and few treatment options have been shown to be effective,” said Alicia Danforth, PhD, of the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute at the HarborUCLA Medical Center, who conducted the study. “The positive effects of using MDMA and therapy lasted months, or even years, for most of the research volunteers.”

Other research presented at the meeting shows how LSD, psilocybin and ayahuasca may benefit people with anxiety, depression and eating disorders.

Adele Lafrance, PhD, of Laurentian University, discussed a study of 159 participants who reported on their past use of hallucinogens, level of spirituality and relationship with their emotions. Hallucinogen use was associated with greater levels of spirituality, which led to improved emotional stability and fewer symptoms of anxiety, depression and disordered eating.

“This study reinforces the need for the psychological field to consider a larger role for spirituality in the context of mainstream treatment because spiritual growth and a connection to something greater than the self can be fostered,” said Lafrance.

One study suggests that ayahuasca may help relieve depression and addiction, as well as assist people in coping with trauma. “We found that ayahuasca also fostered an increase in generosity, spiritual connection and altruism,” said Clancy Cavnar, PhD, with Núcleo de Estudos Interdisciplinares sobre Psicoativos.

In addition, for people suffering from life-threatening cancer, psilocybin may offer significant and long-lasting reductions in anxiety and distress.

When combined with psychotherapy, psilocybin helped 13 study participants grapple with loss and existential distress. It also helped the participants reconcile their feelings about death as nearly all participants reported that they developed a new understanding of dying, according to Gabby Agin-Liebes, BA, of Palo Alto University, who conducted the research.

“Participants made spiritual or religious interpretations of their experience and the psilocybin treatment helped facilitate a reconnection to life, greater mindfulness and presence, and gave them more confidence when faced with cancer recurrence,” said Agin-Liebes.

Source: American Psychological Association

Raising Alcohol Taxes is Least Costly Way to Reduce Alcohol-Related Harms

Fri, 08/10/2018 - 5:30am

A new international study shows that raising alcohol taxes may be one of the most cost-effective methods of reducing the harms caused by alcohol consumption.

In addition, restricting alcohol advertising and hours of sale were shown to be successful at reducing hazardous and harmful alcohol use and, as a result, improving overall health in the population.

The findings are published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

“Tax increases may not sound the most attractive of policy options but are the single most cost-effective way of diminishing demand and reining back consumption,” says lead researcher Dan Chisholm, Ph.D., of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland.

Researchers from the World Health Organization and one of its academic collaborating centers used a statistical model to determine which of five alcohol control strategies would be a cost-effective public health policy to reduce deaths and harms from alcohol consumption.

The strategies they investigated include:

  • Increasing alcohol taxes
  • Restricting hours of operation for retailers
  • Limiting advertising
  • Stronger enforcement of blood-alcohol concentration laws
  • Wider use of alcohol-problem screenings conducted at primary care clinics

According to the findings, a 50 percent hike in alcohol excise taxes — taxes worked into the price of the product that the consumer might not “see” — would cost less than the equivalent of USD $100 for each healthy year of life gained in the overall population and would add 500 healthy years of life for every one million people.

To put that tax increase in perspective, it might represent mere pennies per drink. According to a study in the January issue of the journal, state excise taxes in America average only three cents per 12 ounces of beer or a 5-ounce glass of wine and only five cents for a drink with 1.5 oz. of hard liquor.

“Current rates of excise taxes on alcohol vary considerably between jurisdictions but can be set very low,” Chisholm says, “for example because of low awareness of the risks that alcohol consumption can pose to health or because of strong advocacy from economic operators.”

Increasing these taxes is “an ambitious but feasible strategy,” according to the study, and this change in public policy “would bring excise taxes for alcoholic beverages more in line with those imposed on tobacco products.”

Two other methods — restricting hours of operation for off-premise alcohol retailers or implementing and enforcing strong restrictions/bans on alcohol advertising (on the Internet, radio, television, and billboards) — each would also cost less than $100 per healthy year of life gained and would add up to 350 healthy life years for every one million people in the population.

Stronger enforcement of blood alcohol concentration laws by increasing the number of sobriety checkpoints would be a somewhat less cost-effective policy: It would cost up to $3,000 per healthy year of life saved and would add fewer than 100 years of healthy life per one million people. The higher cost would be the result of more time invested by police and the equipment required at checkpoints.

Finally, wider use of brief alcohol-problem screening and intervention conducted by primary care doctors would generate up to 1,000 years of healthy life per one million people, but cost up to $1,434 per year of healthy life gained.

The study used data from 16 countries, including upper middle- and high-income countries (such as the United States, Germany, Japan, and China) as well as low- and lower middle-income countries (such as Guatemala, India, Ukraine, and Vietnam).

The researchers note that they likely underestimated the benefits of improved alcohol control strategies. Their study did not look at other alcohol-related issues, such as reduced property damage or better productivity at work.

Still, not everyone will necessarily think that less alcohol consumption is a good policy.

“Implementation of these effective public health strategies is actively fought by the alcohol industry, often with threats of lost jobs and/or revenue for countries,” the authors write.

In the end, the authors hope their research will “guide decision makers toward a more rational and targeted use of available resources . . . for addressing the substantial and still growing burden of disease attributable to alcohol use.”

Previous studies have suggested that more than five percent of deaths worldwide and over four percent of diseases are directly related to alcohol.

Source: Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs

Using AI to Better Diagnose Disorders And Target Drug Treatment

Thu, 08/09/2018 - 7:30am

New research suggests machine learning can improve the diagnosis of complex mental health disorders and aid the selection of pharmacological therapy.

Experts welcome the new finding as mood disorders like major depressive disorder (MDD) and bipolar disorder are often complex and hard to diagnose. Moreover, this diagnostic challenge is often greatest among youth when the illness is just developing. Uncertainly over the diagnosis can make decisions about medication difficult.

In a collaborative study by Canada’s Lawson Health Research Institute, The Mind Research Network in New Mexico and the Brainnetome Center of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, researchers developed an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm that analyzes brain scans to better classify illness in patients with a complex mood disorder and help predict their response to medication.

The study included 78 emerging adult patients from mental health programs at London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC), primarily from the First Episode Mood and Anxiety Program (FEMAP).

The first part of the study involved 66 patients who had already completed treatment for a clear diagnosis of either MDD or bipolar type I (bipolar I). Bipolar I is a form of bipolar disorder that features full manic episodes.

Researchers also followed an additional 33 research participants with no history of mental illness. Each individual participated in scanning to examine different brain networks using Lawson’s functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) capabilities at St. Joseph’s Health Care London.

The research team analyzed and compared the scans of those with MDD, bipolar I and no history of mental illness, and found the three groups differed in particular brain networks.

Differences were noted in brain area called the default mode network — a set of regions thought to be important for self-reflection — as well as in the thalamus, a “gateway” that connects multiple cortical regions and helps control arousal and alertness.

The data was used by researchers to develop an AI algorithm that uses machine learning to examine fMRI scans to classify whether a patient has MDD or bipolar I. When tested against the research participants with a known diagnosis, the algorithm correctly classified their illness with 92.4 per cent accuracy.

The research team then performed imaging with 12 additional participants with complex mood disorders for whom a diagnosis was not clear. They used the algorithm to study a participant’s brain function to predict his or her diagnosis and, more importantly, examined the participant’s response to medication.

“Antidepressants are the gold standard pharmaceutical therapy for MDD while mood stabilizers are the gold standard for bipolar I,” said Dr. Elizabeth Osuch, a clinician-scientist at Lawson, medical director at FEMAP and co-lead investigator on the study.

“But it becomes difficult to predict which medication will work in patients with complex mood disorders when a diagnosis is not clear. Will they respond better to an antidepressant or to a mood stabilizer?”

The research team hypothesized that participants classified by the algorithm as having MDD would respond to antidepressants while those classified as having bipolar I would respond to mood stabilizers. When tested with the complex patients, 11 out of 12 responded to the medication predicted by the algorithm.

“This study takes a major step towards finding a biomarker of medication response in emerging adults with complex mood disorders,” Osuch said. “It also suggests that we may one day have an objective measure of psychiatric illness through brain imaging that would make diagnosis faster, more effective and more consistent across health care providers.”

Psychiatrists currently make a diagnosis based on the history and behavior of a patient. Medication decisions are based on that diagnosis. “This can be difficult with complex mood disorders and in the early course of an illness when symptoms may be less well-defined,” said Osuch.

“Patients may also have more than one diagnosis, such as a combination of a mood disorder and a substance abuse disorder, further complicating diagnosis. Having a biological test or procedure to identify what class of medication a patient will respond to would significantly advance the field of psychiatry.”

Source: Lawson Health Research Institute

For Some, Probiotics May be Linked to Bloating, Brain Fogginess

Thu, 08/09/2018 - 7:00am

As several studies have revealed the importance of having a thriving gut microbiome, many people have begun taking probiotic supplements as a way to enhance their mental and physical health. But are probiotics for everyone, and can they cause health issues in certain populations?

A new study, published in the journal Clinical and Translational Gastroenterology, finds that in some people, probiotic use can inadvertently lead to a significant accumulation of bacteria in the small intestine. This extra bacteria is often tied to disorienting brain fogginess as well as rapid, significant belly bloating.

Those at risk may include patients with diabetes, short bowel syndrome or slow motility, and those taking certain drugs such as opioids or proton pump inhibitors.

In a study of 30 patients, the 22 who reported health issues such as confusion and difficulty concentrating, in addition to their gas and bloating, were all taking probiotics. Some participants were taking several varieties.

When researchers investigated the issue further, they discovered large colonies of bacteria breeding in the patients’ small intestines (probiotic supplements target the colon, not the small intestine), and high levels of D-lactic acid being produced by the bacteria lactobacillus’ fermentation of sugars in their food.

D-lactic acid is known to be temporarily toxic to brain cells, interfering with cognition, thinking and one’s sense of time. The researchers discovered that some patients had two to three times the normal amount of D-lactic acid in their blood. Some of the participants said their brain fogginess — which lasted from a half hour to many hours after eating — was so severe that they had to quit their jobs.

The report appears to be the first time the association has been made between brain fogginess, bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine, high levels of D-lactic acid in the gut and probiotic use, says Dr. Satish S.C. Rao, director of neurogastroenterology/motility and the Digestive Health Clinical Research Center at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University.

“What we now know is that probiotic bacteria have the unique capacity to break down sugar and produce D-lactic acid. So if you inadvertently colonize your small bowel with probiotic bacteria, then you have set the stage for potentially developing lactic acidosis and brain fogginess,” Rao says.

Probiotics can certainly be beneficial in many cases, such as helping a patient restore his gut bacteria after taking antibiotics, but the researchers advise against excessive and indiscriminate use.

Previously, probiotic use has been implicated in the production of D-lactic acid and brain fogginess in patients with short bowel syndrome as their small intestine does not function properly. This can happen in some newborns fed formula containing probiotics.

Short bowel syndrome results in a lot of undigested carbohydrates that are known to cause small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, or SIBO, and the high levels of D-lactic acid. Severe liver and kidney problems can produce similar problems.

The findings show that all patients experiencing brain fogginess had been taking probiotics. SIBO was more common in the brain fogginess group as well, 68 percent compared to 28 percent, respectively. Patients with brain fogginess also had a higher prevalence of D-lactic acidosis, 77 versus 25 percent, respectively.

When the patients with brain fog stopped taking probiotics and took a course of antibiotics, their brain fogginess resolved.

Movement of food through the gastrointestinal tract was slow in one third of the brain foggy patients and one fourth of the other group. Slower passage, as well as things like obesity surgery, can increase the chance of SIBO.

“Now that we can identify the problem, we can treat it,” Rao says. Diagnosis includes breath, urine and blood tests to detect lactic acid, and an endoscopy that allows examination of fluid from the small intestines so the specific bacteria can be determined and the best antibiotics selected for treatment.

Typically there is not much D-lactic acid made in the small intestines, but probiotic use appears to change that. SIBO, which was present in most of the participants with brain fogginess, can cause bacteria to go into a feeding frenzy that ferments sugars resulting in production of uncomfortable things like hydrogen gas and methane that explain the bloating.

After treatment, 70 percent of patients reported significant improvement in their symptoms and 85 percent said their brain fogginess was gone. Those without brain fogginess but with SIBO and high levels of D-lactic acid reported significant improvement in symptoms like bloating and cramping within three months.

Probiotic use may be particularly problematic for people who have known problems with motility, as well as those taking opioids and proton pump inhibitors, which reduce stomach acid secretion and so the natural destruction of excessive bacteria.

Probiotics are supposed to work in the colon and not the small intestines or stomach, Rao says, so motility issues can result in problems with probiotic bacteria reaching the proper place. A wide variety of problems, from conditions like diabetes to drugs like antidepressants and minerals like iron, can slow movement and increase the possibility that probiotics will remain too long in the upper gut where they can cause harm, he says.

Probiotics definitely can help, for example, people who have gastroenteritis, or stomach flu, or are left with diarrhea and other problems after antibiotics wipe out their natural gut bacteria, Rao says.

“In those situations, we want to build up their bacterial flora so probiotics are ideal,” he says.

Source: Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University


Most Online Daters Seek Partners Who Are Out of Their League

Thu, 08/09/2018 - 6:30am

Most online daters tend to seek out partners who are “out of their league,” or essentially more desirable than themselves, according to a new study published in the journal Science Advances.

“We have so many folk theories about how dating works that have not been scientifically tested,” said Dr. Elizabeth Bruch, a sociologist and the study’s lead author. “Data from online dating gives us a window on the strategies that people use to find partners.”

Bruch and her co-author Dr. Mark Newman study complex systems at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor,— and belong to the external faculty of the Santa Fe Institute.

For the study, the researchers analyzed anonymized data from online dating networks in four major U.S. cities: New York, Boston, Chicago and Seattle. The research is the first large-scale analysis to focus on hierarchies of desirability in online dating data. Among other things, the study reveals how people behave strategically during online courtship by altering the length and number of messages they send to individuals at different levels of desirability.

According to the findings, the majority of online daters reach out to prospects who are 25 percent more desirable than themselves. Users also tend to tailor their messaging strategies, writing relatively longer messages to potential partners who are further up the hierarchy.

To determine the desirability of each online dater, the researchers used a ranking algorithm based on the number of messages a person received and the desirability of the senders.

“If you are contacted by people who are themselves desirable, then you are presumably more desirable yourself,” they write in the paper.

“Rather than relying on guesses about what people find attractive, this approach allows us to define desirability in terms of who is receiving the most attention and from whom,” says Newman.

Because most users send the majority of their messages “up” the hierarchy — out of their league — a lot of messages go unanswered.

“I think a common complaint when people use online dating websites is they feel like they never get any replies,” Bruch says. “This can be dispiriting. But even though the response rate is low, our analysis shows that 21 percent of people who engage in this aspirational behavior do get replies from a mate who is out of their league, so perseverance pays off.”

Bruch also says that although sending longer messages to more attractive prospects is a common strategy, it may not be particularly helpful. In most locations, longer messages did not appear to increase a person’s chances of receiving a reply. One notable exception, however, was Seattle, where the researchers did observe a payoff for writing longer messages.

So what prompts a user to ultimately send a message? When desirability scores were compared to user attributes, the researchers found correlations between age, education level, and ethnicity. For example, up to the age of 50, older men tended to have higher desirability scores than younger men, while women’s desirability scores tended to decline from ages 18 to 60.

Though the study findings seem to align with typical stereotypes, Bruch stresses that this is not a rule that holds for all individuals.

“There can be a lot of heterogeneity in terms of who is desirable to whom. Our scores reflect the overall desirability rankings given online dating site users’ diverse preferences, and there may be sub-markets in which people who would not necessarily score as high by our measures could still have an awesome and fulfilling dating life.”

Bruch also emphasizes that this is just the first, and perhaps shallowest, phase of dating. Previous dating research has shown that as people spend time together, their unique character traits become more important relative to other attributes.

Source: Santa Fe Institute


Pride May Have Some Evolutionary Benefits

Wed, 08/08/2018 - 8:04pm

Counted among the seven deadly sins (along with greed, lust and envy), pride is considered by some to be the worst of the lot. Moreover, some believe pride is the motivating factor behind great mistakes.

A new study, however, challenges this perception as a research team at the University of Montreal and UC Santa Barbara’s Center for Evolutionary Psychology (CEP) contend that from an evolutionary perspective, pride serves a purpose.

The scientists contend that pride was built into human nature by evolution because it served an important function for our foraging ancestors. Our ancestors, they explained, lived in small, highly interdependent bands and faced frequent life-threatening reversals. They needed their fellow band members to value them enough during bad times to pull them through.

Therefore, in making choices, humans had to weigh their own individual self-interest against winning the approval of others, so that when they needed help others would value them enough to give it. As result, the human-universal emotion of pride is evolved as a solution.

The study findings appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“People evolved to have a selfish streak, but they also needed a contrary pull toward acts that would make others value them in a world without soup kitchens, police, hospitals or insurance,” said lead author Dr. Daniel Sznycer, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Montreal.

“The feeling of pride is an internal reward that draws us towards such acts.”

“For this to work well, people can’t just stumble about, discovering after the fact what brings approval,” said Leda Cosmides, a professor of psychology at UCSB, a co-author of the paper. “That’s too late. In making choices among alternatives, our motivational system needs to implicitly estimate in advance the amount of approval each alternative act would trigger in the minds of others.”

Pride serves as a factor to overcome behavioral stalemates. For example, a person who did only what others wanted would be selected against, the authors point out, but a person who was purely selfish would be shunned rapidly — another dead end.

“This leads to a precise quantitative prediction,” said John Tooby, a professor of anthropology at UCSB, CEP co-director and a coauthor of the paper.

“Lots of research has shown that humans can anticipate personal rewards and costs accurately, like lost time or food. Here we predicted that the specific intensity of the pride a person would anticipate feeling for taking an action would track how much others in their local world would actually value that specific act.

The theory we’re evaluating is that the intensity of pride you feel when you consider whether to take a potential action is not just a feeling and a motivator; it is also carries useful information to seduce you to make choices that balance both the personal costs and benefits and the social costs and benefits.”

Pride helps an individual factor in others’ regard, alongside private benefits, so the act associated with the highest total payoff is selected, the authors argue.

“One implication of this theory is that those around you benefit, too, as a side effect of your pursuing actions they value,” said Sznycer. “Thus, pride is more a win-win than it is a sin.”

A key part of the argument is that this neurally based motivational system is a part of our species’ biology.

“If that is true, we should be able to find this same pride-valuation relationship in diverse cultures and ecologies all around the world, including in face-to-face societies whose small scale echoes the more intimate social worlds in which we think pride evolved,” Sznycer noted.

To test this hypothesis, the team collected data from 10 traditional small-scale societies in Central and South America, Africa and Asia. The people in these societies speak very different languages (e.g., Mayangna, Tuvanian, Igbo), have diverse religions (e.g., Sunni Islam and shamanism), and make a living in different ways (hunting, small-scale agriculture, nomadic pastoralism).

If pride is part of universal, evolved human nature, then the research should find that pride closely tracks the values of others, for each specific act, in each community; but they should find wide variation in this relationship if pride is more akin to a cultural invention, present in some places but not others.

“We observed an extraordinarily close match between the community’s degree of positive regard for people who display each of these acts or traits and the intensities of pride individuals anticipate feeling if they took those acts or displayed those traits,” Sznycer said.

“Feelings of pride really move in lockstep with the values held by those around you, as the theory predicts.” Further studies, he added, have demonstrated that it is specifically pride — as opposed to other positive emotions — that tracks others’ values.

Of interesting note, the researchers said, pride tracked not only the values of fellow community members but also the values of participants in the other cultures — although the latter relationship was more variable.

For example, the pride expressed by the Mayangna forager-horticulturalists of the Bosawás Reserve in Nicaragua tracked not only the values expressed by fellow Mayangnas, but also the values of pastoralists from Tuva in Russia, Amazigh farmers from Drâa-Tafilalet in Morocco and farmers from Enugu in Nigeria.

This additional finding suggests that at least some of the social values people hold around the world are universal.

“Humans are a uniquely cooperative species, so pride leads people to do many valuable things for each other, ” Cosmides said. However, the authors continued, pride in the form of dominance evolved when there was less cooperation, and it was advantageous for an animal to deter rivals from scarce resources by displaying the degree of cost it could inflict.

“Humans inherited this system too, and, as many have shown, they are proud not only of the good they can do, but also of their aggressive abilities,” Sznycer explained. “Our data supports this, too.”

Pride has this two-edged reputation, the researchers added, because while it often motivates us to benefit others, it also can sometimes lead us to exploit others. As Tooby said, “When people become intoxicated with how valuable they are to others — or how dangerous — they feel they can safely take advantage of this to exploit people. Prima donnas, alphas and narcissists are the result.”

“For better or worse, the pride system appears to be a fundamental part of human nature,” Sznycer concluded, “a neural system that evolved because it helped people increase their esteem and status in the eyes of others.”

Source: University of California Santa Barbara

Tuning Home Robotics to Kids’ Frequency

Wed, 08/08/2018 - 6:00am

The use of home robotics is on a roll as nearly 40 million U.S. homes have a voice-activated assistant like an Amazon Echo or Google Home, and it’s estimated that by 2022, more than half of U.S. households will own one. But voice-activated devices often fail to respond to children.

A new University of Washington study finds that children communicate with technology differently than adults do, and a more responsive device — one that repeats or prompts the user, for example — could be more useful to more people.

Kids often pause, stammer or mispronounce a few words, leading to silence or no response from the device.

“There has to be more than ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t quite get that,'” said co-author Dr. Alexis Hiniker, an assistant professor at the UW Information School.

“Voice interfaces now are designed in a cut-and-dried way that needs more nuance. Adults don’t talk to children and assume there will be perfect communication. That’s relevant here.”

The study appears in the proceedings of the 17th Interaction Design and Children Conference, and was presented at the  conference in Trondheim, Norway.

While some interfaces have features specifically aimed at younger users, research has shown that these devices generally rely on the clear, precise English of adult users, and specific ones, at that. People for whom English is not their first language, or even those who have a regional accent — say, a Southern accent — tend to hit snags with smart speakers, according to a recent Washington Post analysis.

The UW study shows how children will persist in the face of a communication breakdown, treating a device as a conversation partner and in effect, showing developers how to design technologies that are more responsive to families.

“They’re being billed as whole-home assistants, providing a centralized, shared, collaborative experience,” Hiniker said. “Developers should be thinking about the whole family as a design target.”

In this study, the team recorded 14 children, ages 3 to 5 (and, indirectly, their parents), as they played a Sesame Workshop game, “Cookie Monster’s Challenge,” on a lab-issued tablet.

As designed, the game features a cartoon duck waddling across the screen at random intervals; the child is asked to “say ‘quack’ like a duck!” each time he or she sees the duck, and the duck is supposed to quack back.

Only in this study, the duck has lost its quack.

That scenario was something of an accident, Hiniker said.

The team, with funding from Sesame Workshop, was originally evaluating how various tablet games affect children’s executive function skills. But when they configured the tablet to record the children’s responses, researchers later learned their data-collection tool shut off the device’s ability to “hear” the child.

What the team had instead was more than 100 recordings of children trying to get the duck to quack — in effect, attempting to repair a lapse in conversation — and their parents’ efforts to help. And a study of how children communicate with nonresponsive voice technology was born.

Researchers grouped children’s communication strategies into three categories: repetition, increased volume and variation. Repetition — in this case, continuing to say “quack,” repeatedly or after pausing — was the most common approach, used 79 percent of the time.

Less common among participants was speaking loudly — shouting “quack!” at the duck, for instance — and varying their response, through their pitch, tone or use of the word. (Like trying an extended “quaaaaaack!” to no avail.)

In all, children persisted in trying, without any evidence of frustration, to get the game to work more than 75 percent of the time; frustration surfaced in fewer than one-fourth of the recordings. And in only six recordings, children asked an adult to help.

Parents were happy to do so. But the team found they were also quick to determine something was wrong and take a break from the game. Adults usually suggested the child try again and took a shot at responding themselves; once they pronounced the game broken — and only then — did the child agree to stop trying.

The results represented a series of real-life strategies families use when faced with a “broken” or uncommunicative device, Hiniker said. The scenarios also provided a window into young children’s early communication processes.

“Adults are good at recognizing what a child wants to say and filling in for the child,” Hiniker said. “A device could also be designed to engage in partial understanding, to help the child go one step further.”

For example, a child might ask a smart speaker to play “Wheels on the Bus,” but if the device doesn’t pick up the full name of the song, it could respond with, “Play what?” or fill in part of the title, prompting the child for the rest.

Such responses would be useful even among adults, Hiniker pointed out. Person-to-person conversation, at any age, is filled with little mistakes, and finding ways to repair such disfluencies should be the future of voice interfaces.

“AI is getting more sophisticated all the time, so it’s about how to design these technologies in the first place,” Hiniker said. “Instead of focusing on how to get the response completely right, how could we take a step toward a shared understanding?”

Source: University of Washington

Heavy Drinking Can Bring On The ‘Drunchies’ – And Weight Gain

Wed, 08/08/2018 - 6:00am

A night of heavy drinking often brings on the “drunchies” — or drunk munchies, in case you’re not up on the latest slang, and that means salty, fatty and all-around unhealthy food. Giant burritos. Half a pizza.

In a new study, researchers observed the drunchies in a sample of college students to better understand how drinking affects what they eat, both that night and for their first meal the next day when, most likely, they’re hung over.

“Given the obesity epidemic and the rates of alcohol consumption on college campuses, we need to be aware of not only the negative effect of alcohol consumption, but also the impact it has on what people are eating while they are drinking,” said Jessica Kruger, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor of community health and health behavior in the University at Buffalo’s School of Public Health and Health Professions.

Studies on the effects of drinking and diet are scarce, Kruger said. And eating more unhealthy foods following alcohol consumption is an often overlooked behavior in traditional addiction research.

Kruger and her colleagues from the University of Michigan, University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University, observed 286 students at a large public university in the Midwest.

The inspiration for the study came from an ad Kruger and some of her co-authors saw in a university newspaper. “It said, ‘Got Drunchies?’ and had ads for pizza, tacos, and other fast-food places that were open late after the bars closed,” Kruger said.

“So, we dug a bit deeper and first figured out what the ‘drunchies’ were, and then decided this would be interesting to study. Our first study in this area focused on what people ate while drinking alcohol. This study explored what they eat the day after drinking,” Kruger said.

With 65 percent of U.S. college students reporting that they regularly drink alcohol, it’s important, Kruger says, to look at how alcohol consumption affects diet, especially on and near college campuses, which tend to have a wealth of unhealthy fast-food options nearby.

Consider, for example, that the average beer contains 150 calories. Five beers would equal 750 calories, or a third of one’s daily energy intake. Add two slices of pizza or a burrito to that at the end of the night, and it’s a recipe for weight gain.

For the study, the students completed an anonymous online survey, which began with general questions around diet, such as “What do you typically eat for your first meal of the day?” and “How often do you eat something before you go to bed?”

They were also asked how often they ate something before bed on nights when they drank alcohol, what they ate, and what they typically ate for their first meal the day after a night of binge drinking.

The findings show that drinking influenced study participants’ dietary behaviors before going to bed. “All alcohol drinkers were more likely to eat something before they went to bed after drinking alcohol than in general before they go to bed,” Kruger and her colleagues wrote.

Specifically, they were more likely to opt for salty snack foods and pizza. Healthy foods, such as dark green vegetables and other veggies weren’t as appealing.

In addition, the students didn’t report drinking more water or other non-alcoholic beverages before bed. That exacerbates dehydration, which may also lead to unhealthy food choices.

The following day after drinking, participants’ dietary patterns varied from the night before. They were less likely to skip breakfast after a night of drinking compared to a typical morning.

But breakfast often involved foods like pizza or tacos, most likely because of the mythical hangover cures that get passed down to students and which entail eating foods that “soak up” the alcohol. Dispelling these myths is one way to promote a healthy diet even after a night of binge drinking, Kruger said.

So what exactly causes the drunchies? “It is believed that after drinking alcohol, the amount of blood glucose in the body can rise and fall which stimulates the brain to feel hungry,” said Kruger.

The findings highlight the need for universities to encourage healthy eating at all times of the day, including late at night, she said, by reducing the offerings of unhealthy foods and promoting nutrient-dense options.

Source: University at Buffalo


People May Process Bad News Better Under Stress

Tue, 08/07/2018 - 7:00am

Threat erodes the human tendency to readily accept good news over bad, according to experiments conducted in a lab and with on-duty firefighters.

Researchers at Princeton University in the U.S. and University College London in the UK note that, in general, people tend to be overly optimistic. The opposite is true in psychiatric conditions such as depression, in which some people are biased toward negative information.

Through their experiments, researchers say they show that the ability to flexibly shift between these two patterns can be a healthy, adaptive response to changing environmental demands.

For the study, the researchers induced stress in a controlled laboratory experiment by telling participants they had to give a surprise public speech. They then asked participants to estimate their likelihood of experiencing 40 different aversive events in their life, such as being involved in a car accident or becoming a victim of credit card fraud.

Participants were then given good news (being told that their likelihood of experiencing these events was lower than they had estimated) or bad news (that it was higher). Researchers then asked participants to provide new estimates.

According to the study’s findings, the control group showed the well-known optimism bias — a tendency to take more notice of good news compared to bad news.

In contrast, the stressed participants showed no such bias and became better at processing bad news.

The researchers add they obtained similar results in a study of Colorado firefighters, who naturally experience fluctuating periods of stress as part of their job.

The study was published in JNeurosci.

Source: The Society for Neuroscience

Is Photo-Editing Pushing Our Concept of Beauty to Extremes?

Mon, 08/06/2018 - 6:00am

With the widespread use of photo-editing technology available through applications such as Snapchat and Facetune, the physical “perfection” once reserved only for magazine models and celebrities is now available to everyone.

But could these impossibly perfect photos be doing more harm than good? Some researchers say yes — that filtered selfies may be raising the bar of beauty to unobtainable proportions.

In a new paper published in JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery, researchers from Boston Medical Center (BMC) assert that these “perfect” images are changing people’s perceptions of beauty. That can take a heavy toll on a person’s self-esteem and trigger or worsen body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) in vulnerable individuals.

“A new phenomenon called ‘Snapchat dysmorphia’ has popped up,” said Neelam Vashi, M.D., director of the Ethnic Skin Center at BMC and Boston University School of Medicine, “where patients are seeking out surgery to help them appear like the filtered versions of themselves.”

“Filtered selfies can make people lose touch with reality, creating the expectation that we are supposed to look perfectly primped all the time,” said Vashi. “This can be especially harmful for teens and those with BDD, and it is important for providers to understand the implications of social media on body image to better treat and counsel our patients.”

Body dysmorphic disorder is a debilitating mental illness characterized by an excessive preoccupation with a perceived flaw in one’s appearance. Sufferers often go to extreme and unhealthy lengths to hide their perceived imperfections. This can involve engaging in repetitive behaviors such as skin picking, and visiting dermatologists or plastic surgeons hoping to change their appearance.

The disorder affects around 2 percent of the population and is classified on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum.

In the paper, the authors reference studies showing that teen girls who manipulate their photos are more concerned with their body appearance, and those with dysmorphic body image turn to social media as a means of validation.

Additional research has shown 55 percent of plastic surgeons report seeing patients who want to improve their appearance in selfies.

According to the authors, surgery is not the best course of action in these cases, because it will not improve, and may worsen underlying BDD. They recommend psychological interventions such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and management of the disorder in an empathetic and non-judgmental way.

Source: Boston Medical Center