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Psychology, psychiatry and mental health news and research findings, every weekday.
Updated: 3 min 40 sec ago

Childhood Trauma May Activate Gene Leading to PTSD

14 hours 49 min ago

New research suggests childhood adversity may influence genotypes which, in turn, can affect a person’s nervous system, placing the individual at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Specialists have known that abnormalities in a person’s nervous system, especially in the fight-or flight- response, are a factor in the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), although the association of a genetic influence had been unknown until the current study.

The collaborative study by researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the University of Michigan found an interaction between the ADRB2 gene and childhood adversity.

For individuals with two or more experiences of childhood trauma, such as abuse, genotype was associated with risk for adult PTSD symptoms.

These findings are significant for the study of the physiology of PTSD, for the treatment and prevention of stress-related illnesses, and may have implications for treating pain, which has also been linked to the ADRB2 gene.

This is the first report of genetic risk factors for PTSD in National Guard soldiers and adds to the developing evidence base on the role of genetic influences in PTSD.

The study is published online in JAMA Psychiatry.

The researchers analyzed results from 810 Ohio National Guard soldiers who took part in the Ohio National Guard Study of Risk and Resilience, all of whom reported having experienced a potentially traumatic event in their lives.

Nearly three-quarters of the guardsmen had been deployed to combat zones including in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 42 percent had seen active military combat.

Service members were asked about their childhood exposure to experiences of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, or witnessing of violence between parents.

Soldiers were further asked about adult trauma, including 33 categories of deployment-related and non-deployment events, and then evaluated for PTSD symptoms using a 17-item PTSD checklist.

A replication cohort of predominantly African-American female civilians enrolled in the Grady Trauma Project in Atlanta was evaluated for childhood adversity, adult trauma, and PTSD symptoms in a similar fashion.

“We found strong evidence that the ADRB2 gene SNP (defined as Single Nucleotide Polymorphism) was associated with PTSD in our group of male soldiers who were predominantly of European American ancestry,” said Sandro Galea, M.D., Dr.P.H., senior author.

“Of particular note is the finding that the identical interaction took place in the control group of civilians. Together these outcomes suggest that the ADRB2 gene interacts with childhood adversity and either result in a vulnerability or resilience to developing PTSD symptoms following adult trauma.”

Soldiers with the AA genotype of the rs2400707 SNP, located in the promoter region of the ADRB2 gene were the most resilient to adult PTSD symptoms, given exposure to two or more types of childhood adversity; those with the AG genotype had an intermediate risk of adult PTSD symptoms, and those with the GG genotype had the greatest risk of adult PTSD symptoms.

No differences by rs2400707 genotype were observed for those with less than two types of childhood adversity.

This suggests that having two or more types of childhood adversity may represent a different childhood experience during critical developmental periods, according to Galea.

The question of whether the genetic risks for developing PTSD are similar in other populations that are exposed to different traumas at different periods in their lives remains to be further tested, noted Galea.

“However, our findings that the ADRB2 factor might be shared by men and women, African-Americans and European-Americans, and military and civilians is consistent with the idea that some genetic risk factors for PTSD might be common across populations and even shared by other stress-related disorders, such as depression.”

Lifetime trauma exposure was also a strong predictor of PTSD symptoms, regardless of rs2400707 genotype.

This was not unexpected since epidemiologic studies have identified severity of trauma exposure as a major risk factor for PTSD. In the current study, significant interaction between genetic variance and lifetime adult trauma exposure was not observed.

“This suggests that genetic variance in interaction with childhood trauma alone can influence adult PTSD symptom severity,” said Galea.

“By understanding how PTSD develops, we are better positioned to employ effective prevention and intervention strategies in the military and beyond,” said Israel Liberzon, M.D., University of Michigan Professor of Psychiatry and first author of the study.

“With these data, we will help patients suffering from the strains of PTSD earlier on, and prevent unnecessary pain, suffering, and stress.”

“While additional investigations are clearly needed to confirm the existing findings and identify new ones, these data provide an important lead for both examining the pathogenesis of PTSD and developing specific and effective prevention and intervention strategies,” noted Galea.

Source: Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health

Genetics abstract photo by shutterstock.

Brain Scans to Screen for Potential Reading Problems

15 hours 34 min ago

Reading problems are slow to detect often setting children back and placing them at a disadvantaged position during critical school years.

In a new study, University of California, San Francisco researchers have used brain scans to predict how young children learn to read.

The tactic gives clinicians a possible tool to spot children with dyslexia and other reading difficulties before they experience reading challenges.

In the U.S., children usually learn to read for the first time in kindergarten and often become proficient readers by third grade.

In the study, researchers examined brain scans of 38 kindergarteners as they were learning to read formally at school and tracked their white matter development until third grade. The brain’s white matter is essential for perceiving, thinking, and learning.

The researchers found that the developmental course of the children’s white matter volume predicted the kindergarteners’ abilities to read.

“We show that white matter development during a critical period in a child’s life, when they start school and learn to read for the very first time, predicts how well the child ends up reading,” said Fumiko Hoeft, M.D., Ph.D., senior author.

The research is published online in the journal Psychological Science.

Doctors commonly use behavioral measures of reading readiness for assessments of ability. Other measures such as cognitive (i.e. IQ) ability, early linguistic skills, measures of the environment such as socio-economic status, and whether there is a family member with reading problems or dyslexia are all common early factors used to assess risk of developing reading difficulties.

“What was intriguing in this study was that brain development in regions important to reading predicted above and beyond all of these measures,” said Hoeft.

The researchers removed the effects of these commonly used assessments when doing the statistical analyses in order to assess how the white matter directly predicted future reading ability.

They found that left hemisphere white matter in the temporo-parietal region just behind and above the left ear — thought to be important for language, reading, and speech — was highly predictive of reading acquisition beyond effects of genetic predisposition, cognitive abilities, and environment at the outset of kindergarten.

Brain scans improved prediction accuracy by 60 percent better at predicting reading difficulties than the compared to traditional assessments alone.

“Early identification and interventions are extremely important in children with dyslexia as well as most neurodevelopmental disorders,” said Hoeft.

“Accumulation of research evidence such as ours may one day help us identify kids who might be at risk for dyslexia, rather than waiting for children to become poor readers and experience failure.”

According to the National Institute of Child and Human Development, as many as 15 percent of Americans have major trouble reading.

“Examining developmental changes in the brain over a critical period of reading appears to be a unique sensitive measure of variation and may add insight to our understanding of reading development in ways that brain data from one time point, and behavioral and environmental measures, cannot,” said Chelsea Myers, BS, lead author.

“The hope is that understanding each child’s neurocognitive profiles will help educators provide targeted and personalized education and intervention, particularly in those with special needs.”

Source: University of California, San Francisco

Brain scan photo by shutterstock.

Early Intervention Can Curb Aggression in Kids

16 hours 19 min ago

Timely new research discovers aggressive children are less likely to become violent criminals or psychiatrically troubled adults if they receive early school and home-based interventions.

The Fast-Track Project study, by researchers at Duke, Pennsylvania State, Vanderbilt universities and the University of Washington, began in 1991 with the screening of nearly 10,000 five year-old children in Durham, Nashville, Seattle, and rural Pennsylvania for aggressive behavior problems.

Nearly 900 children were deemed at high risk, and of those, half were randomly assigned to receive the Fast Track intervention, while the other half were assigned to a control group.

Participating children and their families received an array of interventions at school and at home.

Nineteen years later, the authors found that Fast Track participants at age 25 had fewer convictions for violent and drug-related crimes, lower rates of serious substance abuse, lower rates of risky sexual behavior, and fewer psychiatric problems than the control group.

“We can prevent serious violence and psychopathology among the group of children who are highest-risk,” said Duke’s Kenneth Dodge, Ph.D.

“That’s the essential finding from this study. It provides the strongest evidence yet that, far from being doomed from an early age, at-risk children can be helped to live productive lives.”

The program’s positive effects held true across four different sites around the country, among both males and females and among both white and African-American children.

The study is found online in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

From first through 10th grade, the Fast Track children received reading tutoring and specialized intervention aimed at improving self-control and social-cognitive skills. Parents learned problem-solving skills through home visits and parent training groups.

When program participants turned 25, researchers reviewed court records and conducted interviews with participants and control group members, as well as individuals who knew the participants well.

Along with fewer criminal convictions, Fast Track participants had lower rates of antisocial personality disorder and avoidant personality disorder, lower rates of risky sexual behavior, and lower rates of harsh parenting.

The latter finding suggests that the intervention may interrupt the intergenerational cycle of problem behavior.

Fast Track is among very few studies to test the long-term effect of environment on children’s development through a clinical trial. It provides strong evidence for the critical role environment plays in shaping a child’s development.

“This study adds to the experimental evidence for the important role that environment plays,” Dodge said.

“Genes do not write an inalterable script for a child’s life. And not only does the environment matter greatly in a child’s development, we’ve shown that you can intervene and help that child succeed in life.”

Fast Track’s positive effects do not come cheap. The 10-year intervention costs $58,000 per child.

“However, that cost should be weighed against the millions of dollars that each chronic criminal costs society in imprisonment and harm to others,” Dodge said.

“Prevention takes a considerable investment, but that investment is worth it,” Dodge said. “Our policies and practices should reflect the fact that these children can have productive lives.”

In future studies, Dodge and his colleagues plan to examine the cost-benefit question more closely.

Source: Duke University

Job Stress Only One Issue Contributing to Work Burnout

17 hours 4 min ago

In today’s faced-paced economic environment, worker burnout is a relatively common occurrence as nearly 50 percent of all U.S. workers feel overwhelmed by job demands. New research suggests burnout is often a combined function of job stressors and an absence of support away from the work-place.

In fact, new research from Concordia University and the University of Montreal shows that having an understanding partner is just as important as having a supportive boss.

As published in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, researchers surveyed 1,954 employees from 63 different organizations and discovered a multitude of issues contribute to mental health problems in the workforce.

Investigators polled participants to measure factors like parental status, household income, social network, gender, age, physical health, and levels of self-esteem.

They studied these elements alongside stressors typically seen in the workplace, such as emotional exhaustion, poor use of skills, high psychological demands, job insecurity, and lack of authority.

Turns out mental health in the workplace doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it’s deeply affected by the rest of a person’s day-to-day life, and vice versa.

The study shows that fewer mental health problems are experienced by those living with a partner, in households with young children, higher household incomes, less work-family conflicts, and greater access to the support of a social network outside the workplace.

Of course, factors within the workplace are still important. Fewer mental health problems are reported when employees are supported at work, when expectations of job recognition are met and when people feel secure in their jobs.

A higher level of skill use is also associated with lower levels of depression, pointing to the importance of designing tasks that motivate and challenge workers.

“This is a call to action,” said senior author Steve Harvey, Ph.D., professor of management and dean of Concordia’s School of Business.

“Researchers need to expand their perspective so that they get a full picture of the complexity of factors that determine individuals’ mental health.”

For lead author Alain Marchand, Ph.D., it’s all about adopting a holistic view.

“To maintain a truly healthy workforce, we need to look outside the office or home in simple terms to combat mental health issues in the workplace.”

Source: Concordia University

Man who has job burnout photo by shutterstock.

8 Disorders Instead of One? The Role Gene Clusters Play in Schizophrenia

Tue, 09/16/2014 - 11:14am

New research suggests that what is commonly thought of as one disorder — schizophrenia — may in fact be eight different and distinct disorders.

Schizophrenia is a complex but rare mental illness characterized by a person experiencing hallucinations and/or delusions. It affects between 0.5 and 1 percent of the population at any given time and typically begins in a person’s early adulthood (their 20s).

Researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine analyzed the DNA of 4,000 people who were previously diagnosed with schizophrenia. After their analysis, they concluded that what we have traditionally considered to be one disorder may in fact be eight separate, distinct genetic disorders.

Furthermore, the researchers suggested that these eight different disorders can combine into clusters, each of which may carry different risk profiles for schizophrenia.

“There isn’t just this one kind of schizophrenia,” noted lead researchers C. Robert Cloninger, “but actually several different syndromes where some people have positive symptoms like hallucinations and delusions [and] others have negative symptoms where they’re not able to think logically and these different syndromes are associated with different groups of genes.”

The scientists in the new study took a different approach to examining the possible genetic causes of schizophrenia. Typically research has examined single gene or gene sequences for clues. But the new research examined how different symptoms seemed to be caused by specific configurations of genetic variations.

In all, the researchers analyzed nearly 700,000 sites within the genome where a single unit of DNA is changed, often referred to as a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP). They looked at SNPs in 4,200 people with schizophrenia and 3,800 healthy controls, learning how individual genetic variations interacted with each other to produce the illness.

In some patients with hallucinations or delusions, for example, the researchers matched distinct genetic features to patients’ symptoms, demonstrating that specific genetic variations interacted to create a 95 percent certainty of schizophrenia.

In another group of people with schizophrenia, they found that disorganized speech and behavior were specifically associated with a set of DNA variations that carried a 100 percent risk of schizophrenia

The causes of schizophrenia, like most mental disorders, are poorly understood at present. Researchers currently believe that about 80 percent of the risk for schizophrenia is inherited. While genetics is understood to be a component of the cause of schizophrenia and some other mental illnesses, exactly what genes are responsible has been a cat-and-mouse game for decades. Dozens of genes and gene variations have been indicted for schizophrenia’s cause, resulting in a confusingly complex picture.

Although individual genes have only weak and inconsistent associations with schizophrenia, groups of interacting gene clusters create an extremely high and consistent risk of illness, on the order of 70 to 100 percent. That makes it almost impossible for people with those genetic variations to avoid the condition.

In all, the researchers identified 42 clusters of genetic variations that dramatically increased the risk of schizophrenia.

Then they divided patients according to the type and severity of their symptoms, such as different types of hallucinations or delusions, and other symptoms, such as lack of initiative, problems organizing thoughts or a lack of connection between emotions and thoughts. The results indicated that those symptom profiles describe eight qualitatively distinct disorders based on underlying genetic conditions.

The investigators also replicated their findings in two additional DNA databases of people with schizophrenia, an indicator that identifying the gene variations that are working together is a valid avenue to explore for improving diagnosis and treatment.

The new research could open the door to better understanding the underlying foundation of schizophrenia.

Source: Washington University School of Medicine

Youth May Use Marijuana to Self-Medicate Negative Moods

Tue, 09/16/2014 - 8:30am

A new study finds that adolescents and young adults who smoke marijuana frequently may be attempting to manage negative moods by using the drug.

Researchers say users may feel better temporarily, but then they tend to feel worse. Also, using marijuana as a coping strategy may make it harder for people to stop using the drug.

“Young people who use marijuana frequently experience an increase in negative affect in the 24 hours leading up to a use event, which lends strong support to an affect-regulation model in this population,” said the study’s lead author Lydia A. Shrier, M.D., M.P.H.

“One of the challenges is that people often may use marijuana to feel better but may feel worse afterward,” she said.

“Marijuana use can be associated with anxiety and other negative states. People feel bad, they use, and they might momentarily feel better, but then they feel worse. They don’t necessarily link feeling bad after using with the use itself, so it can become a vicious circle.”

For the study, published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, Shrier and colleagues recruited 40 people, ages 15 to 24, who used marijuana at least twice a week, although their average was 9.7 times per week.

They were trained to use a handheld computer that signaled them at a random time within three-hour intervals (four to six times per day) for two weeks.

At each signal, participants were asked about their mood, companionship, perceived availability of marijuana, and recent marijuana use. Participants were also asked to report just before and just after any marijuana use.

They completed more than 3,600 reports.

The researchers found that negative affect was significantly increased during the 24 hours before marijuana use compared with other periods. However, positive affect did not vary in the period before marijuana use compared with other times.

Also, neither the availability of marijuana nor the presence of friends modified the likelihood that chronic users would use marijuana following a period of negative affect.

“The study is unique in that it collected data in real time to assess mood and marijuana use events. The study thus was able to identify mood that was occurring in the 24 hours before marijuana use and compared it with mood at other times,” Shrier said.

“There are a host of limitations with retrospective assessments, such as asking people ‘the last time you used marijuana, why did you use it?’” according to Shrier.

“We weren’t asking people to predict anything or to recall anything — we were just asking them to give us reports about how they were feeling right now. We were able to put under a microscope the association between those feelings and subsequent marijuana use.”

Shrier said it could be beneficial for clinicians and counselors to help their patients identify patterns of negative affect and to implement alternative mood-regulation strategies to replace marijuana use.

Source: Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs

1 in 5 Men Admit to Intimate Partner Violence

Tue, 09/16/2014 - 7:45am

Male aggression toward their partners is not so rare, it turns out.

In a new study, University of Michigan (UM) researchers discovered one in five men in the U.S. report violence towards their spouse or significant other. Warning signs for the violent behavior can sometimes be discovered during routine health visits, or when caring for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and insomnia.

The subject has recently been in the headlines, with the case of NFL running back Ray Rice and some other sports stars.

The Baltimore Ravens released Rice after a video of him punching his then-fiancée in a casino elevator surfaced in the news; other college and professional teams have either suspended or prohibited athletes from playing in games.

Traditional risk factors for intimate partner violence include substance abuse and a history of either experiencing or witnessing violence as a child.

The findings appear in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine and are based on the most recent data available from the National Comorbidity Survey-Replication.

The survey assesses intimate partner violence and characteristics among male perpetrators.

“When people think of men who abuse their partners, they often think of violent people who they have never come across, or people they have only heard about in the news,” says lead author Vijay Singh, M.D., M.P.H. “However, our study showed one out of every five men in the U.S. reported physical violence toward an intimate partner.

“It’s likely that we’ve all met these men in our daily environment. This is an issue that cuts across all communities, regardless of race, income, or any other demographics.”

Domestic violence has become a growing health concern.

In the U.S. each year, roughly 320,000 outpatient health visits and 1,200 deaths among women are due to intimate partner violence, and $8.3 billion is spent in related medical and mental health services alone.

The UM study found that more than half of the men who reported violence toward a partner had at least one routine health visit over the last year and nearly one third noted at least one emergency room visit over the last year.

“Most of our efforts to prevent intimate partner violence have focused on screening and improving outcomes for women who are victims, because their health and well-being is our priority. Very little work, however, has been done on how to identify male perpetrators,” said Singh, who is also a member of the University of Michigan Injury Center and Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.

“Our research shows that male perpetrators of intimate partner violence seek routine medical services, and they have physical symptoms that are common reasons patients seek medical care.

“This suggests that we may be missing an important opportunity in the primary care setting to identify their aggressive behavior and potentially intervene.”

Singh says further work needs to be done on developing identification and intervention programs focused to on male aggression toward a partner.

The nationally-representative sample included 530 men with an average age of 42. Roughly 78 percent were non-Hispanic white, 56 percent were educated beyond high school, and 84 percent were employed.

Intimate partner violence was defined as pushing, grabbing, shoving, throwing something, slapping or hitting, kicking, biting, beating up, choking, burning or scalding, or threatening a partner with a knife or gun.

Source: University of Michigan

Domestic violence photo by shutterstock.

New Study Traces Abnormal Brain Development in Schizophrenia

Tue, 09/16/2014 - 7:00am

A new international study has determined that parts of the cerebral cortex develop differently in people with schizophrenia.

The discovery stems from an assessment of brain development during childhood and adolescence in people with and without schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia is generally considered to be a disorder of brain development; it shares many risk factors, both genetic and environmental, with other neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism and intellectual disability.

The normal path for brain development is determined by the combined effects of a complex network of genes and a wide range of environmental factors. Determining the path of schizophrenia is difficult even with advanced brain imaging studies.

In the current study, researchers reviewed both healthy and patient populations in order to map the disturbances in brain structures as they emerge, i.e., the disturbed trajectories of brain development.

With access to new statistical approaches and long-term follow-up with participants, in some cases over more than a decade, the researchers were able to describe brain development patterns associated with schizophrenia.

“Specifically, this paper shows that parts of the brain’s cortex develop differently in people with schizophrenia,” said first author Aaron F. Alexander-Bloch, Ph.D., a neuroscientist with the National Institute of Mental Health. The cortex is the outermost layer of neural tissue in the brain.

“The mapping of the path that the brain follows in deviating from normal development provides important clues to the underlying causes of the disorder,” said Dr. John Krystal, editor of Biological Psychiatry.

The findings were derived by investigating the trajectory of cortical thickness growth curves in 106 patients with childhood-onset schizophrenia and a comparison group of 102 healthy volunteers.

Each participant, ranging from seven years of age, had repeated imaging scans over the course of several years. Then, using over 80,000 vertices across the cortex, the researchers modeled the effect of schizophrenia on the growth curve of cortical thickness.

This revealed differences that occur within a specific group of highly-connected brain regions that mature in synchrony during typical development, but follow altered trajectories of growth in schizophrenia.

“These findings show a relationship between the hypothesis that schizophrenia is a neurodevelopmental disorder and the longstanding hypothesis — first articulated by the German anatomist Karl Wernicke in the late 19th century — that it is a disease of altered connectivity between regions of the brain,” added Alexander-Bloch.

Source: Elsevier

Web-Training Reduces Campus Sexual Assaults

Tue, 09/16/2014 - 6:15am

A new study discovers a web-based intervention targeting college-aged men is an effective tool for reducing the number of sexual assaults on U.S. campuses.

Researcher in the School of Public Health at Georgia State University assessed the effectiveness of the RealConsent program to reduce sexually violent behavior and increase the likelihood a male student would intervene to prevent a sexual assault.

Dr. Laura Salazar, associate professor of health promotion and behavior, has published her findings in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

The RealConsent training modules are designed to help young men develop empathy for rape victims and to understand the potential legal risks of having sex when one or both partners have been drinking or using drugs.

“It’s focused on helping them not get in trouble, helping them communicate with their sexual partners, and teaching them skills to intervene,” Salazar said. “It’s not focused on ‘men are rapists.’ ”

Salazar said the web-based approach makes training more cost effective for colleges than in-person, small-group formats, with the promise of reaching many more students.

More than 700 male undergraduate students at a large university were recruited to take part in the study, which surveyed them before the start of the training modules, after the training and six months later.

The six-month follow-up found RealConsent participants were more likely to intervene to prevent sexual assault and less likely to perpetrate sexual violence than a control group.

Salazar said the next step is to develop web-based training for young women.

Source: Georgia State University


Stop sexual violence hand photo by shutterstock.

Mental Illness Diagnosis Puts Family Members at Emotional Risk

Tue, 09/16/2014 - 5:30am

When a family member receives a diagnosis of a mental illness, there is an emotional cost, often in the form of anxiety, that is often felt by family caregivers.

In a new study, researchers at Case Western Reserve University School of Nursing found anxiety is high for the primary caregiver at the initial diagnosis or early in the course of the illness and decreases over time.

“This finding is significant,” said Jaclene A. Zauszniewski, Ph.D., R.N.-B.C., F.A.A.N., the study’s corresponding author.

She attributes the differences to possibly two factors: the family member becomes more stable with treatment or medication, or the caregiver learns to adapt or cope with the situation over time.

The study also found that women new to caregiving tended to get depressed and angry more than those who provided care for some time. Anxiety symptoms were greater for Caucasians than African-Americans.

The findings are based on responses from 60 female caregivers, age 18 to 65, about their experiences when caring for a family member with anxiety, bipolar disorder, severe depression, or schizophrenia.

“The study represents initial steps to examine the connection between caring for a family member with a mental illness and the emotional toll it takes on caregivers — most of whom are women,” Zauszniewski said.

The more educated the caregiver, the more resilient to emotional distress and the more likely the person was to find helpful resources, the study concluded.

And sisters of the people being cared for reported feeling less anxious than caregivers who were the patient’s mother, aunt, cousin, daughter, wife, or grandmother.

Caring for the caregiver and for the cared-for is expected to be a significant issue as the population ages and Baby Boomers become elderly.

The researchers recruited women through flyers posted in Northeast Ohio social service agencies, churches, coffee houses, libraries, and other places.

Each caregiver responded to 10 questions about her negative emotions experienced during the two weeks leading up to an assessment, called the Emotional Symptoms Checklist, that Zauszniewski developed to monitor an individual’s emotional state.

The caregivers also provided the age, diagnosis, and other information of the family member with the mental illness.

The women caregivers had an average age of 46, while the cared-for person was, on average, 37. The breakdown in diagnoses was: schizophrenia (45 percent), bipolar disorder (45 percent), depression (five percent), and anxiety (one percent). The average length of suffering from mental illness was a little more than 11 years.

Sixty percent (or 36) of the mentally ill family members did not live with their caregivers, who were primarily their mothers.

Yet 68 percent of the caregivers provided direct support through the individual daily activities and reported being more angry. About one-third of the individuals with mental illnesses received indirect care, such as support and encouragement by the woman caregiver.

While the study focused on African-American and Caucasian women, Zauszniewski said a larger long-term study that includes the emotional distress of Latino women would provide a broader look at the experiences of caregivers. A future study would also examine a caregiver’s emotional state over a longer period of time.

Based on her findings, Zauszniewski believes more attention should be paid to how the stress of caring for a mentally ill family member affects the entire family.

She called for interventions for families and education for future nurses that could benefit both the caregiver and the cared-for individual with mental illness.

The results were recently published in the Archives of Psychiatric Nursing.

Source: Case Western Reserve University


Anxious caregiver photo by shutterstock.

Amount of Gray Matter May Impact Risk-Taking

Mon, 09/15/2014 - 7:00am

New research suggests the physical composition of the brain influences the individual tolerance of risk.

Australian researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to perform a whole-brain analysis and discovered the volume of the outer layer of our brain, or gray matter, is related to a person’s willingness to take risks.

Specifically, Dr. Agnieszka Tymula, an economist at the University of Sydney, and international collaborators posit the amount of gray matter in the right posterior parietal cortex can serve as a biomarker for financial risk-attitudes.

Men and women with higher grey matter volume in this region exhibited less risk aversion.

“Individual risk attitudes are correlated with the grey matter volume in the posterior parietal cortex, suggesting existence of an anatomical biomarker for financial risk-attitude,” said Tymula.

This means tolerance of risk “could potentially be measured in billions of existing medical brain scans.”

But she has cautioned against making a causal link between brain structure and behavior. More research will be needed to establish whether structural changes in the brain lead to changes in risk attitude or whether that individual’s risky choices alter his or her brain structure — or both.

“The findings fit nicely with our previous findings on risk attitude and ageing. In our Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper in 2013 we found that as people age they become more risk averse,” she said.

“From other work we know that cortex thins substantially as we age. It is possible that changes in risk attitude over lifespan are caused by thinning of the cortex.”

The findings are published in the The Journal of Neuroscience.

Source: University of Sydney


MRI scan of the brain photo by shutterstock.

Mindfulness Can Help Adults Overcome Childhood Trauma

Mon, 09/15/2014 - 6:15am

The first study to examine the relationship between childhood adversity, mindfulness, and health suggests adults who are mindful in the moment have better health.

The finding is important as adults who were abused or neglected as children are known to have poorer health.

Researchers discovered adults who tend to focus on and accept their reactions to the present moment — or are mindful — report having better health, regardless of their childhood adversity.

In a study to be published in the journal Preventive Medicine, Robert Whitaker, M.D., M.P.H., and colleagues surveyed 2,160 adults working in Head Start, the nation’s largest federally-funded early childhood education program.

Survey respondents, who worked in 66 Pennsylvania Head Start programs, were asked if they experienced any of eight types of childhood adversity, such as being abused or having a parent with alcoholism or drug addiction.

In addition, respondents were asked questions about their current health, as well their mindfulness, meaning their tendency in daily life to pay attention to what is happening in the moment and to be aware of and accepting of their thoughts and feelings.

Nearly one-fourth of those surveyed reported three or more types of adverse childhood experiences, and almost 30 percent reported having three or more stress-related health conditions like depression, headache, or back pain, noted the researchers.

However, the risk of having multiple health conditions was nearly 50 percent lower among those with the highest level of mindfulness compared to those with the lowest. This was true even for those who had multiple types of childhood adversity.

“Regardless of the amount of childhood adversity, those who were more mindful also reported significantly better health behaviors, like getting enough sleep, and better functioning, such as having fewer days per month when they felt poorly — either mentally or physically,” said Whitaker, professor of public health and pediatrics at Temple University.

“Our results suggest that mindfulness may provide some resilience against the poor adult health outcomes that often result from childhood trauma,” he said.

“Mindfulness training may help adults, including those with a history of childhood trauma, to improve their own well-being and be more effective with children.”

“Many smaller studies have shown that learning mindfulness practices like meditation can improve psychological and physical symptoms such as depression and pain. But more research is needed to see if interventions to increase mindfulness can improve the health and functioning of those who have had adverse childhood experiences,” Whitaker said.

With nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults reporting one or more types of adverse childhood experiences, Whitaker noted that “mindfulness practices could be a promising way to reduce the high costs to our society that result from the trauma adults experienced during childhood.”

The findings are a follow-up to the researchers’ previous study which found that women working in Head Start programs reported higher than expected levels of physical and mental health problems.

Source: Temple University

Abstract of mindfulness photo by shutterstock.

Breathing-Based Meditation Helps Vets with PTSD

Mon, 09/15/2014 - 5:30am

A new study from the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison offers hope for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Researchers there have shown that a breathing-based meditation practice called Sudarshan Kriya Yoga can be an effective treatment for PTSD.

People with PTSD typically suffer from intrusive memories, heightened anxiety, and personality changes. The hallmark of the disorder is hyperarousal, which can be defined as overreacting to innocuous stimuli, and is often described as feeling “jumpy,” or easily startled and constantly on guard.

Hyperarousal is one aspect of the autonomic nervous system, the system that controls the beating of the heart and other body functions, and governs one’s ability to respond to his or her environment.

Scientists believe hyperarousal is at the core of PTSD and the driving force behind some of its symptoms.

Unfortunately, standard treatment interventions for PTSD offer mixed results. Some individuals are prescribed antidepressants and do well while others do not; others are treated with psychotherapy and still experience residual effects of the disorder.

Sudarshan Kriya Yoga is a practice of controlled breathing that directly affects the autonomic nervous system.

While the practice has proven effective in balancing the autonomic nervous system and reducing symptoms of PTSD in tsunami survivors, it has not been well studied until now.

The CIHM team was interested in Sudarshan Yoga because of its focus on manipulating the breath, and how that in turn may have consequences for the autonomic nervous system and specifically, hyperarousal.

Theirs is the first randomized, controlled, longitudinal study to show that the practice of controlled breathing can benefit people with PTSD.

“This was a preliminary attempt to begin to gather some information on whether this practice of yogic breathing actually reduces symptoms of PTSD,” said Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., founder of CIHM and one of the authors of the study.

“Secondly, we wanted to find out whether the reduction in symptoms was associated with biological measures that may be important in hyperarousal.”

These tests included measuring eye-blink startle magnitude and respiration rates in response to stimuli such as a noise burst in the laboratory. Respiration is one of the functions controlled by the autonomic nervous system; the eye-blink startle rate is an involuntary response that can be used to measure one component of hyperarousal.

These two measurements reflect aspects of mental health because they affect how an individual regulates emotion.

The CIHM study included 21 soldiers: an active group of 11 and a control group of 10. Those who received the one-week training in yogic breathing showed lower anxiety, reduced respiration rates, and fewer PTSD symptoms.

Davidson would like to further the research by including more participants, with the end goal of enabling physicians to prescribe treatment based on the cognitive and emotional style of the individual patient.

“A clinician could use a ‘tool box’ of psychological assessments to determine the cognitive and emotional style of the patient, and thereby determine a treatment that would be most effective for that individual,” he said.

“Right now, a large fraction of individuals who are given any one type of therapy are not improving on that therapy. The only way we can improve that is if we determine which kinds of people will benefit most from different types of treatments.”

That assessment is critical. At least 22 veterans take their own lives every day, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Because Sudarshan Kriya Yoga has already been shown to increase optimism in college students, and reduce stress and anxiety in people suffering from depression, it may be an effective way to decrease suffering and, quite possibly, the incidence of suicide among veterans.

Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison

Walking or Cycling to Work Boosts Mental Well-Being

Sun, 09/14/2014 - 4:00pm

Walking or cycling to work is better for people’s mental health than driving to work, according to a new study.

Research by health economists at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR) in the United Kingdom found that people who stopped driving and started walking or cycling to work benefited from improved well-being.

In particular, commuters who walked or rode bikes to work felt better able to concentrate and were under less strain than if they traveled by car, according to the study.

These mental health benefits are in addition to the physical health benefits of walking and cycling, according to researchers.

The researchers also found that commuting on public transport is better for people’s psychological well-being than driving.

“One surprising finding was that commuters reported feeling better when traveling by public transport, compared to driving,” said lead researcher Adam Martin from UEA’s Norwich Medical School.

“You might think that things like disruption to services or crowds of commuters might have been a cause of considerable stress. But as buses or trains also give people time to relax, read, socialize, and there is usually an associated walk to the bus stop or railway station, it appears to cheer people up.”

For the study, the researchers studied 18 years of data on almost 18,000 commuters in Britain between the ages of 18 and 65. The data let the researchers look at many aspects of psychological health, including feelings of worthlessness, unhappiness, sleepless nights and being unable to face problems.

The researchers also accounted for numerous factors known to affect well-being, including income, having children, moving, changing jobs, and relationship changes.

The study also found that the length of a person’s commute is important to well-being.

“Our study shows that the longer people spend commuting in cars, the worse their psychological well-being,” Martin said. “And correspondingly, people feel better when they have a longer walk to work.”

Data from the 2011 Census of England and Wales shows that 67.1 percent of commuters use cars or vans, compared to 17.8 percent who use public transport, 10.9 percent who walk, and 3.1 percent who cycle.

“This research shows that if new projects such as London’s proposed segregated cycleways, or public transport schemes such as Crossrail, were to encourage commuters to walk or cycle more regularly, then there could be noticeable mental health benefits,” Martin concluded.

The new report contradicts a UK Office of National Statistics study, “Commuting and Personal Well-being, 2014,” published in February, that found people who walked to work had lower life satisfaction than those who drove to work, while many cyclists were less happy and more anxious than other commuters.

According to researchers, the new study looks at commuters who changed travel mode from one year to the next, rather than comparing commuters who were using different travel modes at a single point in time.

Source: University of East Anglia

‘Neural Workaround’ May Help Stave Off Dementia

Sun, 09/14/2014 - 12:00pm

Researchers have discovered a “neural workaround” in the human brain that can compensate for the buildup of beta-amyloid, a destructive protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

According to researchers at the University of California-Berkeley, the findings could help explain why some people with beta-amyloid deposits retain normal cognitive function while others develop dementia.

“This study provides evidence that there is plasticity or compensation ability in the aging brain that appears to be beneficial, even in the face of beta-amyloid accumulation,” said study principal investigator Dr. William Jagust, a professor at University of California Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, the School of Public Health and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

The study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, included 22 healthy young adults and 49 older adults who had no signs of mental decline. Brain scans showed that 16 of the older subjects had beta-amyloid deposits, while the remaining 55 adults did not, the researchers report.

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to track brain activity while each of the subjects memorized pictures of various scenes.

Afterwards, the researchers tested the subjects’ “gist memory” by asking them to confirm whether a written description of a scene — such as a boy doing a handstand — corresponded to one of the pictures. The subjects were then asked to confirm whether specific written details of a scene, such as the color of the boy’s shirt, were true.

“Generally, the groups performed equally well in the tasks, but it turned out that for people with beta-amyloid deposits in the brain, the more detailed and complex their memory, the more brain activity there was,” said Jagust.

“It seems that their brain has found a way to compensate for the presence of the proteins associated with Alzheimer’s.”

What remains unclear is why some people with beta-amyloid deposits are better at using different parts of their brain than others, he noted. Previous studies suggest that people who engage in mentally stimulating activities throughout their lives have lower levels of beta-amyloid, he added.

“I think it’s very possible that people who spend a lifetime involved in cognitively stimulating activity have brains that are better able to adapt to potential damage,” said Jagust.

Source: University of California-Berkeley

Elderly at Risk for PTSD Symptoms After Serious Fall

Sun, 09/14/2014 - 7:15am

Elderly people who have fallen down and suffered an injury may develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) within the next few days, according to a new study published in the journal General Hospital Psychiatry. The researchers found PTSD symptoms in 27 out of 100 people over age 65 who had been admitted to a hospital after a fall.

“Anyone who goes through an accident in which they feel their life may be in danger or they could get physically harmed can develop post-traumatic stress symptoms,” said lead author Nimali Jayasinghe, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology and faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.

The study, which involved elderly patients admitted to the hospital after a fall, measured 17 different symptoms of PTSD using the Post-Traumatic Stress Symptom Scale.

The researchers also gathered information about the patients’ background, marital status, previous mental health issues and current health conditions, and about their fall, including where they fell, how long it took to get help, and the location and severity of injuries.

Most of the patients had fallen in their home and received help within an hour. The most common injury was a fracture.

Women, people who were unemployed or who had less education, and those who had sustained injuries to the back or chest were more likely to report post-traumatic stress symptoms. PTSD symptoms were also associated with the number of other medical problems reported.

The most common PTSD symptoms were feeling distraught when reminded of the fall, a change in future hopes or plans, and problems falling or staying asleep.

“The finding that back or chest injuries, but not other types of injuries, were more likely to be associated with PTSD symptoms was surprising,” Jayasinghe said.

“Since patients were interviewed while still recuperating in the hospital, the PTSD symptoms they experienced are expected to lessen over time,” Jayasinghe said.

“I also hope that the report will encourage studies that explore whether symptoms in the hospital setting affect outcomes there, and to what extent there are long-term effects for patients. It remains to be seen if this association will hold when more study is conducted,” she added.

Source: Center for Advancing Health


Upset elderly woman photo by shutterstock.

‘Fat Shaming’ Linked to Weight Gain, Not Weight Loss

Sun, 09/14/2014 - 6:30am

“Fat shaming” does not encourage weight loss in overweight adults; in fact, those who experience this type of discrimination tend to gain more weight, according to new research by University College London (UCL).

In a four-year study of 2,944 UK adults, those who experienced weight discrimination gained over two pounds whereas those who did not lost a pound and a half.

“Our study clearly shows that weight discrimination is part of the obesity problem and not the solution,” said senior author and clinical psychologist Dr. Jane Wardle, director of the Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Centre at UCL.

“Weight bias has been documented not only among the general public but also among health professionals, and many obese patients report being treated disrespectfully by doctors because of their weight. Everyone, including doctors, should stop blaming and shaming people for their weight and offer support, and where appropriate, treatment.”

The research, published in the journal Obesity, goes against the common perception that discrimination or “fat shaming” tends to drive overweight adults into losing weight. The researchers asked participants whether they experienced day-to-day weight discrimination: being treated disrespectfully, receiving poor service in shops, and being harassed.

The study pulled data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, a study of adults ages 50 and older.

Of the 2,944 eligible participants in the study, five percent reported weight discrimination. This ranged from less than one percent of those in the “normal weight” category to 36 percent of those identified as “morbidly obese.”

There were no major differences in discrimination between men and women.

Since the research was a population survey and not an experimental study, the findings do not conclusively confirm that the link is causal. Discrimination was assessed two years after the initial weight measurements and two years before the final measurements; the results were controlled for other influential factors.

“There is no justification for discriminating against people because of their weight,” said lead author Dr. Sarah Jackson of UCL Epidemiology & Public Health. “Our results show that weight discrimination does not encourage weight loss, and suggest that it may even exacerbate weight gain.

“Previous studies have found that people who experience discrimination report comfort eating. Stress responses to discrimination can increase appetite, particularly for unhealthy, energy-dense food. Weight discrimination has also been shown to make people feel less confident about taking part in physical activity, so they tend to avoid it.”

University College London

Doctor speaking with obese patient photo by shutterstock.

Study Finds New Insights Into Chemical Imbalance in Schizophrenia

Sat, 09/13/2014 - 8:45am

Neurons in schizophrenia patients secrete greater amounts of dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine — three neurotransmitters commonly linked to a range of psychiatric disorders. The findings, published in the journal Stem Cell Reports, confirms and enhances the theory of a chemical basis for schizophrenia.

“The study provides new insights into neurotransmitter mechanisms in schizophrenia that can lead to new drug targets and therapeutics,” said senior author Vivian Hook, Ph.D., a professor with Skaggs School of Pharmacy and the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine.

For the study, researchers created functioning neurons derived from pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs), which were reprogrammed from skin cells of schizophrenia patients. This method allowed scientists to observe and stimulate human neurons in ways not possible in animal models or human subjects.

Researchers activated these neurons so that they would secrete neurotransmitters — chemicals that excite or inhibit the transmission of electrical signals through the brain. The process was also performed on stem cell lines from healthy adults.

The findings showed that neurons taken from schizophrenia patients secreted significantly greater amounts of the catecholamine neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine.

Catecholamine neurotransmitters are synthesized from the amino acid tyrosine, and the regulation of these neurotransmitters is known to be altered in several mental disorders. Many psychotropic drugs selectively target the activity of these neurotransmitters in the brain.

Not only did researchers observe abnormal neurotransmitter secretion in schizophrenia neurons, but they also found that more neurons were producing tyrosine hydroxylase, the first enzyme in the creation of dopamine, from which both norepinephrine and epinephrine are made.

This discovery is significant because it offers a reason for why schizophrenia patients have abnormal neurotransmitter levels: They are preprogrammed to have more of the neurons that make these neurotransmitters.

“All behavior has a neurochemical basis in the brain,” Hook said. “This study shows that it is possible to look at precise chemical changes in neurons of people with schizophrenia.”

Future treatments might involve being able to evaluate the severity of a patient’s disease, identify different subtypes of the disease, and pre-screen patients for drugs that would most likely help them. It also offers a way to test the effectiveness of new drugs.

“It is very powerful to be able to see differences in neurons derived from individual patients — and a big accomplishment in the field to develop a method that allows this,” Hook said.

Source: University of California, San Diego


Neurons photo by shutterstock.

Why Parents Shouldn’t Play Favorites

Sat, 09/13/2014 - 8:00am

New research from Brigham Young University shows that perceived preferential treatment of one child by parents can lead to alcohol, cigarette, and drug use by the less-favored children.

That’s in families that aren’t very close to each other — what researcher Alex Jensen, Ph.D., called “disengaged families.”

It appears that favoritism creates the biggest problems in families where love and support are scarce, according to Jensen.

In disengaged families, children who view themselves as slightly less favored were almost twice as likely to use alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs. If the preferential treatment was perceived to be dramatic, the less favored child was 3.5 times more likely to use any of these substances, he reports.

“With favoritism in disengaged families, it wasn’t just that they were more likely to use any substances, it also escalated,” Jensen said. “If they were already smoking, then they were more likely to drink also. Or if they were smoking and drinking, they were more likely to also use drugs.”

For his study, which appears in the Journal of Family Psychology, Jensen analyzed 282 families with teenage siblings. One interesting takeaway is that when kids were asked which sibling got preferential treatment, their perception often didn’t match reality, he said. And what he found is that perceptions matter more than reality.

“It’s not just how you treat them differently, but how your kids perceive it,” Jensen said. “Even in the case where the parents treated them differently, those actual differences weren’t linked to substance use — it was the perception.”

What should parents do?

“Show your love to your kids at a greater extent than you currently are,” Jensen said. “As simple as it sounds, more warmth and less conflict is probably the best answer.”

That advice is based on what the researchers saw in the data: The link between substance use and favoritism didn’t exist among families that take a strong interest in each other.

Jensen also recommends that parents look for unique things in each of their children.

“Every kid as they get older develops their own interests and start to have their own identity,” Jensen said. “If you value that and respect that, and as a parent support what they see as their identity, that would help them feel loved.”

Source: Brigham Young University

Young person smoking a joint photo by shutterstock.

Magic Mushrooms Can Help Longtime Smokers Quit

Sat, 09/13/2014 - 7:15am

Smokers who had previously experienced many failed attempts to quit the habit were finally able to do so after two or three doses of psilocybin — the active ingredient in magic mushrooms — during a cognitive behavioral therapy treatment program. The study is published in The Journal of Psychopharmacology.

The researchers from Johns Hopkins emphasize that the findings are not an endorsement of do-it-yourself psychedelic drug use for quitting smoking. Instead, the study involved controlled administration of the drug in the context of cognitive behavioral therapy.

“Quitting smoking isn’t a simple biological reaction to psilocybin, as with other medications that directly affect nicotine receptors,” said study author Matthew W. Johnson, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“When administered after careful preparation and in a therapeutic context, psilocybin can lead to deep reflection about one’s life and spark motivation to change.”

“At six months follow-up, the success rate of psilocybin was 80 percent, much higher than rates of other cessation trials,” said Johnson.

In fact, only about 35 percent of those who take varenicline — widely considered the most effective smoking cessation drug — are still cigarette-free at six months. Other smoking cessation treatments, such as nicotine replacement and behavioral therapies, have success rates that are typically less than 30 percent, Johnson adds.

The study was small: ten men and five women, all mentally and physically healthy with an average age of 51. On average, the participants had been smoking 19 cigarettes a day for 31 years and had repeatedly tried and failed to stop smoking.

Ten participants reported minimal past use of hallucinogens, with the most recent use being an average of 27 years before the study began. Five had never used hallucinogens.

After letting the participants know what their psilocybin experience might be like, the first dose was administered by pill the day each participant planned to quit smoking. Two subsequent sessions, with higher doses of the drug, were held two weeks and eight weeks later.

Participants were closely monitored by researchers in a comfortable, homelike setting for each session — between six to seven hours. Most of the time, participants wore eyeshades and listened to music through earphones; they were encouraged to relax and focus on their inner experiences.

The researchers suggest psilocybin may help break the addictive pattern of thoughts and behaviors that have become ingrained after long-term smoking. The benefits also seem to continue after the drug has worn off.

Source: Johns Hopkins


Magic mushrooms photo by shutterstock.