In The News
A new study shows that when remembering something from our past, the entire event can be reactivated in the brain, including incidental information, such as what music may have been playing in the background.
“When we recall a previous life event, we have the ability to re-immerse ourselves in the experience,” said lead author Dr. Aidan Horner of the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.
“We remember the room we were in, the music that was playing, the person we were talking to, and what they were saying. When we first experience the event, all these distinct aspects are represented in different regions of the brain, yet we are still able to remember them all later on. It is the hippocampus that is critical to this process, associating all these different aspects so that the entire event can be retrieved.”
The researchers showed that associations formed between the different aspects of an event allow one aspect to retrieve all the other aspects, a process known as pattern completion. For example, when remembering who we saw, we often remember other details, such as what they were holding and where they were. This means that the entire event can be re-experienced in full, the researchers say.
Using fMRI, the researchers discovered that different aspects of an imagined event are reflected in activity in different regions of the brain. When asked about one aspect of an event, activity in the hippocampus correlates with reactivation in these regions, including those incidental to the task, and that this reactivation corresponds to the full event coming to mind.
“This work supports a long-standing computational model of how memory might work, in which the hippocampus enables different types of information to be bound together so that they can be imagined as a coherent event when we want to remember what happened,” added senior author Professor Neil Burgess.
“It provides a fundamental insight into our ability to recollect what has happened, and may help to understand how this process can go wrong in conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease or post-traumatic stress disorder.”
The study’s experiment involved 26 volunteers, who were asked to imagine and memorize a series of events involving different locations, famous people, and objects. They were then asked to remember the details of the event based on a single cue.
For example, one trial event involved President Barack Obama in a kitchen with a hammer. Volunteers were then asked to remember details based on a single cue, such as “where was Obama?”, “who was in the kitchen?” or “what object did Obama have?”.
During the questioning, volunteers underwent fMRI scans to measure their brain activity.
The results showed that different parts of the brain showed increased activity when encoding different aspects of each event, and that the hippocampus provides the critical links between them to form a complete memory.
For example, activity increased in one part of the brain when volunteers thought of Obama, another when they thought of the kitchen, and another when they thought of the hammer.
The study showed that when asked ‘where was Obama?’ activity increased in the regions corresponding to Obama and Kitchen. Critically, activity also increased in the region corresponding to the hammer, despite no requirement to retrieve this item. This reactivation correlated with hippocampal activity, suggesting the hippocampus is involved in retrieving the entire event, the researchers explained.
Source: University College London
A new study has found evidence pointing to a two-way connection between job strain and disturbed sleep, suggesting that interventions to treat sleep problems may also improve work satisfaction.
“The results are important because they show that work demands influence stress negatively, and this link has rarely been investigated in longitudinal studies,” said lead author and principal investigator Torbjörn Akerstedt, a professor in the department of clinical neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden.
“Sleep problems are abundant in the industrialized world, and we need to know where mitigation may be most effective.”
The findings show that people with higher work demands exhibited later sleep disturbances at the two-year follow-up. Similarly, those with sleep disturbances later showed a higher perception of stress, higher work demands, a lower degree of control, and less social support at work two years later. However, no link was found between disturbed sleep and physical work environment, shift work schedules, or working hours.
The research team, led by Akerstedt and lead author Johanna Garefelt, analyzed data from the 2008 and 2010 waves of the Swedish Longitudinal Occupational Survey of Health.
The study group included 4,827 participants with a mean age of 48 years, including 2,655 females and 2,171 males. Information regarding sex, age, and socioeconomic position were obtained from national register data.
The researchers used the Karolinska Sleep Questionnaire (KSQ) to identify disturbed sleep, which was defined as having difficulties falling asleep, restless sleep, repeated awakenings, or premature awakening. Work demands, control at work, and social support at work were measured using the Swedish version of the Demand-Control-Support Questionnaire.
The researchers believe that their findings align with prior studies showing that disturbed sleep increases stress response and emotional reactivity. The results imply that promoting better sleep may improve working life by reducing perceived job stress and minimizing negative attitudes toward work.
“The effect of sleep problems on stress emphasizes the importance of good sleep for functioning in everyday life,” said Akerstedt.
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, about 30 percent of adults have symptoms of insomnia, and about 10 percent have severe insomnia that leads to problems in the daytime. This may include fatigue, moodiness, anxiety, memory difficulties, headaches, or upset stomach.
The study results are published in the July issue of the journal Sleep.
New research shows that the hormones testosterone and cortisol may destabilize financial markets by making traders take more risks.
For their study, researchers simulated the trading floor in the lab by having volunteers buy and sell assets among themselves. They measured the volunteers’ natural hormone levels in one experiment and artificially raised them in another.
When given doses of either hormone, the volunteers invested more in risky assets, according to the study’s findings.
According to the researchers, the stressful and competitive environment of financial markets may promote high levels of cortisol and testosterone in traders.
Cortisol is elevated in response to physical or psychological stress, increasing blood sugar and preparing the body for a fight-or-flight response.
Previous studies have shown that men with higher testosterone levels are more likely to be confident and successful in competitive situations.
The researchers of the new study, published in Scientific Reports, suggest their findings should be considered by policymakers looking to develop more stable financial institutions.
“Our view is that hormonal changes can help us understand traders’ behavior, particularly during periods of financial instability,” said Dr. Carlos Cueva from the Department of Economics at the University of Alicante and one of the lead authors of the study.
“Our aim is to understand more about what these hormones do,” added Dr. Ed Roberts of the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London and another of the lead authors of the study.
“Then we can look at the environment in which traders work, and think about whether it’s too stressful or too competitive. These factors could be affecting traders’ hormones and having an impact on their decision-making.”
For their study, the researchers first measured the levels of the two hormones in saliva samples of 142 volunteers, male and female, playing an asset trading game in a group of about 10 people. They found that the volunteers who had higher levels of cortisol were more likely to take risks, and high levels in the group were associated with instability in prices.
In a follow-up experiment, 75 young men were given either cortisol or testosterone before playing the game, once with the hormone and once on a placebo. The study found that both hormones shifted investment towards riskier assets.
Cortisol appeared to directly affect volunteers’ preference for riskier assets, while testosterone seemed to increase optimism about how prices would change in the future, the researchers explained.
“The results suggest that cortisol and testosterone promote risky investment behavior in the short run,” said Roberts. “We only looked at the acute effects of the hormones in the lab. It would be interesting to measure traders’ hormone levels in the real world, and also to see what the longer term effects might be.”
Source: Imperial College London
Alcohol exposure appears to sensitize the brain’s response to food aromas, thereby increasing one’s consumption of food, according to a new study that measured the brain’s role in regulating caloric intake following alcohol consumption among women.
The findings are published in the journal Obesity published by the Obesity Society.
The research adds to the current body of knowledge that alcohol increases food intake, also known as the “aperitif effect,” but shows this increased intake does not rely entirely on the oral ingestion of alcohol and its absorption through the gut.
“The brain, absent contributions from the gut, can play a vital role in regulating food intake. Our study found that alcohol exposure can both increase the brain’s sensitivity to external food cues, like aromas, and result in greater food consumption,” said Dr. William J. A. Eiler II, Ph.D., of the Indiana University School of Medicine’s Departments of Medicine and Neurology.
“Many alcoholic beverages already include empty calories, and when you combine those calories with the aperitif effect, it can lead to energy imbalance and possibly weight gain.”
The study involved 35 female participants who were non-vegetarian, non-smoking, and at a healthy weight. To test the direct effects of alcohol on the brain, the researchers skipped the digestive system by intravenously administering alcohol to each participant at one study visit and then a placebo (saline) on another study visit, prior to eating.
Participants were observed and brain responses to food and non-food aromas were measured using blood oxygenation level dependent (BOLD) response via fMRI scans. After imaging, participants were offered a lunch choice between pasta with Italian meat sauce and beef and noodles.
When participants were given intravenous alcohol, they ate more food at lunch, on average, compared to when they were given the placebo. There were individual differences, however, with one-third of participants eating less after alcohol exposure when compared to the placebo exposure.
Also, the area of the brain responsible for certain metabolic processes, the hypothalamus, responded more to food odors, compared to non-food odors, after alcohol infusion vs. saline.
The findings suggest that the hypothalamus may therefore play a role in mediating the impact of alcohol exposure on our sensitivity to food cues, contributing to the aperitif phenomenon.
“This research helps us to further understand the neural pathways involved in the relationship between food consumption and alcohol,” said Martin Binks, Ph.D., FTOS, TOS Secretary Treasurer and Associate Professor of Nutrition Sciences at Texas Tech University.
“Often, the relationship between alcohol on eating is oversimplified; this study unveils a potentially more complex process in need of further study.”
“Today, nearly two-thirds of adults in the U.S. consume alcohol, with wine consumption rising, which reinforces the need to better understand how alcohol can contribute to overeating,” said Binks.
Source: Obesity Society
Intrusive or unwanted memories are often difficult to erase. Disturbing memories are a core feature of stress-and trauma-related clinical disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Moreover, unsolicited recollections can also be associated with situations that have occurred in everyday life.
A new study, published in the journal Psychological Science, finds that playing a visually demanding computer game may reduce the occurrence of the obtrusive memories over time.
“This work is the first to our knowledge to show that a ‘simple cognitive blockade’ could reduce intrusive memories of experimental trauma via memory reconsolidation processes,” said senior study author Emily Holmes of the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in the UK.
“This is particularly interesting because intrusive memories are the hallmark symptom of PTSD.”
“Currently, there are recommended treatments for PTSD once it has become established, that is, at least one month after the traumatic event, but we lack preventative treatments that can be given earlier,” says Holmes.
“If this experimental work continues to show promise, it could inform new clinical interventions for consolidated memories that could be given a day or so after trauma to prevent or lessen the intrusive memories over time.”
Most people who have experienced a traumatic event don’t end up developing PTSD, but they often experience repeated intrusive visual memories of certain moments from the event in vivid detail. Someone who has been involved in a road traffic accident, for example, might continue to re-experience the moment of impact, seeing vividly in their mind’s eye the moment a red car crashed into them.
Previous research has shown that people who played the computer game Tetris shortly after viewing film of traumatic events experienced fewer intrusive memories over the following week, when they played within four hours of viewing the footage. However, the intervention is not practical as it is unlikely that many people would be able to receive such immediate treatment following a traumatic event in the real world.
Therefore, Holmes and colleagues wanted to see whether they might be able to use a similar cognitive procedure to change older, already established memories a day later.
The investigators developed an approach that used emerging research on memory. They built upon the theory of reconsolidation as a way of making established memories malleable and vulnerable to disruption, following the reactivation of that memory.
They hypothesized that playing Tetris — an engaging visuospatial task — after memory reactivation would create a “cognitive blockade” that would interfere with the subsequent reconsolidation of visual intrusive memories. As a result, the frequency of intrusive memories would be reduced over time.
In two experiments, the researchers had participants view films that contained scenes of traumatic content (for example, footage highlighting the dangers of drunk driving) as a way of experimentally inducing intrusive memories.
Participants then returned to the lab 24 hours after watching the film. Using film footage as a form of experimental trauma is a well-established technique for studying reactions, such as intrusive memories, in a controlled setting.
In the first experiment, half of the participants had their memories of the film reactivated by viewing selected stills from the film footage, followed by a 10-minute filler task, and then 12 minutes of playing Tetris; the other participants completed only the filler task and then sat quietly for 12 minutes.
The results showed that the participants who had their memories reactivated and played Tetris experienced significantly fewer intrusive memories in a diary over the next week than the participants who came to the lab and simply sat quietly for the equivalent period of time.
A second experiment with four groups replicated the findings from first experiment. Importantly, it revealed that neither reactivation nor Tetris was enough to produce these effects on their own; only participants who experienced both components showed fewer intrusive memories over time.
“Our findings suggest that, although people may wish to forget traumatic memories, they may benefit from bringing them back to mind, at least under certain conditions — those which render them less intrusive,” said study co-author Ella James of the University of Oxford.
“We hope to develop this approach further as a potential intervention to reduce intrusive memories experienced after real trauma, but we are keen emphasize that the research is still in the early stages and careful development is needed,” says Holmes.
“Better treatments are much needed in mental health. We believe the time is ripe to use basic science about mechanisms — such as research on memory reconsolidation — to inform the development of improved and innovative psychological treatment techniques.”
Proactive new UK research has discovered that modifications to the classroom can improve academic outcomes for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) potentially reducing the need for medications.
Medications are often used for children with ADHD as they are typically restless, act without thinking, and struggle to concentrate — the actions causes particular problems for them and for others in school.
A systematic review was led by the University of Exeter Medical School with experts concluding that non-drug interventions in schools may be effective in improving academic outcomes measured by performance in standardized tests for children with ADHD.
The team found 54 studies (39 randomized controlled trials and 15 non randomized studies) that tested many different ways of supporting these children.
Researchers found several strategies can be used to help support an ADHD child. For one, the use of daily report cards — completed by teachers and parents — help provide the child consistent and regular feedback. Another method is to provide study and organizational skills training which can help children achieve better attainment levels, reduce hyperactive behavior, and increase attention.
Remarkably the research, published in the journal Health Technology Assessment, found so many different types of strategies, and so many different combination of approaches, that it was impossible to clearly identify what works best.
As a result, the researchers have called for more standardized assessment to make future research outcomes more meaningful.
The systematic review, which involved collaborators at Kings College London and the Hong Kong Institute of Education, looked at all available and relevant research published between 1980 and 2013.
They examined the following different areas that are important to supporting children with ADHD in schools:
- The effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of school-based interventions for children with or at risk of ADHD;
- The attitudes and experiences of children, teachers, parents and others using ADHD interventions in school settings;
- The experience or culture of dealing with ADHD in school among pupils, their parents and teachers.
From the review, researchers did not discover studies of cost-effectiveness — an area that needs to be addressed in the future. They did find studies of attitudes and experience that suggest differences in beliefs about ADHD can create tensions in relationships between teachers, pupils and parents that may be significant barriers to its effective treatment.
In conclusion, the review suggests that education of school staff as well as the public around ADHD would help to break down preconceptions and stigma, and that classroom / school culture as well as individualized support for children with ADHD may make the support offered more or less effective.
Professor Tamsin Ford, from the University of Exeter Medical School, led the study, which involved collaborators from Kings College London and the Hong Kong Institute for Education.
She said: “There is strong evidence for the effectiveness of drugs for children with ADHD, but not all children can tolerate them or want to take them. ADHD can be disruptive to affected children as well as the classroom overall, but our study shows that effective psychological and behavioral management may make a significant improvement to children’s ability to cope with school.
“While this is encouraging, it’s not possible to give definitive guidance on what works because of variations between the strategies tested, and the design and analysis of the studies that we found. We now need more rigorous evaluation, with a focus on what works, for whom and in which contexts.
“Gaps in current research present opportunities to develop and test standardized interventions and research tools, and agree on gold standard outcome measure to provide answers to both schools and families.
Source: University of Exeter
When most people come across a pleasant scent, such as a nice perfume or freshly baked cookies, they typically take a good long sniff. While walking next to a dumpster, however, a person would most likely shorten his incoming breaths, minimizing the intake of the unpleasant odor.
Now, researchers have discovered that people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) don’t make this natural adjustment like other people do. In fact, children with autism continue right on sniffing in the same way, no matter how pleasant or awful the scent.
The findings suggest that tests related to smell might serve as useful early indicators of ASD, say the researchers.
“The difference in sniffing pattern between the typically developing children and children with autism was simply overwhelming,” says Noam Sobel of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.
Earlier studies have indicated that people with autism have impairments in “internal action models,” the brain templates we depend on to seamlessly coordinate our five senses with our actions. It wasn’t clear if this deficit would show up in a test of the sniff response, however.
To find out, Sobel, along with Liron Rozenkrantz and their colleagues, presented 18 children with ASD and 18 typically developing children (17 boys and one girl in each group) with pleasant and unpleasant odors and measured their sniff responses. The average age of the participants was seven years old.
While typical children adjusted their sniffing within 305 milliseconds of smelling an odor, the researchers report, children on the autism spectrum showed no such response.
That difference in sniff response time between the two groups of kids was enough to correctly classify them as children with or without a diagnosis of ASD 81 percent of the time. Furthermore, the researchers report that increasingly abnormal sniffing was linked to increasingly more severe autism symptoms, based on social but not motor impairments.
The study results suggest that a sniff test could be quite useful in the clinic, although the researchers emphasize that their test is in no way ready for that yet.
“We can identify autism and its severity with meaningful accuracy within less than 10 minutes using a test that is completely non-verbal and entails no task to follow,” Sobel says.
“This raises the hope that these findings could form the base for development of a diagnostic tool that can be applied very early on, such as in toddlers only a few months old. Such early diagnosis would allow for more effective intervention.”
The researchers plan on testing whether the sniff-response pattern they’ve observed is specific to autism or if it also shows up people with other neurodevelopmental disorders. They also want to investigate how early in life such a test could be used. But the most immediate question for Sobel is “whether an olfactory impairment is at the heart of the social impairment in autism.”
The findings are published in the Cell Press journal Current Biology.
Source: Current Biology
A new Canadian study suggests regular, structured extramural sports help kids develop the discipline they need in order to engage effectively in the classroom.
Researchers from the University of Montreal and its affiliated CHU Sainte-Justine children’s hospital lead the study.
“We worked with information provided by parents and teachers to compare kindergarteners’ activities with their classroom engagement as they grew up,” said Linda Pagani, Ph.D.
“By time they reached the fourth grade, kids who played structured sports were identifiably better at following instructions and remaining focused in the classroom. There is something specific to the sporting environment — perhaps the unique sense of belonging to a team to a special group with a common goal — that appears to help kids understand the importance of respecting the rules and honoring responsibilities.”
Professor Pagani and her colleagues Geneviève Piché and Caroline Fitzpatrick came to their conclusions after reviewing the data on 2,694 children who were born in Quebec between 1997 and 1998. The information was retrieved from the Quebec Longitudinal Study on Child Development, a public data set coordinated by the province’s statistical institute.
“Our goal was to answer two questions: firstly, does participation in extracurricular activities in kindergarten predict fourth grade self-discipline, and secondly, do kindergarten self-discipline characteristics predict fourth-grade participation in sports?” Pagani explained.
Researchers say the predictive characteristics encompass things such as classroom engagement, physical aggression, impulsivity, and emotional distress.
At kindergarten, when most children in the study were six, teachers filled in questionnaires about their student behavior and parents were interviewed by phone or in person about their home life.
The exercise was repeated four years later. The researchers then analyzed the data by eliminating pre-existing influences such as child’s physical fitness and cognitive abilities, mother’s education, and how well the family unit functioned (asking families to rate, for example, how well they communicate) which could have influenced the results.
“Children who were involved in sports at kindergarten, or in fact who were involved in any kind of structured activity, were likely to be involved in teams sports by age ten. However, involvement in unstructured activities at kindergarten had no bearing on the child’s future.
Across the board, we found that children who had better behavior in the kindergarten class were more likely to be involved in sport by age ten,” Pagani said.
“Nonetheless, we found that those children who were specifically involved in team sports at kindergarten scored higher in self-regulation by time they reached fourth-grade.”
The researchers believe that sporting activities and attention skills are closely associated and can be addressed simultaneously in school planning. Their findings could help schools and public health authorities better reach children at risk of insufficient exercise as a way of addressing both the obesity and school drop-out crises at the same time.
“Programs to help parents develop their child’s self-regulation skills and the availability of extracurricular sports programs as early as kindergarten could help decrease the risk of kids being left behind,” Pagani said.
“We also hope policy makers consider our findings in order to improve access to parks and playgrounds, where children and their families can engage in sporting activities, to improve access to K12 enrichment programs that target self-regulation skills, and to improve the promotion of active schools and communities generally-speaking.”
A new NIH study looks, for the first time, at antipsychotic prescriptions patterns in America.
Researchers discovered boys are more likely than girls to receive a prescription for antipsychotic medication regardless of age. Approximately 1.5 percent of boys ages 10-18 received an antipsychotic prescription in 2010, although the percentage falls by nearly half after age 19.
Antipsychotic were prescribed most often for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) among youth ages one to 18. Depression was the most common diagnosis among young adults ages 19-24 for receiving antipsychotics.
Despite concerns over the rising use of antipsychotic drugs to treat young people, little has been known about trends and usage patterns in the United States before this latest research.
Mark Olfson, M.D., M.P.H., and colleagues Marissa King, Ph.D., and Michael Schoenbaum, Ph.D., report their findings in JAMA Psychiatry.
“No prior study has had the data to look at age patterns in antipsychotic use among children the way we do here,” said co-author Michael Schoenbaum, Ph.D., senior advisor for mental health services, epidemiology and economics at NIMH.
“What’s especially important is the finding that around 1.5 percent of boys aged 10-18 are on antipsychotics, and then this rate abruptly falls by half, as adolescents become young adults.”
“Antipsychotics should be prescribed with care,” says Schoenbaum. “They can adversely affect both physical and neurological function and some of their adverse effects can persist even after the medication is stopped.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved antipsychotics for children with certain disorders, particularly bipolar disorder, psychosis/schizophrenia, and autism.
However, the research team found that the medication use patterns do not match the illness patterns. The mismatch means that many antipsychotic prescriptions for young people may be for off-label purposes, that is, for uses not approved by FDA.
For example, maladaptive aggression is common in ADHD, and clinical trial data suggest that at least one antipsychotic, risperidone, when used with stimulants, can help reduce aggression in ADHD.
To date, FDA has not approved the use of any antipsychotic for ADHD, making its use for this diagnosis off-label.
In the current study, the combination of peak use of antipsychotics in adolescent boys and the diagnoses associated with prescriptions (often ADHD) suggest that these medications are being used to treat developmentally limited impulsivity and aggression rather than psychosis.
Mark Olfson and colleagues worked with the IMS LifeLink LRx database, which includes 63 percent of outpatient prescriptions filled in the U.S. The team looked at prescription data for 2006-2010 and found antipsychotic use increased with age in both boys and girls.
They found antipsychotic use beginning at 0.11 percent in 2010 for ages one to six years, increasing to 0.80 percent for ages seven to 12 years and increasing again to 1.19 percent for youth ages 13-18 years before dropping substantially to 0.84 percent for ages 19-24.
In children ages one to six, boys were more than twice as likely as girls to receive an antipsychotic prescription (0.16 vs. 0.06 percent in 2010). This pattern held true for boys and girls ages seven to 12 (1.20 vs. 0.44 percent in 2010) before narrowing for the 13-18 age group (1.42 vs. 0.95 percent) and finally becoming more comparable for young men and women ages 19 to 24 (0.88 to 0.81 percent in 2010).
Among young people treated with antipsychotics in 2010, the youngest children, ages one to six, were the least likely to receive the prescription from a psychiatrist (57.9 vs. 71.9, 77.9, and 70.4 percent for the other three age groups). This is a source of concern, as practice guidelines caution practitioners on the use of antipsychotic medications for young children in particular.
Among young people receiving antipsychotic prescriptions, fewer than half had any medical visit that included a mental disorder diagnosis. That may be in part due to stigma about mental illness, or because primary care providers are concerned about reimbursement for treatment related to such diagnoses.
“In addition to having a new look at antipsychotic use among youth, one positive finding coming from this study is that around 75 percent of these kids have at least some contact with a psychiatrist,” said NIMH Director Thomas Insel, M.D.
A new study suggests poor sleep habits can have an undesirable effect on self-control. Challenges to self-control can lead to risks in an individuals’ personal and professional live.
Learning how sleep deficits can affect a person’s life is important as today’s 24-hour-a-day global economy often causes people to sleep less or at irregular times. This in turn results in poor sleep and chronic sleep loss.
In the study, titled “Interactions between Sleep Habits and Self-Control,” Clemson psychologists concluded a sleep-deprived individual is at increased risk for succumbing to impulsive desires, inattentiveness, and questionable decision-making.
“Self-control is part of daily decision-making. When presented with conflicting desires and opportunities, self-control allows one to maintain control,” said June Pilcher, Clemson Alumni Distinguished Professor of psychology, one of four authors of the study.
“Our study explored how sleep habits and self-control are interwoven and how sleep habits and self-control may work together to affect a person’s daily functioning.”
“Exercising self-control allows one to make better choices when presented with conflicting desires and opportunities. That has far-reaching implications to a person’s career and personal life,” Pilcher said.
Poor sleep habits, which include inconsistent sleep times and not enough hours of sleep, can also lead to health problems, including weight gain, hypertension, and illness, according to prior research. Studies have also found that sleep deprivation decreases self-control but increases hostility in people, which can create problems in the workplace and at home,” Pilcher said.
Moreover, better sleep habits can contribute to a more stable level of daily energy reserves. Availability of energy can refuel a person’s ability to make more difficult choices rather than opting for the easier choice or the easier task.
“Many aspects of our daily lives can be affected by better-managed sleep and self-control capacity,” Pilcher said.
“Improved health and worker performance are two potential benefits, but societal issues such as addictions, excessive gambling, and over spending could also be more controllable when sleep deficiencies aren’t interfering with one’s decision making.”
Source: Clemson University/EurekAlert
A provocative new Oxford University-led study suggests obtaining a good night’s sleep may actually be the wrong advice for a person who has experienced a traumatic event. If the findings are replicated in follow-up studies, the management of care after a traumatic event may be significantly altered.
The research, conducted in Oxford’s Wellcome Trust-funded Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute (SCNi) showed that sleep deprivation might prevent people from consolidating memories of experimental trauma (emotional film clips in the study), reducing their tendency to experience flashbacks.
The study appears in the journal Sleep.
Dr. Kate Porcheret, a study leader, explains the study: “We wanted to see what effect sleep deprivation would have on the development of intrusive memories — what in a clinical setting are called flashbacks. After showing participants a film of scenes with traumatic content, as an analogue to trauma, they were either kept in a sleep laboratory and deprived of sleep or sent home to have a normal night’s sleep in their own bed.”
In the study, each person kept a diary in which they recorded any intrusive memories. Participants were asked to document memories, however fleeting, and to record as much information as possible. The research team then assessed if the intrusive images were linked to the film.
Dr. Katharina Wulff, from the SCNi, said: “The sleep-deprived group experienced fewer intrusive memories than those who had been able to sleep normally. Both groups experienced more of these involuntary memories in the first two days and a reducing number in the following days. We know that sleep improves memory performance including emotional memory, but there may be a time when remembering in this way is unhelpful.”
Researchers believe additional study is necessary as there is currently a limited understanding of intrusive memories of emotional events as well as of the role of sleep in responding to real trauma. Moreover, real-life trauma cannot be directly replicated in an laboratory study.
Porcheret added, “Finding out more how sleep and trauma interact means we can ensure people are well cared for after a traumatic event. These are really important research questions to pursue further.
“For example, it is still common for patients to receive sedatives after a traumatic event to help them sleep, even though we already know that for some very traumatized people this may be the wrong approach. That is why we need more research in both experimental and clinical settings into how our response to psychological trauma is affected by sleep — and lack of sleep too.’
Source: Oxford University
Premature babies are at greater risk for developing autism, but a new study suggests that preemies may not show the typical signs of autism early on.
In fact, researchers found that preemies who avoid eye contact in early infancy are actually less likely to show symptoms of autism at age two, compared to preemies who maintain eye contact during early interactions.
“Children with autism typically have challenges with social interaction and may avoid eye contact, but it turned out that children in this study who had characteristics of autism at age two were more likely to maintain eye contact and not avert their gazes in early infancy,” said first author Bobbi Pineda, Ph.D., assistant professor in occupational therapy and pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
For the study, researchers observed behavioral symptoms characteristic of autism in a particularly high-risk group: babies born prematurely. Observing early behaviors allows researchers to understand which signs may be predictive of autism so that babies can receive timely diagnostic testing and interventions to improve their adaptive responses and outcome.
The researchers evaluated 62 premature infants hospitalized in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. The babies were all born at least 10 weeks before full term and were evaluated close to the dates they were supposed to have been born.
The study focused on whether the infants made eye contact or averted their gazes; responded to objects or people around them; interacted socially; and calmed themselves when upset. The researchers also observed whether the babies showed a horizontal repetitive eye movement called nystagmus.
Of the 62 preemies, 58 were observed for visual cues; the rest were sleeping when the researchers came to visit. Of those 58 babies, 41 averted their gazes, and 21 showed nystagmus. Nearly all of the infants with nystagmus — 19 — also averted their gazes.
Later, at age two, when the babies in the study were screened for autism with a standard screening checklist, 13 toddlers (21 percent) screened positive. A positive screening indicates a child is at risk and should receive diagnostic testing. The researchers were surprised to find that many of the babies who had averted their gazes and showed signs of nystagmus as infants did not display warning signs of autism at age two.
“Surprisingly, we found that the children who later screened positive for autism were more likely as infants to not avert their gazes during social interaction,” Pineda said. “They were more likely to sustain eye contact.”
Pineda hypothesized that preemies in the NICU may avert their gazes as a coping mechanism to help them deal with the stress of an intense environment during a vulnerable period of development. So absence of gaze aversion, she said, could signal an inability to avoid stressors.
“This could explain why some infants behave differently in social interactions as babies than later, as children,” Pineda said. “Better understanding how autism traits emerge along the developmental pathway is an important area for future research.”
Screening tools for autism spectrum disorder don’t exist for infants, but more research is needed to improve understanding of how autism traits emerge, added Pineda. This information would help pave the way for early interventions aimed at improving life skills and ultimately help those with autism lead more fulfilling lives.
The research is published in The American Journal of Occupational Therapy.
It can be hard for a veteran to obtain a job if they have a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Individuals with severe mental illness experience the same hardship and face similar employment hurdles.
A critical component in the quest for employment is the job interview, a task especially difficult for those with mental illness.
A new approach to improve an individual’s soft skills and interview aptitude uses a virtual human based on software originally used to train FBI agents.
Northwestern Medicine researchers believe the training will help vets with PTSD and those with severe mental illness build their job interview skills and snag more job offers.
Participants in the training practiced repeatedly with the virtual character, a human resources staff member named Molly Porter. They responded to Molly’s questions using voice recognition software.
A job coach in the program gave them immediate on-screen feedback as to whether their responses helped or hurt their rapport with Molly. The interviews got tougher as they progressed.
Vets with PTSD and individuals with severe mental illness who took the training were nine times more likely than non-trainees to get job offers in a six-month follow-up after training. The more training interviews participants completed, the greater the likelihood of receiving a job offer and in a shorter amount of time.
“Veterans with PTSD and people with mental illness such as bipolar disorder, major depression and schizophrenia are prone to anxiety, which can escalate during stressful social encounters such as the job interview,” said Matthew J. Smith, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “The training was a big confidence builder for them.”
The study will appear in the journal Psychiatric Services.
The commercially available training from SIMmersion LLC is computer-based and can be accessed over the Internet or installed from a DVD. It fills an important need, Smith said. Evidence-based employment services are not widely available to individuals with severe mental illness at a national level.
The job interview can be an emotional land mine for individuals with severe mental illness.
Vets with PTSD may have trouble concentrating and following a conversation. A closed-door job interview may trigger a sense of being trapped. Former soldiers also may feel detached from others, which makes it hard for them to connect socially with the interviewer.
The vets and individuals with severe mental illness may need structured time off from work to attend their mental health services and need to know how to discuss this in an interview. These individuals may also have an extended period of unemployment, and the training gives them tools to discuss gaps in their work history. Practicing with the training program also helped participants become more comfortable in a job interview environment.
The interviews with Molly Porter taught participants how to emphasize their strong work ethic and ability to work well with others. The program also showed them how to share their prior work experiences in a positive way (rather than complaining about past experiences), sound interested in the position and speak professionally.
Trainees receive a score at the end of each interview with scores of 90 or better informing them that, “You’ve got the job!”
When an individual accesses Molly, he or she can identify a disability. The program takes that into account when it asks questions in the job interview.
Study participants included 70 individuals with severe mental illness (bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder) or U.S. military veterans who had a diagnosis of PTSD and a mood or psychotic disorder.
New research suggests the stress hormone cortisol strengthens memories of traumatic or scary experiences.
The hormone appears to influence initial memory formation and also affects subsequent memory reconsolidation that occurs when people look back at an experience.
The findings from cognitive psychologists at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum have been published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.
They suggest that the results might explain the persistence of strong emotional memories occurring in anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Typically, strong memories of stressful experiences occur frequently, but they usually fade away over time. People suffering from anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder, however, are affected by terrifying memories that haunt them again and again.
Research has shown that the stress hormone cortisol has a strengthening impact on the consolidation of memories, i.e. the several-hour process in the course of which a memory is formed immediately after the experience.
The researchers from Bochum discovered that cortisol effects memories in humans also during the so-called reconsolidation, i.e. the consolidation of memories occurring after memory retrieval. They found that cortisol can enhance this process.
“The results may explain why certain undesirable memories don’t fade, for example in anxiety and PTSD sufferers,” said Prof. Dr. Oliver Wolf.
If a person remembering a terrifying event has a high stress hormone level, the memory of that specific event will be strongly reconsolidated after each retrieval.
In the study, researchers collected data from subjects on three consecutive days. Shira Meir Drexler, a Ph.D. student at the International Graduate School of Neuroscience in Bochum led the experiment.
On the first day, the study subjects learned an association between specific geometric shapes and an unpleasant electric shock. On the second day, some of the participants were given a cortisol pill, others a placebo.
Subsequently, they were shown one of the geometric shapes associated with the electric shock.
On the third day, the memory for the geometric shapes was tested. Participants who had taken cortisol exhibited strong memories of the fear-associated shape. Researchers found proof of this association as the subjects displayed a heightened skin conductance, an established measure for emotional arousal.
Staying busy by demonstrating acts of kindness can help socially anxious people mix or integrate into social groups and may lead to a more satisfying and fulfilling life.
In a new study, Canadian researchers Jennifer Trew of Simon Fraser University and Lynn Alden of the University of British Columbia, studied if good deeds would improve the quality of life among socially anxious individuals.
The study results appear in the journal Motivation and Emotion.
As explained by the authors, sufferers from social anxiety are more than just a little shy. Dealings with others might make them feel so threatened or anxious that they often actively avoid socializing.
Although this behavior protects them from angst and possible embarrassment, they lose out on the support and intimacy gained from having relationships with others. They have fewer friends, feel insecure when interacting with others, and often do not experience emotional intimacy even in close relationships.
Studies have shown that performing acts of kindness to the benefit of others is known to increase happiness and may lead to positive interactions and perceptions of the world at large.
The study investigated if, over time, the pro-social nature of kindness changes the level of anxiety that socially anxious people experienced while interacting with others, and helped them to engage more easily. The research builds upon previous findings by Alden and Trew about the value that doing good deeds holds to socially anxious people.
Undergraduate students who experience high levels of social anxiety were enrolled in the study. The 115 participants were randomly assigned into three groups for the four-week intervention period.
One group performed acts of kindness, such as doing a roommate’s dishes, mowing a neighbor’s lawn, or donating to a charity. The second group was only exposed to social interactions and was not asked to engage in such deeds, while the third group participated in no specific intervention and simply recorded what happened each day.
Investigators discovered that in the group who actively lent a helping hand, participants were more apt to engage in social situations. This effect was most notable in the initial phase of the intervention.
These findings support the value of acts of kindness as an avoidance reduction strategy. The actions help to counter feelings of possible rejection and temporary levels of anxiety and distress. The reduction of feelings of anxiety and distress also occur faster than what was expereinced for the participants who were merely exposed to social interactions without engaging in good deeds.
According to Trew and Alden, interventions involving acts of kindness may over time help socially anxious people lead more satisfying and engaging lives, and see changes in their disposition.
“Acts of kindness may help to counter negative social expectations by promoting more positive perceptions and expectations of a person’s social environment,” explains Trew. “It helps to reduce their levels of social anxiety and, in turn, makes them less likely to want to avoid social situations.”
“An intervention using this technique may work especially well early on while participants anticipate positive reactions from others in response to their kindness,” adds Alden.
Recent figures suggest that former prisoners have “alarmingly high” rates of death from alcohol and drug misuse. Raised mortality rates previously have been found among ex-prisoners, but the potential risk factors for these high rates has not been investigated in depth.
In the U.S., the ex-prisoner population is estimated as 5.4 million people, who account for about 12 percent of roughly 250,000 deaths from external causes every year.
Professor Seena Fazel and colleagues at Oxford University, UK, analyzed the causes of deaths among all 47,326 prisoners released from prison in Sweden between 2000 and 2009. Among the prisoners for whom figures are available, 42 percent of the men had a psychiatric diagnosis, as did 64 percent of the women. Prevalence of alcohol and drug use was “high.”
About six percent of the prisoners died during the five years after leaving prison. Overall, 44 percent of these deaths were due to accidents and suicides. About a third (34 percent) of the deaths among men and half (50 percent) of the deaths among women were linked to alcohol and substance misuse.
Those with a previous history of drug and alcohol misuse had a particularly high risk of death after release, which persisted for years afterward. However, other psychiatric disorders including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression did not appear to increase the post-release mortality rate.
Substance use disorders were also an independent risk factor for death by accidents or suicide, causing an estimated 42 percent of these deaths in men and 70 percent in women. Full details are published in The Lancet Psychiatry.
According to the authors, “Our study is the first to investigate the effect of substance use disorders and other psychiatric disorders on mortality after prison release, while taking into account both measured (sociodemographic and criminological) and unmeasured (familial) confounding factors.
We also investigated individual causes of death, and noted that non-traffic accidents and suicide contributed to a large proportion of external-cause deaths.”
They believe “[I]nterventions to address substance use disorders could substantially decrease the burden of excess mortality in people released from prison, but might need to be provided beyond the immediate period after release.”
Many clinical guidelines focus on transitions, they point out, but “our findings suggest that this alone might not lead to large reductions in mortality of people released from prisons, and guidelines for the clinical care of these individuals need to be reviewed.”
Fazel said, “Our striking findings show the potential for preventive and therapeutic programs to significantly reduce the number of deaths from alcohol and substance misuse, which are highly prevalent among the 30 million people worldwide who spend time in prison every year.
“In England and Wales, we estimate that around three percent of all deaths from external causes can be prevented if alcohol and substance use disorders were fully treated in released prisoners. In the U.S., where there are much higher incarceration rates, about nine percent of deaths from external causes are potentially preventable.”
Professor Fazel added that, “Although alcohol abuse is as common as drug abuse, and the high mortality risks following release are similar, it does not receive the same level of attention or funding.” Prevention efforts “could not only reduce mortality in people released from custody, but also improve both public health and safety,” he said.
Sarah Wakeman, M.D., from Harvard Medical School and Josiah Rich, M.D., M.P.H., from Brown University wrote a commentary on the study. They said, “The two weeks after release from prison have been shown to be associated with a substantial increase in mortality, especially from overdose.
“Addiction is a treatable disease and decades of scientific evidence support the efficacy of treatment to improve clinical outcomes, save lives, and reduce societal costs. The withholding of evidence-based treatment for prisoners is arguably unethical and certainly unwise.
“In the USA, correctional facilities are mandated by the Supreme Court to provide medical care that meets the community standard. And yet, within state prisons people with drug use disorders largely go without care. Of these people, only 0.8 percent receive detoxification services, 0.3 percent receive maintenance pharmacotherapy, 6.5 percent receive counselling by a professional, and 9.5 percent receive treatment in a residential facility.
“The absence of care in this deeply affected population translates into high costs to society and the communities that these individuals return to. As the study shows, these costs also translate into avoidable deaths from a treatable illness.”
Chang, Z. et al. Substance use disorders, psychiatric disorders, and mortality after release from prison: a nationwide longitudinal cohort study. The Lancet Psychiatry, 22 April 2015 doi: 10.1016/S2215-0366(15)00088-7
Wakeman, S. E., Richemail, J. D. et al. Substance use disorders and avoidable mortality after prison. The Lancet Psychiatry, 22 April 2015 doi: 10.1016/S2215-0366(15)00125-X
Sleep problems are common in people with bipolar disorder, and poor sleep quality and bipolar disorder appear to exacerbate each other.
Previous research shows that poor sleep quality is a symptom of depressive and manic episodes, and that lack of sleep can trigger mania, explain researchers at Penn State College of Medicine and University of Michigan Medical School.
“Patients with bipolar disorder often suffer with sleep problems even when many of their other symptoms are well-controlled,” said Dr. Erika Saunders, chair, department of psychiatry at Pennsylvania State College of Medicine. “Improving their sleep could not only better their quality of life, but also help them avoid mood episodes.
Finding the best treatments for sleep disorders in people with bipolar disorder meant investigating differences between women and men with the condition.
“Women and men sleep differently,” Saunders explained. “We know from studies of the general population that women have a different type of sleep architecture than men, and they’re at different risks for sleep disorders, particularly during the reproductive years.”
Women and men also experience bipolar disorder differently. Women often have more persistent and more depressive symptoms, as well as a number of other coexisting conditions such as anxiety, eating disorders, and migraine headaches. Men tend to have shorter episodes and more time in between episodes.
“Because of these factors, we thought the impact that sleep quality might have on mood outcome in bipolar disorder may be different for men and women,” Saunders said.
The researchers analyzed data from 216 participants in the Prechter Longitudinal Study of Bipolar Disorder at the University of Michigan Medical School. They looked at the effect of sleep quality at the beginning of the study on mood outcome over the next two years. Mood outcome was measured by the severity, frequency, and variability of depressive or manic symptoms.
“Variability meant how much the individuals went up and down in terms of their symptoms,” Saunders explained.
For women, poor sleep quality predicted increased severity and frequency of depression and increased severity and variability of mania. Among men, baseline depression score and a personality trait called neuroticism were stronger predictors of mood outcome than sleep quality. The research was published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.
One unanswered question is why poor sleep affects women with bipolar disorder more than men. There could be a biological mechanism at work.
“There is some suggestion from animal models that reproductive hormones affect the circadian rhythm system, which is a biological system that affects our need to sleep,” Saunders said.
“It could be that reproductive hormones are biologically affecting sleep in women and therefore also affecting mood outcomes. Or, it could have more to do with the type of sleep that women are getting. We’ll have to do more investigation into the biological underpinnings to understand that better.”
Even before that question is answered, Saunders says the message is clear: “We feel it’s extremely important for clinicians and patients to recognize that sleep quality is an important factor that needs to be treated in patients with bipolar disorder, particularly in women.”
Source: Pennsylvania State/EurekAlert
A new investigation of self-reported health status finds that bisexual males and females report poorer health than gays, lesbians, and heterosexuals.
Sociologists at Rice University reviewed the self-rated health of 10,128 sexual minorities (gay, lesbian, and bisexual adults) and 405,145 heterosexual adults to see how it differed across sexual orientation.
Their study will appear in an upcoming edition of Demography.
“According to the Institute of Medicine, existing health research on the sexual minority population is sparse and typically does not make distinctions between the different types of sexual minorities,” said Dr. Bridget Gorman, a professor of sociology at Rice and the study’s lead author.
“We developed this study both to examine the health of these different sexual minority groups and to assess how risk factors for poor health contribute to their overall health.”
In addition to documenting the self-rated health information from survey respondents, researchers assessed participants’ lifestyle according to a number of factors that traditionally impact health.
These factors include socio-economic status (including education level, employment status, household income, and access to health insurance), health behaviors (smoker or nonsmoker, drinking habits, body mass index, and access to health care) and social support and well-being.
The study found that 19.5 percent of bisexual men and 18.5 percent of bisexual women rated their health as “poor or fair,” the highest proportion among the groups surveyed.
In contrast, only 11.9 percent of men identifying as gay and 10.6 percent of women identifying as lesbian rated their health as “poor or fair,” the lowest proportion of those surveyed. Health was also rated poor by 14.5 percent of heterosexual men and 15.6 percent of heterosexual women.
Among all the group surveyed, researchers found that bisexual men and women are disproportionately disadvantaged on important social, economic, and behavioral factors strongly associated with health and well-being.
For example, bisexual men and women were the least likely of the three groups to be college-educated. (Only 26.5 percent of bisexual men and 32.1 percent of bisexual women were college graduates, compared with 55.7 percent of gay men and 57 percent of lesbian women and 37.9 percent of heterosexual men and 37.5 percent of heterosexual women).
Bisexual men and women were more likely to smoke (23.8 percent and 21.9 percent, respectively), compared with 14.9 percent of gay men, 16.6 percent of lesbian women, 11.1 percent of heterosexual men and 8.3 percent of heterosexual women.
Bisexual men and women were the most likely of the three groups to have an annual household income of less than $25,000; 39.5 percent of bisexual men and 42.1 percent of bisexual women fell into this category, compared with 22.9 percent of gay men, 25.4 percent of lesbian women, 24.8 percent of heterosexual men and 29.5 percent of heterosexual women.
“If bisexuals are minorities within the minority and experience unique and more extreme forms of discrimination, this might contribute to disparities in things like earnings, educational attainment, the propensity to smoke cigarettes and other factors that affect well-being,” said Dr. Justin Denney, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research’s Urban Health Program and an assistant professor of sociology at Rice.
Both Gorman and Denney said that the study has important implications for the study of the health of sexual minorities.
“Our study illustrates the importance of examining health status among specific sexual minority groups, and not among ‘sexual minorities’ in the aggregate, since the health profile of bisexual adults differs substantially from that of gay and lesbian adults,” Gorman said.
Source: Rice University
Children of parents who argue frequently tend to be more watchful of other people’s emotional states and also appear to process emotions differently than children from low-conflict homes, according to a new study published in the Journal of Family Psychology.
The findings also suggest that children from high-conflict homes may face more social challenges later in life.
For the study, researchers measured the brain activity of children as they looked at a variety of photos of couples in angry poses, happy poses and neutral poses. Based on questionnaires filled out by their mothers, the children were grouped in either a high-conflict or a low-conflict group.
When the young participants were asked to identify the angry couples in the set of photos, the brains of the children in the high conflict group registered a much higher amplitude on an EEG test of an electrical activity called P-3 in response to the angry photos, compared with children in the low conflict group. P-3 is associated with the brain’s ability to discriminate among stimuli and to focus on and give meaning to something.
The study’s lead author, Alice Schermerhorn, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychological science at the University of Vermont, noted that, for the children from high conflict homes, looking for the photos of angry couples could be similar to situations at home where parents have had an argument that hasn’t been resolved.
“They’re being watchful in the home in the same way that they’re watching for angry faces in the research setting,” she said.
The P-3 signal in children from high conflict homes was also much higher when they were asked to identify angry couples but actually were looking at the happy faces, compared with children from low-conflict homes.
The findings suggest that children from high-conflict homes, by training their brains to be vigilant, process signs of interpersonal emotion, whether anger or happiness, differently than children from low-conflict homes, Schermerhorn said.
For some, that extra vigilance may result in having difficulty in social relationships later in life, Schermerhorn hypothesized, although more research is needed to test that theory.
“I would predict some association with their functioning in other kinds of situations,” she said.
Schermerhorn and her colleagues are conducting more research to figure out if a relationship exists between higher levels of P-3 and the behaviors of their research subjects.
Source: University of Vermont
When a romantic relationship blooms soon after an initial meeting, the partners tend to be more similar in physical attractiveness than if a relationship evolves after the partners have known each other for awhile.
The findings come from a University of Texas study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
“Our results indicate that perceptions of beauty in a romantic partner might change with time, as individuals get to know one another better before they start dating,” said lead researcher Lucy Hunt of the University of Texas at Austin.
“Having more time to get acquainted may allow other factors, such as another person’s compatibility as a relationship partner, to make that person appealing in ways that outshine more easily observable characteristics such as physical attractiveness. Or perhaps another person might actually become more attractive in the eyes of the beholder by virtue of these other factors.”
Hunt and colleagues Drs. Paul Eastwick (University of Texas, Austin) and Eli Finkel (Northwestern University) designed the study to understand why individuals tend to be paired with mates who have similar physical, behavioral, and psychological characteristics. The pairing is a well-documented phenomenon psychological scientists refer to as “assortative mating.”
One explanation for this pattern in pairing comes from a competition-based perspective: an individual’s success in the mating “market” is limited by his or her own desirability. People who are physically attractive tend to be seen as very desirable and are, therefore, better able to win over highly-desirable partners themselves.
Hunt and colleagues hypothesized that the length of acquaintance between partners may shift the dynamics of this sexual competition.
Their prior research showed that, as people get to know each other more intimately and across various contexts, their opinions about the other person’s desirability change, making objective physical attractiveness less relevant in determining whether the two individuals become a couple.
“Having the time to interact with others in diverse settings affords more opportunities to form unique impressions that go beyond one’s initial snap judgments,” Hunt said.
“Given that people initiate romantic relationships both with strangers and acquaintances in real life, we were interested in how time might affect how similarly attractive couple members are to one another.”
Hunt, Eastwick, and Finkel hypothesized that partners who had known each other a short time before dating were likely to be similarly attractive, while partners who were well-acquainted before their romantic involvement might show a greater mismatch in physical attractiveness.
The researchers looked at data collected from 167 couples, 67 dating and 100 married, who were participating in a longitudinal study of romantic relationships. The couples had been together for as few as three months and as long as 53 years, with an average relationship length of eight years and eight months.
As part of the study, the couples were videotaped talking about how they had changed over the course of the relationship. Using these videos, independent trained coders used rating scales to indicate the physical attractiveness of each partner; the ratings were strongly correlated among the coders, suggesting a high level of agreement on the physical desirability of each partner.
The results revealed that the longer the romantic partners had known each other before dating, the less likely they were to be matched on attractiveness, just as the researchers hypothesized. For example, the pairing of an unattractive woman with an attractive man was more likely to emerge if the partners had known one another for many months prior to dating.
Partners who began dating within a month of first meeting each other showed a strong correlation for physical attractiveness. But the correlation was much lower for partners who had known each other for a long time before dating.
A similar pattern emerged when the researchers looked at whether pairs were friends before they started dating; friends-first couples were less likely to be matched on attractiveness than couples who were strangers before dating.
Interestingly, the level of match on attractiveness was not associated with relationship satisfaction for either men or women in the study. That is, both friends-first and stranger-first relationships seem approximately equally happy years later.
Hunt and colleagues note that the research will need to be replicated across more diverse samples and contexts, but these findings suggest that length of acquaintance can influence whether we perceive someone as being a desirable partner.
“There may be more to the old saying than was previously thought: Maybe it’s the case that beauty is partially in the eye of the beholder, especially as time passes,” Hunt said.