In The News
Researchers believe the discovery of a unique pattern of immune molecules in the cerebrospinal fluid of people with chronic fatigue syndrome may explain the “brain fog” that often accompanies the illness.
Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is the common name for a group of debilitating medical conditions characterized by persistent fatigue and other specific symptoms, including cognitive dysfunction, that persists for a prolonged period.
As published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, Mady Hornig, M.D., and colleagues from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, used immunoassay testing methods to measure cerebrospinal biomarkers.
They hoped to discover insights into the basis for the cognitive dysfunction or “brain fog” as well as new hope for improvements in diagnosis and treatment.
The researchers assessed the levels of 51 immune biomarkers called cytokines of 32 people who had experienced myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) for an average of seven years.
They also measured markers in 40 individuals with multiple sclerosis, and 19 non-diseased controls.
Investigators found that levels of most cytokines, including the inflammatory immune molecule, interleukin 1, were depressed in individuals with ME/CFS compared with the other two groups.
This finding matched what was seen in a blood study of patients who had the disease for more than three years. One cytokine, eotaxin, was elevated in the ME/CFS and MS groups, but not in the control group.
“We now know that the same changes to the immune system that we recently reported in the blood of people with ME/CFS with long-standing disease are also present in the central nervous system,” said Hornig.
“These immune findings may contribute to symptoms in both the peripheral parts of the body and the brain, from muscle weakness to brain fog.”
“Diagnosis of ME/CFS is now based on clinical criteria. Our findings offer the hope of objective diagnostic tests for disease as well as the potential for therapies that correct the imbalance in cytokine levels seen in people with ME/CFS at different stages of their disease,” said W. Ian Lipkin, M.D.
A new study, published in the journal Depression and Anxiety, finds that in addition to their physical injuries, women who are victims of domestic violence are also at a greater risk of mental health problems.
These problems could include issues such as depression and psychotic symptoms say a team of researchers at King’s College London in England, the Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal (IUSMM), and the University of Montreal.
“We studied the impact of domestic violence on the risk of mental health problems, particularly depression,” explained Isabelle Ouellet-Morin, first study author and a researcher at the Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal.
“We also studied the role of certain factors from the victims’ personal history, such as childhood abuse and economic poverty,” explained Ms. Ouellet-Morin, who is also a professor at the School of Criminology at the University of Montreal.
Researchers studied 1,052 mothers who participated in the Environmental Risk (E-Risk) Longitudinal Twin Study — an investigation that lasted over 10 years.
Only subjects with no previous history of depression were considered for the study. Over this decade, the researchers conducted multiple interviews to determine whether the subjects had suffered violence from their spouses and whether they suffered from mental health disorders.
The researchers discovered:
• More than one third of the women reported suffering violence from their spouses (e.g., being pushed or hit with an object).
• These women had a more extensive history of childhood abuse, abuse of illicit substances, economic poverty, early pregnancy, and an antisocial personality.
• They were twice as likely to suffer from depression, even when controlling for the impact of childhood abuse.
• Domestic violence had an impact not just on mood but on other mental health aspects as well. These women had a three times higher risk of developing schizophrenia-like psychotic symptoms.
This risk doubled for women who were also victims of childhood abuse.
“Domestic violence is unacceptable because of the injuries it causes. We have shown that these injuries are not only physical: they can also be psychological, as they increase the risk of depression and psychotic symptoms,” added Louise Arseneault, a researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London.
“Health professionals need to be very aware of the possibility that women who experience mental health problems may also be the victims of domestic violence and vice versa. Given the prevalence of depression in these victims, we need to prevent these situations and take action.
“These acts of violence do more than leave physical damage; they leave psychological scars as well,” concluded Dr. Arseneault.
Source: University of Montreal
Emerging research investigates the ethical and medical privacy ramifications in the use of social media to aid clinical treatment.
In today’s world, the opportunity to be transparent and share information about yourself with others is easy. Be it tweet it, snap it, pin it, post it…there is a method to share information with others, often with an intent of obtaining common ground connectivity.
Given this information ubiquity, should doctors be allowed to access, review and then take action if they see a problem?
In a new study, University Hospitals Case Medical Center Psychiatrist Stephanie Pope, MD, examined the impact of social media on mental health care and treatment.
She specifically investigated how the public forums could help diagnoses in clinical practice as well as serving as behavioral predictors.
Her analysis also explored the ethical aspects of patient/doctor relationships that utilize social media outlets.
Study findings were enlightening as Dr. Pope discovered that doctors and patients are communicating via social networks, an interaction that sometimes blur lines of their relationships.
Pope discovered instances where social media research of patients in treatment helped to prevent injury. Although these episodes were documented, she found that definitive, institutional policy and procedures were sorely lagging causing potential issues in patient care.
Dr. Pope will present the study, “Social Media and Psychiatry” at the American Psychiatric Association Meeting in May in Toronto.
In her research, she surveyed psychiatrists and psychologists to better understand social media significance, impact as well as particular guidelines and ethics associated with patient/doctor relationships.
She also examined the intersection of ethical, professional and legal considerations on social platforms. The transparency of the communication channel sometimes creates ambiguous and complex interactions between health professionals and patients.
“This study was conducted as an effort to demonstrate the clinical implications of social media and form an understanding of the legal and ethical consequences of social media within practice,” said Pope.
“Institutions across the country lack protocols relating to the media forms and professional guidelines need to be established.”
The numbers associated with social media usage are staggering. In 2013, Facebook alone had 751 million users while Twitter continued to surge with 555 million accounts that averaged 58 million tweets every day.
The amount of personal information such as photos, hometown information and cell phone numbers are easily accessible online. Additionally, new mediums continued to surface as well where people share information such as Snapchat and Instagram.
The statistics and data don’t necessarily get risky until they enter into the personal health realm where 60 percent of patients are seeking support, knowledge and information about their own health utilizing social media platforms.
The medical community has followed suit with the trending numbers of social media users.
According to a study in 2008, 64 percent of medical students and 13 percent of residents were active on Facebook and of that percentage only 37 percent of those active kept their profiles private, away from potential patients. Most recently, the data showed a substantial spike in active profiles held by doctors and medical students with almost 90 percent maintaining some sort of social media accounts.
Dr. Pope’s research noted that doctors and patients can effectively use the social forums to help their conditions, find support and while selecting the best options for care. Additionally, doctors can use social media for a number of positive aspects, but that clear, definable protocols should be set in place.
Dr. Pope’s also focused her research and analyzed social media’s impact on her area of expertise and found alarming statistics relating to suicidal ideations, behaviors and specific illnesses. Most importantly, the validation of social media aiding in treatment and being clinically relevant became obvious.
“We need to understand the magnitude that social media is having on our clinical practice but at the same time we need to develop patient/doctor boundaries,” said Dr. Pope.
“When a patient comes to the emergency room and has had thoughts about suicide, social media channels can help …but how, when and if can use this information is at the core of the argument.”
A surprisingly high number of young people experience “exploding head syndrome,” a psychological event in which a person is startled awake by a loud noise, or even the sensation of an explosion in the head, according to a new study by researchers at Washington State.
Based on smaller, less rigorous studies, some researchers had previously hypothesized that exploding head syndrome is a rare condition found mostly in people older than 50. The new findings, however, show that nearly one in five, or 18 percent, of college students reported having experienced exploding head syndrome at least once. In fact, it was so bad for some that it significantly impacted their lives.
“Unfortunately for this minority of individuals, no well-articulated or empirically supported treatments are available, and very few clinicians or researchers assess for it,” said Dr. Brian Sharpless, a Washington State University assistant professor and director of the university psychology clinic.
Sharpless also discovered that more than one-third of those who had exploding head syndrome have also suffered from isolated sleep paralysis, a frightening experience in which one cannot move or speak upon waking up.
The study is the largest of its kind, with 211 undergraduate students interviewed by psychologists or graduate students trained in recognizing the symptoms of exploding head syndrome and isolated sleep paralysis.
“I didn’t believe the clinical lore that it would only occur in people in their 50s,” said Sharpless. “That didn’t make a lot of biological sense to me.”
As he began reviewing the scientific literature on the disorder for the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews, Sharpless began to wonder if perhaps exploding head syndrome was a lot more common than thought. In that report, he concluded the disorder was a largely overlooked phenomenon that warranted a deeper look.
Exploding head syndrome tends to occur as one is falling asleep. Researchers suspect it is triggered when the brain has trouble shutting down.
When the brain goes to sleep, it’s like a computer shutting down, with motor, auditory and visual neurons turning off in stages. But instead of shutting down properly, the auditory neurons are thought to fire all at once, Sharpless said.
“That’s why you get these crazy-loud noises that you can’t explain, and they’re not actual noises in your environment,” he said. The same part of the brain, the brain stem’s reticular formation, appears to be involved in isolated sleep paralysis as well, which may be the reason why some people experience both problems, Sharpless added.
The phenomenon can be extremely frightening. Although it typically lasts only a few seconds, exploding head syndrome can make people think they’re having a seizure or a subarachnoid hemorrhage, said Sharpless.
“Some people have worked these scary experiences into conspiracy theories and mistakenly believe the episodes are caused by some sort of directed-energy weapon,” he said.
Some people are so alarmed by the event that they don’t even tell their spouse, he said. “They may think they’re going crazy and they don’t know that a good chunk of the population has had the exact same thing,” he said.
The findings are published in the Journal of Sleep Research.
Source: Washington State University
Researchers have developed a new, easy to use test to identify those at risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
The work is associated with a recent brain imaging study on women at risk for Alzheimer’s disease and seeks to flag early symptoms.
In the study, York University researchers discovered deterioration in the pathways that serve to communicate signals between different brain regions needed for performing everyday activities.
Functional declines associated with difficulty in driving a car or using a computer were found to be associated with Alzheimer’s risk.
“We observed a relationship between the levels of deterioration in the brain wiring and their performance on our task that required simultaneous thinking and moving; what we see here is a result of communication failure,” said Lauren Sergio, Ph.D., in the School of Kinesiology & Health Science.
In an interview, Sergio said the findings also suggest that their computerized, easily-administered task that the study participants performed, can be used to test those at risk for Alzheimer’s disease to flag early warning signs.
“The test is a clinically feasible substitute to the more involved braining imaging tasks that people don’t, or can’t, have done routinely.”
Typically, Alzheimer’s disease is associated with memory loss, perception, and other aspects of cognition, while debility in complex movements is observed at a much later stage.
The study was recently published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Researchers studied 30 female participants of whom 10 were in their mid-20s. The rest were in their 50s or older, with half of them at high risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
“We decided to focus this study on women, as there is higher prevalence in this group, and also women who carry the ApoE4 gene are more vulnerable to the degradation of white matter,” said Ph.D. candidate Kara Hawkins, who led the study.
This genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease was one of the traits tested for in the current study.
“We scanned the brains of the participants, aiming to see if the impaired cognitive-motor performance in the high risk group was related to brain alterations over and above standard aging changes,” Hawkins said.
According to the researchers, the big question ahead is “what can be done to prevent a decline in function of a person’s brain showing signs of communication problems.”
Investigators hope to develop a proactive training method that uses a game-like cognitive-motor tool to help to maintain the brain pathways that involve thinking and moving tasks.
Source: York University/EurekAlert!
Care for depression has always been complicated by the observation that some people respond to treatment while others do not.
Now, new research has shown that shock treatment or electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), changes certain areas of the brain that play a role in how people feel, learn, and respond to positive and negative environmental factors.
University of California, Los Angeles investigators performed brain imaging of the brain in patients before, during and after undergoing ECT and compared those images to healthy control subjects. They were particularly interested in the hippocampus and amgydalar areas of the brain.
They found that the hippocampus changes, or increases in size, in relation to improved mood in patients with major depression. The brain area changes indicated how well a person was responding to treatment.
Additionally, using leading-edge methods to look at brain shape, the team showed that parts of these structures change more with treatment, providing vital clues to how the connections in the brain may be used to select for patients who will respond well to treatment.
This finding could help to select patients who would or would not respond to therapy. As a result, some patients would be spared from taking of drugs for several months, that ultimately won’t work for them, said study senior author Katherine L. Narr, Ph.D., an associate professor of neurology.
“Major depression is common, affects all ages, races, and ethnic groups and has a serious consequence on people’s family lives and work,” Narr said.
“People with depression also are at higher risk for suicide, which accounts for more deaths than car accidents, natural disasters, and war each year on average. Unfortunately, standard types of medication used to treat major depression take a long time to work, and for at least a third of people, the medication will not work well enough to provide any real help.”
The study appears in the early online edition of the peer-reviewed journal Biological Psychiatry.
Although ECT has been used for more than 50 years, it has a certain stigma. However, within the last decade, advances in anesthesia, electrical stimulation equipment, and new evidence about electrode lead placement have improved safety and reduced side effects, said study first author Shantanu H. Joshi, Ph.D., an assistant professor of neurology.
Moreover, further advances in high-resolution MRI now allow the measurement of the induced brain changes with improved accuracy and precision.
“ECT has been shown to be very effective for treating patients with major depression who don’t respond well to other treatments,” Joshi said.
“During the treatment course, ECT leads to plastic changes in the brain that are linked with improvements in mood. Specifically, we saw the hippocampus and amygdala — important for memory and emotion — are shown to increase in size.
“People with smaller hippocampal size prior to starting treatment are less likely to respond as well to treatment. While our research investigates structural neuroplasticity in depression in response to ECT, our findings are considered to be of much broader interest to the field.”
In addition to ECT, the team expects that the effects shown would extend to more standard, less rapidly acting antidepressant treatments and could be used to predict patient response.
In this study, the team imaged 43 patients undergoing ECT at three time points. Initially, before beginning treatment, after the second ECT session and within one week of completing treatment. Researchers performed 129 brain scans comparing the results to 32 healthy controls who were imaged twice.
Major depression affects 350 million people each year and leads to enormous personal suffering, loss of productivity, and is a burden to family, the health care system, and the economy. Finding better ways to select patients for treatments that will alleviate their symptoms would go a long way to reducing that suffering, Narr said.
“Our findings newly show that hippocampal structure prior to ECT may be an important indicator of treatment outcome,” the study states.
“That is, patients with smaller hippocampal volumes at baseline are shown to more likely exhibit increases in volume with ECT and to show concomitant improvements in clinical symptoms. Results further indicate that both clinical response to ECT and ECT-induced changes in volume occur rapidly.”
A new study raises serious questions about the increasingly common use of second-generation antidepressant drugs to treat anxiety disorders.
Although the practice is becoming increasingly common, researchers worry that the value of the drugs for anxiety may have been overestimated as a result of publication bias.
Publication bias occurs when only studies that show beneficial effects of the intervention are published.
As reported in JAMA Psychiatry, the new review concludes that studies supporting the value of second-generation antidepressant drugs for the treatment of anxiety have been distorted by publication bias, outcome reporting bias and “spin.”
Even though they may still play a role in treating these disorders, the effectiveness of the drugs has been overestimated, say the researchers.
In some cases the medications, which are among the most widely prescribed drugs in the world, are not significantly more useful than a placebo.
The findings were made by researchers from Oregon State University, Oregon Health & Science University, and the University of Groningen in The Netherlands. The work was supported by a grant from the Dutch Brain Foundation.
Publication bias was one of the most serious problems, the researchers concluded, as it related to double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials that had been reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
If the FDA determined the study was positive, it was five times more likely to be published than if it was not determined to be positive.
Bias in “outcome reporting” was also observed, in which the positive outcomes from drug use were emphasized over those found to be negative.
And simple spin was also reported. In this case, some investigators concluded that treatments were beneficial, when their own published results for primary outcomes were actually insignificant.
“These findings mirror what we found previously with the same drugs when used to treat major depression, and with antipsychotics,” said Erick Turner, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry in the Oregon Health and Science University School of Medicine, and the study’s senior author.
“When their studies don’t turn out well, you usually won’t know it from the peer-reviewed literature.”
This points to a flaw in the way doctors learn about the drugs they prescribe, the researchers said.
“The peer review process of publication allows, perhaps even encourages, this kind of thing to happen,” Turner said. “And this isn’t restricted to psychiatry — reporting bias has been found throughout the medical and scientific literature.”
Dr. Craig Williams, a professor in the Oregon State University/Oregon Health & Science University College of Pharmacy, and co-author of the study, said that “most of these drugs are fairly safe and well-tolerated, but if a medication is less effective than believed, this still raises serious questions about its use.
“The level of bias we found did not change the fact that some antidepressants can have value in treating anxiety disorders,” Williams said.
“However, there is less evidence for value of these drugs than published studies would have you believe. And these concerns are increased when such medications are frequently prescribed by general practitioners with less training in psychiatry.”
In this study, the researchers examined a broad body of the evidence and scientific research that had been presented to the Food and Drug Administration, including studies that had been done but were not published in open scientific literature.
They found that negative data on drug efficacy tended not to get published, or was de-emphasized when it was published.
Conclusions might have been manipulated or exaggerated because positive results receive more scientific attention, are published sooner, and lead to higher sales of a drug, said Annelieke Roest, Ph.D., the lead author of the publication at the University of Groningen.
“Lots of research is funded eventually by the taxpayer, and that’s reason enough to say that scientists should publish all their results,” Roest said.
The study reiterated this point, and the need to more routinely publish nonsignificant results.
“There is strong evidence that significant results from randomized controlled trials are more likely to be published than nonsignificant results,” the researchers wrote in their study. “As a consequence, the published literature . . . may overestimate the benefits of treatment while underestimating their harms, thus misinforming clinicians, policy makers, and patients.”
Antidepressants are now widely prescribed for conditions other than depression, the study noted. They are being used for generalized anxiety, panic disorder, social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other uses.
In both the U.S. and Europe, use of antidepressant drugs has significantly increased in the past two decades, the researchers said, with much of that use driven by non-specialists in primary care settings.
The level of reporting bias in the scientific literature, the researchers wrote, “likely impacts clinicians’ perceptions of the efficacy of these drugs, which could reasonably be expected to affect prescription behavior.”
Researchers have developed a new software tool that allows people suffering from anxiety and depression to interact with others via an online support community.
While the concept is not new, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Northwestern University scientists envision the peer-to-peer tool as providing a vehicle for individuals to practice therapeutic techniques.
In a study involving 166 subjects who had exhibited symptoms of depression, the researchers compared their tool with an established technique known as expressive writing. The new approach yielded better outcomes across the board and it also had some particular advantages.
Specifically, the tool helped subjects employ a therapeutic technique called cognitive reappraisal. Additionally, the software was found to be more effective in improving the mood of subjects with more severe symptoms.
“We really wanted to see two things,” says Rob Morris, who led the work as a Ph.D. student in media arts and sciences at MIT. “Could people get clinical benefits from it? That’s hypothesis one,” he says.”Hypothesis two is, ‘Will people be engaged and use this regularly?'” Morris adds.
“There’s a lot of great work in building web apps and mobile apps to provide psychotherapy without a therapist in the loop — it’s (one of) these self-guided programs.”
However, the challenge is often not so much in seeing if the apps work, rather the task is to encourage people to use them. To address this stumbling block, a platform was designed that mimicked some of the interaction paradigms that underlie very engaging social programs, says Morris.
On that score, too, the results of the study were encouraging.
The average subject in the control group used the expressive-writing tool 10 times over the three weeks of the study, with each session lasting about three minutes. As a comaprision, the average subject using the new tool logged in 21 times, with each session lasting about nine minutes.
The study is described in a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.
Morris, who had majored in psychology as an undergrad at Princeton University has always been interested in researching the therapeutic potential of information technology.
To fulfill this dream, he applied to do graduate work in MIT’s Affective Computing Group, which specifically investigates the intersection of computing technologies and human emotions.
“I was at MIT without an engineering degree and really trying to race to learn computer programming,” Morris recalls. He found himself spending a lot of time on a programmers’ question-and-answer site called Stack Overflow.
“Whenever I had a bug or was stuck on something, I would go on there, and almost miraculously, this crowd of programmers would come and help me,” he says.
“It was just this intuition that, just as we can get people on Stack Overflow to help us identify and fix bugs in code, perhaps we can harness a crowd to help us fix bugs in our thinking.”
People suffering from depression frequently exhibit what Morris describes as “maladaptive thought patterns”. For example, you lose your job, and you conclude that you’ll never find another one; your roommate comes home and shuts herself up in her room, and you assume it’s because of something you’ve done.
Psychologists have sorted these thought patterns into categories. Predicting your future unemployability is an instance of “fortune-telling”; assuming you know your roommate’s motivations is “mind-reading.” Others include “overgeneralization,” “catastrophizing,” and “all-or-nothing thinking.”
The therapeutic approach called cognitive reappraisal involves identifying the maladaptive thought patterns and then recasting the events that precipitated them in a different light.
That is: The job you lost offered no room for promotion and wasn’t aligned with your interests, anyway. Or, your roommate has been having trouble at work and may have just had a fight with a colleague.
A user of the new tool — which Morris calls Panoply — logs on and, in separate fields, records both a triggering event and his or her response to it. This much of the application was duplicated exactly for the expressive-writing tool used by the control group in the study.
With Panoply, however, members of the network then vote on the type of thought pattern represented by the poster’s reaction to the triggering event and suggest ways of reinterpreting it.
As users demonstrate more and more familiarity with techniques of cognitive reappraisal, they graduate from describing their own experiences, to offering diagnoses of other people’s thought patterns, to suggesting reinterpretations.
“We really wanted to see that people are utilizing this skill over and over again, not only in response to their own stressors but also as teachers to other people,” Morris says.
“We can surmise that it’s a little easier to practice some of these psychotherapeutic skills for other people before turning them toward themselves. But we don’t have data supporting that.”
For their study, the researchers recruited subjects who described themselves as under stress, something that correlates highly with depression.
Volunteers were asked to complete three questionnaires. One is a depression measure that’s standard in the field. Another assesses perseverative thinking, and the third assesses skill at cognitive reappraisal.
After three weeks using either Panoply or the expressive-writing tool, the subjects again completed the same three questionnaires.
To simulate a large network of users — and ensure that Panoply users would receive replies even if they were posting in the middle of the night — Morris hired online workers through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing application to supplement the comments made by study subjects.
Each Mechanical Turk worker received a brief training in cognitive reappraisal, and about 1,000 contributed to the study.
“It took a lot of time to figure out how to teach people these skills and give them examples of what to do in a way that is easily understood in a handful of minutes,” Morris says.
“Some of them wanted to sign up afterwards. They were like, ‘Wow, I never knew I had these bugs in my thinking, too.'”
In order to protect males with low-testosterone from the effects of anxiety and depression, much of the testosterone in his brain must first be converted into estrogen, according to new findings by a researcher at Florida State University College of Medicine.
Mohamed Kabbaj, a professor of biomedical sciences received a six-year grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to investigate the ways in which anxiety affects the sexes differently.
Kabbaj already knew that testosterone tends to protect males from depression and anxiety, just as estrogen and progesterone do in females. He also knew that most testosterone was converted into estrogen in the brain. What he didn’t know, however, was that those anxiety- and depression-inhibiting actions couldn’t take effect until the testosterone was first converted to estrogen.
“There is an enzyme in the brain that ‘mediates’ the conversion of testosterone into estrogen,” Kabbaj said. “We inhibited that enzyme in a specific brain area implicated in the regulation of mood. And when you do that, you lose the antidepressant effect of testosterone. So the conversion is very important.”
His research targeted the hippocampus area of the brain, where testosterone acts through what’s known as the MAPK pathway to deliver its antidepressant and anti-anxiety effects.
“But we have to be careful about that pathway,” Kabbaj said, “because it’s also implicated in cellular growth and cancer. Therefore, we’re looking for other pathways that don’t have these effects. It’s complicated. Nothing is ever simple, but we’ll get there.”
Women are 70 percent more likely than men to suffer from depression during their lifetime, according to National Institute of Mental Health. So far, the link between testosterone conversion and anxiety/depression has been detected only in laboratory animals. But Kabbaj says the results are potentially promising for humans as well.
“Maybe in the future, when we are trying to develop an antidepressant that works in low-testosterone males, we can target some of the mechanisms by which testosterone acts, since it has numerous side effects,” he said.
Testosterone acts on many receptors and pathways in the brain, so the challenge is to develop a drug that delivers only the effect you want.
“A number of treatments are available for depression, but the drugs are not effective in all patients and the side effects can be serious, especially on the heart,” said biomedical sciences Professor Pradeep Bhide, director of the College of Medicine’s Center for Brain Repair.
“Therefore, there is an urgent need for safer and more efficacious drugs to treat depression.
The findings shed new light on the causes of depression and the role that hormones play in the disorder. Such insights are critical for the development of new drugs and diagnostic tests.
The study is published in the journal Biological Psychiatry.
Source: Florida State University
New research shows how the brain can shift attention to a new strategy when it perceives a better way of doing something.
Researchers at Princeton University, Humboldt University of Berlin, the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, and the University of Milan-Bicocca, found that activity in a region of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex keeps focus from becoming too fixed.
Investigators discovered the brain region was involved in monitoring what is happening outside one’s current focus of attention and shifting focus from a successful strategy to one that is even better.
The researcher findings are published in the journal Neuron.
“The human brain at any moment in time has to process quite a wealth of information,” said Dr. Nicolas Schuck, a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton and first author on the study.
“The brain has evolved mechanisms that filter that information in a way that is useful for the task that you are doing. But the filter has a disadvantage: you might miss out on important information that is outside your current focus.”
Schuck and his colleagues wanted to study what happens at the moment when people realize there is a different and potentially better way of doing things.
They asked volunteers to play a game while their brains were scanned with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
The volunteers were instructed to press one of two buttons depending on the location of colored squares on a screen. However, the game contained a hidden pattern that the researchers did not tell the participants about, namely, that if the squares were green, they always appeared in one part of the screen and if the squares were red, they always appeared in another part.
The researchers refrained from telling players that they could improve their performance by paying attention to the color instead of the location of the squares.
Not all of the players figured out that there was a more efficient way to play the game. For those that did, however, their brain images revealed specific signals in the medial prefrontal cortex that corresponded to the color of the squares.
These signals arose minutes before the participants switched their strategies. Amazingly, this signal was so reliable that the researchers could use it to predict spontaneous strategy shifts ahead of time.
“These findings are important to better understand the role of the medial prefrontal cortex in the cascade of processes leading to the final behavioral change, and more generally, to understand the role of the medial prefrontal cortex in human cognition,” said Carlo Reverberi, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of Milan-Bicocca and senior author on the study.
“Our findings suggest that the medial prefrontal cortex is ‘simulating’ in the background an alternative strategy, while the overt behavior is still shaped by the old strategy.”
The study design — specifically, not telling the participants that there was a more effective strategy — enabled the researchers to show that the brain can monitor background information while focused on a task, and choose to act on that information.
“What was quite special about the study was that the behavior was completely without instruction,” Schuck said. “When the behavior changed, this reflected a spontaneous internal process.”
Before this study, he said, most researchers had focused on the question of switching strategies because you made a mistake or you realized that your current approach isn’t working.
“But what we were able to explore,” he said, “is what happens when people switch to a new way of doing things based on information from their surroundings.” In this way, the study sheds light on how learning and attention can interact, he said.
Schuck designed and conducted the experiments while a graduate student at Humboldt University and the International Max Planck Research School on the Life Course (LIFE) together with the other authors.
Experts believe the study is important as it demonstrates how the brain balances the need to maintain attention with the need to incorporate new information about the environment.
In turn, the new insights may eventually help our understanding of disorders that involve attention deficits.
Source: Princeton University/EurekAlert
A new Finnish study finds that music performance by professional musicians stimulates the genes responsible for essential brain functions.
Music performance is known to induce structural and functional changes to the human brain and enhance cognition. But the molecular mechanisms underlying music performance have been so far unexplored.
In the new study, researchers investigated the effect of music performance (in a two hr concert) on the gene expression profiles of professional musicians from Tapiola Sinfonietta (a professional orchestra) and Sibelius-Academy (a music university).
Investigators discovered playing music enhanced the activity of genes involved in dopaminergic neurotransmission, motor function, learning, and memory. Moreover, some of the genes stimulated, like SNCA, FOS, and DUSP1, are known to contribute to song perception and production in songbirds.
The activation of these genes suggests a potential evolutionary preservation in molecular mechanisms related to sound production across species.
In addition, several of the up-regulated genes are known to be involved in biological pathways. For example, the genes influence calcium ion homeostasis and iron ion homeostasis. These mechanisms are essential for neuronal function, survival, and neuroprotection.
“The findings provide a valuable background for molecular studies of music perception and evolution, and music therapy,” said study leader Dr. Irma Järvelä from the University of Helsinki.
The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.
A new study suggests a good education may not improve your chances of happiness.
University of Warwick researchers In the U.K. reviewed socioeconomic factors related to high mental well-being, such as level of education and personal finances.
The study is published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.
It has been shown that low educational attainment is strongly associated with mental illness. In the new study, researchers wanted to find out if higher educational attainment is linked with mental well-being.
The team found that higher levels of educational attainment had similar odds of high mental well-being as lower levels of education.
High mental well-being was defined as “feeling good and functioning well.” People with high levels of mental well-being manage to feel happy and contented with their lives more often than those who don’t because of the way they manage problems and challenges especially in relationships with others.
Lead author Professor Sarah Stewart-Brown said, “These findings are quite controversial because we expected to find the socioeconomic factors that are associated with mental illness would also be correlated with mental well-being.
So if low educational attainment was strongly associated with mental illness, high educational attainment would be strongly connected to mental well-being. But that is not the case.”
Other surprising results from the study included high levels of mental well-being among Afro-Caribbeans, especially men.
Stewart-Brown said, “Given the well-recognized association between ethnicity and detention under the Mental Health Act and the more general associations between mental illness and ethnicity, we were very surprised to find substantially increased odds of high mental well-being among minority ethnic groups, particularly African and African-Caribbean, Indian, and Pakistani groups.”
The team used existing data from the Health Survey for England (HSE) for 2010 and 2011 in which the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale (WEMWBS) was administered to 17,030 survey participants across both years.
Stewart-Brown added that the correlates of high mental well-being are different from those of low mental well-being, but the latter closely mirror the correlates of mental illness.
She said, “Assumptions about socioeconomic determinants made in planning public mental health programs focusing on the prevention of mental illness may therefore not be applicable to programs aiming to increase mental well-being.”
Source: University of Warwick
A new study has found that parents of obese children may not be able to recognize their child is overweight, unless they are at very extreme levels of obesity.
Researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and University College of London (UCL) Institute of Child Health, a research partner of Great Ormond Street Hospital, also found that parents are more likely to underestimate their child’s weight if they are black or South Asian, from more deprived backgrounds, or if their child is male.
As childhood obesity has increased in the UK, the government has put in place interventions to tackle the problem, the researchers noted. But it was suggested that many parents can’t identify when their child is overweight, leading to questions about the effectiveness of current interventions designed to address obesity in the home.
The research team set out to look at this problem and identify socioeconomic factors that may predict a parent’s inability to estimate their child’s weight correctly.
Questionnaires were filled out by the parents of 2,976 children in five primary care trusts taking part in the National Child Measurement Program: Redbridge, Islington, West Essex, Bath and North East Somerset, and Sandwell.
The researchers discovered that 31 percent of parents (915) underestimated where their child’s Body Mass Index (BMI) sat on government obesity scales, which classify children as very overweight (or obese), overweight, healthy weight, or underweight.
In fact, the researchers report they found only four parents described their child as being very overweight despite 369 children being officially identified as very overweight according to the BMI cut-off.
According to official guidelines, children are classified as overweight at the 85th centile and very overweight (or obese) at the 95th centile. The researchers found that for a child with a BMI at the 98th centile there was an 80 percent chance the parent would classify their child as healthy weight. Parents did become more likely to classify their child as overweight when the child had a BMI above the 99.7th centile, the researchers found.
“If parents are unable to accurately classify their own child’s weight, they may not be willing or motivated to enact the changes to the child’s environment that promote healthy weight maintenance,” said senior author Dr. Sanjay Kinra, a reader in Clinical Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and co-lead investigator of the PROMISE trial.
Co-author Professor Russell Viner, academic pediatrician at the UCL institute of Child Health and PROMISE co-lead investigator added: “Measures that decrease the gap between parental perceptions of child weight status and obesity scales used by medical professionals may now be needed in order to help parents better understand the health risks associated with overweight and increase uptake of healthier lifestyles.”
The study, published in the British Journal of General Practice, is part of the PROMISE (Pediatric Research In Obesity Multi-Modal Intervention And Service Evaluation) study, a five-part project that aims to improve the assessment and treatment of childhood obesity through research.
Think of a corporation logo that you see all the time, perhaps on a daily basis. If you were asked to draw that logo right now (with no peeking), would you be able to do it?
Most likely not, according to findings from a new study in which only one out of 85 students was able to draw the famous Apple logo from memory.
The research, conducted by psychologists from the University of California, Los Angeles, (UCLA), found that out of 85 UCLA undergraduate students, only one could correctly reproduce the Apple logo when asked to draw it on a blank sheet of paper.
In fact, fewer than half of the students were able to identify the Apple logo when it was pictured alongside a number of similar logos with slightly altered features.
Many participants, however, believed they would be able to draw the logo correctly before they were asked to do so.
“There was a striking discrepancy between participants’ confidence prior to drawing the logo and how well they performed on the task,” said senior author Dr. Alan Castel, an associate professor of psychology at UCLA. “People’s memory, even for extremely common objects, is much poorer than they believe it to be.”
One interesting finding was that there was no difference in Apple logo recognition between Apple users and PC users: Fifty-two of the participants were Apple users, 23 students used both Apple and PC products, and 10 were PC users.
“People had trouble picking out the correct logo even when it was right in front of them,” said Castel, who showed in 2012 that most people did not know the location of a bright red fire extinguisher near their office, even though they had walked by it hundreds or thousands of times.
How is it possible that the Apple logo, one of the world’s most recognizable symbols, simply gets bypassed by the brain?
One explanation may be that our brains have decided that it’s not important to remember specific details. An efficient memory system does not need to remember the details of a corporate logo, except perhaps to distinguish counterfeit products, the researchers concluded.
Previous research has found that most people have a poor memory for many items they encounter daily or almost daily, including computer keyboards (even skilled typists have difficulty describing a standard keyboard), pennies, and road signs.
The findings are published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.
A new study has found that military veterans who have started or gone back to school have a more difficult time when they use avoidance coping strategies (denying or minimizing negative thoughts and emotions).
In fact, these strategies are linked to greater symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The findings show, however, that emotional help and support from family members reduces the negative impact of these conditions. The researchers suggest that counseling and wellness centers at colleges and universities, where student veterans may seek help, should offer more outreach to veterans’ families, including couples counseling.
The VETS, or Veterans Experiencing the Transition to Students project, is directed by Dr. Shelley Riggs, University of North Texas (UNT) associate professor of psychology.
For the study, Riggs and her team surveyed 165 veterans who were currently enrolled in one private and two public universities in Texas, including UNT. The majority (117 participants) had been deployed in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan or Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn in Iraq.
There were participants from every military branch, with nearly half serving in the Army and more than 83 percent being non-commissioned officers.
In addition to being asked about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychological symptoms, the student veterans responded to questions about their academic, emotional, personal and social adjustment to college, coping styles, social support and romantic relationship functioning, as well as their sense of being connected to their universities.
The findings showed that avoidant coping strategies, in particular, tend to interfere with the veterans’ successful adaptation and psychological functioning in a school setting.
Avoidant coping can often be adaptive in military settings, where traumatic reactions must be suppressed to continue a mission, said fourth-year doctoral student Daniel Romero, who focused on the student veterans’ coping strategies for the study.
“However, in the civilian world, ignoring difficult emotions and stressful events is counterproductive and can contribute to intrusive thoughts and other PTSD symptoms, and depression and anxiety symptoms,” added Romero.
On the other hand, veterans who used problem-focused coping — identifying problematic stress and taking steps to resolve or overcome it — reported significantly lower levels of depression and generalized anxiety symptoms, but only if they also reported high levels of emotional support from family members, Romero said.
Romero added that this emotional support didn’t seem to affect levels of PTSD symptoms, which typically result from traumatic events, such as military combat, rather than other circumstances that could lead to depression and anxiety.
The findings are published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology.
Source: University of North Texas
A new study suggests that stereotypes about women’s ability in mathematics negatively impact their performance.
In a twist, the study also found that both men and women wrongly believe those stereotypes will not undermine women’s math performance, but instead motivate them to perform better.
“This study’s implications go beyond the classroom into the many other social environments where negative stereotypes about women play a role,” said Indiana University social psychologist Kathryn L. Boucher, a postdoctoral research associate in the Indiana University Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.
“They force us to ask whether people not affected by similar stereotypes can effectively recognize and find ways to reduce their impact. It also puts into perspective the enormous challenge of eliminating the effects of stereotypes despite growing awareness about their harm to women and society.”
A recent example of “stereotype threats” the researchers point to is a lawsuit brought by venture capitalist Ellen Pao alleging years of discriminatory practices and attitudes based on gender that she says prevented her advancement at a Silicon Valley venture capital firm.
“This study has major implications for women in technology and business environments, where women’s abilities are regularly impugned by negative stereotypes,” said Mary C. Murphy, assistant professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington, who oversaw the study.
“These are the places where women are most likely to experience stereotype threat — and if their supervisors and co-workers cannot anticipate how these threats interfere with performance, that’s a serious problem. It’s one of the ways women end up underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math.”
According to the researchers, the study’s main goal was to find out whether observers could recognize the anxiety and underperformance experienced by women when judged under negative stereotypes.
For the study, more than 150 people — split nearly evenly between men and women — were given 10 minutes to solve seven difficult math problems on a computer with no scrap paper.
Before completing the test, a negative stereotype about women was introduced by telling participants that the researchers were trying to find out why women are generally worse at math than men.
Half the participants were then told they would be asked to solve math problems and they responded to a survey about their expected performance; the other half were told they would simply be asked to predict how they thought women might feel in this test-taking situation and how they would perform on the test.
The experiment confirmed earlier studies by finding that female test-takers performed worse and reported greater anxiety and lower expectations about their performance compared to men when negative stereotypes about gender were introduced at the start of the experiment.
But the study went beyond previous research by also measuring men’s and women’s insights into the experience of the people actually performing under these conditions, according to the researchers.
What the researchers found was that expectations did not match reality: While both sexes expected female test-takers to experience greater anxiety and pressure to perform under the influence of negative gender stereotypes, they also expected women to successfully overcome these roadblocks. They did not anticipate that the greater anxiety would undermine performance, the researchers noted.
Moreover, this misperception occurred in both men and women, according to the researchers. Women were almost equally likely to overestimate the performance of other women under the stereotype threat.
Study participants reported they thought the negative stereotypes would function as a “motivating challenge,” even though women who actually performed the math problems didn’t report this level of motivation when asked about their performance.
The consequences of these misperceptions are significant, Boucher said. The disconnect between reality and perception in these scenarios could translate to reduced support for programs and policies that mitigate the impact of negative gender stereotypes since people do not think they affect real-world performance, she noted.
“While many factors can impact performance outside a controlled environment — be it the classroom or the boardroom — it’s unlikely that performance evaluators currently consider negative stereotypes about women as a serious cause for impaired performance, and so it is unlikely that they will take steps to reduce them,” Boucher said.
“Thoughtful applications of this study’s findings, however, could help address women’s achievement gaps, and increase their representation in the fields where they’re most negatively stereotyped. Recognizing the problem is the first step to addressing it.”
The study was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Source: Indiana University
Teenagers’ judgments of how risky a situation might be are most influenced by what other teenagers think, according to new research.
Most other age groups are more influenced by what adults think, noted researchers from the University College London.
For the study, 563 visitors to the London Science Museum were asked to rate the riskiness of everyday situations, such as crossing a road on a red light or taking a shortcut through a dark alley. Ratings were given on a scale from low to high risk.
The researchers found that children between the ages of eight and 11 generally rated situations as more risky than all other age groups.
Participants were then told how other people, either teenagers or adults, had rated the same situations, before being asked to rate each situation again. These risk levels from teenagers or adults were actually randomly generated by the researchers.
The researchers found that people in all age groups were influenced after hearing how others rated each situation and changed their risk ratings in the direction of other people’s. However, this social influence decreased with age.
Additionally, most age groups adjusted their ratings to conform to the ratings of adults than those of teenagers, except for young adolescents between the ages of 12 and 14.
“Young adolescents were more strongly influenced by other teenagers than by adults, suggesting that in early adolescence the opinions of other teenagers about risk matter more than the opinions of adults,” said lead author Dr. Lisa Knoll of the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.
“Our findings suggest that the target of public health interventions should be adolescent social norms, rather than simply focusing on the potential health risks associated with certain situations and choices.”
“As people get older, they become more confident in their own judgment of risk and less swayed by other people,” added senior author Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore.
“We know that adolescents are more likely to take risks when with peers than alone,” she said.
“Our study showed that young adolescents do not perceive situations as less risky than older age groups, but do tend to change their risk perception in the direction of the opinions of similar aged peers. So other teenagers’ opinions about risk seem to influence young adolescents into judging a situation as less risky than they originally thought it was.”
The study was published in Psychological Science.
Source: University College London
In 22 states, police officers are required to make an arrest when they are called into domestic abuse situations. While the mandatory arrest law was designed as a way to curb domestic violence, new research suggests that the law may be intimidating victims from actually calling the police at all.
The study, conducted by sociologists Drs. Robert Peralta at the University of Akron and Meghan Novisky of Kent State University, evaluated survey responses of 101 women receiving care in domestic violence shelters.
The researchers looked at how victim perceptions of mandatory arrest policies, perpetrator substance use, and presence of children are related to decisions to call law enforcement.
The findings showed that as victim support for mandatory arrest increases, the odds of law enforcement notification of the abuse also increase. But accordingly, mandatory arrest may simply be reducing the probability of reporting intimate partner violence (IPV) among those who do not support the policy.
“A reason a woman may not report abuse because of mandatory arrest policies is that they fear retaliation by the abuser may be worse because an arrest is mandatory,” said Novisky.
Another reason is that women may fear that the police will mistakenly arrest her as the aggressor, so she won’t report it. In fact, data shows that mandatory arrest policies result in higher arrest rates of battered women, which could deprive them of the support they need.
While their study focused only on three factors, Peralta said that “it is important to note that race, ethnicity, sexuality, and social class background may also shape or inform decisions to contact the police.”
Based on their findings regarding mandatory arrest, he said, “Variations in experiences and attitudes toward police should also be considered in the development and implementation of policy decisions that will have a direct impact on the safety and well-being of members of our community.”
The researchers conclude their study with a warning that mandatory arrest policies may be making women feel that the costs of reporting are too high for the consideration of involving law enforcement. “The utility of mandatory arrest for the long-term assistance of victims of IPV must be questioned,” they write.
The study is published in the journal Violence Against Women.
Source: University of Akron
One of the tricks of dieting is to use smaller plates so you’ll automatically eat less. But a new study from the University of Connecticut finds that this visual cue doesn’t work for everyone, especially overweight girls.
“It has been assumed that overweight or obese consumers are more likely than others to underestimate the size of a food serving and accordingly overeat — particularly when the food is presented on a large dinner plate or in a large container,” said Lance Bauer, a psychiatry professor. “For this reason and others, it is frequently recommended that these consumers use smaller plates to defeat the illusion.”
But when Bauer and University of Connecticut Health Alcohol Research Center colleagues Victor Hesselbrock and Dr. Jonathan Covault quizzed 162 girls between the ages of 14 and 18 about their perceptions of a portion size relative to different plate sizes, they found a surprising result.
“The study found that, on average, overweight or obese adolescent girls were less attentive than normal weight girls to visual cues of different types,” Bauer said. “This finding suggests that changing the size of their dinnerware may be less effective than we thought. It also suggests that presenting them with detailed charts summarizing diet rules or calorie counts might also be less effective than we would like.”
“The study’s results imply that diet education for overweight or obese adolescents should be clear, simple, repeated, and interesting,” Bauer continued. “The next step might involve incorporating information about an overweight or obese child’s cognitive abilities in his or her weight loss treatment. In diet education, one size might not fit all.”
The study’s findings were presented at the annual scientific meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society in Savannah, Georgia.
Source: University of Connecticut
What is your comfort food? Macaroni and cheese? A turkey sandwich? Whatever it is, there’s a good chance that your attraction to that dish is based on having a good relationship with the person who first prepared it for you, according to new findings from a study at the University at Buffalo (UB).
Comfort food is defined as the food one eats to elicit comforting feelings. For some of the study participants, comfort food was a healthy food choice, for others, it was starchy and fatty.
“For a lot of people it is the food they grew up eating,” said UB psychologist Dr. Shira Gabriel. “In a previous study, we gave all of the participants chicken noodle soup, but only those who had a social connection to that soup identified it as a comfort food and felt socially accepted after eating it.
“Comfort foods are often the foods that our caregivers gave us when we were children. As long as we have positive association with the person who made that food then there’s a good chance that you will be drawn to that food during times of rejection or isolation,” said Gabriel. “It can be understood as straight-up classical conditioning.”
The study sheds new light on the link between social experiences and our food preferences and eating behaviors. While previous research has shown that comfort food can reduce feelings of rejection and isolation, the new study explores why certain foods are attractive to us when we are feeling down.
“Because comfort food has a social function,” Gabriel said, “it is especially appealing to us when we are feeling lonely or rejected. The current study helps us understand why we might be eating comfort foods even when we’re dieting or not particularly hungry.”
Having a threatened sense of belonging is related to mental and physical health risks, say the researchers, and it’s important to learn how that vulnerability can be managed. The findings offer insights into why so many people turn to comfort food in order to feel socially connected and safe.
However, turning to food to fill one’s social needs is not without risks. As Gabriel said, “Although comfort food will never break your heart, it might destroy your diet.”
The study is published in the journal Appetite.
Source: University at Buffalo