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Psychology, psychiatry and mental health news and research findings, every weekday.
Updated: 2 hours 52 min ago

New Biomarker May Improve Parkinson’s Treatment

14 hours 14 min ago

University of Florida researchers have identified a biomarker that shows the progression of Parkinson’s disease in the brain.

Scientists believe the marker will aid in diagnosis and lead to improved treatment of the degenerative disease.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers compared brain images of Parkinson’s patients to those of a control group for over a year. They found that an area of the brain called the substania nigra changes as the disease advances.

The findings provide the first MRI-based method to measure the disease’s progression, which can inform treatment decisions and aid in identifying new therapies, said University of Florida applied physiology and kinesiology professor David Vaillancourt, Ph.D., one of the study’s authors.

“The Parkinson’s drugs available today help reduce symptoms. They don’t slow the progression of the disease, which is the major unmet medical need,” Vaillancourt said.

“We’ve provided a tool to test promising new therapies that could address progression.”

The substania nigra of a Parkinson’s patient has more “free water,” fluid unconstrained by brain tissue, likely because of disease-related degeneration.

The new study published in the journal Brain uses diffusion imaging, a type of MRI, to show that free-water levels increase as the disease progresses. The free-water level was also a good predictor of how bradykinesia — the slowness of movement common to Parkinson’s — advanced over the course of the subsequent year.

Because doctors typically diagnose the disease by evaluating patients’ symptoms and how they respond to medication, the indicator could also be useful to distinguish Parkinson’s from similar disorders. That could lead to better clinical trials, Vaillancourt said.

Source: University of Florida

Hospice Use Linked to Lower Depression Levels in Surviving Spouses

14 hours 59 min ago

Spouses of dying patients who received hospice care for three or more days were more likely to report fewer depressive symptoms, compared to surviving spouses of patients who did not receive hospice, according to a new study led by researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

The study is the first to look at depressive symptoms in spouses of patients with all types of serious illnesses that used hospice care. Hospice was designed to improve quality of life in dying patients as opposed to curing disease.

Hospice services were delivered by an interdisciplinary team of professionals for patients with a prognosis of six months or less to live and who agreed to forego curative treatments.

“We know hospice provides high quality care to patients, but now we’re also seeing a benefit for spouses,” said Katherine Ornstein, Ph.D., MPH, Assistant Professor of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and lead author of the study.

“If we want to understand the impact of hospice care, we should consider the potential benefit not just to the patient, but to the caregiver, and perhaps, the entire family and social network. We need to remember that care near the end of life affects not only patients, but also their loved ones.”

Until now, research showing the benefits of hospice use on caregivers has been mostly limited to cancer patients and their families, but hospice use has increased among patients with other fatal illnesses. Currently, forty-five percent of terminally ill patients in the U.S. die while receiving hospice care — an increase of more than 20 percent over the past decade.

For the study, researchers analyzed data from 1,016 deceased patients and their surviving spouses from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a national sample of adults over age 50 linked to Medicare claims.

Surviving spouses were observed up to two years after their loved one’s death. Hospice services included medical services, symptom management, spiritual counseling, social services, and bereavement counseling.

The findings showed that improvement in depressive symptoms was more common among those who had used hospice, a benefit that was even more pronounced a year after a spouse’s death. It is unknown which specific aspects of hospice care are tied to improved symptoms for spouses.

“Although our research suggests that hospice may help alleviate depression symptoms among some spouses, we also found that the majority of bereaved spouses have increased symptoms of depression overall compared to earlier time points,” said Amy Kelley, M.D., Assistant Professor of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine, and senior author of the study.

“Additional support is needed for families and caregivers throughout the often long course of serious illness. We need to promote the high quality caregiver support and bereavement services offered in hospice and expand access to palliative care for people who are not hospice eligible.”

The findings are published online in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Source: Mount Sinai Medical Center

 

Brief CBT Sessions Can Delay Pot Use Among High-Risk Kids

15 hours 44 min ago

A new study from University of Montreal researchers suggests a way to prevent, reduce or delay cannabis use among at-risk youth.

Experts say that youth at risk for cannabis use are often sensitive to anxiety or negative thinking. Furthermore, those who are impulsive or sensation-seeking are known to be at greater risk of substance abuse.

Cannabis users may be at risk of neurocognitive deficits, reduced educational and occupational attainment, motor vehicle accidents, exacerbation of psychiatric symptoms, and precipitation of psychosis.

Adolescents are particularly at risk as the adolescent brain is still developing. Youth who have used marijuana have been shown to have less ability to sustain attention and control impulses; thinking may also be impaired.

“Marijuana use is highly prevalent among teenagers in North America and Europe,” explained Dr. Patricia Conrod, who led the study.

“As attitudes and laws towards marijuana are changing, it is important to find ways to prevent and reduce its use among at-risk youth. Our study reveals that targeted, brief interventions by trained teachers can achieve that goal.”

The study involved working with 1,038 high-risk British students and their teachers at 21 secondary schools in London. The children, who were in ninth grade (Year 10), were identified as being at high risk by their responses to a clinically validated personality assessment.

“The students voluntarily participated in two 90-minute cognitive-behavioral sessions that were adapted to their specific personality type. These sessions involved learning from real-life scenarios described by other at risk youth, and were designed to show how people manage risk. Cannabis was not directly mentioned but was discussed if the students brought it up,” said Ioan T. Mahu, first author of the study.

“There were signs that the program delayed onset and reduced frequency of cannabis use in all youth who participated in the interventions, but the results also consistently showed that the program was particularly effective in preventing cannabis use among those most at risk of using — sensation seekers,” said Conrod.

Approximately 25 percent of high risk youth took up cannabis use over the course of this two-year trial. The intervention was associated with a 33 percent reduction in cannabis use rates within the first six months after the intervention and then reduced frequency of use another six months later.

“Within the group at greatest risk for cannabis use, sensation seekers, the intervention was associated with a 75 percent reduction in rates of cannabis use six months post intervention, as well as significant reductions in frequency of use thereafter,” said Conrod.

Drug use was ascertained by the use of anonymous questionnaires that the participants filled out every six months over the two years following the start of the study. The assessment protocol included a number of procedures to filter out students reporting incorrect information.

Sensation-seekers are people who require a lot of stimulation, and they are willing to take greater risks than most people to obtain experience excitement. They also tend to be less inhibited and less tolerant of boredom.

“Sensation seekers are particularly at risk of cannabis use among this young age group. It is possible that other personality traits predict cannabis use at older ages,” Mahu said.

“Future studies should look at the motivations for cannabis use amongst people with other at-risk personality types in order to develop intervention programs that are as effective as this one has been for sensation seekers.”

According to Conrod, “given the well-documented and deleterious effects of early-onset marijuana use among teens, prevention and delay of this behavior is of utmost importance for the public, particularly as society experiments with different public policies to regulate cannabis-related harm to society.”

Source: University of Montreal/EurekAlert!

Work Commute May Cause Burnout

16 hours 29 min ago

New research discovers the act of getting to work can lead to stress factors that influence burnout.

In a new study, Annie Barreck of the University of Montreal’s School of Industrial Relations discovered the commuting length, distance, and means can cause stress that leads to burnout.

“A correlation exists between commuting stress factors and the likelihood of suffering from burnout. But their importance varies according to the individual, the conditions in which their trips take place, and the place where the individual works,” said Barreck.

Barreck’s work compares rural and urban regions of Quebec in terms of their commuting patterns, including types of transport used (car, subway, bus, bike, etc.) and links these patterns to the three dimensions of burnout: emotional burnout, cynicism, and professional efficacy.

The study involved 1,942 people, aged between 17 and 69, working at 63 organizations in Quebec. Data was collected through Canada’s SALVEO survey. Burnout symptoms were determined through the Maslah Burnout Inventory General Survey.

The findings show that there is a significant link between commuting (i.e. the trip between home and work) and the presentation of the symptoms professional burnout.

Some of the findings confirm the obvious: that the bigger the city, the more stressful the commute, at least for people travelling by car.

“People commuting towards rural areas, or even suburban areas, feel less stressed out,” Barreck said, another finding that comes as no surprise.

An interesting finding, however, was that passengers are more likely to be stressed out than drivers.

“Carpooling reduces the passenger commuters’ sense of control, which causes them more stress before they’ve even arrived at work,” she said. However, people commuting towards rural areas are not entirely spared; those who take long trips in public transit feel less effective in the workplace.

“Public transit implies bus or train connections, and as rural regions are less well served, the risk of unforeseeable and uncontrollable delays is increased, causing stress that is carried over into the workplace,” Barreck explained.

The opposite is true for transit users in major urban areas; the variety of types and times of service means they’re less likely to have symptoms of burnout.

Biking is also a mixed bag that is determined by the profile of the area the commuter is working in. Commuting by bike in the suburbs is particularly stressful.

“Cyclists in the suburbs have a lesser sense of control than cyclists in the city,” Barreck explained. “Cyclists and walkers in the city have access to safety features such as cycle paths and pedestrian crossings, which increases their sense of control over their commute.

Meanwhile, as businesses have been leaving city centers over the past 20 years, car traffic continues to increase in the suburbs. In the country, cyclists and walkers use quiet country roads, which are comparatively less stressful and offer a greater sense of control.”

Nevertheless, actions can be taken to reduce the risk of commuting leading to burnout.

“The effects of the duration of a commute on a person’s mental health vary according to the type of transport used and the profile of the area where the person works,” Barreck said.

Her findings show that the risk of burnout increases significantly when a commute lasts more than 20 minutes. In Quebec, it takes an average of 32. Above 35 minutes, all employees are at increased risk of cynicism toward their job.

Barreck believes this should lead employers to adopt flexible commuting arrangements.

“Managing employee commuting flexibly would increase employee efficiency and moreover enable organizations to attract or retain workers. In the current context of skill shortages, employers have everything to gain from facilitating the mental health of their employees,” she said.

Source: University of Montreal/EurekAlert!

Smiles Help Attract New Friends

17 hours 15 min ago

New research suggests a good way to make a new friend is to smile.

The visual display of positive emotions works because people are much more attuned to positive emotions when forming new bonds than they are to negative ones such as anger, contempt, or sadness.

One caveat, however, is that the smile must be sincere — people can recognize a fake smile.

The new study led by Belinda Campos, Ph.D., of the University of California, Irvine provides insight on how relationships are formed and maintained.

The findings are published in the journal Motivation and Emotion.

Campos’ team conducted two studies to test the role that positive emotions play in relationships. Researchers defined positive emotions as signals of affiliation and cooperation or connection.

The first study tested how aware 66 dating couples were of their partners’ positive emotions. The testing took place while the couples were being teased or were discussing past relationships.

The second experiment looked at how attuned people are to positive emotions and if it helps them to form new social bonds. This was done by assigning 91 women to watch six emotionally laden film clips in the company of either a roommate or a stranger.

The first study showed that dating couples were able to quite accurately track their partners’ positive emotions.

In the second, people tended to feel closer to strangers who displayed positive emotions. The results showed that people are much more aware of others’ positive emotions than their negative ones.

Also, when finding themselves in situations where new relationships can be formed, humans tune into the positive almost instinctively. A display of awe especially draws strangers to one another.

Campos also discovered that people predominantly display positive emotions by giving a so-called Duchenne smile.

This distinct smile involves the simultaneous movement of two facial muscles around the eyes and cheeks, and is primarily produced when people are sincere and happy. It is seen as a reliable sign of true affiliation and willingness to cooperate with another person, and helps to strengthen social bonds.

Campos believes that people are very much aware of its presence or absence during conversations, and that they are good at “reading” a fake smile.

Researchers believe that awareness of others’ positive emotions may provide important relationship information. In a new relationship, for instance, it can help one feel secure about a partner’s love, and help resolve conflicts by providing a reason to give a partner the benefit of the doubt.

However, it can also mean that you more easily pick up on a partner’s shifting attention, which might lead to fear and the chances of a relationship dissolving.

“Our findings provide new evidence of the significance of positive emotions in social settings and highlight the role that positive emotions display in the development of new social connections,” Campos said.

“People are highly attuned to the positive emotions of others and can be more attuned to others’ positive emotions than negative emotions,”

Source: Springer/EurekAlert!

Domestic Violence Survivors in Texas Face Barriers to Safety

Tue, 05/26/2015 - 7:45am

A new Texas study has found that the state has a shortage of beds for survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV). And although alternatives are typically offered, survivors may end up being isolated from much-needed services, such as crisis intervention, legal advocacy, support groups, medical advocacy, and counseling.

The bed shortage also affects how long IPV survivors are able to remain in a shelter, with the average stay lasting from six to 50 days, according to “A Statewide Survey of Family Violence Shelter Directors in Texas” by Lisa Muftic, Ph.D., assistant director of the Crime Victims’ Institute, and Jonathan Grubb of Sam Houston State University, Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology.

“IPV is considered a global social problem significantly impacting the physical and mental health of survivors and their family members,” Muftic said.

“As a whole, this study provides an important step forward in recognizing the expansiveness of services to a variety of underserved populations while also acknowledging that multiple barriers continue to limit survivors’ utilization of shelter services.”

The findings were based on a survey of shelter directors across the state. While the State Council on Family Violence identified 81, 24-hour emergency shelters in the state, the study was based on responses from 27 shelter directors who completed online surveys.

According to the responses, the shelters served between 20 and 1,633 survivors in 2013, with an average of 366 per facility, which included an average of 186 children and 10 men.

Most shelter seekers were women, with one in ten being pregnant at the time of arrival. More than one-third were married to their abuser, more than one-third had sought earlier assistance from the shelter and one-quarter had sought assistance from another shelter in the previous 12 months. In addition, 4.7 percent were minors seeking shelter independently.

Of the shelters whose directors participated in the survey, all provided basic services in crisis management, legal advocacy, support groups, and community education and awareness. Most of the shelters also offered medical advocacy, individual counseling, and other services.

Directors indicated that many shelter seekers remain in fear of their husbands or partners and future abuse. They also live in fear that their children could be taken away from them.

Others don’t have transportation, child care, or money to be able to leave. Still others face citizenship issues or language barriers and cannot speak English or fear deportation, according to the directors.

Source: Sam Houston State University

 

Obesity, Mood Disorders Increase Cardiac Risk During Pregnancy

Tue, 05/26/2015 - 7:00am

A new study suggests the presence of anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder can double the risk of heart disease during pregnancy. Obesity itself, also increased the risk by 1.7-fold.

Dr. David P. Kao, assistant professor at the University of Colorado in Denver, led the study of nearly 7.5 million women. Kao presented his results at the annual meeting of the European Society of Cardiology (ESC).

The condition, peripartum cardiomyopathy (PPCM), develops during childbirth. Experts believe women with common pregnancy-related symptoms such as shortness of breath and leg swelling plus the five PPCM risk factors could benefit from screening.

“PPCM is a type of heart failure where the heart becomes enlarged and weakened. It is a dilated cardiomyopathy that arises within one month prior to or five months following childbirth,” says Dr. Kao.

Kao says that up to 70 percent of women recover fully with normal or near-normal heart function but as many as 10-15 percent have persistent heart failure, sometimes requiring left ventricular assist device or heart transplantation. Moreover, PPCM at the time of giving birth is associated with a four to five times higher rate of stillbirth.

Kao previously published a study in four million delivering mothers which identified age 30 years or older, African ancestry, hypertension, anemia, substance abuse, asthma, autoimmune disease, multiple gestations (e.g. twins), and preeclampsia/eclampsia as risk factors for PPCM at the time of delivery.

The current study included an additional 3.5 million women with the aim of validating the risk factors and detecting others.

According to Kao, the need to identify individuals at higher risk may allow better monitoring during pregnancy.

“If there were signs that the mother’s heart was weakening, we could potentially initiate treatment with beta blockers and ACE inhibitors sooner to slow or prevent the development of PPCM, which would likely result in better outcomes.”

The study used patient records from all hospitals in California, New Jersey, Vermont, and Colorado for years varying from 2007-2013. The researchers identified nearly 3.5 million delivering mothers of whom 486 had PPCM at the time of childbirth.

They also included the four million delivering mothers (535 with PPCM) from the previous study for a total of 7.5 million women.

The researchers discovered for the first time that obesity and mood disorders (anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder) were strongly associated with PPCM during childbirth.

Most of the risk factors identified in the previous study were once against significantly associated with PPCM. Obesity was associated with a 1.7-fold elevated risk of PPCM while mood disorders nearly doubled the risk even when controlled for the previously identified risk factors.

“Obesity is a well known risk factor for heart failure including dilated cardiomyopathy via altered cardiac response to stress, abnormal thickening of the heart wall, abnormal use of energy by the heart, and several other factors.

“It is possible that the combination of obesity and pregnancy may put excessive stress on a heart that is less able to respond to stress and recovery from injury,” says Kao.

Moreover, mood disorders, particularly depression, are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Although there are several speculated mechanisms such as excess stress hormones (cortisol) or catecholamines (e.g. adrenaline), these have not been proven. Mood disorders may also be linked with behaviour changes in diet, sleep, activity, and prenatal care which could influence cardiac health, he explains.

Dr Kao continued, “Identifying high risk patients might provide an opportunity for earlier screening and potential treatment to slow progression and increase likelihood of recovery.

“For example, patients with relatively common pregnancy-related symptoms such as shortness of breath or leg swelling who also have five PPCM risk factors such as obesity, depression, age over 30, African ancestry and hypertension could be screened.”

He concluded, “We do not know if PPCM can be prevented, and scientists around the world are investigating therapies. Because almost all potential treatments may have some risk to the unborn child, treatment must only be initiated with convincing evidence of benefit to the mother and child. Therefore, our focus is on identifying very high risk populations to follow carefully with more dedicated testing.”

Source: European Society of Cardiology

Subconscious Therapy Can Improve Pain Tolerance

Tue, 05/26/2015 - 6:15am

A new Swedish study finds people can be conditioned to associate images with pain responses and improve their tolerance to pain, even when they are not consciously aware of the images.

Previous studies have shown that a person’s pain experience can be increased or decreased by associating a specific cue, such as an image, with high or low intensity pain.

However, until now it has been unclear if it is necessary to be consciously aware of the cue in order to learn the association.

In a new study, published in the journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), Dr. Karin Jensen and colleagues tested whether unconscious learning affected pain responses. The researchers used subliminal images to train participants to associate a certain image with high pain and another image with low pain.

The study involved 49 participants in all, randomly assigned into four experimental groups that would elucidate the impact of different levels of conscious awareness during the experiment. All participants were generally healthy, with no chronic illnesses or psychiatric diagnoses.

None of the participants reported receiving any medication apart from hormonal contraceptives.

In the experiment, images of different faces were presented on a computer screen. To some of the participants the images were shown so quickly that they could not be consciously recognized.

For each image exposure, participants were subjected to pain stimulation and asked to rate the pain according to a specific scale. As each image was repeatedly associated with either high or low pain, it turned into a high pain cue or a low pain cue that would affect the participants’ expectations.

The results suggest that pain cues could be learned without conscious awareness, as participants reported increased pain when shown the high pain image and reduced pain when shown the low pain image during identical levels of pain stimulation, regardless of whether or not the images were shown subliminally.

“These results demonstrate that pain responses can be shaped by learning that takes place outside conscious awareness, suggesting that unconscious learning may have an extensive effect on higher cognitive processes in general,” Jensen said.

Source: Karolinska Institutet/EurekAlert!

When Depressed, It’s Sometimes Hard to Hear Emotion

Tue, 05/26/2015 - 5:30am

Background noise can interfere with understanding what someone is saying, and new research suggests that depressed people find it harder to hear any kind of emotional speech in such situations — not just negatively tinged speech.

“A lot of research has suggested that these people with elevated depression symptoms have a bias towards negative perception of information in this kind of environment,” said researcher Zilong Xie, a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin.

Investigators explain that when a listener has difficulty understanding someone else’s speech, the source of disruption can be placed into one of two categories: energetic masking or informational masking.

In energetic masking, sounds from peripheral sources such as construction sites or passing airplanes interfere with speech perception. In informational masking, the interference comes from linguistic and cognitive sources, such as the background din of human conversation.

Interestingly, informational masking tends to place greater stress on executive function than does energetic masking. This means a cocktail party, or a lecture hall, can become a potentially detaching experience.

The science of psychoacoustics identifies five basic types of emotional speech: angry, fearful, happy, sad, and neutral.

“A lot of studies published in JASA [The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America] only look at neutral speech, speech without emotive content,” Xie said.

“If we want to fully understand what’s going on with speech perception, particularly in a multi-tonal condition, which very often happens in our daily lives, we need to look at those kinds of emotional speech.”

From previous studies, Xie and his colleagues predicted that the bias of people with elevated signs of depression towards remembering sad information might lead them to more easily detect negative information in these environments.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers recruited students with either low or elevated symptoms of depression to gauge their speech perception in the presence of either energetic masking or informational masking.

In the study, the researchers tested the volunteers’ ability to perceive speech in various conditions by having them listen to a recording of a target sentence featuring one of the five types of emotional speech mixed with noise.

The students then typed out the target sentence, which was later compared with the actual sentences, to determine how accurately they heard it. The test was performed fifty times with each volunteer, covering ten unique sentences of each emotional type.

“We found that people with elevated depression symptoms are generally poorer at hearing all types of emotional speech relative to people with low depression symptoms,” Xie said.

Researchers were surprised that the more depressed subjects did not better understand negative sentences conveyed in information masking environments than those without those symptoms. They performed poorly, regardless of the emotional content of the sentences.

However, both groups performed comparably when the sentences were read to them in energetic masking conditions.

Xie and his colleagues presented their findings at the 169th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America (ASA).

Source: Acoustical Society of America/EurekAlert!

Some Facebook Statuses Reveal Low Self-Esteem, Narcissism

Mon, 05/25/2015 - 5:30am

Facebook users who post frequent status updates about their romantic partner are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem, while those who boast about diets, exercise, and accomplishments are more likely narcissists, according to a new study by psychologists at Brunel University.

For the study, Facebook users completed a survey that was designed to examine the personality traits and motives that influence the topics they choose to write about in their status updates — a topic that few previous studies have explored.

“It might come as little surprise that Facebook status updates reflect people’s personality traits. However, it is important to understand why people write about certain topics on Facebook because their updates may be differentially rewarded with ‘likes’ and comments,” said psychology lecturer Dr. Tara Marshall from Brunel University London.

“People who receive more likes and comments tend to experience the benefits of social inclusion, whereas those who receive none feel ostracized.”

“Although our results suggest that narcissists’ bragging pays off because they receive more likes and comments to their status updates, it could be that their Facebook friends politely offer support while secretly disliking such egotistical displays. Greater awareness of how one’s status updates might be perceived by friends could help people to avoid topics that annoy more than they entertain.”

The data was collected from 555 Facebook users who completed online surveys designed to measure the ‘Big Five’ personality traits — extroversion, neuroticism, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness — as well as self-esteem and narcissism.

The researchers discovered the following facts:

  • Participants with low self-esteem more frequently posted status updates about their current romantic partner;
  • Those who scored high in narcissism more frequently updated about their achievements, which was motivated by their need for attention and validation from the Facebook community. These statuses also received a greater number of ‘likes’ and comments, indicating that narcissists’ bragging may be reinforced by the attention they crave;
  • Narcissists also wrote more status updates about their diet and exercise routine, suggesting that Facebook is used as a platform to broadcast the effort they put into their physical appearance;
  • The trait of conscientiousness was associated with posting more status updates about one’s children.

The research team said future studies should look at the responses to particular status update topics, the likeability of the people who update about them, and whether certain topics prompt others to unfriend the posters.

Source: Brunel University

 

Obese Teens’ Brains Unusually Susceptible to Food Commercials

Sun, 05/24/2015 - 8:45am

New research finds that television food commercials disproportionately stimulate the brains of overweight teenagers, including the regions that control pleasure, taste, and the mouth.

The findings from the Dartmouth College study suggest the commercials mentally simulate unhealthy eating habits. This could make it difficult for the teens to lose weight later in life, say researchers.

Researchers add that dieting efforts should not only target the initial desire to eat tempting food, but subsequent thinking about actually tasting and eating it.

For the study, which was published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine brain responses to two dozen fast food commercials and non-food commercials in overweight and healthy-weight adolescents between the ages of 12 and 16.

The commercials were embedded within a popular television show, “The Big Bang Theory,” so the teens were unaware of the study’s purpose, the researchers noted.

The results show that in all the adolescents, the brain regions involved in attention and focus — occipital lobe, precuneus, superior temporal gyri, and right insula — and in processing rewards — nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal cortex — were more strongly active while viewing food commercials than non-food commercials.

Also, teens with higher body fat showed greater reward-related activity than healthy weight teens in the orbitofrontal cortex and in regions associated with taste perception, according to the study’s findings.

The most surprising finding was that the food commercials also activated the overweight adolescents’ brain region that controls their mouths, the researchers said. This region is part of the larger sensory system important for observational learning, the scientists noted.

“This finding suggests the intriguing possibility that overweight adolescents mentally simulate eating while watching food commercials,” said lead author Kristina Rapuano, a graduate student in Dartmouth’s Brain Imaging Lab.

“These brain responses may demonstrate one factor whereby unhealthy eating behaviors become reinforced and turned into habits that potentially hamper a person’s ability lose weight later in life.”

Although previous studies have shown heightened brain reward responses to viewing appetizing food, the Dartmouth study is one of the first to extend this relationship to real world food cues — for example, TV commercials for McDonald’s and Burger King — that adolescents encounter regularly, the researchers said.

The brain’s reward circuitry involves the release of dopamine and other neurotransmitter chemicals that give pleasure and may lead to addictive behavior, they add.

Children and adolescents see an average of 13 food commercials each day, so it isn’t surprising they show a strong reward response to food commercials, the researchers said.

But the new findings that these heightened reward responses are coupled with bodily movements that indicate simulated eating offer a clue into a potential mechanism on how unhealthy eating habits are developed, they noted.

“Unhealthy eating is thought to involve both an initial desire to eat a tempting food, such as a piece of cake, and a motor plan to enact the behavior, or eating it,” Rapuano said.

“Diet intervention strategies largely focus on minimizing or inhibiting the desire to eat the tempting food, with the logic being that if one does not desire, then one won’t enact.

“Our findings suggest a second point of intervention may be the somatomotor simulation of eating behavior that follows from the desire to eat. Interventions that target this system, either to minimize the simulation of unhealthy eating or to promote the simulation of healthy eating, may ultimately prove to be more useful than trying to suppress the desire to eat.”

Source: Dartmouth College

Photo Credit: Kristina Rapuano

Smoking, Drug Abuse, Mental Illness Linked to Frequent ER Visits

Sun, 05/24/2015 - 8:00am

Smokers, substance abusers, and patients with mental illness are three times more likely to become “frequent emergency room users,” meaning they visit the ER three or more times a year, according to a new study published in the journal Nursing Research.

Furthermore, within the general population, all medical services have seen a large increase in visits; this includes the ER as well as regular doctor visits.

The main focus of the study was to determine whether patients are replacing visits to their primary care physicians with trips to hospital ERs. They found that Americans with chronic diseases use both services equally and that, overall, medical care visits have increased dramatically in recent years.

“There are a few super-users who have been in the ER 40 or 50 times, but when we step back and look at the whole population, we see a different pattern,” said study leader Jessica Castner, Ph.D., R.N., a University at Buffalo emergency room utilization researcher and assistant professor in the University of Buffalo School of Nursing.

“People aren’t replacing their doctor; they are sicker, have more chronic diseases and are using everything more.”

Emergency department use could increase as more people receive health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act, placing a financial strain on health insurers, patients, and the overall health care system, says Castner.

For the study, researchers looked at 2009 data from the Department of Health of 56,000 people between the ages of 18-64 who used Medicaid to cover their medical expenses. Patients were divided into four categories: healthy; at risk for chronic disease; diagnosed with chronic disease; and diagnosed with a system failure, such as kidney or heart failure.

According to the findings, patients with chronic diseases weren’t the only high volume users of the ER; similar to smoking’s effect, substance abuse and psychiatric illnesses tripled a patient’s likelihood of becoming a “frequent ER user,” visiting the ER three or more times a year.

Future research will reanalyze emergency department use with focuses on specific chronic conditions.

Castner received a 2015 Junior Doctoral Award in Health Systems and Informatics Research from the Midwest Nursing Research Society last month for her research.

The study is published in the journal Nursing Research, a publication of the Eastern Nursing Research Society.

Source: University at Buffalo

 

Living Inauthentically Makes Us Feel Morally Tainted

Sun, 05/24/2015 - 7:15am

A new study suggest that the human drive for authenticity — being true to ourselves and living in accordance with our values — is so fundamental that we feel immoral or impure when we hide our true colors.

This sense of impurity then leads us to engage in cleansing or charitable behaviors as a way of clearing our conscience, according to researchers.

“Our work shows that feeling inauthentic is not a fleeting or cursory phenomenon, it cuts to the very essence of what it means to be a moral person,” said psychological scientist Maryam Kouchaki, Ph.D., of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Kouchaki and colleagues, Drs. Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School and Adam Galinsky of Columbia Business School, speculated that inauthenticity may have similar psychological consequences as immoral behaviors such as lying or cheating.

For example, when we fake excitement about something we don’t want to do or try to fit in with a crowd that doesn’t share our values, we are lying about our true selves.

That led researchers to hypothesize that inauthenticity should also produce feelings of moral distress and impurity.

And they found that was true in a series of experiments.

Participants who wrote about a time they felt inauthentic in one online experiment reported feeling more out of touch with their true selves and more impure, dirty, or tainted than participants who wrote about a time when they felt authentic.

They also reported lower moral self-regard, rating themselves as less generous and cooperative, for example, than the authentic participants, the researchers reported.

To ease our conscience, we may be tempted to wash these feelings of moral impurity away.

The researchers found that participants who wrote about inauthenticity were more likely to fill in missing letters to spell out cleansing-related words — for example, completing w _ _ h as “wash” instead of “wish” —  than those who wrote about authenticity.

The inauthentic participants also reported a greater desire to use cleansing-related products and engage in cleansing behaviors than the authentic participants, according to the study’s findings.

The study also found that performing good deeds may be another cleansing strategy.

The researchers found that participants who were prompted to think about a time when they felt inauthentic were more likely to help the experimenter with an extra 15-minute survey than those who either thought about a time when they failed a test or what they had done the previous day.

Researchers hypothesized that the participants’ helping behavior seemed to be driven by their feelings of impurity.

In a bit of a twist, the researchers discovered that inauthentic participants showed less charitable behavior when they had the opportunity to test a hand sanitizer for a supposedly unrelated study. These results suggest that using the hand sanitizer successfully mitigated the feelings of impurity, reducing the drive to compensate through charitable deeds.

While the psychological consequences of inauthenticity are likely to emerge in various social situations, they may be especially relevant to people who find themselves constantly “performing” in the workplace, according to the researchers.

“In order to be responsive to various demands from customers, co-workers, and upper management, individuals may find themselves behaving in ways that are not consistent with their ‘true self.’ In the service industry, for example, service employees are asked to follow precise scripts and use recommended expressions regardless of their true cognitions and feelings,” Kouchaki noted.

The study was published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Emoticons Personalize Customer Service

Sun, 05/24/2015 - 6:30am

Customer service agents who use emoticons in their online responses to customers were given higher scores and considered more personal than those who did not, according to a new Pennsylvania State study in which participants rated different types of customer service.

While emoticons may seem too casual or silly to be used in formal communications, the findings show that they can, in fact, play an important role in professional and business communications, say the researchers. Representatives who used emoticons were even seen as more personal than those who displayed a profile picture along with their responses.

“The emoticon is even more powerful than the picture, though classic research would say that the richer the modality — for instance, pictures and videos — the higher the social presence,” said S. Shyam Sundar, Distinguished Professor of Communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory, who worked with Eun Kyung Park, a researcher at Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea.

“But the fact that the emoticon came within the message and that this person is conveying some type of emotion to customers makes customers feel like the agent has an emotional presence.”

Customers prefer customer service agents who can demonstrate their empathy over agents who do not, said Park.

“Emoticons can be effective vehicles for expression of empathy in customer relations, especially in the mobile ecommerce context,” Park said.

Also, agents who responded more quickly to customers during the chat were rated more positively than those who did not. This quick, back-and-forth type of conversation, makes customers feel more like they are taking part in a real conversation.

“When people are instant messaging, for example, and the messages are flying back and forth, so that one person sends a message and the other person immediately responds, it feels like they are in the same place,” said Sundar. “That can create the feeling of social presence.”

Responsiveness is especially important when businesses deal with customer complaints, noted Park.

“Feelings of co-presence, constructed by the agent’s promptness, might lead customers to be loyal to the company by creating a favorable service experience,” Park added.

The two tactics that improved customer ratings — emoticons and responsiveness — took different routes to achieve those results, said Sundar. The emoticons made customers feel emotionally connected to the agent, but the quick conversations gave customers a feeling of being together in a physical sense.

“To have a meaningful conversation we often need to be in the same place at the same time, however, in a mediated environment, when you’re distant and not in the same place as the person you are communicating with, it’s hard to create that feeling of togetherness,” said Sundar.

“What this shows is that if a conversation can’t happen in the same place, at least it can happen at the same time, which leads to positive evaluations.”

Because online messaging and texting are relatively inexpensive, businesses are promoting these technologies as ways to process customer queries and complaints.

“Face-to-face communication would be ideal. Unfortunately that isn’t feasible for most companies,” said Sundar. “But perhaps there are creative ways that these companies can offer some benefits of face-to-face conversations in an online environment, such as by using emoticons and instant messaging.”

The findings are published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

Source: Penn State

 

Parents’ Work Experiences Affect Children’s Sleep Health

Sat, 05/23/2015 - 8:45am

A new study reveals how parents’ experiences at work can have a strong effect on their children’s lives.

For example, in a new workplace intervention designed to reduce employees’ work-family conflict and increase schedule flexibility, children of the employees experienced improved quality of sleep, even one year later.

The intervention, called Support-Transform-Achieve-Results (STAR), involved:

  • training supervisors to be more supportive of their employees’ personal and family lives;
  • changing the structure of work so that employees have more control over their work time, and;
  • changing the culture in the workplace so that colleagues are more supportive of each other’s efforts to integrate their work and personal lives.

“These findings show the powerful effect that parents’ workplace experiences can have on their children,” said Dr. Susan McHale, distinguished professor of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University.

“The STAR intervention focused solely on workplace experiences, not on parenting practices. We can speculate that the STAR intervention helped parents to be more physically and emotionally available when their children needed them to be.”

The researchers have conducted several tests on the effects of the intervention. In a previous study, for example, they showed that the STAR program resulted in employed parents spending more time with their children without reducing their work time.

In this study, the findings revealed that children whose parents participated in the STAR intervention showed an improved quality of sleep one year later compared to the children of employees who had been assigned to a control group.

The children in the study were ages nine through 17, which is a crucial age group for developing healthy sleep habits, as kids become more independent and more involved with friends, school, and social activities, McHale said.

For the study, the researchers measured sleep patterns by interviewing employees’ children on the phone every evening for eight consecutive days both before and after the STAR intervention.

Each night they asked the children about their sleep patterns on the previous night, including what time they went to bed, what time they woke up that morning, how well they slept, and how hard it was to fall asleep.

An important part of this method was collecting the data on consecutive nights. “Precision of reports is enhanced by getting the data on a daily basis,” McHale said.

The study is part of the Work, Family and Health Network’s evaluation of the effects of the STAR intervention.

The researchers published their findings in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Source: Penn State

 

Many Younger Chronic Gamblers Also Depressed

Sat, 05/23/2015 - 8:00am

If a young man is a chronic gambler, the odds are extremely high that he also suffers from depression, according to a new study.

For the study, lead researcher Frédéric Dussault, Ph.D., of the University of Quebec at Montreal in Canada used data from an ongoing long-term study that began in 1984. That study followed a group of 1,162 kindergarten boys from economically disadvantaged areas in Montreal.

Over the years, information was collected about the socio-family setting the boys grew up in, how impulsive they were, and the quality of their relationships with their parents and friends.

The current study includes data from 888 participants who were asked at the ages of 17, 23, and 28 years old about possible gambling or depression problems.

Only three percent experienced increasing chronic gambling problems between the ages of 17 and 28 years old, according to the study’s findings. This corresponds with the prevalence rate of problem gambling among adults of between one percent and three percent, the researcher confirms.

However, the study did find that 73 percent of the young men with significant gambling issues also suffer from depressive problems.

These problems develop hand-in-hand, becoming even more severe over time, the researchers noted.

The study also found that very impulsive boys are more likely to become increasingly depressed and have gambling problems.

The problematic gambling behavior did not necessarily decline by the time the young men turned 28 years old. According to Dussault, this may be because gambling is legal once individuals reach adulthood.

Also, the influence of the wrong kind of friends who entice others to commit offenses often diminish as young people grow older, he added.

“Gambling problems may be more a personal problem similar to an addiction — once acquired, they are difficult to get rid of,” Dussault said.

He suggests that gambling problems be treated alongwith depression.

He also noted that while a strong parent-child relationship could counter the emergence of depressive symptoms, it will not necessarily do so for gambling tendencies. That’s why he believes early prevention programs should target specific risk factors, such as being very impulsive or making the wrong friends.

The study was published in Springer’s Journal of Gambling Studies.

Source: Springer

Mood Instability Occurs in Wide Range of Mental Disorders

Sat, 05/23/2015 - 7:15am

A study shows that mood instability occurs in a wide range of mental disorders, not just depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorder.

Researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London also found that mood instability was associated with poorer clinical outcomes.

Taken together, the study’s findings suggest that clinicians should screen for mood instability across all common mental health disorders, according to the researchers.

The study, which used an automated information extraction method to acquire data on mood instability from electronic health records, included almost 28,000 adults who presented to the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust (SLaM) between April 2006 and March 2013 with a psychotic, affective or personality disorder.

The presence of mood instability within one month of presentation was identified using natural language processing (NLP), the researchers noted.

Mood instability was documented in 12 percent of the people presenting to mental health care services, the study found.

It was most frequently documented in people with bipolar disorder (23 percent), but was also common in people with personality disorders (18 percent) and schizophrenia (16 percent).

Mood instability was also associated with a greater number of days spent in the hospital, a higher frequency of hospitalization, greater likelihood of compulsory admission, and an increased likelihood of being prescribed antipsychotics or mood stabilizers.

“Mood instability can affect people with a wide range of mental disorders but the symptoms are not always recognized,” said Dr. Rashmi Patel, from the Department of Psychosis Studies at the IoPPN.

“We have developed an innovative text mining tool to identify the presence of mood instability in almost 28,000 people receiving mental health care in South London.

“We found that mood instability affects people with a wide range of common mental health disorders and is associated with worse clinical outcomes. Our findings highlight the importance of screening for mood instability and the need to develop better strategies to treat these symptoms.”

The study was published in BMJ Open.

Source: King’s College London

Anticipating Temptation May Reduce Its Power

Sat, 05/23/2015 - 6:30am

In a new study, participants who anticipated a temptation to act unethically were less likely to give in to that temptation, compared to those who did not have the opportunity to think ahead.

The findings, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, may offer some insights into why some people succumb to ethical temptations rather than resist them.

“People often think that bad people do bad things and good people do good things, and that unethical behavior just comes down to character,” said lead research author Oliver Sheldon, Ph.D.

“But most people behave dishonestly sometimes, and frequently, this may have more to do with the situation and how people view their own unethical behavior than character, per se.”

In a series of experiments, participants who were prepared for a future temptation were less likely to give in, compared to those who did not prepare. These participants also were less likely to support unethical behavior that offered short-term satisfaction, such as stealing office supplies or illegally downloading copyrighted material.

“Self-control, or a lack thereof, may be one factor which explains why good people occasionally do bad things,” said Sheldon, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Rutgers University.

In one experiment, 196 business-school students were divided into pairs: one person was the “buyer” and the other was a “seller” of historic homes. Before the negotiation exercise, half of the group discussed ethical temptations; they wrote about a time in their lives when bending the rules was useful, at least in the short term, while the control group wrote about a time when having a back-up plan helped.

The sellers were told that the property should only be sold to a buyer who would preserve the historic homes and not destroy them for a new development. However, the buyers were told that their client planned to demolish the homes and build a high-rise hotel, but they were ordered to conceal that information from the seller.

The findings showed that more than two-thirds of the buyers (67 percent) in the control group lied about the hotel plans so they could close the deal, compared to less than half (45 percent) of the buyers who had been reminded about temptation in the writing exercise.

Anticipating temptation may only help, however, if people think the unethical act has the potential to harm their self-image, integrity, or reputation.

In a second experiment with 75 college students, participants were instructed to flip a coin that was labeled “SHORT” or “LONG” several times to determine whether they had to proofread short or long passages of text for spelling and grammatical errors.

The participants were split into two groups who completed the same writing exercise as the first experiment (recalling unethical behavior or a back-up plan).

Additionally, half of the participants were told that a person’s values, life goals, and personality are stable, while the other group was told that those traits can change dramatically even within a few months’ time. This information was intended to affect whether participants would view their behavior in task as consistent or not with who they would be in the future.

Participants who were encouraged to anticipate temptation and were told their behavior was consistent with their future self, were honest: They reported short coin flips that didn’t differ from chance.

On the other hand, those not encouraged to anticipate temptation and/or who believed that their behavior was inconsistent with their future self, were more likely to lie about the number of short coin flips so they would have less work to do.

If a person wants to avoid unethical behavior, it may be helpful to anticipate potential temptations and consider how acting upon these temptations fits with long-term goals or beliefs about one’s morality.

“You may not be concerned about getting caught or about your reputation if people found out, but you might be concerned about your own ethical self-image,” Sheldon said.

“Keeping such considerations in mind as one enters into potentially tempting situations can help people resist the temptation to behave unethically.”

Source: Society for Personality and Social Psychology

 

In Preschoolers, Generosity Linked to Empathy

Fri, 05/22/2015 - 7:45am

Whether or not a three year-old will share with others strongly hinges on how well that child can predict and understand another’s sadness when left out, according to researchers at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich.

In a new study, researchers asked preschool children of different ages to imagine how they feel, or another child would feel, depending on whether someone shares with them or not. 

They found that understanding what it feels like to be left out when everyone else has received his or her share differs from one child to the next and has a strong impact on their willingness to share with others.

In fact, understanding and wishing to avoid the disappointment caused to another child by being left out was a stronger incentive for generosity than the idea of making the recipient happy.

“The children who had a greater awareness of how badly one feels when others fail to share with one were more generous in a subsequent resource allocation task,” said researchers Markus Paulus (Professor of Developmental Psychology and the Psychology of Learning in Early Childhood) and Professor Chris Moore of Dalhousie University (Halifax, Nova Scotia).

The study involved 82 children between the ages of three and six years, who were divided into three groups. The children in the first group were individually asked to think about how they feel when another person shares things with them or not, and to rate their emotions using a set of pictures showing a range of sad-to-happy facial expressions.

The second group was asked to imagine what another child might feel in the same situation. The children were then given colored stickers to share with each other and with another child (represented only as a picture).

The responses of the first two groups were then compared to those of a control group, consisting of children who had been asked simply to infer another’s child’s state of knowledge in a situation without an emphasis on emotions.

“A heightened awareness of the emotional consequences of being shared with, or not, has an influence on one’s own generosity,” says Paulus.

“The children who had been encouraged to think about the emotions associated with being left empty-handed when some resource has been allocated to others proved to be more generous than those in the control group.”

Furthermore, anticipating — and wishing to avoid — the disappointment caused to another child by being left out was a stronger incentive to generosity than the idea of making the recipient happy.

“One possible explanation for this is what is called ‘negativity bias’, which implies that our behavior is more strongly influenced by the desire to avoid negative emotions than by a wish to provoke positive ones,” Paulus adds.

The findings showed that three-year-olds are very capable of anticipating what another person might feel if ignored in a round of sharing. The degree to which this capacity was present varied between individuals in all age groups tested.

In the first two or three years of life, learning is very strongly influenced by emotions. Earlier research has found that children whose parents talk to them about feelings are better able to anticipate another child’s emotional state, says Paulus.

Paulus’ latest work shows how one can foster children’s readiness to share with others: “It helps if one makes clear to them what someone else feels when left out.”

The findings are published in the online edition of the journal Social Development.

Source: LMU

 

People with Similar Views Mirror Each Other’s Speech Patterns

Fri, 05/22/2015 - 7:00am

People who hold similar beliefs tend to more closely mirror, or align with, each other’s speech patterns, according to a new study at the University of Rochester. In addition, people who are better at compromising align even more closely.

The researchers designed an experiment in which participants were asked to listen to ideologically charged messages with a set sentence structure. After listening to the diatribes they were told to describe some illustrations showing characters performing simple actions, such as a waitress giving a banana to a monk.

Most participants subconsciously mimicked the sentence structure presented in the listening phase of the experiment. But, how closely the participants aligned with the speaker varied based on how much they agreed with the speaker’s views (as assessed in a post-experimental interview). Those who shared views with the speaker aligned their speech patterns more closely to the speaker’s.

“Few people are aware that they alter their word pronunciation, speech rate, and even the structure of their sentences during conversation,” explained Florian Jaeger, associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester and coauthor of the study recently published in the journal Language Variation and Change.

“What we have found is that the degree to which speakers align is socially mediated.”

For example, during the experiment, participants heard phrases such as “Congress is giving too much money to welfare moochers.” Others heard the same ideologically-loaded idea, but  expressed in a different sentence structure: “Congress is giving welfare moochers too much money.” (Notice the order of the phrases “too much money” — which refers to the thing being given — and “welfare moochers” — the recipient.)

Those who heard the first version, “Congress is giving too much money to welfare moochers” (the recipient is mentioned after the thing being given), for example, were more likely to describe a picture as “The waitress is giving a banana to the monk” rather than “The waitress is giving the monk a banana” when they agreed with the speaker’s views.

Furthermore, participants who described themselves as compromising in conflict situations, showed even more linguistic alignment with the speaker.

On the other hand, when listeners disagreed with the opinion expressed by the speaker, they aligned less or not at all.

“Our social judgments about others and our general attitude toward conflict are affecting even the most automatic and subconscious aspects of how we express ourselves with language,” said lead-author Kodi Weatherholtz, a post-doctoral researcher in Jaeger’s lab.

“One reason people tend to align certain speech patterns is because it facilitates communication,” Jaeger said. When we align how we talk, then sounds, words, and sentence structures become more predictable, making it easier to understand each other.

Similarity is a powerful social force, Jaeger explained. In short, we tend to like people who share certain characteristics with us. Therefore, speaking in a way that is more or less similar to others can be a subtle means of influencing liking, trust, and other interpersonal emotions.

Source: University of Rochester