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Psychology, psychiatry and mental health news and research findings, every weekday.
Updated: 2 hours 53 min ago

Chronic GI Conditions Up Risk of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

9 hours 53 min ago

Canadian researchers have discovered that generalized anxiety disorder is much more common among individuals with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Specifically, people who have conditions such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, have twice the odds of having a generalized anxiety disorder at some point in their lives when compared to peers without IBD.

Researchers believe the findings unmistakably characterize the relationship between physical and mental health.

“Patients with IBD face substantial chronic physical problems associated with the disease,” said lead-author Professor Esme Fuller-Thomson, from the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work.

“The additional burden of anxiety disorders makes life much more challenging so this ‘double jeopardy’ must be addressed.

Investigators reported that female IBD sufferers were particularly vulnerable to anxiety disorders. Women with IBD had four times the odds of anxiety when compared to men with IBD, said Fuller-Thomson.

Researchers analyzed data drawn from a representative sample of more than 22,000 Canadians from the 2012 Canadian Community Health Study: Mental Health.

A total of 269 respondents reported that they had been diagnosed by a health professional with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.

“The study draws attention to the need for routine screening and targeted interventions for anxiety disorders,” said co-author and adjunct lecturer Joanne Sulman.

“Particularly among the most vulnerable patients with IBD: women, individuals who are in chronic pain, and those with a history of childhood sexual abuse.”

Co-author and former graduate student, Rusan Lateef, noted two other factors that were associated with anxiety disorders among those with IBD.

“Of particular interest was the six-fold odds of anxiety disorders we found among those with IBD who had a history of childhood sexual abuse. Not surprisingly, we also found that those who reported moderate or severe chronic pain had twice the odds of anxiety disorders in comparison to those with only mild or no chronic pain.”

Patrick McGowan, an assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Toronto Scarborough, says one of the reasons this study is so significant is because it underlines the important link between physical and mental health.

“We sometimes think of the two as if they are entirely separate entities but the reality is they are intimately linked,” said McGowan. “Both involve genuine physical changes in the body and affect each other.” McGowan was not directly involved with the study.

McGowan notes that although the study was not designed to determine the biological mechanisms of anxiety disorders or inflammatory bowel diseases, adverse life experiences and chronic anxiety can hijack the stress response system, potentially affecting a whole host of bodily processes, including chronic inflammation.

“This study asks about the association between these processes, so we don’t know cause-and-effect, but treatment options are likely to expand if the options are broader than physical or mental health alone.”

The study appears online in the journal Inflammatory Bowel Diseases.

Source: University of Toronto/EurekAlert
 
Man with inflammatory bowel disease photo by shutterstock.

Computer Training Program Relieves PTSD Symptoms in Vets

10 hours 38 min ago

In our 21st century environment, approximately 10-15 percent of combat veterans struggle with invisible wounds related to post-traumatic stress.

For these veterans debilitating symptoms such as insomnia, flashbacks, depression, anxiety, guilt, and tension are often a part of everyday life.

While there is no cure-all for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), cognitive behavioral therapy — which actively reprocesses traumatic events to reduce symptoms — has seen some success.

Now, a new study from researchers at Tel Aviv University, Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, and the National Institute of Mental Health suggests an entirely new approach to treating PTSD.

This research incorporates a cutting-edge computer program that is capable of alleviating PTSD symptoms by reducing fluctuations in attention toward and away from perceived threats.

Dr. Yair Bar Haim, head of Tel Aviv University’s School of Psychological Sciences and director of Tel Aviv University’s Laboratory for Research on Anxiety and Trauma, Dr. Daniel Pine of the NIMH Emotion and Development Branch, and Dr. Amy Badura-Black of the Department of Psychology at Creighton University, led the research. Their findings appear in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

“This approach is entirely different from existing treatments,” said Dr. Bar Haim. “Our approach is bottom-up. Our targets are basic, attention-level cognitive processes. We try to normalize and regulate this behavioral system by providing very simple computer tasks, retraining the neural network to better balance threat vigilance and avoidance.

“Our results were promising,” Dr. Bar Haim reported. “The program produced a significant reduction in severe PTSD symptoms, with a similar success rate as cognitive behavioral therapy.”

According to Dr. Bar Haim, humans have a “threat monitoring system” which fluctuates all the time, generating responses to potential threats in the environment and nullifying reactions to non-threatening stimuli.

In the computer training program, two stimuli (threatening or neutral) appear on the screen, followed by a target (an arrow) pointing left or right. The researchers hope to retrain the participant’s neural network to regain the balance between threat avoidance and threat vigilance. The treatment entailed four to eight sessions of computerized training, each of which lasted 10-15 minutes.

“In PTSD, the system is in disarray, with high fluctuations — between vigilance to threats on one hand and threat avoidance on the other,” said Dr. Bar Haim.

“Our promising new treatment for PTSD targets a neurocognitive mechanism to mediate that system, and change attention patterns that go in disarray. If you can influence this pattern, maybe you can affect other symptoms of PTSD.”

The training implicitly teaches participants that threatening stimuli are irrelevant to performing a specific task, requiring them to attend equally to threatening and neutral stimuli. The study determined that the training program reduced symptoms by reducing this variability in attention.

For the purpose of the study, teams of researchers from TAU and Creighton University conducted parallel trials testing the program on US and Israeli combat veterans — the results in both groups were the same.

“Our cost-effective treatment could even one day be available over the Internet,” said Dr. Bar Haim.

“You would need a psychologist to diagnose you and monitor your treatment, but the therapy itself could be administered over the Internet or through short visits to the clinic.”

Source: American Friends of Tel Aviv University

 
Military veteran photo by shutterstock.

Older Adults Take Mental Health Meds at Twice the Rate of Younger People

11 hours 23 min ago

Older adults are given drug prescriptions for mental health issues at twice the rate of younger adults, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Yet this group is significantly less likely to receive mental health care from a psychiatrist.

This raises the question of whether primary care doctors may need more support to care for older people with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. The researchers are also concerned about whether older adults could be at greater risk for bad drug combinations and negative side effects.

“We need to pay special attention to polypharmacy, or multiple drugs taken at once, when prescribing psychotropic drugs in this population, because so many older adults are already on multiple medications,” says Maust, an assistant professor in the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry.

The study, conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Michigan Medical School and VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, is the first to compare overall outpatient mental health treatment in adults over age 65 with that of patients between ages of 18 and 64.

The concern of previous decades — that the nation’s seniors weren’t receiving attention for mental health problems — may now need to shift, says Donovan Maust, M.D., M.S., the geriatric psychiatrist who led the analysis.

“Our findings suggest that psychotropic medication use is widespread among older adults in outpatient care, at a far higher rate than among younger patients,” he says.

“In many cases, especially for milder depression and anxiety, the safer treatment for older adults who are already taking multiple medications for other conditions might be more therapy-oriented, but very few older adults receive this sort of care.”

Medication use is particularly concerning for seniors, because the risk/benefit balance can shift as they become more likely to experience side effects or other adverse events.

For example, anti-anxiety benzodiazepine drugs such as Valium, Xanax, Klonopin, and Ativan (and their generic counterparts) may be relatively safe for younger adults, but carry a higher risk of car accidents, falls, fractures, and a decline of thinking ability or memory for seniors.

Antidepressants can interact with blood thinners and painkillers and can raise blood pressure, all of which are more likely to be problems for older adults, who are generally on more medications than their younger counterparts.

The researchers looked at more than 100,000 outpatient doctor visits between 2007 and 2010 collected by the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey.

They observed four types of visits: ones where patients received a mental health diagnosis; saw a psychiatrist; received psychotherapy; and/or received a prescription or renewal of a psychotropic medication (including antidepressants, anxiety-calming drugs called anxiolytics, mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, or stimulant drugs).

Visits related to antidepressant and anti-anxiety drug use among older adults occurred at nearly double the rates of such visits by younger adults. In contrast, older adults see psychiatrists at about half the rate of younger adults.

“While it’s still true that we have patients who are not getting treated for mental health concerns, these data suggest that we also need to be mindful of the possibility of overtreatment, especially given the changing balance of risk and benefit as patients age,” says Maust.

“Collaborative care efforts in primary care that seek to create structure and support for these patients, along with appropriate reimbursement for this type of service, could be key.”

Source: University of Michigan Health System
 
Older woman looking at her medication information with concern photo by shutterstock.

Words of Praise Provide Special Benefit to ADHD Kids

12 hours 8 min ago

Interesting new research finds that positive reinforcement is especially beneficial for children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Although it was known that praise improves the performance of children with ADHD on certain cognitive tasks, experts were unsure if the results were due to enhanced motivation or because ADHD kids had greater room for improvement.

University of Buffalo (UB) researchers discovered a little recognition for a job well done means a lot to children with ADHD, more so than it would for typically developing kids.

And the reason behind the improvement appears to be related to motivational factors, rather than innate intellect.

“Our results suggest that the motivation piece is critical,” says Whitney Fosco, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology in the UB College of Arts and Sciences.

“Kids with ADHD showed more improvement because they are more motivated by the opportunity to gain rewards, not because they simply did worse from the beginning.”

The findings come out of a novel study published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Functions that collectively examined two leading theories on ADHD, combining what previous work had mostly looked at separately.

One of those theories suggests that lower-than-average cognitive abilities contribute to symptoms associated with ADHD, such as inattentiveness. The other theory favors motivation over ability, focusing on whether kids with ADHD have an increased sensitivity to reward.

“When asking whether the performance difference we see is the result of ability or motivation, this research has more of an answer than any study that comes before it,” says UB psychologist Larry Hawk, the paper’s principle investigator.

The results of the research conducted by Hawk, Fosco, UB graduate student Michelle Bubnik and Keri Rosch of the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, have clinical parallels as well.

Behavioral therapy, which uses positive consequences to increase the likelihood of achieving certain behaviors, is among the leading psychosocial interventions for children with an ADHD diagnosis.

The authors point out that the benefits of reward are not specific to children with ADHD.

“The major difference is that typically developing kids usually perform well even when simply asked to do their best,” says Fosco. “But kids with ADHD typically need an external or an additional reinforcement to perform their best.”

It’s a tricky area of research area, according to Hawk, since some of the subjects are being tested on tasks on which they have a demonstrated history of poor performance.

There is also a degree of variability between the two groups.

The authors say that having a diagnosis of ADHD doesn’t necessarily mean that a child will perform poorly on any given task, and neither does the absence of a diagnosis mean that the child will perform well on any given task.

“You can’t say kids with ADHD respond more to reinforcement because they were doing poorly to begin with,” says Hawk.

“We showed that was not true. It was greater motivation to obtain external rewards that drove the effects we observed.”

Source: University of Buffalo
 
Young student needing help with motivation photo by shutterstock.

Personality Influences Financial Savings

12 hours 54 min ago

A new study suggests extroverted populations should be vigilant toward managing their bank accounts because extroverts tend to have lower savings rates.

Jacob Hirsh, a University of Toronto management professor, says the research topic stemmed from his interest in how personality affects decision-making. In the study, Hirsh shifted his focus from studying individuals to looking at personality effects across entire populations.

“Many of the choices that people make are influenced by their personality characteristics,” Hirsh said. “I started to think about how that affect might play out across larger groups.”

In his previous work, Hirsh has shown that more extroverted individuals tend to choose smaller but immediate rewards instead of larger but delayed ones.

“Extroverts are far more sensitive to rewards, which makes it harder for them to overcome their desire for immediate gratification,” said Hirsh. “When making financial decisions, this can contribute to impulsive spending, higher credit card debts, and reduced savings.”

Therefore, if personality traits are related to individual saving behavior, what would happen when entire populations differ in their personality characteristics? As found in a paper that appears in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, Hirsh examined this question using three different data sets.

In the first study, Hirsh found a correlation between United States extroversion levels and changes in the personal savings rate over time. During the same period that U.S. savings rates underwent a sharp decline, there was a corresponding increase in U.S. extroversion levels.

In a second study, Hirsh found that U.S. states with higher average extroversion levels tended to allocate more of their income toward immediate consumption, rather than setting money aside for saving.

A final study examined how the average extroversion levels of different countries were related to gross national savings as a percentage of GDP (gross domestic product).

“Across all three different analyses, the same pattern emerged,” Hirsh said.

“The more extroverted the population, the lower the savings rates tended to be, even when controlling for population differences in age, life expectancy, and wealth.”

Although the pattern was consistent across studies, Hirsh cautions that correlation does not guarantee causation.

“We can’t be certain about the direction of causality here,” he said, “but to the extent that aggregate savings reflect individual choices, there is reason to think that personality traits can indeed have a causal influence.”

Experts believe this knowledge is profound as personality psychology can contribute to an understanding of financial decision-making and economic behavior.

“We know that personality traits have a powerful influence on an individual’s life outcomes,” said Hirsh.

“We are only beginning to understand the broader social and economic consequences of these personality differences.”

Source: University of Toronto
 
Woman excited about shopping at the mall photo by shutterstock.

Teens with Insomnia at Greater Risk for Self-Harm

Thu, 07/30/2015 - 8:30am

A new study has found that teens who suffer from sleep difficulties, such as insomnia and short sleep duration, are significantly more likely to engage in self-harm compared to teens with healthy sleep patterns.

The findings suggest that sleep interventions be included in treatments for teens with self-harming behaviors.

“Both health care professionals and other people should be aware of the fact that good sleep routines can prevent both stress and negative emotions. Sleep regulation is one of the factors one should consider to use in preventing and treating self-harm among young people,” said lead researcher and psychology specialist Mari Hysing, Ph.D., from Uni Research in Bergen, Norway.

The researchers conducted a large population-based study using data from the youth@hordaland survey. The data included self-reports from 10,220 teenagers who were 16-19 years of age in Western Norway. They answered questions on mental health and completed a comprehensive assessment of sleep and self-harm.

A total of 702 (7.2 percent) teen respondents met the criteria for self-harm, and more than half (55 percent) of those reported harming themselves on two or more occasions.

The risk of self-harming was four times higher among the 16-19 years old adolescents who fulfilled the diagnostic criteria for insomnia. The researchers also found that self-harming was more common in girls than boys, and that cutting was the most prevalent type of self-harm behavior, Hysing said.

Several types of sleeping problems were found to be linked consistently to self-harming behavior.

“Insomnia, short sleep duration, long sleep onset latency, wake after sleep onset as well as large differences between weekdays versus weekends, yielded higher odds of self-harm consistent with a dose-response relationship,” said the researchers.

Teens who had engaged in self-harm behaviors also showed higher levels of depression, perfectionism, and symptoms of ADHD. The researchers add that depressive symptoms accounted for some, but not all, of the connection to self-harming.

However, having symptoms of ADHD remained significant even in the fully adjusted analyses, the researchers emphasize.

To help prevent teens from engaging in self-harming behaviors, the researchers suggest interventions that incorporate healthy sleeping habits as a part of the treatment.

The research findings are published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Source: Uni Research

 
Teenager with insomnia photo by shutterstock.

Prosocial Skills at 5 Can Predict Adult Success

Thu, 07/30/2015 - 7:45am

New research suggests the prosocial aptitude of five year-olds is a significant predictor of their future education, employment, and criminal activity, among other outcomes.

The study included 20 years of input collected by surveys administered to kindergarten teachers on their students’ social competence.

Once the kindergartners reached their 20s, researchers followed up to see how the students were faring socially and occupationally.

Students demonstrating better prosocial behavior were more likely to have graduated college, to be gainfully employed, and to not have been arrested than students with lesser prosocial skills.

“This research by itself doesn’t prove that higher social competence can lead to better outcomes later on,” said Damon Jones, Ph.D., a senior research associate at Pennsylvania State University. “But when combined with other research, it is clear that helping children develop these skills increases their chances of success in school, work and life.”

Jones and colleagues analyzed data collected from more than 700 students who were participating in the Fast Track Project, a study conducted by four universities: Pennsylvania State, Duke University, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Washington.

The Fast Track Project is a prevention program for children at high risk for long-term behavioral problems. The individuals studied for this research were part of the control group and did not receive any preventive services. Overall, the sample was representative of children living in lower socio-economic status neighborhoods.

Kindergarten teachers rated students on eight items using a five-point scale assessing how each child interacted socially with other children. Items included statements such as “is helpful to others,” “shares materials,” and “resolves peer problems on own.”

The researchers compared the teachers’ assessments to the students’ outcomes in five areas during late adolescence through age 25 — including education and employment, public assistance, criminal activity, substance abuse, and mental health. Jones and colleagues report their results online and in a future issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

Social competency, even at such a young age, appears to play a significant role in future success.

Specifically, the researchers found that a higher rating for social competency as a kindergartner was significantly associated with all five of the outcome domains studied. For every one-point increase in a student’s social competency score, he or she was twice as likely to graduate from college and 46 percent more likely to have a full-time job by the age of 25.

For every one-point decrease in the child’s score, he or she had a 67 percent higher chance of having been arrested and an 82 percent higher chance of being in or on a waiting list for public housing at age 25. The study controlled for the effects of poverty, race, having teenage parents, family stress, and neighborhood crime, and for the children’s aggression and reading levels in kindergarten.

Nevertheless, all is not lost for children who do not possess strong prosocial skills at a young age.

“The good news is that social and emotional skills can improve, and this shows that we can inexpensively and efficiently measure these competencies at an early age,” said Jones. Evidence from numerous intervention studies indicate that social and emotional learning skills can be improved throughout childhood and adolescence.

Jones and colleagues plan to continue this work in order to further understand how social competency can predict future life outcomes, and further understand intermediary developmental processes whereby early social-emotional skills influence long-term adult outcomes.

Source: Pennsylvania State

 
Kindergarten children playing doctor photo by shutterstock.

Cardiovascular Risk Factors Tied to Alzheimer’s

Thu, 07/30/2015 - 7:00am

New research suggests that some cardiovascular risk factors are associated with smaller regional brain volumes that may be early indicators of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Investigators discovered the specific risk factors linked to Alzheimer’s and dementia include alcohol consumption, smoking, obesity, and diabetes.

“We already know that vascular risk factors damage the brain and can result in cognitive impairment,” said Kevin S. King, M.D., assistant professor of radiology at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

“But our findings give us a more concrete idea about the relationship between specific vascular risk factors and brain health.”

The new findings suggest alcohol consumption and diabetes are associated with a decrease in total brain volume while smoking and obesity were linked to a reduction in size, or volume of a particular area of the brain.

Study results are published online in the journal Radiology.

Prior studies have linked cardiovascular risk factors and cognitive decline, but the new study focused on specific risk factors and examined three main brain regions, including the hippocampus, precuneus, and posterior cingulate cortex.

Because of each region’s connection to memory retrieval, gray matter volume loss in these areas may be a predictor of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

In the new study, King and colleagues analyzed results from 1,629 individuals in the Dallas Heart Study (DHS) and divided the participants into two age groups. There were 805 participants under age 50, and 824 age 50 and older.

The researchers evaluated the participants’ data from the initial baseline visit, which included laboratory and clinical analysis, and the follow-up visit seven years later consisting of a brain MRI and cognitive test, measuring mild cognitive impairment and preclinical Alzheimer’s disease.

By comparing the initial visit in which cardiovascular risk factors were identified to the MRI results and cognitive scores, the team was able to distinguish the specific risk factors of alcohol consumption, smoking, diabetes, and obesity and their relationship to smaller volumes in the three targeted regions of the brain. The results confirmed that lower cognitive test scores correlated with lower brain volumes in each area.

The study found that risk factors of alcohol use and diabetes were associated with smaller total brain volume, while smoking and obesity were linked with reduced volumes of the posterior cingulate cortex, the area of the brain connected with memory retrieval as well as emotional and social behavior.

In addition, lower hippocampal mass was linked to both alcohol consumption and smoking whereas alcohol use, obesity, and high fasting blood glucose numbers correlated with reduced precuneus size.

The findings also suggest that in patients age 50 and older, diminished hippocampal and precuneus volumes may be early risk indicators for cognitive decline, while smaller posterior cingulate volumes are better predictors in patients under age 50.

King believes that additional studies can provide the ability to better identify the impact of specific cardiovascular risk factors on the brain and improve patient understanding of brain diseases.

“We currently do not have effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, so the focus is on prevention,” he said.

“In the future, we may be able to provide patients with useful and actionable information about the impact different risk factors may be having on their brain health during routine clinical imaging. And since no special imaging equipment is needed, there is a great potential to provide this service at many centers across the country.”

Source: Radiological Society of North America/EurekAlert

 
Connection of the heart and brain photo by shutterstock.

Autism Costs May Reach $1 Trillion By 2025

Thu, 07/30/2015 - 6:15am

A new projection by health economists predicts the total costs of caring for all people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the U.S. for the current calendar year will approach $500 billion.

Furthermore, the costs may escalate to $1 trillion by 2025 if effective interventions and preventive treatments for the condition are not identified and widely available.

University of California, Davis heath economists say ASD-related medical, nonmedical and productivity losses are $268 billion for 2015 and $461 billion for 2025. The researchers noted that these estimates are conservative and, if ASD prevalence continues to increase as it has in recent years, the costs could reach $1 trillion by 2025.

Experts believe these staggering health costs and projections show the need for aggressive governmental research and public involvement.

The study is published online in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

“The current costs of ASD are more than double the combined costs of stroke and hypertension and on a par with the costs of diabetes,” said study senior author Paul Leigh, Ph.D.

“There should be at least as much public, research, and government attention to finding the causes and best treatments for ASD as there is for these other major diseases.”

Leigh hopes his findings inspire policy changes that emphasize early intervention to reduce ASD symptoms, along with employment, and other programs that support the independence of adults with the disorder.

“This approach would ultimately save money that otherwise would be spent on expensive custodial care,” Leigh said.

Leigh worked with co-author Juan Du, Ph.D., who received her doctoral degree at University of California, Davis, to determine the per-person and then total costs of ASD using data on medical services, residential care, special education, in-home care, transportation, employment support, and lost productivity.

Their information came from a variety of sources, including research literature, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The evaluations included cost ranges that accounted for age, because services for people with ASD change throughout their lifespans, and the presence or lack of intellectual disability (formerly called “mental retardation”), which affects the intensity of services, along with varied estimates of population changes and ASD prevalence.

The team found that the comprehensive costs of ASD will range from $162 to $367 billion for 2015 (with the researchers’ best estimate of $268 billion) and from $276 to $1 trillion (with the researchers’ best estimate of $461 billion) for 2025.

The 2015 figures are on a par with recent cost estimates for diabetes and exceed the combined costs of stroke and hypertension. If the prevalence of ASD continues to grow as it has in recent years, the costs likely will far exceed those of diabetes by 2025.

To reduce these multi-billion dollar totals, Leigh and Du recommend a research investment in ASD equal to that for diabetes, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health at more than five times the level of research on ASD.

“The staggering costs identified in this study should serve as a call to action,” said Leonard Abbeduto, Ph.D., director of the University of California, Davis MIND Institute, an internationally recognized autism treatment, and research center.

“We need more funding for research to understand the causes of, and develop treatments for, ASD,” Abbeduto added.

“We also need to ensure that all children have access to intensive early intervention; that school-based interventions to support academics, as well as social and language skills, are adequately funded; and that supports are put in place to ensure better post-secondary and vocational options for adults. Investing in these areas, I believe, will actually reduce the costs to society.”

Source: University of California, Davis/EurekAlert
 
Rising healthcare costs photo by shutterstock.

Mixed Evidence on Benefit of Deep Brain Stimulation for Depression

Thu, 07/30/2015 - 5:30am

Those suffering from depression do not always respond to medication and/or psychotherapy. Recently, deep brain stimulation (DBS) has become an intervention option for cases of treatment-resistant depression.

New research suggests, however, that current techniques used for DBS may be no more effective than a placebo.

Depression can have a terrible personal and societal cost. The illness can devastate lives, careers, and families. Some severely ill patients may be unable to attend to even the basic elements of self-care, while others attempt or complete suicide.

Because of the clinical urgency, deep brain stimulation (DBS) treatments for depression have been developed over the past 15 years. These treatments require surgery to make a small hole in the skull through which an electrode is passed into a specific brain region.

Once positioned, a standard electrical stimulation procedure is initiated, which is modeled after highly effective DBS treatments that are used for Parkinson’s disease, essential tremor, and other neurologic conditions.

DBS does not damage healthy brain tissue. It works by using electrical pulses to “block” neural signals from the targeted brain area that is the known or suspected source of the symptoms.

A large number of relatively small studies have supported the effectiveness of various forms of DBS for both depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

In the current issue of the journal Biological Psychiatry, Dr. Darin Dougherty and his colleagues report the results of the first large-scale, randomized, sham-controlled trial of deep brain stimulation treatment for treatment-resistant symptoms of depression.

Thirty patients received active DBS or sham placebo stimulation for 16 weeks, targeted at the ventral capsule and ventral striatum, brain regions implicated in reward and motivation. A two-year open-label continuation phase followed.

This study, conducted at five medical centers across the U.S., found that DBS failed to reduce depression symptoms better than sham stimulation.

“While initial open-label trials of DBS at the ventral capsule/ventral striatum target were promising, the results of this first controlled trial were negative,” said Dougherty, director of neurotherapeutics at Massachusetts General Hospital and associate professor at Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Thomas Schlaepfer, an expert on DBS treatment unaffiliated with this study, from Johns Hopkins University and University Hospital Bonn in Germany, wrote a companion piece to this article and commented, “On first sight, this might be seen as a crisis for the whole field of neurostimulation therapies for depression… [but we] believe that these are examples of failed studies and not failed treatments.”

“This study raises serious questions about the advisability of continuing to stimulate these reward regions in the manner employed in this study,” said Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry.

“It is critical to understand that this study is not a universal indictment of DBS as a strategy for depression. It may turn out that stimulating other brain regions or stimulating these regions in different ways could provide important benefit.”

“Given the degree of response that we have seen in some of the most treatment refractory patients, we agree with Dr. Schlaepfer and Dr. Krystal. Alternative study designs will have to be considered as we conduct future clinical trials in this critical area,” Dougherty said.

Source: Elsevier/EurekAlert
 
Brain surgery photo by shutterstock.

How Cocaine Can Prime the Brain for Relapse

Wed, 07/29/2015 - 9:15am

Recent findings on the effects of cocaine on the brain show that the drug causes major changes that influence the risk of relapse under stress.

A new molecular mechanism in the reward center of the brain has been discovered by Dr. Peter McCormick and colleagues at the University of East Anglia, U.K. This influences how recovering cocaine addicts might relapse after stressful events and also points to a potential basis for treatment to protect against relapses.

“Relapse among cocaine addicts is a major problem. We wanted to find out what causes it,” said McCormick.

They focused on the interaction between two neuropeptides, corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) and orexin-A in the ventral tegmental area of the brain.

These are messenger molecules that carry information between neurons, in the part of the brain that controls reward, motivation, and drug addiction. Tests were carried out on the effects of cocaine on rat brain cells (in vitro) and on live rats.

“We had speculated that there might be a direct communication between neuroreceptors controlling stress and reward,” McCormick said. “When we tested this, we found this to indeed be the case. Our research showed that the release of neuropeptides influences activity in this part of the brain and that profound changes occur at the neuroreceptor level due to exposure to cocaine.”

In The Journal of Neuroscience, the team reported that they found evidence for “pharmacologically significant interactions between CRF and orexin-A.” Cocaine binds to these neuroreceptors and “promotes long-term disruption” through which the drug “sensitizes cells to the excitatory effects of both CRF and orexin-A, thus providing a mechanism by which stress induces cocaine-seeking.

“We showed that cocaine disrupts the interaction between receptors and these changes could increase the risk of relapse under stressful conditions,” McCormick added. 

“Importantly, we identify a potential mechanism for protection against such relapse. By restoring the broken interaction, we may be able to minimize stress-driven relapse in addicts. This research lays the groundwork for the development of such approaches.

“Although our study is in rodents, the same receptors have been shown to impact human stress and drug addiction. Cocaine has a relatively unique effect on the brain. However, the reward center is crucial for addictive behaviors.

“Studies on post-traumatic stress disorder have shown traumatic events can have profound influences on receptors in this region of the brain, perhaps rendering soldiers more prone to addiction. Although speculative, it would not surprise me to see similar results in other situations, whether drug- or stress-related.”

Commenting on the study, journal editor Teresa Esch, Ph.D, of Harvard Medical School,  writes that the neuropeptide orexin “is best known for its roles in arousal and feeding.”

Orexin neurons are activated by hunger and by the presence of food or food-related stimuli, she said. In addition, “cues associated with other rewards, including addictive drugs, also activate orexin neurons, leading animals to seek these rewards.”

Orexin also plays a role in stress-induced reward-seeking, Esch said. One set of neurons where this occurs is dopaminergic neurons in the ventral tegmental area. These neurons express the CRF receptor. CRF does not normally trigger dopamine release, but it can do so after exposure to cocaine.

These results suggest that exposure to cocaine disrupts the regulation of reward-seeking, Esch writes. “This may explain stress-induced relapse in former cocaine users.”

Further research should investigate which signal-triggering molecules in the brain contribute to stress-induced pursuit of rewards such as cocaine, she concludes.

A team of experts led by John R. Mantsch, Ph.D, of Marquette University has also examined this issue. In the Journal of Neuroscience, they state, “Cocaine addiction is associated with a persistent susceptibility to drug relapse that emerges in an intake-dependent manner with repeated use.”

Understanding the neurobiological mechanisms that underlie relapse in cocaine addicts “is critical to the development of effective treatment,” they believe.

Much evidence suggests that stress contributes to relapse, they report. For example, stress promotes craving in abstinent cocaine addicts, and triggers relapse in experiments on rodents. In their tests on rodents, they show that repeated cocaine use alters the way stress affects brain neurons, and that this is intake-dependent, i.e., linked to the amount of prior use of the drug.

As with the McCormick study, this work showed that risk of relapse is determined in the ventral tegmental area, and linked to heightened CRF responsiveness in this area. But “the precise mechanism of CRF regulation of dopaminergic cells in the ventral tegmental area is unclear,” they write.

Nevertheless, it appears that repeated cocaine exposure raises CRF responsiveness, and lowers any inhibitory effects, “likely resulting in a net shift toward greater CRF regulation of dopaminergic cells.”

“The ability of stressful life events to precipitate drug use through actions involving CRF may be a consequence of excessive cocaine use,” they write. “Identification of the precise mechanisms through which CRF activation produces cocaine-seeking should provide important insights,” they conclude.

References

McCormick, P. et al. Orexin-CRF Receptor Heteromers in the Ventral Tegmental Area as Targets for Cocaine. The Journal of Neuroscience, 29 April 2015, 35(17), 6639-53. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4364-14.2015

Esch, T. This Week in the Journal: Orexin and CRF Receptors Form Heteromers. The Journal of Neuroscience, 29 April 2015, 35(17).

Blacktop, J. M. et al. Augmented Cocaine Seeking in Response to Stress or CRF Delivered into the Ventral Tegmental Area Following Long-Access Self-Administration Is Mediated by CRF Receptor Type 1 But Not CRF Receptor Type 2. The Journal of Neuroscience, 3 August 2011, Vol. 31, pp. 11396-403. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1393-11.2011
 

Abstract of brain photo by shutterstock.

Kids Prove Flexible Social Learners

Wed, 07/29/2015 - 8:30am

A new study finds that children are amazingly flexible in deciding whether to copy the behavior of others, or to go beyond the behavior of others.

Psychologists say this ability shows that children are precocious social learners.

“There’s nothing children are more interested in than other people,” said University of Texas at Austin psychologist Dr. Cristine Legare. “Acquiring the skills and practices of their social groups is the fundamental task of childhood.”

Experts explain that in order to function within their social groups, children have to learn both technical skills with instrumental goals and social conventions with goals based on social conformity.

As an example, technical skills with instrumental goals are learning tasks such as using a fork and knife to cut food. Social conventions are actions based upon socially accepted behaviors such as shaking hands, kissing, and bowing, as a form of greeting.

The new research demonstrates that children are sensitive to the distinction between instrumental and conventional goals and flexibly adapt their behavior accordingly.

“The more carefully you imitate a social convention, the better, more reliable group member you are. Tasks with instrumental goals allow for more innovation,” Legare said. “Young children adjust how carefully they imitate and when they innovate, depending on the perceived goal of the behavior or reason for action.”

Legare and her colleagues examined imitative and innovative behavior in children between the ages of four and six after watching one of two videos that illustrated conventional and instrumental uses of various geometric objects and a box.

Both videos showed an experimenter performing a pattern of arbitrary but intentional tasks with the objects. In the conventional video, the start- and end-state of the objects was identical. But in the instrumental video, the experimenter used the final object in the pattern to open the box and place the object inside. After the video, children were given the same group of objects.

The children imitated the conventional behavior with higher fidelity. Those who observed an instrumental behavior engaged in more innovative behavior.

In a second study, children were also more accurate in detecting variation in conventional than instrumental behavior, suggesting that conventional behavior is driven by expectations for social conformity.

“We are socially oriented in ways that other species are not, and we are very well equipped to acquire and adapt to the culture and skills of previous generations,” Legare said.

“The core insight here is that children adapt their imitative and innovative behavior to different goals, even at very young ages, demonstrating that humans as a species are flexible, social learners,” Legare said.

“Our research demonstrates that the early-developing distinction between instrumental and conventional behavior is fundamental to cultural learning in our species.”

Source: University of Texas, Austin/EurekAlert
 

Children playing photo by shutterstock.

Insulin Resistance Linked to Memory Decline

Wed, 07/29/2015 - 7:45am

A new study adds to the growing evidence that insulin resistance, a common occurrence among people who are obese, pre-diabetic, or have type II diabetes, may lead to memory loss and even Alzheimer’s disease.

Iowa State University researchers believe the word should go out that obesity not only increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and some cancers, but also influences memory loss.

The study appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association Neurology.

Researchers found a strong association between insulin resistance and memory function decline, increasing the risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Auriel Willette, Ph.D., a research scientist in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Iowa State, said insulin resistance is common in people who are obese, pre-diabetic or have type II diabetes.

Researchers examined brain scans in 150 late middle-aged adults, who were at risk for Alzheimer’s disease, but showed no sign of memory loss.

The scans detected if people with higher levels of insulin resistance used less blood sugar in areas of the brain most susceptible to Alzheimer’s. When that happens, the brain has less energy to relay information and function, Willette said.

“If you don’t have as much fuel, you’re not going to be as adept at remembering something or doing something,” he said.

“This is important with Alzheimer’s disease, because over the course of the disease there is a progressive decrease in the amount of blood sugar used in certain brain regions. Those regions end up using less and less.”

Willette’s work focused on an area of the brain — the medial temporal lobe and specifically the hippocampus — that is critical for learning new things and sending information to long-term memory. This region is also one of the areas of the brain that first show massive atrophy or shrinkage due to Alzheimer’s disease, Willette said.

Researchers say that this is the first study to look at insulin resistance in late middle-aged people (average age was 60), identify a pattern of decreased blood sugar use related to Alzheimer’s, and link that to memory decline.

Participants were recruited through the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention study, an ongoing study that examines genetic, biological and lifestyle factors that contribute to dementia.

Experts explain that the link between insulin resistance and Alzheimer’s disease is important for prevention, but the risk is much more immediate. Problems regulating blood sugar may impact cognitive function at any age.

Testing for insulin resistance in obese patients and taking corrective action, through improved nutrition and moderate exercise, is a crucial first step, said Willette.

“We are terrible at adjusting our behavior based on what might happen in the future.”

“That’s why people need to know that insulin resistance or related problems with metabolism can have an effect in the here and now on how they think, and it’s important to treat.

“For Alzheimer’s, it’s not just people with type II diabetes. Even people with mild or moderate insulin resistance who don’t have type II diabetes might have an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease because they’re showing many of the same sorts of brain and memory relationships.”

Understanding the progression of cognitive decline will take additional research. Willette says following those who are at risk through the different stages of dementia and Alzheimer’s will offer insight as to what happens as their cognitive function declines.

Source: Iowa State University

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Genetics Impacts the Effects of Practice

Wed, 07/29/2015 - 7:00am

Apparently there is more to becoming an accomplished musician than lots of practice, according to a new study.

The music-training research by scientists at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, the Neuro, and colleagues in Germany, allowed investigators to determine which parts of the brain are activated through training or practice.

The investigation allowed researchers to distinguish the parts of the brain that account for individual talent from the brain regions that are activated through training.

For the study, investigators performed brain imaging evaluations of 15 young adults with little or no musical background who were scanned before and after they underwent six weeks of musical training. Participants were required to learn simple piano pieces.

Brain activity in certain areas changed after learning, indicating the effect of training. But the activity in a different set of brain structures, measured before the training session had started, predicted which test subjects would learn quickly or slowly.

“Predisposition plays an important role for auditory-motor learning that can be clearly distinguished from training-induced plasticity,” said Dr. Robert Zatorre, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Neuro, and lead author of the study in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

“Our findings pertain to the debate about the relative influence of ‘nature or nurture,’ but also have potential practical relevance for medicine and education.”

Researchers say that future cognitive neuroscience studies will explore the extent to which individual differences in predisposition are a result of brain plasticity due to previous experiences and to people’s genetics.

The findings suggest that custom-made interventions could be created for students and for neurological patients based on their predisposition and needs.

Source: McGill University/EurekAlert

 
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Delirium Strongly Linked to Inflammation

Wed, 07/29/2015 - 6:15am

Inflammation appears to play a prominent role in the onset of delirium in older patients, according to a new study at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC). The findings may help clinicians identify patients at greatest risk of developing delirium and aid in the treatment of the condition, which occurs in up to 64 percent of hospitalized seniors.

Anything that causes tissue injury, including infection or illness as well as surgery, can activate various immune cells and cause inflammation.

“Delirium may be an inflammatory response gone awry,” said co-senior author Edward Marcantonio, M.D., Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School (HMS).

“Delirium is the most common complication among hospitalized elders. Once widely assumed to be a short-term, transient condition, there is now evidence that delirium and its effects can last long after patients have left the hospital,” he says.

In fact, older patients who develop delirium have a two to three times greater risk of developing dementia.

The researchers found that older patients with delirium had significantly higher levels of the inflammatory marker interleukin-6 (IL-6) two days after surgery. They also found elevated levels of interleukin 2 (IL-2).

“With strong evidence for the involvement of IL-6 and evidence for the involvement of IL-2 in patients with delirium, it appears that inflammation is indeed a basic mechanism underlying this condition,” said Marcantonio, also the Director of the Aging Research Program in the Division of General Medicine and Primary Care at BIDMC.

For the study, BIDMC researchers and co-lead authors Sarinnapha M. Vasunilashorn, Ph.D., and Long Ngo, Ph.D., examined data from a patient cohort called SAGES (Successful Aging after Elective Surgery Study). Sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, the researchers have been following 566 noncardiac surgical patients over the age of 70 for the past five years with the goal of finding new approaches to prevent delirium and its long-term consequences in older adults.

“In examining SAGES patients who had undergone major elective surgery, we compared patients who developed delirium with those who did not,” explained Vasunilashorn, a postdoctoral fellow in the Division of General Medicine and Primary Care at BIDMC and HMS.

Surgery types included orthopedic, vascular, and gastrointestinal procedures.

“The results showed that levels of IL-6 were significantly elevated in the delirium patients two days after surgery,” said Vasunilashorn. “The magnitude of difference in levels of IL-6 between delirious and non-delirious patients was about 10 times the upper limit for normal levels in older adults.”

Delirious patients also had higher levels of IL-2 compared to non-delirious patients. The role of IL-2 in delirium is a new finding, said Vasunilashorn, and it is particularly interesting since it has been linked to blood-brain barrier dysfunction in animal studies.

The study findings may lead to new preventative measures and treatments for delirium.

“We want our patients to get better, not worse, after a hospitalization. Understanding the role that inflammation plays in the onset of delirium can help us identify patients who may be at highest risk of developing this condition, and take steps to reduce their risk,” said Marcantonio.

The study is published in The Journals of Gerontology, Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences.

Source: Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

 

 
Inflammation of the body photo by shutterstock.

Is Unethical Behavior Influenced by Hormones?

Wed, 07/29/2015 - 5:30am

New research suggests hormones play a two-part role in encouraging and reinforcing cheating and other unethical behavior.

Cheating is costly to business concerns and academic institutions costing more than $3.7 trillion annually. Fraud harms individuals and constituents by often instigating a downward cascade of actions.

In the study, researchers from Harvard University and the University of Texas at Austin attempted to discover if hormones, specifically the reproductive hormone testosterone and the stress hormone cortisol, play a factor in facilitating unethical behavior.

“Although the science of hormones and behavior dates back to the early 19th century, only recently has research revealed just how powerful and pervasive the influence of the endocrine system is on human behavior,” said the corresponding author and University of Texas Austin professor of psychology Dr. Robert Josephs.

Researchers asked 117 participants to complete a math test, grade it themselves and self-report the number of correctly completed problems. The more problems they got correct, the more money they would earn.

From salivary samples collected before and after the test, researchers found that individuals with elevated levels of testosterone and cortisol were more likely to overstate the number of correctly solved problems.

“Elevated testosterone decreases the fear of punishment while increasing sensitivity to reward. Elevated cortisol is linked to an uncomfortable state of chronic stress that can be extremely debilitating,” Josephs said.

“Testosterone furnishes the courage to cheat, and elevated cortisol provides a reason to cheat.”

Additionally, participants who cheated showed lowered levels of cortisol and reported reductions in emotional distress after the test, as if cheating provided some sort of stress relief.

”The stress reduction is accompanied by a powerful stimulation of the reward centers in the brain, so these physiological psychological changes have the unfortunate consequence of reinforcing the unethical behavior,” Josephs said.

Researchers discovered testosterone and cortisol work together. Because neither hormone without the other predicted unethical behavior, lowering levels of either hormone may prevent unethical episodes.

Prior research shows that tasks that reward groups rather than individuals can eliminate the influence of testosterone on performance; and, many stress relieving techniques such as yoga, meditation, and exercise reduce levels of cortisol, Josephs said.

“The take-home message from our studies is that appeals based on ethics and morality — the carrot approach — and those based on threats of punishment — the stick approach — may not be effective in preventing cheating,” Josephs said.

“By understanding the underlying causal mechanism of cheating, we might be able to design interventions that are both novel and effective.”

The study appears in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Source: University of Texas, Austin

 
Choices sign photo by shutterstock.

Genetics May Help Predict If Syndrome Leads to Autism or Psychosis

Tue, 07/28/2015 - 8:30am

Children with DiGeorge syndrome, a disorder characterized by the deletion of several genes on the 22nd chromosome, have a significantly higher risk of developing either psychosis or autism spectrum disorder. But, until now, there has been no way to predict which path a child with DiGeorge might follow.

In a new study, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of Pittsburgh are the first to suggest a potential way to make that determination in patients with DiGeorge syndrome, also known as 22q11.2 deletion syndrome. They report having isolated specific genetic differences between those with autism and those with psychosis.

Between 30 and 40 percent of individuals with DiGeorge syndrome are diagnosed with a disorder on the autism spectrum, and between 25 and 30 percent are diagnosed with a psychotic disorder. A small number are diagnosed with both autism and psychosis.

“Ultimately, this kind of information could be used as a diagnostic tool that could allow pediatricians or other clinicians to determine who will develop which disorder, so that the appropriate intervention can be applied — and applied early enough to have the most impact,” said Dr. Carrie Bearden, the study’s senior author and a professor of psychiatry and psychology at UCLA.

“We know that early intervention is very important for people at risk for autism or psychosis.”

DiGeorge syndrome is the second most common genetic abnormality after Down syndrome, affecting approximately 1 in 2500 children born worldwide. Children with DiGeorge often have elongated faces, almond-shaped eyes and unusual outer ears. They frequently have palate abnormalities, including cleft palate, and they are at elevated risk for cardiovascular defects.

“The hope is that eventually we could identify individuals at risk for either disorder with a blood sample,” said lead author Maria Jalbrzikowski, Ph.D., who was a postdoctoral fellow in Bearden’s lab while they were conducting the study.

For the study, the researchers took blood samples from 46 UCLA patients with the deletion. They also took blood samples from 66 control subjects. They analyzed the samples using a new technique developed by UCLA geneticist Steve Horvath, Ph.D., that allows researchers to look for patterns of genes that are connected to one another.

The analysis determined whether specific gene expression patterns were associated with psychosis or autism.

On average, people with DiGeorge syndrome and psychosis had 237 genes that showed a different pattern from the genes of people with the syndrome but without psychosis. Most of these genes were connected to the regulation of gene expression; that is, the way that genes end up being read as an individual develops.

“Having one chunk of DNA missing appears to cause downstream effects, with other functions becoming disrupted,” said Bearden.

The researchers compared the genes associated with psychosis in the UCLA group of DiGeorge syndrome patients with psychosis to those of a sample of 180 Dutch patients who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia but did not have the syndrome. They found an overlap of seven genes.

“This finding is really important because it provides proof that altered gene expression patterns in those with DiGeorge syndrome and psychosis are shared with people who are diagnosed with schizophrenia but do not have the deletion,” Bearden said. “The same pathways are affected.”

The seven overlapping genes play a role in fetal brain development, suggesting that psychosis may originate during the early stages of brain development, Bearden said.

DiGeorge syndrome patients with autism differed from their counterparts without autism in the expression of 86 genes, which are likely involved in the development of the immune system.

The findings are published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Source: UCLA

 

Biomarkers ID Risk of Postpartum Depression

Tue, 07/28/2015 - 7:45am

Emerging research suggests a method to identify the susceptibility to postpartum depression may be on the horizon.

Postpartum depression is a significant condition that affects nearly 20 percent of new mothers putting their infants at increased risk for poor behavioral, cognitive, and social development.

The newly discovered blood marker is based on the relationship between the hormone oxytocin and emotional regulation.

“Our data need to be replicated, but it is our hope that the oxytocin receptor marker we have identified will be useful to clinicians in identifying women at risk for postpartum depression,” said first author Aleeca Bell, Ph.D., R.N., of the University of Illinois, Chicago.

Oxytocin plays a positive role in healthy birth, maternal bonding, relationships, lower stress levels, as well as mood and emotional regulation. The hormone is also associated with postpartum depression when a mother has lower levels of the hormone.

In the study, a University of Virginia researcher and a team from several institutions in the United States and England hypothesized that the oxytocin receptor may play a role in the development of postpartum depression.

Investigators then identified a relationship between genetic and epigenetic markers that influence the gene responsible for the over- or under-production of oxytocin. This is turn increases or decreases the chance of a woman developing postpartum depression.

The study appears in the journal Frontiers in Genetics.

“We can greatly improve the outcome of this disorder with the identification of markers, biological or otherwise, that can identify women who may be at risk for its development,” said Dr. Jessica Connelly, an assistant professor of psychology at University of Virginia who is the senior author of the study.

“We know that women who have experienced depression before pregnancy are at higher risk of developing depression in the postpartum period. However, women who have never experienced depression also develop postpartum depression. These markers we identified may help to identify them, in advance.”

“The role of the oxytocin system in maternal behavior is well known in rodents. Our work emphasizes its importance in the human maternal condition and places the epigenetic regulation of the oxytocin receptor at the forefront,” said study co-author Dr. C. Sue Carter, director of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University.

Source: University of Virginia/EurekAlert

Mother’s Baby Talk Helps Kids Understand Others’ Thoughts

Tue, 07/28/2015 - 7:00am

New research suggests the specific language used by parents to talk to their babies appears to help the child better understand the thoughts of others when they get older.

Psychologists at the University of York studied the effects of maternal mind-mindedness (the ability to tune in to their young child’s thoughts and feelings) among 40 mothers and their babies when they were 10, 12, 16, and 20 months old.

Researches recorded parental language while a mother and her child played for 10 minutes. The psychologists logged every time the mother made “mind-related comments” — inferences about their child’s thought processes through their behavior (for example, if an infant had difficulty with opening a door on a toy car, they could be labelled as “frustrated”).

Revisiting 15 mother-child pairs when children reached five to six years old, the child’s Theory of Mind (ToM) or socio-cognitive ability was assessed. This was accomplished by use of an innovative technique termed the “strange stories” method.

The strange stories method involves reading a fictional vignette to the child which poses one of 12 social scenarios (contrary emotions, lies, white lies, persuasion, pretend, joke, forget, misunderstanding, double-bluff, figure of speech, appearance versus reality or sarcasm).

From this analysis, the psychologists recorded the level at which the child was able to relate to others and understand another person’s thoughts.

Children were then asked a comprehension question followed by a test to prove whether they have understood the mental manipulation covered in the story.

Results showed a strong, positive correlation between mind-related comments at 10, 12 and 20 months old and a child’s score on the strange stories task.

Therefore, children’s ability to understand the thoughts of other people when they were aged five was related to how mind-minded their mothers were when they were babies.

“These findings show how a mother’s ability to tune-in to her baby’s thoughts and feelings early on helps her child to learn to empathize with the mental lives of other people. This has important consequences for the child’s social development, equipping children to understand what other people might be thinking or feeling,” said the researchers.

Investigators believe the results are significant because they demonstrate the critical role of conversational interaction between mothers and their children in infancy.

Source: University of York

Social Networks and Environment Impact Childhood Obesity

Tue, 07/28/2015 - 6:15am

Researchers are learning that effective strategies to reduce childhood obesity must go beyond strong nutritional policies in schools and a reduction in TV or screen time.

In fact, a new study suggests encouraging more social interaction for children and expanding their number of friendships may in itself, limit screen time.

Researchers from the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston have published eight new articles as part of a special obesity issue of the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.

The issue, titled “The Science of Childhood Obesity: An Individual to Societal Framework,” provides insights into how to solve the child obesity epidemic and close the gap in the current understanding of its causes.

“Ongoing scientific updates of our understanding of the childhood obesity epidemic are important and urgent due to the rapid increase in the prevalence of obesity in both developed and developing countries during the last 30 to 40 years, despite countless initiatives to address childhood obesity,” said Cheryl Perry, Ph.D., regional dean at University of Texas Health School of Public Health, Austin Regional Campus.

Researchers noted approximately 32 percent of children ages six to 19 are overweight or obese in the United States and these rates are even higher in some states.

For instance, watching television has typically been viewed as one of the causes of obesity in children. However, according to University of Texas Health researchers, overweight or obese children may spend more time in front of the television because of social factors and friendship dynamics that lead them to spend less time with friends.

The authors of this paper examined data from the Child Development Supplement to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, which included information about the health, development and time use of 2,908 students ages five to 18. According to the study results, the more time children spent with friends, the more they engaged in physical activity, which in turn lowered rates of obesity.

“Efforts to reduce child obesity could benefit from careful attention to peer and friendship dynamics rather than simply focusing on time spent watching television,” said Elizabeth A. Vandewater, Ph.D., lead author and associate professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences at the School of Public Health.

Another surprising finding is that some school nutrition policies might be counterproductive. In this case although many states across the United States have banned the sale of soda in high schools, some schools have chosen to substitute soda with other sugar-sweetened beverages in vending machines.

In this paper of the special issue, Daniel Taber, Ph.D., and co-authors examined how these policies that regulate the sale of sodas in high schools affect alternate sugary drink consumption, such as tea, coffee, energy, and sports drinks.

The researchers drew their data from the National Youth Physical Activity and Nutrition Study, conducted in 2010 with 10,887 participants. They discovered in schools and states that regulated both vending machines and soda sales, there was no increase in alternate sugary drink consumption. However, consumption of alternate sugary drinks increased when states and schools did not regulated both the sale of soda and the availability of vending machines.

“Banning soda, but allowing sports drinks and coffee drinks in vending machines, just shifts sugary drink consumption from soda to the alternatives,” said Taber, assistant professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences at the School of Public Health.

Research also shows that obesity has immediate consequences for school performance.

Investigators discovered obese children are more likely to have school absences, school problems and lower school engagement than non-overweight children. Investigators believe this study provides evidence that obesity in children is associated with immediate poorer educational outcomes.

Another study confirmed the deleterious effects of the social environment as researchers discovered school poverty rates impact all students’ odds of being obese. Investigators found that students in economically disadvantaged schools were 1.7 to 2.4 times more likely to be obese, regardless of their individual family’s income.

While the external environment can contribute to obesity, researchers discovered the home food environment can actually overcome certain risk factors for child obesity.

In this study, the home food environment, including mealtime structure and availability of healthy or unhealthy foods, was able to account for the differences in children’s’ diet quality across socioeconomic and neighborhood factors. Making healthy foods more available, turning off the television during meals, and restricting unhealthy foods could lead to better diets and lower rates of child obesity among these at-risk populations.

A popular theme in obesity research is the topic of food deserts with investigators calling for use of focus groups to help identify a neighborhood or community needs. Researchers discovered the most important barriers that influence healthy food shopping behaviors are the prices of food, lack of access, and poor quality of the available healthy food.

Investigators found that conducting a needs-assessment in an area with inadequate access to healthy foods allows the community to offer potential solutions and provide direction for future planning. Solutions could include placing new supermarkets in these communities and developing farmers markets and community gardens.

The final article in the special edition calls for correcting discrepancies in self-reported heights and weights across various demographics. In this case researchers examined the differences between the self-reported and actual heights and weights of 24,221 eighth- and 11th-grade students in Texas using the School Physical Activity and Nutrition (SPAN) study data.

Investigators discovered teenage boys tend to overestimate their height and teenage girls tend to underestimate their weight, when they are surveyed. The analyses and correctional equations provided in the article provide child obesity researchers with tools to improve the reliability of self-reported data.

Source: University of Texas Health School of Public Health