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Psychology, psychiatry and mental health news and research findings, every weekday.
Updated: 47 min 11 sec ago

Brain Imaging Shows Overactive Habit System in OCD

59 min 32 sec ago

A new study has found that misfiring of the brain’s habit control system may be behind the compulsions in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

The study, led by Dr. Claire Gillan and Professor Trevor Robbins of the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, is the latest in a series of studies from the Cambridge Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute investigating the possibility that compulsions in OCD are products of an overactive habit system.

This research has shifted opinion away from thinking of OCD as a disorder caused by worrying about obsessions or faulty beliefs, towards viewing it as a condition brought about when the brain’s habit system runs amok, according to the Cambridge researchers.

In a study funded by the Wellcome Trust, the researchers scanned the brains of 37 people with OCD and 33 healthy people while they repetitively performed a simple pedal-pressing behavioral response to avoid a mild electric shock to the wrist.

The researchers found that the patients with OCD were less capable of stopping these pedal-pressing habits. This was linked to excessive brain activity in the caudate nucleus, a region that must fire correctly in order for us to control our habits, the researchers explained.

Basic imaging work has long since established that the caudate is overactive when the symptoms of OCD are provoked in patients, the researchers noted. That the habits the researchers trained in these patients in the laboratory also triggered the caudate to over-fire adds weight to the theory that compulsions in OCD may be caused by the brain’s habit system, they noted.

The researchers added that the findings are not specific to OCD and that, in fact, habits may be behind many aspects of psychiatry.

“It’s not just OCD — there are a range of human behaviors that are now considered examples of compulsivity, including drug and alcohol abuse and binge-eating,” said Gillan, who is now at New York University.

“What all these behaviors have in common is the loss of top-down control, perhaps due to miscommunication between regions that control our habits and those such as the prefrontal cortex that normally help control volitional behavior. As compulsive behaviors become more ingrained over time, our intentions play less and less of a role in what we actually do.”

The researchers said they think this is the work of our habit system.

“While some habits can make our life easier, like automating the act of preparing your morning coffee, others go too far and can take control of our lives in a much more insidious way, shaping our preferences, beliefs and, in the case of OCD, even our fears,” said Robbins.

“Such conditions, where maladaptive, repetitive habits dominate our behavior, are among the most difficult to treat, whether by cognitive behavior therapy or by drugs.”

The study emphasizes the importance of treating OCD early before the dysfunctional behavior becomes entrenched and difficult to treat, added Professor Barbara Sahakian, a co-author of the study.

The study was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Source: University of Cambridge

Abstract of brain photo by shutterstock.

Women Criticized for Weight Tend to Gain More

1 hour 44 min ago

When a woman is criticized by a loved one for her weight, she is likely to gain even more, according to a new study by the University of Waterloo in Canada.

On the other hand, those who feel unconditionally accepted are more likely to maintain or lose weight.

“When we feel bad about our bodies, we often turn to loved ones — families, friends, and romantic partners — for support and advice. How they respond can have a bigger effect than we might think,” said Dr. Christine Logel, who teaches social development studies.

The study focused on university-age women, a demographic often dissatisfied with personal weight. The team of social psychologists asked the women their height and weight, and to describe how they felt about looking at the scale.

About five months later, the women were asked if they had talked to their loved ones about their concerns, and if so, how they had responded. About three months after that, they tracked whether their weight and their concerns about it changed in that time.

“On average, the women in the study were at the high end of Health Canada’s BMI recommendations, so the healthiest thing is for them to maintain the weight they have and not be so hard on themselves,” said Logel.

“But many of the women were still very concerned about how much they weigh, and most talked to their loved ones about it.”

Participants who received few weight acceptance messages from their loved ones gained almost 4.5 pounds on average, whereas women who received comparatively more weight acceptance messages lost a pound.

The findings show that when women who were concerned about their own weight heard that their loved ones accepted them as they are, they felt better about their bodies, and subsequently did not gain weight like the less-encouraged women did.

In fact, feeling better about themselves caused the women to be more active or eat more sensibly. Furthermore, receiving unconditional acceptance may have lowered their stress levels, a known cause of weight gain.

“Lots of research finds that social support improves our health,” said Logel.  “An important part of social support is feeling that our loved ones accept us just the way we are.”

Criticism from loved ones about weight was not helpful for women at all. And it actually led women who were not originally concerned about their weight to gain some more.

“We all know someone who points out our weight gain or offers to help us lose weight. These results suggest that these comments are misguided,” said Logel.

The findings are published in the journal Personal Relationships.

Source: University of Waterloo


Tooth Loss Linked to Decline in Memory & Walking Speed

2 hours 29 min ago

A new study has found that the memory and walking speeds of adults who have lost all of their teeth decline more rapidly than in people who still have some of their own teeth.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, examined 3,166 adults aged 60 or over from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, comparing their performance in tests of memory and walking speed.

The results showed that the people who had lost all of their teeth performed approximately 10 percent worse in both memory and walking speed tests than the people with teeth.

According to researchers at the University College London, the link between total tooth loss and a decline in memory was explained after the study’s results were adjusted for a wide range of factors, including sociodemographic characteristics, existing health problems, physical health, health behaviors, such as smoking and drinking, depression, relevant biomarkers, and socioeconomic status.

The researchers found that, after adjusting for all possible factors, people without teeth still walked slightly slower than those with teeth.

The link was more evident in adults aged 60 to 74 years than in those aged 75 and older, the researchers noted.

“Tooth loss could be used as an early marker of mental and physical decline in older age, particularly among 60 to 74 year olds,” said lead author Dr. Georgios Tsakos.

“We find that common causes of tooth loss and mental and physical decline are often linked to socioeconomic status, highlighting the importance of broader social determinants, such as education and wealth to improve the oral and general health of the poorest members of society.

“Regardless of what is behind the link between tooth loss and decline in function, recognizing excessive tooth loss presents an opportunity for early identification of adults at higher risk of faster mental and physical decline later in their life,” he continued.

“There are many factors likely to influence this decline, such as lifestyle and psychosocial factors, which are amenable to change.”

Source: University College London

Many Have No Clue About Their Math Ability

3 hours 14 min ago

There is more than one way to be good (or bad) at math, and many people tend to mislabel their abilities, say psychologists at Ohio State University.

In a new study, they found that one-third of people who say they are “good at math” actually scored in the bottom half of an objective math test. On the other hand, about one in five people who say they are bad at math scored in the top half.

“Some people miscategorize themselves. They really don’t know how good they are when faced with a traditional math test,” said study co-author Dr. Ellen Peters, a professor of psychology at the university.

The results suggest that being “good at math” isn’t a single concept, Peters says. For example, those who think they’re good at math — even when their test scores don’t show it — have a numeric competency that may be helpful in some real-life situations.

In fact, people who score high in subjective numeracy (those who think they’re good at math and enjoy working with numbers) are more likely than others to stick with a difficult math task. However, those who were low in subjective numeracy were more likely to simply skip questions during the same math task.

“They just stop giving responses. We don’t know why. It could be a lack of confidence with numbers, or they are just not motivated,” said Peters.

“This has important implications for everyday life. People who are low in subjective numeracy may not do their taxes on time or they may not make thoughtful choices on their health insurance because they just give up when faced with a lot of numbers.”

For the four-day study, 130 college students took tests covering three different types of numeric competency.

The first skill was objective numeracy — the ability to work with numbers and score well on traditional math tests. Questions are similar to the following: “If the chance of getting a disease is 10 percent, how many people would be expected to get the disease out of 1000?”

The second skill was subjective numeracy, which is based on self-reports of ability and one’s preference to work with numbers. This was measured with questions such as “How good are you at working with percentages?” and “How often do you find numerical information to be useful?”

The third skill was symbolic-number mapping — the ability to mentally estimate numeric magnitudes and map them on a number line. This was measured by giving participants a line drawn on a piece of paper that they were told began at zero and ended at 1,000. They were asked to indicate where on the line various numbers (4, 6, 18, 71, 230 and 780) would be located.

The participants were also asked to perform a variety of judgment and decision-related tasks related to numbers. For example, they were asked to rate the attractiveness of various simple and risky bets and to recall numbers paired with objects in a memory test.

The findings showed that people approached each problem through their combined strengths and weaknesses on each of the three types of numeric competency studied.

For example, participants who scored higher in objective numeracy were more likely than others to do actual number comparisons and calculations to determine whether a bet would be tempting or not. Those with high scores in subjective numeracy were more likely to find all the bets attractive, regardless of the expected value of the return.

Interestingly, those who scored high on subjective numeracy were more likely than those who scored lower to respond to all the questions on the memory test — even if they were wrong.

“Some of the ways we can be good at numbers can compensate for other ways that we’re bad at numbers,” Peters said. “That may not work for everyone in every situation, but there is more than one way to be good at math.”

The findings are published in the Journal of Personal and Social Psychology.

Source: Ohio State University


Benzodiazepine Prescriptions Increase with Age

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 9:15am

Despite the known risks for older people, prescription use of benzodiazepines — sedative and anti-anxiety medications such as alprazolam (Xanax) and diazepam (Valium) — increases with age, according to a new analysis of benzodiazepine prescription use in the United States.

The study is published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

The findings raise questions about why so many prescriptions — many for long-term use — are being written for this age group when such strong warnings exist concerning benzodiazepine use in older adults

Among all adults aged 18 to 80, about one in 20 received a benzodiazepine prescription in 2008, the period covered by the study. But this number steadily increased with age, from 2.6 percent among those aged 18 to 35, to 8.7 percent in those aged 65 to 80 (the oldest group studied).

Prescriptions for long-term use — more than 120 days — also increased with age. Of people 65 to 80 who used benzodiazepines, 31.4 percent received prescriptions for long-term use, compared to 14.7 percent of users 18 to 35.

In all age groups, women were about twice as likely as men to take benzodiazepines. Among women 65 to 80 years old, one in 10 received a prescription, with almost a third of these being long-term.

“These new data reveal worrisome patterns in the prescribing of benzodiazepines for older adults, and women in particular,” said Thomas Insel, M.D., director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), which supported the study.

“This analysis suggests that prescriptions for benzodiazepines in older Americans exceed what research suggests is appropriate and safe.”

Benzodiazepines are most often prescribed to treat anxiety and sleep problems. Although they are effective for both conditions, they come with risks, especially when used over long periods of time.

Long-term use can lead to dependence and withdrawal symptoms when discontinued. Research has also shown that benzodiazepines can impair cognition, mobility and driving skills, and increase the risk of falls in older people

“These medications can pose real risks, and there are often safer alternatives available,” said senior author Michael Schoenbaum, Ph.D. “Our findings strongly suggest that we need strategies to reduce benzodiazepine use, particularly for older women.”

Most prescriptions for benzodiazepines are written by non-psychiatrists. For adults 18 to 80 years old, about two-thirds of prescriptions for long-term use are written by non-psychiatrists; for those aged 65 to 80, it is nine out of 10.

Furthermore, a recently reported study shows a link between benzodiazepine use in older people and increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The connection was stronger with increasing length of use — nearly doubling for those using benzodiazepines for more than 180 days.

Source: NIMH

Elderly woman worried about taking benzodiazepines photo by shutterstock.

Women Have More Empathy to Partner

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 8:30am

Although it has long been suspected that women are more empathetic toward their partner, a new study has come to the same conclusion using scientific inquiry and empirical research.

Australian researchers, Dr Cindy Mervin and Professor Paul Frijters, found that women were noticeably affected when their partner was ill or when their partner experienced the death of a friend.

Conversely, men were not significantly affected by the negative events in their partners life.

Researchers discovered female partner’s levels of empathy could be measured as comparable (24 percent) to the event happening directly to themselves, whereas men’s emotional lives were not linked to the experiences of their partner.

“It is not that men are unemotional or uncaring, since they are quite strongly affected by what happens to themselves, but they simply are not very emotional when it comes to the feelings of their partner,” said Dr Mervin.

“It is possible that men are probably more affected by their own roles and image as partners, than by the actual feelings of their partner,” said Professor Frijters.

“This research found there is a multiplier or spillover effect on events happening to one person from the pain or joy caused to others. Negative and positive shocks affect other people in the family and probably also in the neighborhood,” said Dr Mervin.

The researchers used data from a national study on Household, Income and Labor Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) to analyze how the mental health of individuals changed when something happened to their partner.

“The study also found parents were more affected by negative shocks happening to their partner than non-parents, owing to the entwined interests of the partner and the family,” Professor Frijters said.

Researchers found that partners can affect each other’s mental health in a variety of fashions.

If a partner is experiencing mental distress, for example, the results may extend beyond a direct empathetic effect.

The mental distress may reduce the amount of time a partner is able to spend on household chores, reduce contact with children or other family members — behaviors that may result in additional work by their companion.

Source: Griffith Health Institute

Empathetic wife caring for sick husband photo by shutterstock.

Early Sensitive Caregiving Has Lasting Influence on Child’s Development

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 7:45am

Emerging research discovers sensitive caregiving in the first three years of life is a strong predictor of an individual’s future social competence and academic success.

A new study — designed to replicate an earlier study that showed early maternal sensitivity has lasting associations with children’s social and cognitive development — confirmed the importance of a child’s early experiences.

The study, by researchers at the University of Minnesota, the University of Delaware, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, appears in the journal Child Development.

“The study indicates that the quality of children’s early caregiving experiences has an enduring and ongoing role in promoting successful social and academic development into the years of maturity,” notes Lee Raby, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Delaware, who led the study.

Sensitive caregiving is defined as the extent to which a parent responds to a child’s signals appropriately and promptly, is positively involved during interactions with the child, and provides a secure base for the child’s exploration of the environment.

The researchers used information from 243 individuals who were born into poverty, came from a range of racial/ethnic backgrounds, and had been followed from birth into adulthood (age 32) as part of the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation.

Observations of interactions between mothers and their children were collected four times during the children’s first three years of life. At multiple ages during childhood and adolescence, teachers reported on children’s functioning in their peer groups, and children completed standardized tests of academic achievement.

During their 20s and early 30s, participants completed interviews in which they discussed their experiences with romantic relationships and reported their educational attainment.

Individuals who experienced more sensitive caregiving early in life consistently functioned better socially and academically during the first three decades of life, the study found. The associations were larger for individuals’ academic outcomes than for their functioning in peer and romantic relationships.

Moreover, early caregiving experiences continued to predict individuals’ academic, but not social, functioning after accounting for early socioeconomic factors as well as children’s gender and ethnicity.

Although families’ economic resources were important predictors of children’s development, these variables didn’t fully account for the persistent and long-term influence of early caregiving experiences on individuals’ academic success.

“Altogether, the study suggests that children’s experiences with parents during the first few years of life have a unique role in promoting social and academic functioning — not merely during the first two decades of life, but also during adulthood,” according to Raby.

“This suggests that investments in early parent-child relationships may result in long-term returns that accumulate across individuals’ lives.

“Because individuals’ success in relationships and academics represents the foundation for a healthy society, programs, and initiatives that equip parents to interact with their children in a sensitive manner during the first few years of their children’s life can have long-term benefits for individuals, families, and society at large.”

Source: Society for Research in Child Development

Sensitive mother photo by shutterstock.

Innocent Parenting Style May Harm Kids in Adulthood

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 7:00am

As the Holidays are upon us, new research reminds parents that using gifts or presents to reward certain behaviors, may not be the correct approach.

A recent study from the University of Missouri and the University of Illinois at Chicago found that parents who use material goods as part of their parenting techniques may be setting children up for difficulties later in adulthood.

“Our research suggests that children who receive many material rewards from their parents will likely continue rewarding themselves with material goods when they are grown — well into adulthood — and this could be problematic,” said Marsha Richins.

“Our research highlights the value of examining childhood circumstances and parenting practices to understand consumer behaviors of adults.”

Richins, who completed the study with Lan Chaplin, associate professor of marketing at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Business Administration, found that three parenting strategies led to greater materialism:

  • Rewarding children with gifts when they have accomplished something, such as making the soccer team or getting straight A’s;
  • Giving gifts as a way to show affection;
  • Punishing children by taking away their possessions, such as a favorite toy or video game.

When parents use material goods in these ways, their children, when grown, are on average more likely to believe that success in life is defined by the quality and number of material goods an individual owns.

Another consequence may be that the individual believes acquiring certain products will make them more attractive.

According to Richins, previous research has shown that adults who define themselves or others by their possessions are at a much higher risk for marital problems, gambling, financial debt, and decreased well-being.

Materialism also contributes to environmental degradation due to overconsumption and waste of goods.

“Loving parents tend to provide their children with material rewards,” Richins said.

“One explanation for the link between material rewards and later materialism is that children who receive these rewards are more likely than others to use possessions to define and enhance themselves, an essential element of materialism.”

Other aspects of parenting also can have an effect on the development of an adult’s attitude toward material goods.

For example, the researchers also found that a relationship existed between parental rejection and materialism.

Children who felt that their parents either did not have time for them or were disappointed in them were more likely to be materialistic. Additionally, adults who received both material rewards and material punishments as children are more likely to admire people with expensive possessions.

“It’s OK to want to buy things for your children, but remember to encourage them to be grateful for all the people and things they have in their lives,” Chaplin said.

“Each time children express their gratitude, they become more aware of how fortunate they are, which paves the way for them to be more generous and less materialistic. Spend time with your children and model warmth, gratitude, and generosity to help curb materialism.”

In their study, Richins and Chaplin surveyed more than 700 adults. The researchers asked respondents to report on a variety of childhood circumstances, their relationship with their parents, and the rewards and punishments they received during three critical stages of childhood.

The study, “Material Parenting: How the Use of Goods in Parenting Fosters Materialism in the Next Generation,” has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Source: University of Missouri

Fine Particle Air Pollutants Linked to Autism

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 6:15am

New research suggests that women exposed to high levels of fine particulate matter air pollution during pregnancy may experience double the risk of having a child with autism.

Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) says the risk is greatest when the exposure occurs during the third trimester. The greater the exposure, the greater the risk, researchers found.

Investigators say this is the first U.S.-wide study to explore the link between airborne particulate matter and autism.

“Our data add additional important support to the hypothesis that maternal exposure to air pollution contributes to the risk of autism spectrum disorders,” said Marc Weisskopf, associate professor of environmental and occupational epidemiology and senior author of the study.

“The specificity of our findings for the pregnancy period, and third trimester in particular, rules out many other possible explanations for these findings.”

The study appears online in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Previous research had hypothesized that air pollution — particularly during pregnancy and early life — in addition to genetics, may affect risk of autism. This study focused specifically on the pregnancy period.

The study population included offspring of participants living in all 50 states in Nurses’ Health Study II, a cohort of more than 116,000 female U.S. nurses begun in 1989.

The researchers collected data on where participants lived during their pregnancies as well as data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other sources on levels of fine particulate matter air pollution (PM2.5) — particles 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller — in locations across the U.S.

The researchers identified 245 children who were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and a control group of 1,522 children without ASD during the time period studied.

The researchers explored the association between autism and exposure to PM2.5 before, during, and after pregnancy. They also calculated exposure to PM2.5 during each pregnancy trimester.

Exposure to PM2.5 was significantly associated with autism during pregnancy, but not before or after, the study found. And during the pregnancy, the third trimester specifically was significantly associated with an increased risk.

Interestingly, exposure to larger particle (PN10-2.5) air pollution was associated with only a very small risk of autism.

“The evidence base for a role for maternal exposure to air pollution increasing the risk of autism spectrum disorders is becoming quite strong,” said Weisskopf.

“This not only gives us important insight as we continue to pursue the origins of autism spectrum disorders, but as a modifiable exposure, opens the door to thinking about possible preventative measures.”

Source: Harvard School of Public Health

Pregnant woman wearing a mask because of polluted air photo by shutterstock.

Internet Addiction is Worldwide Issue

Fri, 12/19/2014 - 5:30am

Experts define Internet addiction as an impulse-control problem distinguished by an inability to inhibit Internet use.

This addiction can adversely affect a person’s life, including their health and interpersonal relationships, reports a new study.

Researchers, however, did not find an association between high levels of Internet accessibility or exposure, and addiction.

In the study, investigators from The University of Hong Kong discovered the prevalence of Internet addiction varies among regions around the world.

Researchers Cecelia Cheng and Angel Yee-lam Li reviewed data collected from more than 89,000 individuals in 31 countries.

The study results are discussed in an article “Internet Addiction Prevalence and Quality of (Real) Life: A Meta-Analysis of 31 Nations Across Seven World Regions,” published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.

Researchers found that approximately six percent of global Internet users are estimated to be addicted to the media channel. Addiction prevalence ranged from a low of 2.6 percent in Northern and Western Europe to a high of 10.9 percent in the Middle East.

This finding suggests that addiction is not necessarily linked to accessibility or a dense cyber-environment.

In the article, the authors describe factors associated with higher Internet addiction prevalence and how it relates to individuals’ quality of life.

“This study provides initial support for the inverse relationship between quality of life and Internet Addiction (IA).

“It, however, finds no support for the hypothesis that high Internet accessibility (such as the high penetration rates in northern and western Europe), promote IA,” says Editor-in-Chief Brenda K. Wiederhold, Ph.D., MBA, BCB, BCN, Interactive Media Institute, San Diego, California and Virtual Reality Medical Institute, Brussels, Belgium.

Source: Mary Ann Liebert, Inc./Genetic Engineering News/EurekAlert

Man addicted to the internet photo by shutterstock.

Personality May Spur Educational Success More Than IQ

Thu, 12/18/2014 - 8:30am

While personality is widely believed to play a larger role in work success than intelligence, new research from Australia suggests the same holds true for education — that personality rules.

In the new study, Griffith University psychologist Dr. Arthur Poropat conducted a comprehensive review of personality and academic performance.

In his research he reviewed the “Big Five” personality factors (conscientiousness, openness, agreeableness, emotional stability, and extraversion) and found conscientiousness and openness have the biggest influence on academic success.

The results have been published in the journal Learning and Individual Differences.

Poropat said educational institutions need to focus less upon intelligence and instead, pay more attention to each student’s personality.

“With respect to learning, personality is more useful than intelligence for guiding both students and teachers,” he said.

“In practical terms, the amount of effort students are prepared to put in, and where that effort is focused, is at least as important as whether the students are smart. And a student with the most helpful personality will score a full grade higher than an average student in this regard.”

Poropat discovered a student’s assessment of their own personality is as useful for predicting university success as intelligence rankings.

However, predictive ability improves considerably when people who know the student well provide the personality rating. Poropat discovered this external personality ranking is four times more accurate for predicting grades than intelligence.

He believes an understanding of how personality impacts academic achievement is vital when it comes to helping students reach future success.

“Intelligence tests have always been closely linked with education and grades and therefore relied upon to predict who would do well,” Poropat said.

“The impact of personality on study is genuinely surprising for educational researchers, and for anyone who thinks they did well at school because they are ‘smart’.”

Previous studies have shown that students who think they are smart often stop trying and their performance declines over time, while those who consider themselves hard workers get progressively better.

Poropat said the best news for students is that it’s possible to develop the most important personality traits linked with academic success.

“Personality does change, and some educators have trained aspects of students’ conscientiousness and openness, leading to greater learning capacity.

“By contrast, there is little evidence that intelligence can be taught, despite the popularity of brain-training apps.”

Source: Griffith University/EurekAlert

Domestic Abuse Can Harm Unborn

Thu, 12/18/2014 - 7:45am

Researchers have found a surprisingly strong connection between the domestic abuse of a pregnant woman and postnatal trauma symptoms in her child, according to a new study at Michigan State University.

Their findings are published in the research journal Child Abuse & Neglect.

The study is the first to link abuse of pregnant women with trauma symptoms in their babies within the first year of life. Symptoms include nightmares, startling easily, being bothered by loud noises and bright lights, avoiding physical contact, and having trouble experiencing enjoyment.

“For clinicians and mothers, knowing that the prenatal experience of their domestic violence can directly harm their babies may be a powerful motivator to help moms get out of these abusive situations,” said study co-author Dr. Alytia Levendosky, a professor of psychology at the university.

Prenatal abuse could cause changes in the mother’s stress response systems, said Levendosky. Abuse would increase her levels of the hormone cortisol, which in turn could increase cortisol levels in her unborn baby.

“Cortisol is a neurotoxic, so it has damaging effects on the brain when elevated to excessive levels,” Levendosky said. “That might explain the emotional problems for the baby after birth.”

The study, which involved 182 mothers aged 18-34, took into account the women’s parenting styles and also factored in other risks such as drug use and other negative life events, marital status, age, and income.

Levendosky, a clinical psychologist for nearly 20 years, has counseled many victims of domestic violence who didn’t think the abuse would affect their baby until the he or she was old enough to understand what was happening.

“They might say things like, ‘Oh, I have to leave my partner when my baby gets to be so-and-so age — you know, three or four years old — but until then, you know, it’s not really affecting him, he won’t really remember it,’” she said.

“But I think these findings send a strong message that the violence is affecting the baby even before the baby is born.”

Levendosky’s co-researchers include Brittany Lannert, Ph.D., a former doctoral student, and psychology professors Drs. Anne Bogat and Joseph Lonstein.

Previous studies by other research teams show similar findings. One recent mouse study, for example, conducted by researchers at the University of Edinburgh, showed that fetuses who were exposed to excessive levels of stress hormones in the womb went on to develop mood disorders later in life.

Source: Michigan State University

Pregnant woman saying no to domestic violence photo by shutterstock.

Why Antidepressants May Worsen Symptoms Before Kicking In

Thu, 12/18/2014 - 7:00am

Emerging research helps explain the delayed, even paradoxical effect of certain antidepressants.

Clinicians have known that some medications may actually worsen symptoms before helping patients feel better.

The new findings, publishing online in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, may eventually help investigators fix the problem as well as create new classes of drugs to treat depression.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most widely prescribed class of antidepressant drugs, and they work by increasing levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin.

While this boost in serotonin occurs within minutes to hours after an SSRI is taken, patients usually have to take the medication for about two weeks before experiencing any relief of symptoms. During this delay, the drug may actually aggravate depression, in some cases even increasing the risk for suicide.

Adrian Fischer of Otto-von-Guericke University in Germany and his colleagues said new research shows that serotonin neurons transmit a dual signal that consists of the release of serotonin as well as glutamate, another brain chemical. The investigators say that SSRIs may affect these two components of the dual signal in different ways.

“While the serotonergic component is immediately amplified following SSRI administration, the glutamate component is acutely suppressed and is only normalized after several days of drug treatment,” said Fischer.

He notes that the serotonin component of the dual signal has been linked to motivation, while the glutamate component has been linked to pleasure and learning.

“These differential time courses may help to explain the paradox of acute versus chronic SSRI effects,” he said.

Experts believe a better understanding of serotonin neurons’ dual signal and its varied response to acute and chronic drug treatment may help resolve some of the paradoxes observed with SSRIs.

Researchers believe delineating the contributing factors of each aspect of the dual signal may point to new drug targets. Also, improved knowledge about the signal will aid the development of new drugs that reduce the time of onset.

Instigators believe the discovery of the dual signal helps explain why the delayed onset of clinical efficacy seen with SSRIs is not evident with other antidepressant drugs that instead target glutamate receptors.

Source: Cell Press/EurekAlert

Abstract of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain photo by shutterstock.

Employer Acceptance of Religious Beliefs Can Aid Worker Performance

Thu, 12/18/2014 - 6:15am

A new study finds that when employees are allowed to openly discuss their religious beliefs, their morale and job satisfaction is enhanced.

The workforce is rapidly becoming a mixture of multiple cultures, and it may be beneficial for employers to celebrate holidays and festivals from a variety of religions.

In the new research, Sooyeol Kim, a doctoral student in psychological sciences, found that employees who can talk about their religious beliefs at work are often happier and have higher job satisfaction than those employees who do not.

“For many people, religion is the core of their lives,” Kim said.

“Being able to express important aspects of one’s life can influence work-related issues, such as job satisfaction, work performance, or engagement. It can be beneficial for organizations to have a climate that is welcoming to every religion and culture.”

Kim said employers might even want to consider a religion-friendly policy or find ways to encourage religious expression.

For example, organizations could have an office Christmas party, but also could celebrate and recognize other religious holidays and dates, such as Hanukkah, Ramadan, or Buddhist holidays.

Kim’s study appears in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.

For the cross-cultural study, researchers surveyed nearly 600 working adults from a variety of industries — including education and finance — in the U.S. and South Korea. The surveyed employees were all Christian, but identified with a variety of denominations, including Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist, among others.

The researchers asked participants how important religion was to them and how it helped to shape their identity.

“Results showed that employees who valued religion as a core part of their lives were more likely to disclose their religion in the workplace. Employees who felt pressure to assimilate in the workplace were less likely to disclose their religious identity,” Kim said.

But most significantly, the researchers found that the employees who disclosed their religion in the workplace had several positive outcomes, including higher job satisfaction and higher perceived well-being.

“Disclosing your religion can be beneficial for employees and individual well-being,” Kim said.

“When you try to hide your identity, you have to pretend or you have to lie to others, which can be stressful and negatively impact how you build relationships with co-workers.”

Kim said there are several ways employees can share their religion in the workplace. Employees might decorate their desk with a religious object, such as a cross or a calendar. They also may share stories or information about their religious beliefs during conversation, such as describing a church-related event.

The researchers found no major differences between the U.S. and Korean samples. They also found no major differences between industries, but Kim said that an organization’s culture also might play a role in determining if employees disclose their religion.

Kim said the research on religion in the workplace plays a part in work-life balance. Research continues to show that individual characteristics — such as family and religion — can influence work-related issues.

“People can bring nonworking issues into the workplace or they may bring a work issue into their nonworking domain,” Kim said. “Nowadays, that boundary is blurred and there are less clear distinctions between work and personal life.”

Source: Kansas State University

Hugs, Social Support Shown to Protect Against Stress & Illness

Thu, 12/18/2014 - 5:30am

New research suggests hugs may be the tonic for reducing stress and preventing infections.

Carnegie Mellon University researchers tested whether hugs act as a form of social support, protecting stressed people from getting sick.

Their findings, as published in the journal Psychological Science, found that the physical act of hugging was associated with less stress-induced infections and less severe illness symptoms.

Psychologist Dr. Sheldon Cohen and his team chose to study hugging as an example of social support because hugs are typically a marker of having a more intimate and close relationship with another person.

“We know that people experiencing ongoing conflicts with others are less able to fight off cold viruses. We also know that people who report having social support are partly protected from the effects of stress on psychological states, such as depression and anxiety,” said Cohen.

“We tested whether perceptions of social support are equally effective in protecting us from stress-induced susceptibility to infection and also whether receiving hugs might partially account for those feelings of support and themselves protect a person against infection.”

In a novel experiment, perceived support among 404 healthy adults was assessed by a questionnaire. Then, frequencies of interpersonal conflicts and receiving hugs were derived from telephone interviews conducted on 14 consecutive evenings.

After which, the participants were intentionally exposed to a common cold virus and monitored in quarantine to assess infection and signs of illness.

The results showed that perceived social support reduced the risk of infection associated with experiencing conflicts.

Hugs were responsible for one-third of the protective effect of social support. Among infected participants, greater perceived social support and more frequent hugs both resulted in less severe illness symptoms whether or not they experienced conflicts.

“This suggests that being hugged by a trusted person may act as an effective means of conveying support and that increasing the frequency of hugs might be an effective means of reducing the deleterious effects of stress,” Cohen said.

“The apparent protective effect of hugs may be attributable to the physical contact itself or to hugging being a behavioral indicator of support and intimacy.”

Cohen added, “Either way, those who receive more hugs are somewhat more protected from infection.”

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

Common Factors for Teens at Risk for Alcohol Abuse

Wed, 12/17/2014 - 9:15am

Neuroscientists are homing in on key brain factors and behaviors that put teens at risk for alcohol abuse even before they start drinking, according to new research at Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC).

So far, they have found that teens at risk for future alcohol abuse tend to have reduced connections in vital brain regions, greater impulsivity, higher sugar consumption, and lower levels of DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid that is a primary building block of the human brain.

The Adolescent Development Study, which was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, was presented recently at the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C.

The Georgetown researchers conducted four studies, which resulted in four abstracts, each showing a connection between an early sign or symptom and future alcohol abuse.

“What this study is attempting to do is identify the differences in the brains of adolescents who go on to misuse alcohol and other drugs,” said John VanMeter, director of the Center for Functional and Molecular Imaging, and associate professor of neurology at GUMC.

“If we know what is different, we may be able to develop strategies that can prevent the behavior.”

For the research, neuroscientists evaluated 135 preteen and teenage boys and girls, all of whom underwent structural and functional MRI to investigate the connection between brain development and behavior.

One of the abstracts suggests that reduced prefrontal cortex development occurs before alcohol use and may be related to future alcohol use disorders.

Another showed that a weaker connection between executive control in the prefrontal cortex and the insular cortex (involved in processing emotions and responsive to drug cues in addicts) is connected to stronger feelings of impulsivity, which in turn are associated with alcohol problems.

Another abstract showed that teens who consume high amounts of added sugar tend to seek immediate rewards compared to their peers with lower sugar levels in their diets. Those with higher sugar intake also displayed greater activation in brain regions connected to impulsivity and emotional affect.

Finally, preliminary findings of a fourth study showed that those with low levels of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) were also prone to impulsivity, but had greater activation in brain regions responsible for paying attention and executive function compared to those with high DHA. This suggests a compensatory response in those with low DHA.

The Adolescent Development Study, jointly run by GUMC and the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UMSOM), is a large-scale study developed to understand how a teen brain that is “still under construction” can lead to risky behaviors such as alcohol and drug use.

Source: Georgetown University


Average Faces Considered Trustworthy

Wed, 12/17/2014 - 8:30am

New research suggests typical or average- looking faces are considered more honest than attractive, or unattractive faces.

The way people judge faces is especially important in cultural environments where face typicality, or the similar structure of faces, often influences face-related judgments.

“Face typicality likely indicates familiarity and cultural affiliation — as such, these findings have important implications for understanding social perception, including cross-cultural perceptions and interactions,” said lead researcher Carmel Sofer, Ph.D., of Princeton University and Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

Study findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Researchers explain that previous studies have shown that a face composed as an average of many faces is often perceived as more attractive than the sum of its constituent parts.

But other studies suggest that the relationship between averageness and attractiveness may not be so simple, and that some dimensions of faces matter more than others in explaining the connection.

Sofer and colleagues wondered whether typicality might be more directly tied to perceptions of trustworthiness.

In one experiment, the researchers created a “typical” face by digitally averaging 92 female faces, and they also created an “attractive” face by averaging the 12 most attractive faces from another set of faces.

They then combined the two faces into one and created nine variations that had differing levels of attractiveness and typicality. The final result was a continuum of 11 faces that ranged from least attractive to most attractive, with the most typical face occupying the midpoint.

Female participants viewed these face variations and used a nine point scale to rate them on either trustworthiness or attractiveness. The researchers only included female participants so as to eliminate potential cross-gender differences in how people perceive and evaluate faces.

The resulting ratings revealed a sort of U-shaped relationship between face typicality and trustworthiness: The closer a face was to the most typical face, the more trustworthy it was considered to be.

When it came to attractiveness, however, typicality didn’t seem to play a role — participants rated faces as increasingly more attractive beyond the midpoint of the most typical face.

“Although face typicality did not matter for attractiveness judgments, it mattered a great deal for trustworthiness judgments,” Sofer explains.

“This effect may have been overlooked, because trustworthiness and attractiveness judgments are generally highly correlated in research.”

Another experiment confirmed these findings, showing the relationship between averageness and trustworthiness was not driven by the specific faces used or the by the transformation process that the researchers had employed to digitally combine and alter the faces.

“By showing the influence of face typicality on perceived trustworthiness, our findings cast a new light on how face typicality influences social perception,” the researchers write.

“They highlight the social meaning of the typical face because trustworthiness judgments approximate the general evaluation of faces.”

Sofer and colleagues are interested in exploring how face typicality influence the face-related judgments we make in cross-cultural environments.

“We are interested in how people judge face trustworthiness when visiting other countries and how the locals perceive the visitors,” Sofer explains.

“In addition, we plan to study how face typicality influences trustworthiness judgments, when other factors such as emotional expressions are present.”

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Work Connections Turn Stress Into Better Performance

Wed, 12/17/2014 - 7:45am

Challenging new research suggests that well-connected employees adapt well to pressures caused by changes in the workplace.

Industries often have to implement pay cuts, reduce working hours, and provide fewer training and promotion opportunities as methods to cope with economic downturn and industry competition.

Where previous research has suggested cut backs result in a demotivated and unhappy workforce, experts from Monash University and the University of Iowa say this might not necessarily be the case.

As discussed in study findings published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, researchers determined that some employees can respond positively to change in the workplace. Researchers, however, found that this occurs only in workers who are well connected and are a good fit for the organization.

Drs. Kohyar Kiazad, Scott Seibert, and Maria Kraimer created an online survey to find out worker’s responses to “psychological contract breach.”

This term is used by experts to describe what employees experience when they believe their employer has broken its promises. Previous research suggested that withdrawing from work, reduced productivity, and generally feeling unhappy in the workplace are all typical employee reactions to psychological contract breach.

The new findings, which surveyed around 100 people at two time-points spanning six months, suggest some employees react positively to a negative workplace. Examples included implementing new working methods or techniques, coaching team members on new skills to improve efficiency, or establishing new goals and targets.

Kiazad, lead researcher on the study, believes the findings suggests employees are active participants in the workplace and not just passive recipients of environmental pressures and demands.

“Employees do not always respond destructively to broken promises by their employer, especially when they are well connected, fit the organization and have little to lose if they were to leave,” he said.

The findings suggest that organizations should review their recruitment and selection processes to ensure a good fit between an employee and the company. One way to do this is to provide applicants with realistic information about an organization’s beliefs and values.

Kiazad said the findings do not mean companies should break their promises to trigger better employee performance. Furthermore, companies need to be more proactive in creating opportunities for employees to feel connected to the organization as well as to fellow workers.

“Today’s volatile business environment makes it increasingly difficult for organizations to fulfill all their obligations to employees. By implementing human resource practices that increase employees’ social connectivity and fit within the workplace, companies may empower employees to adopt a constructive response if or when breach does occur.

“That might mean regular social events, mentoring programs or the use of role models as a means to improve employees’ social connectivity within the workplace,” he said.

Source: Monash University

Learning In Infancy Reaps Long-Term Benefits

Wed, 12/17/2014 - 7:00am

Developmental psychologists believe that talking to babies in their first year can provide learning benefits that are seen as much as five years later.

Experts say the benefits are particularly associated with naming things in the infant’s world, as this can help the infant make connections between what they see and hear.

“Learning in infancy between the ages of six to nine months lays a foundation for learning later in childhood,” said Lisa Scott, Ph.D., and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“Infants learn labels for people and things at a very early age. Labeling helps them recognize people and objects individually and helps them decide how detailed their understanding of the object or face needs to be.”

Study findings from Scott’s research, conducted with University of Massachusetts Amherst psychological and brain science doctoral students Hillary Hadley and Charisse Pickron, are found in the online edition of the journal Developmental Science.

Scott’s own earlier experiments as well as work by others shows that before they are six months old, babies can easily tell faces apart within familiar (e.g., human faces) and unfamiliar (e.g, monkey faces) groups.

But by nine months, they are no longer as good at distinguishing faces outside their own species compared to faces from their own species.

This decline in recognizing unfamiliar individuals is called “perceptual narrowing” and is driven by the infants’ experience interacting with some groups more than others and learning the names of individuals in some groups more than others during the six- to nine-month window.

In a prior experiment, Scott gave parents picture books to read to their infants in this age range. The books had photos of either different monkey faces or different kinds of strollers. For one group the parents spoke unique names, such as Boris or Fiona, and for the other group the same pictures were all labeled the same, just monkey or stroller.

Scott and colleagues measured how long the babies looked at the images, and their neural responses before and after training. Results for both looking and neural responses suggested that training with individual-level labels led the babies to learn in a way that would allow them to better tell the difference between examples of monkeys or strollers in the future.

However, one unanswered question was whether the learning seen during the six- to nine-month window would be retained into childhood. To answer this, Scott and her team conducted the current study.

They examined response time on a picture-matching task as well as brain responses in the children, now four and five years old, who participated in the earlier training study. The researchers also examined response in a control group of children who did not participate in the training study.

As Scott explains, she and colleagues predicted that children trained with individual-level, unique labels would show lasting behavioral and neural changes in response to early training experience during infancy. But it wasn’t clear whether such changes would be specific to the trained images, that is, stimulus-specific, or related to a more general ability.

They found that children trained with individual-level labels showed both behavioral and neural advantages for human faces and not for the trained images.

“These children were faster to match human faces and they exhibited more adult-like neural responses to human faces compared to children who received experience with category labels and children with no book experience,” they say.

This suggests that training within individual-level labels in infancy leads to long-lasting learning effects that generalize from the trained images to the more commonly experienced category of human faces.

“Even brief experiences can be important for infants, as they are actively building skills that they can use in a variety of contexts later in life,” the authors note.

Source: University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Eating More During Menstrual Cycle Hikes Eating Disorder Risk

Wed, 12/17/2014 - 6:15am

A new study links the biological stimulus that causes women to eat more during their menstrual cycle to an increased risk of developing eating disorder symptoms.

Michigan State University Foundation Professor Dr. Kelly Klump found monthly hormonal changes and commensurate increased food intake causes some women to become much more preoccupied with their body weight and shape.

In turn, this intensified obsession can increase the risk of developing eating disorder symptoms.

The challenge is that women are biologically wired to increase their food intake during their monthly cycle in preparation for pregnancy — it’s supposed to happen.

Klump said the changes in food intake are all part of a natural, evolutionary process. Each month, the female body undergoes a menstrual cycle marked by changes in the hormones estrogen and progesterone.

Monthly fluctuations in hormones cause women to increase the amount of food they eat and also causes emotional eating, which is the tendency to overeat in response to negative emotions.

“In our culture, we tend to view any increased eating by a woman as a negative thing, even when that gain is biologically and evolutionarily driven,” Klump said.

“This is a potentially dangerous chain of events that could lead to serious and life threatening eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. This can be especially problematic during the holidays.”

Study findings have been published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.

Klump and co-lead author Britny Hildebrandt said future work in this area will try to determine what other factors, in addition to emotional eating, drive pathological eating disorder symptoms in women across reproductive and hormonal stages.

Source: Michigan State University