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Updated: 1 hour 49 min ago

Heart Rate May Influence Decision-Making

Fri, 04/08/2016 - 5:30am

New research suggests heart rate variation and thinking processes work together to enable wise reasoning about complex social issues.

In a profound new finding, University of Waterloo investigators found the fluctuations of your heartbeat may affect your wisdom.

Igor Grossmann, a professor of psychology at Waterloo, and colleagues say their study breaks new ground in wisdom research by identifying conditions under which psychophysiology impacts wise judgment.

Study findings appear online in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

“Our research shows that wise reasoning is not exclusively a function of the mind and cognitive ability,” says Prof. Grossmann. We found that people who have greater heart rate variability and who are able to think about social problems from a distanced viewpoint demonstrate a greater capacity for wise reasoning.”

The study expands previous work on the cognitive underpinnings of wise judgment to include consideration of how the heart’s functioning impacts the mind.

An emerging consensus among philosophers and cognitive scientists define wise judgment as including a variety of considerations. These include: the ability to recognize the limits of one’s knowledge, the awareness of the varied contexts of life and how they may unfold over time, the need to acknowledge others’ points of view, and the benefit from seeking reconciliation of opposing viewpoints.

The new study is the first to show that the physiology of the heart, specifically the variability of heart rate during low physical activity, is related to less biased, wiser judgment.

Human heart rate tends to fluctuate, even during steady-state conditions, such as while a person is sitting. Heart rate variability refers to the variation in the time interval between heartbeats and is related to the nervous system’s control of organ functions.

The researchers found that people with more varied heart rates were able to reason in a wiser, less biased fashion about societal problems when they were instructed to reflect on a social issue from a third-person perspective.

But, when the study’s participants were instructed to reason about the issue from a first-person perspective, no relationship between heart rate and wiser judgment emerged.

“We already knew that people with greater variation in their heart rate show superior performance in the brain’s executive functioning such as working memory,” says Prof. Grossmann.

“However, that does not necessarily mean these people are wiser — in fact, some people may use their cognitive skills to make unwise decisions. To channel their cognitive abilities for wiser judgment, people with greater heart rate variability first need to overcome their egocentric viewpoints.”

Experts believe the study will stimulate further exploration of wise judgment at the intersection of physiological and cognitive research.

Source: University of Waterloo

Expanded Social Support Helps Parents and Autistic Children

Thu, 04/07/2016 - 8:30am

Caring for an autistic child is challenging. Parents of autistic children consistently report greater stress levels, more caregiving burden and depression than parents of typically developing children.

Currently, about one in 68 children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Given this prevalence of ASD, the need to provide parents and their children better outlets to manage stress is becoming a national concern.

In fact, experts already acknowledge that chronic caregiving stress is associated with poorer physical health — more pain, more disruptions from physical-health problems and lower overall health-related quality of life.

Canadian researchers have examined the situation and discovered that a powerful way to reduce this stress is improved social support. Their finding appears in the journal Family Relations.

Researchers from Concordia University in Montreal determined that support is essential as children — and their parents — age. Moreover, improving a person’s mental health may significantly lower future health costs.

For the study, psychology professors Jean-Philippe Gouin and Erin T. Barker, as well as their co-authors, investigated whether social support can protect against stress-induced immune problems.

They asked 56 healthy parents of children with ASD to complete questionnaires on whether they received social support and asked the parent to provide a self-rated health assessment and to list if they had recent somatic symptoms.

The “type” of social support a parent received was classified as formal social support (provided by health or social services professionals) or informal social support (provided by significant others, friends and family).

Study participants also provided blood samples to check for inflammation — the automatic reaction of the innate immune system upon exposure to infection, injury or abnormal cells, or psychological stress.

Research has shown that chronic low-grade inflammation is also associated with greater risk for several age-related diseases, including cardiovascular disorders, diabetes, certain cancers, autoimmune diseases, frailty, dementia, and early mortality.

The results indicated that greater informal social support was associated with lower inflammation, and that a higher number of formal support services received by the family was related to better self-rated health and lower inflammation.

Notably, the impact of support services on the parents’ inflammation levels increased with the age of the affected child.

“The impact of chronic caregiving stress on health likely becomes more pronounced as the parents are aging and their immune system responds less efficiently to challenges,” says Gouin.

“The need for formal and informal support thus remains high even as the child with ASD is becoming an adult.”

He adds that the study results emphasize the need for continued services for these families, who are experiencing lifelong parenting challenges.

“Given the reciprocal relationship between child and parental health and well-being, supporting the parents in coping with chronic caregiving stress might not only improve the child’s outcome, but also may help maintain an optimal family environment for a longer period of time.

Supporting the parents in providing care to their children with ASD might then represent a cost-effective strategy in the long-term.”

Gouin is now continuing this research by following families during their ASD-affected children’s last years of high school and the first few years after graduation to examine the impact of social support services on parental health.

Source: Concordia University

Physical + Mental Exercise Improve Brain Capabilities in Young People with Schizophrenia

Thu, 04/07/2016 - 7:45am

Profound new research from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) suggests computer training and aerobic exercise can reduce brain deficits related to schizophrenia.

Although the findings stem from a small pilot study, the discovery that non-pharmaceutical interventions can mitigate significant issues associated with schizophrenia provides a ray of hope for future advances.

While antipsychotic medications can help reduce delusions and hallucinations that characterize schizophrenia, the disease is accompanied by brain problems in areas of memory, thinking skills and social cognition.

Affecting memory, the speed at which the brain processes information, attention, problem-solving skills, and emotional intelligence, these subtle but significant deficits can prove more crippling than schizophrenia’s more dramatic and better-known symptoms.

“They tend to be the things that lead people with schizophrenia to go on disability and to become unable to work and to be socially isolated,” said Keith Nuechterlein, a professor at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.

“Families go through a stage almost like mourning because their loved one changes so dramatically.”

Schizophrenia affects one percent of the population, and research has shown that computer-based brain games sometimes can reverse one-quarter to one-third of the deficits in the areas of memory, thinking skills and social cognition.

Now, Nuechterlein and a team of researchers at a free schizophrenia clinic at UCLA are finding that those benefits increase dramatically if they are turbocharged with aerobic exercise.

“It’s looking like exercising the body along with the mind has the potential to alter the course of schizophrenia, especially if the treatment is applied early in the disorder,” said Joe Ventura, a senior research psychologist at the Semel Institute.

The findings from a recent pilot study which assessed and treated people who have schizophrenia appear in the publication Schizophrenia Bulletin.

Preliminary findings from a second, ongoing study were presented recently at the biennial meeting of the Schizophrenia International Research Society.

In the 10-week initial study, Nuechterlein and his colleagues treated 16 young adults who had recently experienced their first schizophrenic episode.

Nine participated in a computerized course of four hours a week of neurocognitive training for perception and memory skills for five weeks and then four hours a week of social cognitive training for emotional intelligence for five weeks.

The other seven took the same computer training and added four sessions a week of aerobic exercise for a weekly total of 150 minutes. Study participants wore monitors to ensure that they exercised in their target aerobic zone.

Over the course of the study, the cognitive performance of study participants who only completed brain training did not budge. But those who participated in physical exercise improved significantly.

One test measured how quickly the individual could finish a complicated dot-to-dot drawing, and the average completion time for those who exercised improved from 37 to 25 seconds. (People of the same age without schizophrenia complete the assignment in an average 22 seconds.)

On another test, which measures people’s challenges in managing their emotions in social situations, the participants who exercised cut the level of such problems in half.

In the second study, which lasted six months, 32 people who had just experienced their first episode of schizophrenia trained for four hours a week with the same computer-based brain games as in the pilot study.

In this study, half vigorously exercised in addition to participating in the mental training. The researchers expected to see improvements among the exercise participants, but they were surprised by the size of the advances.

Specifically, for those who exercised, performance on a whole battery of cognitive tests improved three times more than among those who did not do so.

The researchers say the improvements are due to a brain protein called brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor (BDNF), which is released during aerobic exercise.

BDNF stimulates the hippocampus — the brain’s center of learning and long-term memory — to sprout new neurons, and it increases connections between neurons. Those connections are where learning occurs and memories form.

“In adolescence, all humans lose a certain number of connections between neurons, as the brain prunes redundant or less useful synapses,” Nuechterlein explained.

“In schizophrenia, the process goes awry, pruning needed as well as unnecessary connections, so important connections are deleted.”

McEwen said that in the second study, the amount of BDNF increased 35 percent in the group that had participated in both cognitive training and exercise — and half of that increase occurred within the first two weeks of the study. In contrast, BDNF levels did not change among those who only received cognitive training.

The timing of the intervention is important.

Researchers believe that helping people with schizophrenia as soon as possible after their first psychotic breakdown is most effective because those in the early stages of disease are more able to make long-lasting improvements.

“Our hope is to prevent the chronic disability that is so common in schizophrenia from ever occurring, and to return individuals with schizophrenia to regular employment, regular schooling and normal friendship patterns, and to have them resume as much of a full life as possible,” Nuechterlein said.

“This kind of computer training and exercise — in combination with antipsychotic medication — might go a long way toward doing that.”

Source: UCLA

Suicidal Thinking Relatively Common among Veterans

Thu, 04/07/2016 - 7:00am

A two-year study from Veterans Affairs (VA) reveals that nearly 14 percent of veterans reported suicidal thinking either at the beginning or end of a recent evaluation.

Investigators surveyed more than 2,000 U.S. veterans on two occasions as part of the National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study. Dr. Robert Pietrzak of the Clinical Neurosciences Division of VA’s National Center for PTSD led the study with the first wave conducted in 2011, and the second in 2013.

For both the first and second wave of the study veterans were asked whether they had experienced suicidal thoughts in the past two weeks. They answered a host of other questions as well, enabling the researchers to glean insights about factors associated with suicidal thinking.

About 86 percent of the veterans denied having any such thoughts, both times they were asked. About five percent had “chronic” suicidal thinking: These veterans reported suicidal thoughts in the past two weeks both times they were surveyed, two years apart.

Nearly four percent had “remitted” suicidal thinking: They reported suicidal thoughts in wave one but not wave two. And five percent reported the converse: They reported such thoughts only during the second survey.

Combined, 13.7 percent of the total sample reported suicidal thinking at either or both time points.

The study results currently appear online in the Journal of Affective Disorders and will follow in hard copy.

Experts admit that it is difficult to compare this prevalence rate to that of U.S. adults in general. Studies on suicide vary widely in their methods–for example, how questions are worded, and the time frames they cover. And studies often focus on particular age brackets or other subgroups.

One general reference point might be a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published in 2011, in which 3.7 percent of U.S. adults reported having suicidal thoughts in the past year.

By that yardstick, the rates in the new study are high.

If true, the findings would be similar to other research showing that a greater proportion of veterans experience suicidal thinking — as well as attempts, and deaths by suicide — relative to the general population.

One oft-cited VA study found that veterans, while making up only about 13 percent of U.S .adults, account for about 22 percent of suicides. Another study, from 2007, found that compared to civilians, veterans were twice as likely to die by suicide.

In any case, the new results offer some divergent insights.

For example, the new findings suggest suicidal ideation can come and go, at least within the span of a couple of years. This challenges past findings that associated suicidal thinking as being a longer-term problem.

“Our results … highlight the dynamic nature of [suicidal ideation],” write the researchers, “as evidenced by the meaningful proportion of U.S. veterans reporting changes in suicidal ideation over time.”

The finding are meaningful in that they underscore the need for ongoing periodic monitoring — not just a one-time screening, say the investigators.

Among those veterans who reported suicidal thinking only during the second wave, 65 percent had never engaged in any mental health treatment. The researchers say this is another finding that points to the need for more outreach.

Not surprisingly, higher levels of psychiatric distress, physical health problems, and substance use history predicted chronic suicidal thinking.

Social connectedness — widely seen as a major buffer against suicide risk — emerged in the study as a factor associated with the remission of suicidal thinking. By the same token, veterans who reported less social support at wave one were also more likely to report the onset of suicidal thinking at wave two.

Investigators were surprised that for many of the veterans reporting chronic suicidal thinking, social support did not appear to be as beneficial as expected. The researchers say that for these veterans, addressing psychiatric and physical health, and substance use problems, may be more critical.

The research team points to several limitations in their study.

For one, it covered only a two-year period, so the researchers can’t draw conclusions about the longer-term course of suicidal thinking.

Also, a third of the sample who responded to wave one did not complete the wave two survey. If those who dropped out were in fact more likely to be troubled by suicidal thinking than those who stayed with the study, that could mean the prevalence of suicidal thinking was underestimated.

Another limitation was that the survey did not ask about certain factors that could add to the understanding of what drives suicidal thinking, such as financial and interpersonal stress.

Overall, the researchers say the findings highlight the importance of ongoing assessment of mental and physical health problems. They also call for bolstering sources of social support to help prevent suicidal thinking — and to promote its remission — in veterans.

Source: Veterans Affairs Research Communications/EurekAlert

How the Very Old Think About Death

Thu, 04/07/2016 - 6:15am

People over the age of 95 tend to approach life one day at a time, knowing that death could come at any moment but not necessarily fearing it, according to a rare study on the attitudes of death among the very old conducted by researchers at the University of Cambridge in the U.K.

A growing number of people are living to a very old age due to advancements in medicine and healthcare as well as greater knowledge of healthy living. In fact, the number of people who live to the age of 90 or more has tripled in the past three decades in the U.K., according to a report published last year by the Office of National Statistics.

“Despite the dramatic rise in the number of people living into very old age, there is far too little discussion about what the ‘oldest old’ feel about the end of their lives,” says study leader Dr. Jane Fleming from the Department of Public Health and Primary Care at the University of Cambridge. “We know very little, too, about the difficult decisions concerning their end of life care.”

For the study, researchers interviewed 33 people over 95 years old from Cambridge City. For those participants too frail to be interviewed in-person, a relative or caregiver was interviewed in their place to help explain the elderly participants’ attitudes towards death, dying, and end-of-life care. Responses varied from heart-felt to humorous and provided a fascinating perspective on the views of an often overlooked minority.

For the oldest old, most of their friends and peers had died, so death was a regular part of life and many spoke of living on borrowed time. Many participants referred to “taking each day as it comes,” expressing gratitude for where they were in life and content, at this stage, to take life one day at a time, not worrying too much about tomorrow. There was a sense of life ticking along until something drastic happened. “It is only day-from-day when you get to ninety-seven,” said one.

One son-in-law describes his elderly mother-in-law giving a long-life light bulb to her granddaughter, saying, “Something for you, it’s not worth me having.”

Most of the interviewees felt ready to die. “I’m ready to go,” said one woman. “I just say I’m the lady-in-waiting, waiting to go.” Some felt they were a burden to others, while others were more desperate in their desire to reach the end, suggesting they had simply lived too long. “Please don’t let me live ’til I’m a hundred,” said an elderly woman.

Most expressed no fear of dying. For some this absence of fear was rooted in positive experiences of others’ dying: One interviewee said of her parents, “They were alive, then they were dead, but it all went off as usual. Nothing really dramatic or anything. Why should it be any different for me?”

The manner of death was of more concern than its imminence. Many explicitly expressed the wish to die peacefully, pain free, and preferably while asleep. “I’d be quite happy if I went suddenly like that,” said one interviewee, snapping their fingers.

When asked whether, if they had a life-threatening illness, they would want to receive treatment that would save their life or prefer treatment that would just make them comfortable, few people chose life-saving treatment. “Make me comfortable” was a far more typical response and proxy informants tended to echo the older people’s dominant preference for comfort rather than life-saving treatment.

“Now so many more people have reached a great age before they die, it’s important we know about their views and their concerns, particularly in relation to end-of-life care,” says Dr. Morag Farquhar, the study’s other lead author.

“These are difficult conversations to have and no one wants to have to face their own death or that of a loved one. But having these conversations before it is too late can help ensure that an individual’s wishes, rather than going unspoken, can be heard.”

The findings are published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Source: University of Cambridge

Traveling May Elicit Smart Phone Anxiety

Thu, 04/07/2016 - 5:30am

Emerging research suggest that we are becoming dependent on our smart phones to keep us in touch with the web. The dependency may become problematic if the connection is severed while traveling — a situation which can result in anxiety.

The new research is published in the International Journal of Information and Communication Technology.

Hui-Jen Yang and Yun-Long Lay of the National Chin-Yi University of Technology, in Taichung, Taiwan, explain that as smart phone prevalence has grown, people have come to rely more and more on what these devices allow us to do when traveling.

That applies whether we are confirming hotel and travel arrangements, hiring a car, mapping our way around our destination, keep in touch with friends and colleagues back home, or sharing photos and videos via social media.

Investigators discovered young people and the better educated, or simply the more information literate, tend to have a greater “smart phone web-dependence”.

Moreover, this seems to translate into greater “smart phone web-dependence anxiety” when traveling and not having access to reliable and fast Internet access.

Researchers believe the findings are a modern-day example of the psychological concept called attachment anxiety.

Attachment theory proposes that a person or a group of people have the psychological tendency to gain safety by seeking closeness to another person.

They feel safe when the other person is present but anxious when the person is absent, for instance, children and parents alike become anxious when they lose sight of each other in a crowded place.

Researchers believe separation anxiety is just as real for people and their smart phones, although the problem is obviously a one-sided issue.

The team concludes that their study has implications for understanding the psychology of our interaction with information and communications technology. They also believe that expanding our knowledge of these emerging “relationships” is increasingly important as we advance in the new digital economy.

Source: Inderscience Publishers/EurekAlert

Financial Rewards to Stop Smoking Works Well among Poor Pregnant Women

Wed, 04/06/2016 - 8:30am

Smoking during pregnancy increases the risk of harm to both the mother and child with the behavior claiming the distinction as the number one cause of poor pregnancy outcomes.

Emerging studies also suggest in-utero smoke exposure can harm the child by increasing the risk of respiratory and cardiac illnesses later in life.

The good news is that the prevalence of smoking during pregnancy has decreased. The bad news is that economically disadvantaged pregnant women continue to smoke at much higher rates than affluent women.

For the last three decades, developing more effective smoking cessation interventions for pregnant women — especially among vulnerable populations — has been a public health priority.

While the challenge is ever present, one strategy stands out as being the most efficacious and cost-effective, explains Stephen T. Higgins, Ph.D., director of the Vermont Center on Behavior and Health.

Higgins discovered financial incentives in the form of vouchers exchangeable for retail goods, like groceries and diapers, work wonders in getting moms to stop smoking.

During the U.S. cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, when virtually all other treatments were failing miserably, Higgins initiated the use of monetary incentives along with intensive counseling to change behavior.

The treatment approach became known as contingency management in the substance abuse field.

The approach, he explains, has been repeatedly shown to aid smoking cessation among pregnant and post-partum women, especially those who are economically disadvantaged.

Higgins says this strategy is especially important for “those who work with this population and need to be aware of alternatives to the status quo.”

In addition to his own research findings, Higgins analyzed other randomized controlled trials between 2012-2015 that used financial incentives to help pregnant smokers quit.

The findings from his research now appear in an article, “Some Recent Developments on Financial Incentives for Smoking Cessation Among Pregnant and Newly Postpartum Women” which appears in the journal Current Addiction Research.

Source: University of Vermont College of Medicine/EurekAlert

Blood Biomarkers, Questionnaires May Identify Suicide Risk in Women

Wed, 04/06/2016 - 7:45am

Two new app-based questionnaires designed for female psychiatric patients along with a biomarker-detecting blood test may help clinicians successfully identify suicide risk in women being treated for mental health disorders, according to a new study by researchers at the Indiana University (IU) School of Medicine.

In combination, the questionnaires and biomarkers were able to predict future instances of suicidal thoughts with 82 percent accuracy, and future suicide-associated hospitalizations with 78 percent accuracy.

The study follows similar research published in 2015 showing that questionnaires and blood-based biomarkers could accurately predict which men were at greatest risk for suicidal ideation and behavior.

Although women have a lower rate of suicide completion that men — likely because they tend to use less violent methods — they actually have a higher rate of suicide attempts, said the study’s principal investigator, Alexander B. Niculescu III, M.D., Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and medical neuroscience at the IU School of Medicine.

“Women have not been adequately studied in research about suicide, and we did not know how well we would be able to define objective predictors of suicide in women,” said Niculescu.

“It was important to determine whether biomarkers and app-based questionnaires could be used to make predictions among women, and whether such tests can be adjusted for gender to be more accurate,” said Niculescu, who is also attending psychiatrist and research and development investigator at the Richard L. Roudebush Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

“These results suggest that the best way to proceed would be to use gender-tailored approaches,” he said.

For the study, the researchers regularly evaluated 51 female participants who had been diagnosed with psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia. The researchers paid close attention to the women’s suicidal ideation during each visit, noting whether the patients went from extremes of having no thoughts of committing suicide to high levels of suicidal ideation.

In 12 patients identified as having extreme swings of suicide ideation, genomic analyses were conducted to identify genes whose activity was significantly different between the two states.

Next, the researchers confirmed the suspected biomarkers using blood samples from six women who had committed suicide. Fifty such biomarkers were validated.

While some of the biomarkers were the same as those found in the male patient studies, others differed, such as those involved in mechanisms related to the body’s responses to the psychiatric drug lithium, and genes involved with circadian rhythms. The findings raise important questions about potential diagnostic and treatment approaches, said Niculescu.

The two app-based questionnaires assess a patient’s risk of suicidal thoughts and attempts, with one app measuring mood and anxiety, while the other app addresses life issues such as physical and mental health, social isolation and environmental stress. Neither app directly asks whether the individual is having suicidal thoughts.

The researchers also evaluated blood samples and medical records of different groups of 33 women with the same mental illness diagnoses to confirm that the biomarkers and apps predicted suicidal ideation.

Together, the biomarkers and app were able to predict future instances of suicidal thoughts with 82 percent accuracy, and future suicide-associated hospitalizations with 78 percent accuracy.

Niculescu cautions that since the study participants had already been diagnosed with psychiatric illnesses, it is still unknown how well the biomarkers would work among people who have not been diagnosed with mental illness.

The study paper titled “Towards understanding and predicting suicidality in women: biomarkers and clinical risk assessment,” is published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Source: Indiana University

New Support Tool for Relationship Problems

Wed, 04/06/2016 - 7:00am

Maintaining a happy relationship is not an easy task as one-third of married couples are distressed, and almost half of first marriages (and more than half of unmarried, cohabiting relationships) end in a divorce or separation.

Sadly, relationships in distress are linked to mental and physical health problems in partners and their children.

Given this background, Dr. Brian Doss, a psychology professor at the University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences, and a co-developer, created an online program called

“We know that high-quality marriage counseling can help couples solve problems and prevent divorce. The problem is that in-person counseling is expensive and time-consuming,” explains Doss.

Although couple therapy is effective in reducing relationship distress, it is utilized by less than one-third of divorcing couples, and racial and ethnic minority and lower-income couples receive services at even lower rates.

The new program provides a low cost alternative for obtaining relationship assistance.

The eight hour web-based program is structured so that couples complete online activities that include selecting a problem to work on. The couple then watches videos on how to solve the particular problem they selected. Afterwards, the couple has four 15-minute calls with project staff.

With funding from the National Institute of Health, the researchers conducted a nationwide study where 300 couples were randomly assigned to either begin the program or selected for a two-month waitlist control group.

“We assessed couples’ relationships before, during, and after the program,” said Doss.

Doss and his University of Miami colleagues tested the efficiency of the program and discovered improved relationship satisfaction, and reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety. Remarkably, 97 percent of the couples said they would recommend the program to a friend.

“We’re excited about the results because they show that couples can get almost all of the benefit they would get from in-person marriage counseling by completing this brief program,” said Doss.

“The results also showed that, by improving their relationship, it made people significantly less depressed and anxious.”

In July, an updated version of the program, sponsored through a federal grant from the Administration for Children and Families, will be available.

This version can be completed on a smartphone and will include coaches to help couples through the program. It will be available to married couples, couples living together, and same-sex couples.

As part of a research study, couples will be paid up to $200 for completing research assessments.

“I think the most rewarding thing to me about this program is that we’re able to help couples who otherwise wouldn’t get any assistance for their relationship problems,” said Doss.

“This program seems especially important for couples who don’t have the time or the money to go to face-to-face counseling. At the end of the day, it’s rewarding to be able to help so many couples and make a real difference in their lives and the lives of their children.”

Source: University of Miami/EurekAlert

Scientists Test if Brain Training Really Improves Cognition

Wed, 04/06/2016 - 6:15am

The claims are clear: Play video games and get smarter. Nevertheless, although the admonitions have been made for a decade, clear scientific evidence to confirm the promise is still outstanding.

New research believes the use of sophisticated technology will help to settle the claim that video game training changes the brain. Researchers are also identifying who may benefit from cognitive training and the new methods most likely to result in long-lasting, positive effects on cognition.

“We hope that by better understanding how and why cognitive abilities are altered by training, we can better harness its wider benefits,” says Duncan Astle of the Medical Research Council in the UK. Astle chaired the symposium on brain training during the Cognitive Neuroscience Society’s (CNS) recent annual conference in New York.

New studies on working memory tasks in children and on pairing noninvasive brain stimulation with cognitive training in adults is showing promising results, say experts. While more testing is required to apply these techniques to real-world training interventions, the studies are providing a baseline of neuroscientific evidence for developing tools that yield wider benefits.

Experts explain that working memory is key for of many of the brain training studies.

The ability to hold information in the mind for brief periods of time is central to our daily lives. And, Astle says, “we know that differences in working memory during childhood are incredibly strong predictors of educational progress.”

As a cognitive neuroscientist long interested in how the brain develops working memory capabilities in childhood, Astle has set out with colleagues to test if it is possible to train a child’s memory.

In work recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience and also new, yet-unpublished work that Astle presented at the CNS conference, his team investigated tasks in 8- to 11-year-olds to boost working memory.

They found that the training tasks yielded improvements in working memory capacity that were also reflected in measurements taken from magnetoencephalography (MEG, which uses magnetic fields to image the brain), showing increased strength of neural connectivity when the brain was at rest.

The children performed 20 training sessions, each around 30 minutes and with 8 games, from their home computers. The games required children to remember spatial or verbal information for brief periods of time and to use this information in an ongoing task.

For example, one game involved remembering the locations and order of asteroids that flashed up in sequence as they swirled across the screen. At the end of each trial, children had to click on the asteroids in order.

In the experimental group, the games became more difficult as the children got better; “the children were always being worked at the limits of their current capabilities,” Astle says. In the control group, the difficulty of the games remained the same.

The MEG data showed significant changes to connectivity between frontoparietal networks and the lateral occipital complex and inferior temporal cortex in those in the experimental group.

“We think that the training enhances an attentional process that children are able to use strategically on similarly structured but untrained tasks,” Astle says.

“But it is important to note that we have not demonstrated the wider benefits of this training.”

The eight to 11 age range is “very good because the children are able to handle pretty complex tasks, and yet are still far from adult levels of performance — i.e. there is still plenty of development left to happen,” Astle says.

“We think that this is a really important age range in which to understand working memory and training effects. However, there is a great need to understand these processes better across the lifespan, so we are always exploring the literature more widely to see how our findings fit in with other groups that study other age ranges.”

Mild electrical stimulation also may boost brain power as scientist are assessing the effectiveness of tDCS (transcranial direct-current stimulation) — a non-invasive brain stimulation technique that involves passing a very weak direct current through the brain.

“While it is not immediately clear how the current affects neural activity, the prevailing opinion is that it makes neurons either more susceptible to firing, or less susceptible, depending on which electrode is placed where,” says John Jonides of the University of Michigan.

In new work Jonides presented at the CNS conference, he and colleagues have found that tDCS has a robust effect on working memory, with enhancements lasting over a course of months.

“Previous research has been equivocal about whether tDCS enhances training, and there have been no long-term investigations of how long that training effect lasts,” Jonides says.

In the new study, 62 participants randomly received tDCS stimulation to either the right or left prefrontal cortex or received sham stimulation while performing a visuospatial working memory task.

After 7 training sessions, those who received the tDCS stimulation had increased working memory capabilities, even several months after completing their training. They also found that those who receive stimulation on the right prefrontal cortex had selective ability to transfer the working memory to non-trained tasks.

“The long-lasting effect of the training was completely unexpected,” Jonides says.

“We investigated this largely on a lark, not expecting to find much, but the fact that the training effect lasts as long as months is both surprising and very provocative because it opens up the use of tDCS for long-term learning enhancement.”

Jonides says that his study is just one data point in understanding these techniques, noting that it is still the early days of studying brain stimulation. Replication and generalization to other training and transfer tasks are necessary to continue testing the long-term impacts and best targets for stimulation.

“We need high-level, rigorous validation that focuses on understanding the mechanism of action, transfer of benefits, and sustainability of the effects in diverse populations,” says Adam Gazzaley of the University of California, San Francisco.

At the conference, Gassaley presented efforts to develop and validate “closed-loop” video games as cognitive enhancement tools. The closed loop approach enables scientists to intervene, record the impact of the intervention, and then reuse that data to iterate and optimize the process cyclically.

His team is using tDCS and tACS (with alternative current) to boost plasticity in the underlying brain cortex. “The goal is to accelerate the learning process that occurs during game play, especially for those individuals with damage,” Gazzaley says.

“There is great promise and reason for excitement in this approach, but we are still in our infancy and have much to learn both on the development and validation side,” Gazzaley says.

Nevertheless, the researchers know they must have evidence to support their claims.

“Sadly the hype surrounding the field has lost touch with its scientific foundations. As a result, it is tempting to ditch the whole endeavor. On the contrary, I think that this needs to spur scientists to invest in high-quality training studies,” explains Astle.

Source: Cognitive Neuroscience Society/EurekAlert

Exercise Offsets Health Effects from Sitting

Wed, 04/06/2016 - 5:30am

Many are aware of recent research that suggests sitting for too long of a period can cause serious health issues.

The finding is discouraging as many sit for prolonged periods (often working on a computer) as an essential part of a job thereby placing a person in a literal Catch-22.

New research may relieve some stress as investigators discovered office workers can stave off health problems associated with sitting down all day by regularly exercising.

The new UK study, found in the journal BMC Public Health, finds that being physically active may offset some of the deleterious consequences of spending large amounts of time not being active.

The study further emphasizes the importance of physical activity in the promotion and maintenance of health.

The paper does not let “couch potatoes” off the hook as researchers say non-active individuals are putting their health at risk by spending too much time sitting down and not exercising.

Low sedentary (sitting) time is associated with higher HDL (good) cholesterol levels, explain the researchers.

Conversely, sedentary behavior is defined as habitual sitting time. Higher levels of sedentary behavior are generally associated with worse health, whereas higher levels of physical activity are associated with better health.

However, the extent to which the combination of these behaviors influence health is less well-known.

The new research examined the associations of four categories of physical activity and sedentary time compared with markers of diabetes and heart disease.

The researchers used data from the 2008 Health Survey to paint a nationally representative sample of English adults.

Investigators grouped people into the following categories:

  • the physically active (those meeting the recommended guidelines for physical activity) and low sedentary “busy bees”;
  • the physically active and high sedentary “sedentary exercisers”;
  • the physically inactive (those not meeting the recommended guidelines for physical activity) and;

  • low sedentary “light movers” and physically inactive and high sedentary “couch potatoes”.

Lead researcher Dr Thomas Yates, from the Leicester Diabetes Centre and the University of Leicester, concluded:

“We demonstrate that in comparison to adults who are physically inactive with high sedentary time, those who are physically active have a more desirable health profile across multiple cardiometabolic markers even when combined with high sedentary time.

In contrast, low sedentary time in the absence of physical activity is associated with higher HDL-cholesterol levels.

“By suggesting that being physically active may offset some of the deleterious consequences of routinely engaging in high levels of sedentary behavior, this study further emphasises the importance of physical activity in the promotion and maintenance of health.

“However, given the observational design, the relative magnitude of effect of physical activity and sedentary behavior on health needs further examination through experimental or intervention level research,” said University of Leicester researcher Kishan Bakrania, who also worked on the study.

She added, “This research is significant because it demonstrates yet again why physical activity and exercise is so important. It shows that people who spend large amounts of time not moving either through work, leisure or lifestyle can counteract some of the negative effects of sedentary behavior by regularly exercising.”

Source: University of Leicester/EurekAlertl

Deep Brain Stimulation Reduces Chronic Pain

Tue, 04/05/2016 - 9:15am

The use of prescription opioid medicines to treat chronic pain is being reviewed as abuse of opioids has reached epidemic proportions with thousands of overdose-related deaths reported in the U.S. each year.

An alternative solution is to provide electrical stimulation of a deep, middle brain structure that blocks pain signals at the spinal cord level without drug intervention. The approach, studied by a University of Texas at Arlington research team appears promising.

Researches say that in addition to blocking pain, the electrical stimulation also triggers the release of beneficial dopamine, which may reduce the emotional distress associated with long-term pain.

“This is the first study to use a wireless electrical device to alleviate pain by directly stimulating the ventral tegmental area of the brain,” said Yuan Bo Peng, University of Texas psychology professor.

“While still under laboratory testing, this new method does provide hope that in the future we will be able to alleviate chronic pain without the side effects of medications.”

Peng and J.-C. Chiao, an electrical engineering professor, detail their discoveries in a new paper published in the journal Experimental Brain Research. Professor Xiaofei Yang, an electrical engineering professor at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China also participated in the study.

New approaches for treating chronic pain are urgently needed.

Nearly two million Americans abused or were dependent on opioid medicines in 2014, and 165,000 died between 1999 and 2014 from overdoses related to opioid prescriptions, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In their experiments, Peng and Chiao used their patented custom-designed wireless device to demonstrate that stimulation of the ventral tegmental area reduced the sensation of pain. They also confirmed that this stimulation reduced pain signals in the spinal cord, effectively blocking the perception of pain.

Morteza Khaledi, dean of the University of Texas’s College of Science, commended the researchers on this important work.

“Solutions for chronic pain are at the forefront of current medical research,” Khaledi said. “Dr. Peng and Dr. Chiao’s research is high-impact work focused on health and the human condition.

Due to difficult personal experiences with chronic pain, Chiao and Peng’s have worked for a decade to find a solution for chronic pain. Their innovative approach of devising advanced wireless implants helps individuals manage their pain as they go on with their lives.

Peng has specialized in pain relief throughout his career. He was a medical doctor and holds a doctorate in neuroscience from University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. He has held postdoctoral fellowships focused on pain at Johns Hopkins Medical Institute, as well as the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Health and Human Services.

“Until this study, the ventral segmental area of the brain was studied more for its key role in positive reinforcement, reward and drug abuse,” said Peng. “We have now confirmed that stimulation of this area of the brain can also be an analgesic tool.”

Source: University of Texas, Arlington

Testosterone Therapy May Lower Heart Attack Risk in Older Men with Low T Levels, Heart Disease

Tue, 04/05/2016 - 8:30am

Testosterone therapy may reduce the risk of major cardiovascular events, such as stroke, heart attack, and death, in older men with low testosterone levels and pre-existing coronary artery disease, according to a new study at Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute.

For the study, the researchers evaluated 755 male patients, ages 58 to 78, at Intermountain Healthcare hospitals. All participants had severe coronary artery disease. They were split into three different groups, with each group receiving a different dose of testosterone administered either by injection or gel.

The findings reveal that patients who received testosterone fared much better than those who didn’t. In fact, non-testosterone-therapy patients were 80 percent more likely to suffer an adverse event.

Specifically, 64 patients who weren’t taking testosterone supplements suffered major adverse cardiovascular events after one year, while only 12 who were taking medium doses of testosterone and nine who were taking high doses did.

Three years later, 125 non-testosterone-therapy patients suffered major adverse cardiovascular events, while only 38 medium-dose and 22 high-dose patients did.

“The study shows that using testosterone replacement therapy to increase testosterone to normal levels in androgen-deficient men doesn’t increase their risk of a serious heart attack or stroke,” said cardiologist Brent Muhlestein, M.D., co-director of cardiovascular research at the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute.

“That was the case even in the highest-risk men — those with known pre-existing heart disease.”

The researchers are still cautious in their findings as more research is needed to draw final conclusions..

“Although this study indicates that hypo-androgenic men with coronary artery disease might actually be protected by testosterone replacement, this is an observational study that doesn’t provide enough evidence to justify changing treatment recommendations,” said Muhlestein.

“It does, however, substantiate the need for a randomized clinical trial that can confirm or refute the results of this study.”

The new findings support the results of another Intermountain study published in 2015, which showed that taking supplemental testosterone did not increase the risk of experiencing a heart attack or stroke for men with low testosterone levels and no history of heart disease.

Both of these studies address a recent mandate by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration which required manufacturers of all approved testosterone products to add labels outlining the coronary risks of testosterone supplementation.

“The FDA’s warning was based on the best clinical information available at the time,” said Muhlestein. “As further information, like our research, becomes available — and especially after a large randomized clinical outcomes trial can be accomplished — hopefully the FDA will be able to change its warning.”

The Intermountain Medical Center research team will present results of the study at the American College of Cardiology’s 65th Annual Scientific Session.

Source: Intermountain Medical Center

Mindfulness Approach Helps Teens Eat Healthy

Tue, 04/05/2016 - 7:45am

Emerging research suggests a simple and safe way to help adolescents combat obesity is to raise their awareness of what they are eating and whether they are even hungry.

The approach was confirmed in a pilot study of 40 teens in Richmond County, Georgia. Researchers found that mindfulness-based eating awareness training encouraged adolescents to eat healthier and exercise more and marginalized their tendency to gain weight.

“This gives us a safe, inexpensive intervention that could be translated into a real-world program for overweight kids,” said Dr. Vernon A. Barnes, physiologist at the Georgia Prevention Institute at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University.

“If you can make a practice of keeping the awareness with you at every meal, this could benefit you throughout your life,” said Barnes, corresponding author of the study in the International Journal of Complementary & Alternative Medicine.

Researchers believe this is the first study to look at the impact of mindfulness approaches on the diet, exercise, and eating behavior of adolescents.

In the study, ninth-graders from six high school health physical education classes were randomly assigned to the control group — which just continued health classes — or 12-week sessions of mindfulness intervention.

To begin, students were instructed on easier techniques such as breathing awareness meditation. This was accomplished by training students to focus on the movement of their diaphragm as a way to learn to pay more attention to their bodies.

Thereafter, the sessions included researchers using chocolate to increase awareness of taste and taste satiety, and an explanation of how emotions can trigger overeating. Students were also instructed on the benefit of mindful movement, including using pedometers and walking meditation.

In the study, the majority of the adolescents were overweight; most had bad eating habits and most were black. About 20 percent of intervention participants reported they were not conscious of the fact that they were eating too fast or that they were uncomfortable afterward.

Nearly 60 percent reported a binge-eating problem, which, unfortunately, mindfulness-based eating awareness did not reduce, Barnes said.

Researchers assessed food consumption, how often they exercised and whether they continued to binge, at the end of the 12-week session and again three months later.

Study co-author, Dr. Jean L. Kristeller, clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at Indiana State University, had already adapted mindfulness-based stress reduction into an eating awareness program so adult consumers would be more aware of what they are eating and ideally better regulate it.

In the new study, she and Barnes adapted her two-hour program into a 50-minute session that would fit into normal class time for younger individuals.

Adolescents in the intervention arm ate better and exercised more, said Barnes. Moderate physical activity for participants increased 1.4 days per week compared with controls who actually decreased their activity over the study period by about half a day per week.

Over six months, intervention participants went from 2.9 to 3.6 to 4.3 days of activity each week vigorous enough to make them breathe hard and/or sweat. Controls dropped from nearly three days to about two days of vigorous activity per week.

Adolescents in the intervention group experienced a slight downward trend in their weight compared with their also mostly overweight peers who continued to trend slightly upward.

Weight loss, even maintaining a steady weight, is difficult among adolescents, who typically experience multiple growth spurts and puberty, Barnes said.

“At least for this group, we were able to keep them on an even keel for a few months,” he said.

While those in the intervention arm were consuming a healthier diet — lower fat and calories — many teens continued binge behavior, with most continuing to report mild to moderate binge behavior.

Importantly, intervention participants reported a decrease in perceived hunger which when combined with increased activity bodes well for future weight control.

Source: Medical College at Georgia/EurekAlert

Debate over Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Therapy

Tue, 04/05/2016 - 7:00am

Cognitive-behavioral therapy and a form of exercise therapy have shown good outcomes in a long-term study of chronic fatigue syndrome, also known as ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis).

Professor Michael Sharpe of Oxford University, UK, and colleagues followed up 481 of the original 641 participants in a 2011 study. In addition to cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or graded (gradually increasing) exercise therapy, another group of participants was given adaptive pacing therapy, in which the individual is encouraged to schedule in periods of rest in their day-to-day activities. All three groups also received standard medical care, and a further group received standard medical care alone.

Participants were contacted two-and-a-half years after having one of the four treatments. Initial results showed improvements in fatigue and physical functioning after CBT and graded exercise therapy. The later set of results indicated that these improvements were sustained for at least two years, regardless of whether they had any further treatment.

Participants in these groups of the study were also less likely to have sought additional therapy afterward. Despite the improvements in fatigue and physical functioning, the four treatment groups had roughly equal numbers that experienced a long-term deterioration in their general health, about 10 percent in each. Full results were published in the Lancet Psychiatry.

“The finding that participants who had CBT and graded exercise therapy had maintained their improvement over two years after entering the trial, tells us that these treatment can improve the long-term health of people with chronic fatigue syndrome,” said Professor Sharpe.

Professor Peter White from Queen Mary University of London, UK, said, “Finding no significant differences in the proportions getting worse over time is a reassurance for those who worry that some of these treatments might make things worse. But it is also a reminder that these treatments do not help everybody, and more research is needed into finding other treatments that help.”

However, the ME Association has concerns over the reliability of the study, which it says “means that people with ME will recover if only they start exercising and develop a positive mental attitude.”

The charity’s own research has found that over 70 percent of patients say exercise therapy worsens their symptoms. “The conclusion that people with ME will respond to graded exercise therapy because they are simply inactive and deconditioned is no longer tenable,” the charity says.

Dr. Steven Moylan and colleagues at Deakin University, Australia, explain in the same journal, “Dozens of names have been used to describe illnesses resembling chronic fatigue syndrome. The diverse nomenclature reflects heterogeneity in the disorder’s conceptualization, spawning terms as divergent as chronic Epstein–Barr virus, epidemic neuromyasthenia, systemic exertion intolerance disease, post-viral fatigue syndrome, myalgic encephalomyelitis, and chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome.

They add that this wide range of labels parallels the diversity in therapies used to try to treat these symptoms, which include drugs such as fluoxetine (Prozac), rintatolimod (Ampligen), or galantamine (Razadyne), psychological approaches such as CBT, and lifestyle interventions.

The Deakin University team interprets this study’s findings as suggesting that structured CBT and graded exercise therapy “seem to accelerate improvement of self-rated symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome compared with standard medical care or adaptive pacing therapy, an important finding in an illness with few treatment options and substantial morbidity.”

However, the conclusions reached by the study’s authors have been criticized because long-term improvements were similar over the four groups, perhaps because a large proportion of participants in the adaptive pacing therapy and standard medical care went on to seek CBT or graded exercise therapy.

An ME patient subsequently responded to the trial findings. In the Lancet Psychiatry, Charles Shepherd, Medical Adviser of the UK’s ME Association writes, “The long-term follow-up of the PACE trial, which originally reported that CBT and graded exercise therapy produced a significant and sustained improvement, even recovery, for some people with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) should, in theory, have been greeted positively by patients.”

However, he adds, there was very little difference in outcomes at long-term followup between any of the four interventions, and the patient community has expressed anger “because the media, along with many health professionals, has concluded that people can recover from ME/CFS through a simplistic approach to management involving exercise and positive thinking.”

Mr. Shepherd quotes a recent survey of 1,428 patients in which 73 percent of respondents reported that CBT had no effect on their symptoms and 74 percent that their symptoms were made worse by graded exercise therapy.

“Without robust objective evidence relating to improvement and recovery, the ME patient community will continue to regard the PACE trial as a tremendous waste of research funding money,” he concludes.


Sharpe, M. et al. Rehabilitative treatments for chronic fatigue syndrome: long-term follow-up from the PACE trial. The Lancet Psychiatry, 27 October 2015 doi: 10.1016/S2215-0366(15)00317-X

Moylan, S. et al. Chronic fatigue syndrome: what is it and how to treat? The Lancet Psychiatry, 27 October 2015 doi: 10.1016/S2215-0366(15)00475-7

Shepherd, C. Patient reaction to the PACE trial. The Lancet Psychiatry, 27 October 2015 doi: 10.1016/S2215-0366(15)00546-5

Babies of Bilingual Parents Have High Functioning Brains

Tue, 04/05/2016 - 6:15am

Over the past decade, research has demonstrated the cerebral benefit of bilingualism among adults. Studies have shown that being bilingual is associated with more brain activity in higher level brain regions accompanying executive functions.

New research now shows that this bilingualism-related difference in brain activity is evident as early as 11 months of age, just as babies are on the verge of producing their first words.

Prior studies among adults established that bilingualism corresponds to more activity in brain areas associated with higher level mental abilities including problem-solving, shifting attention, and other desirable cognitive traits.

“Our results suggest that before they even start talking, babies raised in bilingual households are getting practice at tasks related to executive function,” said Naja Ferjan Ramírez, lead author and a research scientist at the University of Washington.

“This suggests that bilingualism shapes not only language development, but also cognitive development more generally,” she said.

The study also gives evidence that the brains of babies from bilingual families remain more open to learning new language sounds, compared with babies from monolingual families.

The study appears online in Developmental Science and will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal.

“Monolingual babies show a narrowing in their perception of sounds at about 11 months of age — they no longer discriminate foreign-language sounds they successfully discriminated at six months of age,” said co-author Patricia Kuhl, co-director of I-LABS.

“But babies raised listening to two languages seem to stay ‘open’ to the sounds of novel languages longer than their monolingual peers, which is a good and highly adaptive thing for their brains to do,” Kuhl said.

The researchers used magnetoencephalography (MEG), which measures magnetic changes given off by active nerve cells. Unlike other brain-imaging methods, MEG can precisely pinpoint both the timing and location of activity in the brain.

The study is the first to use MEG to do whole-brain analyses comparing activation patterns in response to speech sounds in babies raised in monolingual and bilingual households.

In the experiment, 16 11-month-old babies — eight from English-only households and eight from Spanish-English households, and an even mix of demographic factors such as the family’s socioeconomic status — sat in a highchair beneath the helmet-like MEG scanner.

The babies listened to an 18-minute stream of speech sounds, such as “da’s” and “ta’s.” The stream included sounds specific to English or Spanish, and sounds shared by the two languages.

The researchers compared monolingual and bilingual babies’ brain responses to the language sounds.

Investigators say the most obvious difference in function was in two brain regions associated with executive function — the prefrontal cortex and orbitofrontal cortex. In these regions, the Spanish-English bilingual babies had stronger brain responses to speech sounds, compared with English-only babies.

The findings align with brain studies in bilingual and monolingual adults, Ferjan Ramírez said. The boost bilingualism gives to executive function areas in the brain could arise from bilinguals needing to switch back and forth between languages, allowing them to routinely practice and improve executive function skills.

Other brain evidence from the study should be a relief for parents wondering if their bilingual baby is learning enough language:

  • Bilingual babies displayed neural sensitivity to both English and Spanish sounds, meaning that they were learning both languages.
  • Bilingual babies had the same sensitivity to English sounds as the monolingual babies, which suggests that they were learning English at the same rate as the monolingual babies.

“The 11-month-old baby brain is learning whatever language or languages are present in the environment and is equally capable of learning two languages as it is of learning one language,” Ferjan Ramírez said.

“Our results underscore the notion that not only are very young children capable of learning multiple languages, but that early childhood is the optimum time for them to begin,” she said.

Source: University of Washington

Twitter Helps Communicate Accounts from Official Sources

Tue, 04/05/2016 - 5:30am

Despite the hype and hysteria, new research finds that Twitter can communicate the voice of truth and reason.

University of Washington (UW) investigators discovered that tweets from “official accounts” — the government agencies, emergency responders, media, or companies at the center of a fast-moving story — can slow the spread of rumors on Twitter and correct misinformation that’s taken on a life of its own.

Furthermore, investigators discovered pretweeted templates — according to a specific protocol and depending on how the issue is trending — are essential in todays information economy.

The researchers documented the spread of two online rumors that initially spiked on Twitter — alleged police raids in a Muslim neighborhood during a hostage situation in Sydney, Australia, and the rumored hijacking of a WestJet flight to Mexico — that were successfully quashed by denials from official accounts.

Researchers presented their findings in a paper at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference for Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing.

“A lot of emergency managers are afraid that the voice of the many drowns out the official sources on Twitter, and that even if they are part of the conversation, no one is going to hear them,” said co-author Elodie Fichet, a UW doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication.

“We disproved that and showed that official sources, at least in the cases we looked at, do have a critical impact.”

The case studies also offer lessons for organizations that may have plans in place to deal with an actual crisis, but haven’t considered how to handle online rumors and communicate before they have complete information or know what is true.

“Oftentimes in a crisis, the person operating a social media account is not the person who makes operational decisions or who even decides what should be said,” said senior author Kate Starbird, a UW assistant professor of human-centered design and engineering.

“But that person still needs to be empowered to take action in the moment because if you wait 20 minutes, it may be a very different kind of crisis than if you can stamp out misinformation early on,” she said.

The UW researchers found that the vast majority of the tweets both affirming and denying the two rumors were retweets of a small number of Twitter accounts, demonstrating that a single account can significantly influence how information spreads.

Much of the online rumoring behavior was driven by “breaking news” accounts that offer the veneer of officialdom but don’t necessarily follow standard journalistic practices of confirming information.

The first rumor was one of many that spread during the “Sydney Siege” of December 2014, in which a gunman took 18 hostages at a chocolate café in Australia. A radio talk show host reported that federal police were raiding homes in the largely Muslim Lakemba neighborhood when, in fact, officers were on a previously scheduled tour of a local mosque.

Over a period of several hours, Twitter users posted 1,279 tweets related to the rumor. Of those, 38 percent affirmed the rumor, and 57 percent eventually denied it.

Nearly all of the affirmations happened in the first hour and 20 minutes, before police responded to the rumor, and the bulk of these stemmed from just five Twitter accounts that were widely retweeted.

Once the Australian Federal Police issued a single tweet — “@AFPMmedia: Reports that the APF is conducting search warrants in the Sydney suburb of Lakemba are incorrect” — the tweet volume related to the rumor increased to one per second.

Ninety percent were retweets of the single police account source, and all were denials. Affirmations of the rumor never resurfaced in a significant way.

The second rumor the team tracked was a possible hijacking of a WestJet flight from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Mexico in January 2015, which generated more than 27,000 related tweets.

It surfaced on Twitter after flight-tracking websites picked up what they believed was a “hijacked” code coming from the plane, which was likely caused by an instrument error on the ground.

Being Saturday afternoon, no WestJet communications employee was officially on duty. But one member of the company’s social media team caught it from home about 20 minutes after the rumor the surfaced.

For the next 10 minutes, a growing crowd of users from “breaking news” accounts, aviation enthusiasts and others began tweeting about the signal code and a possible hijacking.

While WestJet was close to certain that the signal was an error, company officials did not yet know for sure, because the plane was in final descent and direct communication was not allowed due to security protocol. As a WestJet employee explained in a later interview with the research team:

“The biggest question for us was: ‘Do we respond now with almost confirmed information, or do we wait five minutes to get confirmed info? We chose, ‘Let’s get it out now,’ and then five minutes later confirmed.” The two WestJet denial tweets corresponded with a rapid drop in online chatter, and everything was back to normal within a couple of hours.

After that experience, WestJet decided to expand its inventory of precrafted tweet templates that do not require managerial approval and would be tweeted according to a specific protocol depending on how the issue is trending.

This allows social media managers to respond to a fast-moving story and issue some type of official statement — even if complete information is lacking — before a situation escalates.

Having a prepared action plan is important in today’s climate. Starbird explains: In today’s information economy, it’s important for emergency response agencies and other organizations to invest in the personnel and have an engaged social media presence before a crisis hits.

And these two examples of online rumoring behavior demonstrate how that investment can pay off.

“Being online is really important, even if you don’t want to be,” Starbird said.

“Avoiding social media channels because you don’t want to be confronted with misinformation is a real danger for an organization. You’re essentially opening up a space for information to be spreading without your voice being a part of it.”

Source: University of Washington

Women’s Desire for Smart Men May Lead to Negative Attitude toward Some Occupations

Mon, 04/04/2016 - 9:15am

New research has found that a woman’s preference for an intelligent partner is associated with less interest in male-dominated carrier occupations.

Investigators from the University at Buffalo say their findings support previous research that found romantic goals affected women’s attitudes toward careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

In particular, previous research suggested an incompatibility between romantic goal pursuits and intelligence goal pursuits for women, but not men.

The study, which appears in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, suggests that the incompatibility may be most pronounced for women who prefer partners of greater intelligence.

“What we found is that not all women reacted equally to these romantic goal primes,” says Lora Park, a University at Buffalo psychologist and the study’s lead author.

“Women who had a traditional romantic partner preference of wanting to date someone smarter than themselves were the ones who distanced themselves the most from STEM fields when they thought about romantic goals.”

The women in this research also performed worse on a math test and tended to show less identification with math, an academic discipline at the base of science and technology careers.

Researchers explain that the diluted interest and identification is specific to the perceived masculine fields of math and science and is not a general effect.

Participants did not show less interest in careers often considered feminine, such as those in social work or elementary education, says Park.

“This suggests there might be something strategic about the lack of interest or perhaps women are downplaying their interests in these fields,” says Park.

“On the other hand, it could be a process they’re not even conscious of. It could be an automatic reaction.”

Though women represent 48 percent of the overall U.S. workforce, they constitute only 24 percent of the country’s STEM workers, according to the Census Bureau’s 2009 Community Survey.

“In general terms, women have made many advancements, but in certain fields of STEM they haven’t made that much progress,” says Park.

The study conclusion stems from findings observed in four studies — among them a preliminary study involving more than 900 participants that established a link between a preference for dating smarter partners and traditional gender roles.

In this study, women show greater preference for dating smarter partners compared to men and the more they endorsed this preference, the more traditional they were in their gender roles.

The three additional studies examined math performance, math identification and interest in STEM when thinking about romantic goals.

Each study showed worse math performance, less identification with math, and less interest in STEM careers for those women who wanted to date someone smarter.

“I was surprised by the fact that some women have this preference,” says Park. “But I wasn’t surprised that this preference led to worse outcomes in these masculine fields.”

Parks says it’s interesting that women who didn’t have this partner preference tended to show better STEM outcomes, suggesting the more non-traditional preference might contribute to greater interest in STEM.

Source: University of Buffalo

Arthritis Patients Who Quit Smoking Significantly Cut Risk of Early Death

Mon, 04/04/2016 - 8:30am

Although smoking is linked to early death in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, researchers at the University of Manchester have discovered that quitting smoking can dramatically reduce this population’s risk. Their findings are published in the journal Arthritis Care and Research.

“This research provides important evidence that the risk of early death starts to decline in patients who stop smoking, and continues year [after] year,” said Deborah Symmons, Professor of Rheumatology and Musculoskeletal Epidemiology at the University of Manchester.

“We hope that this research can be used by public health professionals and rheumatologists to help more people quit smoking and reduce premature deaths, particularly for newly diagnosed patients with rheumatoid arthritis.”

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic autoimmune disease that attacks the body’s tissues, particularly around the joints. The disease causes joint pain and swelling and may eventually result in bone erosion and joint deformity. It is estimated that more than 400,000 people in the U.K and 1.3 million people in the U.S. suffer with rheumatoid arthritis.

Smoking plays a role in the development of rheumatoid arthritis, and so the prevalence of smoking is higher in these patients than in the general population. Rheumatoid arthritis patients are also at risk of dying younger because of the development of other smoking-related health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, severe infection, and respiratory diseases.

For the study, researchers at the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Manchester Musculoskeletal Biomedical Research Unit set out to discover whether there is an association between stopping smoking and subsequent mortality in patients with rheumatoid arthritis.

The research, led by Rebecca Joseph, Research Assistant at the Centre for Musculoskeletal Research at the University of Manchester, evaluated anonymized patient data of hospital admissions and death certificates.

The findings showed that the risk of death was almost twice as high in patients who smoked compared to those who had never smoked; however, the risk of death for former smokers was similar to that of never smokers. In fact, among arthritis patients who quit smoking, the risk of death fell for each additional year they abstained.

“Rheumatoid arthritis is a debilitating and painful condition affecting over 400,000 people in the UK, it can begin at any age and is unpredictable — one day you can feel fine and the next day be confined to bed, unable to get up to dress, even go to the toilet unaided,” said Stephen Simpson at Arthritis Research UK.

Source: Manchester University


Link between Gastric Bypass and Alcohol Abuse

Mon, 04/04/2016 - 7:45am

Gastric bypass surgery is a common form of bariatric surgery used to help extremely obese people lost weight and improve their health. Emerging findings, however, show a significant association between gastric bypass surgery and the subsequent development of alcohol abuse problems.

Researchers from the University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions (RIA) and the Pennsylvania State College of Medicine hope to discover why a significant percentage of people who undergo gastric bypass surgery develop alcohol abuse problems.

“Some recent findings have shown the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder following gastric bypass surgery was nearly double the risk in the general population,” says Panayotis (Peter) K. Thanos, Ph.D., senior research scientist at RIA.

“Although other studies have shown the risk to be not quite that high, the numbers all point to the need for greater research in this area.”

The association between the surgical procedure and development of alcohol abuse is puzzling.

The greater likelihood of developing alcohol problems is additionally unusual because of the older age of those who undergo gastric bypass, Thanos says.

“Most alcohol use disorders manifest during a person’s teens or 20s. However, people who have gastric bypass tend to be older, so the alcohol abuse arises at a much later onset date than in the general population.”

Thanos and his co-principal investigator, Andras Hajnal, M.D., Ph.D., of the Pennsylvania State College of Medicine, will focus on the possible neurological causes for the increased vulnerability for alcohol use disorders in this population.

“We will explore whether this outcome is due to changes in the brain’s dopamine system that are a unique result of the gastric bypass surgery, and independent of weight loss or post-surgical change of diet,” Thanos says.

“Such a change in the dopamine system may increase preference for and intake of alcohol based on its increased rewarding effects in the brain. This, in turn, poses an increased risk for development of addiction.”

Investigators believe the study findings will prove valuable to clinicians when they formulate personalized postoperative treatment plans for patients who may already have an increased risk of alcohol use disorders — in order to help prevent development of addiction.

Source: University of Buffalo