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Updated: 2 hours 58 min ago

Chronic Poverty Linked to Cognitive Dysfunction in Midlife

Wed, 09/28/2016 - 6:15am

Sustained economic hardship among young people is strongly linked to poor cognitive function in midlife and may contribute to premature aging, according to a new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Although previous research has shown that exposure to poor socioeconomic conditions during childhood and/or adulthood is associated with cognitive deficits, most of these studies involved older adults, offering little data on whether poverty can influence cognitive health earlier in life.

“Income is dynamic and individuals are likely to experience income changes and mobility especially between young adulthood and midlife,” said lead investigator Adina Zeki Al Hazzouri, Ph.D., of the Division of Epidemiology, Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of Miami.

“Monitoring changes in income and financial difficulty over an extended period of time and how these influence cognitive health is of great public health interest.”

The researchers investigated the effects of sustained poverty and perceived financial difficulty on cognitive function in midlife using income data for about 3,400 adults who took part in the ongoing Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) prospective cohort study. The CARDIA study tracked black and white males and females 18 to 30 years of age at the start of the study in 1985-86.

Income information was gathered from study participants six times between 1985 and 2010. Sustained poverty was defined as the percentage of time the participants’ household income was less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

Participants were divided into four groups: never in poverty; less than a third of the time; from third to nearly 100 percent of the time; or always in poverty. The annual income cut-offs for 200 percent of the federal poverty level for a four-person household were $26,718 in 1990, $28,670 in 1992, $31,138 in 1995, $35,206 in 2000, $39,942 in 2005, and $44,630 in 2010.

In 2010, at a mean age of 50 years, participants underwent a series of tests that are widely used and considered reliable to detect cognitive aging. The findings show significant and graded associations between greater exposure to economic hardship and worse cognitive function, suggesting that poverty and perceived hardship may be important contributors to cognitive aging.

People living in chronic poverty scored significantly worse than individuals never in poverty. Similar results were found in individuals with perceived financial difficulty.

“Maintaining cognitive abilities is a key component of health,” said Zeki Al Hazzouri. “Findings among this relatively young cohort place economic hardship as being on the pathway to cognitive aging and as an important contributor to premature aging among economically disadvantaged populations. It is important to monitor how trends in income and other social and economic parameters influence health outcomes.”

Source: Elsevier

Employers Across the Globe Must Take Pro-Active Approach to Manage Depression

Wed, 09/28/2016 - 5:30am

New data released from the London School of Economics shows that workplace depression is a major issue across different cultures and economies.

The effects of employee depression are “wide and devastating” consequences for thousands of organizations worldwide, say the investigators.

In a study of eight countries spanning diverse cultures and GDP, researchers discovered depression is collectively costing the nations of Brazil, Canada, China, Japan, Korea, Mexico, South Africa, and the USA more than $246 billion a year.

Data from a survey of 8,000 employees across these countries reveals that more highly educated employees, in particular, have a more negative impact if they remain at work while depressed. Researchers believe this occurs because managers and professionals are more likely to manage others and therefore their issues may cause problems that are felt down the line.

Researchers explain that this is the first study of its kind in the world to analyze the impact of depression on workplace productivity across a range of countries that differ both culturally and economically. The findings follow on the heels of a major European study on workplace depression by the same researchers in March 2014, signaling an urgent need for employers to take a more pro-active approach to tackling mental health issues.

Lead researcher Dr Sara Evans-Lacko says the enormous costs of depression due to absence and loss of productivity are set to increase unless governments and employers make it a priority.

The study, published online in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, also reveals:

  • On average, one percent of a country’s GDP is lost due to workers with depression attending work while unwell — a condition called presenteeism.
  • Absenteeism is higher than presenteeism in Japan due to people’s fear of losing their job if their depression is revealed at work.
  • The costs of employees attending work while dealing with depression is five to 10 times higher than those who take time off work to recover from depression.
  • The USA ($84.7 billion) and Brazil ($63.3 billion) experience the highest productivity losses due to presenteeism.
  • Less than 10 percent of respondents in China (6.4 percent) and South Korea (7.4 percent) reported having a previous diagnosis of depression compared to more than 20 percent in Canada, 22.7 percent in the USA, and 25.6 percent in South Africa.
  • Asian countries report lower productivity losses due to depression, attributed in part to a cultural reluctance to disclose mental health issues, so the actual figures (above) relating to China and South Korea are likely to be higher.
  • Japan, however, has the highest aggregate costs associated with employees taking time off for depression, with 22 percent (costing $14 billion) of people taking 21 or more days. This suggests that employees stay at work longer until their depression is severe.
  • The prevalence of depression in South Africa (25.6 percent) is nearly two times higher than the average (15.7 percent) reported across the eight countries.

Overall, researchers discovered depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, affecting up to 350 million people, according to the World Health Organization.

“These findings suggest that depression is an issue deserving global attention, regardless of a country’s economic development, national income or culture,” Dr Evans-Lacko says.

“The growth of mental illness worldwide also suggests the scale of the problem is likely to increase.”

The data provides compelling evidence for global workplace programs to be implemented to address mental health issues, Dr Evans-Lacko adds.

“Interventions which support employees with depression need to be developed, adapted, implemented and evaluated across all countries to mitigate the high costs of workplace depression.”

Source: London School of Economics

Brain Scans Show Effects of Therapeutic Brain Stimulation

Tue, 09/27/2016 - 7:45am

Amazing new research provides clinicians with visual evidence of brain networks and how electrical stimulation of the brain helps to reset or stimulate specific brain regions.

It is well established that stimulating the brain via electricity or other means may help to ease the symptoms of various neurological and psychiatric disorders. Clinical practices often use the approach to treat conditions ranging from epilepsy to depression.

But what really happens when doctors zap the brain?

Little is known about what makes this technique effective, or which areas of the brain should be targeted to treat different diseases.

A new study led by the University of Pennsylvania and the University at Buffalo marks a step forward in filling these gaps in knowledge. The research describes how the stimulation of a single region of the brain affects the activation of other regions and large-scale activity within the brain.

“We don’t have a good understanding of the effects of brain stimulation,” said first author Sarah Muldoon, Ph.D., an assistant professor of mathematics in the University at Buffalo

“When a clinician has a patient with a certain disorder, how can they decide which parts of the brain to stimulate? Our study is a step toward better understanding how brain connectivity can better inform these decisions.”

“If you look at the architecture of the brain, it appears to be a network of interconnected regions that interact with each other in complicated ways. The question we asked in this study was how much of the brain is activated by stimulating a single region.

“We found that some regions have the ability to steer the brain into a variety of states very easily when stimulated, while other regions have less of an effect,” said Danielle S. Bassett, Ph.D., an associate professor of bioengineering in the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Science.

The research was performed in collaboration with cognitive neuroscientist Jean M. Vettel, Ph.D., of the Army Research Laboratory; control theorist Fabio Pasqualetti of the University of California, Riverside; Scott T. Grafton, M.D., and Matthew Cieslak of the University of California, Santa Barbara; and Shi Gu of the University of Pennsylvania Department of Psychiatry.

The study, published in PLOS Computational Biology, used a computational model to simulate brain activity in eight individuals whose brain architecture was mapped using data derived from diffusion spectrum imaging. This imaging technique creates a type of brain image taken by an MRI scanner.

Researchers examined the impact of stimulating each of 83 regions within each subject’s brain. While results varied by person, common trends emerged.

Network hubs — areas of the brain that are strongly connected to other parts of the brain via the brain’s white matter — displayed what researchers call a “high functional effect”. They discovered stimulating these regions resulted in the global activation of many brain regions.

This effect was particularly notable in two sub-networks of the brain that are known to contain multiple regional hubs.

The areas include the subcortical network (which is composed of regions that evolved relatively early on and are critical for emotion processing) and the default mode network (which is composed of regions that evolved later and are critical for self-referential processing when a person is at rest, or not completing any task).

Stimulating regions in the subcortical network culminated in global changes, in which a diversity of areas within a subject’s brain lit up.

Stimulating regions in the default mode network also led easily to a plethora of new brain states, though the patterns of activation were constrained by the brain’s underlying architecture — by the white matter links between the nodes of the network and other parts of the brain.

Despite this limitation, the network’s agility supports the idea that the brain at “rest” is well suited for shifting quickly into an array of new states geared toward completing specific tasks.

In contrast to regions within the default mode network and subcortical networks, more weakly connected areas, such as in the sensory and association cortex, had a more limited effect on brain activity when activated.

These patterns suggest that doctors could pursue two classes of therapies when it comes to brain stimulation: a “broad reset” that alters global brain dynamics, or a more targeted approach that focuses on the dynamics of just a few regions.

The study confirms the findings of past research by Bassett and others on the controllability of the brain’s structural networks. In contrast to past work that used linear modeling to arrive at results, the new study employed nonlinear models that more accurately reflect the brain’s complex activity, Muldoon said.

Source: University of Buffalo

Alzheimer’s Symptoms May Differ for Hispanics

Tue, 09/27/2016 - 7:00am

New research suggests the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease may be different for Hispanics than other ethnic groups.

Researchers explain that certain symptoms associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease affect Hispanics more frequently and severely than other ethnicities. The symptoms include agitation and depression, as well as other behavioral presentations.

“Our study shows that the severity and proportion of neuropsychiatric symptoms is significantly higher in a Hispanic group compared to non-Hispanic whites,” said lead researcher Ricardo Salazar, M.D., a geriatric psychiatrist at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso (TTUHSC El Paso).

“This could have a significant impact on the treatment and understanding of how Alzheimer’s disease progresses in Hispanics.”

Study findings appear in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience (JNCN).

Both cognitive and behavioral decline can occur with Alzheimer’s disease, said the researchers. Cognitive signs of the disease include memory loss and problems with orientation and physical functioning.

Behavioral, or neuropsychiatric symptoms, include depression, elation, anxiety, hallucinations, delusions, and apathy. These neuropsychiatric symptoms have been associated with higher rates of institutionalization and more rapid progression of the disease.

Curious to understand how neuropsychiatric symptoms manifest in Hispanics with dementia, Dr. Salazar and his team gathered data on more than 2,100 individuals in the Texas Alzheimer’s Research and Care Consortium (TARCC) database.

Patients profiled in the database are predominantly non-Hispanic whites and Mexican-Americans who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment (MCI), or are otherwise healthy subjects.

The team specifically focused on each individual’s Neuropsychiatric Inventory Questionnaire (NPI-Q), an exam used to assess the extent of 12 neuropsychiatric symptoms.

A review of the data showed that during MCI — the intermediate state between healthy cognition and Alzheimer’s disease — all ethnicities were affected equally by neuropsychiatric symptoms. But once the condition had progressed to full-on Alzheimer’s disease, the severity of neuropsychiatric symptoms in Hispanics increased significantly.

Salazar believes these divergent symptoms may reflect a different disease process in Hispanics.

“When patients have neuropsychiatric symptoms, that signifies deterioration of different areas of the brain,” he explains.

“I believe functional imaging studies of the brain may show differences in the locations of amyloid or plaque collection in the brains of Hispanics with Alzheimer’s disease.”

The JNCN study also showed that depression and anxiety were more frequent in healthy Hispanics age 50 years and older than in healthy, non-Hispanic whites of the same age. This corroborates past studies suggesting that depression may be one of the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

“Hispanics tend to get Alzheimer’s disease at an earlier age than other [ethnic groups], and our study shows that these neuropsychiatric symptoms of depression and anxiety manifest earlier in them, too,” Salazar said.

“This suggests that depression and anxiety in older Hispanics could be an early warning for Alzheimer’s disease — and that treatment of these symptoms could even delay the disease.”

As a geriatric psychiatrist in an overwhelmingly Hispanic region, Salazar has witnessed this phenomenon firsthand.

“I am a strong believer that if you use antidepressants to treat MCI that appears with symptoms of depression, you can slow the progression of Alzheimer’s,” he said. “Maybe even avoid full-on progression to the disease.”

Salazar implored physicians to be aware that depression can mask dementia, particularly in the Hispanic population.

Salazar said the study has limitations. Ethnicity was self-reported by individuals, and there were also fewer Hispanic participants with Alzheimer’s disease than white participants with the disease.

While additional research is clearly needed, Salazar’s study could be a window to how to better treat — and even prevent — Alzheimer’s disease in this rapidly-growing demographic.

Source: Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso/Newswise

Early Retirement Planning Can Aid Mental Health

Tue, 09/27/2016 - 6:15am

A new European Union (EU) project established guidelines to prepare individuals for life after full-time retirement. Researchers from the University of Alicante urge people to start planning as soon as age 50 so as to life a fulfilling third life after retirement.

Improper planning of retirement may lead to depression and related mental health issues.

“Start early” is the main message from project partners after a two-year project led by the Evris Foundation in Iceland, and in which several EU Universities participated.

The project addressed the urgent need to establish directives and best practices for preparing individuals early for retirement. Researchers stressed the importance of on-going learning, environment and cultural factors, and knowledge sharing.

Research partners created a model awareness-raising campaign, the “Personal Development Academy” and the “Warehouse of Opportunities,” all of which are outlined in the directives and recommendations document, “Towards a Dynamic Third Age.”

Specifically, the University of Alicante led the development of the awareness-raising campaign model with the intention of enabling any center, institute or association to prepare the local population for retirement.

Researchers Concepción Bru and Ronda and Nuria Ruiz of UPUA first made a European map of retirement and carried out surveys on the retirement situation. They then used this data to design the awareness campaign.

Researchers explain that it is important to prepare for retirement when a person is between the ages of 50-55 when they have between ten and fifteen years before retirement. During this period, individuals should also plan for twenty more years of a full and active life after that.

Investigators urge individuals to self-reflect on what they want to do with their time during this retirement phase of their life. That is, what might we need to train on beforehand, from financial and legal issues, to preventive health, social skills, leisure activities, and even dependence prevention.

In short, we need to be prepared for retirement to fully embrace this period in our life.

Bru stresses the importance of carrying out awareness-raising campaigns on the value of the third age in society, aimed both at the general public and those approaching retirement.

“More and more people are living longer and in better health [and] the sudden stop in the activity you have spent your whole life engaged in” can lead to depression and related mental health issues.

Encouraging physical activity and inspiring a sense of inclusion and purpose is the overarching goal of the project, but the key for Bru is that retirees, or those approaching retirement, are able to “reinvent themselves.

She recommends a strategy in which a person engages in something they’ve never done before, like volunteering. “If you prepare yourself in good time and with good organization and guidance, a better retirement is possible,” explains Bru.

The idea, Bru tells us, is to continue work in the EU to put these recommendations into practice. Indeed, they are already being implemented by companies that took part in the project, as well as at an institutional level, via the regional ministry of education and the University of Alicante.

Source: Asociación RUVID/ScienceDaily

Happy Spouse May Improve Your Health

Tue, 09/27/2016 - 5:30am

New research suggests that if you are middle-aged or older, having a happy spouse may improve your health.

The study suggests spousal happiness provides a distinctive link to health among older adults.

Michigan State University researchers studied a nationally representative study of 1,981 middle-age heterosexual couples and found that people with happy spouses were much more likely to report better health over time.

This occurred above and beyond the person’s own happiness, according to the study, published in the American Psychological Association journal Health Psychology.

“This finding significantly broadens assumptions about the relationship between happiness and health, suggesting a unique social link,” said William Chopik, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University and principal investigator of the study.

“Simply having a happy partner may enhance health as much as striving to be happy oneself.”

Researchers had previously identified that happy people are generally healthy people, but Chopik wanted to take it one step further by exploring the health effects of interpersonal relationships.

According to Chopik, there are at least three potential reasons why having a happy partner might enhance a person’s health, irrespective of one’s own happiness:

  • happy partners likely provide stronger social support, such as caretaking, as compared to unhappy partners who are more likely to be focused on their own stressors;
  • happy partners may get unhappy people involved with activities and environments that promote good health, such as maintaining regular sleep cycles, eating nutritious food, and exercising;
  • being with a happy partner should make a person’s life easier even if not explicitly happier.

“Simply knowing that one’s partner is satisfied with his or her individual circumstances may temper a person’s need to seek self-destructive outlets, such as drinking or drugs, and may more generally offer contentment in ways that afford health benefits down the road,” Chopik said.

Researchers assessed the survey information of couples age 50 to 94, including happiness, self-rated health and physical activity over a six-year period.

The results showed no difference between husbands and wives in the study.

Eighty-four percent of study participants were white, eight percent were African-American, and six percent were Hispanic.

The survey asked participants about their health, including level of physical impairment, chronic illnesses and level of physical activity, as well as any concerns they had regarding their spouse’s health.

Participants rated their own happiness and life satisfaction.

Source: American Psychological Association/ScienceDaily

Computerized CBT Can Aid Care for Alcohol Disorders

Mon, 09/26/2016 - 7:45am

New research finds a computer-based cognitive-behavioral therapy program can be an effective strategy for treating alcohol use disorders.

Yale researcher Kathleen M. Carroll, Ph.D., and other members of the Yale Psychotherapy Development Center created the program called CBT4CBT.

The program was created to provide consistent and high-quality delivery of cognitive behavioral therapy skills training to avoid substance use.

A new study, published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, demonstrated that CBT4CBT is effective at reducing rates of alcohol use when delivered as an add-on to standard outpatient addiction treatment.

The study evaluated a web-based version of CBT4CBT for alcohol use disorders developed by Carroll and Brian D. Kiluk, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry.

Sixty-eight people who were seeking treatment for an alcohol use disorder were randomly assigned to one of three treatment conditions for eight weeks: standard treatment as usual (TAU); standard treatment plus CBT4CBT; and CBT4CBT with brief clinical monitoring.

Those assigned to either of the CBT4CBT conditions remained in treatment longer than those assigned to TAU, according to the results.

While there was an overall increase in rates of alcohol abstinence in the full sample during the 8-week treatment, people assigned to TAU and CBT4CBT demonstrated a greater increase in abstinence rates than those assigned to TAU.

The study also showed that the CBT4CBT treatments generated cost savings compared to TAU alone.

Source: Yale University

Kids with ADHD More Sensitive to Repeat Failures

Mon, 09/26/2016 - 7:00am

New research finds that children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) will avoid situations that may have a risk of failure thereby missing opportunities to learn and grow.

Researchers explain that children with ADHD are potentially more exposed to criticism than typically developing children. Their difficulties with focusing, elevated activity levels and impulsive actions often get them into trouble with their parents, teachers, and friends.

This makes it important to find out how punishment affects the behavior of children with ADHD. Are they more sensitive to punishment, or are they less sensitive to punishment? A team of researchers from Japan and New Zealand presented children with ADHD and typically developing children with a computer-based game that involved reward and punishment.

“When we first began this study, there had not been a lot of experimental research done,” said Dr. Gail Tripp, one of the authors of the paper and director of the Human Developmental Neurobiology Unit at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST).

“We need to be extremely careful about using punishment, especially when working with children. Some of our first attempts to study ADHD and punishment were not very successful, because the children simply abandoned the task when they kept losing points or did not get enough rewards.”

This time, the researchers were able to develop a computer-based game that was engaging but still incorporated an element of punishment. Children with ADHD and typically developing children chose between playing two simultaneously available games.

Both games were presented at the same time on a computer screen, and looked the same: a two by two grid in which a mix of fun characters and sad faces appeared after pressing a button on the screen. Four matching characters equaled a “win,” while four sad faces equaled a “loss.”

Any other combination was a neutral outcome. The children could switch between playing the two games as often as they liked. Altogether, 210 children took part in the research, with 145 diagnosed with ADHD. All children were living in Japan or New Zealand and spoke English as their first language.

“The chance of winning rewards was equal for the two games, but one of the games was designed to have a four times higher likelihood of losing: playing on that game, a child would be ‘punished’ more often than with the other one,” Tripp said.

In both games, when a child won, the computer gave him or her 10 points and played a simple animation; when a child lost, the computer took away five points and played a laughing sound. All children began with a positive balance of 20 points and the game continued until either they reached 400 points or completed 300 trials. Each child won a prize at the end of the game.

The rewards were also arranged to discourage children from playing on one game exclusively or switching every time. A session lasted typically half an hour. The reason for such an extended game was to observe fairly stable performance over time.

“What we actually saw was that both typically developing children and children with ADHD developed a preference — what we call ‘bias’ — for the less ‘punishing’ game,” Tripp said.

“Both groups played the less punishing game more often. But over time, the children with ADHD found losing points and the laughter more punishing than typically developing children.”

During the first 100 trials, there was no difference between the two groups of children. But later on, the preference for the less punishing alternative increased substantially in the children with ADHD, while the choices of the typically developing children were stable for the duration of the task.

By the 200th trial, the children with ADHD were much less likely to play the more punishing game. The results suggest that children with ADHD avoid punishment more often over time than typically developing children. The latter seemed less distracted by punishment and kept their focus on winning.

Researchers believe this finding has important implications. “If a child with ADHD is reluctant in doing a task, or if the child gives up easily, it might be important for the parent or the teacher to check if the task has the appropriate balance of reward and punishment,” Tripp said.

“We are not saying that the task has punishment built in, rather that the effort needed to do the task might be perceived as punishing by the child. The more effortful a task is, the more incentives a child is going to need to keep persisting, and simple but frequent rewards, such as smiles or words of encouragements, can help children with ADHD to stay on the task.”

The same could be said for typically developing children, but this is especially important for children with ADHD, as they seem more sensitive to repeated experiences of punishment or failure, and are more likely to miss opportunities for success.

The study appears in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Source: Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University — OIST/AlphaGalileo

US Teens Use Illicit Drugs More Than European Peers

Mon, 09/26/2016 - 6:15am

Emerging research finds that American youths in 10th grade have a high illicit drug use compared to their European counterparts. The American adolescents, however, have among the lowest rates of drinking and smoking.

The findings come from a 2015 survey of 15- and 16-year-olds in 35 European countries. The results provide perspective on the substance-using habits of American adolescents.

The results of the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD), show country-by-country results for the use of various licit and illicit drugs. In all but a few of the 35 countries included, the findings are based on national samples of the same age group.

In the U.S., data from the Monitoring the Future study’s national survey of 10th-graders — upon which much of the design of the European study is based — provide results for comparison.

This survey is conducted by scientists at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and is sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Among the key findings for illicit drug use are the following:

  • Europe has shown recent trends in the use of several important substances similar to those seen in the U.S., including a rise in marijuana use and declines in the use of cigarettes and alcohol by teens;
  • On average, only 18 percent of the European students had used an illicit drug in their lifetime, compared to 35 percent of U.S. students the same age. Only the Czech Republic ranked higher than the U.S. at 37 percent;
  • The U.S. was tied with France for second highest in lifetime cannabis use at 31 percent. In the European countries, the average was about half of that (16 percent), and the highest rate again was in the Czech Republic at 37 percent. There were large variations in the rates for individual countries, ranging down to four percent in Moldova;
  • Cannabis use in the prior 30 days was highest in the U.S. (15 percent) and France (17 percent) — more than twice the average across all 35 European countries of seven percent;
  • Lifetime use of amphetamines was by far the highest among the U.S. teens at 10 percent. The average for the 35 ESPAD countries was only two percent;
  • The U.S., Ireland and Georgia had the highest rates of ecstasy use (which has been in decline in the U.S.) at four percent lifetime prevalence;
  • The U.S. and Poland had the highest rates of lifetime hallucinogen use at five percent, compared to an average of two percent across the European countries;
  • Lifetime cocaine use by U.S. teens was above average at three percent versus two percent on average in Europe, but there were somewhat higher rates in Bulgaria (five percent), France (four percent), and Poland (four percent);
  • Lifetime heroin use in the U.S. sample was at the average for the European countries at one percent lifetime prevalence, but several countries had higher rates of two percent to three percent.

Researchers said that while U.S. teens stand out for having high levels of use of controlled substances, their use of cigarettes and alcohol is equally noteworthy for being low in comparison to most of the countries of Europe.

Daily cigarette smoking in the prior 30 days by U.S. teens is tied with Iceland at next to lowest (three percent). Only Norway is lower at two percent, while the average for the 35 ESPAD countries was 12 percent (with national estimates ranging widely from two percent to 25 percent).

The percentage of U.S. 15- and 16-year-old students who drank any alcohol in the 30 days prior to the survey was 22 percent — less than half the average proportion in the European countries (48 percent). Only Iceland had a lower prevalence of use (nine percent) and the U.S. was tied with Norway for second lowest.

The percentage of students who said they had five or more drinks on one or more occasions in the prior 30 days was 35 percent, on average, in Europe. The U.S. sample had 11 percent indicating such binge drinking in the prior two weeks, second lowest only to Iceland at eight percent.

“While the U.S. number would be a bit higher if it referred to the prior 30 days rather than the prior two weeks, it likely would not change its overall ranking,” according to principal investigator Lloyd Johnston, Ph.D.

Overall, the considerable differences in terms of substance use between U.S. teens and those in Europe are not entirely new, said Johnston, University Distinguished Research Scientist at the U-M institute.

“The popular illicit drug use epidemic first emerged in the U.S. in the 1960s and eventually spread to be a pandemic affecting countries around the world,” he said. “But it has not blossomed in Europe to the extent it did in this country.

“On the other hand, smoking and drinking are long established behaviors in many countries of Europe, and we can see in these coordinated surveys of adolescents that smoking and drinking — while declining some — are still more entrenched there than in the U.S., where we have seen substantial declines among youth in recent years.”

Marijuana was seen as available to a greater proportion of students in the U.S. than in any of the European countries. Two thirds of U.S. 10th-graders said it would be fairly easy or very easy to get, compared with an average of only 30 percent among those the same age in Europe.

On the other hand, alcohol and cigarettes were seen as readily available to slightly more of the U.S. students 15 and 16 years old, than to their counterparts in Europe, despite the fact that use of both cigarettes and alcohol is relatively low among the U.S. teens compared to teens in Europe.

Source: University of Michigan

Adult Ed Classes Shown to Enhance Well-Being

Mon, 09/26/2016 - 5:30am

New research from the U.K. confirms what many have known for a while, that adult education classes can improve how we feel about ourselves regardless of the subject studied.

Oxford University scientists partnered with the Worker’s Educational Association (WEA), the largest voluntary sector provider of adult education in England and Scotland, to study attendees at seven separate day-time adult education classes.

Each class took place over seven months and included a break in the middle. Attendees completed questionnaires before and after their class three times over the seven months: at the beginning of their courses, after three months, and at the end of the seven months.

Participants were involved in one of three activities: singing, crafts, or creative writing.

Overall, attendees at all seven classes had improved mental and physical health and reported more satisfaction with their lives at the end of their courses.

“The students reported benefits including increased self-confidence, a greater feeling of control over their lives, and more willingness to take on new challenges. Some said the classes made them more motivated to be more active, despite the classes not specifically involving physical activity,” said research leader Dr. Eiluned Pearce.

Participating in the classes added social benefits in addition to subject-matter expertise.

“Participants also said that the classes broadened their networks of friends and gave them an increased sense of belonging. We also found that the more someone felt part of their group, the more their health and wellbeing improved,” she said.

An intriguing finding was in the singing and creative writing classes.

Building on the results of an earlier paper from the same study, which found that people in singing classes felt closer to their group more quickly than those in the other classes, the team looked at how relationships formed between individuals in the classes.

Each person was asked to name those other people in the class whose name they could remember, whether or not they felt connected to each person they named, and whether they had talked to that person during class.

“The results showed that those in the singing and creative writing groups built up relationships with other individuals more quickly than the crafters, and singers felt more connected to the class as a whole more quickly than both the other groups.” Explains Pearce.

“While this confirms our earlier finding that singing has an ‘ice-breaker effect’ compared to other activities, it shows that other activities may enable people to increase their social networks just as much, even if it takes them longer to feel connected to their group as a whole.”

Co-author Dr. Jacques Launay added, “While much of our previous work has demonstrated the importance of music, it is likely that the most socially bonding activities are always those that are personally chosen and enjoyed. This research adds to growing support for the relevance of creative activities in creating happy communities and improving health and well-being, with consequent benefits for public services and society.”

Researchers say the study findings confirm the feedback they have obtained from students over the years: Learning is a fantastic way to boost your self-esteem and confidence.

Additionally, adult education provides a therapeutic effect. For many students, creative courses are a means of finding a new outlet for expressing their feelings.

This can be of immense help during times of personal difficulty or emotional upheaval, such as divorce or bereavement. Simply going to a course can offer much-needed respite.

For others, learning can be an opportunity to reignite a former passion. This could be anything from a subject which you enjoyed at school to an area which you are interested in. Whatever your reason, there are many benefits to be gained by signing up to a course.

Source: University of Oxford

Beliefs About Nicotine Affects Smokers’ Satisfaction

Sun, 09/25/2016 - 8:45am

How the brain responds to nicotine may depend, at least partially, on how much nicotine the smoker thinks is in the cigarette, according to a new study by the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas.

The findings, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, show that smoking a nicotine cigarette but believing that it lacked nicotine was less satisfying than smoking a cigarette that was known to have nicotine. In other words, in order to satisfy nicotine cravings, smokers had to not only smoke a cigarette with nicotine but also believe that they were smoking nicotine.

“These results suggest that for drugs to have an effect on a person, he or she needs to believe that the drug is present,” said Dr. Xiaosi Gu, assistant professor in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences and the study’s lead author.

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor neural activity in the insula cortex, a region of the brain associated with drug cravings and addiction. It also plays a role in diverse functions such as bodily perception and self-awareness.

The double-blind study involved 24 chronic, nicotine-addicted smokers. Over four visits, participants were twice given a nicotine-containing cigarette and twice a placebo. With each type of cigarette, they were once correctly told what type they had and once told the opposite.

“We examined the impact of beliefs about cravings prior to and after smoking while also measuring neural activity,” said Gu, who also serves as the head of the Computational Psychiatry Unit at the Center for BrainHealth.

During each visit, participants underwent an fMRI scan and were given a cigarette, but each visit tested a different condition: the participant believes the cigarette contains nicotine but receives placebo; believes the cigarette does not contain nicotine but receives a nicotine cigarette; believes the cigarette contains nicotine and receives nicotine; believes the cigarette does not contain nicotine and receives placebo.

After smoking each cigarette, participants completed a reward learning task while undergoing fMRI. They rated their levels of craving before smoking the cigarette and after.

The fMRI scans showed significant neural activity that correlated to both craving and learning signals when subjects had smoked a nicotine cigarette and had been told that it contained nicotine. However, smoking nicotine but believing it was a placebo did not produce the same brain signals.

The new study supports prior research showing that beliefs can alter a drug’s effects on craving, providing insight into potential avenues for new drug addiction treatments.

Source: Center for BrainHealth


New Study Challenges View About Children’s Moral Judgment

Sun, 09/25/2016 - 8:00am

Children’s ability to make moral judgments has often been underestimated, according to a new study.

When making moral judgments, adults tend to focus on people’s intentions rather than on the outcomes of their actions — hurting someone intentionally is much worse than hurting them accidentally.

However, the prevailing view in developmental psychology is that younger children’s moral judgments are mainly based on the outcomes of actions, rather than the intentions of those involved, according to researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in England.

To investigate this claim, the researchers set out to look at the reasons for the findings of two of the most influential and frequently cited studies in this area, both of which provide strong evidence that young children’s moral judgments are mainly outcome-based.

These studies also tested adults, which allowed researchers to establish a mature response against which children at various ages can be compared. Many of them also made outcome-based judgments, according to the UEA researchers, who say they question the methods that were used.

The team, led by Dr. Gavin Nobes of UEA’s School of Psychology, replicated the studies — published in 1996 and 2001 — and examined the effects of rephrasing one of the questions.

While in the original studies children were asked whether the action was good or bad, the new question asked about the person who acted.

As in previous research on whether moral judgments are based on intention or outcome, children were asked about pairs of stories in which accidents took place. In one the intention was good and the outcome bad, and in the other the intention was bad but the outcome good.

In the UEA study, when the original question was asked, the findings were very similar to the previous studies. Researchers found that children’s and adults’ judgments were primarily outcome-based. Regardless of intention, they judged accidents with good outcomes to be good, and accidents with bad outcomes to be bad.

However, when the question was rephrased, the four to five year-olds’ judgments were equally influenced by intention and outcome, and from five to six years they were mainly intention-based.

The older children’s and adults’ judgments were essentially reversed, from almost exclusively outcome-based in response to the original question, to almost exclusively intention-based when the rephrased question was asked.

“This area of research is about a fundamental aspect of morality,” said Nobes. “For most adults, if someone does something bad deliberately, they are worse than if they did it accidentally. The long-held claim has been that young children judge according to the outcome of an event, rather than according to the person’s intention. If that is the case, then children’s moral judgments are fundamentally different from adults.”

“However, our findings indicate that for methodological reasons, children’s ability to make similar intention-based judgments has often been substantially underestimated,” he continued. “We show that they can be remarkably adult-like in their thinking. The implication is that even young children, from around the age of four, can make intention-based moral judgments, just like adults.”

If an adult got a judgment wrong, a five year old child is bound to get it wrong too, he noted. That led the researchers to look at whether the authors of the original studies asked “appropriate, relevant” questions, he said.

“It appears that they did not, yet the robustness of the original findings has rarely, if ever, been questioned,” he said. “Neither have these studies been replicated, nor alternative explanations investigated. This is a concern when research findings are subsequently used by researchers and others to inform their work with children.”

The new study involved 138 children aged four to eight and 31 adults. They were told four stories involving accidental harms (positive intention, negative outcome) or attempted harms (negative intention, positive outcome).

The stories, pictures and questions were identical to those of the original studies, except that each participant was asked the original acceptability question about two of the stories, and a rephrased acceptability question about the other two, the researchers explained.

Examples of the acceptability questions included:

Original: “Is it okay for Ethan to give Chris a big spider? How good/bad is it to give Chris a big spider? Is it really, really good/bad or just a little good/bad, or just okay?

Rephrased: “Is Ethan good, bad or just okay? How good/bad? Is he really, really good/bad, just a little good/bad, or just okay?”

“Our findings could hardly have been clearer,” Nobes said. “The main implication is that, when the rephrased, person-focused acceptability question was asked, there was no evidence at any age to support the claim that children’s judgments are primarily outcome-based.”

“It appears that the majority of participants both in our study and in the original studies interpreted the original acceptability question to be solely about whether the outcome was good or bad, and so did not take the person’s intention, and therefore culpability, into account,” he continued.

“The wrong question was asked in the original studies,” he claimed. “We know the replication worked because when we asked the same questions we got the same or very similar results. We made a minor change, but the results are dramatically different, and the only possible explanation is the rewording of the question.”

Source: University of East Anglia

Black Survivors of Breast Cancer Score Higher in Spiritual Quality of Life

Sun, 09/25/2016 - 7:15am

A new analysis of several thousand breast cancer survivors found differences in the overall quality of life between black and white women during both active treatment and up to two years later. The findings show that white women reported higher physical and health-related quality of life during active treatment. However, black women reported higher spiritual quality of life scores.

“Black women generally had poorer physical and functional quality of life after the diagnosis of breast cancer, and socioeconomic and other factors explain some of these differences. However, for some domains, black women report better quality of life,” said study co-author Andrew Olshan, Ph.D., associate director of population sciences at University of North Carolina (UNC) Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The study, published in the journal Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, drew upon surveys that assessed health-related quality of life issues for women aged 20 to 74 years who lived in North Carolina and had breast cancer.

The analysis is part of the third phase of the Carolina Breast Cancer Study, a study first launched in 1993 as part of an effort to better understand why black women have been found to disproportionately die from breast cancer.

Researchers used surveys to measure the physical, functional, emotional, and spiritual-related quality of life of more than 2,100 women at five months after their breast cancer diagnosis, and at 25 months, when women have typically stopped receiving active treatment and begin the survivorship phase.

For spiritual quality of life, the findings show that black women scored two points higher than white women at five months, when they were in the midst of active treatment, and two years after diagnosis. Specifically, black women scored an average of 41.4 points on spiritual quality of life, while white women scored an average of 39.3 at five months.

Two years after diagnosis, black women scored an average of 40.5 on spiritual quality of life, while white women had an average score of 38.5. Even after adjusting for socioeconomic factors, black women continued to score higher than white women for spiritual quality of life two years after diagnosis, the study reports.

“Black women we surveyed had significantly better spiritual wellbeing than white women, and it was both statistically significant and clinically meaningful,” said the study’s first author Laura Pinheiro, a doctoral candidate in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health.

White women’s average scores for physical and functional quality of life, which track patients’ feelings of fatigue, nausea, pain, ability to work, sleep, acceptance of illness, and ability to enjoy things in normal life, were two to 2.5 points higher than black women at five months.

The average score for white women’s physical health at five months was 20.9, compared to 18.4 for black women. For functional health, white women scored an average of 20.1 compared to 18.2 for black women.

At 25 months after diagnosis, white women still scored higher for physical, social, and functional health-related quality of life, but the gap between the physical scores for white and black women narrowed compared to what they were at five months for physical health-related quality of life.

Pinheiro said that the findings, in-line with previous studies, may suggest that the health care system has had a positive impact on the black women’s overall physical health, helping to narrow those gaps.

“As these women are entering the health care system, perhaps some of their other health conditions are better managed,” Pinheiro said. “That is our speculation, and it will merit some additional investigation.”

Furthermore, after adjusting for socioeconomic factors during survivorship, differences in physical health-related quality of life were diminished.

“Our research suggests that improved social and economic conditions could improve access to care, reduce co-morbid conditions, and other factors that are associated with both the prognosis of breast cancer, quality of life, and the disparities seen between various groups,” Olshan said.

Source: University of North Carolina Health Care System

Children & Teens Seek Role in Dealing With Floods

Sun, 09/25/2016 - 6:30am

New research has found that floods have a serious impact on the well-being of children, but also that children and teens want to take on a role in flood risk management.

According to researchers from Lancaster University in England, a number of factors impact children’s well-being, including:

  • loss of valued personal and family possessions, friendship networks, familiar spaces, and education;
  • experiencing fear, anxiety, poverty, isolation, unfairness, destruction, stress, uncertainty, being ignored and misunderstood;
  • lack of sleep and recreation;
  • deterioration in diet, space and housing conditions; and
  • ilack of flood education in schools.

However, the research also shows that children play an important role in recovery from flood disasters, by helping families, neighbors, and the wider community and they do not want to be kept in the dark.

As one 10-year-old girl told the researchers, “Adults need to know that children become more scared and worried when they do not know what is happening.”

The study shows that having an active role in flood risk management actually helps with children’s recovery. Yet current flood and emergency planning policy either ignores children or positions them as “vulnerable,” rather than treating them as citizens in their own right.

The researchers propose that children be given more information before, during, and after flooding because they have a right to know how to prepare, what to expect, and how they can contribute.

The report, authored by Maggie Mort, Marion Walker, Alison Lloyd Williams, and Amanda Bingley of Lancaster University and Virginia Howells of Save the Children, details children’s and young people’s experiences of the winter 2013-14 floods in the UK.

Researchers worked with two groups of children: A primary age group in rural South Ferriby, Lincolnshire, where a tidal surge breached the banks of the Humber; and a high school group in urban Staines-upon-Thames, Surrey, where the government declared a state of emergency and the army was brought in to assist emergency services cope with tidal, rainfall, river, and groundwater flooding.

According to the researchers, six core themes emerged:

  1. Children’s feelings of isolation are connected with the long-term, ongoing impact of flooding — and there is a value in them getting together to share experiences;
  2. A better understanding of children’s strengths and vulnerabilities and arming them with better information before, during, and after flooding enables them to be seen as active citizens and not passive victims;
  3. There is a need for systematic and statutory flood education program in schools and the wider community;
  4. There is also a need for schools and the community to acknowledge and understand the range of losses experienced by children, such as the loss of personal “precious” items that embody memories, familiar spaces, friendships, social networks, and loss of time;
  5. Insurance companies must improve assessment and approach to repairs to acknowledge children’s needs. For example, living in temporary accommodation was worsened by a lack of space and, sometimes, having to relocate several times before returning home prolonged periods of uncertainty;
  6. There is a need to recognize that flood-affected children actually have the experience to help themselves and others understand the measures that should be taken to prepare, protect, and adapt to flooding — and the very clear message that all households need to make a proper flood plan.

The research resulted in the production of Children’s and Young People’s Manifestos, the staging of several events, a six-minute film, “Ten Tips for the Insurance Sector on how to better support flood-affected children and young people,” and the development of a flood suitcase toolkit for use in schools and youth centers.

“Flooding is recognized as a major and chronic national hazard and it is time to recognize that children and young people are severely affected, yet still have no voice in policy that affects them,” Mort said. “It is time to bring together the agencies that work on flood response, recovery, and resilience to address their exclusion.”

Source: Lancaster University

How the Brain Fills in the Blanks of Language

Sat, 09/24/2016 - 8:45am

A new study shows that when you finish your spouse’s sentences or answer a fill-in-the-blank question, you’re engaging the brain’s relay station for memories.

It’s an area that until now was largely neglected by scientists studying language, according to researchers at the University of California, Berkeley.

While speaking and understanding language obviously drawn upon our memories, most studies look at language and memory as separate functions of the brain, ignoring any interconnection, the researchers note.

In their new experiment, the Berkeley psychologists shows that memory and language are deeply linked, via the hippocampus, which plays a key role in memory associations.

Located in the center of the brain, the hippocampus acts like a router to link related memories — the color, shape, feel, scent, and taste of an orange, for example — so that we are able to make associations.

The hippocampus’s role in relating incoming words to stored knowledge is necessary in understanding and generating sentence meaning, according to the researchers.

Recently it was reported that patients with hippocampal damage had exactly the sort of symptoms one would expect if the hippocampus were involved in language associations: Problems relating word meanings to each other and extracting contextual information from sentences and discourse, the researchers said.

“The link between language and the hippocampus could be an explanation for some of the language deficits we see in patients who don’t have damage to the language areas of the brain,” said former University of California, Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Vitória Piai, now a senior researcher at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.

“I think that once we start studying language as it happens in real life, we will find that the hippocampus is doing more in the service of language than we thought before.”

For their study, the researchers recorded neuronal activity using electrodes inserted into the hippocampus of 12 people as they heard fill-in-the-blank sentences with an obvious answer: “He swept the floor with a ________,” for example.

In most of the subjects, the hippocampus showed highly synchronized activity as they homed in on the right answer while hearing the sentences, but before a picture of the answer was displayed. This was a sign that the region was making associations throughout the brain to come up with the right word: In this case, broom, the researchers explained.

According to Piai, deep-brain recording captures millisecond by millisecond neuron firings, showing precisely how the brain deals with language in real time.

Language studies most often employ functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures oxygen flow in the brain, a slow process that doesn’t allow researchers to measure activities that take place in a fraction of a second, she elaborated.

“Studies with fMRI show where things could be connected but it doesn’t tell you how the brain is putting these things together,” Piai said.

“I think you can only get to the ‘how’ question once you start using electrophysiology, which has a more direct relationship to neural activity in the signal than deoxygenated blood has. This experiment is so exciting because of the possibility that we will start to understand language and memory in a more integrated way, start examining it as it really happens.”

“Language is something that has classically been viewed as evolving and occurring in the cortex, which is why we have language and rats don’t,” said co-author Robert Knight, a University of California, Berkeley professor of psychology and former head of the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute.

“Despite the fact that the hippocampal area of the medial part of the temporal lobe is well known to be linked to spatial and verbal memory in humans, the two fields have been like ships running in the fog, unaware that the other ship is there.”

In the new study, conducted in epilepsy patients undergoing intracranial electrode studies at the University of California, Irvine Medical Center and Stanford University Medical Center to locate the source of their abnormal brain activity, Piai took advantage of a well-known behavioral effect to explore the involvement of the hippocampus in language. She recorded only from the non-epileptic hemisphere of the brain.

Previous studies of language have shown that people fill in the blank more quickly when a sentence has only one obvious answer — “She locked the door with the ________,” for example — than when the sentence has many possible answers, such as “She came in here with the ________.”

In the new study, subjects heard six-syllable sentences, followed by a pause and then a brief flash of a picture of the answer. Subjects were asked to name the picture.

In 10 of the 12 subjects, only constrained sentences — those with a single obvious answer — caused a burst of synchronized theta waves in the hippocampus, activity characteristic of the hippocampus when it makes a memory association.

“Vitória showed that when you record directly from the human hippocampal region, as the sentence becomes more constraining, the hippocampus becomes more active, basically predicting what is going to happen,” Knight said. “The hippocampus started building up rhythmic theta activity that is linked to memory access and memory processing.”

Over the years, Knight and others have studied brain activity using electrodes on the brain surface, so-called electrocortiocography, or inserted into the brain, called intracranial recording, and shown that memory neurons vibrate between one and 80 cycles per second. Neurons representing associated memories, however, vibrate with a “theta” rhythm in the range of four to eight cycles per second.

One theory is that when one of these associated neurons is triggered, all those vibrating with the same frequency fire simultaneously, giving us recall of related memories. The smell of an orange triggers a picture in the mind, the taste and smell of an orange, and any positive or negative emotions connected with oranges.

Similarly, a constrained sentence would gradually build up synchronized vibrations among related memories. For the sentence “He swept the floor with a ________,” “swept” and “floor” trigger synchronized vibrations in different sets of neurons encoding related memories, overlapping with the only word tightly related to both: “broom.”

Piai suspects that when we hear unconstrained sentences, the words do not bring up any related or overlapping associations.

The new findings could open up a whole new area of study with intracranial recordings to probe details of the connection between language and memory, Knight said.

“This study shows that memory contributes as a sentence is evolving in time; it is a real-time part of our language system, not a slave to the language system,” he said.

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: University of California Berkeley

Number Sense Just as Strong in Blind People

Sat, 09/24/2016 - 8:00am

People who have been blind since birth are just as proficient in numerical reasoning skills as sighted people, according to a new study at Johns Hopkins University (JHU). The findings contradict the popular belief that basic number sense — shared by humans and even animals — has evolved primarily as a result of looking at the world and trying to quantify the sights.

The neuroscientists also found that the visual cortex in blind people is highly involved in doing math, suggesting the brain is far more adaptable than previously believed.

“The number network develops totally independently of visual experience,” said lead author Shipra Kanjlia, a graduate student in JHU’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. “These blind people have never seen anything in their lives, but they have the same number network as people who can see.”

For the study, both born-blind participants and sighted participants wearing blindfolds solved math equations and answered language questions while having a brain scan. With the math problems, participants heard pairs of increasingly complicated recorded equations and were asked to tell whether the value for “x” was the same or different.

The participants also heard pairs of sentences and responded if the meaning of the sentences was the same or different.

With both blind and sighted participants, the key brain network involved in numerical reasoning, the intraparietal sulcus, became very active as participants solved the math problems.

Meanwhile, in blind participants only, regions of the visual cortex also responded as they did math. In fact, the more complicated the math, the greater the activity in the vision center.

Although it has been a common belief that brain regions, including the visual cortex, had entrenched functions that could change slightly but not fundamentally, these findings confirm recent research showing just the opposite: The visual cortex is extremely plastic and, when it isn’t processing sight, can handle a variety of tasks, including responding to spoken language and math problems.

The findings suggest that the brain as a whole could be extremely adaptable, almost like a computer. Depending on data coming in, the brain could reconfigure to handle almost limitless types of tasks, say the researchers. In fact, it could someday be possible to reroute functions from a damaged area to a new spot in the brain.

“If we can make the visual cortex do math, in principle we can make any part of the brain do anything,” said co-author Dr. Marina Bedny, an assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences.

This study is the first to show that this repurposed vision center in blind people is not just responding to new functions haphazardly. The cortex in blind people has essentially become specialized with some parts of this area doing math, while other parts are doing language, etc.

Even in a resting state, brain scans show these new brain regions connect to traditional parts of the brain responsible for math and language in sighted people.

The findings are published online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: Johns Hopkins University

Don’t Know Whether to Laugh or Cry? How the Brain Decides

Sat, 09/24/2016 - 7:15am

When you are caught in a situation where you don’t know whether to laugh or to cry, how does your brain decide what to do? Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany and the University of Haifa, Israel have identified the neural mechanisms that help our brains decipher complex emotional situations that include both positive and negative elements.

The findings are published in the journal Human Brain Mapping.

“When someone offends you while smiling, should your brain interpret it as a smile or an offense? The mechanism we found includes two areas in the brain that act almost as ‘remote controls’ that together determine what value to attribute to a situation, and accordingly which other brain areas should be on and which should be off,” said study co-leader Dr. Hadas Okon-Singer of the University of Haifa.

While previous research has identified the mechanisms by which the brain determines whether something is positive or negative, most of these studies have focused on dichotomous situations — the participants were exposed either to a completely positive stimulus (a smiling baby or a pair of lovers) or a completely negative one (a dead body).

The new study, led by Okon-Singer and Dr. Christiane Rohr of the Max Planck Institute, sought to examine complex cases involving both positive and negative stimuli. They wanted to find the neural mechanism that “chooses” whether a given situation is positive or negative and classifies different situations that are emotionally unclear.

In order to simulate the lack of emotional clarity, the researchers presented the participants with scenes from emotionally-conflicting movies, such as Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, while inside an MRI machine. This movie involves many complex situations, including one scene where a person is torturing another while smiling, dancing, and talking to his victim in a friendly manner.

The participants later reported whether they felt that each scene included a conflict. For each moment in the movie, the participants also rated the extent to which they felt that the positive elements were dominant, so that the scene was pleasant to watch, or the extent to which negative elements were dominant, so that the scene was unpleasant to watch.

As in previous studies, the researchers identified two active networks — one that operates when we perceive the situation as positive, and another that operates when we perceive it as negative.

For the first time, however, they identified how the brain switches between these two networks.

The findings show that the transition between activity in the positive or negative network is facilitated by two areas in the brain — the superior temporal sulcus (STS) and the inferior parietal lobule (IPL). These areas form part of the negative and positive networks, but also acted when the participants felt that the movie scene embodied an emotional conflict. The STS was found to be tied to the interpretation of positive situations, while the IPL was linked to the interpretation of negative situations.

Okon-Singer explains that these two areas essentially function as “remote controls” that become active when the brain recognizes an emotional conflict. The two areas seem to “speak” to each other and interpret the situation in order to decide which one will be on and which one off, thereby determining which network will be active.

“The study suggests that these areas can influence the value — positive or negative — that will be dominant in an emotional conflict through control of other areas of the brain,” she added.

The findings may help facilitate further research to examine why this mechanism does not work properly in some people.

“We hope that by understanding the neural basis of the interpretation of situations as positive or negative will in the future help us to understand the neural systems of populations that have emotional difficulties. This will enable us to develop therapeutic techniques to make the interpretations among these populations more positive,” the researchers concluded.

Source: University of Haifa

Using Social Media During Presidential Debates Hampers Learning About Candidates

Sat, 09/24/2016 - 6:30am

With the first presidential debate of 2016 slated for Monday, Sept. 26, viewers who actually want to learn about the two major candidates would do well to just watch the debate rather than follow social media during the event.

According to new research from the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) of the University of Pennsylvania, people watching presidential debates on television learn less about the candidates if they are simultaneously following social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, than debate viewers who aren’t using social media at the same time.

According to researchers, during the 2012 president debates, viewers who were simultaneously “following others’ reactions or issuing their own on social media networks learned at a lower rate.”

The study, published in Political Communication, was based on three waves of a six-wave survey of U.S. adults conducted in 2012. Two waves in the study followed the second and third debates between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney and the third took place post-election. Each involved 1,216 or more interviews, according to the researchers.

“As young viewers increasingly get news and political information through social media, it is important to understand how this form of exposure affects what they know about the candidates and their stands on the issues,” said Annenberg Public Policy Center Director Kathleen Hall Jamieson.

“Overall, debates are still an incredibly powerful forum in which people can learn about the candidates,” said Jeffrey A. Gottfried, Ph.D., lead author of the Annenberg study, who is now a research associate at Pew Research Center.

“But social media seem to be distracting viewers from learning.”

Surprisingly, the use of social media tended especially to distract TV debate viewers from learning information that is favorable to the candidate they prefer, Gottfried noted.

“Those who favored Obama tended to learn less about Obama, and those who favored Romney tended to learn less about Romney than the candidates’ supporters who were watching the debate but not following social media,” he said.

Even with the distraction during the debates, the study also found that — after controlling for traditional media use, Internet use, and other factors — social-media users generally “were significantly more knowledgeable than non-users about candidate stances and background facts of the 2012 presidential election.”

The study reports that more than one in five people who watched at least some of the 2012 debates reported simultaneously following people’s reactions on social media. Responses varied by age. For instance, 44 percent of 18- to 29-year-old viewers of the third presidential debate used social media at the same time, while only 10 percent of those ages 50 and up did.

“While watching a debate with or without simultaneous social media engagement is better than not viewing a debate at all, the effect of debate viewing is dulled when simultaneously engaging in social media multitasking,” the researchers said.

“Were social media use during debates to become more pervasive in subsequent election cycles, this phenomenon could erode the positive effects of debate viewing.”

Source: Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) of the University of Pennsylvania

Fish Oil Linked to Resiliency and Mood in Veterans

Fri, 09/23/2016 - 7:45am

New research suggests a low concentration of fish oil in the blood and a lack of physical activity may contribute to the high levels of depressed mood among soldiers returning from combat.

The research, by a Texas A&M University professor and his former doctoral student, involved a study of 100 soldiers at Fort Hood. In a study titled “Fatty Acid Blood Levels, Vitamin D Status, Physical Performance, Activity and Resiliency: A Novel Potential Screening Tool for Depressed Mood in Active Duty Soldiers,” investigators worked to identify factors affecting moods in returning soldiers.

The research was conducted by Major Nicholas Barringer when he was a Texas A&M doctoral student under the direction of Health & Kinesiology Professor and Department Head Richard Kreider.

“We looked at how physical activity levels and performance measures were related to mood state and resiliency,” Kreider says. “What we found was the decrease in physical activity and the concentration of fish oil and Omega-3s in the blood were all associated with resiliency and mood.”

Kreider says fish oil contains Omega-3 fatty acids that help to boost brain function. He says studies also show that fish oil acts as an anti-inflammatory within the body — helping athletes and soldiers manage intense training better.

Fish oil content is especially important for soldiers due to the consistent training and physical regiments performed in and out of combat and risk to traumatic brain injury.

The study originated from research conducted by Colonel Mike Lewis, M.D. who examined Omega-3 fatty acid levels of soldiers who committed suicide compared to non-suicide control and found lower Omega-3 levels in the blood were associated with increased risk of being in the suicide group.

Barringer says he believes these findings to be significant toward addressing some of the issues many soldiers face.

“The mental health of our service members is a serious concern and it is exciting to consider that appropriate diet and exercise might have a direct impact on improving resiliency,” Barringer notes.

In order to properly measure soldiers physically, Kreider and Barringer developed a formula they say has the potential to assist in effectively screening soldiers with potential PTSD ahead of time.

The formula measures a number of factors including: fitness and psychometric assessments, physical activity, and additional analysis.

“By improving resiliency in service members, we can potentially decrease the risk of mental health issues,” Barringer says.

“Early identification can potentially decrease the risk of negative outcomes for our active service members as well as our separated and retired military veterans.”

“The military is using some of our exercise, nutrition, and performance-related work and the findings may help identify soldiers at risk for depression when they return from combat tours,” Kreider notes.

He says that by working to identify such high-risk issues faced by soldiers, it can set a precedent that will benefit not only military leadership, but also the general public.

“The public must realize that our soldiers need support before, during, and after their service,” Kreider explains.

“There needs to be a time for soldiers to transition, become re-engaged within a community, and stay engaged in that community.”

Source: Texas A&M

Virtual Reality Helps ASD Kids Improve Social Skills

Fri, 09/23/2016 - 7:00am

Experts explain that although high-functioning children with an autism spectrum disorder often have above average intellectual capabilities, they often experience social difficulties.

The communication challenges and difficulty inhibiting thoughts and regulating emotions can lead to social isolation and low self-esteem.

A method to help these children appears on the near horizon as research from the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas suggests a new virtual reality training program shows promise.

“Individuals with autism may become overwhelmed and anxious in social situations,” research clinician Dr. Nyaz Didehbani said.

“The virtual reality training platform creates a safe place for participants to practice social situations without the intense fear of consequence.”

Researchers found that participants who completed the training demonstrated improved social cognition skills and reported better relationships. Neurocognitive testing showed significant gains in emotional recognition, understanding the perspective of others and the ability to solve problems.

Study findings appear in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

For the study, 30 young people ages seven to 16 with high-functioning autism were matched into groups of two. The teams completed 10, one-hour sessions of virtual reality training for five weeks.

Participants learned strategies and practiced social situations such as meeting a peer for the first time, confronting a bully and inviting someone to a party. Participants interacted with two clinicians through virtual avatars.

One clinician served as a coach, providing instructions and guidance, while the other was the conversational partner who played a classmate, bully, teacher or others, depending on the scenario in the world that’s similar to a video game.

“This research builds on past studies we conducted with adults on the autism spectrum and demonstrates that virtual reality may be a promising and motivating platform for both age groups,” said Tandra Allen, head of virtual training programs.

“This was the first study to pair participants together with the goal of enhancing social learning. We observed relationships in life grow from virtual world conversations. We saw a lot of growth in their ability to initiate and maintain a conversation, interpret emotions, and judge the quality of a friendship.”

“It’s exciting that we can observe changes in diverse domains including emotion recognition, making social attribution, and executive functions related to reasoning through this life-like intervention,” said Dr. Daniel C. Krawczyk.

“These results demonstrate that core social skills can be enhanced using a virtual training method.”

Source: University of Texas, Dallas