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Updated: 1 hour 45 min ago

Rotating Night Shift May Be Hazardous To Your Health

Tue, 01/06/2015 - 8:30am

A new study of U.S. nurses has found that working a rotating night shift can be dangerous to your health.

Prior research had suggested that night shift work is associated with higher risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer. In 2007 the World Health Organization classified night shift work as a probable carcinogen due to circadian disruption.

In the current investigation, researchers found that women working rotating night shifts for five or more years appeared to have a modest increase in all-cause and CVD mortality.

Moreover, those working 15 or more years of rotating night shift work appeared to have a modest increase in lung cancer mortality.

The study can be found in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Experts are aware that sleep and the circadian system play an important role in cardiovascular health and antitumor activity. For the current study, an international team of researchers investigated possible links between rotating night shift work and all-cause, CVD, and cancer mortality in a study of almost 75,000 registered U.S. nurses.

Using data from the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS), the authors analyzed 22 years of follow-up and found that working rotating night shifts for more than five years was associated with an increase in all-cause and CVD mortality.

Mortality from all causes appeared to be 11 percent higher for women with six to 14 or 15 years of rotating night shift work. CVD mortality appeared to be 19 percent and 23 percent higher for those groups, respectively.

Investigators did not find an association between rotating shift work and any cancer mortality, except for lung cancer in those who worked shift work for 15 or more years (a 25 percent higher risk).

The NHS, which is based at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, began in 1976, with 121,700 U.S. female nurses aged 30-55 years, who have been followed up with biennial questionnaires.

Night shift information was collected in 1988, at which time 85,197 nurses responded. After excluding women with pre-existing CVD or other than non-melanoma skin cancer, 74,862 women were included in this analysis.

Rotating shift work is defined as working at least three nights per month in addition to days or evenings in that month. In the survey, respondents were asked how many years they had worked in this way. The prespecified categories were never, one to two, three to five, six to nine, 10-14, 15-19, 20-29, and >30 years.

According to Eva S. Schernhammer, M.D., Dr.P.H., of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, this study “is one of the largest prospective cohort studies worldwide with a high proportion of rotating night shift workers and long follow-up time.

“A single occupation (nursing) provides more internal validity than a range of different occupational groups, where the association between shift work and disease outcomes could be confounded by occupational differences.”

Schernhammer believes the study is powerful as the results “add to prior evidence of a potentially detrimental relation of rotating night shift work and health and longevity.”

She also believes additional research is needed to derive practical implications for shift workers and their health. This knowledge would help hospitals determine the role of duration and intensity of rotating night shift work and improve the ability to match shift schedules with individual traits (e.g., chronotype).

Source: Elsevier/EurekAlert

Tired nurse working nights photo by shutterstock.

‘Healthy’ Obese Experience Health Declines

Tue, 01/06/2015 - 7:45am

Despite recent findings that some obese adults appear to maintain health, new research finds that for most, the idea of “healthy” obesity is a misleading concept.

In a new study, researchers from the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London in England discovered that most obese individuals become progressively less healthy over time.

Their research has been published online in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

Investigators studied 2,521 men and women between the ages of 39 and 62. They measured each participant’s body mass index, cholesterol, blood pressure, fasting plasma glucose, and insulin resistance.

Healthy obesity was defined as obesity with no metabolic risk factors.

More than 51 percent of the healthy obese participants became unhealthy obese over the 20-year study period, while only 11 percent lost weight and became healthy non-obese.

The remaining 38 percent stayed in the healthy obese category during the term of the study, while six percent of participants originally in the healthy non-obese category became unhealthy obese.

“A core assumption of healthy obesity has been that it is stable over time, but we can now see that healthy obese adults tend to become unhealthy obese in the long-term, with about half making this transition over 20 years in our study,” said graduate student and lead study author Joshua Bell.

“Healthy obese adults were also much more likely to become unhealthy obese than healthy or unhealthy non-obese adults, indicating that healthy obesity is a high risk state with serious implications for disease risk.”

Among the 2,521 participants, 181 were initially classified as obese, including 66 who were classified as healthy obese. After five years, 32 percent of the participants initially classified as healthy obese had become unhealthy obese.

By 10 years, 41 percent were unhealthy obese, 35 percent were unhealthy obese at 15 years, and more than 51 percent were unhealthy obese at the 20-year mark.

In contrast, only six percent of the healthy obese participants lost weight and became healthy non-obese at the end of the first five years of the study.

The healthy non-obese portion of participants changed from 4.5 percent after 10 years to 6.1 percent after 15 years and to 10.6 percent after 20 years.

The purpose of the study was to determine whether healthy obese adults maintain the metabolically healthy profile for the long term or naturally transition into unhealthy obesity over time.

No studies have examined this issue for this long a period of time.

“Healthy obese adults show a greater risk for developing cardiovascular disease than healthy normal-weight adults, although this risk is not as great as for the unhealthy obese. Healthy obesity is only a state of relative health — it’s just less unhealthy than the worst-case scenario.

“And as we now see, healthy obese adults tend to become unhealthy obese over time, providing further evidence against the idea that obesity can be healthy,” said Bell.

The information is important as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 35.7 percent of adults in the United States in 2010 were classified as obese.

“Healthy obesity is only valid if it is stable over time, and our results indicate that it is often just a phase. All types of obesity warrant treatment, even those which appear to be healthy,” Bell said.

Among the most common health consequences of obesity are cardiovascular diseases — mainly heart disease and stroke — diabetes, musculoskeletal issues, and some forms of cancer including endometrial, breast, and colon cancers.

Source: Journal of the American College of Cardiology

Sick obese patient photo by shutterstock.

Exercise Linked to Parkinson’s Prevention

Tue, 01/06/2015 - 7:00am

Research evidence continues to mount that physical exercise may help lower a person’s risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. In a new study that followed 43,368 men and women in Sweden for about 13 years, moderate daily exercise was found to be associated with a lower risk of Parkinson’s.

Parkinson’s belongs to a group of conditions called motor system disorders, which occur when the brain loses dopamine-producing cells. It affects more than one percent of people aged 60 years and above.

Symptoms include trembling in the arms, hands, legs, jaw, and face, stiffness of arms and legs and trunk, slowness of movement, and impaired balance and coordination. Eventually, walking, talking, and everyday tasks become more challenging.

Parkinson’s disease is the fourteenth leading cause of death among Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The team behind the new study was led by Dr. Karin Wirdefeldt of the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. They used questionnaires to determine levels of physical activity of many types including housework, commuting, occupational work, leisure time exercise, and total daily physical activity.

Overall activity was converted into “metabolic equivalent” (MET) hours per day, using estimated oxygen consumption associated with each type of activity.

Participants were all healthy at the start of the study in 1997. By 2010, 286 individuals had developed Parkinson’s disease. Those who spent more than six hours per week on housework and commuting had a 43 percent lower risk than those who spent fewer than two hours per week on these activities.

Among men only, a “medium amount” of overall activity (judged as an average of 39 MET hours per day) was found to carry the lowest risk, a 45 percent lower risk, of Parkinson’s disease, compared with a low level of total physical activity. The risk was not lowered by leisure time exercise or job-related physical activity alone, among either men or women.

Full details appear in Brain: A Journal of Neurology.

Wirdefeldt believes the study has a number of strengths. It included both men and women, and it was a prospective study, because all information on physical activity was assessed in advance of Parkinson’s disease developing. A prospective study follows individuals over a period of time, looking for particular outcomes such as the development of a disease.

The team’s findings are also backed up by a further analysis in which they pooled the data from the current study with that of five earlier prospective studies. This analysis supported the finding that more physical activity is linked to a lower risk of Parkinson’s disease.

“Another major strength of this study is that we considered the entire spectrum of daily energy output, rather than purely focusing on dedicated exercising,” she said. “Further, we conducted a rich set of sensitivity analyses to test the robustness of our findings.

“The protective effect of physical activity was further supported when we summarized all available evidence from published prospective cohort studies. These findings are important for both the general population and for the health care of patients with Parkinson’s disease.”

The team believes that their measurement of total physical activity (via an extensive questionnaire) “captures a comprehensive picture of daily physical activities and may be a better representation of a modulating factor for Parkinson’s disease risk compared to a specific type of physical activity.”

Previous research has shown that only a few risk factors are consistently linked to Parkinson’s disease. These include family history of the condition, and the protective effects of smoking and consuming caffeine. But intensive physical exercise has been linked with neuroprotective effects in earlier animal experiments.

The mechanism behind the impact of exercise is not yet fully understood, but it likely involves benefits to brain cells whose primary neurotransmitter is dopamine. A 2003 study indicated that exercise may alter these neurons to make them less vulnerable to toxins.

A further 2007 study suggested that exercise may boost dopamine release in the striatum, part of the forebrain that is crucial for a range of cognitive processes.

Future work must focus on understanding this mechanism, but for now the experts concluded, “The available evidence from animal and human studies suggests favorable biological effects of exercise with regard to Parkinson’s disease risk.”


Yang, F. et al. Physical activity and risk of Parkinson’s disease in the Swedish National March Cohort. Brain, 19 November 2014 doi: 10.1093/brain/awu323

Oxford Journals

Elderly man exercising and giving the thumbs up photo by shutterstock.

Mapping Brain Networks Behind Complex Reasoning

Tue, 01/06/2015 - 6:15am

Researchers have discovered why humans excel at “relational reasoning,” the ability to detect patterns and relationships in order to make sense of seemingly unrelated information. The study is published in the journal Neuron.

Relational reasoning — not found in other animals or even primates — is a high-level cognitive process in which we make comparisons and find equivalencies, as one does in algebra, for example.

For the study, scientists from the University of California in Berkeley found that subtle shifts in the frontal and parietal lobes of the human brain are linked to superior cognition.

The frontoparietal network plays a key role in analysis, memory retrieval, abstract thinking, and problem-solving, and has the flexibility to adapt according to the task at hand.

“This research has led us to take seriously the possibility that tweaks to this network over an evolutionary timescale could help to explain differences in the way that humans and other primates solve problems,” said lead investigator and neuroscientist Dr. Silvia Bunge.

“It’s not just that we humans have language at our disposal. We also have the capacity to compare and integrate several pieces of information in a way that other primates don’t,” she added.

For example, humans identify the relationship between two items or activities in one of the following ways: semantic (hammer is used to hit a nail); numeric (four is greater than two); temporal (we get out of bed before we go to work); or visuospatial (the bird is on top of the house).

We may take this further and make higher-order comparisons by comparing two or more sets of easier associations (a chain is to a link as a bouquet is to a flower).

After reviewing dozens of studies, including their own, the researchers concluded that anatomical changes in the lateral frontoparietal network over millennia have served to boost human reasoning skills.

“Given the supporting evidence across species, we posit that connections between these frontal and parietal regions have provided the necessary support for our unique ability to reason using abstract relations,” said co-author Dr. Michael Vendetti, a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at University of California, Berkeley.

To test this theory, the researchers examined studies that track anatomical changes in the developing human brain; compare neural patterns in human and non-human primates, and compare how human and non-human primates tackle a variety of reasoning tasks.

Their large meta-analysis identified three parts of the brain that play key roles in relational reasoning: the rostrolateral prefrontal cortex, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and the inferior parietal lobule, with the rostrolateral region more actively engaged in second-order relational reasoning.

Among the behavioral studies they analyzed, humans were found to use higher-order strategies to guide their judgment while primates relied more heavily on perceptual similarities and were slower at reasoning and problem-solving.

“These results do not necessarily prove that non-human primates are unable to reason using higher-order thinking, but if it is possible to train non-humans to produce human-like performance on tasks associated with higher-order relational thinking, it is certainly not something that comes naturally to them,” said the researchers.

Source: University of California, Berkeley

Abstract reasoning concept photo by shutterstock.

Taxes Can Reduce Binge Drinking

Tue, 01/06/2015 - 5:30am

New research discovers that higher alcohol taxes are an effective method to protect against binge drinking. A decline in episodes of binge drinking is linked to less alcohol-related deaths as well as a significant economic gain.

Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) researchers, found that a one-percent increase in alcohol beverage prices from taxes was associated with a 1.4 percent decrease in the proportion of adults who binge drink.

The research study has been published in the journal Addiction.

Although prior studies have examined the effect of taxes on average consumption, the value conveyed by taxes to reduce high-level drinking has been controversial.

“This is really significant for public health,” said lead author Ziming Xuan, Ph.D., assistant professor of community health sciences at BUSPH.

The public health value comes from a reduction in mortality and economic losses.

Xuan explains that binge drinking causes more than 45,000 alcohol-attributable deaths in the U.S. each year, and accounts for three-quarters of the $224 billion in annual economic costs.

The study shows that as combined alcohol taxes rise, binge drinking rates fall. Taxes accounted for approximately 20 percent of the difference in binge drinking prevalence rates across U.S. states.

The state with the highest beer combined taxes — Tennessee — had the lowest binge drinking rate (6.6 percent) in 2010, while states with low alcohol taxes, such as Montana, Wisconsin, and Delaware, had relatively high binge drinking rates.

Binge drinking was defined as consuming five or more drinks for men, or four or more drinks for women, per occasion.

The percentage of adults who reported binge drinking in U.S. states was based on data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System surveys from 2000-2010.

Researchers discovered a new measure that combines the value of both volume-based and value-based taxes on alcohol does a better job on showing the benefit of preventive measures to limit binge drinking.

The new metric improved the precision of statistical results, compared to the conventional use of only volume-based excise taxes.

Using the comprehensive measure, taxes had about twice the impact on binge drinking, compared to using only excise taxes.

Xuan and co-author Dr. Timothy Naimi, associate professor of the Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health and senior author of the study, said many previous U.S. studies might be underestimating the effect of higher taxes on reducing alcohol consumption.

They said their study demonstrates a key vulnerability of volume-based taxes: their erosion over time due to inflation. Such taxes are levied as a fixed dollar amount per unit volume, rather than as a percentage of price.

“This study emphasizes the importance of assessing multiple co-existing tax types — and possibly tax structure — for characterizing the relationship between tax and related outcomes, evaluating the effects of tax policy interventions, and for planning tax policy interventions,” the researchers said.

Source: Boston University School of Public Health

Money and alcohol photo by shutterstock.

Fast Food Serving Portions Remain Consistent

Mon, 01/05/2015 - 8:30am

Public health experts often comment that an important key to weight loss or even weight management is food portion control.

Although it is generally accepted that serving portions are expanding in fast food restaurants, two new reports show little change in fast food portion sizes and product formulation between 1996 and 2013.

Alice H. Lichtenstein, D.Sc., director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, and colleagues analyzed the calorie, sodium, saturated fat and trans fat content of popular menu items served at three national fast-food chains between 1996 and 2013.

They found that average calories, sodium, and saturated fat stayed relatively constant, albeit at high levels. The exception was a consistent decline in the trans fat of fries.

The studies have been published in Preventing Chronic Disease, a journal of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There is a perception that restaurants have significantly expanded their portion sizes over the years, but the fast food we assessed does not appear to be part of that trend,” said Lichtenstein.

“Our analysis indicates relative consistency in the quantities of calories, saturated fat, and sodium. However, the variability among chains is considerable and the levels are high for most of the individual menu items assessed, particularly for items frequently sold together as a meal, pushing the limits of what we should be eating to maintain a healthy weight and sodium intake.”

“For example, among the three chains, calories in a large cheeseburger meal, with fries and a regular cola beverage, ranged from 1144 to 1757 over the years and among restaurants, representing 57 — 88 percent out of the approximately 2000 calories most people should eat per day.”

“That does not leave much wiggle room for the rest of the day.”

According to the authors’ 2013 data, calorie content of the cheeseburger meal among the three chains represented 65 — 80 percent of a 2,000 calorie per day diet and sodium content represented 63 percent to 91 percent of the recommendation.

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend adults limit their salt intake to a maximum of 2,300 milligrams per day. Depending on the chain, between 1996 and 2013, eating a single four ounce. cheeseburger could have accounted for 1100 to 1450 mg of daily sodium representing 48 — 63 percent of target limits.

Lichtenstein and colleagues focused on the four most popular menu items: fries, cheeseburgers, grilled chicken sandwiches, and regular cola, looking for trends in portion size and nutrient content over an 18 year period.

They examined 27 items including small, medium and large fries and cola beverages, a grilled chicken sandwich, and two ounce and four ounce cheeseburgers. The authors used a public database and the internet to access the archived nutrition data.

They found only small fluctuations in calorie content and the amount of saturated fat and sodium. The notable exception was fries, which decreased first in saturated fat in 2001 and then trans fat, likely due to changes to the frying fat.

“The decline in trans fat we saw between 2005 and 2009 appears to be related to legislative efforts,” Lichtenstein said.

“The success of New York City’s trans fat ban and others like it, suggest it is worth pursuing these types of approaches because they make the default option the healthier option. Of course, it is important to note that the healthier option in terms of fat does not translate into lower calories or less salt.”

Despite public health campaigns, fast food sales remain strong, contributing to our epidemic of obesity and hypertension.

“Restaurants can help consumers by downsizing portion sizes and reformulating their food to contain less of these over-consumed nutrients. This can be done, gradually, by cutting the amount of sodium, and using leaner cuts of meat and reduced-fat cheese,” Lichtenstein said.

“From what we hear some fast-food chains are heading in that direction and also introducing new healthier options. If taken advantage of, these changes should help consumers adhere to the current dietary recommendations.”

The authors also note nutrient content varied among similar items from different chains. For example, an order of small fries could differ by as much as 110 calories and 320 mg of sodium from chain to chain.

“For this reason our findings strongly suggest that public health efforts promoting reduction of calories and over-consumed nutrients need to shift from emphasizing small, medium and large portion sizes, to additional factors such as actual number of calories and the nutrient content of the items, as is increasingly becoming available at point of purchase,” Lichtenstein said.

“A 100 calorie difference per day can mean about a 10 pound weight change per year.”

Source: Tufts University

Mental Imagery May Help Maintain Muscle Strength

Mon, 01/05/2015 - 7:45am

Provocative new research suggests mental activity plays an important role in the maintenance of strength.

The finding is significant for all who have worn a cast or have been immobilized for a period of time. Disuse atrophy or the weakening of muscles after inactivity is a common result of immobility, with the restoration of strength and mobility a significant issue.

Now, new findings show that the mind is critical in maintaining muscle strength following a prolonged period of immobilization and that mental imagery may be key in reducing the associated muscle loss.

Researchers at the Ohio Musculoskeletal and Neurological Institute (OMNI) at Ohio University explain that strength is controlled by a number of factors — including skeletal muscle and nerves.

While the skeletal muscle system has received considerable study, the nervous system is also an important, though not fully understood, determinant of strength and weakness.

Brian C. Clark, Ph.D., and colleagues set out to test how the brain’s cortex plays into strength development. They designed an experiment to measure changes in wrist flexor strength in three groups of healthy adults.

Twenty-nine subjects wore a rigid cast that extended from just below the elbow past the fingers, effectively immobilizing the hand and wrist, for four weeks. Fifteen subjects who did not wear casts served as the control group.

Of the group with wrist-hand immobilization, half (14) were asked to regularly perform an imagery exercise, imagining they were intensely contracting their wrist for five seconds and then resting for five seconds.

They were verbally guided through the imagery exercise with the following instructions: “Begin imagining that you are pushing in as hard as you can with your left wrist, push, push, push…and stop. (Five-second rest.) Start imagining that you are pushing in again as hard as you can, keep pushing, keep pushing…and stop. (Five-second rest.)”

This was repeated four times in a row followed by a one-minute break for a total of 13 rounds per session and five sessions per week. The second group performed no imagery exercises.

At the end of the four-week experiment, both groups who wore casts had lost strength in their immobilized limbs when compared to the control group. Remarkably, the group that performed mental imagery exercises lost 50 percent less strength than the non-imaginative group (24 percent vs. 45 percent, respectively).

The nervous system’s ability to fully activate the muscle (called “voluntary activation” or VA) also rebounded more quickly in the imagery group compared to the non-imagery group.

“These findings suggest neurological mechanisms, most likely at the cortical level, contribute significantly to disuse-induced weakness, and that regular activation of the cortical regions via imagery attenuates weakness and VA by maintaining normal levels of inhibition,” the research team wrote.

In other words, imagery appears to have reduced the loss of muscle strength. The study serves as a proof-of-concept for imagery as a therapeutic intervention for muscle weakness and voluntary neural activation.

The article is published in the Journal of Neurophysiology.

Source: American Physiological Society

Obesity Not Always Linked with Poor Health

Mon, 01/05/2015 - 7:00am

Emerging research discovers that for some people, obesity is not associated with detrimental health consequences.

In a small study, Washington University School of Medicine investigators found that a subset of obese people do not have common metabolic abnormalities associated with obesity.

Obesity had traditionally been linked to insulin resistance, abnormal blood lipids (high triglycerides and low HDL cholesterol), high blood pressure, and excess liver fat.

In addition, obese people who didn’t have these metabolic problems when the study began did not develop them even after they gained more weight.

Study findings have been published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Researchers followed 20 obese participants who were asked to gain about 15 pounds over several months to determine how the extra pounds affected their metabolic functions.

“Our goal was to have research participants consume 1,000 extra calories every day until each gained six percent of his or her body weight,” said first author Elisa Fabbrini, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine.

“This was not easy to do. It is just as difficult to get people to gain weight as it is to get them to lose weight.”

All of the subjects gained weight by eating at fast-food restaurants, under the supervision of a dietitian. The researchers chose fast-food chain restaurants that provide rigorously regulated portion sizes and nutritional information.

Before and after weight gain, the researchers carefully evaluated each study subject’s body composition, insulin sensitivity, and ability to regulate blood sugar, liver fat, and other measures of metabolic health.

After gaining weight, the metabolic profiles of obese subjects remained normal if they were in the normal range when the study began.

However, the metabolic profiles significantly worsened after weight gain in obese subjects whose metabolic profiles already were abnormal when the study got underway.

“This research demonstrates that some obese people are protected from the adverse metabolic effects of moderate weight gain, whereas others are predisposed to develop these problems,” said senior investigator Samuel Klein, M.D.

“This observation is important clinically because about 25 percent of obese people do not have metabolic complications,” he added. “Our data shows that these people remain metabolically normal even after they gain additional weight.”

As part of the study, the researchers then helped the subjects lose the weight they had gained.

“It’s important to point out that once the study was completed, we enrolled all subjects in our weight-loss program to make sure they lost all of the weight they had gained, or more,” said Klein.

In the investigation, researchers uncovered some key factors that distinguished metabolically normal obese subjects from those with problems. One was the presence of fat inside the liver. Those with abnormal metabolism accumulated fat there.

Another difference involved gene function in fat tissue. People with normal metabolism in spite of their obesity expressed more genes that regulate fat production and accumulation.

And the activity of those genes increased even more when the metabolically normal people gained weight. That wasn’t true for people with abnormal metabolism.

“These results suggest that the ability of body fat to expand and increase in a healthy way may protect some people from the metabolic problems associated with obesity and weight gain,” said Klein.

He noted that obesity contributes to more than 60 different unhealthy conditions.

“We need more studies to try to understand why obesity causes specific diseases in some people but not in others,” Klein said.

“Could it be genetics, specific dietary intake, physical lifestyle, emotional health, or even the microbes that live in the gut?”

As they look for answers, Klein and his colleagues plan to more closely analyze fat, muscle and liver tissue responses among both obese and lean people.

They believe the future studies can explain how and why some individuals are protected from metabolic problems while others are vulnerable.

Source: Washington University School of Medicine/EurekAlert

Excited Obese man photo by shutterstock.

High IQ May Protect Against Schizophrenia

Mon, 01/05/2015 - 6:15am

In people with a genetic predisposition for schizophrenia, having high intelligence may help protect them from developing the severe mental disorder, according to a new study by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and Lund University in Sweden.

In fact, people with a lower IQ (intelligence quotient) than their siblings had the greatest risk for developing schizophrenia.

The research appears to contradict the popular belief that schizophrenia and brilliance are typically linked.

“If you’re really smart, your genes for schizophrenia don’t have much of a chance of acting,” said first author Kenneth S. Kendler, M.D., professor of psychiatry and human and molecular genetics in the Department of Psychiatry, VCU School of Medicine.

“What really predicted risk for schizophrenia is how much you deviate from the predicted IQ that we get from your relatives. If you’re quite a bit lower, that carries a high risk for schizophrenia. Not achieving the IQ that you should have based on your genetic constitution and family background seems to most strongly predispose for schizophrenia.”

Just like those without the disease, people with schizophrenia vary widely in their intelligence levels. Kendler added that low IQ is one of many risk factors for schizophrenia.

For the study, researchers assessed the IQs of more than 1.2 million Swedish males (ages 18-to-20) born between 1951 and 1975. Schizophrenia-related hospitalization was tracked for 24 years until 2010. Subjects with a lower IQ than their siblings were at the greatest risk for developing schizophrenia.

Kendler noted that environmental factors that may lower IQ, such as intrauterine experience, childhood trauma, or early drug use, could contribute to the increased risk.

Having a high IQ, however, doesn’t completely eliminate the risk for schizophrenia. In fact, there are several well-known, brilliant and creative people who have suffered from schizophrenia, including math prodigy John Nash, whose story was made famous in the film “A Beautiful Mind.”

“The question is, might we see some upward bump at that high level of intelligence where really brilliant people have increased risk for the disease and we show no such trend,” Kendler said.

Schizophrenia is one of the most severe and rarest of the mental health disorders, occurring in about one in 100 people. Symptoms of the disease include hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, cognitive impairment, social withdrawal, self-neglect, and loss of motivation and initiative.

The study is published in the American Journal of Psychiatry’s online journal AJP.

Source: Virginia Commonwealth University 


Behavior Theory Can Predict Driving Patterns

Mon, 01/05/2015 - 5:30am

As technology is aiding the development of “smart cars,” new research proposes behavioral theory can help systems correct dangerous steering movements before they occur.

Researchers at Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology believe the theory explains the inexplicable jerkiness that occurs when we steer a vehicle.

The ability to predict what a driver is going to do in the near future and to be able to prepare the car’s system is now one step closer to becoming reality.

“With the driver model I have developed, it is possible to predict what drivers are going to do with the steering wheel before they do it. It is possible to predict how far the driver is going to turn the wheel, right when the person starts a wheel-turning movement. It’s like looking into the future,” said researcher and graduate student Ola Benderius.

Experts say the recent discovery will lead to the development of car support systems to make our cars safer. Smarter anti-skid systems and systems for fatigued drivers are two examples of potential usage areas.

“Imagine a fatigued driver on the verge of running off the road. He or she suddenly wakes up and reflexively initiates a very large corrective maneuver, a potential misjudgment that can lead to something very dangerous.

“Since we are now able to predict how far the driver is going to turn the wheel, the vehicle’s support systems can identify potential misjudgments and intervene, which means a serious accident, such as the car travelling into approaching traffic, can be avoided,” Benderius said.

As early as 1947, the well-known British researcher Arnold Tustin (1899-1994) produced the first model for how a person steers towards a target. He identified a continuous and linear control behavior. When a car is driven, this corresponds to the driver gently and continuously following the road with the steering wheel.

This behavior is known as tracking in control theory, and it has been the prevailing theory for car driving ever since. However, when comparing the linear model with actual measured data, some deviations become apparent, namely jerkiness in the steering signal.

Tustin saw these deviations from the continuous prediction as well, but the mystery has remained unsolved until now.

Benderius and colleague Gustav Markkula got the idea while they were attending a lecture on neurocognition. The lecture addressed the behavioral theory of reaching, which concerns the basic human behavior when we reach for something.

When studying how we humans move our hand from Point A to pick up something from Point B, the speed of the movement has a direct relationship with the distance — the longer the distance, the quicker the movement. The interesting effect of this is that the time for the movement is the same regardless of the distance.

“We immediately recognized this pattern from our measured steer signals,” says Ola Benderius. “It was a bit of a eureka moment. Was it possible that this basic human behavior also controlled how we steer a car?”

With the idea in mind, Ola Benderius extracted over 1,000 hours of car and truck driving from real driving data, which resulted in 1.3 million steer corrections. It turned out that 95 percent of these correspond with the reaching theory.

Benderius and Markkula discovered that steering is not linear when the driver follows the road, but rather that the driver turns the wheel according to the special reaching pattern.

“We were able to use the theory to explain what researchers had been trying to solve for a long time. This was the answer to the previously inexplicable jerkiness in the control signal. Rather than looking upon steering as continuously following the road, steering corrections seem to be applied in a very predetermined manner,” said Benderius.

“The control behavior has also proven to be very natural; I saw this in an earlier study where I examined driving behavior in 12 year olds and their parents.”

With this new knowledge, he was able to develop a mathematical model that can explain many observed steering behaviors, which means that the driver response to different situations can be predicted before it occurs.

Benderius believes the discovery will have an impact on an entire research field. “This might completely change how we regard human control of vehicles, crafts, and vessels. I hope and believe that many researchers will utilize the findings and start to think in new ways,” he said.

“Control behavior has traditionally been studied on the basis of control theory and technical systems. If it is instead studied on the basis of neuroscience with focus on the human, an entire new world opens up. This could push the research field in an entirely different direction.”

Source: Chalmers University of Technology

Mouse Study IDs Protein Driving Circadian Rhythms

Sun, 01/04/2015 - 8:45am

A new study has found that a certain protein helps regulate the internal clock of mice, a finding that eventually may aid in the treatment of a number of disorders.

For the study, published in Nature Communications, a research team led by Thomas Burris, Ph.D., chair of pharmacological and physiological science at the university, examined compounds that target a protein called REV-ERB, which appears to play a key role in regulating mammals’ internal clocks.

“It has been suggested that REV-ERB is a core component of our clock,” said Burris. “Mice without it are arrhythmic. This study demonstrated that when we give mice a synthetic compound that turns REV-ERB on, it altered their circadian rhythm.”

The researchers discovered that REV-ERB increases wakefulness, while reducing REM and slow-wave sleep. Notably, it also decreases anxiety, they found.

They note this is unusual. Drugs that increase wakefulness usually also increase anxiety, while drugs that decrease anxiety also decrease arousal.

The REV-ERB protein, on the other hand, appears to target the clock in a way that is distinct from these common pathways, according to the researchers. Furthermore, it appears to be associated with a suppression of reward-seeking behavior, the study found.

Drug addiction has a circadian component and mice with mutations in genes that affect internal clocks have altered responsiveness to the reward associated with cocaine, morphine and alcohol, according to Burris. He speculates that REV-ERB drugs may be used to help in the treatment of addiction.

Source: Saint Louis University
Proteins that regulate circadian rhythm photo by shutterstock.

Spoils of War May Include More Wives and Children

Sun, 01/04/2015 - 7:15am

A new study from Harvard University shows that there may be a biological benefit to violent conflict.

The study found that among members of an East African herding tribe, those who engaged in violent raids on neighboring tribes had more wives, leading to the opportunity to have more children.

“The currency of evolution is reproductive success,” said Luke Glowacki, a doctoral student at the university. “By having more wives you can have more children. What we found was that, over the course of their lives, those who took part in more raids had more children.”

The benefit actually comes from an increased access to livestock, which is then used to arrange marriages, he said, noting it’s tied to the tribe’s culture.

“The cultural mechanism is mediated by the elders who control virtually all aspects of the society,” he said.

“After a raid young men give any livestock they capture to the elders and the raider cannot use them at that point even if he wants to get married. Later in life, as the raider gets older he can gain access to them, so there’s a lag in receiving benefits from participating in a raid.”

To examine the connection between violence and a possible biological benefit, Glowacki lived with the Nyangatom, a group of nomadic herders in a region of southwest Ethiopia and South Sudan, for more than a year. During that time, he observed virtually every part of day-to-day village life, from digging water holes to migrations to the raids.

The raids, typically carried out by men between 20 and 40 years old armed with weapons like AK-47 rifles, sometimes resulted in serious injuries and deaths, the researcher noted.

Those who take part in the raids, however, must turn over any livestock they obtain to village elders, who use them to obtain wives for themselves. It may not be until years later that elders agree to provide a raider with the cows necessary to obtain their first wife or subsequent wives.

“In many cultures, particularly in east Africa, in order to get married you have to give livestock to the bride’s family,” Glowacki explained.

“We refer to it as bridewealth. If you don’t have cows, you simply cannot get married. It doesn’t matter how handsome you are or how much status you have, if you don’t have cows to give the bride’s family, you cannot get married.”

Though he found evidence that violence offers a benefit to warriors, Glowacki said he’s more interested in a bigger question.

“The overriding question I’m interested in is how humans cooperate, and one type of cooperation is participating in intergroup conflict,” he said. “Why do people do things that benefit their group if they have to pay a cost?

“For the Nyangatom there are no formal institutions governing society, and yet they manage to make a living from one of the toughest landscapes on Earth, and they do that through cooperation.”

Cooperation plays a key role in virtually every aspect of Nyangatom life, he noted.

“I set out to study who herds together, who digs water holes together, who plants together, and also who participates in conflict events together,” he added.

“I conducted interviews about the raids, and collected reproductive histories by asking how many wives raiders have, how many children each has had, how many are alive, how many died and how they died.”

In an analysis of 120 men, Glowacki found that those who participate in more raids had more wives and more children over the course of their lives.

But while raiders benefit from taking part in conflict, the lack of an immediate payoff helps to keep violence in check, he postulates.

“We don’t have quantitative data to that effect, but there are some groups in neighboring Kenya where raiders who capture cows in a raid don’t have to give them to the elders or they can sell them at a market for money, and the violence is significantly greater,” he said.

“The Nyangatom have a mechanism that mediates the benefits the warriors receive. There is a lot of status and privilege that comes with participating in raids. When you come back to the village, the women are singing and people are parading. They’re celebrating you, but you still go home alone.”

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

Source: Harvard University

Mapping Brain Abnormalities Tied to Teen Suicide Risk

Sun, 01/04/2015 - 6:30am

Researchers at Yale University have identified certain abnormalities in the prefrontal cortex and other related brain regions in young people who have attempted suicide.

The findings, recently presented at the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology’s annual meeting, suggest that deficits in frontal systems may be linked to a greater risk for suicide attempts in teens with mood disorders.

Most suicide attempts occur in the presence of mood disorders, such as bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder. About three to four percent of the U.S. population suffers from bipolar disorder, and 25-50 percent of those affected attempt suicide; 15-20 percent of individuals with the disorder die from suicide.

Researchers hope to find earlier intervention techniques, as suicidal behavior usually emerges in adolescence. The development of new interventions, however, would require a better understanding of how features of brain structure and function are linked to the development of suicidal behaviors.

For the study, the researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to get a better look at the structure of the brain.

The Yale research team examined the brain structure and function of adolescents and young adults, aged 14 to 25 years. Sixty-eight participants with bipolar disorder, of whom 26 had attempted suicide, were compared with 45 healthy volunteers matched for age and gender.

The findings reveal that, compared with healthy control subjects and also bipolar patients who did not attempt suicide, the suicidal young people displayed less integrity of white matter in key frontal brain systems, including the uncinate fasciculus, a fiber tract that connects the frontal lobe with key brain areas responsible for emotion, motivation, and memory.

Furthermore, the abnormalities in the structural connections were linked to weaker connections between the prefrontal cortex and amygdale.

This suggests that the dysfunction in white matter disrupts the ability of these system components to work together. There were also links between the circuitry deficits and thoughts of suicide, the number of suicide attempts and the relative mortality of those suicide attempts.

These findings are a significant first step in understanding the neurobiology of how suicidal thoughts and behaviors are generated and may aid in the development of targeted interventions to prevent suicide.

Source: American College of Neuropsychopharmacology


Researcher investigating brain scans of teenagers photo by shutterstock.

Insomnia May Predict Back Pain

Sat, 01/03/2015 - 8:45am

If you suffer from insomnia, then you are nearly one-and-a-half times more likely to develop back pain as well, according to a new study by the University of Haifa in Israel.

“After controlling for a range of variables, including socioeconomic status and lifestyle issues, we came to the conclusion that insomnia is a marker for the increased risk of back pain, though the reverse is not the case,” say the researchers.

Between 60 precent to 80 precent of the adult population will suffer from back pain at some point in their lives. The reasons for back pain are varied, though experts say that some 90 percent of those suffering from it have no identifiable cause.

Approximately half of back-pain sufferers experience insomnia. It is well known that insomnia increases a person’s sensitivity to pain and that those suffering from it are more likely to suffer from spontaneous pain with more intensity compared to others, but this study is the first to show a direct connection between insomnia and back pain.

The study participants were healthy, working adults who came in to Sourasky Medical Center for routine periodic health exams; a total of 2,131 people were examined between January 2003 and December 2011 at three different junctures. On average, they were 46.2 years of age, with 15.8 years of schooling, who worked an average of 9.6 hours a day.

It was found that the chances of those suffering from insomnia to also suffer from back pain were nearly 150 precent greater than among those without insomnia. The correlation between insomnia and back pain was even higher among women.

“This comprehensive study, that took place over such a long period of time, is the correct way to demonstrate the link between these two common medical phenomena,” the researchers said. “We examined healthy, employed adults, over three periods of time.”

“The reason for this is not yet known, but it’s possible that the link between the two conditions stems from a third biological factor that we haven’t yet succeeded in identifying,” they continued.

“One possible link is stress; people suffering from insomnia generally describe their lives as stressful, so it’s almost certain that they would suffer from chronic restlessness that will increase muscle tension and reduce the number of micro-pauses in muscle activity, which leads to back pain.”

Source: University of Haifa


Woman with insomnia and back pain photo by shutterstock.

Economic Uncertainty Linked to Poor Diabetes Control

Sat, 01/03/2015 - 8:00am

A new study has found a link between poor diabetes control and a patient’s difficulty in paying for food and medication.

For their study, researchers led by Seth A. Berkowitz, M.D., M.P.H., of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston set out to determine the association between economic insecurities and diabetes control and the use of health care resources.

The study included data from 411 patients collected from June 2012 through October 2013 at a primary care clinic, two community health centers, and a specialty treatment center for diabetes in Massachusetts.

The researchers found that 19.1 percent of patients reported food insecurity; 27.6 percent cited cost-related medication underuse; 10.7 percent had housing instability; 14.1 percent had trouble paying for utilities; and 39.1 percent reported at least one material need insecurity.

Poor diabetes control — as measured by factors including hemoglobin A1c, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol level, or blood pressure — was seen in 46 percent of patients, according to the study’s findings.

The study determined that food insecurity was associated with greater odds of poor diabetes control and increased outpatient visits, but not increased emergency department (ED) or inpatient visits.

Cost-related medication underuse was associated with poor diabetes control and increased ED and inpatient visits, but not outpatient visits.

Housing instability and insecurity about utilities were associated with increased outpatient visits but not with diabetes control or with ED or outpatient visits.

Lastly, the study showed that having an increasing number of economic insecurities was associated with poor diabetes control and increased health care use.

“Health care systems are increasingly accountable for health outcomes that have roots outside of clinical care,” the researchers said in the study, which was published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

“Because of this development, strategies that increase access to health care resources might reasonably be coupled with those that address social determinants of health, including material need insecurities. In particular, food insecurity and cost-related medication underuse may be promising targets for real-world management of diabetes mellitus.”

Source: JAMA Network

Preschoolers Should Practice Writing Before Entering a Classroom

Sat, 01/03/2015 - 7:15am

Parents should encourage their preschoolers to begin writing very early, even before they enter a classroom setting, according to new research published in the Early Childhood Research Quarterly.

The study reveals how early writing — especially when it occurs before any formal education — plays a significant role in improving a child’s literacy level, vocabulary, and fine motor skills.

“Parents in the U.S. are obsessed with teaching their kids the ABCs,” said Professor Dorit Aram of Tel Aviv University’s Jaime and Joan Constantiner School of Education. “Probably because English is an ‘opaque’ language. Words do not sound the way they are spelled, unlike ‘transparent’ Spanish or Italian.”

“Parents are using letters as their main resource of teaching early literacy, but what they should be doing is ‘scaffolding’ their children’s writing, helping their children relate sounds to letters on the page even though the letters are not transparent.”

Scaffolding is using a supportive, step-by-step instruction process to help the student slowly gain understanding and independence.

Aram has spent the last 15 years studying adult support of young children’s writing. A major factor of this support is using what she calls “grapho-phonemic mediation,” in which a caregiver actively helps a child break down a word into segments to connect sounds to corresponding letters.

For example, parents are using this method when they ask their child to “sound out” a word as they put it to paper. This is different from the traditional model of telling children precisely which letters to print on a page, spelling it out for them as they go.

“Early writing is an important but understudied skill set,” said Aram. “Adults tend to view writing as associated with school, as ‘torture.’ My experience in the field indicates that it’s quite the opposite — children are very interested in written language. Writing, unlike reading, is a real activity.

“Children watch their parents writing and typing, and they want to imitate them. It is my goal to assist adults in helping their children enter the world of writing by showing them all the lovely things they can communicate through writing, whether it’s ‘mommy, I love you’ or even just ‘I want chocolate’.”

The researchers observed 135 preschool children (72 girls and 63 boys) and their parents as they attempted to write a semi-structured invitation for a birthday party.

They analyzed the degree of parental support and assessed the children’s phonological awareness, alphabet knowledge, word decoding, vocabulary, and fine motor skills. Overall grapho-phonemic support by the parents was most positively linked to children’s decoding and fine motor skills.

“Scaffolding,” or parental support, was most useful in developing early literacy skills. “The thing is to encourage children to write, but to remember that in writing, there is a right and a wrong,” said Aram.

“We have found that scaffolding is a particularly beneficial activity, because the parent guides the child. And, if that parent guides the child and also demands precision in a sensitive and thoughtful way — i.e. ‘what did you mean to write here? Let me help you’ — this definitely develops the child’s literary skill set.”

Source: American Friends of Tel Aviv University

Mother teaching young child to write photo by shutterstock.

More Friends on Facebook Tends to Mean Less Money for Charity

Sat, 01/03/2015 - 6:30am

People with fewer friends on Facebook raise more money for charity than those with lots of friends, according to a new study.

For her study, Dr. Kimberley Scharf, an economist at the University of Warwick, analyzed data from and found a negative correlation between the number of friends on Facebook and the amount of money given by each donor — with the average contribution by each person dropping by two pence (not quite 3-1/2 cents) for every extra friend someone had on Facebook.

The latest study builds on earlier research by Scharf that found that large social groups are less likely to share information about charitable causes when compared to those who are part of smaller circles. This, she notes, results in less fundraising success.

That research found that “free-riding” was the main driver of the study’s findings. When people are part of a larger social group, they feel less of a need to share information about charities because they expect other friends to share the information, she explained.

Scharf said free-riding also extends to giving. Friends expect other friends to donate, so they don’t bother themselves.

“The problem is that everyone thinks the same thing and therefore the actual amount of money that’s donated is less than it would have been had fewer friends been asked in the first place,” she said.

Scharf also discovered that the amount a person can raise doesn’t only depend on the number of friends they have online. She found that those who complete tougher fundraising activities generate more cash.

“Whilst running is by far the most popular event on JustGiving, it is in fact individuals who complete triathlons that typically attract the largest number of donations and raise the most money in total,” she noted.

“So doing something physically demanding and asking a small group of friends for their support is much more effective than relying on donations from lots of people for what would be perceived as a relatively less exerting activity.”

Scharf notes that her research supports the idea that people are motivated to donate on online sites, such as, because they are driven by “relational warm-glow.”

People are motivated by the idea of helping their friends achieve their fundraising goals, she said, explaining that it makes the fundraiser feel good and this, in turn, makes the people who’ve made the donations feel good.

It is possible that donors have a more intense warm glow experience when the fundraiser exerts more effort, such taking part in a triathlon, she said, adding this could translate into larger donations.

“Giving behavior is largely affected by existing personal relationships, whether it’s friends, family, or work colleagues — these factors are extremely important according to the responses we had from donors,” Scharf said.

Source: University of Warwick

New Laws Boost Concussion Treatment

Fri, 01/02/2015 - 7:45am

New laws have resulted in a large increase in the treatment of concussion-related injuries for student athletes, according to a new study in the American Medical Association journal JAMA Pediatrics.

Over the past decade, concerns about concussion injuries and media coverage of them have skyrocketed, researchers at the University of Michigan noted. Since 2009, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws regulating concussion treatment — the first laws written to address a specific injury, the researchers note.

The new study found a 92 percent increase in children seeking medical assistance for concussions in states with the legislation in place. States without concussion laws showed a 75 percent increase in those seeking injury-related health care, according to the study’s findings.

“There are two stories here,” said Steven Broglio, Ph.D., the study’s senior author and an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology and director of the NeuroSport Research Laboratory. “First, the legislation works.

“The other story is that broad awareness of an injury has an equally important effect. We found large increases in states without legislation, showing that just general knowledge plays a huge part.”

For their study, Broglio and his colleagues examined nationwide insurance data from privately insured 12- to 18-year-olds who sought treatment for a concussion between Jan. 1, 2006 and June 30, 2012. They examined data in states with and without concussion laws.

“My thought was that all types of concussion-related services might increase in states that enacted the legislation,” said Teresa Gibson, Ph.D., the study’s first author, who was vice president of health outcomes for Truven Health Analytics when the research was conducted.

“The fact that we didn’t see inpatient visits and emergency department visits increase in states with the legislation, but we saw office-based procedures go up, suggests that the legislation is having the intended effect on these injuries.”

“These injuries are the ones you want to catch, so that athletes will sit out until these injuries are resolved,” Broglio added.

The study also found that:

  • after the first concussion law passed in 2009, treatment rates in states without concussion laws increased roughly 20 percent annually. In states with concussion laws, the annual rates of treated concussion averaged an additional 13 percent higher;
  • rates of treated concussion in states without legislation were seven percent higher in 2009-10, 20 percent higher in 2010-11, and 34 percent higher in 2011-12;
  • in states without legislation, office visits for concussion rose 78 percent by 2012 compared to pre-legislation trends. The rate was 17 percent higher in states with concussion laws.

Source: University of Michigan

Teenager looking at MRI of brain photo by shutterstock.

Focused Ultrasound May Ease OCD Symptoms

Fri, 01/02/2015 - 7:00am

High-intensity focused ultrasound may help relieve symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in hard-to-treat patients, according to preliminary findings of new research. 

The procedure applies high-intensity focused ultrasound energy to heat and destroy diseased or damaged tissue through ablation (the removal of tissue).

The study is being conducted with 12 patients by Jin Woo Chang, M.D., Ph.D., at the Yonsei University Medical Center in Seoul, Korea. The results of the first four patients with six months follow-up were published in the Journal of Molecular Psychiatry.

Although many OCD patients improve with medication, some patients have debilitating symptoms that are resistant to treatment. For these patients, psychosurgery can be performed to destroy (ablate) a targeted region of the brain (anterior internal capsule) associated with the disorder.

The four patients, who suffered from disabling OCD that was unresponsive to medication, were treated with a focused ultrasound system called InSightec ExAblate Neuro. The treatment targeted the part of the brain called the anterior internal capsule.

All four patients had the targeted areas of the brain successfully ablated with no complications or side effects. They experienced gradual improvements in their obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behaviors and showed nearly immediate and sustained improvement in depression and anxiety which lasted over six months.

“There is a need for non-invasive treatment options for patients with OCD that cannot be managed through medication,” said Chang.

“Using focused ultrasound, we were able to reduce the symptoms for these patients and help them get some of their life back without the risks or complications of the more invasive surgical approaches that are currently available.”

“If these initial results are confirmed in the remaining eight patients in this study as well as in a larger pivotal trial of safety and efficacy, focused ultrasound could emerge as an alternative to surgery for improving quality of life in a cost-effective manner for patients with OCD,” said Neal F. Kassell, M.D., chairman of the Focused Ultrasound Foundation.

“This could also serve as the predicate for non-invasive therapy for other psychiatric disorders.”

The currently available ablative approaches are invasive or involve radiation, such as radiofrequency ablation, stereotactic radiosurgery, and deep brain stimulation.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a psychiatric disorder characterized by recurring anxiety-provoking thoughts (obsessions) that are alleviated only by ritualistic actions (compulsions). Severe cases can lead to overwhelming impairment and dysfunction.

OCD patients also have a high risk for depression, with two-thirds of OCD patients developing major depression. Chang plans to begin a study using focused ultrasound to treat depression in 2015.

Source: Focused Ultrasound Foundation

Abstract of brain photo by shutterstock.

Preterm Birth Can Impair Contextual Memory

Fri, 01/02/2015 - 6:15am

New research has discovered that children born prematurely show differences in a subtle but important aspect of memory — the ability to form and retrieve memories about context, such as what, when, and where something happened.

This type of memory is important, but can be missed on the usual set of assessments, according to researchers at the University of the Saarland and Saarland University Hospital in Germany.

The study also found that the hippocampus is smaller in children born prematurely. This is the part of the brain that’s essential for forming and retrieving contextual memories, according to researchers.

“Our study provides evidence that prematurity can result in problems with a particular subprocess of recollection,” said Kerstin H. Kipp, Ph.D., principal investigator of the research project when she was at the University of the Saarland. She is now with the State University of Music and Performing Arts Stuttgart and the University of Ulm.

“The specific modification in the memory network is so subtle that it could be overlooked because it doesn’t manifest itself in clear memory impairment,” she continued. “But memory deficits can appear in situations in which retrieving contextual information is essential.”

In everyday life, this could lead to problems like forgetting where you put your keys or trying to remember the color of a car in a traffic accident you witnessed, she explained.

“Our results have important implications for improving the treatment of children born preterm. Instead of applying unspecific memory training, the affected children might benefit more from learning how to strengthen associations between different elements of memories,” she noted.

For the study, researchers recruited 33 German eight to 10-year-olds, 18 of whom were born preterm — defined in the study as born at 26 to 33 weeks — and 15 who were born full term at 39 to 42 weeks.

Researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to measure the volume of each child’s hippocampus. Later, the children performed a memory task on which they were asked to learn and recognize certain items.

Previously studied pictures of line drawings were mixed with new pictures, and the children had to indicate whether the picture was old or new, the researchers explained. Their brain activity was measured by an electroencephalogram (EEG) as they did so, allowing the researchers to gauge the processes involved in memory retrieval.

The ability to recognize whether the picture was old or new was not diminished in the children who were born prematurely, the researchers reported.

However, the EEG index of recollection-based memory retrieval, which is important for remembering contextual information, was reduced, they noted.

A follow-up experiment ruled out the possibility that this occurred due to general cognitive deficits.

The EEG index of familiarity, a retrieval process that’s thought to operate independently of the hippocampus, remained unchanged, according to the researchers. The EEG index of recollection correlated with the child’s gestational age: The earlier a child was born, the larger the adverse effect on recollection-based retrieval, according to the study’s findings.

The researchers did note that even though the preterm children showed a reduced EEG index of recollection, their general memory performance was equivalent to that of the children who hadn’t been born prematurely. The researchers hypothesize that this occurred because the preterm children could compensate for their impaired contextual recollection in their overall memory functioning.

From their findings, the researchers suggest that the maturational state of the hippocampus at the time of birth influences the maturation of very specific memory functions in a way that can still be seen at eight to 10 years.

Because contextual memory continues to be important for specific tasks, the compensation in overall memory doesn’t rule out the possibility that children born prematurely may have difficulty with these types of tasks, the researchers added.

The research lays the groundwork for next steps to help children strengthen these particular aspects of memory, the scientists conclude in their study, which was published in the journal Child Development.

Source: The Society for Research in Child Development

Abstract of brain photo by shutterstock.