In The News
Emerging research discovers that while infants sleep they are reprocessing what they have learned.
German researchers found that babies of the age from nine to 16 months remember the names of objects better if they had a short nap.
And only after sleeping can they transfer learned names to similar new objects. The infant brain thus forms general categories during sleep, converting experience into knowledge.
Investigators also determined that this formation of categories is closely related to a typical rhythmic activity of the sleeping brain called sleep spindles.
Infants with high sleep spindle activity are particularly good at generalizing their experiences and developing new knowledge while sleeping.
Expert say the findings are consistent with the new understanding that sleep means much more than just relaxation for our brain. While the flow of information from the sensory organs is largely cut off while we sleep, many other regions of the brain are especially active.
Most brain researchers today believe that the sleeping brain retrieves recent experiences, thereby consolidating new knowledge and integrating it into the existing memory by strengthening, re-linking, or even dismantling neuronal connections. This means that sleep is indispensable for memory.
The Max Planck researchers have found this to be the case even in infants and toddlers. In order to study the impact of sleep on infant memory, they invited parents to attend a study with their nine to 16-month-old children.
During the training session, the infants were repeatedly shown images of certain objects while hearing the fictitious names assigned to the objects. Some objects were similar to each other, varying only in their proportions, colors, or in certain details.
The similar objects, which belonged to the same category according to their shapes, were always given the same names. During this process, the researchers recorded the infants’ brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG).
One group of infants spent the next one to two hours sleeping in their prams while an electroencephalogram (EEG) was recorded, while the others remained awake, going for a walk in their strollers or playing in the examination room.
In the subsequent testing session, the researchers again presented the infants with picture-word pairs — this time both in the same combinations as in the learning session and in new combinations — and again measured their brain activity while doing so.
The analysis of brain activity showed that the infants had learned the names of the individual objects during the training session, irrespective of their age. The situation with categorization, however, was different: At the end of the training session, they were unable to assign new objects to the names of similar objects which they had heard several times.
During the subsequent testing session, the brain activity of the infants who had slept after the training session was markedly different from that of the group who had stayed awake.
While the group who had stayed awake had forgotten the names of the individual objects, the children in the sleep group remembered the object-word mappings. There were also radical differences in their abilities to categorize the objects.
“The infants who slept after the training session assigned new objects to the names of similar-looking objects,” says Manuela Friedrich, Ph.D., of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.
“They were not able to do that before their nap, and nor were the ones who stayed awake able to do it. This means that the categories must have been formed during sleep.”
While the children’s age had no effect, a particular type of brainwave called the sleep spindle has a significant impact on learning outcomes.
Sleep spindles occur when nerve bundles between the thalamus and the cerebral cortex generates rhythmic activity of 10 to 15 cycles per second. They are known to influence memory consolidation in adults.
“The greater an infant’s spindle activity, the better it can assign category names to new objects after sleep”, said Friedrich.
These results show that sleep significantly affects memory organization even in the infant brain, and at a time when memory is growing on a massive scale.
“The waking infant brain quickly forgets newly learned names, but during sleep, words are more durably linked to objects and imprinted,” said Dr. Angela Friederici, director at the Leipzig-based Max Planck Institute and head of the study.
Sleep and sleep spindles also enable the infant brain to pool similar meanings. Apparently, when the brain is largely cut off from outside influences, it can organize its experiences and form new generalizations.
“In this way, sleep bridges the gap between specific objects and general categories, thus transferring experience into knowledge,” said Friederici.
Source: Max Planck Institute/EuerkAlert
Many very young children use mobile devices these days, and little is known about their effects.
In a commentary in the journal Pediatrics, researchers review the many types of interactive media available today and raise important questions regarding their use as educational tools.
The experts acknowledge that the way in which the early use of media may impact the development and behavior of children is still relatively unknown. They warn that early use of media may be potentially detrimental as the development of important tools for self-regulation may be stunted.
While there are many research studies that have found children under the age of 30 months cannot learn from television and videos as well as they can from real-life interactions, there are fewer studies investigating whether this is the case with interactive applications.
Early research suggests that interactive media, such as electronic books and learn-to-read applications can be useful in teaching vocabulary and reading comprehension, but only in children preschool-age or older.
The potential educational benefits for children under age two is questioned, as research on interactive media in this age group is scant, and it is well-known that infants and toddlers learn best through hands-on and face-to-face experiences.
This commentary notes that while mobile device use by children can provide an educational benefit, the use of these devices to distract children during mundane tasks may be detrimental to the social-emotional development of the child.
The researchers ask, “If these devices become the predominant method to calm and distract young children, will they be able to develop their own internal mechanisms of self-regulation?”
“It has been well-studied that increased television time decreases a child’s development of language and social skills. Mobile media use similarly replaces the amount of time spent engaging in direct human-human interaction,” said corresponding author Jenny Radesky, M.D.
The authors question whether heavy device use during young childhood could interfere with development of empathy, social, and problem-solving skills that are typically obtained by exploring, unstructured play, and interacting with peers.
“These devices also may replace the hands-on activities important for the development of sensorimotor and visual-motor skills, which are important for the learning and application of math and science,” added Radesky.
While much remains unknown, the authors recommend that parents try each application before allowing their children to access it.
Parents are also encouraged to use these applications with their children, as using interactive media together enhances its educational value.
“At this time, there are more questions than answers when it comes to mobile media. Until more is known about its impact on child development quality family time is encouraged, either through unplugged family time, or a designated family hour,” Radesky said.
Stress is a response to a stimulus that interrupts our physical or mental equilibrium. While acute stress may be helpful, chronic stress can have a detrimental impact on health.
Traditional views of stress have often focused on the worries of an individual: money, love, health, work. A new study addresses the covert stress that may be shared by two people in a romantic relationship.
Dr. Allen LeBlanc, Health Equity Institute Professor of Sociology at San Francisco State University, studied how minority stress — which results from being stigmatized and disadvantaged in society — affects same-sex couples’ stress levels and overall health.
LeBlanc asserts that the health effects of minority stress shared by a couple can be understood as distinct from individual stress.
“Stress research has traditionally focused more on the individual experience of stress, which is very important, but social contexts get overlooked,” LeBlanc said. “We are developing new ways of measuring stress at the couple level.”
A gay man, for example, might feel individual stress if he conceals his sexual orientation from others, fearing discrimination in his workplace or rejection by his family.
This situation can lead to couple-level stress if he asks that his partner hide their relationship, leading to new challenges affecting both men — and the quality of their relationship.
In an article to be published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, LeBlanc suggests that future research must strive to better understand stressors that originate within the context of intimate relationships, and that such studies will advance the entire field of stress research.
“Relationships aren’t inherently seen as problematic or challenging,” LeBlanc said.
“A lot of important work has been focused on what is helpful or positive about being in a relationship. There is longstanding literature, for example, demonstrating that people who are married tend to have better health than those who are not. But relationships are also a source of stress, and we can learn from that.”
In an effort to determine the impact of shared stress, LeBlanc and his team are actively organizing a study of couple-level minority stress.
Hundreds of couples across the country will participate in the study designed to measure their individual and couple-level stress as distinct entities.
A year later, the couples will complete a second survey, with the goal of learning how stress experiences and health change over time, and the effects they have on a relationship.
The data from this survey will allow the researchers to test their new theory of stress and health and help identify the kinds of stress that are most challenging for same-sex couples.
While LeBlanc’s work focuses on minority stress among same-sex couples, he said the insights can be applied to other couples that experience minority stress, such as interracial couples, interfaith couples and couples in which one partner is significantly older than the other.
Source: San Francisco State University
As more surgeries are being performed with regional or local anesthesia, being conscious during a procedure is often associated with generalized anxiety and maybe pain.
New research from the U.K. has discovered that simple distraction techniques, such as talking to a nurse, watching a DVD, or using stress balls, can help a patient relax and reduce their pain.
Investigators from the University of Surrey followed 398 individuals as they received varicose vein surgery. As reported in the European Journal of Pain, the researchers split the study participants into four groups.
The first group was played music during their surgery, while the second was offered a choice of DVD to watch from a wall-mounted monitor.
In the third group, a dedicated nurse was positioned next to the patient’s head to interact with them throughout the procedure. The nurse was instructed not to touch the patient’s hand during surgery, but to try and engage them in conversation.
In the fourth group, two palm-sized stress balls were given to participants once they were comfortably in place on the operating table. They were instructed to squeeze these whenever they were feeling anxious or if they anticipated or experienced any uncomfortable sensations.
Researchers measured anxiety and pain levels through a short questionnaire, immediately after the surgery.
The results showed that:
- the group that watched a DVD showed 25 percent less anxiety than those who received treatment as usual (but no differences for pain);
- the group that interacted with a nurse showed 30 percent less anxiety and 16 percent less pain than those who received treatment as usual;
- the group that used stress balls showed 18 percent less anxiety and 22 percent less pain than those who received treatment as usual;
- music did not have any effect on anxiety or pain.
Investigators report that this is the first study to examine the effect of simple distraction techniques on patients undergoing varicose vein surgery.
The team of researchers focused on this type of surgery as it is usually done with the patient awake, using a local anesthetic. In addition, during this surgery, patients have previously experienced a burning sensation and have reported unfamiliar smells, sounds, and feelings.
As they are awake throughout, they have also reported overhearing conversations between the surgeon and nurse, containing upsetting details about the surgery.
Although the procedure is highly effective and safe, patients often experience anxiety, as they are fully aware of everything that is happening.
“Undergoing conscious surgery can be a stressful experience for patients,” said study author Dr. Jane Ogden from the University of Surrey.
“Finding ways of making them feel more comfortable is really important. The use of simple distraction techniques can significantly improve patient experience.
“Our research has found a simple and inexpensive way to improve patients’ experiences of this common and unpleasant procedure, and could be used for a wide range of other operations carried out without a general anesthetic.
This could also include the great number of exploratory procedures, such as colonoscopies and hysteroscopies, which are all done while patients are conscious.”
Source: University of Surrey
Older adults can maintain a good understanding of health if they regularly use the Internet and take part in social events, new research suggests.
Information on health and disease is now widely available, and people expect to be participants in the process of diagnosis and treatment. But age-related changes in the brain risk compromising the ability of older people to utilize the health care system, warn Professor Jane Wardle of University College London, U.K., and colleagues.
They add that, during aging, adults often have increased contact with the health care system as the risk for several chronic diseases increases.
But age-related cognitive changes may “compromise the ability to navigate the health care system and use health information,” they state in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. This is linked to poorer self-care, especially regarding long-term conditions, a higher chance of needing emergency care services, less preventive care, and a higher mortality risk.
Health literacy can be defined as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions,” say the researchers.
They investigated whether health literacy during aging can be influenced by technological and social factors. Information was taken on 4,368 men and women aged 52 years or older from 2004-2005 and 2010-2011. All were taking part in the long-term English Longitudinal Study of Ageing.
Health literacy was measured at baseline using a reading comprehension test of a medicine label. Initially, the rate of adequate health literacy was high, at 73 percent, but by the end of followup, this had fallen by 19 percent.
About 32 percent of the participants undertook “consistent Internet use,” and these individuals appeared to be significantly protected against health literacy decline, having a 23 percent lower risk of health literacy decline than the 40 percent who never used the Internet or email.
The same was seen for “consistent engagement in cultural activities” such as visiting the cinema, art galleries, museums, and the theatre. About 39 percent took part in these activities, and this group was at a 27 percent lower risk of health literacy decline. The number of such activities was directly linked to maintenance of health literacy.
Those who took part in both categories of activity were at a 49 percent lower risk of health literacy decline than those who took part in none. This benefit on health literacy was independent of cognitive function and decline, assessed by face-to-face interview and several reliable tests.
The authors caution that this observational study cannot determine cause and effect, but add, “The results indicate that health literacy skills are fluid over time, that loss of literacy skills during aging is not inevitable, and that technological and social factors should be understood as influences on literacy skills.”
“Support for older adults to maintain socially engaged lives and to access the Internet should help promote the maintenance of functional literacy skills during aging,” they state.
They add that declining health literacy was also linked to poorer brain function scores at the start of the study, being non-white, having relatively low wealth, few educational qualifications, and difficulties carrying out routine daily activities.
However, while these demographic factors are either not or not easily modifiable, low health literacy is modifiable. It “represents a route to improvement of health in the population that must not be missed by policymakers and the health system,” say the experts.
Previous long-term research studies have indicated that a diverse range of social activities including physical activity, intellectual game-playing, membership of religious and other social groups, and participation in cultural activities can all protect against age-related cognitive decline.
There appears to be no evidence, however, that a short period of socially and cognitively stimulating activities that do not include active learning of novel skills brings cognitive benefits.
“This body of knowledge is still evolving,” Professor Wardle believes, “although it appears that cognitively-stimulating social activities may help maintain cognitive function during ageing. This relationship may extend to health literacy.
“Our study highlights the usefulness of putting health literacy in the context of both cognitive and social functions, particularly when trying to better understand changes to health literacy skills in later life.”
She calls for further studies that include additional cognitive, technological, and social measurements.
Kobayashi, L. C. et al. Internet use, social engagement and health literacy decline during ageing in a longitudinal cohort of older English adults. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 26 November 2014 doi: 10.1136/jech-2014-204733
It’s extremely important that experts in the fields of psychiatry and public health recognize the undeniable link between mental health and diet and nutrition, say leading academics in a new paper published in the The Lancet Psychiatry.
Research has overwhelmingly confirmed the relationship between nutritional deficiencies and poor mental health. Psychiatry is now at a critical stage, say the experts, with the current medically focused model having achieved only minimal progress toward relieving the global burden of poor mental health.
“While the determinants of mental health are complex, the emerging and compelling evidence for nutrition as a key factor in the high prevalence and incidence of mental disorders suggests that nutrition is as important to psychiatry as it is to cardiology, endocrinology, and gastroenterology,” said lead author Jerome Sarris, Ph.D., from the University of Melbourne, a member of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research (ISNPR).
“In the last few years, significant links have been established between nutritional quality and mental health. Scientifically rigorous studies have made important contributions to our understanding of the role of nutrition in mental health,” he said.
Researchers have found that in addition to healthy eating, nutrient-based prescriptions also have the potential to assist in the management of mental disorders. For example, studies show that a variety of nutrients have a clear link to brain health, including omega-3s, B vitamins (particularly folate and B12), choline, iron, zinc, magnesium, S-adenosyl methionine (SAMe), vitamin D, and amino acids.
“While we advocate for these to be consumed in the diet where possible, additional select prescription of these as nutraceuticals (nutrient supplements) may also be justified,” Sarris said.
Many studies have also shown associations between healthy eating and a reduced prevalence of and risk for depression and suicide across cultures and age groups.
“Maternal and early-life nutrition is also emerging as a factor in mental health outcomes in children, while severe deficiencies in some essential nutrients during critical developmental periods have long been implicated in the development of both depressive and psychotic disorders,” said Felice Jacka, Ph.D., a researcher at Deakin University and president of the ISNPR.
Another systematic review published in late 2014 has also confirmed a relationship between “unhealthy” dietary patterns and poor mental health in children and teens. Given the early age of onset for depression and anxiety, the information points to dietary improvements as a way of preventing the initial onset of common mental disorders.
“It is time for clinicians to consider diet and additional nutrients as part of the treating package to manage the enormous burden of mental ill health,” said Sarris, an executive member of the ISNPR. He believes that it is time to advocate for a more integrative approach to psychiatry, with diet and nutrition as key elements.
Source: University of Melbourne
The gender identity of transgender children is deeply held and is not the result of confusion about gender or pretense, according to new research by psychological scientist Kristina Olson, Ph.D., of the University of Washington.
Olson is the first to take a scientific approach to investigating whether the gender identity of transgender children is deeply held, confused or simply pretense, as some have proposed. She began the research project, partly out of her interest in how children think about social groups, but also because she’d witnessed the challenges of a close friend with a transgender child.
“Seeing how little scientific information there was, basically nothing for parents, was hard to watch,” Olson said.
“Doctors were saying, ‘We just don’t know,’ so the parents have to make these really big decisions: Should I let my kid go to school as a girl, or should I make my kid go to school as a boy? Should my child be in therapy to try to change what she says she is, or should she be supported?”
The idea that young children, who haven’t gone through puberty, can truly be transgender has been very controversial. Some experts believe the best approach is to encourage “gender-variant” children to be comfortable with their biological gender.
More recently, however, an increasing number of doctors, parents, and mental health professionals have begun to advocate for allowing children to live as their identified gender.
Olson’s co-authors were Nicholas Eaton, Ph.D., at Stony Brook University and Aidan Key of Gender Diversity, a Seattle organization that provides training and runs support groups for families of gender-nonconforming children.
The researchers specifically focused their study on 32 transgender children (ages five to 12) who were living as their identified gender in all aspects of their lives, who came from supportive home environments, and who had not yet reached puberty.
The participants and their cisgender (non-transgender) siblings were recruited through support groups, conferences, and word of mouth. The researchers also recruited cisgender children from other non-transgender families for analytical comparisons.
Key, who helped to develop questions and to recruit children for the study, said he has met parents of transgender children as young as five years old who have significant anxiety and depression, even suicidal impulses.
“Families are searching for information,” he said. “Nobody wants a child to say, ‘I wish I were dead’ when they’re six years old.”
Key expects Olson’s research will affirm what parents he works with have discovered: that embracing their children’s identities leads to happier, healthier young adults.
“The evidence is there in the lives of their children,” he said. “The research is struggling to catch up. That’s why Kristina’s work is so powerful.”
In one instance, the researchers used the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which assessed the speed with which the children associated male and female gender with descriptors related to the concepts of “me” and “not me.”
The test is based on the theory that people respond more quickly to pairings that are more strongly associated in memory. Overall, the findings showed that transgender children’s responses were indistinguishable from those of the two groups of cisgender children.
Transgender children also showed the same pattern of results as cisgender children on the explicit measures included in the study. For example, transgender girls, just like cisgender girls, preferred to be friends with other girls and they tended to prefer the same toys and foods that other girls liked.
“While future studies are always needed, our results support the notion that transgender children are not confused, delayed, showing gender-atypical responding, pretending, or oppositional — they instead show responses entirely typical and expected for children with their gender identity,” the researchers write.
“The data reported in this paper should serve as further evidence that transgender children do indeed exist and that this identity is a deeply held one.”
The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
Source: University of Washington
Teens with mental health problems who are also at risk for suicide have just as easy access to the guns in their homes as teens without a suicide risk, according to new research from the University of Washington. In fact, 41 percent of all teens who live in a home where a gun is kept report having easy access to it.
Suicide is the second-highest cause of death among adolescents in the United States; just having a gun in the home increases the risk as nearly half of suicides involve a gun.
For the study, researchers analyzed data from the National Comorbidity Survey–Adolescent Supplement, a nationally representative sample of more than 10,000 US adolescents, ages 13-18.
“The main finding was that children with mental health risk factors for suicide are just as likely to report in-home firearm access as those without suicide risk factors.
“And that was true even when comparing firearm access between children with no suicide risk factors and those who reported a suicide attempt in the preceding 12 months, who, I would argue, are probably at the highest suicide risk of those surveyed,” said Dr. Joseph A. Simonetti, a research fellow at Harborview Medical Center’s Injury Prevention and Research Center in Seattle.
The survey screened teens for mental health diagnoses such as depression, bipolar disorder, and drug and alcohol abuse, as well as whether they had ever thought about, planned, or attempted suicide. The teens were also asked if a gun was kept in their home, and if so, could they get a gun and “shoot it right now” if they wanted to or whether the guns or ammunition were inaccessible.
The findings showed that about one in three of the teens lived in a home with a gun; of those, 40 percent said they could access and fire the gun. These teens tended to be slightly older, more likely to be male, come from higher-income families, and live in rural areas than those who lived in a household with a gun or guns but did not have access to the weapons or ammunition.
“One finding that was particularly disturbing was that the teens who reported having easy access to guns were also significantly more likely to have a history of drug or alcohol use disorders,” Simonetti said.
The combination of substance abuse and access to firearms is linked to an increased risk of suicide as well as unintentional gun injuries.
“Safe firearm-storage needs more effective promotion, particularly in households with at-risk children,” Simonetti said. “There appears to be a disconnect between generally agreed upon firearm safety practices and what we’re actually seeing in the community.”
The findings are published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.
Source: University of Washington
New research has found that when it comes to the ability to regulate emotions, the brain activity in autistic people is significantly different from the brain activity in people without autism.
Researchers from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine say their findings suggest that improving prefrontal cortex activity could help autistic people regulate their emotions and improve serious symptoms associated with the disorder.
The findings, published in the Journal of Autism Developmental Disorder, show that “emotion regulation” symptoms have a biological explanation that can be visualized using functional MRI (fMRI).
The researchers contend that these emotional symptoms are not “merely associated” with or a result of the core autism symptoms, which include repetitive behaviors, communications problems, difficulties with social interactions, and other cognitive issues.
“This research adds to the growing awareness that although autism is diagnosed on the basis of social impairment and repetitive behaviors, the importance of emotion regulation and all the behaviors that come with it — depression, tantrums, meltdowns, irritability — are very real and should be a focus of clinical services,” said Gabriel Dichter, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry and psychology and senior author of the paper.
“Any parent of a child with autism knows that these symptoms can be pervasive. Children with autism often lack the ability to cope with difficult emotional situations that result in meltdowns and tantrums.”
There are only two FDA-approved medications to treat autism and neither treats core symptoms, he said, noting they treat high rates of irritability and aggression.
“We’ve known for a while that we need to pay attention to emotion regulation in people with autism, but we think these data suggest a neural basis for these problems and add credence to their ubiquity as core features of the disorder,” he said.
For the new study, Dichter’s team recruited 30 young adults between the ages of 18 and 30; 15 had autism, the remaining 15 did not.
The researchers noted that because it is well documented that people with autism often have trouble regulating their emotions, they spent 45 minutes with each participant to teach them how to change their perception of an emotional stimulus before they entered the MRI scanner.
While in the fMRI scanner, each participant viewed a series of pictures of human faces with no expression. Partway through viewing each picture, the participants were asked to generate positive thoughts about the picture, or negative thoughts, or leave their emotional response unchanged.
The researchers also used eye-tracking to ensure all participants continuously viewed the picture and to measure at high resolution the size of each participant’s pupils. It’s known that pupils dilate when people exert cognitive effort, such as trying to recall someone’s name or trying to change an emotional response to situation, the researchers explained.
These methods, along with self-reporting from the participants, created checks and balances that ensured the accuracy of the data collected from the brain scans, the researchers reported.
The researchers discovered that in the control group, the prefrontal cortex worked hard to modulate the emotional response that originated in the limbic system — an evolutionarily old part of the brain associated with basic emotions and needs.
The brain scans of people with autism were different, according to the researchers.
“The prefrontal cortex did not come online to the same extent,” Dichter said. “It was as though the brain region that’s needed to work hard to regulate emotional responses couldn’t activate to the same degree as it did in people without autism. This limited activation of the prefrontal cortex, not surprisingly, resulted in less modulation of the limbic regions.”
The pupil data suggested that participants worked hard to fulfill the requirements of the study. They changed their emotional responses to the picture. But their brain scans suggest that people with autism did not use their prefrontal cortex to the same extent as people without autism.
When faced with emotional situations, since people with autism do not use their prefrontal cortices to regulate emotions, this may lead to the “associated symptoms” seen in many autistic people, such as anxiety, tantrums, and irritability, which can be pervasive, the researchers explained.
The research team also found a correlation between the level of brain activity in the prefrontal cortex and the severity of a person’s autism.
“There does seem to be an association between the ability to bring these brain regions online as needed during emotional situations and the severity of a person’s autism symptoms,” Dichter said.
Dichter next wants to conduct a similar study with children.
“Studying children with autism helps us tease apart the affects of having autism from the affects of living with autism for years as a teenager and an adult,” he said.
Future intervention research based on these findings could use cognitive behavior techniques to improve emotion regulation abilities for people with autism or brain stimulation techniques to improve activity in the prefrontal cortex during emotion regulation.
If you are middle-aged and you consume more than two alcoholic drinks per day, your risk for stroke may be even greater than if you suffer from other well-known risk factors for stroke, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, according to new research published in the journal Stroke.
Past studies have shown that alcohol affects stroke risk, but this is the first one to pinpoint differences with age.
“We now have a clearer picture about these risk factors, how they change with age and how the influence of drinking alcohol shifts as we get older,” said Pavla Kadlecová, M.Sc., a statistician at St. Anne’s University Hospital’s International Clinical Research Center in the Czech Republic.
For the new study, researchers tracked 11,644 middle-aged Swedish twins for 43 years, and compared the effects of an average of more than two drinks daily (heavy drinking) to less than half a drink daily (light drinking). All twins were under age 60 at the start.
Each participant was categorized as a light, moderate, heavy, or non-drinker based on the questionnaires. The findings showed that nearly 30 percent of all participants had a stroke. Researchers then compared the risk of stroke from alcohol and other health risks such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and smoking.
The findings revealed the following:
- heavy drinkers had about a 34 percent higher risk of stroke compared to light drinkers;
- mid-life heavy drinkers were more likely to have a stroke five years earlier in life irrespective of genetic and early-life factors;
- heavy drinking was linked to a greater risk for mid-life stroke compared to other well-known risk factors such as high blood pressure and diabetes;
- at around age 75, blood pressure and diabetes became greatest risk factors for stroke.
Among identical twins, siblings who suffered a stroke drank more than their siblings who had never had a stroke, suggesting that mid-life drinking raises stroke risks regardless of genetics and early lifestyle. Regular heavy drinking of any kind of alcohol can raise blood pressure and cause heart failure or irregular heartbeats over time, in addition to stroke and other risks.
“For mid-aged adults, avoiding more than two drinks a day could be a way to prevent stroke in later productive age (about 60s),” Kadlecová said.
The study is consistent with the American Heart Association’s recommended limit of two drinks for men (eight ounces of wine) and one drink for women (four ounces) per day.
Source: American Heart Association
New research shows that mothers who support their children’s need for autonomy tend to be viewed more positively by their children.
“When mothers are highly controlling of small children’s play, those children are less likely to want to engage with them,” said Jean Ispa, co-chair of the University of Missouri Department of Human Development and Family Studies and a professor in the College of Human Environmental Sciences.
“Respect for autonomy is important, not only for children’s growth, but also for creating positive parent-child relationships. We found that mothers who supported their children’s autonomy were regarded more positively by their children than mothers who were highly directive.”
Ispa’s study, which included more than 2,000 mothers and their children, measured maternal directiveness — or the extent to which mothers controlled activities — in play when the children were two years old and then during a discussion about areas of disagreement when the children were in the fifth grade.
She found that mothers’ tendencies to display controlling behaviors during toddler play time predicted the extent to which the children viewed their mothers positively or negatively when the children were in fifth grade.
She noted that these results did not differ by ethnicity or gender of the children.
“Mothers who are very directive when their children are toddlers often tend to still be controlling when their children enter adolescence,” Ispa said.
“With small children, mothers mostly use physical controls, but when children are older these directives become more verbal and psychological, such as by restricting what children are allowed to say or by not allowing them to speak their minds. It’s not surprising that their children begin to view them in a negative light.”
Allowing children autonomy does not mean parents should stop setting ground rules or providing input, Ispa noted.
She added that behavioral controls, such as teaching children not to cross the street without first checking for cars, did not negatively impact mother-child relationships like the psychological controls, such as purposely inducing guilt or telling children to think, feel, and play in certain ways.
“Many times, parents think that employing these controlling behaviors is the ‘right way’ to raise children, but our research shows that really does not work,” Ispa said.
“Allowing children age-appropriate levels of autonomy to make safe decisions is very good for kids, and they usually will make wise decisions when they have been taught about safe choices, as well as consequences.
“A good place for parents to start would be to have open discussions and allow their children to express their own points of view. When giving children instructions, explain reasons for decisions rather than simply saying, ‘Because I said so.'”
The study was published in Social Development.
Source: University of Missouri-Columbia
People who suffer from severe clinical depression tend to have brains that are 30 percent more inflamed than healthy brains, according to a new study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Canada. The findings may lead to new depression treatments that target brain inflammation.
“This finding provides the most compelling evidence to date of brain inflammation during a major depressive episode,” said senior author Dr. Jeffrey Meyer of CAMH’s Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute. “Previous studies have looked at markers of inflammation in blood, but this is the first definitive evidence found in the brain.”
Specifically, the researchers were able to measure the activation of immune cells, known as microglia, that play a key role in the brain’s inflammatory response. They used a brain imaging technique called positron emission tomography (PET) to conduct brain scans on 20 patients with depression (but otherwise healthy) as well as 20 healthy control participants.
Results showed a significant elevation of brain inflammation in participants with depression; levels of inflammation were highest among those with the most severe depression.
Although the process of inflammation is one way in which the brain protects itself (similar to the inflammation of a sprained ankle), too much inflammation can be damaging. A mounting body of evidence suggests that brain inflammation may generate the symptoms of depression, such as low mood, loss of appetite, and inability to sleep.
But what was previously unclear was whether inflammation played a role in clinical depression independent of any other physical illness.
“This discovery has important implications for developing new treatments for a significant group of people who suffer from depression,” says Meyer, who also holds a Canada Research Chair in the neurochemistry of major depression. “It provides a potential new target to either reverse the brain inflammation or shift to a more positive repair role, with the idea that it would alleviate symptoms.”
The desire to find new ways to treat depression is driven by the reality that more than half of people with severe depression do not respond to antidepressant treatments and four percent of the general population is in the midst of a clinical episode. Current treatments do not target inflammation, and treating depression with anti-inflammatories is one avenue for future research, said Meyer.
“Depression is a complex illness and we know that it takes more than one biological change to tip someone into an episode,” said Meyer. “But we now believe that inflammation in the brain is one of these changes and that’s an important step forward.”
The findings are published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.
Tweeting about sexism can improve a woman’s well-being as it has the potential to let them express themselves in ways that feel empowering, according to a new study.
“We know women can be badly affected by experiences of sexism and that responding publicly can be stressful and risky,” said Dr. Mindi Foster of Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada, lead author of the study.
She noted the study “examined whether using Twitter to respond to sexism could be done in a public way without any negative effects to their well-being.”
For the study, 93 female undergraduate students were randomly assigned to one of three groups. Over a three-day period, all the women received information regarding topical issues around sexism in politics, the media, and in universities.
One group was required to tweet publicly, the second group was required to tweet privately, while the third group did not tweet at all. The women received no instructions regarding the number or the content of tweets.
All participants completed mood questionnaires and wellbeing measures after they tweeted. Tweets were also analyzed for linguistic and emotional content.
The researchers identified a variety of emotions, including anger, discontent, sarcasm, shock, surprise and sadness. The most common combination was surprise and discontent, they reported, referring to one tweet: “Never knew there was this much sexism in politics! It’s so disturbing! Shocked disgusted.”
The researchers’ analysis showed that the group of women who tweeted publicly displayed feelings of increased wellbeing by the third day. Neither of the other two groups showed any changes in wellbeing.
“We know that popular online campaigns, such as EverydaySexism, have empowered women to speak out and share their experiences,” Foster said. “However, this study demonstrates how tweeting publicly has the potential to improve women’s wellbeing.”
She noted that more research is needed to understand whether “this form of collective action has any further health benefits.”
The study, published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
A new study suggests that political gridlock — like that which led to the 2013 federal government shutdown — can largely be blamed on men, who researchers found are less likely to compromise.
“One implication is that female legislators might talk about politics and deliberately engage the other party more than their male colleagues,” said Patrick Miller, Ph.D., a University of Kansas assistant professor of political science.
“That might have some effects on the kind of legislative environment we have. Maybe if we have more women in office, you’d have more communication, less fighting, and perhaps more legislating and less gridlock.”
For the study, researchers used survey data from the 2010 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, which was conducted nationwide, as well as a series of experiments conducted in 2014 involving the university’s undergraduate students.
The researchers found in both the survey and experiments that men were more likely than women to avoid cross-party political discussion, to judge political arguments based solely on what party is advancing them, and to form strong political opinions about the opposite party’s positions without actually listening to the other side’s reasoning.
“Male Democrats and Republicans more than female partisans expect interacting with the other party to be an unpleasant, conflictual, anxious, anger-filled experience,” Miller said. “As a result, they talk about politics with people in the other party less so than women.”
“Male partisans are more likely to reject information (and) to reject opinions that come from the other party without engaging that information,” Miller continued. “Just because they hear that an argument comes from the other party they think about that information less. Yet they are more likely to reject that information strongly.
“In essence, male partisans are forming strong opinions that create polarization and conflict on less information than women.”
Miller said these findings fit with psychological research known as the “male warrior argument” that focuses on men being hard-wired to fight.
“It’s not that women don’t have any of those feelings,” he said. “It’s just that they have fewer of them. We found these interesting patterns, such as being exposed to competitive elections, makes you more hesitant to discuss politics, and engage with the other side. So our elections divide us from each other as citizens, rather than encourage us to discuss important political issues.”
This is important because the act of listening to political opponents is a central tenet in the proper functioning of a democracy, the researchers noted.
Miller noted that the study’s data dealt with responses from voters instead of elected officials, which shows the importance everyday citizens play in what’s happening in politics today.
“Citizens also carry some burden for the problems that we have in politics today,” he said. “We very readily condemn all the problems we find in Washington. Yet, we as citizens don’t think very often about the role that we have in that.”
By and large, voters nominate and elect more partisan politicians, he noted.
“If we’re condemning politicians for the way they act in office, they might just be giving us what we are looking for — that partisan warrior and gridlock,” he concluded.
Miller and co-author Pamela Johnston Conover, Ph.D., a political science professor at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, published the study in the journal Politics, Groups, and Identities.
Source: University of Kansas
Misguided relationships with the opposing gender are common and appear to follow a similar pattern around the world.
Imagine the following scenario: a woman and a man are having a conversation. She is interested in the conversation, and is friendly, smiling and warm. He interprets her behavior as sexual interest while she believes she is making a new friend.
Or maybe: a man is sexually attracted to a woman he has just met, and signals this in various ways. She thinks that he is just being friendly.
Do these events seem familiar? If so, you are not alone.
A new Norwegian study confirms the observations as women reported that men often misinterpret their signals of friendliness as sexual interest. Conversely, the men in the study reported that women often misinterpret their signals of sexual interest as friendliness.
“The results are no surprise, seen from an evolutionary perspective,” researcher Mons Bendixen explains.
“The fascinating thing is that our results are identical to a study done in the USA, even though Norway is one of the most gender-equal, sexually liberal countries in the world.”
In most areas of psychology, there is little to no difference between genders: mental capacity, intellectual achievements, food preferences — men and women are all more or less the same.
However, experts say the story changes when it comes to reproduction and challenges related to finding a sexual partner — in these situations differences abound.
Evolutionary psychology is the study of how the human mind has evolved, developed, and adapted over time. One thing that evolutionary psychologists are specifically interested in is gendered sexual psychology between cultures and social groups.
Researchers believe an evolutionary psychology perspective helps to explain why men often wrongly assume that women who smile and laugh during conversation may want to sleep with them.
A man’s ability to reproduce is all about seizing every opportunity. He has to spend both money and time on courtship, which still may not lead to sex. But it costs even more to not try, because then he won’t be able to reproduce.
“A man’s reproductive fitness, meaning the amount offspring he produces, is dependent on how many women he is able to make pregnant. But that’s not how it works for women,” Bendixen explains.
A woman can have sex with multiple men over a short period of time without producing any more children. So for men, it is a low-risk, potentially high-reward situation for men to have sex with women whenever the opportunity presents itself.
On the other hand, the cost is potentially great for a woman if she thinks that a man is more sexually interested than she is.
A woman risks pregnancy, birth, nursing, and raising the child, as well as lost opportunities to reproduce with others. Across thousands of generations, women’s psychology has evolved to set the bar higher, which means they need much clearer signals than men before they consider sex.
“Even though these processes aren’t conscious, we can still empirically measure the results,” Bendixen says.
The recent study at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology included 308 heterosexual participants between the ages of 18 and 30. Fifty-nine per cent of participants were women.
The participants were all heterosexual because sexual intercourse between men and women is necessary for reproduction.
Half of the women and 40 percent of the men were in relationships. The questions were identical to questions asked in a similar American study from 2003. Questions included:
- Have you ever been friendly to a person of the opposite gender, and had your actions interpreted as sexual interest? If yes, how many times has this happened?
- Have you ever been sexually attracted to someone and shown interest, and had the other person misinterpret your signals as friendliness? If yes, how many times has this happened?
The results show that both men and women find that their social signals are misinterpreted by the opposite sex.
Women in the study answered that they had acted friendly towards a man and had this misinterpreted as sexual interest about 3.5 times over the past year on average. The men in the study also reported having been misinterpreted by the opposite sex in this way, but far less often.
The results also show that men rarely misinterpret women who actually do signal sexual interest. The study shows that this is independent of whether or not the person is in a steady relationship or not.
Bedixen points out that Norway is considered to be one of the most gender-equal countries in the world. The USA, on the other hand, where a similar study was done in 2003, is ranked as 20th on the World Economic Forum’s list for equality around the world.
“The fact that the hypothesis in evolutionary psychology is supported even when the study is in a society where gender equality is strong, weakens alternative claims that the social roles of men and women in different cultures determine their psychology in these situations,” he says.
University researchers in the department of psychology are now going to use data collected from high school students to see if the results of this study are also valid for people aged 16-19, and if these miscommunications might lead to sexual harassment.
“Even though evolutionary psychology and our findings can help account for some sexually inappropriate behavior in men, it doesn’t mean that evolutionary psychologists defend this happening.
Measures can be taken to prevent sexual harassment. It will help if we just teach men that a woman who laughs at your jokes, stands close, or touches your arm at a party doesn’t mean that she’s sexually interested, even if you think she is,” Bendixen says.
New research suggests the lonelier and depressed you are, the more likely you are to binge-watch television marathons or Netflix episodes.
Although settling in to watch a series of shows may seem harmless, University of Texas researchers found that younger people use this activity to move away from negative feelings.
Yoon Hi Sung, Eun Yeon Kang and Wei-Na Lee conducted a survey on 316 18- to 29-year-olds on how often they watched TV; how often they had feelings of loneliness, depression and self-regulation deficiency; and finally on how often they binge-watched TV.
Researchers discovered that those who lacked the ability to control themselves were more likely to binge-watch. These viewers were unable to stop clicking “Next” even when they were aware that they had other tasks to complete.
Study findings were presented at the 65th Annual Conference of the International Communication Association in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Since binge-watching of television is a relatively new behavior, research on the activity is scant. Psychological factors such as loneliness, depression, and self-regulation deficiency have been known as important indicators of binge behavior in general.
For example, people engage in addictive behaviors to temporarily forget the reality that involves loneliness and depression. Also, an individual’s lack of self-regulation is likely to influence the level of his or her addictive behavior.
Therefore, the new study attempted to understand binge-watching behavior from this set of known factors.
“Even though some people argue that binge-watching is a harmless addiction, findings from our study suggest that binge-watching should no longer be viewed this way,” Sung said.
“Physical fatigue and problems such as obesity and other health problems are related to binge-watching and they are a cause for concern. When binge-watching becomes rampant, viewers may start to neglect their work and their relationships with others.
“Even though people know they should not, they have difficulty resisting the desire to watch episodes continuously. Our research is a step toward exploring binge-watching as an important media and social phenomenon.”
A new lab study by scientists from several prominent universities suggests a commonly used pesticide may increase the risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children.
Researchers believe the pesticide alters the development of the brain’s dopamine system, the part of the brain responsible for emotional expression and cognitive function.
Scientists from Rutgers University, Emory University, the University of Rochester Medical Center, and Wake Forest University discovered that mice exposed to the pyrethroid pesticide deltamethrin in utero and through lactation exhibited several features of ADHD.
As a result of the exposure, mice developed dysfunctional dopamine signaling in the brain which led to hyperactivity, working memory problems, attention deficits, and impulsive-like behavior.
The lab research was collaborated by data supplied by Centers for Disease Control that found high levels of pesticide metabolite in the urine of children receiving treatment for ADHD.
The research has been published In the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB).
These findings provide strong evidence, using data from animal models and humans, that exposure to pyrethroid pesticides, including deltamethrin, may be a risk factor for ADHD, says lead author Jason Richardson, associate professor in the Department and Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
“Although we can’t change genetic susceptibility to ADHD, there may be modifiable environmental factors, including exposures to pesticides that we should be examining in more detail,” says Richardson.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder most often affects children, with an estimated 11 percent of children between the ages of four to 17 — about 6.4 million — diagnosed as of 2011.
Boys are three to four times more likely to be diagnosed than girls. While early symptoms, including an inability to sit still, pay attention, and follow directions, begin between the ages of three to six, diagnosis is usually made after the child starts attending school full time.
A gender difference was found in the study as male mice were affected more than the female mice — a similar ratio to what is observed in children with ADHD.
The ADHD-like behaviors persisted in the mice through adulthood, even though the pesticide, considered to be less toxic and used on golf courses, in the home, and on gardens, lawns and vegetable crops, was no longer detected in their system.
Experts say that while there is strong scientific evidence that genetics plays a role in susceptibility to the disorder, no specific gene has been found that causes ADHD. Furthermore, scientists believe that environmental factors may also contribute to the development of the behavioral condition.
Using data from the Centers for Disease Control, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) the study analyzed health care questionnaires and urine samples of 2,123 children and adolescents.
Researchers asked parents whether a physician had ever diagnosed their child with ADHD and cross-referenced each child’s prescription drug history to determine if any of the most common ADHD medications had been prescribed.
Children with higher pyrethroid pesticide metabolite levels in their urine were more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD.
Young children and pregnant women may be more susceptible to pesticide exposure because their bodies do not metabolize the chemicals as quickly.
As a result of the findings, Richardson believes human studies need to be conducted to determine how exposure affects the developing fetus and young children.
“We need to make sure these pesticides are being used correctly and not unduly expose those who may be at a higher risk,” Richardson says.
Source: Rutgers University
Researchers have discovered yet another reason why it is so difficult to quit smoking: just 12 hours after a person’s last cigarette, the oxygen uptake and blood flow in the quitter’s brain decreases significantly compared to those who have never smoked.
Because of this, the researchers suggest that a gradual cutting back on smoking may be the best choice to avoid the severe effects of withdrawal.
“Regular smokers experience an almost dementia-like condition in the early hours after quitting, as suggested by brain scans. This can be quite an unpleasant experience, and is probably one of the reasons why it can be very difficult to quit smoking once and for all.
“Smokers drift back into abuse, perhaps not to obtain a pleasant effect — that ship has sailed — but simply because the withdrawal symptoms are unbearable,” said Professor Albert Gjedde at the University of Copenhagen.
Nicotine, the chemical in cigarettes that makes them addictive, initially increases brain activity when a person first begins smoking, the study suggests. The brain tissue, however, quickly adapts and these brain-boosting effects disappear. Then, when a person first tries to quit, the brain’s oxygen uptake and blood flow immediately decrease by up to 17 percent, according to brain scans.
This phenomenon happens with other pharmacologically active substances as well.
“After a period of time, many users of medicine will no longer experience an effect from treatment — for example with antidepressants. However, the consequences of discontinuing treatment could still be overwhelming if the withdrawal symptoms are very unpleasant,” Albert Gjedde said.
Longtime smokers seemingly need to continue smoking just to keep their brain functioning normally. With time, former smokers will eventually lose their dependency on nicotine, but the researchers still do not know how long it takes before their brains will regained normal energy consumption and blood flow.
“We assume that it takes weeks or months, but we do not know for sure. The new findings suggest that it may be a good idea to stop smoking gradually — simply to avoid the worst withdrawal symptoms that make it so difficult to stick to the otherwise very sensible decision to stop smoking,” Albert Gjedde added.
Smoking is harmful in almost every respect. Cancer, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases are just a few of the well-documented diseases that one can incur from smoking.
Gjedde notes that more research is needed and that there are still many blind spots in the quest to better understand the brains of smokers.
The findings are published in the Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow & Metabolism.
Source: University of Copenhagen
Emerging research suggests that while cell phones are an emerging channel to communicate mental health information to a provider, texting is the preferred method for communication, rather than an app.
This is the key finding of a new study led by researchers from Clemson University in collaboration with researchers from Indiana University and the Centerstone Research Institute.
The study was published in the journal Personal and Ubiquitous Computing.
Although the prevalence of mental illness is growing, 62 percent of those suffering do not receive treatment for their illnesses, says the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Unfortunately, while research has focused on medical chronic disease management, elder care, and health promotion, there have been fewer investigations of ways that readily available technologies can be used to assist in the treatment of mental health disorders.
“Cell phone technology is in the hands of millions of Americans and early research indicates that this technology can be useful to help Americans who are suffering from some form of mental illness,” said Kelly Caine, assistant professor in Clemson’s School of Computing.
Caine and her colleagues surveyed 325 patients currently receiving treatment at community-based outpatient clinics for mental illness to determine their cell phone ownership and usage patterns.
The results showed that cell phone ownership among these mental health patients was comparable with ownership among a nationally representative, non-patient sample, with the exception that more patients than non-patients shared their mobile phones.
“Among mental health patients, we found that texting was the most popular feature used and downloading apps was the least popular,” she said. “The patients often shared phones, which makes providing private, secure messages difficult.”
Almost 80 percent of the patients surveyed used texting and many did not use mobile applications, meaning that texting may be accessible to the majority of patients and may therefore make a more suitable treatment aid.
Furthermore, participants who already were comfortable with texting also reported that they were comfortable with the concept of texting their mental health provider, implying that texting may be an appropriate feature for mobile health (mHealth) interventions.
“By utilizing a technology that is readily available and familiar to so many Americans, we see huge potential to improve treatment outcomes and provide patients who currently have only limited access to treatment additional treatment options,” said Caine.
In the paper, the researches write the cell phones and other mHealth technologies that are designed considering the ownership, usage patterns, and needs of patients have the potential to be successful treatment aids.
“When designed from a patient-centered perspective, such as understanding cell phone sharing habits, these technologies have the potential to be useful and usable to the largest number of patients,” Caine said.
Future research will investigate mobile security needs and explore the types of treatment aids that texting can offer.
Source: Clemson University/EurekAlert
New research shows that some games can help a child develop important cognitive skills.
Using data from a nationally representative study, researchers from Rhodes College determined that children who play frequently with puzzles, blocks, and board games tend to have better spatial reasoning ability.
The research is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
“Our findings show that spatial play specifically is related to children’s spatial reasoning skills,” said psychological scientist and lead researcher Dr. Jamie Jirout.
“This is important because providing children with access to spatial play experiences could be a very easy way to boost spatial development, especially for children who typically have lower performance, such as girls and children from lower-income households.”
Being able to reason about space, and how to manipulate objects in space, is a critical part of everyday life. The skill set helps us to navigate a busy street, put together a piece of “some assembly required” furniture, even load the dishwasher.
Moreover, the skills are especially important for success in academic domains including science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Graduates in STEM fields are usually viewed as professionals and are highly employable.
“While previous research indicated that spatial play activities might foster children’s spatial reasoning, relevant data from a large and diverse sample were lacking,” Jirout said.
When the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence (WPPSI), a commonly used test of cognitive ability, was revised and standardized, it provided Jirout and co-author Dr. Nora Newcombe of Temple University a golden opportunity to study children’s spatial play and spatial thinking.
Jirout and Newcombe analyzed data from 847 children, ages four to seven, who had taken the revised WPPSI, which included measures of cognitive skills that contribute to general intelligence.
The children’s spatial ability was specifically measured via the commonly-used Block Design subtest of the WPPSI, in which children are asked to reproduce specific 2D designs using cubes that have red, white, and half-red/half-white faces. The researchers also examined survey data from parents about the children’s play behavior and joint parent-child activities.
Researchers discovered that family socioeconomic status, gender, and general intelligence scores were all associated with children’s performance on the block design task.
Children from the low-socioeconomic status group tended to have lower block design scores compared to children from either the middle- or high-socioeconomic status groups. And boys tended to have higher block design scores than did girls, though only after several other cognitive abilities, such as vocabulary, working memory, and processing speed were taken into account.
Importantly, how often children played with certain toys was also tied to their spatial reasoning skills. Children who played with puzzles, blocks, and board games often (more than six times per week) had higher block design scores than did children who played with them sometimes (three to five times per week), or rarely/never.
None of the other types of play (e.g., drawing, playing with noise-making toys, and riding a bicycle, skateboard, or scooter) or the parent-child activities (e.g., teaching number skills, teaching shapes, playing math games, telling stories) included in the survey data were associated with children’s spatial ability.
In line with previous findings, parents reported that boys engaged in spatial play — playing with puzzles, blocks, and board games — more often than girls, even after spatial ability was taken into account.
The underlying mechanisms linking spatial play and spatial reasoning require further investigation, but these results suggest that targeting children’s spatial play may be one possible intervention tool for improving their spatial ability, the researchers argue.
“This area of research has potential to provide practical implications for anyone who interacts with or has some influence on children’s access to toys and play experiences, such as parents, teachers, childcare providers, and even toy companies,” says Jirout.
Jirout and Newcombe are planning further experimental research aimed at clarifying the causal relationship between spatial play and spatial reasoning, looking at children’s play in both informal home-based settings and more formal, classroom-based environments.