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Updated: 7 min ago

‘Self As Doer’ Tactic Can Aid in Behavior Change

Tue, 01/19/2016 - 8:19am

If eating healthy is one of your New Year’s resolutions, a new study suggests that the key to success is to truly identify yourself as already being a “doer.” In other words, rather than “I am going to eat healthier this year,” say “I am a healthy eater.”

The researchers believe that identifying yourself as already being the person you plan to be (such as “healthy eater” or “fit person”) is the psychological key to bringing about lasting changes in behavior. They call this the “self as doer” approach.

“The more one identifies with a particular role, the more likely one is to participate in role-related behaviors,” write researchers Drs. Amanda M. Brouwer and Katie E. Mosack in the journal Self & Identity.

“It stands to reason that the very process of conceptualizing the self as a ‘healthy eater’ brings about greater identification with this role.”

For the study, Brouwer and Mosack explored the concept of self as doer and set out to determine whether this new approach could help influence people’s eating habits.

A total of 124 female participants were given information regarding food portion sizes and asked to create a food diary for the six-week period of the study. They were then split into three groups: the first was provided with standard educational material about nutrition, the second was treated as a control, and the third was asked to create six identity statements.

These statements took the form of “identities” based on the participants’ own healthy eating goals. If participants wanted to eat more fruit, for example, they were encouraged to think of themselves as “fruit eaters.” If they wanted to make better drink choices, then they thought of themselves as “less soda drinkers,” and so on.

The findings revealed that the identity approach has significant potential. Participants in the self as doer group continued their healthy-eating habits over the course of the study, whereas women in the other two groups regressed to eating less healthy food as the weeks went on.

Women in the self as doer group also ate one portion more a day of healthy food than those in the other two groups.

Furthermore, participants in the self as doer group gave Brouwer and Mosack a lot of positive feedback about the approach: “They reported how the exercise of thinking of themselves as ‘doers’ motivated them to make different health behavior choices … [even] in situations where the imagined healthy choice was not preferred,” said the researchers.

This research offers a novel and effective way to help people stick to their plans for healthy eating. It also shows that simply educating people about nutrition is not enough to help them reach their goals.

Source: Taylor & Francis


Excited man photo by shutterstock.

Male High School Sports Tied to Binge Drinking

Tue, 01/19/2016 - 7:27am

A new study discovers high school boys who participate in sports are more likely to binge drink, often at a dangerous level.

University of Michigan researchers discovered that among boys who play at least three sports, nearly 22.6 percent say they have binge drunk (at least five drinks in a sitting) and 8.7 percent say they have consumed at least 10 drinks in one sitting — extreme binge drinking.

Although the numbers decline for one-sport athletes, the relationship is still strong as 20.4 percent binge drink and 8.5 percent participate in extreme binge drinking. For male non-athletes, 18.3 percent binge and 7.6 percent extreme binge.

No differences in extreme binge drinking were found among girls who play sports versus girls who do not — although female athletes are more likely to binge drink than non-athletic girls.

Previous studies show that sports have a positive impact on academic achievement and health, and lower the risk of teens engaging in criminal behavior and getting school suspensions.

But stress and peer pressure in risky drinking behaviors causes some students to imbibe heavily, possibly risking memory loss, becoming a victim in fatal traffic accidents and dying from alcohol poisoning, said sociologist Dr. Philip Veliz, the study’s lead author.

The study appears in The American Journal on Addictions.

Veliz and colleagues used data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey that asked high school students about the largest number of alcoholic drinks they had in a row during the last 30 days. Additional questions assessed the number of sports teams played (either school or community group) and cigarette/marijuana use.

Researchers analyzed responses from 11,154 high school students — 5,718 girls and 5,436 boys. Overall, 14 percent of girls and 19 percent of boys indicated they binge drank. Moreover, about 4 percent of girls and 8 percent of boys indicated they engaged in extreme binge drinking during the past 30 days.

The question of why boys would endeavor to binge drink is not easily answered.

Veliz said boys may be at a greater risk to engage in binge drinking due to the stress associated in defining their self-worth and masculinity, and coping with the demands of intense athletic competition.

“Future research needs to explore who these athletes are and what types of sport may exacerbate extreme forms of binge drinking,” said Veliz.

Source: University of Michigan


Teenager drinking beer photo by shutterstock.

Stress of Discrimination Can Harm Mental Health

Tue, 01/19/2016 - 6:02am

Discrimination can lead to economic inequalities as well as inequities in health outcomes. In a new study, UCLA researchers have shown how stress from discrimination can influence mental well-being.

“We now have decades of research showing that when people are chronically treated differently, unfairly or badly, it can have effects ranging from low self-esteem to a higher risk for developing stress-related disorders such as anxiety and depression,” said Dr. Vickie Mays, a UCLA Fielding School of Public Health professor.

Mays has done research in collaboration with Dr. Susan Cochran, a professor in the department of epidemiology at UCLA, that has helped document those links.

Alteration of a person’s mental health is a serious action that can influence a variety of detrimental consequences. Researchers explain that when the mental health of one person is affected, it can produce a domino effect extending beyond that individual.

“We know that when people have a psychiatric disorder, it’s not good for any of us,” Mays said. “For example, it can affect parenting — a depressed mom might not be able to interact with her child in a way that best promotes that child’s development, leaving the child more vulnerable to certain behavioral disorders. In that sense, we all suffer from the effects of discrimination.”

This finding was demonstrated in an earlier study by Dr. Gilbert Gee, a professor in the Fielding school’s Department of Community Health Sciences. His study assessed the extent to which Asian-Americans who reported being the victims of discrimination were more vulnerable to developing clinically diagnosable mental disorders.

“Much of the research has focused on symptoms of sadness and anxiety resulting from the mistreatment, and that’s very important, but we wanted to look at clinical outcomes,” Gee says.

Even after taking into account other potential causes of stress, Gee found a clear relationship between discrimination and increased risk of mental disorders.

Since that study, other researchers have reported similar results in African-American and Latino populations, as well as in other populations around the world, Gee said. He also found in a 2014 study of Latinas/os, that discrimination was significantly associated with increased risk of alcohol abuse among women and increased risk of drug abuse among men.

In 2015, Gee and colleagues performed an analysis drawing from approximately 300 studies conducted around the world over the last three decades. This meta-analysis concluded that self-reported racial discrimination is consistently related to poor mental health.

Discrimination is incredibly complex and experienced in so many different ways that it can be difficult to pinpoint the process by which it undermines mental health, researchers say.

“There are so many different routes, some of them direct and some of them indirect,” Gee said. He points out that while a hate crime occurring in a community is certain to affect the mental health status of the victim and the victim’s family, it can also have a spillover effect for acquaintances and non-acquaintances in the community.

Poor treatment based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and other factors can occur through interpersonal insults as well as through more insidious routes.

“If you don’t get a job and you’re left to wonder whether it had to do with your race or gender, that can have an impact on your mental health,” Gee said.

Emerging research using neuroimaging tools is helping to isolate the brain mechanisms at play in these scenarios.

A study led by one of Gee’s postdoctoral fellows recorded South Asian women talking about their experiences of being treated poorly. The researchers then had the women listen to the recordings while their brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging. The parts of the brain that responded as the women listened were the same as those that regulate emotions and stress.

More recently, Mays has collaborated on a study showing that experiencing significant amounts of discrimination over time can lead to changes in the way the brain processes information, disrupting, for example, the regions involved in planning and decision-making.

“When we’ve had these experiences and anticipate that other incidents might lead us to be discriminated against, it can interfere with our ability to cognitively function at our best,” Mays said.

In an address at the American Psychological Association’s annual meeting last year, Mays argued that, even as research continues to unravel the mental health effects of discrimination, more action should be taken to apply what is already known.

“Public health can do a great deal to improve the mental health status, as well as the physical health, of people who are mistreated,” Mays said. “There is science that can help us to design effective interventions.”

Mays calls for a better coordinated public health effort to better integrate what is known about the outcomes of discrimination into health care profiles.

“We screen for mental health disorders when we are putting together an individual’s electronic health record, but maybe we also need to ask about their experiences with discrimination, which would identify people at risk who could benefit from prevention efforts,” Mays said.

“And among patients who experience high levels of discrimination, we need to be concerned with the potential for distrust of the health care provider. It could be that if we want better health care outcomes, we should allow these patients to know more about the provider they are selecting to ensure it’s someone they are comfortable with.”

Gee believes public health can also do more to help shape future legislation that would both reduce discrimination and improve the mental health of its historic targets. “Policies that promote human rights can not only buttress the foundations of a civil society,” Gee said, “but they can also make for a healthier one.”

Source: UCLA

Brain Processes Sounds of Emotions Faster than Words

Tue, 01/19/2016 - 5:29am

Canadian researchers have discovered that it only takes one-tenth of a second for our brains to begin to recognize emotions conveyed by vocalizations.

Investigators say it doesn’t matter whether the non-verbal sounds are growls of anger, the laughter of happiness or cries of sadness. We pay more attention when an emotion (such as happiness, sadness or anger) is expressed through vocalizations than we do when the same emotion is expressed in speech.

Scientists at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, believe this process is evolutionary in origin. That is, the speed with which the brain “tags” these vocalizations and the preference given to them compared to language, is due to the potentially crucial role that decoding vocal sounds has played in human survival.

“The identification of emotional vocalizations depends on systems in the brain that are older in evolutionary terms,” said Marc Pell, Ph.D., the lead author on the study.

”Understanding emotions expressed in spoken language, on the other hand, involves more recent brain systems that have evolved as human language developed.”

The study appears in the journal Biological Psychology.

The researchers were interested in finding out whether the brain responded differently when emotions were expressed through vocalizations (sounds such as growls, laughter or sobbing, where no words are used) or through language.

To do this, they focused on three basic emotions — anger, sadness and happiness — and tested 24 participants by playing a random mix of vocalizations and nonsense speech. Researchers used nonsense phrases in order to avoid any linguistic cues about emotions.

The investigators asked participants to identify which emotions the speakers were trying to convey and used an EEG to record how quickly and in what way the brain responded as the participants heard the different types of emotional vocal sounds.

They were able to measure:

  1. how the brain responds to emotions expressed through vocalizations compared to spoken language with millisecond precision;
  2. whether certain emotions are recognized more quickly through vocalizations than others and produce larger brain responses; and
  3. whether people who are anxious are particularly sensitive to emotional voices based on the strength of their brain response.

Researchers found emotions of anger leave longer traces in the brain – especially for those who are anxious. They also discovered that the participants were able to detect vocalizations of happiness (i.e., laughter) more quickly than vocal sounds conveying either anger or sadness.

The finding that angry sounds and angry speech both produced ongoing brain activity that lasted longer than either of the other emotions, may suggest that the brain pays special attention to the importance of anger signals.

“Our data suggest that listeners engage in sustained monitoring of angry voices, irrespective of the form they take, to grasp the significance of potentially threatening events,” said Pell.

The researchers also discovered that individuals who are more anxious have a faster and more heightened response to emotional voices in general than people who are less anxious.

“Vocalizations appear to have the advantage of conveying meaning in a more immediate way than speech,” Pell said. “Our findings are consistent with studies of non-human primates which suggest that vocalizations that are specific to a species are treated preferentially by the neural system over other sounds.”

Source: McGill University

Drug Controls Marijuana Use, But With Harsh Side Effects

Mon, 01/18/2016 - 8:10am

A new study finds that combining the drug topiramate with psychological counseling curbed marijuana addiction among young smokers significantly more than did counseling alone.

In the small randomized control trial Brown University researchers, however, found that many study volunteers were unable to tolerate the medicine’s side effects.

Currently, there is no FDA-approved medication for treating cannabis dependence and misuse.

Meanwhile, the benefits of counseling treatment, such as motivational enhancement therapy (MET), aren’t enough to help many patients, said Robert Miranda Jr., associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior in the Alpert Medical School.

Miranda and his co-authors conducted the trial as the first test to determine whether topiramate, an epilepsy drug marketed as Topamax, could add to the benefits of traditional therapy. Topiramate has been studied as a potential treatment for alcohol and nicotine dependence and cocaine addiction.

Although researchers found that topiramate didn’t reduce the frequency of smoking significantly more than therapy alone, study participants who received the medication and MET used less marijuana each time, on average, than participants who got counseling and a placebo.

“The positive news is it did seem to have some effect and that effect seemed to really be focused on helping people reduce how much they smoke when they smoke,” said Miranda, lead author of the study in the journal Addiction Biology.

“It’s promising in the sense that it suggests that medications can help, but it asks questions about for whom it might be most effective because many people can’t tolerate the medication.”

The pilot study was the first to test topiramate for cannabis dependence. Researchers recruited 66 volunteers, aged 15-24, who smoked at least twice weekly but were interested in receiving psychological and drug treatment to reduce marijuana use.

Heavy marijuana use is associated with impaired memory and executive cognitive function, difficulty sustaining attention and filtering out irrelevant information. Initial screening showed that more than half of the participants met clinical criteria for marijuana dependence or abuse.

The study design called for the placebo group and the group that received topiramate to both receive 50-minute MET sessions at weeks 1, 3 and 5 of the six-week study. MET involves professionally guided motivational discussion about quitting or reducing use.

Of the 66 volunteers, 40 received topiramate in doses that slowly scaled up from 25 miligrams in week one to 200 miligrams by week five, before being tapered out a few days after the study’s end.

Through consistent interviews and other means during the study, volunteers recalled how often they smoked and how much (urine tests also showed whether they were using marijuana and also taking either the medicine or placebo).

Both groups reduced the number of days on which they used marijuana by statistically similar amounts, but those who took the medication also used on average about 0.2 fewer grams of cannabis each time.

While Miranda said he was encouraged by the results showing a significant additional effect from the medication, it was clear the treatment was not for everyone.

At the end of the six-week study, 21 of the 40 subjects receiving the drug had dropped out compared to only 6 of the 26 people taking the placebo. Two thirds of those who left the study after using topiramate cited the side effects as their reason for leaving. They complained of problems such as depression, anxiety, trouble with coordination and balance, weight loss and unusual sensations.

One next step in the research, Miranda said, would be to conduct a larger and perhaps longer trial.

Pharmacogenetics, or determining whether genetic markers or other factors could predict who will have less difficulty with topiramate’s side effects is also an area of future study. The knowledge would allow any future clinical treatment to be targeted to patients who will benefit.

Source: Brown University


Side effects worse than the cure photo by shutterstock.

Can Abstinence Campaigns Do More Harm than Good?

Mon, 01/18/2016 - 7:35am

A provocative article in the British Medical Journal debates the value and even the safety of alcohol abstinence campaigns like Dry January.

The abstinence efforts in which people essentially refrain from any use of alcohol for a month have become popular world-wide. Surprisingly, the benefits of the self-discipline are debatable.

In a recent article, two experts discuss the issue.

The lack of evidence that the abstinence campaigns work and don’t have unintended consequences, concerns Ian Hamilton, a lecturer at York University. The Dry January campaign estimates that “Last year over 2 million people cut down their drinking for January,” he writes.

But popular doesn’t necessarily mean effective, and he argues that this type of campaign “has had no rigorous evaluation.” Firstly, it is not clear who Dry January is targeting, he said. Trying to communicate a message about alcohol to the over 65s at the same time as the under 25s “risks the message not being heard, as the way these groups use alcohol is likely to be different.”

“Many of us can be economical with the truth when it comes to how much we drink,” he said. If people aren’t honest with themselves about their drinking, how can Dry January help? Dry January also risks sending out an “all or nothing” message about alcohol, and could be adding to the confusion we know exists in communicating messages about alcohol, he warns.

Public health experts generally promote safe levels of alcohol consumption based on a maximum daily or weekly units of alcohol. Although not the intention, people may view their 31 days of abstinence as permission to return to hazardous levels of consumption till next New Year’s day, said Hamilton.

He also points out that, for some heavy drinkers, abrupt abstention from alcohol can induce serious symptoms such as seizures.

“In sum, parched of evidence Dry January could have unintended consequences which would do more harm than good,” he concluded.

But Ian Gilmore, honorary professor at Liverpool University, thinks such campaigns are likely to help people at least reflect on their drinking. He points out that in the UK, our per capita consumption of alcohol has doubled over 40 years, with over 1.5 million heavily dependent drinkers in the country.

As such, Gilmore sees not harm in encouraging and supporting the estimated two million or so adults who decide on Dry January — to take a month off the booze after the festive period and have time to reflect on their drinking.

He points to an independent evaluation of 2015’s Dry January by Public Health England showing that 67 percent of participants said they had had a sustained drop in their drinking six months on. An earlier evaluation by the University of Sussex found that 79 percent of participants said they saved money, 62 percent said they slept better and had more energy, and 49 percent said they lost weight.

Gilmore believes it is important to note that the campaign is aimed at social not dependent drinkers, he says, and heavy drinkers are recommended to see their physician before stopping suddenly and completely.

“But evaluations indicate that campaigns like Dry January are being used more as a way of people examining their relationship with alcohol and making longer term changes,” he said.

Gilmore believes combining the public campaign with the release of government guidelines on drinking is timely. Moreover, the emphasis on having several alcohol-free days each week is an area for further research. But until we know of something better, “let’s support growing grass-roots movements like Dry January and Dry July in Australia and take a month off,” he said.

Source: British Medical Journal


Say no photo by shutterstock.

Autism More Common in Youth with Gender Dissatisfaction

Mon, 01/18/2016 - 7:01am

New research finds clinical evidence that supports the belief that autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are more prevalent in children and adolescents with gender dysphoria than in the general population.

In the study, 23 percent of the youths seen at a pediatric gender clinic were believed to have Asperger’s syndrome.

As a comparison, the CDC estimates approximately 1 in 68 children are born with ASD in the United States or approximately 1.5 percent of births.

Coauthors Daniel Shumer, M.D., M.P.H., Sari Reisner, Sc.D., Laura Edwards-Leeper, Ph.D., and Amy Tishelman, Ph.D., Boston Children’s Hospital and Pacific University of Professional Psychology in Oregon recommend routine assessment of ASD in youth who seek treatment for feelings of disconnectedness between their sex at birth and their current gender identity.

This recommendation is based on an increased likelihood of the co-occurrence of gender dysphoria and ASD.

“Importantly, ASD does not preclude support of gender transition, but awareness of its existence is necessary for the provision of optimal clinical care to children and adolescents with gender dysphoria,” said LGBT Health Editor-in-Chief William Byne, M.D., Ph.D., Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

The study is published in LGBT Health.

Source: Mary Ann Liebert/EurekAlert


Autism doctor photo by shutterstock.

Early Trauma Linked to Poor Outcomes in Kindergarten

Mon, 01/18/2016 - 6:28am

Traumatic experiences in early childhood, such as abuse or the incarceration of a parent, negatively affect learning and behavior development in kindergarten, according to a new study published online in the journal Pediatrics.

“Our study revealed that children in large urban areas across the country who were exposed to traumatic events in early childhood, were at increased risk for learning difficulty and behavior problems by the end of kindergarten” said lead author Manuel E. Jimenez, M.D., M.S., assistant professor of family medicine and community health at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

“Our study adds to our understanding of the relationship between health, and academic and behavioral skills and offers an opportunity for physicians who treat young children to play a critical role in connecting families with community resources that may improve a child’s chance for success.”

“Poor academic and social skills, combined with poor health outcomes in adulthood, as shown in other studies, contribute to existing health and educational disparities,” said Jimenez.

For the study, researchers looked at data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study that included negative childhood experiences as reported by the primary caregiver, as well as teacher-reported outcomes in academic achievement and behavior during kindergarten.

Kindergarten is a vital time period in a child’s life when academic and social skills have been shown to predict future achievement.

The researchers evaluated data on more than 1000 children from 20 large cities in the United States. More than half of the children had been exposed to at least one traumatic experience and 12 percent were exposed to three or more adverse childhood experiences.

Furthermore, African-American children and children with family income less than $20,000 were more likely to experience at least one adverse experience than non-African-American children or those with greater family incomes.

The findings reveal a pattern in which children who experienced a greater number of adverse experiences exhibited below-average performance academically, behaviorally and socially in kindergarten. Specifically, language and literacy skills were below proficient, and attention problems and aggression were more likely.

“Our study results are important because they highlight important risk factors for future academic struggle, adding to the risk for poor health outcomes that already are associated with early childhood exposure to trauma,” said Nancy E. Reichman, Ph.D., a co-author of the study.

“We hope our work encourages collaborations between educators and health professionals to support at-risk children and their families.”

Source: Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School

Not Just Any Cognitive Challenge Can Protect the Aging Brain

Mon, 01/18/2016 - 5:54am

New research suggests taking up a new mental challenge such as digital photography or quilting may help maintain cognitive vitality.

Recent evidence suggests that engaging in enjoyable and enriching lifestyle activities may be associated with maintaining cognitive vitality. However, the underlying mechanism accounting for cognitive enhancement effects have been poorly understood.

In the new study, investigators at the University of Texas at Dallas proposed that only tasks that involved sustained mental effort and challenge would facilitate cognitive function.

Researchers compared changes in brain activity in 39 older adults that resulted from the performance of high-challenge activities that required new learning and sustained mental effort compared to low-challenge activities that did not require active learning.

Researchers performed a battery of cognitive tests and brain scans using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on all participants. The MRI technology measures brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow.

Participants were randomly assigned to the high-challenge, low-challenge, or placebo groups. The high-challenge group spent at least 15 hours per week for 14 weeks learning progressively more difficult skills in digital photography, quilting, or a combination of both. The low-challenge group met for 15 hours per week to socialize and engage in activities related to subjects such as travel and cooking with no active learning component.

The placebo group engaged in low-demand cognitive tasks such as listening to music, playing simple games, or watching classic movies. All participants were tested before and after the 14-week period and a subset was retested a year later.

The high-challenge group demonstrated better memory performance after the intervention, and an increased ability to control brain activity more efficiently to challenging judgments of word meaning in the medial frontal, lateral temporal, and parietal cortex regions of the brain.

These are brain areas associated with attention and word processing. Some of this enhanced brain activity was maintained a year later. This increased neural efficiency in judging words was demonstrated by participants showing lowered brain activity when word judgments were easy and increasing activity when they became hard.

Researchers explain that this is a pattern of response typical of young adults. Before participating in the high-challenge intervention, the older adults were processing every item, both easy and hard, with maximum brain activity. After participation, they were able to adjust their brain activity to the demands of the task, thus showing a more efficient use of neural resources. This change in modulation was not observed in the low-challenge group.

Investigators believe the findings show that mentally demanding activities may be neuroprotective and an important element for maintaining a healthy brain into late adulthood.

“The present findings provide some of the first experimental evidence that mentally challenging leisure activities can actually change brain function and that it is possible that such interventions can restore levels of brain activity to a more youth-like state.

“However, we would like to conduct much larger studies to determine the universality of this effect and understand who will benefit the most from such an intervention,” explained senior author Denise C. Park, Ph.D.

Ian McDonough, a first author on the study, said, “The study clearly illustrates that the enhanced neural efficiency was a direct consequence of participation in a demanding learning environment. The findings superficially confirm the familiar adage regarding cognitive aging of ‘Use it or lose it.'”

Park added, “Although there is much more to be learned, we are cautiously optimistic that age-related cognitive declines can be slowed or even partially restored if individuals are exposed to sustained, mentally challenging experiences.”

Study findings appear in the journal Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience.

Source: IOS Press

No Need to Worry, Teens are Not Ruining the English Language

Sun, 01/17/2016 - 2:20pm

Although some people are convinced that teens are ruining the English language due to abbreviated “textspeak” and the overuse of slang, new research at Kansas State University says we have nothing to fear.

The English language is indeed continuously evolving to meet the needs of its speakers, but these changes are actually a good thing, notes study author Dr. Mary Kohn, assistant professor of English. And these changes occur throughout an individual’s lifetime, Kohn added, not just in the teen years.

“Very commonly, people think that teenagers are ruining language because they are texting or using shorthand or slang,” Kohn said. “But our language is constantly developing and changing and becoming what it needs to be for the generation who is speaking it. As a linguist, I find this really exciting because it shows me that our language is alive.”

Kohn studies language variation and how language changes over time. Her latest findings show that teenagers are not solely causing language change. Rather, language changes occur throughout a lifetime and not just during the teen years.

“All languages, throughout history, change as generations grow up and move through life,” Kohn said. “As long as there are people who are living and breathing and speaking, we’re going to invent new words. We’re going to invent new ways of speaking.”

“Our research has shown teens are being dynamic with language, but not necessarily in a consistent way,” Kohn said. “We aren’t eliminating the possibility that teenagers are driving sound change, but we might be grossly overstating the role of teenagers.”

Her findings have shown that there is not one consistent language path that a person takes from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. Language change is more individualistic and varies for each person, she said.

For example, teens in high school may choose to change their pronunciations and use language as a part of their identities. When these teens grow up and graduate from college or get a job, they may change their language again to sound more professional and meet the demands of their jobs and pressures of the workplace, Kohn said.

For the study, Kohn evaluated data from the Frank Porter Graham project, a database that tracked 67 children from infancy to their early 20s. The database includes audio and interview recordings from nearly every year of the children’s lives and also has recordings of family members, friends, and teachers — all valuable information for understanding how language changes as individuals grow up, Kohn said.

Kohn focused on 20 individuals during four different time periods: fourth grade, eighth grade, 10th grade, and post-high school at age 20. Using soundwaves, Kohn measured pronunciations to see if the participants dramatically changed during the teenage years. Her approach offered a before-and-after look at linguistic pronunciation during the teen years.

“The teenager subgroup did not stand out as a group from the rest of the subgroups, meaning there was nothing special about being a teenager,” Kohn said. “Just because you are a teenager doesn’t mean you will change your language.”

“Perhaps our stereotypes about how teenagers speak are often based on subgroups of teenagers that stand out to us as most distinct. We notice the kids who make bold fashion statements, so we also might notice the kids who are making dramatic linguistic changes.”

Source: Kansas State University

Teenager using cell phone photo by shutterstock.

Meeting Patient Preferences Affects Outcome of Psychological Treatment

Sun, 01/17/2016 - 8:45am

A new study has found that a patient’s preference for the time and place of their psychological treatment affects their perception of the treatment.

The study, from researchers at the Royal College of Psychiatrists and Imperial College London, looked at the treatment preferences of patients involved in the National Audit of Psychological Therapies according to five aspects: venue, time of day, gender of therapist, language that the treatment was delivered in, and therapy type.

For each of these features, the 14,587 patients were asked to rate whether or not they had a strong preference and if they were given enough choice. They were also asked to evaluate their satisfaction with treatment outcome using a five-point scale.

The study, published in the open access journal BMC Psychiatry, found that 86 percent of patients expressed a preference for at least one of the five aspects. Time of day and location were the two most popular preferences, the researchers noted.

Out of those patients, 36.7 percent said that at least one of their preferences had not been met.

“People who have preferences for how, when, and where psychological treatment is delivered that are not met are less likely to report that they were helped by the treatment,” said lead researcher Mike Crawford, Ph.D.

For the study, researchers analyzed data from anonymous survey results of patients who received treatment from 184 National Health Service facilities in England and Wales in 2012-13. They wanted to determine to what degree patients express preferences regarding certain aspects of their psychological treatment, whether they feel that these preferences are met, and how that impacts their perception of the treatment outcome.

The researchers noted that the study relied on quantitative survey data based on patient recall rather than qualitative interviews and evaluated perception of outcome, rather than evaluating the outcome itself.

That means it did not explore whether patients whose preferences were not met went on to benefit less from treatment, or whether the perception of poor outcome was attributed to unmet preferences retrospectively when patients completed the survey.

Providers of psychological treatment in the UK are encouraged to offer patients choices about their treatments, despite limited information on people’s preferences and a lack of evidence of how meeting these preferences affects therapy outcome.

The researchers suggest that their findings highlight the importance of assessing and meeting patient preferences and offering patients adequate choice.

“Psychological treatment services need to recognize that people often have preferences for how, when and where treatment is delivered,” Crawford said. “Treatment may be more effective when patient preferences are met by the service.”

Source: BioMedCentral

Study Reveals What Leads Bystanders to Intervene in Cyberbullying

Sun, 01/17/2016 - 8:00am

A new study has found that bystanders on social media are often unsupportive of cyberbullying victims who share highly personal feelings.

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) initiated the study to learn why bystanders are infrequently supportive when bullying occurs online.

They created a fictitious Facebook profile of an 18-year-old named Kate, who, in response to a post, received a mean comment — “Who cares! This is why nobody likes you” — from a Facebook friend named Sarah. That comment gets six likes.

The researchers recruited 118 people between the ages of 18 and 22 through Amazon Mechanical Turk for the study. The participants were randomly divided into four groups. Each group saw Sarah’s nasty comment in response to a different Facebook post from Kate. Across the four groups, Kate’s Facebook post varied in level of personal disclosure and whether it was positive or negative.

Two groups saw Kate make a highly personal disclosure about a relationship. “I hate it when you miss someone like crazy and you think they might not miss you back” (negative) or “I love it when you like someone like crazy and you think they might like you back” (positive).

The other two groups saw Kate make a less personal comment about the popular HBO program, “Game of Thrones.” “I hate it when a Game of Thrones episode ends and you have to wait a whole week to watch more” or “I love it when a Game of Thrones episode ends and you can’t wait until next week to watch more.”

Participants then responded to questions about how much they blamed Kate for being cyberbullied, how much empathy they had for Kate, and how likely they would be to support her.

Although the majority of participants considered Sarah’s comment an example of cyberbullying, they varied in their responses to Kate’s being bullied depending on her original post.

Regardless of whether Kate’s post was positive or negative, participants viewed Kate more negatively when she posted a highly personal disclosure.

“We found that when the Facebook post is a more personal expression of the victim’s feelings, participants showed lower levels of empathy and felt Kate was more to blame for being cyberbullied,” said Hannah Schacter, a UCLA graduate student in developmental psychology, and lead author of the study, which is published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

The researchers asked participants to rate on a scale of one to five whether they “felt for” Kate and whether they blamed her for Sarah’s criticism of her. Although the differences were small (about one third of point), they showed a consistent pattern of less forgiving responses when Kate posted about her personal issues as opposed to “Game of Thrones.”

The researchers also found that victim-blaming and empathy for the victim influenced whether participants would intervene by sending a supportive message to Kate, posting a supportive message, or posting that they disagree with the bully’s comment.

When participants felt that Kate deserved to be bullied and felt less empathy for her, they were less likely to express support for the victim.

“The emotional reactions toward Kate help explain whether online bystanders are likely to support the victim,” said Dr. Jaana Juvonen, a professor of psychology and senior author of the research.

“Our study suggests oversharing of personal information leads bystanders to blame and not feel for the victim,” Schacter said.

The researchers note that there appear to be unwritten rules about what is acceptable on social media websites, and their study suggests that oversharing personal emotions or information violates these rules.

“Young people need to understand that by revealing personal issues publicly online, they may make themselves more vulnerable to attacks from those seeking to harm others,” Juvonen said.

However, Schacter and Juvonen point out that the study’s findings have implications for changing how people react when they see online bullying. Rather than placing the burden on victims to monitor their online behavior, they say that more online empathy is needed.

This is a challenge, they acknowledge, because bystanders do not see the anguish of victims of online bullying.

“Supportive messages can make a big difference in how the victim feels,” Schacter said.

Source: UCLA

PHOTO: Jaaana Juvonen, professor of psychology at UCLA. Credit: Reed Hutchinson/UCLA.

Teens with Sleep Problems More Reactive to Stress

Sun, 01/17/2016 - 7:15am

Teens who experience sleep difficulties are more reactive to stress, which in turn, could contribute to greater academic, behavioral, and health problems, according to a new study led by the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).

Previous research has shown that nearly 70 percent of U.S. adolescents do not get enough sleep. It is also known that insufficient sleep and sleep problems eventually lead to cognitive problems and poor physical health over time.

Researchers believe this may be due to disruptions in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or the HPA axis, a key part of the neuroendocrine system that regulates reactions to stress and helps maintain many body processes.

While the association between sleep and the HPA axis has been well studied in both children and adults, much less is known about this link during the teen years. This is surprising as puberty represents a key growth period in which both sleep and the HPA axis are undergoing significant developmental changes.

In the current study, researchers from UAB and Arizona State University sought to further explore the relationship between sleep and reactivity to stress, specifically as it relates to HPA-axis activity, in teens.

They examined two dimensions of sleep — sleep duration and sleep problems from the perspectives of teens and their parents, as well as cortisol levels before and after social stress. The team also looked for any differences between genders.

“We chose to look at sleep patterns in urban African-American adolescents, due to information we understood from earlier research in the field,” said Dr. Sylvie Mrug, a psychology professor in UAB’s College of Arts and Sciences.

“This particular population is more likely to experience insufficient sleep, and their functioning is more negatively affected by lower sleep quality, so we knew that finding results for this demographic could be especially important.”

The researchers recruited 84 adolescents with an average age of 13. During their visit to the research lab, the young participants were given the children’s version of a common stress test, called the Trier Social Stress Test, which involves speaking and computing mental math problems in front of an audience. Saliva samples were taken from each participant in order to test cortisol levels before and after the stress test.

Participants then reported on their bed times and wake times and any sleep problems, such as insomnia, daytime sleepiness and general sleep quality, during a regular week. Parents of the teens were asked to report on their children’s sleep as well.

The most commonly reported sleep problems were as follows: the need for multiple reminders to get up in the morning, not having a good night’s sleep, feeling tired or sleepy during the day, and not being satisfied with their sleep.

The researchers measured the cortisol levels of the participants. Cortisol release during and after the stressful lab test was higher for those who reported more sleep problems and longer sleep duration, and whose parents reported longer sleep duration.

“The result of higher cortisol levels in adolescents experiencing sleep problems was exactly what we expected to see,” Mrug said. “We were, however, surprised that longer sleep duration predicted a stronger cortisol response, because previous studies linked shorter sleep duration with higher cortisol levels.”

“Generally, less sleep is related to poor outcomes, not the other way around. In this case, this unexpected result could be explained by considering that longer sleep duration does not necessarily reflect higher-quality sleep, but instead may serve as another indicator of sleep problems, at least among urban adolescents.”

The effects of sleep problems on greater cortisol release during stress were stronger in girls than in boys, suggesting that young females may be more sensitive to disrupted and poor quality sleep.

“Overall, the results of our study confirm what we originally hypothesized — that sleep problems induce greater response to stress in adolescents,” Mrug said. “It’s important that we know this, because the enhanced and prolonged activation of the HPA axis in response to stress could contribute to more health problems.”

The findings are published online in the journal Physiology and Behavior.

Source: University of Alabama at Birmingham

Upset teenagerphoto by shutterstock.

Concussion Symptoms Worse For Younger Hockey Players

Sat, 01/16/2016 - 8:45am

A new study has found that younger male ice hockey players had a significantly increased risk of prolonged symptoms from a concussion compared to older players.

Research by Dr. Peter Kriz, a sports medicine physician at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, R.I., found that less physically mature players took on average 54 days — 21 days or nearly 40 percent longer — to recover compared to more physically mature players.

Kriz said the findings highlight the need for student athletes in collision sports to compete with similar-aged players, adding there is risk in having younger, more talented athletes “play up” on varsity teams.

“Unlike other contact-collision scholastic sports with a high incidence of concussion, high school ice hockey lacks stratification by age grouping, largely because of prohibitive costs associated with equipment, transportation, and ice time incurred with fielding varsity, junior varsity, and freshman teams,” said Kriz.

“Consequently, it’s not uncommon at the varsity level for younger, less physically mature players to oppose older players with increased strength, power, and speed.”

The study, published in The Journal of Pediatrics, assessed disparities in age, size, and physical maturity level among ice hockey players between the ages of 13 and 18 who sustained a concussion.

Concussion has been reported to be the most common youth ice hockey injury, representing more than 15 percent of all injuries in players nine to 16 years old players and nearly 25 percent of injuries among male high school players.

The study, performed at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, Boston Children’s Hospital, and South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, Massachusetts, also supports concerns within the youth athletic community that it takes adolescents longer to recover from concussions than adults.

“Our findings have important implications for policy decisions related to grouping for high school ice hockey players,” said Kriz.

“While economic considerations often dictate whether a school fields ice hockey teams other than varsity, we support, at the very least, the establishment of junior varsity ice hockey by state interscholastic leagues for the purposes of player development and improved safety for undersized, peripubertal male players.”

Additionally, policies pertaining to high school football and boys’ lacrosse — two other collision sports that commonly permit underclassmen to “play up” on varsity teams — may ultimately be impacted by these findings, as lighter, less physically mature players may be at risk of prolonged concussion symptoms, he noted.

Kriz recommends that, until further studies determine valid physical maturity indicators, arbitrary age and grade cutoffs should not be used to determine when adolescent athletes are ready to participate in collision sports.

“Until such studies are available, collision-sport high school athletes should play in leagues grouped by relative age,” said Kriz. “Highly skilled, peripubertal collision sport athletes should also be discouraged from ‘playing up’ at the varsity level with post-pubertal competitors three to four years their senior.”

Source: Hasbro Children’s Hospital

Growing Up Poor Linked to Weaker Brain Connections, Depression

Sat, 01/16/2016 - 8:00am

Key brain structures in children growing up in poverty are connected differently compared to children in more affluent settings, according to a new study from Washington University in St. Louis.

In particular, the hippocampus — a brain structure linked to learning, memory, and regulation of stress — and the amygdala — linked to stress and emotion — connect to other areas of the brain differently in poor children than in kids from higher-income families.

The study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, analyzed the brain scans of 105 children ages seven to 12.

Using functional MRI scans, the researchers found that these connections were weaker, largely based on the degree of poverty to which a child was exposed. The poorer the family, the more likely the hippocampus and amygdala would connect to other brain structures in ways the researchers characterized as weaker.

“Our past research has shown that the brain’s anatomy can look different in poor children, with the size of the hippocampus and amygdala frequently altered in kids raised in poverty,” said first author Deanna M. Barch, Ph.D., chair of Washington University’s Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences in Arts & Sciences, and the Gregory B. Couch Professor of Psychiatry at the School of Medicine.

“In this study, we found that the way those structures connect with the rest of the brain changes in ways we would consider to be less helpful in regulating emotion and stress.”

Furthermore, these weaker connections were linked to a greater risk of clinical depression. Those in the study who were poor as preschoolers were more likely to be depressed at age nine or 10.

A previous study from the same research team had identified differences in the volume of gray matter and white matter, and the size and volume of the hippocampus and amygdala. But they also discovered that many of those changes could be overcome by nurturing parents.

That wasn’t found to be true, however, regarding changes in connectivity identified in the new study.

“Poverty is one of the most powerful predictors of poor developmental outcomes for children,” said co-investigator Joan L. Luby, M.D., the Samuel and Mae S. Ludwig Professor of Child Psychiatry and director of Washington University’s Early Emotional Development Program.

“Previously, we’ve seen that there may be ways to overcome some brain changes linked to poverty, but we didn’t see anything that reversed the negative changes in connectivity present in poor kids.”

The researchers measured poverty using what’s called an income-to-needs ratio that takes into account a family’s size and annual income. For example, the current federal poverty level is $24,250 for a family of four.

Children raised in poverty tend to have poorer cognitive and educational outcomes and are at higher risk for mental health problems, including depression and antisocial behaviors. Researchers hypothesize that factors such as stress, adverse environmental exposures (lead, cigarette smoke, poor nutrition, etc), along with limited educational opportunities, can contribute to problems later in life.

But Barch emphasizes that poverty doesn’t necessarily lock a child into a hard life.

“Many things can be done to foster brain development and positive emotional development,” she said.

“Poverty doesn’t put a child on a predetermined trajectory, but it behooves us to remember that adverse experiences early in life are influencing the development and function of the brain. And if we hope to intervene, we need to do it early so that we can help shift children onto the best possible developmental trajectories.”

Source: Washington University School of Medicine

Medical Marijuana Shown to Ease Migraines

Sat, 01/16/2016 - 7:15am

Patients diagnosed with migraine headaches saw a significant drop in their frequency when treated with medical marijuana, according to a new study.

Published in the journal Pharmacotherapy, the study examined patients diagnosed with migraines and treated with medical marijuana between January 2010 and September 2014.

It found the frequency of migraines dropped from 10.4 to 4.6 headaches per month, a number considered statistically and clinically significant, according to researchers at the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

Of the 121 patients studied, 103 reported a decrease in monthly migraines, while 15 reported the same number, and three saw an increase in migraines.

“There was a substantial improvement for patients in their ability to function and feel better,” said the study’s senior author, Laura Borgelt, Pharm.D., F.C.C.P. “Like any drug, marijuana has potential benefits and potential risks. It’s important for people to be aware that using medical marijuana can also have adverse effects.”

The researchers looked at the charts of patients treated at Gedde Whole Health, a private medical practice in Colorado that specializes in recommending marijuana for a variety of conditions. About two-thirds of the patients had a history of or were currently using cannabis at the time of their initial visit.

The researchers found various forms of cannabis utilized. Inhaled marijuana appeared to be the favorite for treating acute migraines, while edible cannabis, which takes longer to impact the body, helped prevent headaches.

Exactly how cannabis relieves migraines is still not fully understood, the researchers noted.

Cannabinoid receptors can be found throughout the body, including the brain, connective tissues and immune system. And they appear to have anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties, according to Borgelt. These cannabinoids also seem to affect critical neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, she noted.

“We believe serotonin plays a role in migraine headaches, but we are still working to discover the exact role of cannabinoids in this condition,” Borgelt said.

She added that while the results were “quite remarkable,” more controlled studies are needed in the future.

The ideal study, she said, would be a randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial with a marijuana washout period prior to start. It would also require providing subjects with standardized quantities and potencies of medical marijuana while tracking the occurrence of migraines just like prescription drug studies.

But given federal anti-drug laws, that kind of study would likely require legislative changes before it could be done, Borgelt said.

“If patients are considering medical marijuana they should speak to their health care provider and then follow up so we can track the impact of their overall treatment,” she said. “Open communication is necessary because we need to know how all of these treatments work together.”

Source: University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

How Different Types of Memories Guide Attention

Sat, 01/16/2016 - 6:30am

A new study reveals how distinct parts of the brain, each underlying a different type of memory, can influence where we place our attention in new situations.

“We’ve long understood there are different types of memories, but what these findings reveal are how different kinds of memories can drive our attention in the future,” said study leader Elizabeth Goldfarb, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology at New York University (NYU).

The study focused on two basic types of memories: episodic memories and habitual, or rigid, memories. Episodic memories are our recollections of the contextual details of life events, such as remembering the layout and location of objects in a familiar room.

Habitual memories, on the other hand, are reflexive in nature and are triggered frequently in our daily lives. For example, if you take a right turn at a certain stop sign as you are driving to work everyday, you might habitually take a right instead of a left even when you are not going to work.

Prior research shows that these different types of memories depend on different brain systems. The hippocampus is important for episodic memories and the striatum for habitual memories. Less understood, however, are the neurological processes by which these memories can direct one’s attention during novel situations.

For the study, the researchers conducted a series of experiments in which both episodic and habitual memories could influence future attention. During these tasks, researchers observed participants’ brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The researchers explored episodic memories with a series of experiments based on “contextual cueing.” In this case, participants looked for target (a rotated “T”), mixed among other distracting visuals, on a computer screen, then pressed a button once they found it, indicating the T’s direction.

The participants were not aware that some of these computer screens were repeating themselves, allowing their memory of that familiar context to guide their attention to the target — much like a memory upon walking into a familiar room. Not surprisingly, the results showed that context-guided attention was linked to activity in the brain’s hippocampus.

Habitual memories were studied with a series of experiments that used a “stimulus-response” mechanism. In this case, the shapes on the screen (the “T” and distracting visuals) were presented in a different color. This color served as the “stimulus,” comparable to the stop sign in the previous example.

Over time, participants learned that, when they saw this color, they should look in a particular part of the screen for the “T” and make the appropriate response. In these activities, the brain’s striatum was more active, revealing its role in guiding attention.

“Even though subjects had no idea that they were forming these memories, the fact that they performed better when contextual or habitual cues were present shows us that their attention was driven by memory,” said Goldfarb. “What we found here is that each of these types of memory can inform your future behavior.”

The findings are published in the journal Neuron.

Source: New York University

Common Dementia Drug Improves Balance in Parkinson’s

Fri, 01/15/2016 - 8:30am

A commonly prescribed dementia drug, known as rivastigmine, has been found to significantly improve balance and reduce falls in patients with Parkinson’s disease, according to new research published in the journal The Lancet Neurology.

“With the degeneration of dopamine-producing nerve cells, people with Parkinson’s often have issues with unsteadiness when walking. As part of the condition, they also have lower levels of acetylcholine, a chemical which helps us to concentrate — making it extremely difficult to pay attention to walking,” said Dr. Emily Henderson, research fellow at Parkinson’s UK and lead researcher of the study at the University of Bristol.

The findings show that patients with Parkinson’s who were given the oral drug rivastigmine were 45 percent less likely to fall and were considerably steadier while walking, compared to those on placebo.

“Things that may be simple to us, such as walking upstairs or getting up in the middle of the night to get a glass of water, or go to the toilet, are much harder and more dangerous when you could easily fall. You risk breaking bones and then needing an emergency hospital admission,” said Dr. Arthur Roach, Director of Research at Parkinson’s UK.

For the study, a research team at the University of Bristol studied 130 people with Parkinson’s who had fallen in the past year. Half of the group were given rivastigmine capsules and the other half a placebo for a period of eight months.

“We already know that rivastigmine works to treat dementia by preventing the breakdown of acetylcholine, however our study shows for the first time that it can also improve regularity of walking, speed, and balance. This is a real breakthrough in reducing the risk of falls for people with Parkinson’s,” said Henderson.

Parkinson’s affects approximately seven million people worldwide. It is estimated that about 70 percent of people with Parkinson’s will fall at least once a year, with over one-third experiencing repeated falls, resulting in fractures, broken bones, and hospital admissions.

“People affected by Parkinson’s, their carers, and health and social care professionals have said that preventing falls and improving balance is the biggest unmet need for people living with the condition, other than finding a cure,” said Roach.

“This trial shows that there may be drugs already available, being used for other purposes, that can be tested to help treat Parkinson’s. This takes us a step closer to improving the quality of life and finding better treatments for people with Parkinson’s.”

Source: Parkinson’s UK
Brain inside pill photo by shutterstock.

Students Think Better While Standing

Fri, 01/15/2016 - 7:45am

New research suggests standing tests improve cognitive performance among high school students.

The study is the first to find evidence of neurocognitive benefits of stand-height desks in classrooms — where students are given the choice to stand or sit based on their preferences.

Researchers from the Texas A&M School of Public Health studied high school freshman assessing academic performance at the beginning and again at the end of the academic year.

Study findings appear in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Ranjana Mehta, Ph.D. explored the neurocognitive benefits using four computerized tests to assess executive functions. Executive functions are cognitive skills we all use to analyze tasks, break them into steps and keep them in mind until we get them done.

These skills are directly related to the development of many academic skills that allow students to manage their time effectively, memorize facts, understand what they read, solve multi-step problems, and organize their thoughts in writing.

Because these functions are largely regulated in the frontal brain regions, a portable brain-imaging device (functional near infrared spectroscopy) was used to examine associated changes in the frontal brain function by placing biosensors on students’ foreheads during testing.

“Test results indicated that continued use of standing desks was associated with significant improvements in executive function and working memory capabilities,” Mehta said.

“Changes in corresponding brain activation patterns were also observed.”

While prior studies focused on energy expenditure the current study observed increased attention and better behavior of students using standing desks. Mehta’s research study is the first study not subject to bias or interpretation that objectively exams students’ cognitive responses and brain function while using standing desks.

“Interestingly, our research showed the use of standing desks improved neurocognitive function, which is consistent with results from previous studies on school-based exercise programs,” Mehta said.

“The next step would be to directly compare the neurocognitive benefits of standing desks to school-based exercise programs.”

“There has been lots of anecdotal evidence from teachers that students focused and behaved better while using standing desks,” added Mark Benden, Ph.D., CPE, co-researcher and director of the Texas A&M Ergonomics Center.

“This is the first examination of students’ cognitive responses to the standing desks, which to date have focused largely on sedentary time as it relates to childhood obesity.”

Experts believe continued investigation of this research may have influence policy makers, public health professionals and school administrators to consider simple and sustainable environmental changes in classrooms.

The small changes may help to reduce obesity and enhance cognitive development and education outcomes.

Source: Texas A&M/EurekAlert
Student standing in class photo by shutterstock.

Speed Reading Benefits Overstated

Fri, 01/15/2016 - 7:00am

For years, speed reading has been touted as a strategy to allow the review of large columns of writing in a short time frame with acceptable comprehension.

Now, new research finds that the claims put forth by many speed reading programs are probably too good to be true.

In the study, a team of psychological scientists discovered little evidence to support speed reading as a shortcut to understanding and remembering large volumes of written content in a short period of time.

“Speed reading training courses have been around for decades, and there has been a recent surge in the number of speed reading technologies that have been introduced to the consumer market,” says Elizabeth Schotter, a psychological scientist at the University of California, San Diego and one of the authors of the report.

“We wanted to take a close look at the science behind reading to help people make informed decisions about whether to believe the claims put forth by companies promoting speed reading technologies and training courses.”

Research findings appear in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. They show that that there are no magic shortcuts when it comes to reading more quickly while still fully understanding what we’ve read.

“The available scientific evidence demonstrates that there is a trade-off between speed and accuracy — as readers spend less time on the material, they necessarily will have a poorer understanding of it,” explains Schotter.

Reading is a complex dance among various visual and mental processes, and research shows that skilled readers already read quickly, averaging 200 to 400 words per minute.

Some speed reading technologies claim to offer an additional boost by eliminating the need to make eye movements by presenting words rapidly in the center of a computer screen or mobile device, with each new word replacing the previous word.

While this concept is intuitively appealing, Schotter and colleagues found that eye movements account for no more than 10 percent of the overall time we spend reading. Moreover, researchers discovered eliminating the ability to go back and reread previous words and sentences tends to make overall comprehension worse, not better.

The biggest obstacle, science shows, isn’t our vision but rather our ability to recognize words and process how they combine to make meaningful sentences.

“So-called solutions that emphasize speeding up the input without making the language easier to understand will have limited efficacy,” says Schotter.

While some may claim prodigious speed reading skills, these claims typically don’t hold up when put to the test. Investigations show that these individuals generally already know a lot about the topic or content of what they have supposedly speed-read.

Without such knowledge, they often don’t remember much of what they’ve read and aren’t able to answer substantive questions about the text. This doesn’t mean that we’re necessarily stuck reading at the same speed all the time, however.

Research does show that effective skimming — prioritizing more informative parts of a text while glossing over others — can be effective when we’re only interested in getting the gist of what we’re reading, instead of a deeper, more comprehensive understanding.

In fact, data suggest that the most effective “speed readers” are actually effective skimmers who already have considerable familiarity with the topic at hand and are thus able to pick out key points quickly.

The one thing that can help boost overall reading ability, science shows, is practicing reading for comprehension. Greater exposure to writing in all its different forms provides us with a larger and richer vocabulary, as well as the contextual experience that can help us anticipate upcoming words and make inferences regarding the meaning of words or phrases we don’t immediately recognize.

Ultimately, there is no one ability or strategy that will enable us to zip through a novel in one sitting or process an inbox full of emails over the course of a lunch break.

“There’s no quick fix,” says Schotter. “We urge people to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism and ask for supporting scientific evidence when someone proposes a speed reading method that will double or triple their reading speed without sacrificing a complete understanding.”

Source: Association for Psychological Science
Man speed reading photo by shutterstock.