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Updated: 2 hours 16 min ago

MRI During Infancy May Predict Autism in High-Risk Kids

Mon, 02/20/2017 - 8:45am

A first-of-its-kind study used electronic imaging to correctly predict 80 percent of high-risk infants who would later meet criteria for autism at two years of age.

The research was performed on infants with older siblings with autism. Scientists used brain measurements and a computer algorithm to accurately predict autism before symptoms set in.

The study is the first to show it is possible to identify which infants — among those with older siblings with autism — will be diagnosed with autism at 24 months of age.

“Our study shows that early brain development biomarkers could be very useful in identifying babies at the highest risk for autism before behavioral symptoms emerge,” said senior author Joseph Piven, M.D., a Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

“Typically, the earliest an autism diagnosis can be made is between ages two and three. But for babies with older autistic siblings, our imaging approach may help predict during the first year of life which babies are most likely to receive an autism diagnosis at 24 months.”

The study appears in the journal Nature.

This research project included hundreds of children from across the country and was led by researchers at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) at the University of North Carolina (UNC), where Piven is director.

The project’s other clinical sites included the University of Washington, Washington University in St. Louis, and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Other key collaborators are McGill University, the University of Alberta, the University of Minnesota, the College of Charleston, and New York University.

“This study could not have been completed without a major commitment from these families, many of whom flew in to be part of this,” said first author Heather Hazlett, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at the UNC School of Medicine and a CIDD researcher.

“We are still enrolling families for this study, and we hope to begin work on a similar project to replicate our findings.”

People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have characteristic social deficits and demonstrate a range of ritualistic, repetitive, and stereotyped behaviors.

It is estimated that one out of 68 children develop autism in the United States. For infants with older siblings with autism, the risk may be as high as 20 out of every 100 births.

There are about three million people with autism in the United States and tens of millions around the world.

Despite much research, it has been impossible to identify those at ultra-high risk for autism prior to 24 months of age, which is the earliest time when the hallmark behavioral characteristics of ASD can be observed and a diagnosis made in most children.

For this Nature study, Piven, Hazlett, and researchers from around the country conducted MRI scans of infants at six, 12, and 24 months of age.

They found that the babies who developed autism experienced a hyper-expansion of brain surface area from six to 12 months, as compared to babies who had an older sibling with autism but did not themselves show evidence of the condition at 24 months of age.

Increased growth rate of surface area in the first year of life was linked to increased growth rate of overall brain volume in the second year of life. Brain overgrowth was tied to the emergence of autistic social deficits in the second year.

Previous behavioral studies of infants who later developed autism — who had older siblings with autism — revealed that social behaviors typical of autism emerge during the second year of life.

The researchers then took these data — MRIs of brain volume, surface area, cortical thickness at six and 12 months of age, and sex of the infants — and used a computer program to identify a way to classify babies most likely to meet criteria for autism at 24 months of age.

The computer program developed the best algorithm to accomplish this, and the researchers applied the algorithm to a separate set of study participants.

The researchers found that brain differences at 6 and 12 months of age in infants with older siblings with autism correctly predicted eight out of ten infants who would later meet criteria for autism at 24 months of age.

The infants were compared to those infants with older ASD siblings who did not meet criteria for autism at 24 months.

“This means we potentially can identify infants who will later develop autism, before the symptoms of autism begin to consolidate into a diagnosis,” Piven said.

If parents have a child with autism and then have a second child, such a test might be clinically useful in identifying infants at highest risk for developing this condition. The idea would be to then intervene “pre-symptomatically“ before the emergence of the defining symptoms of autism.

Research could then begin to examine the effect of interventions on children during a period before the syndrome is present and when the brain is most malleable. Such interventions may have a greater chance of improving outcomes than treatments started after diagnosis.

“Putting this into the larger context of neuroscience research and treatment, there is currently a big push within the field of neurodegenerative diseases to be able to detect the biomarkers of these conditions before patients are diagnosed, at a time when preventive efforts are possible,” Piven said.

“In Parkinson’s for instance, we know that once a person is diagnosed, they’ve already lost a substantial portion of the dopamine receptors in their brain, making treatment less effective.”

Piven said the idea with autism is similar; once autism is diagnosed at age toe to three years, the brain has already begun to change substantially.

“We haven’t had a way to detect the biomarkers of autism before the condition sets in and symptoms develop,” he said.

“Now we have very promising leads that suggest this may in fact be possible.”

Source: University of North Carolina

Recent Progress Seen in Lessening Cognitive, Motor Delays in Very Premature Babies

Mon, 02/20/2017 - 8:00am

Extremely preterm babies — those born between 22 to 24 weeks gestation — continue to face unfavorable odds, as only about one in three survive. But a new study led by Duke Health shows that these rates are slowly improving. The findings show that, compared to extremely preterm babies born a decade earlier, a larger percentage are developing into toddlers without signs of moderate or severe cognitive and motor delay.

Improvements in survival and neurodevelopment may be the result of a number of factors, including decreasing rates of infection in the infants, along with the increased use of steroids in expectant mothers that can help mature and strengthen the fetus’s lungs prior to birth, according to the authors.

“The findings are encouraging,” said lead author Noelle Younge, M.D., a neonatologist and assistant professor of pediatrics at Duke. “We see evidence of improvement over time. But we do need to keep an eye on the overall numbers, as a large percentage of infants born at this stage still do not survive. Those who survive without significant impairment at about age two are still at risk for numerous other challenges to their overall health.”

For the study, the researchers looked at data of 4,274 infants born between the 22nd and 24th week of pregnancy, far earlier than the 37 to 40 weeks of a full-term pregnancy. The babies were hospitalized at 11 academic medical centers in the Neonatal Research Network, part of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health.

About 30 percent of the infants born at the beginning of the study (between 2000 and 2003) survived. That number increased to 36 percent for babies born toward the end of the study (from 2008 to 2011), with the best outcomes for children born at 23 and 24 weeks. Overall survival for babies born at 22 weeks remained the same throughout the study, at just 4 percent.

Over the 12-year study period, the number of infants who survived but were found to have cognitive and motor impairment at 18 to 22 months stayed about the same (about 14 to 16 percent). However, the percentage of infants who survived without evidence of moderate or severe neurological impairment improved from 16 percent to 20 percent.

“Researchers in the Neonatal Research Network reported in 2015 that survival was increasing in this vulnerable population. One concern was that the improved survival might have been accompanied by a greater number of infants who went on to have impairments in the long term, such as cerebral palsy, developmental delay, hearing and vision loss,” said Younge.

“However, we actually are seeing a slight improvement. Because children continue to develop over years, it’s important to continue to track this data so families and providers can make the best decisions in caring for these infants.”

These improvements may be due to a number of factors, including lower rates of infection in the infants and increased use of steroids in expectant mothers. Steroids can help mature and strengthen the fetus’s lungs prior to birth. At the beginning of the study, 58 percent of the expectant mothers had received steroids to boost fetal development. That figure increased to 64 percent by the end of the study.

“The culture of neonatal intensive care units has really changed in the past decade,” said senior author C. Michael Cotten, M.D., a neonatologist and professor of pediatrics at Duke. “We’ve taken a big focus on preventing infections, and there’s a lot more encouragement and support for the use of mother’s milk than there was 15 years ago, which has also been linked to better outcomes.”

Extremely preterm infants are highly susceptible to infections. Neonatal intensive care units have reported steady decreases in infection rates among extremely preterm infants over the past two decades.

“This is important because infections have been associated with greater risk of neurologic problems,” Cotten said.

The study is published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Source: Duke Health

New Approach to Smoking Cessation Taps Into Nostalgia

Mon, 02/20/2017 - 7:15am

A refreshing new approach to help people stop smoking uses messages that resonant with smoker’s memories, rather than inducing fear and guilt.

The new Michigan State University study suggest the new approach provides an option that can be used to promote prosocial behaviors.

Ali Hussain, a doctoral candidate in the School of Journalism, and Dr. Maria Lapinski, professor in the Department of Communication, explored a tactic often used in advertising in which nostalgia-evoking messages are used to promote consumer products.

They believe the approach could be just as effective in encouraging healthy behaviors.

“A lot of no-smoking messages are centered around fear, disgust, and guilt,” Hussain said. “But smokers often don’t buy the messages and instead feel badly about themselves and the person who is trying to scare them.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable disease in the United States, accounting for one of every five deaths. Smoking rates have declined, but in 2015, 15 of every 100 adults were active smokers.

Despite the health risks, a key hurdle for health communicators is rejection and avoidance of messages, Lapinski said.

Hoping to find a solution, researchers conducted a study of smokers, ages 18 to 39, exposing some to a nostalgic public service announcement (PSA) Hussain created and some to a control message.

Those who viewed the PSA reported greater nostalgic emotions and displayed stronger negative attitudes toward smoking, especially women.

Starting with images of childhood memories, the PSA script includes phrases such as, “I remember when I was a boy” and “I miss the simplicity of life, being outside on a warm summer night,” making references to familiar smells and tastes from bygone days.

It ends with the narrator remembering when someone introduced him to cigarettes and a call to action.

Nostalgia-themed PSAs play off consumers’ most cherished and personal memories, so they feel more engaged, the researchers said. And that nostalgic thinking influences attitudes and behaviors.

“Our study, which to our knowledge is first of its kind, shows promise for using nostalgic messages to promote pro-social behaviors,” Lapinski said.

“We know that policy and environmental changes have an influence on smoking and this study indicates persuasive messages can influence smoking attitudes.”

The study is published in Communication Research Reports.

Source: Michigan State University

New App Seeks to Detect Early Dementia

Mon, 02/20/2017 - 6:30am

Although the incidence of Alzheimer’s threatens to approach epidemic proportions, the complex nature of the disease makes it difficult to understand and predict until it is too late.

Boston University professor and neuropsychologist Rhoda Au is trying to remedy this challenge through the use of wearable digital devices.

Currently, Au is collecting an enormous amount of data on people over time with the hope of finding the minute physical changes that correspond with the slow mental decline of Alzheimer’s.

The effort is salient as nearly 100,000 people in the United States died from Alzheimer’s disease in 2014 alone, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Au, who discussed her research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Boston, says that what she really wants is to never do another Alzheimer’s test in the lab again.

“It’s really labor-intensive to bring people [into the lab],” she says, and it doesn’t give a full picture of an illness. Cognitive decline can change day-to-day or even hour-to-hour, but lab tests are just a snapshot and don’t provide the important nuances.

Instead of lab tests, Au wants to use wearable devices to try to detect cognitive decline through how people live their daily lives.

It’s what she calls her e-cognitive health initiative — the official title is “Precision Monitoring of Preclinical Alzheimer’s Disease: Framingham Study of Cognitive Epidemiology” — and she recently received funding from private industry partners, including Pfizer, for 2,200 people to participate in the initiative over three years.

This will hopefully provide valuable information on how Alzheimer’s and dementia progress. Right now, it is difficult to detect early preclinical Alzheimer’s, a term for a progressing mental decline that does not yet meet the strict definition of Alzheimer’s.

“The idea of preclinical Alzheimer’s disease is that, for people who are destined to develop dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease, in the years before they become overtly cognitively impaired, there might be subtle things that change in their daily behavior that, if we knew what to look for, would disclose who might be at risk,” says David Knopman, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

Besides her position at BU, Au is the director of neuropsychology at the Framingham Heart Study (FHS). Since 1948, the FHS has followed over 5,000 participants from Framingham, Massachusetts, throughout their lives.

Volunteer participants came in for regular checkups, and, over the years, scientists saw for the first time how cardiac problems progress in populations–what role lifestyle plays in heart disease and the signs leading up to diagnosis.

Since then, the FHS has widened its focus to include all chronic diseases and taken on even more participants, including the children and grandchildren of the original 5,000.

Au is now giving wearable devices to that second generation of 2,200 participants — although she doesn’t know if every one of them will participate–and she has partnered with tech companies like AnthroTronix and Shimmer, an Irish-based company that creates wearables for detecting biophysical data.

Over a three-year period, various wearable devices from these companies will measure everything from sleep to balance and fall risk to heart rate. Au even has smartphone apps to test cognitive ability at home. While all this data may hold vital clues to Alzheimer’s and dementia, having so much information can present its own challenges.

“We always need more terabytes,” says Brynna Wasserman (ENG’15), Au’s research assistant at the FHS. The digital devices project is only one of many pieces to Au’s research–all of which are data-heavy.

The neuropsychology group at the FHS has a shared hard drive, says Wasserman. “It has 10 terabytes on it. You’d think that would be enough.” It’s not.

Wasserman says that they are constantly asking for more data storage, a problem that will only get more challenging as the lab collects additional data from the wearable devices. And analyzing the data presents an even bigger hurdle.

Right now, Au is focused on how to collect the data, and digging through the information to find the clues to cognitive decline is something she is working on. Still, the need to expand the work has led her partner with private companies.

“I look to the academic community to help work through computation barriers that will lead to next-generation tools, but I look to the private companies for much more horsepower in using what is known/available now.”

Eventually, Au wants to move the e-cognitive health initiative even beyond wearables to in-home devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Nest, which she hopes will give her the most accurate look on what parts of a person’s life may lead to dementia in the future.

Au says that she has faced some pushback from the research community, not only because she is partnering with private industry but because she is bucking conventional science techniques — she doesn’t yet have a hypothesis on what predicts dementia, just a lot of data.

“I’m pretty sure that I have collected data that is not useful,” she says. “But I am equally sure that I have collected data that is useful…it is very much about figuring it out as you go along.”

Source: Boston University/EurekAlert

What Motivates Teens to Exercise?

Sun, 02/19/2017 - 9:45am

Unless actively involved in sports, many students entering high school drop their activity levels to a minimum, setting the stage for sedentary-related adult diseases. In a new pilot study, researchers set out to investigate what types of energy levels and mindsets tend to prompt teens to exercise. For example, are teens more likely to exercise when they are feeling down? Or when they are feeling good and energetic?

The findings show that when it comes to exercise, teens are far too unique in their mindsets and motivations to use a one-size-fits-all intervention.

“You might assume that if you had higher positive affect and felt energetic, you would be more likely to exercise, but we found that this is not true for everyone,” said study leader Dr. Christopher Cushing, assistant professor of clinical child psychology and University of Kansas (KU) Life Span Institute assistant scientist.

“For some of our participants, feeling happy with lots of energy predicted exercise, while for others the relationship was in the opposite direction.”

For the study, 26 adolescents reported their mood and energy four times a day for 20 days with an Android smartphone app developed by the KU research team.

The students were asked to rate positive affect (feeling happy), negative affect (feeling sad) as well as whether and to what degree they felt energetic or fatigued. The researchers then combined those reports with physical activity data collected from an activity tracker that the teens wore 24 hours a day.

Cushing said that this is a big advancement in the field of health behavior.

“If you think about the kind of advice a clinician would want to give to a patient, this study shows that adolescents are too different from each other to rely on a one-size-fits-all recommendation that is typical in practice. We need to know something about the person before giving a standard set of advice.”

A long-term goal of this research is to design an intervention system that would personalize prompts based on each individual’s optimum times to exercise as gleaned from data collected from reported internal states.

Cushing said that they were also able to answer the question of whether adolescents would even want to participate in this kind of study — one that required a lot of time and energy throughout the day. The study got a very high response rate and nearly all of the participants said they would do it again if their physician asked them to in order to better understand their health.

“Teens are willing to do it if they think they’ll learn something about the relationship between how they feel and important health behaviors they are interested in tracking or improving,” he said.

The researchers want to focus on increasing the physical activity of adolescents because high school is a time when most adolescents drop from a pattern of moderate activity to the kind of minimal activity that predisposes them for diseases as adults.

“We want to help them find opportunities for leisure time physical activities outside of the structure of school, and we think it makes sense to do that in a way that is personalized for each adolescent,” said Cushing.

“By the time a person reaches adulthood, patterns of behavior are relatively well-established. We think it is a harder proposition to get an adult off of the couch after they have slipped into a pattern of inactivity than to help an adolescent who is moderately active maintain some of that activity as they age into adulthood.”

The study is published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology.

Source: University of Kansas, Life Span Institute

New Study Shows How Dads Bond With Their Kids

Sun, 02/19/2017 - 9:00am

A new brain imaging study shows that fathers given the hormone oxytocin show increased activity in brain regions associated with reward and empathy when viewing photos of their toddlers.

“Our findings add to the evidence that fathers, and not just mothers, undergo hormonal changes that are likely to facilitate increased empathy and motivation to care for their children,” said lead author Dr. James Rilling, an Emory University anthropologist and director of the Laboratory for Darwinian Neuroscience.

“They also suggest that oxytocin, known to play a role in social bonding, might someday be used to normalize deficits in paternal motivation, such as in men suffering from postpartum depression.”

According to the researcher, the study is the first to look at the influence of oxytocin and vasopressin, another hormone linked to social bonding, on brain function in fathers.

A growing body of literature shows that an involved father plays a role in reducing child mortality and morbidity, as well as improving social, psychological and educational outcomes, the researcher noted.

But not every father takes a “hands-on” approach to caring for his children.

“I’m interested in understanding why some fathers are more involved in caregiving than others,” Rilling says. “In order to fully understand variation in caregiving behavior, we need a clear picture of the neurobiology and neural mechanisms that support the behavior.”

Researchers have long known that when women go through pregnancy they experience dramatic hormonal changes that prepare them for child rearing. Oxytocin, in particular, was traditionally considered a maternal hormone since it is released into the bloodstream during labor and nursing and facilitates the processes of birth, bonding with the baby, and milk production.

More recently, however, it became clear that men can also undergo hormonal changes when they become fathers, including increases in oxytocin, according to researchers.

Evidence shows that, in fathers, oxytocin facilitates physical stimulation of infants during play, as well as the ability to synchronize their emotions with their children.

To investigate the neural mechanisms involved in oxytocin and paternal behavior, Rilling’s lab used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to compare neural activity in men with and without doses of oxytocin, administered through a nasal spray.

The participants in the experiment were all healthy fathers of toddlers, between the ages of one and two.

While undergoing fMRI brain scans, each participant was shown a photo of his child, a photo of a child he did not know, and a photo of an adult he did not know.

When viewing an image of their child, fathers dosed with oxytocin showed significantly increased neural activity in brain systems associated with reward and empathy, compared to placebo.

This heightened activity in the caudate nucleus, dorsal anterior cingulate and visual cortex suggests that doses of oxytocin may augment feelings of reward and empathy in fathers, as well as their motivation to pay attention to their children, according to the study’s findings.

Surprisingly, the study results did not show a significant effect of vasopressin on the neural activity of fathers, contrary to the findings of some previous studies on animals, the researchers noted.

Research in prairie voles, which bond for life, for instance, has shown that vasopressin promotes both pair-bonding and paternal caregiving.

“It could be that evolution has arrived at different strategies for motiving paternal caregiving in different species,” Rilling said.

The study was published in the journal Hormones and Behavior.

Source: Emory University

Dopamine May Play Role in Human Bonding

Sun, 02/19/2017 - 8:00am

A new study shows, for the first time, that dopamine may play a significant role in human bonding and relationships. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter integrally involved in the brain’s reward system.

The findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, have important implications for the treatment of postpartum depression as well as disorders of the dopamine system such as Parkinson’s disease, addiction, and social dysfunction.

The study, which involved 19 mothers and their infants, used two types of brain scans simultaneously — functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET).

The researchers focused on the neurotransmitter dopamine, a chemical that acts in various brain systems to spark the motivation necessary to work for a reward. The researchers compared the mothers’ levels of dopamine to their degree of synchrony with their infants as well as to the strength of the connection within the brain’s medial amygdala network. This brain network helps support social affiliation.

“We found that social affiliation is a potent stimulator of dopamine,” said researcher Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University. “This link implies that strong social relationships have the potential to improve your outcome if you have a disease, such as depression, where dopamine is compromised.”

“We already know that people deal with illness better when they have a strong social network. What our study suggests is that caring for others, not just receiving caring, may have the ability to increase your dopamine levels.”

Before performing the scans, the researchers videotaped the mothers at home interacting with their babies and applied measurements to the behaviors of both to determine their degree of synchrony. They also recorded the infants playing on their own.

While in the brain scanner, each mother viewed footage of her own baby at solitary play as well as an unfamiliar baby at play while the researchers measured dopamine levels, with PET, and tracked the strength of the medial amygdala network, with fMRI.

The mothers who were more synchronous with their own babies showed both an increased dopamine response when viewing their child at play and stronger connectivity within the medial amygdala network.

“Animal studies have shown the role of dopamine in bonding but this was the first scientific evidence that it is involved in human bonding,” said Barrett. “That suggests that other animal research in this area could be directly applied to humans as well.”

While the findings are still “cautionary,” they have the potential to reveal how the social environment impacts the developing brain, said Barrett.

“Infants are completely dependent on their caregivers. Whether they get enough to eat, the right kind of nutrients, whether they’re kept warm or cool enough, whether they’re hugged enough and get enough social attention, all these things are important to normal brain development,” said Barrett.

“Our study shows clearly that a biological process in one person’s brain, the mother’s, is linked to behavior that gives the child the social input that will help wire his or her brain normally. That means parents’ ability to keep their infants cared for leads to optimal brain development, which over the years results in better adult health and greater productivity.”

“People’s future health, mental, and physical, is affected by the kind of care they receive when they are babies. If we want to invest wisely in the health of our country, we should concentrate on infants and children, eradicating the adverse conditions that interfere with brain development,” said Barrett.

Source: Northeastern University

What ‘Getting the Gist’ Tells Us About Brain Health

Sun, 02/19/2017 - 7:30am

Many people who have suffered a chronic traumatic brain injury (TBI) report struggling to solve problems, understand complex information and maintain friendships, despite scoring normally on cognitive tests.

New research finds that a gist reasoning test, developed by clinicians and cognitive neuroscientists at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas Dallas, is more sensitive than other traditional tests at identifying certain cognitive deficits.

The study suggests the test may be sensitive enough to help doctors and clinicians identify previously undiagnosed cognitive changes that could explain the daily life difficulties experienced by TBI patients and, subsequently, guide appropriate therapies.

According to researchers, the gist reasoning measure, called the Test of Strategic Learning, accurately identified 84.7 percent of chronic TBI cases, a much higher rate than more traditional tests that accurately identified TBI between 42.3 percent and 67.5 percent of the time.

“Being able to ‘get the gist’ is essential for many day-to-day activities, such as engaging in conversation, understanding meanings that are implied but not explicitly stated, creating shopping lists, and resolving conflicts with others,” said lead author Dr. Asha Vas of Texas Woman’s University, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for BrainHealth at the time of the study. “The gist test requires multiple cognitive functions to work together.”

The study featured 70 participants between the ages of 18 to 55, including 30 who had experienced a moderate to severe chronic traumatic brain injury at least one year ago. All the participants had similar socioeconomic status, educational backgrounds and IQ.

Researchers were blinded to the participant’s TBI status while administering four different tests that measure abstract thinking; the ability to understand the big picture, not just recount the details of a story or other complex information. Researchers used the results to predict which participants were in the TBI group.

During the cognitive tests, the majority of the TBI group easily recognized abstract or concrete information when given prompts in a yes-no format. But the group performed much worse on other tests, including gist reasoning, that required deeper level processing of information with fewer or no prompts.

The gist reasoning test consists of three texts that vary in length — from 291 to 575 words — and complexity. The test requires the participant to provide a synopsis of each of the three texts.

Vas provided an example of what “getting the gist” means, using Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

“There are no right or wrong answers. The test relies on your ability to derive meaning from important story details and arrive at a high-level summary: Two young lovers from rival families scheme to build a life together and it ends tragically.

“You integrate existing knowledge, such as the concept of love and sacrifice, to create a meaning from your perspective. Perhaps, in this case, ‘true love does not conquer all,'” she said.

Past studies have shown that higher scores on the gist reasoning test in individuals in chronic phases of TBI correlate to better ability to perform daily life functions.

“Perhaps, in the future, the gist reasoning test could be used as a tool to identify other cognitive impairments,” said Dr. Jeffrey Spence, study co-author and director of biostatistics at the Center for BrainHealth. “It may also have the potential to be used as a marker of cognitive changes in aging.”

The study was published in the Journal of Applied Biobehavioral Research.

Source: Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas Dallas

 
Photo: Drs. Jeffrey Spence and Asha Vas investigate a test that may help doctors and clinicians identify previously undiagnosed cognitive changes that could help explain daily life difficulties experienced by TBI patients.Credit: Courtesy of Center for BrainHealth.

The Unique Benefits of Mother-Baby Song Time

Sat, 02/18/2017 - 9:45am

There is much more to the universal behavior of mothers singing to their babies than meets the eye — and ear, according to a new study at the University of Miami Frost School of Music.

“We know from previous research that infants have the innate ability to process music in a sophisticated manner,” said Dr. Shannon de l’Etoile, professor of music therapy and lead researcher of the study.

“Initially, I set out to identify infant behaviors in response to live infant-directed singing compared to other common maternal interactions such as reading books and playing with toys. One of the main goals of the research was to clarify the meaning of infant-directed singing as a human behavior and as a means to elicit unique behavioral responses from infants.”

In addition, de l’Etoile explored the role of infant-directed singing in relation to the intricate bond between mother and baby. In an initial experiment, she filmed 70 infants responding to six different interactions: mother sings an assigned song, “stranger” sings an assigned song, mother sings song of choice, mother reads book, mother plays with toy, and the mother and infant listen to recorded music.

“High cognitive scores during infant-directed singing suggested that engagement through song is just as effective as book reading or toy play in maintaining infant attention, and far more effective than listening to recorded music,” said de l’Etoile. “But what did the infant engagement tell us about the mother’s role during the interaction?” she said.

To find out, she continued the study by focusing on the role of the caregiver during infant-directed singing by measuring the make-up of the song and the mother’s voice.

“Findings revealed that when infants were engaged during song, their mother’s instincts are also on high alert,” said de l’Etoile. “Intuitively, when infant engagement declined, the mother adjusted her pitch, tempo, or key to stimulate and regulate infant response.”

Although the intuitive adjustment of the song or singing voice seemed natural to most of the mothers, de l’Etoile went further to investigate the acoustic parameters in the singing voices of mothers with postpartum depression.

“The extraction and analysis of vocal data revealed that mothers with postpartum depression may lack sensitivity and emotional expression in their singing,” said de l’Etoile. “Although the infants were still engaged during the interaction, the tempo did not change and was somewhat robotic.”

According to de l’Etoile, when mothers with postpartum depression engage in song with their babies, it creates a unique and mutually beneficial situation. Through song, the infants are provided with much-needed sensory stimulation that can focus their attention and modulate their arousal.

Simultaneously, mothers experience a much-needed distraction from the negative emotions and thoughts associated with depression, while also feeling empowered as a parent.

“Mothers around the world sing to their infants in remarkably similar ways, and infants prefer these specialized songs,” she said. “The tempo and key certainly don’t need to be perfect or professional for mothers and infants to interact through song.

“In fact, infants may be drawn to the personalized tempo and pitch of their mother, which encourage them to direct their gaze toward and ultimately communicate through this gaze,” said de l’Etoile.

The new findings are published in the Journal of Music Therapy.

Source: University of Miami

Zero Tolerance Policy May Unfairly Target Black Girls

Sat, 02/18/2017 - 9:00am

In a new article appearing in the journal Urban Education, two education scholars assert that, due to the “zero tolerance” policy, black girls are disproportionately punished in American schools.

According to the paper, this is an overlooked crisis that is populating the school-to-prison pipeline at rising rates.

Zero tolerance policies unfairly target students of color and should be abolished, said author Dr. Dorinda Carter Andrews, associate professor at Michigan State University (MSU). But while a wealth of research and public discussion has focused on black male students, little attention has been paid to the mistreatment of black girls in U.S. classrooms, she said.

In the paper, Carter Andrews and co-author Dorothy Hines-Datiri, assistant professor at the University of Kansas and former doctoral student at MSU, cite various examples of black girls in elementary school being handcuffed and taken away in police cars for classroom disruptions such as temper tantrums.

“Zero tolerance constructs these young girls as criminals,” Carter Andrews said. “It’s a criminalization of their childhood, and it’s a very prison-type mentality for schools to take.”

Zero tolerance is defined as a form of school discipline that insists on removing the child from school for an array of violations, from violence to truancy to dress code violations. Black students are two to three times more likely to be suspended than white students and are overrepresented in office referrals, expulsions, and corporal punishment, the paper says.

Black female students in the U.S. receive out-of-school suspensions at higher rates (12 percent) than female students across all other racial and ethnic categories, according to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. Only black boys (20 percent) and American Indian/Alaska native boys (13 percent) have higher suspension rates than black girls.

Black girls are also more likely to receive harsher discipline than their white peers for minor offenses, such as talking back to the teacher, Carter Andrews said.

“The research shows that teachers and other adults may give a pass to certain students for the ways in which they talk back,” she said. “Teachers may view some girls, particularly African-American girls, as attitudinal or aggressive, even though they may be using the same talk-back language as a white female student.”

In addition to the abolishment of zero tolerance policies, the researchers call for the establishment of culturally responsive professional-development training for educators that would raise their awareness of the experiences of girls of color.

“We cannot afford to have more black girls’ identities snuffed out by disciplinary policies and ultimately the educational and criminal justice systems,” the study says.

Source: Michigan State University

New Study Gauges Impact of Guns on Domestic Violence

Sat, 02/18/2017 - 8:15am

A new study shows that when guns are part of domestic violence, women actually suffer fewer injuries, but experience greater fear.

According to a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, that’s because when a gun enters the situation, women are more likely to back down than fight back.

“A lot of the policies that are laid out about guns and domestic violence focus on preventing homicides, which is really important,” said Dr. Susan B. Sorenson, a professor of social policy in Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice and director of the Evelyn Jacobs Ortner Center on Family Violence.

“But there has been less attention on what it means for the women who are alive and not just as a risk factor for their death.”

For the study, Sorenson worked with the Philadelphia Police Department, which gave her access to an entire year of department-mandated paperwork on 911 calls related to domestic violence, regardless of whether an arrest took place.

That form included information about what the responding officer saw and did at the scene, as well as a body map to indicate injuries and a place for what Sorenson described as the “narrative,” where officers write in their own words what the victim described happened.

Studying more than 35,000 domestic-violence incidents from 2013, she found that assailants used hands, fists, or feet to attack in about 6,500 of them, and in nearly 1,900 used weapons such as knives, scissors, or baseball bats. About one-third of events with weapons involved a gun, and 80 percent of such incidents were male-on-female.

The study findings show that when an assailant uses a gun rather than another kind of weapon, a woman is less likely to incur injury, but is “substantially” more likely to be frightened.

“When faced with another form of weapon, she might try and defend herself, whereas when there’s a gun, the weapon is, by definition, lethal,” she said.

This underscores the idea of coercive control, in which an abuser doesn’t necessarily want to physically hurt a victim but rather cement the power dynamic between the two by brandishing a gun, increasing the intimidation factor, she explained.

“They get what they want without causing physical harm,” Sorenson said.

The National Crime Victimization Survey, conducted since 1973 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, showed that from 2002 to 2011 guns appeared fiive percent of the time at such incidents. That analysis includes any event with a firearm, not just those the police learn about, meaning there’s likely even more gun use than is reported.

Understanding this can better prepare those who encounter victims immediately following an incident, according to Sorenson.

“Even when the person is not presenting in the emergency department with a gunshot wound or having been pistol-whipped, it’s important for health-care professionals to ask about guns,” Sorenson said. “If a gun is used and there is increased fear, the person is less likely to leave the relationship.”

The same goes for law enforcement, she said.

“Police officers are first responders. They’re going to see these incidents when the people want intervention and are calling and asking for help,” she said. “Police can be really good partners in preventing a situation from escalating.”

The study was published in the Journal of Women’s Health.

Source: University of Pennsylvania

Social Exclusion Can Lead to Belief in Conspiracy Theories

Sat, 02/18/2017 - 7:30am

New research shows why so many white, working-class people who feel pushed out by society are willing to believe exaggerated and misleading news reports, especially stories that justified their own beliefs.

According to a Princeton University study published in the Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology, social exclusion leads to conspiratorial thinking.

The two-part analysis — which did not specifically investigate those who voted for President Donald Trump, but two random samples of people — found that the feelings of despair brought on by social exclusion can cause people to seek meaning in miraculous stories, which may not necessarily be true.

Such conspiratorial thinking leads to a dangerous cycle, according to co-lead author Dr. Alin Coman, an assistant professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton.

When those with conspiratorial ideas share their beliefs, it can drive away family and friends, triggering even more exclusion, he explained. This may lead them to join conspiracy theory communities where they feel welcome, which in turn further entrenches their beliefs.

“Attempting to disrupt this cycle might be the best bet for someone interested in counteracting conspiracy theories at a societal level,” Coman said. “Otherwise, communities could become more prone to propagating inaccurate and conspiratorial beliefs.”

For the first part of the study, Coman and Damaris Graeupner, a research assistant in Princeton’s Department of Psychology,  recruited 119 participants through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourcing internet marketplace.

Participants engaged in four phases. First, they were asked to write about a recent unpleasant event that involved a close friend. Next, they were asked to rate the degree to which they felt 14 different emotions, including exclusion.

They then were asked to complete a questionnaire that contained 10 statements, ranking their agreement or disagreement with the statements on a seven-point scale ranging from absolutely untrue to absolutely true. These statements included phrases like “I am seeking a purpose or mission for my life” and “I have discovered a satisfying life purpose.”

Finally, participants were asked to indicate the degree to which they endorsed three different conspiratorial beliefs ranging from one (not at all) to seven (extremely). These included statements such as: “Pharmaceutical companies withhold cures for financial reasons”; “Governments use messages below the level of awareness to influence people’s decisions”; and “Events in the Bermuda Triangle constitute evidence of paranormal activity.”

“We chose these particular conspiracy theories for their widespread appeal in the population,” Coman said. “These three are, indeed, endorsed by a significant portion of the American population.”

After analyzing the data, the researchers say their hypothesis was confirmed: Social exclusion does lead to superstitious beliefs and, according to their statistical analyses, is likely the result of one searching for meaning in everyday experiences.

“Those who are excluded may begin to wonder why they’re excluded in the first place, causing them to seek meaning in their lives,” Coman said. “This may then lead them to endorse certain conspiracy beliefs. When you’re included, it doesn’t necessarily trigger the same response.”

In the second part of the study, the researchers wanted to determine whether the degree to which someone was socially excluded influenced their conspiratorial beliefs. For this part of the study they recruited 120 Princeton University students.

The students were first asked to write two paragraphs describing themselves, one about “What it means to be me,” and another about “The kind of person I want to be.”

They were told that these paragraphs would be given to two other participants in the room who would then rank whether they’d want to work with them.

Each of the three participants was then randomly selected to either be in the inclusion group (selected for collaboration in a subsequent task), the exclusion group (not selected for collaboration), or the control group (no instructions about selection).

But the students did not evaluate the other participants’ self-descriptions, but instead descriptions created by the researchers.

Finally, all participants went through the same four phases as the first study, which measured how social exclusion is linked to acceptance of conspiracy theories.

The second study replicated the findings of the first, providing solid evidence that if a person feels excluded, they are more likely to hold conspiratorial beliefs, according the researchers.

The findings highlight the need for inclusion, especially among populations at risk of exclusion, the researchers say.

“When developing laws, regulations, policies, and programs, policymakers should worry about whether people feel excluded by their enactment,” Coman said. “Otherwise, we may create societies that are prone to spreading inaccurate and superstitious beliefs.”

Source: Princeton University

New Approach Reduces Teen Risk for Drug Addiction

Fri, 02/17/2017 - 8:45am

Emerging research suggest programs that ultimately improve impulse control are the best method to prevent substance abuse.

Drug use in adolescence is often linked to later substance-abuse problems. The new study finds that key risk factors include a combination of weak working memory and cognitive processing. These deficits lead to poor impulse control.

The risk factors predispose an individual to progressive drug use in younger years and subsequent dependence, report researchers at three institutions.

Their work, which focused on alcohol, marijuana and tobacco use – the most commonly used drugs by adolescents – appears in the journal Addiction.

For young people with difficulties in impulse control, intervention programs that focus on simply stopping early drug use don’t go far enough, said lead author Atika Khurana, assistant professor in the Department of Counseling Psychology and Human Services at the University of Oregon.

“We found that there is some effect that was carried through the early progression in drug use. It is a risk factor,” said Khurana.

“But we also found that the underlying weakness in working memory and impulse control continues to pose a risk for later substance use disorders.”

Working memory refers to the ability to concentrate on a task without being easily distracted. Youth with weak working memory tend to have problems controlling their impulses and thus appear to be at greater risk of continuing drug use.

The findings emerged from a final assessment of 387 young people, ages 18-20, who were recruited as 10- to 12-year-olds in 2004 for a long-term study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania in collaboration with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

In a paper published in 2015 in the journal Development and Psychopathology, Khurana’s team documented how adolescents with stronger working memory were better equipped to escape progression into heavy use following initial experimentation.

“Unanswered in our earlier work was whether it was specific forms of early use that predict later substance abuse,” said Khurana.

“People really hadn’t focused on the heterogeneity of drug-use patterns. Some youth can start early and experiment but not progress while others experiment and progress into heavier drug use.”

Analyzing multiple waves of data from early to late adolescence, the researchers found that experimenting with drugs at an early age wasn’t a key factor in predicting later substance use disorders.

In fact, it was the progression in drug use along with weakness in working memory and impulse control difficulties that predicted substance use disorders at later ages.

The researchers also reported that underlying weaknesses in working memory and impulse control continue to pose a risk for later substance use disorders, apart from early drug use progression.

“Substance use disorders are a major public health concern in this country,” Khurana said.

“The onset of substance use happens during adolescence. There is a lot of research that links early onset of use to later substance use disorders. Our study advances the field by showing that just addressing early use is not going to solve the problem.”

“Drug prevention strategy in the schools typically focuses on middle school when early drug use tends to take place and assumes that any drug use at all is a problem,” said co-author Dan Romer, research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

“This study suggests that prevention needs to be more nuanced. The risk depends on whether drug use is likely to progress.”

Interventions that strengthen working memory and cognitive processing related to inhibiting impulsive responses need to be developed to help adolescents better navigate drug-related temptations, Khurana said.

Source: University of Oregon

Long-Term Hormone Therapy May Provide Dementia Protection

Fri, 02/17/2017 - 8:00am

New research suggests postmenopausal estrogen-based hormone therapy lasting longer than ten years may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Investigators from the University of Eastern Finland performed the large study that explored the association between postmenopausal hormone replacement therapy, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and cognition.

Researchers performed two nation-wide case-control studies and two longitudinal cohort studies. The largest study comprised approximately 230,000 Finnish women and the follow-up time in different studies was up to 20 years.

“The protective effect of hormone therapy may depend on its timing: it may have cognitive benefits if initiated at the time of menopause when neurons are still healthy and responsive,” says Bushra Imtiaz, M.D., MPH, who presented the results in her doctoral thesis.

While hormone therapy may mitigate the risk of dementia, menopause may explain women’s higher dementia risk.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, and two out of three Alzheimer’s cases are women. One possible explanation for women’s higher dementia risk is the postmenopausal depletion of sex steroid hormones estrogen and progesterone.

Estrogen receptors are present throughout the body including brain areas primarily affected in Alzheimer’s disease. In in vitro and animal studies, estrogen has showed neuroprotective effects.

However, studies on humans have yielded inconsistent results on the association between postmenopausal estrogen-based hormone replacement therapy and dementia risk.

In the present study, long-term use of hormonal replacement therapy was associated with a better performance in certain cognitive domains — global cognition and episodic memory — and a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Short-term use was not significantly linked to dementia risk, but in one cohort, dementia risk was higher among short-term users who had started hormone therapy in the late postmenopausal period.

The results were adjusted for various lifestyle, socioeconomic, and demographic variables.

“In the light of these findings, hormonal replacement therapy may have a beneficial effect on cognition if started early, around the time of menopause.

The protective effect of hormonal therapy may depend on the health status of neurons at baseline and may be lost if therapy starts years after menopause,” Dr. Imtiaz concludes.

The study also showed that the postmenopausal removal of ovaries, uterus, or both was not significantly linked to the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, irrespective of the indication of surgery or hormone therapy use.

The research data was from the MEDALZ (Medication use and Alzheimer’s disease), OSTPRE (Kuopio Osteoporosis Risk Factor and Prevention Study), and CAIDE (Cardiovascular Risk Factors, Aging and Dementia) studies.

The new research findings appear in the journal Neurology with the earlier results found in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Source: University of Eastern Finland/EurekAlert

B Vitamins Help Manage Schizophrenia

Fri, 02/17/2017 - 7:15am

A research review of studies from around the world has found that add-on treatment with high-dose B-vitamins can help to reduce symptoms of schizophrenia.

The study determined that the addition of vitamins B6, B8, and B12 can significantly reduce symptoms of schizophrenia more than standard treatments alone.

The research — on the effect of vitamin and mineral supplements on symptoms of schizophrenia — is funded by the Medical Research Council and University of Manchester.

The findings appear in the journal Psychological Medicine.

Lead author Joseph Firth, comments: “Looking at all of the data from clinical trials of vitamin and mineral supplements for schizophrenia to date, we can see that B vitamins effectively improve outcomes for some patients.

“This could be an important advance, given that new treatments for this condition are so desperately needed.”

Schizophrenia affects around one percent of the population and is among the most disabling and costly long term conditions worldwide.

Currently, treatment is based around the administration of antipsychotic drugs.

Although patients typically experience remission of symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions within the first few months of treatment, long-term outcomes are poor; 80 percent of patients relapse within five years.

The researchers reviewed all randomized clinical trials reporting effects of vitamin or mineral supplements on psychiatric symptoms in people with schizophrenia.

In what is the first meta-analysis carried out on this topic, they identified 18 clinical trials with a combined total of 832 patients receiving antipsychotic treatment for schizophrenia.

B-vitamin interventions which used higher dosages or combined several vitamins were consistently effective for reducing psychiatric symptoms, whereas those which used lower doses were ineffective.

Also, the available evidence also suggests that B-vitamin supplements may be most beneficial when implemented early on, as b-vitamins were most likely to reduce symptoms when used in studies of patients with shorter illness durations.

Firth added: “High-dose B-vitamins may be useful for reducing residual symptoms in people with schizophrenia, although there were significant differences among the findings of the studies we looked at.”

“There is also some indication that these overall effects may be driven by larger benefits among subgroups of patients who have relevant genetic or dietary nutritional deficiencies.”

Co-author Jerome Sarris, Professor of Integrative Mental Health at Western Sydney University, added: “This builds on existing evidence of other food-derived supplements, such as certain amino-acids, been beneficial for people with schizophrenia.

“These new findings also fit with our latest research examining how multi-nutrient treatments can reduce depression and other disorders.”

The research team say more studies are now needed to discover how nutrients act on the brain to improve mental health, and to measure effects of nutrient-based treatments on other outcomes such as brain functioning and metabolic health.

Source: University of Manchester

Do Attractive People Make More Money?

Fri, 02/17/2017 - 6:30am

Economic research has long suggested that there is a “beauty premium” — or, conversely, an “ugliness penalty” — on wages. But do beautiful people really earn more money than their less attractive counterparts? According to the researchers, many attractive people do tend to make more money but not for the reasons we think they do. In other words, it’s not quite so simple.

Researchers Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics and Political Science in the UK and Mary Still of the University of Massachusetts in Boston say that people’s salaries are influenced by more than just physical attractiveness (or lack thereof), and that individual differences count too.

“Physically more attractive workers may earn more, not necessarily because they are more beautiful, but because they are healthier, more intelligent, and have better personality traits conducive to higher earnings, such as being more Conscientious, more Extraverted, and less Neurotic,” says Kanazawa.

For the study, the researchers analyzed a nationally representative sample from a US data set that had very precise and repeated measures of physical attractiveness — the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health (Add Health). It measured physical attractiveness of all respondents on a five-point scale at four different points in life over 13 years.

Their analysis revealed that people are not necessarily discriminated against because of their looks. In fact, the beauty premium theory was dispelled when the researchers took into account factors such as health, intelligence, and major personality factors together with other correlates of physical attractiveness.

Healthier and more intelligent respondents, and those with more conscientious, more extraverted, and less neurotic personality traits earned significantly more than others.

Some evidence was even found for a so-called ugliness premium in which it pays to be considered unattractive. In fact, participants who fell in the “very unattractive” category always earned more than those rated as merely unattractive. This was sometimes even the case when the income of the very unattractive was measured against their average-looking or even attractive co-workers.

According to Still, the methods used in other studies may help explain why their current findings appear contrary to the current beauty-premium theory. On the one hand, few other studies have taken into account aspects of health, intelligence (as opposed to education), and personality factors. On the other, in most studies the so-called “very unattractive” and “unattractive” categories are grouped together to form a “below-average” category.

“Thereby they fail to document the ugliness premium enjoyed by the very unattractive workers,” says Still.

The study is published in the Journal of Business and Psychology.

Source: Springer

Compassionate Acts for Spouse Can Boost Well-Being

Thu, 02/16/2017 - 8:45am

The maxim that it is better to give than to receive gets some specific support from a new study that finds evidence that being compassionate to a spouse is rewarding in and of itself.

In the study, published in the journal Emotion, psychologists discovered the emotional benefits of compassionate acts are significant for the giver, whether or not the recipient is even aware of the act.

For example, if a husband notices that the tires on his wife’s car need air, he may air them up before driving to work. That gesture would boost his emotional well-being, regardless of whether his wife notices.

In the study, Dr. Harry Reis, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester in New York, led a research team that studied 175 North American newlywed husbands and wives who were married an average of 7.17 months.

“Our study was designed to test a hypothesis put forth by Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama,” said Reis, “that compassionate concern for others’ welfare enhances one’s own affective state.”

The team of psychologists, which included Drs. Ronald Rogge of Rochester and Michael Maniaci of Florida Atlantic University, asked participants to keep a two-week daily diary to record those instances in which either spouse put aside personal wishes in order to meet the partner’s needs.

But the researchers also needed to assess the emotional well-being of the individuals. To that end, the participants kept track of their daily emotional states for each day based on 14 positive and negative terms, such as enthusiastic, happy, calm, sad, angry, and hurt.

Over the course of the 14 days, husbands and wives reported giving and receiving an average of .65 and .59 compassionate acts each day with husbands perceiving more such acts than did their partners.

The acts included such things as changing personal plans for the partner’s sake, doing something that showed the partner was valued, and expressing tenderness for the spouse.

Before the study, the researchers predicted that the greatest impact on the donor would come when the act was recognized by the recipient, because recognition would make the donor feel valued.

They also thought the recipient would feel the most benefit when the act was mutually recognized, as opposed to those times when one partner perceived a compassionate act that wasn’t actually intended. While those predictions were confirmed, the researchers discovered something else.

“Clearly, a recipient needs to notice a compassionate act in order to emotionally benefit from it,” said Reis. “But recognition is much less a factor for the donor.”

Researchers discovered that donors benefit from compassionate acts, regardless of whether the recipient explicitly notices the acts.

And in those cases, the benefits for the donors was about 45 percent greater than for the recipients, as determined by the self-assessment scales in the daily diaries, with the effect being equally strong for men and women.

For Reis, the results suggest that “acting compassionately may be its own reward.”

Reis is now studying the emotional benefits of spending money on others. The work, although preliminary, suggests that spending on others can make a person feel better, but only when the goal is to benefit that person.

Spending to impress them with generosity or vision doesn’t do the trick.

Source: University of Rochester

Very Responsive Moms Can Have Big Impact on Fragile X Kids’ Development

Thu, 02/16/2017 - 8:00am

A new study finds that a highly responsive mother has a significant impact on the positive development of communication and language skills in children with Fragile X syndrome (FXS), the leading genetic cause of autism and other intellectual disabilities.

The findings show that maternal responsiveness is also positively tied to the children’s socialization and daily living skills and may even mitigate the declines often reported in children with FXS beginning in middle childhood.

The study followed 55 children from ages two to 10 and is still continuing into adolescence.

The researchers focused on a set of specific maternal behaviors, collectively called maternal responsvity, in the family home. These included commenting on the child’s behavior and/or focus of attention; requesting a verbal response; and verbally “recoding” or restating and/or expanding what a child says.

“Our discovery of the impact of contingent maternal responsivity on child adaptive behavior development underscores the fact that the manifestation of FXS is not just the product of biology, but is ultimately attributable to the dynamic interaction of biology, behavior, and environment over lengthy periods of time,” said Steven Warren, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Speech-Language-Hearing: Science & Disorders at the University of Kansas.

The positive impact of sustained high levels of maternal responsivity from toddlerhood through middle childhood was true even for children with more severe autistic symptoms and lower nonverbal cognitive development levels.

“Our researchers painstakingly coded each instance of maternal behavior toward their child, said Nancy Brady, Ph.D., associate professor of Speech-Language-Hearing. “This allowed us to discover that Mom’s behaviors, like responding to all communication, even nonverbal communication, has important implications down the road.”

Previously, the researchers reported that 56 percent of the children in the study showed declines in adaptive behavior at or before the age of ten, with an average age of seven years for the beginning of the decline, both in relation to their peers and in absolute terms.

But the present analysis showed that these declines did not occur or were substantially less for children with highly responsive mothers.

The findings may have important clinical and educational implications for children with FXS, said Brady. “We see no downside and potentially a considerable upside in training efforts aimed at enhancing and supporting sustained highly responsive parenting for children with FXS during both early and middle childhood.”

In their previous research, Brady and Warren found that vocabulary growth in children with FXS was associated with mothers who displayed greater early and sustained responsivity up until their children reached the age of nine. Again, this was not dependent on the child’s nonverbal IQ, autism symptoms or the education level of the mother but showed the unique contribution of maternal responsivity.

“There is no doubt that parenting plays a dynamic, cumulative role in human development in concert with biology and other environmental forces,” said Warren.

“Our ability to understand these effects is greatly enhanced by long term longitudinal studies that allow us to observe how these forces interact across development. Ultimately the knowledge gained from these studies should pave the way for increasingly effective interventions and treatments.”

Source: University of Kansas, Life Span Institute

Outdoor Adventures Can Aid Autistic Kids

Thu, 02/16/2017 - 7:15am

Researchers have discovered that outdoor challenge-based interventions may be effective in reducing the overall severity of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) symptoms.

Scientists from Tel Aviv University found significant improvements in the social cognition, social motivation, and autistic mannerisms of the young subjects after outdoor adventure activities.

The investigators believe this approach represents a new path for enhancing the social and communication skills of children with ASD.

The study, published in Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology was led by Professor Ditza Antebi-Zachor and Professor Esther Ben Itzchak of Ariel University.

One in 68 children in the US is diagnosed each year with ASD, a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by socio-communicative impairments and restricted and repetitive behaviors and interests. The developmental disorder takes a deep social, emotional, and economic toll on the child and his/her family.

However, emerging research has also shown that the early diagnosis and early treatment of ASD can lead to vast improvements in the cognitive functioning and socio-communicative skills of children on the spectrum. Interestingly, a key to the new finding is the need to get out of the classroom.

Fifty-one children from seven special-education kindergartens in Tel Aviv participated in the study, the children, aged three to seven, all followed the same educational protocols, but the intervention group, comprising 30 students, also participated in an outdoor adventure program (OAP).

The intervention group underwent 13 weekly sessions of challenge-based activities with instructors. Each 30-minute session took place in urban parks near the participants’ kindergartens and kicked off with a song.

Afterward, the children used the outdoor fitness equipment, moving from one to another throughout the session. The activities required the children to communicate with the instructors and with their peers, to ask for assistance or be noticed, for example.

Prior to the adventure program, the children’s cognitive and adaptive skills were assessed by the kindergarten instructors using the Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS), a questionnaire that assesses autism severity in different domains, and the Teachers’ Perceived Future Capabilities questionnaire.

The information was obtained prior to and after completing the program.

“Outdoor adventure programs are designed to improve intrapersonal skills and interpersonal relationships by using adventurous activities to provide individual and group problem-solving and challenge tasks,” says Prof. Zachor.

“The necessary tools for a successful OAP include establishing individual and group goals, building trust among participants, and providing activities that challenge and evoke stress but are nevertheless enjoyable.

“Our study shows that outdoor adventure activities benefit children with autism and improve their social communication skills. We suggest including these fun activities in special education kindergartens and in communication classrooms at school in addition to traditional treatments.

Parents of children with ASD can also enroll their kids in afterschool activities based on the principles of our research. It will allow the children to have fun during their leisure time while improving their communication skills.”

According to Zachor, future studies should examine the contribution of this type of intervention over longer periods of time and encourage other researchers to explore new treatments that improve social communication skills in an entertaining, engaging way.

“We’re interested in studying the long-term effect of this intervention, not just on ASD symptoms but on functioning in different domains, including behavioral problems, language skills, and attention span,” she says.

Source: American Friends of Tel Aviv University

Emotions May Be Learned, Not Innate

Thu, 02/16/2017 - 6:30am

A provocative new paper suggests that emotions are not innately programmed into our brains, but in fact are cognitive states resulting from the gathering of information.

New York University Professor Joseph LeDoux, author of “The Emotional Brain,” and Dr. Richard Brown, professor at the City University of New York, posit that conscious experiences, regardless of their content, arise from one system in the brain.

“Specifically, the differences between emotional and non-emotional states are the kinds of inputs that are processed by a general cortical network of cognition, a network essential for conscious experiences,” said LeDoux.

As a result, LeDoux and Brown observe, “the brain mechanisms that give rise to conscious emotional feelings are not fundamentally different from those that give rise to perceptual conscious experiences.”

Their paper appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers believe the new theory addresses a notable gap in neuroscience. That is, while emotions, or feelings, are the most significant events in our lives, there has been relatively little integration of theories of emotion and emerging theories of consciousness in cognitive science.

Existing work theorizes that emotions are innately programmed in the brain’s subcortical circuits. As a result, emotions are often treated as different from cognitive states of consciousness, such as those related to the perception of external stimuli.

In other words, emotions aren’t a response to what our brain takes in from our observations, but, rather, are intrinsic to our makeup.

Cognition, classically, refers to psychological processes involved in acquisition and understanding of knowledge, formation of beliefs and attitudes, and decision making and problem solving.

However, after taking into account these view on both cognition and emotion, LeDoux and Brown see a quite different architecture for emotions, one more centered on process than on composition.

They conclude that emotions are “higher-order states” embedded in cortical circuits. Therefore, unlike present theories, they see emotional states as similar to other states of consciousness.

Source: New York University/EurekAlert