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Updated: 2 hours 12 min ago

Risk Glorifying Video-Games Stimulate Bad Behaviors

Tue, 08/05/2014 - 6:15am

Emerging research suggests teenagers who play mature-rated, risk-glorifying video games are more likely to engage in a wide range of deviant behaviors.

Dartmouth researchers found that playing the games increased subsequent risk of behaviors beyond aggression, including alcohol use, smoking cigarettes, delinquency, and risky sex.

It appears that such games — especially character-based games with anti-social protagonists — affect how adolescents think of themselves, with potential consequences for their alter ego in the real world.

The study appears in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The findings follow a 2012 Dartmouth study that shows such video games may lead teens to drive recklessly and experience increases in automobile accidents, police stops, and willingness to drink and drive.

“Up to now, studies of video games have focused primarily on their effects on aggression and violent behaviors,” says Professor James Sargent, a pediatrician and co-author.

“This study is important because it is the first to suggest that possible effects of violent video games go well beyond violence to apply to substance use, risky driving, and risk-taking sexual behavior. ”

“With respect to playing deviant video game characters, we feel it best to follow the admonition of Kurt Vonnegut in Mother Night. ‘We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be,’” says Professor Jay Hull, the studies’ lead author and chair of Dartmouth’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

In the new study, researchers conducted a longitudinal nationwide study involving more than 5,000 randomly sampled U.S. teenagers who answered a series of questions over four years in telephone interviews.

They looked at a number of factors, including the playing of three violent risk-glorifying video games (Grand Theft Auto, Manhunt, Spiderman) and other mature-rated video games.

They found that such games are associated with subsequent changes in a wide range of high-risk behaviors and suggest this is due, in part, to changes in the users’ personality, attitudes, and values, specifically making them more rebellious and thrill seeking.

Effects were similar for males and females and were strongest among the heaviest gameplayers and those playing games with anti-social protagonists.

Source: Dartmouth University

Happiness Depends on Recent Rewards and Expectations

Tue, 08/05/2014 - 5:30am

Scientists at University College London (UCL) have developed a mathematical equation to accurately predict how happy people will say they are at a specific point in time.

The model was tested on over 18,000 people worldwide with results showing that moment-to-moment happiness reflects not just how well things are going, but whether things are going better than expected.

The new equation accurately predicts exactly how happy people will say they are from moment to moment based on recent events, such as the rewards they receive and the expectations they have during a decision-making task.

Scientists found that overall wealth accumulated during the experiment was not a good predictor of happiness.

Instead, moment-to-moment happiness depended on the recent history of rewards and expectations.

These expectations depended, for example, on whether the available options could lead to good or bad outcomes.

The study investigated the relationship between happiness and reward, and the neural processes that lead to feelings that are central to our conscious experience — such as happiness.

The research has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Investigators say that before now, it was known that life events affect an individual’s happiness.

However, it was unknown how happy people will be from moment to moment as they make decisions and receive outcomes resulting from those decisions.

The new equation captures this range of possibilities and scientists believe quantifying subjective states mathematically will help doctors better understand mood disorders.

For example, self-reported feelings which fluctuate in response to events like small wins and losses can now be recorded in a smartphone application (game) that can then be reviewed by the medical team.

A better understanding of how mood is determined by life events and circumstances, and how that differs in people suffering from mood disorders, will hopefully lead to more effective treatments.

Research examining how and why happiness changes from moment to moment in individuals could also assist governments who deploy population measures of wellbeing to inform policy.

The quantitative insight into what the collected information means is especially relevant to the UK following the launch of the National Wellbeing Program and subsequent annual reports by the Office for National Statistics on ‘Measuring National Wellbeing’.

For the study, 26 subjects completed a decision-making task in which their choices led to monetary gains and losses, and they were repeatedly asked to answer the question “How happy are you right now?”.

The participant’s neural activity was also measured during the task using functional MRI and from these data, scientists built a computational model in which self-reported happiness was related to recent rewards and expectations.

The model was then tested on 18,420 participants in the game ‘What makes me happy?’ in a smartphone app developed at UCL called ‘The Great Brain Experiment’.

Scientists were surprised to find that the same equation could be used to predict how happy subjects would be while they played the smartphone game, even though subjects could win only points and not money.

Lead author of the study, Dr. Robb Rutledge (UCL Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging and the new Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing), said, “We expected to see that recent rewards would affect moment-to-moment happiness but were surprised to find just how important expectations are in determining happiness.

In real-world situations, the rewards associated with life decisions such as starting a new job or getting married are often not realized for a long time, and our results suggest expectations related to these decisions, good and bad, have a big effect on happiness.

“Life is full of expectations — it would be difficult to make good decisions without knowing, for example, which restaurant you like better. It is often said that you will be happier if your expectations are lower.

“We find that there is some truth to this: lower expectations make it more likely that an outcome will exceed those expectations and have a positive impact on happiness. However, expectations also affect happiness even before we learn the outcome of a decision.

“If you have plans to meet a friend at your favorite restaurant, those positive expectations may increase your happiness as soon as you make the plan.”

The new equation captures these different effects of expectations and allows happiness to be predicted based on the combined effects of many past events.

“It’s great that the data from the large and varied population using ‘The Great Brain Experiment’ smartphone app shows that the same happiness equation applies to thousands people worldwide playing our game, as with our much smaller laboratory-based experiments which demonstrate the tremendous value of this approach for studying human well-being on a large scale.”

The team used functional MRI to demonstrate that neural signals during decisions and outcomes in the task in an area of the brain called the striatum can be used to predict changes in moment-to-moment happiness.

The striatum has a lot of connections with dopamine neurons, and signals in this brain area are thought to depend at least partially on dopamine.

These results raise the possibility that dopamine may play a role in determining happiness.

Source: University College London

Breast Cancer Survivors Benefit from Expressive Writing

Mon, 08/04/2014 - 7:00am

A new study of Asian-Americans has determined that writing down fears and emotions associated with a breast cancer diagnosis may improve health outcomes.

Emotional writing however, is different from journaling.

“The key to developing an expressive writing intervention is the writing instruction. Otherwise, writing is just like a journal recording facts and events.

Writing a journal can be therapeutic, but oftentimes we don’t get the empirical evidence to determine whether it’s effective or not,” said Qian Lu, director of the Culture and Health Research Center.

“In my research study, I found long-term physical and psychological health benefits when research participants wrote about their deepest fears and the benefits of a breast cancer diagnosis,” she said.

The study, “A Pilot Study of Expressive Writing Intervention Among Chinese-Speaking Breast Cancer Survivors,” has been published in the journal Health Psychology.

Lu says the goal of her research is to reduce the psychological burden among minority patients particularly among breast cancer survivors.

“Cancer patients, like war veterans in Iraq, can experience post-traumatic stress symptoms. Many times when cancer patients get diagnosed, they face lots of emotional trauma. There’s a sense of loss, depression, anxiety about going into treatment and how they are going to face the future,” said Lu.

“They have a lot of emotional events going on in their life.”

In her research, Lu, found little attention paid to Asian-American breast cancer survivor’s psychological needs.

Previous studies largely focused on non-Hispanic white samples, and she found a need to research this understudied population.

Some of the challenges she noted with this population were feeling stigmatized, shame associated with cancer, cultural beliefs of bearing the burden alone to avoid disrupting harmony, suppressing emotions, and a lack of trained mental health professionals with cultural and linguistic competency.

“We thought of a very interesting way to help this problem. It’s actually fairly basic. It’s to express emotions using writing,” she said. “What’s so interesting is that it has been proven as a scientific paradigm.”

According to Lu, previous research found that writing about emotionally difficult events for just 20 to 30 minutes at a time over three or four days increased the immune function.

Researchers found the technique had a direct impact on the body’s capacity to withstand stress and fight off infection and disease.

“I based my study for Chinese-speaking breast cancer survivors on Pennebaker’s research paradigm, and we have conducted a series of studies to modify the paradigm for Asian-Americans” said Lu.

Rather than going to a hospital, Lu worked with a community-based partner to recruit participants. Lu’s research team asked participants to complete a standardized health assessment and then they were asked to write 20 minutes each week for three weeks.

Three sealed envelopes were mailed simultaneously to the participants with each envelope containing different writing instructions for the corresponding week.

Questionnaires assessing health outcomes were mailed to participants at three and six months after the completion of the writing assignments. Semi-structured phone interviews were conducted after the six month follow-up.

“The findings from the study suggest participants perceived the writing task to be easy, revealed their emotions, and disclosed their experiences in writing that they had not previously told others. Participants reported that they wrote down whatever they thought and felt and perceived the intervention to be appropriate and valuable,” said Lu.

Lu added that health outcomes associated with the expressive writing intervention include a decrease of fatigue, intrusive thoughts, and reducing posttraumatic stress after three months. She also noted a decrease of fatigue, post-traumatic stress, and the increase of qualify of life and positive affect after six months.

Lu notes this research study contributes to the growing literature of expressive writing by illustrating the feasibility and potential benefits among Chinese-speaking breast cancer survivors using a community-based participatory research approach and a mixed method design.

The results of the intervention demonstrate that writing was associated with health benefits at long-term follow-ups and how to adapt and utilize expressive writing intervention for minorities.

Source: University of Houston

Woman writing in a journal photo by shutterstock.

Mouse Study Finds Prenatal Stress Increases Asthma Risk in Child

Mon, 08/04/2014 - 6:15am

Expectant mothers are advised to do everything possible to keep their stress low during pregnancy.

The recommendation is sound as research has shown that maternal stress is linked to a number of negative outcomes for women and their infants — including developmental and behavioral problems.

Now, a new study finds that prenatal stress may also be linked to the development of asthma.

Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found that stress among pregnant mice — even a single bout — led to an increased risk of allergy-induced asthma in their offspring.

Glucocorticoids are naturally occurring stress hormones that help keep inflammation down.

Synthetic versions of these hormones, such as prednisone, dexamethasone, and hydrocortisone, are often used as a treatment for allergic reactions.

Ironically, the same glucocorticoids (GCs) can lead to inflammation and ramp up allergic responses to irritants, such as air pollution or pollen — instead of fighting them when released in the body in response to chronic stress.

Because GCs are already elevated during a normal pregnancy, the stage is set for a harmful allergic response if levels spike due to stress.

In the new study, researchers looked at whether the uptick of GC caused by maternal stress during pregnancy could lead to the development of asthma in the offspring.

They exposed one group of pregnant mice to a single bout of stress, while a second group was given dexamethasone to mimic the effects of a stressful occurrence.

A third group was given enough metyrapone — a steroid-inhibitor that blocks stress hormone release — to counteract the surge in stress hormones after stress exposure, and a fourth control group had no intervention.

They found that high concentrations of stress hormones (corticosterone or CORT) in the mother can cross the placenta and increase fetal CORT levels, potentially leading to a higher vulnerability to asthma and allergies.

The offspring of all the mice were exposed to allergens after birth.

According to the researchers, “Only the offspring of stressed mothers demonstrated increased asthma susceptibility compared with nonstressed mothers.

“We also demonstrated that a single episode of stress significantly elevated maternal stress hormone levels.

“These results indicate that maternal stress can play a role in the initiation of asthma by increasing asthma susceptibility in offspring.”

The article “Maternal stress during pregnancy increases neonatal allergy susceptibility: role of glucocorticoids” is published in the American Journal of Physiology — Lung Cellular and Molecular Physiology.

Source: American Physiological Society

Angry pregnant woman screaming into phone photo by shutterstock.

Gentler Personalities Fueled Evolutionary Link to Modern Humanity

Mon, 08/04/2014 - 5:30am

Anthropologists tell us that although modern humans developed about 200,000 years ago, the advancement to modern societal characteristics occurred only 50,000 years ago.

This is when humans began making art and creating advanced tools.

A new study finds that the change in cultural activities was associated with a change in human anatomy as skulls changed in ways that indicate a lowering of testosterone levels.

“The modern human behaviors of technological innovation, making art and rapid cultural exchange probably came at the same time that we developed a more cooperative temperament,” said lead author Robert Cieri.

The study, which is based on measurements of more than 1,400 ancient and modern skulls, makes the argument that human society advanced when people started being nicer to each other, which entails having a little less testosterone in action.

Heavy brows were out, rounder heads were in, and those changes can be traced directly to testosterone levels acting on the skeleton, according to Duke anthropologist Steven Churchill.

What they can’t tell from the bones is whether these humans had less testosterone in circulation, or fewer receptors for the hormone.

The research team also included Duke animal cognition researchers Brian Hare and Jingzhi Tan, who say this argument is in line with what has been established in non-human species.

In a classic study of Siberian foxes, animals that were less wary and less aggressive toward humans took on a different, more juvenile appearance and behavior after several generations of selective breeding.

“If we’re seeing a process that leads to these changes in other animals, it might help explain who we are and how we got to be this way,” said Hare, who also studies differences between our closest ape relatives — aggressive chimpanzees and mellow, free-loving bonobos.

“Those two apes develop differently,” Hare said, “and they respond to social stress differently.”

Chimpanzee males experience a strong rise in testosterone during puberty, but bonobos do not.

When stressed, the bonobos don’t produce more testosterone, as chimps do, but they do produce more cortisol, the stress hormone.

Their social interactions are profoundly different and, relevant to this finding, their faces are different, too.

“It’s very hard to find a brow-ridge in a bonobo,” Hare said.

Cieri compared the brow ridge, facial shape, and interior volume of 13 modern human skulls older than 80,000 years, 41 skulls from 10,000 to 38,000 years ago, and a global sample of 1,367 twentieth century skulls from 30 different ethnic populations.

The trend that emerged was toward a reduction in the brow ridge and a shortening of the upper face, traits which generally reflect a reduction in the action of testosterone.

There are a lot of theories about why, after 150,000 years of existence, humans suddenly leapt forward in technology.

Around 50,000 years ago, there is widespread evidence of producing bone and antler tools, heat-treated and flaked flint, projectile weapons, grindstones, fishing and birding equipment, and a command of fire.

Was this driven by a brain mutation, cooked foods, the advent of language, or just population density?

The Duke study argues that living together and cooperating put a premium on agreeableness and lowered aggression and that, in turn, led to changed faces and more cultural exchange.

“If prehistoric people began living closer together and passing down new technologies, they’d have to be tolerant of each other,” Cieri said.

“The key to our success is the ability to cooperate and get along and learn from one another.”

Source: Duke University

Evolution of man photo by shutterstock.

Study Finds Intention Trumps Gruesome Evidence When Determining Punishment

Sun, 08/03/2014 - 1:45pm

A new brain imaging study has found that when deciding how to punish someone who has harmed another person, the area of the brain that determines whether the act was intentional or unintentional trumps the emotional urge to punish the person, however gruesome the evidence may be.

“A fundamental aspect of the human experience is the desire to punish harmful acts, even when the victim is a perfect stranger. Equally important, however, is our ability to put the brakes on this impulse when we realize the harm was done unintentionally,” said Rene Marois, the Vanderbilt University professor of psychology who headed the research team.

“This study helps us begin to elucidate the neural circuitry that permits this type of regulation.”

In the experiment, the brains of 30 volunteers — 20 male and 10 female, with an average age of 23 — were imaged using functional MRI (fMRI) while they read scenarios that described how the actions of a protagonist named John brought harm to either Steve or Mary.

The scenarios depicted four different levels of harm: Death, maiming, physical assault, and property damage. In half of them, the harm was clearly identified as intentional, while in the other half it was clearly identified as unintentional, the researchers explained.

Two versions of each scenario were created. One was a dry, factual description of the harm, while the other featured a graphic description.

For example, in a mountain climbing scenario where John cuts Steve’s rope, the factual version states, “Steve falls 100 feet to the ground below. Steve experiences significant bodily harm from the fall and he dies from his injuries shortly after impact.”

The graphic version reads: “Steve plummets to the rocks below. Nearly every bone in his body is broken upon impact. Steve’s screams are muffled by thick, foamy blood flowing from his mouth as he bleeds to death.”

After reading each scenario the participants were asked to list how much punishment John deserved on a scale from zero — no punishment — to nine, the most severe punishment.

When analyzing the responses, the researchers found that the manner in which the scenario is described “significantly” influenced the level of punishment people considered appropriate. When the harm was described in a graphic or lurid fashion, people set the punishment level higher than when it was described matter-of-factly.

However, the stricter punishment only applied when the participants considered the resulting harm to be intentional. When they considered it to be unintentional, the way it was described didn’t have any effect, according to the study’s findings.

“What we’ve shown is that manipulations of gruesome language leads to harsher punishment, but only in cases where the harm was intentional,” said Michael Treadway, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School and lead author of the study. “Language had no effect when the harm was caused unintentionally.”

According to the researchers, the fact that the mere presence of graphic language could cause participants to ratchet up the severity of the punishment suggests that photographs, video, and other graphic materials from a crime scene will likely have an even stronger impact on an individual’s desire to punish.

“Although the underlying scientific basis of this effect wasn’t known until now, the legal system recognized it a long time ago and made provisions to counteract it,” said Treadway. “Judges are permitted to exclude relevant evidence from a trial if they decide that its probative value is substantially outweighed by its prejudicial nature.”

The fMRI scans revealed the areas of the brain that are involved in this complex process, he noted. The scans showed that the amygdala, an almond-shaped set of neurons that plays a key role in processing emotions, responded most strongly to the graphic language. Like the punishment ratings, however, this effect in the amygdala was only present when the harm was done intentionally.

Moreover, when the harm was done intentionally, the researchers found that the amygdala showed stronger communication with the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), an area that is critical for punishment decision-making.

When the harm was done unintentionally, however, a different regulatory network — one involved in decoding the mental states of other people — became more active and appeared to suppress amygdala responses to the graphic language, preventing it from affecting decision-making areas in dlPFC, according to the researchers.

“This is basically a reassuring finding,” said Marois. “It indicates that, when the harm is not intended, we don’t simply shunt aside the emotional impulse to punish. Instead, it appears that the brain down-regulates the impulse so we don’t feel it as strongly. That is preferable because the urge to punish is less likely to resurface at a future date.”

The study was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Source: Vanderbilt University 


New Research Shows Why Some People Are More Vulnerable to Stress

Sun, 08/03/2014 - 1:00pm

A new study may explain why some people are more vulnerable to stress and stress-related psychiatric disorders.

Researchers at Duke University have discovered that the addition of a chemical mark atop a gene known for its involvement in clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can affect the way a person’s brain responds to threats.

The study, which appeared in Nature Neuroscience, focused on a molecule known as the serotonin transporter, which regulates the amount of serotonin signaling between brain cells.

In the 1990s, scientists discovered that differences in the DNA sequence of the serotonin transporter gene seemed to give some people exaggerated responses to stress, including the development of depression. That’s why it has become a target for the treatment of depression and other mood disorders, according to researchers.

Sitting on top of the serotonin transporter’s DNA are chemical marks called methyl groups that help regulate where and when a gene is active.

DNA methylation is one form of epigenetic modification being studied by scientists trying to understand how the same genetic code can produce so many different cells and tissues, as well as differences between individuals as closely related as twins, the researchers explained.

“We decided to start with the serotonin transporter because we know a lot about it biologically, pharmacologically, behaviorally, and it’s one of the best characterized genes in neuroscience,” said senior author Ahmad Hariri, a professor of psychology and neuroscience and member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences.

“If we’re going to make claims about the importance of epigenetics in the human brain, we wanted to start with a gene that we have a fairly good understanding of.”

The latest experiments are part of the Duke Neurogenetics Study (DNS), which is looking at genes, brain activity, and other biological markers of risk for mental illness in young adults.

For this study, the researchers performed non-invasive brain imaging in the first 80 college-aged participants of the DNS, showing them pictures of angry or fearful faces and watching the responses of a deep brain region called the amygdala, which helps shape our behavioral and biological responses to threat and stress.

They also measured the amount of methylation on serotonin transporter DNA isolated from the students’ saliva.

The study found that the greater the methylation, the greater the reactivity of the amygdala. Increased amygdala reactivity may in turn contribute to an exaggerated stress response and vulnerability to stress-related disorders, the researchers explain.

“To our surprise, even small methylation variations were sufficient to create differences between the students’ amygdala reactivity,” said lead author Yuliya Nikolova, a graduate student in Hariri’s group.

“The amount of methylation was a better predictor of amygdala activity than DNA sequence variation, which had previously been associated with a risk for depression and anxiety,” he noted.

The researchers report they were excited about the discovery but also cautious, because there have been many findings in genetics that were never replicated.

That’s why they jumped at the chance to look for the same pattern in a different set of participants, this time in the Teen Alcohol Outcomes Study (TAOS) at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

Working with TAOS director Douglas Williamson, the researchers measured amygdala reactivity to angry and fearful faces as well as methylation of the serotonin transporter gene in 96 adolescents between 11 and 15 years old. The analyses revealed an even stronger link between methylation and amygdala reactivity, according to the researchers.

“Now over 10 percent of the differences in amygdala function mapped onto these small differences in methylation,” Hariri said. The DNS study found just under seven percent.

Taking the study one step further, the researchers also analyzed patterns of methylation in the brains of dead people in collaboration with Etienne Sibille at the University of Pittsburgh, now at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

Once again, they saw that methylation of a single spot in the serotonin transporter gene was associated with lower levels of serotonin transporter expression in the amygdala.

“That’s when we thought, ‘All right, this is pretty awesome,’” Hariri said.

According to Hariri, the work reveals a link: Higher methylation is associated with less reading of the gene. He explained methylation dampens expression of the gene, which then affects amygdala reactivity, presumably by altering serotonin signaling.

“We plan to study how methylation of this specific bit of DNA affects the brain. In particular, this region of the gene might serve as a landing place for cellular machinery that binds to the DNA and reads it,” Nikolova said.

The researchers add they also plan to look at methylation patterns of other genes in the serotonin system that may contribute to the brain’s response to threatening stimuli.

Source: Duke University 


Alcohol Commercials Strongly Affect Underage Drinkers

Sun, 08/03/2014 - 7:15am

New research shows a strong link between alcohol advertising and underage drinking. In fact, young drinkers are three times more likely to choose alcohol brands whose commercials appear on their favorite television shows compared to other alcohol brands, according to a new study from the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Boston University School of Public Health.

The researchers investigated whether exposure to brand-specific alcohol commercials aired during 20 popular television programs was associated with brand-specific consumption.

“There is a link between exposure to brand-specific advertising and youth choices about alcohol, independent of other factors,” said study author and CAMY director David Jernigan, Ph.D.

The findings, published in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, is released right after another study from the same research group which showed that underage drinkers are heavily exposed to magazine ads for the alcohol brands they consume.

“Taken together, these studies strengthen the case for a relationship between brand-specific alcohol advertising among underage youth and brand-specific consumption,” said lead author Craig Ross, Ph.D., MBA, president of Virtual Media Resources in Natick, Massachusetts.

“As alcohol continues to devastate so many young lives, youth exposure to alcohol advertising should be reduced.”

For the study, researchers surveyed over one thousand young people, ages 13-20, recruited from a national Internet panel maintained by Knowledge Networks. All the respondents reported consuming at least one drink of alcohol in the past 30 days.

The researchers asked the participants about all alcohol brands they had consumed within the past 30 days, as well as what alcohol commercials they had seen during 20 television shows they had watched.

The findings show that the connection between drinking a particular brand and advertising exposure for that brand was significant. Interestingly, the relationship was strongest at lower levels of exposure.

These results stayed the same even after researchers controlled for other factors, such as their parents’ drinking, whether the youth chose the brand themselves, the brand’s average price, and the popularity of the brand among adults.

“The question now becomes what do alcohol advertisers do with this information, given the consequences of alcohol consumption in underage youth,” added study co-author Michael B. Seigel, MD, MPH, of the Boston University School of Public Health.

Overall, at least 14 long-term studies have found that the more young people are exposed to alcohol advertising and marketing, the more likely they are to drink, or if they are already drinking, to drink more.

Source: Johns Hopkins


Blood Test for Suicide Risk?

Sun, 08/03/2014 - 6:30am

A newly discovered chemical alteration in a stress gene may lead to the development of a simple blood test to predict a person’s risk of attempting suicide, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

“Suicide is a major preventable public health problem, but we have been stymied in our prevention efforts because we have no consistent way to predict those who are at increased risk of killing themselves,” says study leader Zachary Kaminsky, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“With a test like ours, we may be able to stem suicide rates by identifying those people and intervening early enough to head off a catastrophe.”

The study, published online in The American Journal of Psychiatry, focused on a genetic mutation in a gene known as SKA2. By analyzing brain samples from mentally ill and healthy people, the researchers found that levels of SKA2 were significantly reduced in the brains of people who had committed suicide.

The SKA2 gene, expressed in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, helps quiet negative thoughts and control impulsive behavior. This gene is mainly responsible for helping stress hormone receptors do their job. If there isn’t enough SKA2, or it is altered in some way, the stress hormone receptor is unable to suppress the release of cortisol throughout the brain.

In some subjects who had this mutation, researchers also found certain chemicals, called methyl groups, added to the gene. Higher levels of methylation were then found in the study subjects who had committed suicide. The higher levels of methylation among suicide victims were then replicated in two independent brain study groups.

Furthermore, researchers found similar methylation increases in the SKA2 gene in individuals with suicidal thoughts or attempts. They designed a model that predicted which of the participants were having suicidal thoughts or had attempted suicide with 80 percent certainty.

Those with more severe risk of suicide were predicted with 90 percent accuracy. In the youngest data set, they were able to identify with 96 percent accuracy whether or not a participant had attempted suicide, based on blood test results.

“We have found a gene that we think could be really important for consistently identifying a range of behaviors from suicidal thoughts to attempts to completions,” Kaminsky says. “We need to study this in a larger sample but we believe that we might be able to monitor the blood to identify those at risk of suicide.”

Source: Johns Hopkins


Math Difficulties in Preterm Children Linked to Overall IQ

Sat, 08/02/2014 - 8:45am

A new study refutes the long-held notion that children who are born prematurely are going to suffer from dyscalculia (poor math performance in spite of normal IQ).

“Instead,” says a researcher from Ruhr-Universitaet-Bochum (RUB), “math problems in preterm children are overwhelmingly related to the overall IQ.”

The original aim of the study was to investigate the cognitive skills of preterm children and identify specific math deficiencies independent of general IQ. However, there were none. According to the researcher, no specific math deficits existed in preterm children when their general IQ was taken into account.

“The problem with preterm children, however, is that they often have general cognitive deficits,” said Dr. Julia Jäkel from the Department of Developmental Psychology at RUB. “According to current criteria, these children can’t be diagnosed.”

Using data from the Bavarian Longitudinal Study, which has been following a birth cohort from the late 80s, Jäkel analyzed the cognitive abilities of children born between 23 and 41 weeks of pregnancy. All children completed a whole battery of tests that measured their cognitive and educational abilities, and their parents were interviewed in depth.

“Having access to such a comprehensive long-term study is a dream come true for every developmental psychologist,” says Jäkel.

The data showed that preterm children had greater difficulties with tasks that demanded higher working memory. On average, the more preterm a child had been born, the more difficulty he or she had with solving complex tasks.

This means that preterm children do not suffer from dyscalculia more often than full-term children. However, they often have math problems that may not be recognized. This is because the current criteria make it impossible to diagnose dyscalculia if a child also has general cognitive deficits. Therefore, these children do not receive special help in math although they may desperately need it.

“We need reliable and consistent diagnostic criteria,” said Jäkel. “And we’ve got to find ways to actually deliver support in schools.”

In her research, Jäkel has already demonstrated that assistance in elementary school can make a significant difference. Parents who support their preterm children can compensate for the negative cognitive effects of preterm birth.

For example, it is helpful for parents to offer their children appropriate feedback on homework and suggest potential solutions, rather than solving the tasks for the child.

However, Jäkel believes that a lot of research is yet to be done as far as intervention is concerned, “A large percentage of parents is very dedicated and has resources to help their children,” she says. “But research has not yet produced anything that would ensure successful results in the long-term.”

Together with colleagues from the university hospital in Essen, Jäkel plans to investigate the benefits of computer-aided working memory training for preterm children’s school success, which has already shown promise on an international level.

It would also be helpful if research findings from related disciplines, such as developmental psychology, educational research, and neonatal medicine were better integrated. It is known that neonatal medical treatment, in particular, can significantly affect later cognitive performance.

For example, when Jäkel analyzed the data to find specific math difficulties independent of the child’s IQ, only two variables had a direct impact: the duration of mechanical ventilation and hospitalization after birth.

In the 1980s, when children participating in the Bavarian Longitudinal Study were born, German doctors often used invasive ventilation methods. Today, less invasive methods are available, but to what extent they affect long-term cognitive performance has not yet been established.

Source: Ruhr-Universitaet-Bochum

Girl using math flash cards photo by shutterstock.

Kids With Jailed Family Member at Greater Risk for Poor Health as Adults

Sat, 08/02/2014 - 8:00am

New research has found that people who grew up in a household where a member was incarcerated have an 18 percent greater risk of experiencing poor health as adults.

The study, from researchers at Brown University, suggests that the nation’s high rate of imprisonment could be contributing to enduring physical and mental health difficulties in these families.

“These people were children when this happened, and it was a significant disruptive event,” said Annie Gjelsvik, an assistant professor of epidemiology in the Brown University School of Public Health and lead author of the study published in the Journal of Healthcare for the Poor and Underserved. “That disruptive event has long-term adverse consequences.”

The study is based on data gathered from more than 81,000 adults who responded to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey, a standardized national assessment of health.

In 2009 and 2010, 12 states and the District of Columbia included questions about childhood adversity, including this question: “Did you live with anyone who served time or was sentenced to serve time in a prison, jail, or other correctional facility?”

That question was asked in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Tennessee, and Washington in 2009, and Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Washington, Washington D.C., and Wisconsin in 2010.

The researchers analyzed the survey results to see if there were health quality differences between those who answered yes or no. In the survey, respondents were asked how many days out of the last month they experienced bad mental or physical health. If the total exceeded 14 days, their overall health quality was considered poor, the researchers explained.

Of the 81,910 respondents, 3,717, or 4.5 percent, said they grew up in a household where an adult family member was incarcerated. That rose to 6.5 percent when the total sample was statistically weighted to accurately represent the adult population of each state, according to the researchers.

The percent of people reporting an incarceration in the family varied by age (younger people were more likely than older people), by race (blacks and Hispanics were more likely than whites), and by other demographic factors, the researchers noted.

Because a number of problems can lead to poor health quality, the researchers employed statistical analysis techniques to account for potential influences, including age and education, which was tightly correlated with income.

The total number of other adverse childhood experiences, such as emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, as well as exposure to domestic violence, substance abuse, a mentally ill family member, and parental separation or divorce, also were considered.

Even then, the researchers found an 18 percent greater risk of poor adult health quality among those exposed to an incarceration in their family during childhood.

Last May, in a separate study based on the same data, Gjelsvik’s team found that people with family incarcerations in their youth were more likely as adults to engage in smoking and heavy drinking, after controlling for demographics and additional adverse childhood events.

Gjelsvik acknowledged that the studies leave questions because they did not measure which family member was sent to prison, when, for what reason, or for how long.

“But the overall findings argue against policies such as mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders,” Gjelsvik said.

“Incarceration can be necessary, but greater use of alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders, such as drug courts, could spare some innocent children from a lifetime of reduced health,” she said.

“I’m not saying don’t incarcerate people,” she said. “But we need to allow our system to use judgment and to use innovative and evidence-based programs.”

Source: Brown University 

The Tiny Part of the Brain that Predicts the Worst Case Scenario

Sat, 08/02/2014 - 7:15am

Do you feel that your brain tends to predict the worst possible scenario? And then do you find yourself engaging in avoidance behavior? Now scientists from the University College London have found the responsible party — the habenula. This tiny part of the brain (half the size of a pea) tracks predictions regarding negative events and then essentially demotivates us.

Previous studies in animals have shown that habenula activity leads to avoidance because it suppresses dopamine, a brain chemical that typically increases feelings of motivation. In animals, habenula cells were found to activate when bad things happened or were expected.

In the current study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 23 healthy participants underwent brain scans that revealed how the habenula becomes activated in response to pictures associated with painful electric shocks. The opposite occurred when participants looked at pictures that predicted winning money.

“The habenula tracks our experiences, responding more the worse something is expected to be,” says senior author Dr. Jonathan Roiser of the University College London (UCL) Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.

“For example, the habenula responds much more strongly when an electric shock is almost certain than when it is unlikely. In this study we showed that the habenula doesn’t just express whether something leads to negative events or not; it signals quite how much bad outcomes are expected.”

During the study, healthy participants were placed inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. Then they looked at a random sequence of pictures, each followed by a set chance of a good or bad outcome.

Volunteers occasionally had to press a button to show they were paying attention. By tracking habenula activity, researchers knew whether the participants were expecting good or bad scenarios.

“Fascinatingly, people were slower to press the button when the picture was associated with getting shocked, even though their response had no bearing on the outcome.” says lead author Dr. Rebecca Lawson, also at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.

“Furthermore, the slower people responded, the more reliably their habenula tracked associations with shocks. This demonstrates a crucial link between the habenula and motivated behavior, which may be the result of dopamine suppression.”

The habenula has also been associated with depression, and this study shows how it could trigger symptoms such as low motivation, pessimism, and a focus on negative experiences. A hyperactive habenula could lead to a high percentage of negative predictions.

“Other work shows that ketamine, which has profound and immediate benefits in patients who failed to respond to standard antidepressant medication, specifically dampens down habenula activity,” says Dr Roiser. “Therefore, understanding the habenula could help us to develop better treatments for treatment-resistant depression.”

Source: University College London


Liberal or Conservative: Is It in Your DNA?

Sat, 08/02/2014 - 6:30am

Do people make a conscious choice to be Republican or Democrat? Or is it a matter of how they were raised?

New research says no — conscious decision-making and parental upbringing do not fully explain why some people lean left, while others lean right.

In fact, a growing body of evidence shows that physiological responses and deep-seated psychology are at the core of political differences, according to a new study published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

“Politics might not be in our souls, but it probably is in our DNA,” says the study, written by political scientists John Hibbing and Kevin Smith of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and John Alford of Rice University.

“These natural tendencies to perceive the physical world in different ways may, in turn, be responsible for striking moments of political and ideological conflict throughout history,” Alford said.

Using eye-tracking equipment and skin conductance detectors, the three researchers observed that conservatives tend to have more intense reactions to negative stimuli, such as photographs of people eating worms, burning houses, or maggot-infested wounds.

Combining their own results with similar findings from other researchers around the world, the researchers propose that this so-called “negativity bias” may be a common factor that helps define the difference between conservatives, with their emphasis on stability and order, and liberals, with their emphasis on progress and innovation.

“Across research methods, samples and countries, conservatives have been found to be quicker to focus on the negative, to spend longer looking at the negative, and to be more distracted by the negative,” according to the researchers.

The researchers caution that they make no value judgments about their finding. In fact, they say, some studies show that conservatives, despite their quickness to detect threats, are happier overall than liberals.

And all people, whether liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between, tend to be more alert to the negative than to the positive — for good evolutionary reasons, they continued. The harm caused by negative events, such as infection, injury, and death, often outweighs the benefits brought by positive events, they noted.

“We see the ‘negativity bias’ as a common finding that emerges from a large body of empirical studies done not just by us, but by many other research teams around the world,” Smith said.

“We make the case in this article that negativity bias clearly and consistently separates liberals from conservatives.”

The most notable feature about the negativity bias is not that it exists, but that it varies so much from person to person, according to the researchers.

“Conservatives are fond of saying ‘liberals just don’t get it,’ and liberals are convinced that conservatives magnify threats,” Hibbing said. “Systematic evidence suggests both are correct.”

Source: University of Nebraska-Lincoln 

Reduce Depression, Decrease Dementia

Fri, 08/01/2014 - 7:45am

Although prior studies have shown that people with symptoms of depression are more likely to develop dementia, the relationship has remained obscure.

A new study corrects this knowledge gap and provides insight into how the two illnesses are related and how they independent.

“Studies have shown that people with symptoms of depression are more likely to develop dementia, but we haven’t known how the relationship works,” said study author Robert S. Wilson, Ph.D., with Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

“Is the depression a consequence of the dementia? Do both problems develop from the same underlying problems in the brain? Or does the relationship of depression with dementia have nothing to do with dementia-related pathology?”

In the new study research findings suggest that the association of depression with dementia is independent of dementia-related brain changes.

“These findings are exciting because they suggest depression truly is a risk factor for dementia, and if we can target and prevent or treat depression and causes of stress we may have the potential to help people maintain their thinking and memory abilities into old age,” Wilson said.

The study involved 1,764 people from the Religious Orders Study and the Rush Memory and Aging Project with an average age of 77 who had no thinking or memory problems at the start of the study.

Participants were screened every year for symptoms of depression, such as loneliness and lack of appetite, and took tests on their thinking and memory skills for an average of eight years.

A total of 680 people died during the study, and autopsies were performed on 582 of them to look for the plaques and tangles in the brain that are the signs of dementia and other signs of damage in the brain.

During the study, 922 people, or 52 percent of the participants, developed mild cognitive impairment (MCI), or mild problems with memory and thinking abilities that is often a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease.

A total of 315 people, or 18 percent, developed dementia.

The researchers found no relationship between how much damage was found in the brain and the level of depression symptoms people had or in the change in depression symptoms over time.

People who developed mild cognitive impairment were more likely to have a higher level of symptoms of depression before they were diagnosed, but they were no more likely to have any change in symptoms of depression after the diagnosis than people without MCI.

People with dementia were also more likely to have a higher level of depression symptoms before the dementia started, but they had a more rapid decrease in depression symptoms after dementia developed.

In sum, having a higher level of depression symptoms was associated with more rapid decline in thinking and memory skills.

The depression appears to account for nearly five percent of the difference in decline that could not be attributed to the level of damage in the brain.

Source: American Academy of Neurology

Depressed elderly man photo by shutterstock.

New Biomarker for Postpartum Depression

Fri, 08/01/2014 - 7:00am

Postpartum depression is a common disorder affecting one in eight women during the first months after childbirth.

Researchers have learned that monoamine oxidase A, an enzyme responsible for the breakdown of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, plays an important role in this condition.

In a new study, a Canadian-German research team found that women who experience postpartum depression present strongly elevated levels of the enzyme in their brains as compared non-depressed women.

Their findings could help in the prevention of postpartum depression and in the development of new drugs for its treatment.

For most women, the birth of their baby is one of the most strenuous but also happiest days in their lives.

However, joy and happiness are often followed by fatigue and exhaustion. The vast majority of women experience a temporary drop in mood for a few days after birth.

These symptoms of “baby blues” are not an illness; however, in about 13 percent of women, they can represent early signs of full-blown postpartum depression.

Postpartum depression is harmful not only to the mother, but also to the baby.

Historically, it has been difficult to treat this condition effectively, as its precise neurobiological causes have remained unidentified to date.

The new study shows that postpartum depression is accompanied by strongly elevated monoamine oxidase A in the brain, particularly in the prefrontal cortex and in the anterior cingulate cortex.

In women with postpartum depression, the values recorded were 21 percent higher than those of women who were not plagued by negative feelings after giving birth.

Women who did not develop full-blown depression but found themselves crying more often than usual due to depressed mood also presented moderately elevated values.

“Therefore, we should promote strategies that help to reduce monoamine oxidase A levels in the brain, and avoid everything that makes these values rise,” explains Dr. Julia Sacher from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.

Such factors include heavy smoking, alcohol consumption, and chronic stress, for example when the mother feels neglected and abandoned by her partner and family.

“My ultimate goal is to provide women and their families with very concrete lifestyle recommendations that will enable them to prevent postpartum depression,” explains the psychiatrist.

A new generation of long-established drugs could also play an important role in the treatment of postpartum depression in future.

Up to now, depressed mothers are mainly given drugs that increase the concentration of serotonin in the brain.

However, because monoamine oxidase A breaks down not only serotonin but also other monoamines like dopamine and noradrenaline, a treatment that directly targets monoamine oxidase A could have a higher success rate, particularly in very serious cases: this alternative is provided by selective and reversible monoamine-oxidase- A inhibitors.

“The first monoamine oxidase inhibitors often had severe side effects, for example hypertensive crises, which necessitated adherence to a strict diet,” explains Sacher.

“However, the new selective and reversible drugs are better tolerated,” she adds.

In the next stage of this research involving clinical trials, the scientists intend to test the effectiveness of these reversible monoamine oxidase A inhibitors in the treatment of postpartum depression.

Because the measurement of this enzyme in the brain requires complex technology, it is not suitable for routine testing. Thus, the researchers are also looking for a peripheral marker of this enzyme that can be detected in saliva or blood.

Four years ago, Julia Sacher and her colleagues at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto already succeeded in showing that, in the first week postpartum, the concentration of the enzyme monoamine oxidase A in the brain is on average 40 percent higher than in women who had not recently given birth.

“The monoamine oxidase A values behave in the opposite way to estrogen levels. When estrogen levels drop acutely after childbirth, the concentration of monoamine oxidase A rises drastically.

This change also influences serotonin levels, known as the happiness hormone,” explains Dr. Sacher. In most women, the values quickly return to normal. In others, they remain raised — and thereby promote the development of depression.

Source: Max Planck Institute

Abstract of brain photo by shutterstock.

Life Stressors Trigger Alcohol Problems in Vets

Fri, 08/01/2014 - 6:15am

Timely new research discovers civilian stress events are more likely to trigger alcohol problems among veterans than among non-military personnel.

Investigators found returning National Guard soldiers — regardless of the traumatic events they experienced — were more likely to develop a drinking problem if faced with civilian life setbacks, including job loss, legal problems, divorce, and serious financial and legal problems.

Results of the study are published online in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

According to by researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, alcohol abuse is a major concern for reservists returning home.

Nearly seven percent of Americans abuse or are dependent on alcohol, but among reserve soldiers returning from deployment, the rate of alcohol abuse is 14 percent, almost double that of the civilian population.

The study looked at a group of 1,095 Ohio National Guard soldiers, who had primarily served in either Iraq or Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009.

Over three years, the soldiers were interviewed three times via telephone and were asked about their alcohol use, exposure to deployment-related traumatic events, and stressors like land mines, vehicle crashes, taking enemy fire, and witnessing casualties, and any stress related to everyday life since returning from duty.

“Guardsmen who return home need help finding jobs, rebuilding their marriages and families, and reintegrating into their communities,” says Karestan Koenen, Ph.D., senior author of the study.

“Too many of our warriors fall through the cracks in our system when they return home. This is particularly true of Guardsmen who do not have the same access to services as regular military personnel.

“We need to support our soldiers on the home front just as we do in the war zone.”

More than half (60 percent) of the responding soldiers experienced combat-related trauma, 36 percent of soldiers experience civilian stressors, and 17 percent reported being sexually harassed during their most recent deployment.

Among the group, 13 percent reported problems consistent with an alcohol use disorder in the first interview, seven percent during the second, and five percent during the third. Alcohol use disorder is defined as alcohol abuse or dependence.

The researchers found having at least one civilian stressor or a reported incident of sexual harassment during deployment raised the odds of alcohol use disorders.

The effect of the stressors was restricted to cases of new-onset alcohol use disorders, and was not seen among those with a history of problem drinking. In contrast, combat-related traumatic events were only marginally associated with alcohol problems.

The study highlights the important role civilian life and the accompanying stress play in cases of alcohol use disorder in the National Guard.

“Exposure to the traumatic event itself has an important effect on mental health in the short-term, but what defines long-term mental health problems is having to deal with a lot of daily life difficulties that arise in the aftermath — when soldiers come home,” explains lead investigator Magdalena Cerdá, PH.D., MPH, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University.

“The more traumatic events soldiers are exposed to during and after combat, the more problems they are likely to have in their daily life — in their relationships, in their jobs — when they come home. These problems can in turn aggravate mental health issues, such as problems with alcohol that arise during and after deployment.”

With high rates of alcohol abuse among soldiers, there is a critical need for targeted interventions to help soldiers handle stressful life events without alcohol, the investigators observe. More than 1.6 million service members have been deployed in support of war efforts Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation New Dawn.

Source: Elsevier

Upset veteran photo by shutterstock.

Tips to Improve Happiness

Fri, 08/01/2014 - 5:30am

Perhaps it is not a surprise that a new study on perceived happiness shows that many college students are stressed out and aren’t coping.

Many would agree that a study of the American population at-large would result in a similar finding.

Although the difficulties in managing stress are ongoing, a University of Cincinnati professor believes there are numerous, low-cost options that can help improve happiness.

“We have a whole array of different stress-management techniques college students can use and that we teach, but they’re not using them. That contributes to their stress levels, which contributes to their unhappiness,” King says.

The research, “A Study of Stress, Social Support, and Perceived Happiness Among College Students,” was recently published online in the Journal of Happiness & Well-Being.

King says many simple and effective techniques exist for managing stress. He suggests a few immediate and long-term methods for soothing frayed nerves.


  • Stop, pause, and breathe: “In the moment when you’re stressed, you need to slow down, you pause, you take some deep breaths. Maybe you count backwards from 10. Those types of things calm everything down and slow it down.”
  • See the bigger picture: “Try to see the bigger picture. Is what you’re experiencing really that big of a deal or not?”
  • Contact a friend: “Everyone has phones on them. Call your buddy and let him know what’s going on so you can express those feelings and get them off you as quickly as possible.”


  • Diet and exercise: “People who eat healthy and exercise tend to have lower stress levels. Exercise allows for some of that negative energy to get burned off. Eating healthy helps individuals avoid feeling weighted down.”
  • Daily “me time”: “Take time out of the day that’s your time. It could be just 10 minutes. Go outside and walk, just enjoy something for you. If you hate exercising, then do something you enjoy. That’s paramount.”
  • Remember to H.A.L.T.: “Make sure you’re not Hungry, you’re not Angry, you’re not Lonely, and you’re not Tired. If you can take care of those four things, you’re significantly more likely to be unstressed.”

King and researchers based their study on an anonymous, voluntary survey taken by 498 students assessing their overall happiness and stress level.

Results showed that students who reported low perceived happiness felt higher stress levels and lower emotional closeness to others.

Many reported they felt stressed but weren’t doing anything about it. 61 percent reported having high stress and 72 percent reported low frequency in using stress-management techniques.

King notes that people tend to over-complicate their lives and to ignore the potential benefit a five-minute walk outside or a quick water break could have on their emotional state.

“Just because these techniques are simple,” he says, “doesn’t mean they are ineffective.”

“It’s not rocket science, but the reality of it is a lot of people aren’t doing the positive to get happy.

“People don’t really know or they think some of the basics to happiness that we suggest are too fluffy. They’re not. They’re research-supported. Do these things and you’ll feel happier,” King says.

It’s something he says everyone could benefit from. Although the study is directed toward college students, findings are generalizable to all people.

King recommends students takes this information and share it with their families — and vice versa.

Everyone should be aware that they can influence their happiness but to do so individuals need to focus on reducing their stress and get some social support and care.

Source: University of Cincinnati

TeleSupport Helps Reduce Caregiver Stress

Thu, 07/31/2014 - 7:45am

Taking care of a loved one who has a chronic illness can take a toll on the caregiver.

A new study has found that a support program administered entirely by telephone can significantly reduce depression and other symptoms in informal caregivers, such as family or friends, of individuals with dementia.

Caregiving for any chronic illness is difficult although some will argue that managing a loved one who has dementia or Alzheimer’s may be the most challenging task of all.

“Those caring for people with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia are often under a great deal of pressure,” said principal investigator Geoffrey Tremont, Ph.D.

“This pressure and stress can lead to depression in the caregiver, or to negative reactions, or even to behavior problems exhibited by the individual with dementia.”

He continued, “Many of these caregivers have trouble finding time to take care of themselves, allowing their own physical and mental health issues to fester.

“By providing these caregivers with the option of a telephone-based support program, we are able to bring the help right to them, rather than requiring the caregivers to take time away from their loved one to attend a support group or other appointment.”

A telephone-based support program is also potentially less expensive than in-person treatment options, and often more convenient for caregivers.

While previous studies have shown that caregivers benefit from programs such as in-person support/group therapy sessions, this is the first such study to present data supporting a program that is delivered only by telephone.

“The number of people diagnosed with some form of dementia continues to rise,” Tremont said, “and with that comes an increased need for caregivers, who often are family members.

It’s a lot to take on, and a great deal is expected from these caregivers. If we don’t help them take care of themselves, in an easy and convenient manner, there could be negative health consequences for the caregiver, and ultimately the individual with dementia.”

More than 15 million family and friends provide care for those with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, resulting in 17.5 billion hours of unpaid care each year. As Baby Boomer’s enter old age and the senior population grows, more individuals will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s with corresponding caregiver burden.

Cost-effective, efficient support is therefore critical with technological interventions an emerging method to provide support and assistance to the many who are managing multiple burdens.

Source: Lifespan

Preschool Depression May Continue for a Decade

Thu, 07/31/2014 - 7:00am

New research discovers early childhood depression increases the risk that a child will be depressed throughout their formative school years.

Washington University researchers discovered children who had depression as preschoolers were 2.5 times more likely to suffer from the condition in elementary and middle school than kids who were not depressed at very young ages.

Prior research has shown that depression in preschoolers is often influenced by a caregiver (mother’s) depression.

For the study, a novel research method included the use of two-way mirrors to observe children from preschool age through middle school.

The study has been published in The American Journal of Psychiatry.

“It’s the same old bad news about depression; it is a chronic and recurrent disorder,” said child psychiatrist Joan L. Luby, MD.

“But the good news is that if we can identify depression early, perhaps we have a window of opportunity to treat it more effectively and potentially change the trajectory of the illness so that it is less likely to be chronic and recurring.”

The investigators followed 246 children, now ages nine to 12, who were enrolled in the study as preschoolers when they were three to five years old.

The children and their primary caregivers participated in up to six annual and four semiannual assessments.

They were screened using a tool called the Preschool Feelings Checklist, developed by Luby and her colleagues, and evaluated using an age-appropriate diagnostic interview.

As part of the evaluation, caregivers were interviewed about their children’s expressions of sadness, irritability, guilt, sleep, appetite, and decreased pleasure in activity and play.

In addition, researchers used two-way mirrors to evaluate child-caregiver interactions because the team’s earlier research had shown that a lack of parental nurturing is an important risk factor for recurrence of depression.

The study was designed to follow children as they grew and to evaluate them for depression and other psychiatric conditions.

However, if children were found to be seriously depressed or in danger of self harm, or if their caregivers requested treatment, they were referred to mental health providers.

Currently, there are no proven treatments for depression that arises in the preschool years. Even in depressed adults, available treatments and medications are effective only about half the time.

At the start of the study, 74 of the children were diagnosed with depression.

When the researchers evaluated the same group six years later, they found that 79 children met the full criteria for clinical depression based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V).

More than 51 percent of the 74 children who originally were diagnosed as preschoolers also were depressed as school-age kids. Only 24 percent of the 172 children who were not depressed as preschoolers went on to develop depression during their elementary and middle school years.

Luby’s group also found that school-age children had a high risk of depression if their mothers were depressed.

And they noted that children diagnosed with a conduct disorder as preschoolers had an elevated risk of depression by school age and early adolescence, but this risk declined if the children were found to have significant maternal support.

But neither a mother with depression nor a conduct disorder in preschool increased the risk for later depression as much as a diagnosis of depression during preschool years.

“Preschool depression predicted school-age depression over and above any of the other well-established risk factors,” Luby explained.

“Those children appear to be on a trajectory for depression that’s independent of other psychosocial variables.”

Luby said her findings continue to contradict doctors and scientists who have maintained that children as young as three or four could not be clinically depressed. She advocates including depression screenings in regular medical checkups for preschoolers, but she said such monitoring is unlikely to begin anytime soon.

“The reason it hasn’t yet become a huge call to action is because we don’t yet have any proven, effective treatments for depressed preschoolers,” she explained.

“Pediatricians don’t usually want to screen for a condition if they can’t then refer patients to someone who can help.”

Luby now is testing potential parent-child psychotherapies that appear promising for preschoolers with depression, but it’s too early to determine whether they work.

Her team also will continue following this group of children through puberty to determine whether depression during preschool remains a risk factor for depression during young adulthood.

Source: Washington University – St. Louis

Depressed preschool boy photo by shutterstock.

Teen Sleepless Nights Linked with Depression and Anxiety

Thu, 07/31/2014 - 6:15am

A new study of more than 300 high school students has led to a better understanding of the links between insomnia-related mental health conditions.

Psychology researchers from the University of Adelaide surveyed Australian high school students aged 12-18 to better understand their sleep habits, mental health condition, and the time of day they were most active (known as their “chronotype”).

Night-owls were found to have a greater risk for insomnia and depression.

The results, published in the journal Sleep Medicine, may have implications for the clinical treatment of teens experiencing sleep and mental health issues.

“People with insomnia find it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep for as long as they need to. This is a widespread sleep disorder among the general public, and in most countries about 11 percent of teens aged 13-16 years’ experience insomnia at some stage,” says Ph.D. student Pasquale Alvaro.

“There is a growing awareness among the scientific community that insomnia, depression, and anxiety disorders are linked with each other, and these disorders contain overlapping neurobiological, psychological, and social risk factors.

“Having insomnia in addition to anxiety or depression can further intensify the problems being experienced with each individual disorder.

“It can lead to such problems as alcohol and drug misuse during adolescence,” he says.

Alvaro’s study found that the presence of insomnia was independently linked with depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic disorder among teens.

Teens who were more active in the evenings were more likely to have depression and/or insomnia.

This group was also more likely to have obsessive-compulsive disorder, separation anxiety, and social phobia, although these disorders were often not independently linked with insomnia.

“These findings suggest that the ‘eveningness’ chronotype — being more active in the evenings — is an independent risk factor for insomnia and depression.

“This is important because adolescents tend to develop a preference for evenings, which sometimes becomes a syndrome whereby they keep delaying going to sleep,” Alvaro says.

“Based on our evidence, we believe that prevention and treatment efforts for insomnia and depression should consider this combination of mental health, sleep, and the eveningness chronotype, in addition to current mainstream behavioral approaches. Prevention and treatment efforts for anxiety subtypes should also consider focusing on insomnia and depression.”

Source: University of Adelaide

Tired high school student photo by shutterstock.