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Can Online Gaming Improve Your Social Life?

Fri, 03/28/2014 - 5:30am

A new research study suggests that online gaming may actually broaden players’ social lives.

“Gamers aren’t the antisocial basement-dwellers we see in pop culture stereotypes, they’re highly social people,” said Dr. Nick Taylor, an assistant professor of communication at North Carolina State University and lead author of a paper on the study.

“This won’t be a surprise to the gaming community, but it’s worth telling everyone else. Loners are the outliers in gaming, not the norm.”

In the study, researchers traveled to more than 20 public gaming events in Canada and the United Kingdom, from 2,500-player events held in convention centers to 20-player events held in bars.

The researchers observed the behavior of thousands of players, and had 378 players take an in-depth survey, with a focus on players of massively multiplayer online role-playing games such as EVE Online and World of Warcraft.

The researchers were interested in tracking the online and offline behavior of gamers, focusing on how they communicated with each other. They found that gaming was only one aspect of social behavior at the gaming events.

“We found that gamers were often exhibiting many social behaviors at once: watching games, talking, drinking, and chatting online,” Taylor said. “Gaming didn’t eliminate social interaction, it supplemented it.

“This was true regardless of which games players were playing, and whether a player’s behavior in the online game was altruistic. For example, a player could be utterly ruthless in the game and still socialize normally offline.”

The researchers also found that gamers didn’t distinguish between the time they spent playing games and the time they spent watching other people play games.

“It all fell under the category of gaming, which they view as a social activity,” Taylor said.

Taylor noted that this work focused on Western gaming communities, and he’s interested in studying the relationship between social behaviors and gaming in other cultures.

The paper is published online in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.

Source: North Carolina State University

Environment Can Affect Gene Expression in Autism

Thu, 03/27/2014 - 9:15am

Recent findings suggest that certain environmental factors can influence the development of autism spectrum disorder.

About one in 100 people have a form of autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. These can involve deficits in social interactions and understanding, repetitive behavior, and interests, or impairments in language and communication development. On the spectrum of ASD, symptoms manifest themselves differently in different people.

Although ASD is highly heritable, that is, passed to children in their genes, that’s not the whole story. A team from King’s College London, UK, looked at so-called “epigenetic changes” involved in ASD, in which the environment affects the expression of genes without changing the underlying DNA.

This type of change is potentially reversible with treatment. The idea that epigenetic influences may be partly responsible for the development of ASDs has gained popularity in recent years.

The team focused on DNA methylation, which blocks the genetic sequences behind gene expression, and can “silence” the activity of a gene. They used genetic information from identical twins.

Because identical twins share the same genes, the fact that ASD can occur in one twin and not the other suggests that epigenetic factors may be involved. Twins are also completely matched for genetics, age, sex, maternal influences, and common environment, and are closely matched for other environmental factors.

In samples from 50 pairs of identical twins, DNA methylation at over 27,000 genome sites was examined. Among the twins, 34 pairs had one twin with ASD and one without, five pairs had ASD in both twins, and 11 pairs had no ASD.

Results showed that at certain genetic sites, DNA methylation was consistently altered for all those with ASD. But differences at other sites were symptom-specific. Autism severity was linked to the number of DNA methylation sites across the whole genome. Interestingly, some of the DNA methylation markers were seen in areas of the genome previously linked to early brain development.

Full details are published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

First author Dr. Chloe Wong, said, “We’ve identified distinctive patterns of DNA methylation associated with both autism diagnosis and related behavior traits, and increasing severity of symptoms. Our findings give us an insight into the biological mechanism mediating the interaction between gene and environment in ASD.”

Co-author Jonathan Mill, Ph.D., added, “Research into the intersection between genetic and environmental influences is crucial because risky environmental conditions can sometimes be avoided or changed.

“Epigenetic changes are potentially reversible, so our next step is to embark on larger studies to see whether we can identify key epigenetic changes common to the majority of people with autism to help us develop possible therapeutic interventions.”

The researchers say their study is the largest of its kind, and conclude that it “may shed light on the biological mechanism by which environmental influences regulate the activity of certain genes and in turn contribute to the development of ASD and related behavior traits.”

Commenting on the study, Alycia Halladay, Ph.D., of the autism advocacy organization Autism Speaks, which partly funded the research, says, “This is the first large-scale study to take a whole genome approach to studying epigenetic influences in twins who are genetically identical, but have different symptoms.

“These findings open the door to future discoveries in the role of epigenetics, in addition to genetics, in the development of autism symptoms.”

Twin studies are extremely useful in this area of research. The experts say this approach is considerably more powerful in detecting epigenetic differences in a range of diseases than studies of unrelated individuals with different life histories.

Epigenetic changes could occur during the lifetime or even before birth. For example, previous research has suggested that a mother’s exposure to stress, viral or bacterial infection, diet, and the drug thalidomide can increase the risk for ASD in her children.

Following birth, many environmental factors can trigger epigenetic changes. These include nutrition, intake of specific compounds such as alcohol and nicotine, some chemicals in the living space or workplace, and some medications.

Altogether, the study adds to a growing body of research that suggests environmental and epigenetic factors play a stronger role in the development of ASD than previously thought. Epigenetic changes such as DNA methylation appear to be vital for understanding the complexity of autism genetics.


Molecular Psychiatry

Wong, C.C.Y., Meaburn, E.L., Ronald, A., Price, T.S., Jeffries, A.R., Schalkwyk, L.C., … Mill, J. Methylomic analysis of monozygotic twins discordant for autism spectrum disorder and related behavioural traits. Molecular Psychiatry, 23 April 2013 doi: 10.1038/mp.2013.41

Peer-Group Approach Helps Teens Limit Sugary Drinks

Thu, 03/27/2014 - 8:30am

Consumption of sugary soft drinks is a behavioral trait often associated with overweight and obese younger adults.

A new study finds teens can be persuaded to cut back on sugary soft drinks, especially with a little help from their friends.

Researchers found that a 30-day challenge encouraging teens to reduce sugar-sweetened drink use lowered their overall consumption substantially. Moreover, the program increased by two-thirds the percentage of high-school students who avoided sugary drinks altogether.

The Study

Ohio State University researchers issued a “Sodabriety” challenge as an effort to confront the largest source of added sugar in the U.S. diet: sugar-sweetened soft drinks, sports and energy drinks, and flavored milk and coffee.

Students were tapped to establish teen advisory councils, whose members led the interventions at two rural Appalachian high schools.

They designed marketing campaigns, planned school assemblies, and shared a fact per day about sugar-sweetened drinks over the morning announcements.

The primary message to their peers: Try to cut back on sugar-sweetened beverages for 30 days. Students opted not to promote eliminating these drinks entirely during the challenge.

Overall, participating teens did lower their intake of sugary drinks, and the percentage of youths who abstained from drinking sugar-sweetened beverages increased from 7.2 percent to 11.8 percent of the participants.

That percentage was sustained for 30 days after the intervention ended.

An unexpected but welcome result of the program was a significant increase in water consumption among participants.

Water intake increased significantly by 60 days after the start of the program, even without any promotion of water as a substitute for sugar-sweetened drinks.

“The students’ water consumption before the intervention was lousy. I don’t know how else to say it. But we saw a big improvement in that,” said Dr. Laureen Smith, associate professor of nursing at Ohio State and lead author of the study.

“And there was a huge reduction in sugar-sweetened beverage consumption. The kids were consuming them fewer days per week and when they were consuming these drinks, they had fewer servings.”

The research is published in a recent issue of the Journal of School Health.

Smith originally set out to conduct a community-based study concerning the prevalence of Type II diabetes in Appalachian Ohio. Through a series of meetings, surveys, and focus groups, parents in these communities tended to express concern about kids’ diets.

“Sugar-sweetened beverages kept coming up,” Smith said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 80 percent of youths — especially those ages 12 to 19 years — consume sugar-sweetened beverages daily, and these drinks contribute between 13 and 28 percent of their daily calorie intake. Children and adolescents in Appalachia have higher rates of sugary beverage consumption compared with others of the same age.

In all, 186 students at two high schools participated in the challenge — almost half of each school’s headcount, and almost 70 percent of eligible students when teens attending vocational training were excluded.

Smith surveyed the students about vending machine access and beverage options, sugar-sweetened beverage drinking habits, and water consumption. Once the intervention began, students were instructed to keep a log, recording how many servings of sugary drinks and other beverages they consumed each day.

For this study, sugar-sweetened beverages included regular soft drinks, sweet tea, fruit drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, flavored or sweetened milk, coffee with sugar, other coffee drinks, and an “other” category. Regular soft drinks were the preferred beverage for 92 percent of sugary drink users before and after the study.

At baseline, 41 percent of the students reported buying sugary drinks from school-based sources: vending machines, the cafeteria, or school stores. In addition, 63 percent of students reported consuming sugary drinks at least three days a week, with more than a third reporting daily intake of these beverages —a figure that dropped to 7.2 percent of students immediately after the challenge ended.

Results of the Study

One month after the intervention ended, almost 60 percent of students reported consuming sugary drinks fewer than three days each week. Over the course of the study, from the start of the challenge until a month after it ended, respondents achieved a nearly 30 percent reduction in days per week that they consumed sugary drinks.

A similar pattern was seen in servings. The intervention reduced average daily servings of sugar-sweetened beverages from 2.3 to 1.3, about one serving, or 8 ounces, per day.

Water consumption increased from baseline to immediately after the challenge ended, and continued to increase over the next 30 days to an average of 5 ½ servings of water per day, reaching a 30 percent increase from baseline measures.

Smith heard from students that they had lost weight, felt better, and had recruited parents to join them in the challenge. Based on this anecdotal data, she plans to follow up with a similar school-based challenge that includes measures of health outcomes and involvement of students’ families.

In the long run, Smith hopes a drop in the use of sugary drinks could help curb Type II diabetes in rural communities. Through this study and previous work, she also has found that teens can be effective at changing peer behavior.

“We’re teaching kids to help themselves, and it’s a really cost-effective way of promoting health and delivering a message,” she said.

“We tend to think first of risky behaviors when we study adolescents, but they do positive things, too. With the right guidance and support, they are powerful influencers. We might as well use peer pressure to our advantage.”

Source: Ohio State University

Overweight Teens May Not Live as Long as Parents

Thu, 03/27/2014 - 7:45am

Although the average life expectancy continues to advance with people living longer than they were a few decades ago, a new study finds that people who were overweight and obese as teenagers aren’t experiencing the same gains as other segments of the population.

Researchers determined the life expectancy of the average American born in 2011 was 78.7 years, with the average lifespan increasing by more than a decade since 1950.

However, as published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism (JCEM), rising obesity rates threaten to take a toll on this progress.

“In studying the rate of death among adults younger than age 50, we found that there was no improvement among men who were overweight or obese as teenagers,” said one of the study’s authors, Amir Tirosh, M.D., Ph.D., of the Division of Endocrinology at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

“In fact, the mortality rate among overweight and obese teenagers in the years 2000 to 2010 was as high as the rate observed in the 1960s and 1970s.”

The nationwide longitudinal cohort study analyzed records for more than 2.1 million teenagers who were evaluated for compulsory military service in Israel. The study subjects were born between the years 1950 and 1993.

Each was between the ages of 16 and 20 when they were evaluated for military service. Researchers calculated the teenagers’ body mass index at the time of the evaluation. The study also combed death records to determine mortality rates among the study population.

Researchers found mortality rates were 41 percent lower among normal weight teenagers who were born in the 1980s than teens of a similar weight who were born 30 years earlier. But among those who were overweight or obese as teenagers, there was no significant improvement in the survival rate over the course of four decades.

In addition, the study found overweight and obese teenagers had a higher risk of death before the age of 50. Among boys, even those with weights at the upper end of the normal range faced a greater risk of dying relatively early in adulthood.

“While the causes of death weren’t available to researchers performing the analysis, obesity can raise the risk of death from cardiovascular disease, cancer, and even motor vehicle crashes linked to sleep apnea,” Tirosh said.

“Public health officials have known all along that obesity contributes to chronic illness, but this study clearly illustrates that it can raise the risk of death in early adulthood,” he said.

“This has enormous implications for families, public health, and society as a whole.”

Source: The Endocrine Society

Brain Chemical Implicated in Developing Depression

Thu, 03/27/2014 - 7:00am

A new research finding may one day may lead to the development of a new class of antidepressant medications.

European researchers discovered, for the first time, that a chemical in the brain called galanin is involved in the risk of developing depression.

Galanin is a neuropeptide (a small protein) that was discovered and investigated over 30 years ago by various groups including the Swedish scientist Tomas Hokfelt.

Hokfelt is one of the senior authors of the paper published in the journal PNAS. He and others made the fundamental discovery that neurons can release peptides alongside their classical transmitters and that galanin and noradrenaline are one such pair. Both have long been implicated in pain and stress and therefore depression, but in the past it had been difficult to study peptides in humans.

The new research by scientists from Sweden, Hungary and the UK demonstrates that galanin is an important stress mechanism in the human brain that influences how sensitive or resilient people are to psychosocial stress.

Lead author Dr. Gabriella Juhasz, a research fellow at the University of Manchester and the Semmelweis University in Budapest, said, “Our research shows that some versions of the gene coding for galanin protect against the risk of depression and anxiety, but only in people who have experienced early life neglect or trauma, or recent adverse events.

“Furthermore, the three genes for the three receptors through which galanin acts also influence the risk of depression in people experiencing early or recent life adversity. Crucially, all the galanin-related genes are widely separated on different chromosomes and the odds are stacked against four random genes acting in the same way by chance.”

Results from the research indicate that although the results are statistically reliable, galanin effects modify the substantial effects of stress by only a few percent. Indeed the moderate overall genetic influence (about 35 percent) on depression is likely to be mediated by many small genetic effects interacting with each other and with psychosocial factors converging on stress mechanisms in the brain.

Co-author Dr. Bill Deakin, from the University of Manchester, said, “The findings provide a strong reason to develop drugs that modify galanin functioning as a new class of antidepressant drug. And new drugs are badly needed as almost all commonly prescribed antidepressants act on serotonin, and they are often not very effective.

“Our research confirms what previous reports have shown about the variation in the serotonin ‘transporter’ gene and how it influences the risk of depression. We found that the galanin effects are substantially greater than the effects of serotonin.”

The research team also say there is increasing evidence suggesting that depression, obesity, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease may be varying manifestations of shared underlying abnormalities of body metabolism.

“Galanin may be part of this general vulnerability since it has a significant role in appetite and obesity,” added Deakin.

Source: University of Manchester

Alcohol, Drug Abuse by Parents Linked to Arthritis in Offspring

Thu, 03/27/2014 - 6:15am

New research suggests a person is significantly more likely to develop adult arthritis if a parent was addicted to alcohol or drugs.

University of Toronto researchers examined a group of 13,036 adults and found that 20.4 per cent of respondents had been diagnosed with arthritis by a medical professional.

Investigators found that 14.5 percent of all respondents reported having at least one parent whose drug or alcohol use caused problems while were under the age of 18 and still living at home.

As published online in the International Journal of Population Research, results indicate that individuals whose parents were addicted to drugs or alcohol are more likely to have arthritis.

“In fact, after adjusting for age, sex, and race, parental addictions were associated with 58 percent higher odds of arthritis,” said lead author Esme Fuller-Thomson, Ph.D.

“We had anticipated that the adult offspring’s health behaviors such as smoking, obesity, and alcohol consumption might explain the strong link between parental addictions and arthritis, however, we did not find this to be the case,” said study co-author, Jessica Liddycoat, M.S.W.

“Even after adjusting for these adult health behaviors, as well as income, education, a history of childhood maltreatment, and mood and anxiety disorders, we found that parental addictions was still a statistically significant factor associated with 30 percent higher odds of arthritis.”

Future prospective studies are needed because the survey nature of the data makes it impossible to determine whether the relationship between parental addictions and arthritis is causal.

“However, there is ample evidence from other studies to support the provision of efficacious interventions to treat addictions,” said co-author Maria Stefanyk, M.S.W.

“Although we do not know if these interventions will impact the development of arthritis in adulthood, we do know that children do much better on a wide range of outcomes when parents are no longer abusing drugs and alcohol.”

Source: University of Toronto

Instinctual Detection of Deceit Beats Conscious Effort

Thu, 03/27/2014 - 5:30am

Newly published research explains that a person’s automatic associations may be more accurate than purposeful efforts when detecting between a truth and a lie.

The finding, as published in the journal Psychological Science, suggests that conscious awareness may hinder our ability to detect whether someone is lying, perhaps because we tend to seek out behaviors that are supposedly stereotypical of liars, like averted eyes or fidgeting.

But those behaviors may not be all that indicative of an untrustworthy person.

“Our research was prompted by the puzzling but consistent finding that humans are very poor lie detectors, performing at only about 54 percent accuracy in traditional lie detection tasks,” explains study author Leanne ten Brinke, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley.

That’s hardly better than chance, as if participants were simply guessing whether the person was lying.

And it’s a finding that seems at odds with the fact that humans are typically sensitive to how others are feeling, what they’re thinking, and what their personalities are like.

Along with UC Berkeley colleague Dayna Stimson and Berkeley-Haas Assistant Professor Dr. Dana Carney, ten Brinke hypothesized that these seemingly paradoxical findings may be accounted for by unconscious processes.

“We set out to test whether the unconscious mind could catch a liar, even when the conscious mind failed,” she says.

The researchers first had 72 participants watch videos of “suspects” in a mock-crime interview. Some of the suspects in the videos had actually stolen a $100 bill from a bookshelf, whereas others had not.

However, all of the suspects were instructed to tell the interviewer they had not stolen the money. In doing so, one group of suspects must have been lying, whereas the other group must have been telling the truth.

When the 72 participants were asked to say which suspects they thought were lying and which were telling the truth, they were pretty inaccurate. They were only able to detect liars 43 percent of the time, and truth-tellers only 48 percent of the time.

But the researchers also employed widely-used behavioral reaction time tests (one of which is called the Implicit Association Test or IAT) to probe participants’ more automatic instincts towards the suspects.

Results showed that participants were more likely to unconsciously associate deception-related words (e.g. “untruthful,” dishonest,” and “deceitful”) with the suspects who were actually lying. At the same time, participants were more likely to associate truthful words (e.g. “honest” or “valid”) with the suspects who were actually telling the truth.

A second experiment confirmed these findings, providing evidence that people may have some intuitive sense, outside of conscious awareness, that detects when someone is lying.

“These results provide a new lens through which to examine social perception, and suggest that — at least in terms of detection of lies — unconscious measures may provide additional insight into interpersonal accuracy,” says ten Brinke.

Source: Psychological Science

Video Games Can Impact Kids for Good or Ill

Wed, 03/26/2014 - 9:15am

A new study suggests that children can learn aggressive ways of thinking and behaving from violent video games.

The study was a followup to a report that found prosocial video games can positively influence behavior regardless of culture.

In the current study, Iowa State University researchers discovered children who repeatedly play violent video games may develop learning thought patterns that will influence behaviors as they grow older.

“The effect is the same regardless of age, gender, or culture,” said Dr. Douglas Gentile, an associate professor of psychology and lead author of the study published in JAMA Pediatrics.

Gentile says the kids learn from the video games in a manner similar to learning in other areas, be it math or to play the piano.

“If you practice over and over, you have that knowledge in your head. The fact that you haven’t played the piano in years doesn’t mean you can’t still sit down and play something,” Gentile said.

“It’s the same with violent games — you practice being vigilant for enemies, practice thinking that it’s acceptable to respond aggressively to provocation, and practice becoming desensitized to the consequences of violence.”

Researchers found that over time children start to think more aggressively. And when provoked at home, school, or in other situations, children will react much like they do when playing a violent video game.

Repeated practice of aggressive ways of thinking appears to drive the long-term effect of violent games on aggression.

“Violent video games model physical aggression,” said Craig Anderson, distinguished professor of psychology and director of the Center for the Study of Violence at Iowa State and co-author of the report.

“They also reward players for being alert to hostile intentions and for using aggressive behavior to solve conflicts.

“Practicing such aggressive thinking in these games improves the ability of the players to think aggressively. In turn, this habitual aggressive thinking increases their aggressiveness in real life.”

Researchers followed more than 3,000 children in third, fourth, seventh, and eighth grades for three years. Data was collected each year to track the amount of time spent playing video games, the violent content of the game and changes in a child’s behavior.

The length and size of the study made it possible for researchers to detect and test even small effects.

Boys reported doing more physically aggressive behaviors and spending more time playing violent games than girls.

However, even when researchers controlled for gender, the violent video game effects on behavior were the same for girls and boys.

To test whether violent games had a greater effect on children who were more aggressive, researchers compared children with high and low levels of aggression. Much like gender, they did not find a significant difference in terms of the effect from violent games.

“The results make a pretty strong argument that gender and age really don’t affect this relationship between video game play, aggressive thinking, and aggressive behavior,” said Sara Prot, a graduate student in psychology at Iowa State.

“There are lasting effects on thinking and behavior. You can’t say one group, because of their gender, age or culture, is protected from the effects in some special way.”

Experts say the study is salient because more than 90 percent of children and teens play video games, with the majority of the games containing some type of violent content.

However, that does not mean all games are bad and that children will only develop bad habits.

In fact, the beneficial effects of prosocial media was the subject of a previous study, published in Psychological Science.

That earlier cross-cultural study, led by Prot, Gentile and Anderson, found that prosocial media — video games, movies or TV shows that portray helpful, caring, and cooperative behaviors — positively influence behavior regardless of culture.

The study, the first of its kind, tested levels of empathy and helpfulness of thousands of children and adolescents in seven countries.

In combination, these studies show that the content of the video games youth play — prosocial or antisocial — determines their impact on real world behavior.

Source: Iowa State University


Boy playing a video game photo by shutterstock.

Mentally Tough Job Provides Cognitive Retirement Benefits

Wed, 03/26/2014 - 8:30am

Researchers have determined that although a mentally demanding job may lead to stress issues during a person’s working career, this type of vocation has a protective effect on mental health functioning later in life.

“Based on data spanning 18 years, our study suggests that certain kinds of challenging jobs have the potential to enhance and protect workers’ mental functioning in later life,” said Gwenith Fisher, Ph.D., a faculty associate at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

Investigators analyzed data on 4,182 participants in the University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study, which surveys a representative sample of more than 20,000 older Americans every two years.

Participants were interviewed about eight times between 1992 and 2010, starting when they were between the ages of 51 and 61. The interviewers discovered respondents worked in a wide variety of jobs and had been doing the same type of work for more than 25 years, on average, before they retired.

Fisher and colleagues examined the mental requirements of each job that participants reported having during that period.

These requirements included analyzing data, developing objectives and strategies, making decisions, solving problems, evaluating information, and thinking creatively.

Investigators also assessed participants’ mental functioning, using standard tests of episodic memory and mental status.

The tests included recalling a list of 10 nouns immediately after seeing it and also after a time delay, and counting backwards from 100 by sevens.

In addition, the researchers controlled for participants’ health, symptoms of depression, economic status and demographic characteristics, including years of education.

They found that people who had worked in jobs with greater mental demands were more likely to have better memories before they retired and more likely to have slower declines in memory after retiring than people who had worked in jobs with fewer mental demands.

The differences at the time of retirement were not large, but they grew over time.

“These results suggest that working in an occupation that requires a variety of mental processes may be beneficial to employees,” said Jessica Faul, Ph.D., an assistant research scientist.

“It’s likely that being exposed to new experiences or more mentally complex job duties may benefit not only newer workers but more seasoned employees as well,” she said.

“Employers should strive to increase mental engagement at work and, if possible, outside of work as well, by emphasizing lifelong learning activities.”

“The study did not establish causal relations between mental work demands and cognitive change after retirement,” the researchers said, “so it could be the case that people with higher levels of mental functioning picked jobs with more mental demands. But the study did control for formal education and income.”

“What people do outside of work could also be a factor,” Fisher said.

“Some people may be very active in hobbies and other activities that are mentally stimulating and demanding, while others are not.”

The study can be found in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.

Source: University of Michigan

Virtual Reality Therapy May Reduce PTSD Symptoms

Wed, 03/26/2014 - 7:45am

A new study evaluates the use of virtual reality (VR) treatment for relief of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Posttraumatic stress disorder is common among military veterans and is often accompanied by anxiety, depression, and psychological and emotional impairment. The combined effect of the disorders can dramatically influence quality of life.

Researchers studied a type of VR treatment called Graded Exposure Therapy (GET), finding that the therapy can improve PTSD symptoms and may also have a positive impact on related disorders.

The article is published in the peer-reviewed journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.

VR-GET helps sufferers of PTSD confront their trauma-related fears. The approach helps people face rather than avoid their fears by exposing them to simulated stress-inducing events in a controlled, virtual reality environment.

Physiologic responses are monitored while the intervention is performed and training is then provided to help the person develop coping skills.

“Our results indicate improvement of PTSD with VR-GET based on three different measures: neuropsychological, self-report, and clinician-administered scales,” said researcher Brenda K. Wiederhold, Ph.D., M.B.A.

Source: Mary Ann Liebert

Teens, Young Men Recount Sexual Abuse by Women

Wed, 03/26/2014 - 7:00am

A new study reveals that a large proportion of teenage boys and college men report having been coerced into sex or sexual behavior.

As published online in the journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity, researchers from the University of Missouri discovered 43 percent of high school boys and young college men reported they had an unwanted sexual experience and of those, 95 percent said a female acquaintance was the aggressor.

“Sexual victimization continues to be a pervasive problem in the United States, but the victimization of men is rarely explored,” said lead author Bryana H. French, Ph.D.

“Our findings can help lead to better prevention by identifying the various types of coercion that men face and by acknowledging women as perpetrators against men.”

Of 284 U.S. high school and college students who responded to a survey about unwanted sexual encounters, 18 percent reported sexual coercion by physical force; 31 percent said they were verbally coerced; 26 percent described unwanted seduction by sexual behaviors; and 7 percent said they were compelled after being given alcohol or drugs, according to the study.

Half of the students said they ended up having intercourse, 10 percent reported an attempt to have intercourse, and 40 percent said the result was kissing or fondling.

Being coerced into having sexual intercourse was related to risky sexual behaviors and more drinking among the victims, and students who were sexually coerced while drunk or drugged showed significant distress, according to the findings.

However, having unwanted sex did not appear to affect the victims’ self-esteem.

“It may be the case that sexual coercion by women doesn’t affect males’ self-perceptions in the same way that it does when women are coerced. Instead it may inadvertently be consistent with expectations of masculinity and sexual desire, though more research is needed to better understand this relationship,” French said.

The type and frequency of sexual coercion varied according to the victims’ ethnicity. Asian-American students reported significantly fewer sexual coercion experiences compared with the other groups.

Whites reported a significantly greater proportion of coercion that resulted in attempted sex compared to multiracial victims. In the written descriptions, significantly more Latinos reported sexual coercion, at 40 percent compared with 8 percent of Asian-Americans, 19 percent of whites and 22 percent of African-American students.

The study participants consisted of 54 high school teens and 230 college students, ages 14 to 26. High school students completed the surveys on paper in the classroom. College students completed them electronically or in the classroom.

Among the high school students, 42 percent were white, 17 percent black, 15 percent Asian-American, 15 percent Latino, and 11 percent multiracial. The college students were 46 percent white, 21 percent black, 18 percent Asian-American, 10 percent Latino, and 5 percent multiracial.

To differentiate sexual coercion from possible incidents of child abuse, the survey instructed students not to include experiences with family members. Examples of coercion included “My partner threatened to stop seeing me” for verbal; “My partner encouraged me to drink alcohol and then took advantage of me” for substance; “My partner threatened to use or did use a weapon” for physical; and “My partner has tried to interest me by sexually touching but I was not interested” for seduction.

For additional information, researchers also asked participants to describe in writing a time they felt sexually coerced. The participants also responded to several commonly used psychological assessments to measure their psychological functioning, distress, and risky behaviors.

“The findings revealed a need for more scientific study of the thin line between sexual seduction and sexual coercion,” the authors wrote.

“While not typically addressed in sexual violence research, unwanted seduction was a particularly pervasive form of sexual coercion in this study, as well as peer pressure and a victim’s own sense of an obligation.

“Seduction was a particularly salient and potentially unique form of coercion for teenage boys and young men when compared to their female counterparts,” French said.

Source: American Psychological Association

Adult Day-Care Improves Caregivers Beneficial Stress Hormones

Wed, 03/26/2014 - 6:15am

Researchers have discovered that family caregivers show an increase in a beneficial stress hormone on days when they use an adult day care service for their relatives with dementia.

The hormone, Dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEA-S), controls the harmful effects of cortisol and is associated with better long-term health.

“This is one of the first studies to show that DHEA-S can be modified by an intervention, which in our case, was the use of an adult day care service,” said Steven Zarit, a Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) professor.

“The study is also one of the first to demonstrate that interventions to lower stress on caregivers, such as the use of adult day care services, have an effect on the body’s biological responses to stress.

“We know that caregivers are at increased risk of illness, because of the long hours of care they provide and the high levels of stress.

“These findings suggest that use of adult day care services may protect caregivers against the harmful effects of stress associated with giving care to someone with dementia.”

The researchers studied 151 caregivers of family members with dementia who attend an adult day care service at least two days a week.

For the study, caregivers collected their own saliva five times each day for eight consecutive days. They kept these saliva samples refrigerated until they could be shipped back to the laboratory.

During the evenings of each of the eight days, interviewers from the Penn State Survey Research Center called the participants and asked them about the daily stressors they had encountered as well as their mood.

The team’s results suggest that caregivers of family members with dementia who use adult day care services at least two times a week have increased DHEA-S levels on the day following the adult day service visit.

Study findings are published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

“Prior research has found that higher DHEA-S levels are protective against the physiological damaging effects of stressor exposure and may reduce risks of illness,” Zarit said.

“We have found that regular use of adult day care services may help reduce depletion of DHEA-S and allow the body to mount a protective and restorative response to the physiological demands of caregiving.

“These results suggest the value of broadening the focus of caregiver interventions to include their impact on relevant biological risk factors associated with chronic stress and disease.”

Source: Penn State

Sleep Prescription Helps Manage Metabolic Disorders

Wed, 03/26/2014 - 5:30am

Emerging research suggests that insufficient or disturbed sleep is associated with metabolic disorders such as type II diabetes and obesity.

This finding has led experts to believe addressing poor quality sleep should be a target for the prevention — and even treatment — of these disorders.

Study authors have published their findings in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology journal.

“Metabolic health, in addition to genetic predisposition, is largely dependent on behavioral factors such as dietary habits and physical activity.

“In the past few years, sleep loss as a disorder characterizing the 24-hour lifestyle of modern societies has increasingly been shown to represent an additional behavioral factor adversely affecting metabolic health,” write the authors.

Researchers believe that addressing some types of sleep disturbance — such as sleep apnea — may have a directly beneficial effect on patients’ metabolic health.

However, a more common problem is people simply not getting enough sleep, particularly due to the increased use of devices such as portable gaming devices and tablets.

Furthermore, disruption of the body’s natural sleeping and waking cycle have been clearly associated with poor metabolic health, increased incidence of chronic illnesses, and early mortality.

Although a number of epidemiological studies point to a clear association between poor quality sleep and metabolic disorders, until recently, the reason for this association was not clear.

However, experimental studies are starting to provide evidence that there is a direct causal link between loss of sleep and the body’s ability to metabolize glucose, control food intake, and maintain its energy balance.

According to the study authors, “These findings open up new strategies for targeted interventions aimed at the present epidemic of the metabolic syndrome and related diseases.

“Ongoing and future studies will show whether interventions to improve sleep duration and quality can prevent or even reverse adverse metabolic traits.”

Experts believe the findings clearly suggest that health care professionals should motivate their patients to enjoy sufficient sleep at the right time of day.

Source: The Lancet

Physically Active Mothers = Physically Active Kids

Tue, 03/25/2014 - 7:45am

A new study from the UK discovers the physical activity pattern of a young child mirrors the actions of their mother.

Experts have known that parents are strong influences in the lives of young children with patterns of behavior established in the early years laying the foundation for future choices. The new study now links a child’s activity pattern to their mother’s exercise habits.

Researchers used activity monitors to obtain accurate information on the physical activity levels of more than 500 mothers and pre-schoolers.

Results showed that the amount of activity that a mother and her child did each day was closely related.

Overall, maternal activity levels were strikingly low: only 53 percent of mothers engaged in 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity at least once a week.

The UK government recommends achieving 150 minutes of at least moderate intensity physical activity (such as brisk walking) over the week as one of the ways of achieving its physical activity guidelines.

As published in the peer-reviewed journal Pediatrics, the study suggests that, given the link between mothers and young children, policies to improve children’s health should be directed to whole families and seek to engage mothers in particular.

Cambridge University researchers say the study is the first to show a direct association in a large sample of mothers and children, both fitted with activity monitors at the same time. It shows that young children are not “just naturally active” and that parents have an important role to play in the development of healthy activity habits early on in life.

The research also provides important evidence for policy makers to inform programs that promote physical activity in families with young children. Its findings suggest that all family members can benefit from such efforts.

It is well established that physical activity is closely linked to health and disease prevention. Research shows that active mothers appear to have active school-aged children, who are in turn more likely than their less active peers to have good health outcomes.

The Study

The research is a component of a major longitudinal study initiated in the late 1990s following women who were first interviewed in their 20s and 30s — many of whom subsequently gave birth. From this study, researchers reviewed 554 women and their four-year-old children.

Many mothers were working and many of the children attended day-care facilities — factors that influenced activity levels of both mothers and children, as well as the association between the two. Other potential influences on maternal activity examined in the study included maternal education, whether the child had siblings, and whether his or her father was present at home.

Researchers fitted both mothers and youngsters with Actiheart monitors (combined accelerometer and heart rate monitor) to record with a high degree of accuracy their physical activity levels for up to a week.

“We used an activity monitor that was attached to participants and worn continuously, even during sleep and water-based activity,” said co-author Esther van Sluijs, Ph.D.

“This approach allowed us to capture accurately both mothers’ and children’s physical activity levels for the whole of the measurement period, matching hour for hour maternal-child activity levels. This comparison provided us with detailed information about how the association between mothers and children’s activity changed throughout the day, and how factors such as childcare attendance and maternal education influenced this relationship.”

The activity levels of parent and child were, for the first time, recorded over whole daytime periods for up to seven days. The resulting data allowed the researchers to plot physical activity throughout the day and over the course of an entire week to see how activities varied across the day and how weekday activity levels compared with weekend activity levels.

The data from mother and child were matched up to see if and how the activity patterns of adults and children correlated.

Study Results

“We saw a direct, positive association between physical activity in children and their mothers — the more activity a mother did, the more active her child. Although it is not possible to tell from this study whether active children were making their mothers run around after them, it is likely that activity in one of the pair influences activity in the other,” said researcher and doctoral student Kathryn Hesketh.

“For every minute of moderate-to-vigorous activity a mother engaged in, her child was more likely to engage in 10% more of the same level of activity. If a mother was one hour less sedentary per day, her child may have spent 10 minutes less sedentary per day. Such small minute-by-minute differences may therefore represent a non-trivial amount of activity over the course of a week, month, and year.”

“Our study shows that the relationship between mother and child activity is moderated by demographic and time factors,” said van Sluijs. “For example, for moderate-to-vigorous activity, the relationship was stronger for mothers who left school aged 16 compared to those who left aged 18 or more.

“The association also differed by time of week, with light activity, such as walking, most strongly associated at weekends than on weekdays. The opposite was observed for moderate-to-vigorous activity which was more strongly associated on weekdays.”

The research adds a further dimension to what is already known about levels of physical activity in children and adults.

Despite strong evidence of the benefits of exercise, activity levels decrease through childhood and into adulthood. This decline extends into the childbearing years. New parents tend to be less active than peers without children and more likely to fail to meet recommended guidelines.

Once women become mothers their activity levels frequently fail to return to pre-parenthood levels and their relative lack of activity may influence that of their small children.

“There are many competing priorities for new parents and making time to be active may not always be top of the list,” said Hesketh. “However, small increases in maternal activity levels may lead to benefits for mothers and children. And if activity in mothers and children can be encouraged or incorporated into daily activities, so that more time is spent moving, activity levels are likely to increase in both.

“In return, this is likely to have long-term health benefits for both,” she said.

Source: University of Cambridge

Mather and child bicycling doctor photo by shutterstock.

Striving for Fairness Can Burn Out Managers

Tue, 03/25/2014 - 7:00am

New research suggests fair bosses make their employees happier and their companies more productive, but may burn themselves out.

Michigan State University investigators found the act of carefully monitoring the fairness of workplace decisions wears down supervisors mentally and emotionally.

“Structured, rule-bound fairness, known as procedural justice, is a double-edged sword for managers,” said Russell E. Johnson, Ph.D., assistant professor of management.

“While beneficial for their employees and the organization, it’s an especially draining activity for managers. In fact, we found it had negative effects for managers that spilled over to the next workday.”

In the study, researchers surveyed 82 bosses twice a day for a few weeks. Managers who reported mental fatigue from situations involving procedural fairness were less cooperative and socially engaging with other workers the next day.

“Managers who are mentally fatigued are more prone to making mistakes and it is more difficult for them to control deviant or counterproductive impulses,” Johnson said.

“Several studies have even found that mentally fatigued employees are more likely to steal and cheat.”

Johnson said procedural justice is mentally fatiguing is because it requires managers to conform to particular fairness rules, such as suppressing personal biases, being consistent over time and across subordinates, and allowing subordinates to voice their concerns.

Employees may be concerned about not having personal input into a decision, skeptical about whether accurate information was used to make decisions, or resentful over not receiving the same consideration as another more favored employee.

“Essentially managers have to run around making sure their subordinates’ perceptions remain positive, whether the threat to the atmosphere of the workplace is real or imagined. Dealing with all of this uncertainty and ambiguity is depleting,” Johnson said.

“Managers who are fair cannot realistically avoid some burnout,” he added. “They just need to create situations in which they are better prepared to cope with the fatigue and overcome it.”

Tips for managers include getting sufficient sleep, taking short mental breaks during the workday, adhering to a healthy diet, and detaching from work completely when outside of the office — for example, not reading email or memos at home after 7 p.m.

The study has been published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Source: Michigan State University

Office manager photo by shutterstock.

Nasal Spray for Depression Found Effective in Animal Studies

Tue, 03/25/2014 - 6:15am

New research suggests a nasal spray that delivers a peptide may prove a new alternative therapy for depression care.

The investigation follows up on research by molecular neuroscientist Fang Liu, Ph.D., in which Liu developed a protein peptide that provided a highly targeted approach to treating depression that she hopes will have minimal side effects.

The peptide interacts with dopamine receptors and was found to be was just as effective in relieving symptoms when compared to a conventional antidepressant in animal testing.

However, the peptide had to be injected into the brain. Taken orally, it would not cross the blood-brain barrier in sufficient concentration.

The new study introduces the use of a nasal spray system to deliver the peptide to the right part of the brain.

“Clinically, we needed to find a non-invasive, convenient method to deliver this peptide treatment,” said Liu, senior scientist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

With the support of a Proof of Principle grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Liu’s team was able to further explore novel delivery methods.

The nasal delivery system, developed by U.S. company Impel NeuroPharma, was shown to deliver the peptide to the right part of the brain. It also relieved depression-like symptoms in animals.

The study is published online in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.

“This study marks the first time a peptide treatment has been delivered through nasal passageways to treat depression,” said Liu, professor in the University of Toronto’s Department of Psychiatry.

“The peptide treatment interferes with the binding of two dopamine receptors — the D1 and D2 receptor complex. Liu’s team had found that this binding was higher in the brains of people with major depression. Disrupting the binding led to the antidepressant effects,” she said.

The peptide is an entirely new approach to treating depression, which has previously relied on medications that primarily block serotonin or norepinephrine transporters.

Depression, the most common form of mental illness, is one of the leading causes of disability globally. More than 50 percent of people living with depression do not respond to first-line drug treatment.

“This research brings us one step closer to clinical trials,” Liu said.

In ongoing lab research, her team is experimenting to determine if they can make the peptide break down more slowly, and travel more quickly in the brain, to improve its antidepressant effects.

Source: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health

Stress Can Double Risk of Infertility

Tue, 03/25/2014 - 5:30am

A new study suggests that pre-conception stress may play a major factor in infertility.

This discover suggests a double bind, as having difficulty getting pregnant can be an incredibly stressful experience for any couple.

Researchers encourage women who are experiencing difficulty getting pregnant to consider managing their stress using stress reduction techniques such as yoga, meditation, and mindfulness.

As found online in the journal Human Reproduction, the findings build upon an earlier UK study that demonstrated an association between high levels of stress and a reduced probability of pregnancy.

Dr. Courtney Denning-Johnson Lynch, director of reproductive epidemiology at the Wexner Medical Center, found women with high levels of alpha-amylase — a biological indicator of stress measured in saliva — are 29 percent less likely to get pregnant each month.

They are also more than twice as likely to meet the clinical definition of infertility (remaining not pregnant despite 12 months of regular unprotected intercourse), compared to women with low levels of this protein enzyme.

In the study, researchers tracked 501 American women (as part of Longitudinal Investigation of Fertility and the Environment (LIFE) Study) between the ages 18 to 40 years who were free from known fertility problems and had just started trying to conceive. Researchers followed the women for 12 months or until they became pregnant.

Saliva samples were collected from participants the morning following enrollment and again the morning following the first day of their first study-observed menstrual cycle.

Specimens were available for 373 women and were measured for the presence of salivary alpha-amylase and cortisol, two biomarkers of stress.

“This is now the second study in which we have demonstrated that women with high levels of the stress biomarker salivary alpha-amylase have a lower probability of becoming pregnant, compared to women with low levels of this biomarker.

“For the first time, we’ve shown that this effect is potentially clinically meaningful, as it’s associated with a greater than two-fold increased risk of infertility among these women,” said Lynch, the principal investigator of the LIFE Study’s psychological stress protocol.

She said couples should not blame themselves if they are experiencing fertility problems, as stress is not the only or most important factor involved in a woman’s ability to get pregnant.

Germaine Buck Louis, Ph.D., the LIFE Study’s principal investigator, said, “Eliminating stressors before trying to become pregnant might shorten the time couples need to become pregnant in comparison to ignoring stress.

“The good news is that women most likely will know which stress reduction strategy works best for them, since a one-size-fits-all solution is not likely.”

Source: Ohio State University

Playing Video Game as Black Avatar May Up Aggression

Mon, 03/24/2014 - 7:00am

A new study observed the action of white video game players as they played violent games as a black avatar.

Researchers found the behavior disturbing, as white players acted more aggressively after the game is over, had stronger explicit negative attitudes toward blacks, and displayed stronger implicit attitudes linking blacks to weapons.

These results are the first to link avatar race in violent video games to later aggression, said Brad Bushman, Ph.D., co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University.

“And it raises another troubling impact that violent video games can have on players,” he said.

“Playing a violent video game as a black character reinforces harmful stereotypes that blacks are violent,” Bushman said.

“We found there are real consequences to having these stereotypes — it can lead to more aggressive behavior.”

The results appear online in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science and will be published in a future print edition.

The First Study

In the study, researchers performed two related experiments. In the first, 126 white university students (60 percent males) played the violent game “Saints Row 2.” They were randomly assigned to play the game either as a black or white male avatar.

Before the participants arrived, the researchers set up the game with the black or white avatar and rotated the game view so that the avatar was visible to the participant when he or she started playing.

The participants were assigned to play with a violent goal (break out of prison) or a nonviolent goal (find a chapel somewhere in the city without harming others).

Afterward, those who played with the violent goal and as a black avatar showed stronger explicit negative attitudes toward blacks than did those who played as a white avatar. For example, those who played as a black avatar were more likely to agree with the statement “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.”

But the negative attitudes weren’t just explicit. All participants took the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which is designed to reveal unconscious bias. During this test, researchers measure how quickly participants link a white or black face with a “good” word (joy, love, peace) or a “bad” word (terrible, horrible, evil).

If it takes a participant longer to link a black face to good words than it does to link a white face, then that is considered showing more negative attitudes toward blacks.

Results showed that participants who played the violent version of the game as a black avatar were more likely to associate black faces with negative words on the IAT than were those who played as a white avatar.

“The media have the power to perpetuate the stereotype that blacks are violent, and this is certainly seen in video games,” Bushman said.

“This violent stereotype may be more prevalent in video games than in any other form of media because being a black character in a video game is almost synonymous with being a violent character.”

This stereotype can affect people’s actions, as found in the second experiment.

The Second Study

In this study, 141 white college students (65 percent female) played one of two violent games: WWE Smackdown vs. RAW 2010 or Fight Night Round 4. These games both used a third-person perspective, allowing the player to see his or her avatar’s race throughout the game.

Again, participants were assigned to play as a black or a white avatar. After playing, the participants completed another version of the IAT, which took an implicit measure of the stereotype that blacks are violent. In this version, photos of black and white male and female faces were paired with photos of weapons or harmless objects like a cell phone or camera.

The students who played the game as a black avatar were more likely to associate black faces with weapons than were students who played as a white avatar.

But this study went further by finding that participants who played a violent game as a black avatar acted more aggressively against a partner than did those who played as a white avatar.

This part of the study involved a test that researchers have used since 1999 to measure aggression. Participants had the opportunity to force an unseen partner (who didn’t actually exist) to eat hot sauce after the partner revealed that he or she strongly disliked spicy food.

Those who played the violent game as a black avatar gave their partner 115 percent more hot sauce than did those who played as a white avatar.

In a statistical analysis, Bushman found that participants’ implicit attitudes that blacks are violent was linked to their actual aggressive behavior after the game was turned off.

“This suggests that playing a violent video game as a black avatar strengthens players’ attitudes that blacks are violent, which then influences them to behave more aggressively afterward,” he said.

Bushman noted that this study shows that it doesn’t always help white people to take the perspective of a black person.

“Usually, taking the perspective of a minority person is seen as a good thing, as a way to evoke empathy,” Bushman said.

“But if white people are fed a media diet that shows blacks as violent, they don’t have a realistic view of black people. It isn’t good to put yourself in the shoes of a murderer, as you do in many of these violent games.”

Source: Ohio State University

Video game avatar photo by shutterstock.

9/11 First Responders At Risk For PTSD, Sleep Apnea

Mon, 03/24/2014 - 6:15am

New research discovers the particulate manner inhaled by 9/11 first responders increases the risk of obstructed sleep apnea and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), both conditions that may impact cardiovascular health.

Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai researchers presented two separate studies at a recent American Heart Association’s conference.

“Our study shows high exposure to the massive dust cloud of air pollution at Ground Zero has increased the risk among first responders of both obstructive sleep apnea and PTSD,” said cardiologist Mary Ann McLaughlin, M.D., M.P.H.

McLaughlin is the principal investigator for the WTC-CHEST Program at Mount Sinai evaluating the effects of exposure in World Trade Center (WTC) responders 10-14 years following the events of 9/11.

“As a result, this puts our 9/11 first responders at higher risk of developing heart disease,” she said.

Police, firefighters, and others at Ground Zero were exposed to varying levels of a dust cloud of air filled with cement dust, smoke, glass fibers, and heavy metals.

The WTC-CHEST Program at Mount Sinai has previously linked this particulate matter exposure to lung, heart, and kidney disease abnormalities.

Now the research team’s studies found further research evidence linking sleep apnea and PTSD to exposure of the 9/11 particulate matter.

In each of the two analyses, researchers studied the same WTC-CHEST Program population of more than 800 participants between January 2011 to September 2013 with varying exposure to particulate matter ranging from very high, high, intermediate, and low. Their analysis took into account each first responder’s time of arrival, proximity, duration and level of exposure at Ground Zero.

“Elevated exposure to the particulate matter from 9/11 caused upper airway inflammation and is a significant contributing factor to the pathogenesis of obstructive sleep apnea,” McLaughlin said.

“There is strong evidence in our study data showing a significant risk of inhaled particulate matter exposure and risk of obstructed sleep apnea in the studied group of WTC first responders.”

In addition, researchers linked particulate matter inhalation to the high risk of PTSD. Study results show those with very high or high exposure were more likely to have PTSD.

Also, they found that those responders with PTSD also had elevated biomarkers for increased cardiovascular disease risk including high sensitivity C-reactive protein (hsCRP), a key biomarker of inflammation indicative of increased cardiovascular risk.

Those WTC responders with PTSD had significantly higher hsCRP levels.

“High levels of exposure to particulate matter may lead to sleep apnea and PTSD, and as a result a high risk factor for cardiovascular disease,” said McLaughlin. “As a result of our new study findings, we plan to further closely monitor our WTC first responders for heart disease warning signs.”

This research study was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The studies seek to further examine the relationship between pulmonary and cardiac function abnormalities, other markers of chronic cardiopulmonary disease, kidney dysfunction, and further elucidate the pathophysiologic effects of exposure to inhaled particulate matter on 9/11.

Source: Mount Sinai School of Medicine

Firefighter photo by shutterstock.

Could Mushrooms Lead to New Depression Treatments?

Mon, 03/24/2014 - 5:30am

New research using brain imaging technology helps to clarify how psilocybin — the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms — affects the brain, perhaps paving the way for therapeutic use of the substance as an adjunct to psychotherapy.

Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London, the first author of two new papers, said, “Psilocybin was used extensively in psychotherapy in the 1950s, but the biological rationale for its use has not been properly investigated until now.”

The Study

In the first study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 30 healthy volunteers had psilocybin infused into their blood while inside magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners, which measure changes in brain activity.

The scans showed that activity decreased in “hub” regions of the brain, areas that are especially well-connected with other areas.

The second study, published online by the British Journal of Psychiatry, found that psilocybin enhanced volunteers’ recollections of personal memories, which the researchers suggest could make it useful as an adjunct to psychotherapy.

Dr. David Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology and senior author of both studies, said, “Psychedelics are thought of as ‘mind-expanding’ drugs so it has commonly been assumed that they work by increasing brain activity, but surprisingly, we found that psilocybin actually caused activity to decrease in areas that have the densest connections with other areas.

“These hubs constrain our experience of the world and keep it orderly. We now know that deactivating these regions leads to a state in which the world is experienced as strange.”

The intensity of the effects reported by the participants, including visions of geometric patterns, unusual bodily sensations, and altered sense of space and time, correlated with a decrease in oxygenation and blood flow in certain parts of the brain.

The function of these areas, the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), is the subject of debate among neuroscientists, but the PCC is proposed to have a role in consciousness and self-identity.

The mPFC is known to be hyperactive in depression, so psilocybin’s action on this area could be responsible for some antidepressant effects that have been reported.

Similarly, psilocybin reduced blood flow in the hypothalamus, where blood flow is increased during cluster headaches, perhaps explaining why some sufferers have said symptoms improved under psilocybin.

In the BJP study, 10 volunteers viewed written cues that prompted them to think about memories associated with strong positive emotions while inside the brain scanner.

The participants rated their recollections as being more vivid after taking psilocybin compared with a placebo, and with psilocybin there was increased activity in areas of the brain that process vision and other sensory information.

Participants were also asked to rate changes in their emotional wellbeing two weeks after taking the psilocybin and placebo.

Their ratings of memory vividness under the drug showed a significant positive correlation with wellbeing two weeks afterwards.

In a previous study of 12 people in 2011, researchers found that people with anxiety who were given a single psilocybin treatment had decreased depression scores six months later.

“Our findings support the idea that psilocybin facilitates access to personal memories and emotions,” Carhart-Harris said.

Research Findings

Previous studies have suggested that psilocybin can improve people’s sense of emotional wellbeing and even reduce depression in people with anxiety.

“This is consistent with our finding that psilocybin decreases mPFC activity, as many effective depression treatments do. The effects need to be investigated further, and ours was only a small study, but we are interested in exploring psilocybin’s potential as a therapeutic tool,” he said.

Nevertheless, the researchers acknowledged that because the participants in this study had volunteered after having previous experience of psychedelics, they may have held prior assumptions about the drugs which could have contributed to the positive memory rating and the reports of improved wellbeing in the follow-up

Functional MRI measures brain activity indirectly by mapping blood flow or the oxygen levels in the blood. When an area becomes more active, it uses more glucose, but generates energy in rapid chemical reactions that do not use oxygen.

Consequently, blood flow increases but oxygen consumption does not, resulting in a higher concentration of oxygen in blood in the local veins.

In the PNAS study, the volunteers were split into two groups, each studied using a different type of fMRI: 15 were scanned using arterial spin labeling (ASL) perfusion fMRI, which measures blood flow, and 15 using blood-oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) fMRI.

The two modalities produced similar results, strongly suggesting that the observed effects were genuine.

The studies were carried out using protocol for licensed storeage and handling of a schedule I drug and were approved by NHS research ethics committees.

All the volunteers were mentally and physically healthy and had taken hallucinogenic drugs previously without any adverse response.

The research involved scientists from Imperial, the University of Bristol and Cardiff University and was funded by the Beckley Foundation, the Neuropsychoanalysis Foundation, Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, and the Heffter Research Institute.

Source: Imperial College
Magic mushroom photo by shutterstock.