Tri-County Services

In The News

Syndicate content
Psychology, psychiatry and mental health news and research findings, every weekday.
Updated: 1 hour 40 min ago

Genetics May Make It Hard to Eat Healthy

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 7:45am

Emerging research may explain why it is difficult to avoid eating certain foods, even when you know they are not good for you.

Gene variants that affect the way our brain works may be the reason, according to a new study. The new research could one day lead to new strategies to empower people to enjoy and stick to their optimal diets.

The study was at the American Society for Nutrition Scientific Sessions and annual meeting during the Experimental Biology 2017 meeting.

“Most people have a hard time modifying their dietary habits, even if they know it is in their best interest,” said Silvia Berciano, a predoctoral fellow at the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid.

“This is because our food preferences and ability to work toward goals or follow plans affect what we eat and our ability to stick with diet changes. Ours is the first study describing how brain genes affect food intake and dietary preferences in a group of healthy people.”

Although previous research has identified genes involved with behaviors seen in eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, little is known about how natural variation in these genes could affect eating behaviors in healthy people.

Gene variation is a result of subtle DNA differences among individuals that make each person unique.

For the new study, the researchers analyzed the genetics of 818 men and women of European ancestry and gathered information about their diet using a questionnaire. The researchers found that the genes they studied did play a significant role in a person’s food choices and dietary habits.

For example, higher chocolate intake and a larger waist size was associated with certain forms of the oxytocin receptor gene, and an obesity-associated gene played a role in vegetable and fiber intake.

They also observed that certain genes were involved in salt and fat intake.

The new findings could be used to inform precision-medicine approaches that help minimize a person’s risk for common diseases — such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer — by tailoring diet-based prevention and therapy to the specific needs of an individual.

“The knowledge gained through our study will pave the way to better understanding of eating behavior and facilitate the design of personalized dietary advice that will be more amenable to the individual, resulting in better compliance and more successful outcomes,” said Berciano.

The researchers plan to perform similar investigations in other groups of people with different characteristics and ethnicities to better understand the applicability and potential impact of these findings.

Source: Universidad Autonoma de Madrid/EurekAlert
 
Photo: Credit: Adriano Kitani.

Opioid Addicts in Primary Care 10 Times More Likely to Die

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 7:00am

A new study finds that people with opioid addiction who received medical care through a general health care system, such as a primary care practitioner or a large research hospital, were more than 10 times as likely to die during a four-year period than those without substance abuse problems.

The study is the first to focus on the mortality rate of people with opioid use disorder in a general health care system rather than those being treated at specialty addiction clinics. The mortality rate among patients in a general health care setting was more than two times higher than what previous studies found in specialty clinics.

The findings suggest that health care systems need better infrastructure and training so that primary care physicians can diagnose and treat opioid use disorder, a condition that includes addiction to both prescription and illicit opioids.

“The high rates of death among patients with opioid use disorder in a general health care system reported in this study suggest we need strategies to improve detection and treatment of this disorder in primary care settings,” said Dr. Yih-Ing Hser, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Opioids are commonly prescribed to treat acute and chronic pain, and include prescription medications such as oxycodone (or OxyContin), hydrocodone (or Vicodin), codeine, morphine and fentanyl, as well as illicit substances such as heroin.

The number of opioid overdoses in the United States has quadrupled since 1999, leading many physicians and policymakers to declare the opioid problem a national crisis. The 21st Century Cures Act, legislation signed in December by former President Barack Obama, included one billion in funding to help states address opioid abuse.

As rates of opioid addiction have increased, people with opioid abuse problems increasingly are being treated by generalists in doctors’ offices. Until now, researchers had not measured the impact of this influx of patients with opioid abuse and addiction in primary care settings.

For the study, Hser and colleagues looked at the electronic health records, and an associated death index system, for 2,576 people, ages 18 to 64, diagnosed with opioid use disorder from 2006 to 2014.

These patients received health care at a major university hospital system. While all of those studied had diagnoses of opioid use disorder, not all were receiving treatment.

By the end of the study period, 18.1 percent of the study population (465 people) had died. Based on how long each individual had participated in the study — an average of about four years for each person — the researchers calculated a crude mortality rate of 48.6 deaths per 1,000 person-years. This is more than two times higher than the 20.9 deaths per 1,000 reported in earlier research conducted in specialty addiction clinics.

The rate was also more than 10 times higher than the expected death rate for people of the same age and sex in the general U.S. population.

“The findings were surprising because one would potentially expect better health care outcomes for patients being served by a large health care system,” Hser said. “Late identification of opioid use disorder and lack of addiction treatment could contribute to these high rates of serious health conditions and death.”

Overall, the patients in the new study were older at diagnosis and had a higher rate of other diseases and disorders compared to patients in previous studies from specialty clinics. The researchers found higher rates of both simultaneously occurring health complications — including hepatitis C, liver disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes — as well as other substance abuse disorders involving tobacco, alcohol, cannabis, and cocaine — among the patients who died.

Black or uninsured individuals were also more likely to die during the study period, the researchers said, a finding they noted highlights the need for additional research on disparities in addiction care.

More studies are needed, say the researchers, to determine how to best curb the mortality rates among all individuals with opioid use disorder and better integrate substance abuse disorder screening and treatment into primary care.

The findings are published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine.

Source: UCLA

How Poor Sleep Hinders Those With Anxiety & Depression

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 6:15am

Sleep deficits can make focusing, finishing assignments, and coping with everyday stress seem daunting. To make matters worse, people with anxiety and depression often have sleep problems.

To date, little has been known about whether or how their poor sleep affects a specific region of the brain known to be involved in regulating negative emotional responses. But a new study from the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine finds that the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex may have to work harder to overcome negative emotional responses in people with poor sleep who have depression or anxiety.

The finding is reported in the journal Depression and Anxiety.

The research team, led by Heide Klumpp, assistant professor of psychiatry at University of Illinois, used functional MRI to measure the activity in different regions of the brain as subjects were challenged with an emotion-regulation task.

Participants were shown disturbing images of violence — from war or accidents — and were asked to simply look at the images and not to try to control their reaction or to “reappraise” what they saw in a more positive light.

An example of reappraisal would be to see an image of a woman with a badly bruised face and imagine her as an actress in makeup for a role, rather than as a survivor of violence, Klumpp said.

“Reappraisal is something that requires significant mental energy,” she said.

“In people with depression or anxiety, reappraisal can be even more difficult, because these disorders are characterized by chronic negativity or negative rumination, which makes seeing the good in things difficult.”

The participants — 78 patients, 18 to 65 years of age, who had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, a major depressive disorder, or both — also completed a questionnaire to assess their sleep over the previous month.

A motion-sensing device called an actigraph measured their awake time in bed, or “sleep efficiency,” over a six-day period. The questionnaire results indicated that three out of four participants met criteria for significant sleep disturbance, and the actigraph results suggested the majority had insomnia.

Participants who reported poorer sleep on the questionnaire were seen to have less brain activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex during the reappraisal task, while those with lower sleep efficiency based on the actigraph data had higher activity in the DACC.

“Because the questionnaire and actigraph measure different aspects of the sleep experience, it is not surprising that brain activity also differed between these measures,” said Klumpp.

“The questionnaire asks about sleep over the previous month, and answers can be impacted by current mood. Plus, respondents may not be able to accurately remember how they slept a month ago. The actigraph objectively measures current sleep, so the results from both measurements may not match.”

“Higher DACC activity in participants with lower levels of sleep efficiency could mean the DACC is working harder to carry out the demanding work of reappraisal,” Klumpp said.

“Our research indicates sleep might play an important role in the ability to regulate negative emotions in people who suffer from anxiety or depression.”

Source: University of Illinois, Chicago

Best Friends Can Be Critical to Meeting Life’s Challenges

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 5:30am

Life always has ups and downs. Modern research has focused on resiliency and the factors that help people cope when things go the wrong way.

A new U.K. study now finds that friendships play a vital role in helping people get through substantial challenges in life.

Until now, little research has been carried out into the role friends and, in particular, best friends play in building resilience to adversity — surviving and thriving in the face of difficult times.

The new preliminary study by Dr. Rebecca Graber, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Brighton, provides long-term statistical evidence of the enormous benefit these valued social relationships have on adults.

Graber, who carried out the research while at the University of Leeds, recruited 185 adults through online social networking sites, university events, and community organizations supporting socially-isolated adults. Some 75 adults completed the questionnaire.

Participants completed assessments on psychological resilience, best friendship quality, coping behaviors, and self-esteem. Participants then completed the same assessments one year later, to see how best friendship quality had impacted resilience processes over this period.

Graber said, “These findings reveal that best friendships are a protective mechanism supporting the development of psychological resilience in adults, although the mechanisms for this relationship remain unclear.

“The study provides long-term statistical evidence, for the first time, of the vital role of these valued social relationships for developing resilience in a community-based adult sample, while posing open questions for just how best friendships facilitate resilience in this way.”

These findings support Graber’s previous research that revealed the importance of best friends to facilitate resiliency among socioeconomically vulnerable children.

Source: British Psychology Society/EurekAlert

Circadian Body Temp May Hold Clues to Consciousness Levels in Brain Injury Patients

Sun, 04/23/2017 - 8:45am

The body’s circadian rhythm may play a crucial role in the recovery of consciousness in patients with severe brain injuries, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Surrey in England and the University of Salzburg in Austria.

Our circadian rhythm is an approximate 24-hour cycle regulated by the body’s internal clock that determines several physiological processes in the body, including our core body temperature, which tends to fluctuate throughout the day.

“Prior to our study little was known about the circadian rhythms of patients with brain injuries,” said co-researcher Dr. Nayantara Santhi from the Surrey Sleep Research Centre at the University of Surrey.

“What we have learnt is that the circadian body temperature holds vital clues to the state of consciousness of patients which could potentially enable doctors to tailor medical treatment more effectively. Circadian rhythms hold the secret to the workings of the body and we will be looking further into this in future research.”

For the study, the researchers examined circadian body temperature variations in 18 patients with severe brain injuries. They used four external skin sensors to monitor the circadian rhythm, which was found to range between 23.5 hours and 26.3 hours.

The level of consciousness of each patient was evaluated through the Coma Recovery Scale-Revised, which measures responsiveness to sound or a patient’s ability to spontaneously open eyes without or only with stimulation by the examiner.

The study shows that patients who scored better on the Coma Recovery Scale-Revised, especially those with a stronger arousal, had body temperature patterns more closely aligned with a healthy 24-hour rhythm.

The results demonstrate a relationship between circadian body temperature variation and the level of consciousness of a patient with severe brain damage. This new finding suggests that a patient’s consciousness levels should be assessed during time windows when their circadian rhythm predicts they will be more responsive.

The researchers also investigated the effects of bright light stimulation on patients with severe brain injuries. To measure its effectiveness, eight patients received bright light stimulation, three times per day for one hour over the course of one week.

After one week, improvements were found in the levels of consciousness of two patients, whose conditions improved from vegetative state/unresponsive wakefulness to a minimally conscious state. A shift in circadian body temperature, closer to a healthy 24-hour rhythm was also recorded in both patients.

“Our study suggests that the closer the body temperature patterns of a severely brain injured person are to those of a healthy person’s circadian rhythm, the better they scored on tests of recovery from coma, especially when looking at arousal, which is necessary for consciousness,” said lead author Dr. Christine Blume from the University of Salzburg.

“Circadian variations is something doctors should keep in mind when diagnosing patients, especially the time of the day when patients are tested could be crucial. Also, it may be important to create an environment that mimics the normal light-dark cycle to support a healthy circadian rhythm.”

The study is published in the journal Neurology.

Source: University of Surrey

ID’ing Specific Foreign Accent Helps Brain Process Language

Sun, 04/23/2017 - 8:00am

Our brains process foreign-accented speech with greater accuracy if we can correctly identify the specific accent we are listening to, according to new neurocognitive research conducted at Pennsylvania State University.

The findings are published in the Journal of Neurolinguistics.

“Increased familiarity with an accent leads to better sentence processing,” said Dr. Janet van Hell, professor of psychology and linguistics and co-director of the Center for Language Science at Penn State. “As you build up experience with foreign-accented speech, you train your acoustic system to better process the accented speech.”

Van Hell is a native of the Netherlands where the majority of people are bilingual in Dutch and English. She noticed that when she moved to central Pennsylvania that her spoken interactions with others seemed to change.

“My speaker identity changed,” said van Hell. “I suddenly had a foreign accent, and I noticed that people were hearing me differently, that my interactions with people had changed because of my foreign accent. And I wanted to know why that is, scientifically.”

The study involved 39 college-aged, monolingual, native English speakers with little exposure to foreign accents. The researchers asked participants to listen to sentences while they recorded their brain activity through an electroencephalogram. The listeners heard sentences spoken in both a neutral American-English accent and a Chinese-English accent.

The participants were then tested on overall sentence comprehension and were asked to indicate whether they heard any grammar or vocabulary errors.

The researchers tested grammar comprehension using personal pronouns, which are missing from the Chinese language, in sentences like “Thomas was planning to attend the meeting but she missed the bus to school.”

They also tested vocabulary usage by substituting words far apart in meaning into simple sentences, such as using “cactus” in place of “airplane,” in sentences like “Kaitlyn traveled across the ocean in a cactus to attend the conference.”

Overall, the participants were able to correctly identify both grammar and vocabulary errors in the American- and Chinese-accented speech at a similarly high level on a behavioral accuracy task, an average of 90 percent accuracy for both accents.

However, although average accuracy was high, the researchers found that the listeners’ brain responses differed between the two accents.

When comparing the EEG activity to the questionnaire responses, the findings reveal that listeners who correctly identified the accent as Chinese-English responded to both grammar and vocabulary errors and had the same responses for both foreign and native accents.

However, participants who did not correctly identify the Chinese-English accent only responded to vocabulary errors, but not grammar errors, when made in foreign-accented speech. Native-accented speech produced responses for both types of error.

Van Hell plans to conduct further research on how our brains process differences in regional accents and dialects in our native language, looking specifically at dialects across Appalachia, and how we process foreign-accented speech while living in a foreign-speaking country.

The world is becoming more global, said van Hell, and it is time to learn how our brains process foreign-accented speech and learn more about fundamental neurocognitive mechanisms of foreign-accented speech recognition.

“At first you might be surprised or startled by foreign-accented speech,” van Hell said, “but your neurocognitive system is able to adjust quickly with just a little practice, the same as identifying speech in a loud room. Our brains are much more flexible than we give them credit for.”

Van Hell conducted the study with her colleague Dr. Sarah Grey, former Penn State postdoctoral researcher and now assistant professor of modern languages and literature at Fordham University.

Source: Penn State

Men May Tell Sexist, Anti-Gay Jokes To Reaffirm Masculinity

Sun, 04/23/2017 - 7:15am

Why do some men tell sexist and anti-gay jokes or find them funny?

According to new research, these disparaging jokes are a way for some men to reaffirm their shaky sense of self, especially when they feel their masculinity is being threatened.

Disparaging humor is often about enhancing one’s own social identity by positively distinguishing your “in-group” from the disparaged “out-group,” according to researcher Emma O’Connor of the Western Carolina University.

For the study, which was published in Springer’s journal Sex Roles, the researchers  conducted two experiments involving 387 heterosexual men.

Participants completed online questionnaires designed to test their social attitudes and personalities, and their prejudice levels and antagonism against gay men and women. The types of humor they preferred were tested, and whether the men believed their take on humor would help others form a more accurate impression about them.

The findings suggest that sexist and anti-gay jokes provide self-affirmation to men who possess more precarious manhood beliefs. This is especially the case when they feel that their masculinity, as defined by the typical gender norms assigned to men, is being challenged or threatened, according to the researchers.

“Men higher in precarious manhood beliefs expressed amusement with sexist and anti-gay humor in response to a masculinity threat because they believe it reaffirms an accurate, more masculine impression of them,” O’Connor said. “It appears that by showing amusement with sexist and anti-gay humor, such men can distance themselves from the traits they want to disconfirm.”

The researchers hope the findings will help create a better understanding about the kinds of situations in which sexist and anti-gay jokes occur, and ultimately prevent this humor from being used, for instance, in the workplace.

“Work settings where women occupy positions of authority might inherently trigger masculinity threats for men higher in precarious manhood beliefs and thus sexist joking,” said O’Connor, who noted that sexist jokes and teasing are the most common forms of sexual harassment that women experience in the workplace.

“Given the social protection afforded to humor as a medium for communicating disparagement, it is possible that men use sexist humor in the workplace as a ‘safe’ way to reaffirm their threatened masculinity.”

She said anagers who understand how and why this happens are able to more effectively handle and even prevent incidences of sexist humor.

“For instance, they might more closely monitor workplace settings that could trigger masculinity threats and subsequent sexist joking, or they might attempt to reduce the extent to which men perceive masculinity threats in those settings in the first place,” she said.

Source: Springer

Soda Linked to Faster Brain Aging

Sun, 04/23/2017 - 6:30am

A new study has found that people who frequently drink soda are more likely to have poorer memory, smaller overall brain volume, and a significantly smaller hippocampus, an area of the brain important for learning and memory.

But researchers caution you should wait before you give up sugar-filled soda and reach for the diet soda. The study also found that people who drank diet soda daily were almost three times as likely to develop stroke and dementia.

Researchers point out that these findings, which appear separately in the journals Alzheimer’s & Dementia and Stroke, demonstrate correlation but not cause-and-effect. While they caution against over-consuming either diet soda or sugary drinks, more research is needed to determine how — or if — these drinks actually damage the brain, and how much damage may be caused by underlying vascular disease or diabetes.

“These studies are not the be-all and end-all, but it’s strong data and a very strong suggestion,” said Dr. Sudha Seshadri, a professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine (MED) and a faculty member at BU’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center, who is senior author on both papers.

“It looks like there is not very much of an upside to having sugary drinks, and substituting the sugar with artificial sweeteners doesn’t seem to help. Maybe good old-fashioned water is something we need to get used to.”

For the first study, researchers examined data, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans and cognitive testing results, from about 4,000 people enrolled in the Framingham Heart Study’s Offspring and Third-Generation cohorts. (These are the children and grandchildren of the original FHS volunteers enrolled in 1948.)

The researchers looked at people who consumed more than two sugary drinks a day of any type — soda, fruit juice, and other soft drinks — or more than three per week of soda alone.

Among that “high intake” group, they found multiple signs of accelerated brain aging, including smaller overall brain volume, poorer episodic memory, and a shrunken hippocampus, all risk factors for early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers also found that higher intake of diet soda — at least one per day — was associated with smaller brain volume.

In the second study, the researchers, using data only from the older Offspring cohort, looked specifically at whether participants had suffered a stroke or been diagnosed with dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease.

After measuring volunteers’ beverage intake at three points over seven years, the researchers then monitored the volunteers for 10 years, looking for evidence of stroke in 2,888 people over age 45, and dementia in 1,484 participants over age 60.

Here they found, surprisingly, no correlation between sugary beverage intake and stroke or dementia. However, they found that people who drank at least one diet soda a day were almost three times as likely to develop stroke and dementia.

Although the researchers took age, smoking, diet quality, and other factors into account, they could not completely control for preexisting conditions like diabetes, which may have developed over the course of the study and is a known risk factor for dementia.

Diabetics, as a group, drink more diet soda on average, as a way to limit their sugar consumption, and some of the correlation between diet soda intake and dementia may be due to diabetes, as well as other vascular risk factors, according to the researchers. However, such preexisting conditions cannot wholly explain the new findings, they add.

“It was somewhat surprising that diet soda consumption led to these outcomes,” said  Matthew Pase, a fellow in the MED neurology department and an investigator at the FHS who is corresponding author on both papers.

He noted that while previous studies have linked diet soda intake to stroke risk, the link with dementia was not previously known.

He adds that the studies did not differentiate between types of artificial sweeteners and did not account for other possible sources of artificial sweeteners.

While scientists have put forth various hypotheses about how artificial sweeteners may cause harm, from transforming gut bacteria to altering the brain’s perception of “sweet,” “we need more work to figure out the underlying mechanisms,” he concluded.

Source: Boston University

Photo: Matthew Pase is lead author on two studies that link higher consumption of both sugary and artificially sweetened drinks to adverse brain effects. Credit: Cydney Scott.

Pregnancy Warning Signs on Alcohol Tied to Reduced Drinking by Expectant Women

Sat, 04/22/2017 - 8:30am

Alcohol consumption among pregnant women has dropped 11 percent in states with point-of-sale warning signs, according to a new study conducted by a health economist at the University of Oregon.

The benefits show up in fewer extremely premature births (less than 32 weeks gestation) and very-low-birth-weight babies (less than 3.5 pounds). The greatest effects were found among women aged 30 and older.

Health economist Gulcan Cil published her findings in the Journal of Health Economics. Her complex breakdown of extensive data points to reduced drinking by pregnant women in areas with required warning signs and suggests a likely causal relationship between drinking while pregnant and birth outcomes.

“The signage is working,” said Cil, a visiting instructor in the Department of Economics and postdoctoral fellow in the department’s Mikesell Environmental and Resource Economics Research Lab. “Drinking alcohol while pregnant has been an issue that many policies have tried to address over the last few decades. An 11 percent change in the prevalence of drinking is not trivial. It is big enough to show up in the birth outcomes.”

The study involved regression analyses of data available in two national sources and information from the 23 states and Washington, D.C., which have adopted such signage, and a group of states that have not. The study’s control group included women who had lived in non-adopting states and women who lived in adopting states before signage requirements were implemented.

Comparing data from sign-adopting states and those not using signage allowed Cil to identify the direct relationship between drinking while pregnant and birth outcomes, reducing the likelihood that other factors such as cigarette smoking, drug abuse, nutritional deficiencies, and other risky life choices were at play in behavioral changes.

“It’s very hard to isolate one thing from another,” she said. “One thing that we do in empirical economics, in general, or applied econometrics is to try to find something that changes one variable at a time.”

Overall, point-of-sale signage, said Cil, appears to be an effective, low-cost approach to protect the health of pregnant women and their babies.

“Some people never get exposed to these kinds of educational campaigns,” Cil said. “I found that the issue has never been studied and evaluated as a public education program or public awareness program.”

The idea for the study was sparked when Cil noticed a sign in a Eugene, Oregon grocery store. She added that the signage used in Oregon contains an eye-catching graphic depicting a pregnant woman, while signs used in other states do not. All contain similar language. A future study might explore whether variations in signage — graphics, fonts, colors, and language — may best influence behavioral change.

Source: University of Oregon

 

Gender Difference Seen in Alcohol’s Effects on Brain’s Reward System

Sat, 04/22/2017 - 7:30am

A new study has found evidence suggesting that alcoholism may have different effects on the reward system in the brains of women than it does in men.

Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) report that reward system structures are larger in alcoholic women than in non-alcoholic women.

The study also confirmed earlier studies that found the same structures were smaller in alcoholic men than in non-alcoholic men.

The study, which enrolled currently abstinent individuals with a history of long-term alcohol use disorder, also found a negative association between the length of sobriety and the size of the fluid-filled ventricles in the center of the brain, suggesting possible recovery of the overall brain from the effects of alcoholism.

“Until now, little has been known about the volume of the reward regions in alcoholic women, since all previous studies have been done in men,” said co-author Gordon Harris, Ph.D., of the 3D Imaging Service and the Center for Morphometric Analysis in the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH. “Our findings suggest that it might be helpful to consider gender-specific approaches to treatment for alcoholism.”

The brain’s reward system is a group of structures — including the amygdala and the hippocampus — that reinforce beneficial experiences, are involved in memory and complex decision-making, and have been implicated in the development of substance use disorders.

Since there are known differences between the psychological and behavioral profiles of women and men with alcoholism — women tend toward having higher levels of anxiety, while men are more likely to exhibit antisocial characteristics — the current study was designed to investigate whether the alcoholism-associated reward system differences previously observed in men would also be seen in women.

The study enrolled 60 participants with histories of long-term alcoholism — 30 women and 30 men — and an equivalent group of non-alcoholic volunteers.

The alcoholic participants had been abstinent for time periods ranging from four weeks to 38 years. Participants completed detailed medical histories and neuropsychological assessments with the BUSM researchers before having MRI brain scans at the Martinos Center that were analyzed both in terms of the total brain and of the structures in the reward network.

Replicating the results of earlier studies, the average sizes of reward region structures of alcoholic men were 4.1 percent smaller than those of non-alcoholic men, but the average sizes of the same structures were 4.4 percent larger in alcoholic women than in non-alcoholic women.

While factors such as the duration and intensity of heavy drinking appeared to reinforce these gender-specific effects, the research team notes that the current study cannot determine whether these differences preceded or resulted from the development of alcoholism.

Among participants with alcoholism — both women and men — each year of sobriety was associated with a 1.8 percent decrease in the size of the ventricles, suggesting recovery from the damaging effects of alcoholism on the brain.

“We’re planning to take a more detailed look at the impact of factors such as the severity of drinking and the length of sobriety on specific brain structures, and hope to investigate whether the imaging differences seen in this and previous studies are associated with gender-based differences in motivational and emotional functions,” said co-author Marlene Oscar-Berman, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry, neurology, and anatomy & neurobiology at BUSM.

The study was published in Psychiatry Research Neuroimaging.

Source: Massachusetts General Hospital 

Different Ways of Engaging With Nature Tied to Quality of Life

Sat, 04/22/2017 - 7:00am

Looking to improve your overall life satisfaction? Try regularly hiking in a forest or otherwise engaging with the natural environment.

Then, for good measure, look for ways to build your trust in the scientists and policymakers involved in managing the forest where you like to hike.

Those are the findings from new research that demonstrate that a variety of mechanisms for engaging nature significantly contribute to a person’s overall well-being.

One of the most important, according to researchers from Oregon State University, was whether people believed their surrounding environments were being managed well.

“Whether people feel like things are fair and they have a voice in the process of making decisions and whether governance is transparent — those are the foundations of why people even can interact with nature,” said lead author Kelly Biedenweg, Ph.D.,w of Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

For the study, Biedenweg, an assistant professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, and collaborators from Colorado State University and the University of Georgia analyzed results from more than 4,400 respondents to an online survey conducted in the Puget Sound region of Washington state.

The researchers used 13 different metrics to illustrate the relationship between overall life satisfaction and engaging with the natural environment. Among those metrics were community activities, access to wild resources, stress eased by time outdoors, and trust in policymakers.

“Eleven of the 13 had a positive correlation to overall life satisfaction,” said Biedenweg. “The links between ecological conditions, like drinking water and air quality, and objective well-being have been studied quite a bit, but the connection between various aspects of engaging the natural environment and overall subjective well-being have rarely been looked at.”

“We wanted to identify the relative importance of diverse, nature-oriented experiences on a person’s overall life satisfaction assessment and statistically prove the relationship between happiness/life satisfaction and engaging with nature in many different ways,” she explained.

The researchers quantified the relationship between well-being and six common mechanisms by which nature has effects on well-being: Social and cultural events; trust in governance; access to local wild resources; sense of place; outdoor recreation; and psychological benefits from time outdoors.

“Controlling for demographics, all were significantly related to life satisfaction,” Biedenweg said. “The fact that trust in governance was a significant predictor of life satisfaction — in fact, the most statistically significant predictor of the ones we looked at — it was nice to see that come out of the research. The way we manage is the gateway to people being able to get livelihoods and satisfaction from nature.”

The study was published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

Source: Oregon State University

 

Risk of Cannabis-Induced Psychosis May Be Less Than First Feared

Sat, 04/22/2017 - 6:00am

The risk of experiencing cannabis-induced psychosis is small compared to the number of total users, according to a new study by researchers at the University of York in England. In fact, previous research has shown that in order to prevent just one case of psychosis, more than 20,000 people would have to stop using cannabis.

However, there is sufficient evidence to conclude that cannabis use makes symptoms worse in people who already have schizophrenia. Furthermore, the researchers say that more studies are needed on the impact of high-potency cannabis to make a full assessment of the risks.

“The link between cannabis and psychosis has been an ongoing research topic since the drug became popular in the 1960s,” said Ian Hamilton, lecturer on mental health at the University of York. “Most of the high profile studies that we have access to, however, are from a time when low potency cannabis was the norm, but today high potency is more common.

“High potency cannabis contains less of a chemical that is believed to protect against negative side-effects, such as psychosis, and a higher level of a chemical that can trigger psychosis. In this new study, we looked at both low and high potency, but it is clear that we need more evidence from high potency-related health cases to further investigate this link in modern-day users.”

However, despite the relatively low risks, the research was clear that the more high potency cannabis used, the higher the risk of developing mental health problems. For those who already had schizophrenia, cannabis exacerbated the symptoms.

The findings show that the greatest risk to health comes from cannabis users who combine the drug with tobacco. This exposes young people in particular to tobacco dependency at an early age, increasing the chances of cancers, infections, and other health-related issues.

Prior research at York showed that regulating cannabis use could result in more effective strategies aimed at helping drug users to access the right support and guidance. The report showed, however, that there is too much uncertainty around treatment regimes in an unregulated market to target the appropriate level of care.

“Regulation could help reduce the risks to health that cannabis use poses, as a regulated cannabis market would introduce some quality control,” said Hamilton. “This would provide users with information about the strength of cannabis on offer, something they usually only discover after exposure in the current unregulated market.”

“The public health message about the link between cannabis and psychosis has been a difficult one to communicate, but the evidence still points to the benefits of regulations that seek to advise on the greatest potential health risks, which currently arise due to tobacco use.”

The findings are published in the journal Addiction.

Source: University of York

 

Early Life Brain Stimulation Linked to Robust Mental Health as Senior

Fri, 04/21/2017 - 7:45am

New research discovers a key to mental agility in later life begins decades earlier. Specifically, participation in activities that challenge the brain also build resiliency helping the brain better handle changes resulting from age or illness.

Investigators believe early life challenges build a “cognitive reserve” that helps the brain ward off potential insults.

Researchers discovered some examples of activities that challenge the brain during early and mid-life include participation in management or leadership positions, social engagement, and continued education.

The large-scale investigation published in the journal PLOS Medicine and led by the University of Exeter, used data from more than 2,000 mentally fit people over the age of 65.

Investigators found that people with higher levels of reserve are more likely to stay mentally fit for longer, making the brain more resilient to illnesses such as dementia.

The research team included collaborators from the universities of Bangor, Newcastle, and Cambridge.

Linda Clare, Professor of Clinical Psychology of Ageing and Dementia at the University of Exeter, said: “Losing mental ability is not inevitable in later life. We know that we can all take action to increase our chances of maintaining our own mental health, through healthy living and engaging in stimulating activities.

It’s important that we understand how and why this occurs, so we can give people meaningful and effective measures to take control of living full and active lives into older age.

“People who engage in stimulating activity which stretches the brain, challenging it to use different strategies that exercise a variety of networks, have higher ‘Cognitive reserve’.

This builds a buffer in the brain, making it more resilient. It means signs of decline only become evident at a higher threshold of illness or decay than when this buffer is absent.”

The research team analyzed data from 2,315 mentally fit participants aged over 65 years who took part in the first wave of interviews for the Cognitive Function and Ageing Study Wales (CFAS-Wales).

Investigators assessed whether a healthy lifestyle was associated with better performance on a mental ability test. They found that a healthy diet, more physical activity, more social and mentally stimulating activity and moderate alcohol consumption all seemed to boost cognitive performance.

Professor Bob Woods of Bangor University, who leads the CFAS Wales study, said: “We found that people with a healthier lifestyle had better scores on tests of mental ability, and this was partly accounted for by their level of cognitive reserve.

“Our results highlight the important of policies and measures that encourage older people to make changes in their diet, exercise more, and engage in more socially oriented and mentally stimulating activities.”

Professor Fiona Matthews of Newcastle University, who is principal statistician on the CFAS studies, said “Many of the factors found here to be important are not only healthy for our brain, but also help at younger age avoiding heart disease”.

Source: University of Exeter

Drinking Beetroot Juice Before Exercise Helps Aging Brains Perform Better

Fri, 04/21/2017 - 7:00am

Drinking a beetroot juice supplement before exercising allows the brains of older adults to perform more efficiently, essentially mirroring the mechanisms of younger brains, according to a new study at Wake Forest University.

Beets naturally contain high levels of dietary nitrate, which is converted to nitrite and then nitric oxide when consumed. Nitric oxide increases blood flow in the body, and multiple studies have shown it can improve exercise performance in people of various ages.

“Nitric oxide is a really powerful molecule. It goes to the areas of the body which are hypoxic, or needing oxygen, and the brain is a heavy feeder of oxygen in your body,” said W. Jack Rejeski, study co-author, Thurman D. Kitchin Professor and Director of the Behavioral Medicine Laboratory in the Department of Health & Exercise Science.

One of Rejeski’s former undergraduate students, Meredith Petrie, was the lead author on the paper.

The findings, published in the peer-reviewed Journals of Gerontology: Medical Sciences, add to the growing body of evidence that our diets, particularly as we age, are vitally important to the maintenance of our brain health and functional independence.

The study involved 26 men and women aged 55 and older who were not regular exercisers, had high blood pressure, and took no more than two medications for high blood pressure. Three times a week for six weeks, they drank a beetroot juice supplement called Beet-It Sport Shot one hour before a moderately intense, 50-minute walk on a treadmill. Half of the participants received Beet-It containing 560 mg of nitrate; the others received a placebo Beet-It with very little nitrate.

“We knew, going in, that a number of studies had shown that exercise has positive effects on the brain,” said Rejeski. “But what we showed in this brief training study of hypertensive older adults was that, as compared to exercise alone, adding a beet root juice supplement to exercise resulted in brain connectivity that closely resembles what you see in younger adults.”

The study is the first to investigate the combined effects of exercise and beetroot juice on functional brain networks in the motor cortex and secondary connections between the motor cortex and the insula, which support mobility, Rejeski said.

When you exercise, the brain’s somatomotor cortex, which processes information from the muscles, sorts out the cues coming in from the body. Exercise should strengthen the somatomotor cortex. So consuming beetroot juice just before exercise delivers even more oxygen to the brain and creates an excellent environment for strengthening the somatomotor cortex.

Post-exercise analysis showed that, although the study groups had similar levels of nitrate and nitrite in the blood before drinking the juice, the beetroot juice group had much higher levels of nitrate and nitrite than the placebo group after exercise.

Source: Wake Forest University

 

Mindfulness Training Helps College Women Improve Mood, But Not Men

Fri, 04/21/2017 - 6:15am

A robust new research study on the effectiveness of mindfulness training suggests the practice, on average, significantly helped women overcome “negative affect,” but did not help men.

“Negative effect” pertains to a downcast mood. Researchers explain that the study is one of the first to compare gender outcomes after mindfulness training.

More women than men engage in mindfulness meditation, the practice of intentionally and non-judgmentally directing one’s attention to present sensations and feelings, said Willoughby Britton, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown.

There hasn’t been a prevailing notion in the research literature that the practice affects men and women differently. Yet the data Britton and her co-authors present in a new paper in Frontiers in Psychology shows a clear gender difference in outcomes for mood.

“That was the surprising part,” Britton said. Since this study, though, she has found the same pattern in two other studies under review for future publication.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a widespread phenomenon that researchers hadn’t bothered to investigate.”

On the other hand, Britton added, it was encouraging to see a clear benefit for women, who are generally more vulnerable to negative affect and depression, she noted.

“Emotional disorders like depression in early adulthood are linked to a litany of negative trajectories that further disadvantage women, such as poor academic performance, school drop-out, early pregnancy, and substance abuse,” she said.

“The fact that a college course could teach women skills to better manage negative affect at this early age could have potentially far-reaching effects on women’s lives.”

Co-lead author Rahil Rojiani, a Brown graduate and now a medical student at Yale, said he hopes the study will narrow disparities in mental health care.

“The gender gap in mental health has been inadequately targeted and often only within the standard medical arsenal of pharmacological treatment,” Rojiani said.

“Our study is one of the first to explore the effects of mindfulness across gender.”

In the study, researchers measured changes in affect, mindfulness and self-compassion among 41 male and 36 female students over the course of a full, 12-week academic class on mindfulness traditions.

The class included papers, tests, and presentations that were a component of the experiential three hour-long meditation labs a week. Co-author Harold Roth, professor of religious studies, taught the labs, which included about 30 minutes per session of specific contemplative practice from Buddhist or Daoist traditions.

Mindfulness has become popular on college campuses, Britton said, as students and administrators look to it as a potential way of helping students manage stress or depression.

For this study, students filled out questionnaires at the beginning and the end of the class. Over that time the average student had engaged in more than 41 hours of meditation in class and outside.

There was no statistically significant difference in the amount of meditation practice by gender. Men and women also entered the class with no difference in their degree of negative affect.

As a group, the 77 students also did not leave the class showing a significant difference in negative affect. That’s because while women showed a significant 11.6 percent decline on the survey’s standardized score (which is a positive psychological outcome), men showed a non-significant 3.7 percent increase in their scores.

Alongside those changes in affect, each gender showed progress in skills taught as part of meditation. Both genders gained in several specific mindfulness and self-compassion skills and their overall scores increased significantly.

That finding shows that the classes were effective in teaching the techniques, though women made greater gains than men on four of five areas of mindfulness.

When the researchers dug further into the data, they saw that in women several of the gains they made in specific skills correlated with improvements in negative affect.

“Improved affect in women was related to improved mindfulness and self-compassion skills, which involved specific subscales for approaching experience and emotions with non-reactivity, being less self-critical and more kind with themselves, and over-identifying less with emotions,” the authors wrote.

Meanwhile, among men, only one of the specific skills was associated with better affect.

“To the extent that affect improved, changes were correlated with an improved dimension of mindfulness involving the ability to identify, describe, and differentiate one’s emotions,” they wrote.

Britton said the results suggest a new hypothesis, which is that mindfulness regimens, at least as they are often structured, may be better attuned to addressing the ways that women typically process emotions than the ways that men often do.

Mindfulness guides practitioners to focus on and acknowledge feelings but to do so in a non-judgmental and non-self-critical way.

“The mechanisms are highly speculative at this point, but stereotypically, women ruminate and men distract,” Britton said.

“So for people that tend to be willing to confront or expose themselves or turn toward the difficult, mindfulness is made for [improving] that. For people who have been largely turning their attention away from the difficult, to suddenly bring all their attention to their difficulties can be somewhat counterproductive.

While facing one’s difficulties and feeling one’s emotions may seem to be universally beneficial, it does not take into account that there may be different cultural expectations for men and women around emotionality.”

If that hypothesis is supported in further research, the findings may yield an important strategy for the designers of mindfulness curricula. For women, the message may be to stay the course, but for men the best idea may be to tailor mindfulness differently.

“Mindfulness is a little bit like a drug cocktail — there are a lot of ingredients and we’re not sure which ingredients are doing what,” Britton said. “But I think a strategy of isolating potential ‘active ingredients’ and using slightly more innovative designs to tailor to the needs of different populations is what’s called for.”

For fellow mindfulness researchers, Britton said, the study emphasizes a benefit to accounting for gender. Had she not done so in this study, she would have reported a null effect on affect when in fact women benefitted significantly.

At the same time, if the study population had been heavily skewed toward women rather than more balanced, she might have measured a stronger benefit that would have been improperly extrapolated to men.

Source: Brown University

Brain Stimulation May Restore Memory Lapses

Fri, 04/21/2017 - 5:30am

Although early in the research cycle, a team of neuroscientists has shown that electrical stimulation delivered when memory is predicted to fail can improve memory function.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania say this is the first study to show that electrical stimulation can improve memory function in the human brain.

Timing, however, appears to make a big difference as the same stimulation generally becomes disruptive when electrical pulses arrive during periods of effective memory function.

The research team included Michael Kahana, professor of psychology and principal investigator, Youssef Ezzyat, a senior data scientist in Kahana’s lab; and Daniel Rizzuto, director of cognitive neuromodulation at Penn.

Their findings appear in the journal Current Biology.

Experts say the work is an important step toward the long-term goal of Restoring Active Memory, a four-year Department of Defense project aimed at developing next-generation technologies that improve memory function in people who suffer from memory loss.

The study illustrates an important link between appropriately timed deep-brain stimulation and its potential therapeutic benefits.

To get to this point, the Penn team first had to understand and decode signaling patterns that correspond to highs and lows of memory function.

“By applying machine-learning methods to electrical signals measured at widespread locations throughout the human brain,” said Ezzyat, lead paper author, “we are able to identify neural activity that indicates when a given patient will have lapses of memory encoding.”

Using this model, Kahana’s team examined how the effects of stimulation differ during poor versus effective memory function.

The study involved neurosurgical patients receiving treatment for epilepsy at several facilities across the country. Participants were asked to study and recall lists of common words while receiving safe levels of brain stimulation.

During this process, the Penn team recorded electrical activity from electrodes implanted in the patients’ brains as part of routine clinical care. These recordings identified the biomarkers of successful memory function, activity patterns that occur when the brain effectively creates new memories.

“We found that, when electrical stimulation arrives during periods of effective memory, memory worsens,” Kahana said. “But when the electrical stimulation arrives at times of poor function, memory is significantly improved.”

Kahana likens it to traffic patterns in the brain: stimulating the brain during a backup restores the normal flow of traffic.

Gaining insight into this process could improve the lives of many types of patients, particularly those with traumatic brain injury or neurological diseases, such Alzheimer’s.

“Technology based on this type of stimulation,” Rizzuto said, “could produce meaningful gains in memory performance, but more work is needed to move from proof-of-concept to an actual therapeutic platform.”

To foster ongoing research, the Restoring Active Memory (RAM) has publicly released an extensive intracranial brain recording and stimulation dataset that included more than 1,000 hours of data from 150 patients performing memory tasks.

Source: University of Pennsylvania/EurekAlert

College Students May Forget Class Content to Protect Self-Image

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 8:30am

New research suggests forgetting content from a stressful math class may be one way to protect an individual’s belief that they are good at math.

The phenomenon is similar to repression, the psychological process in which people forget emotional or traumatic events to protect themselves.

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) researchers found that the students who forgot the most content from the class were those who reported a high level of stress during the course.

However, paradoxically, the study also found that the strong relationship between stress level and the tendency to forget course material was most prevalent among the students who are most confident in their own mathematical abilities.

The phenomenon, which the authors call “motivated forgetting,” may occur because students are subconsciously protecting their own self-image as excellent mathematicians, said Dr. Gerardo Ramirez, a UCLA assistant professor of psychology and the study’s lead author.

For the study, researchers analyzed 117 undergraduates in an advanced calculus course at UCLA.

The students generally consider themselves to be strong in mathematics and plan to pursue careers that rely on high-level mathematical skills, so the logical assumption would be that they would be likely to remember most of the material from the course.

Researchers asked students a series of questions at the start of the course, including having them assess to what extent they see themselves as “math people.”

Each week throughout the course, students were asked to gauge how stressful they thought the course was. Then, the study’s authors examined students’ performance on the course’s final exam and on another similar test two weeks later. On average, students’ grades were 21 percent lower on the follow-up.

Among students who strongly considered themselves to be “math people,” those who experienced a lot of stress performed measurably worse on the follow-up exam than those whose stress levels were lower.

The results were striking because, in the cases of the students whose stress levels were highest, test scores dropped by as much as a full letter grade, from an A-minus to a B-minus, for example.

Ramirez explains that the behaviors make sense from a psychological perspective.

“Students who found the course very stressful and difficult might have given in to the motivation to forget as a way to protect their identity as being good at math,” he said.

“We tend to forget unpleasant experiences and memories that threaten our self-image as a way to preserve our psychological well-being. And ‘math people’ whose identity is threatened by their previous stressful course experience may actively work to forget what they learned.”

The idea that people are motivated to forget unpleasant experiences — activating a sort of “psychological immune system” — goes back to Sigmund and Anna Freud, the pioneers of psychoanalysis, Ramirez said.

The students who think of themselves as excellent at math and felt high levels of stress were also more likely to report they avoided thinking about the course after it ended more than other students did. Previous studies by other researchers also seem to support the concept of motivated forgetting.

For example, a 2011 Harvard University study found that when people were asked to memorize an “honor code” and then pay themselves for solving a series of problems, those who cheated and overpaid themselves remembered less of the honor code at the end of the experiment than those who did not cheat.

“Motivated forgetting, or giving in to the desire to forget what we find threatening, is a defense mechanism people use against threats to the way they like to depict themselves,” Ramirez said. “The students are highly motivated to do well and can’t escape during the course, but as soon as they take their final exam, they can give in their desire to forget and try to suppress the information.”

Ramirez said there are steps teachers can take to help students retain information. Some of them:

  • Emphasize the material’s real-world applications. This will give students incentives to remember information and review it later on. “I think we often do a poor job of showing students why the content is relevant to their lives and future job skills,” Ramirez said.
  • Cover the entire course in final exams. And not just the most recent material. “Non-cumulative exams tell students they can forget what they have already been tested on,” he said.
  • Guard against learning-by-photo. Specifically, Ramirez advises students not to try to capture course notes by taking photos with their smartphones — it might subtly create an impression that they don’t need to actually learn the information.
  • Embrace the challenges. When his students struggle, Ramirez tells them the challenge they’re facing will lead to deeper learning. “I try to change what ‘struggle’ means for them so that they don’t feel threatened when they are stressed out about the material,” he said.

Source: UCLA

Positive Emotion Skills for Men with HIV May Boost Health

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 7:45am

A new Northwestern Medicine study found that when men newly diagnosed with HIV participated in an intervention focused on positive emotions, they had less HIV in their blood and were less likely to use antidepressant drugs.

“Even in the midst of this stressful experience of testing positive for HIV, coaching people to feel happy, calm and satisfied — what we call positive affect — appears to influence important health outcomes,” said lead author Dr. Judith Moskowitz, professor of medical social sciences and director of research at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

The study is believed to be the first to investigate the effects of a positive emotion intervention in people newly diagnosed with HIV. Based on the study results, the intervention is promising for people in the initial stages of adjustment to any serious chronic illness.

The findings are published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

The HIV study is part of a larger body of positive affect research being conducted by Moskowitz. She also is investigating the health effects of teaching the skills to individuals with type II diabetes, women with metastatic breast cancer and caregivers of dementia patients.

For the study, 80 participants (mostly men) were taught a set of eight skills over five weekly sessions to help them experience more positive emotions. Another 79 participants were in the control group.

The researchers designed the course based on evidence showing these particular skills increase positive emotions. Some of the skills included the following:

  • recognizing a positive event each day;
  • savoring that positive event and logging it in a journal or telling someone about it;
  • starting a daily gratitude journal;
  • listing a personal strength each day and noting how you used this strength recently;
  • setting an attainable goal each day and noting your progress;
  • reporting a relatively minor stressor each day, then listing ways in which the event can be positively reappraised. This can lead to increased positive affect in the face of stress;
  • understanding small acts of kindness can have a big impact on positive emotion and practicing a small act of kindness each day;
  • practicing mindfulness with a daily 10-minute breathing exercise, concentrating on the breath.

Significantly, 15 months after the interventions, 91 percent of the intervention group had a suppressed viral load compared to 76 percent of the control group. In addition to the potential benefit of a lower viral load on the infected person, there may be public health benefits.

“From a public health perspective, that is potentially huge for prevention of HIV,” Moskowitz said. “HIV is less likely to be transmitted with a low viral load. To have a difference like that is amazing.”

The lower viral load may be due to a stronger immune system, Moskowitz said. Observational studies in people living with HIV have shown positive emotion linked to a higher CD4 count (an indicator of less HIV-related damage to the immune system). Or, it may be the result of participants’ better adherence to their antiretroviral drug therapy, which generally leads to a suppressed or undetectable viral load, Moskowitz said.

The positive emotion intervention also helped participants use fewer antidepressants. At baseline, about 17 percent of the control group and intervention group reported being on antidepressants. Fifteen month later, the intervention group was still at 17 percent but the control group’s antidepressant use rose to 35 percent.

“The group that learned coping skills did not increase antidepressant use, whereas overall the control group increased its antidepressant use,” Moskowitz said. In addition, the intervention group was significantly less likely to have repeating, intrusive thoughts about HIV.

Source: Northwestern University

Moderate Hot Flashes May Increase Risk of Depression

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 7:00am

A new study finds that moderate to severe hot flashes among menopausal women are a significant risk factor for depression.

Australian researchers studied more than 2,000 perimenopausal and menopausal women, focusing on the more severe forms of vasomotor symptoms — hot flashes or night sweats.

Although controversial, investigators found that among a group of women ages 40-65, those with moderate-severe hot flashes were significantly more likely to have moderate-severe depression than women with no or mild vasomotor symptoms.

Study findings appear in the Journal of Women’s Health.

Roisin Worsley, M.B.B.S., Robin Bell, Ph.D., Pragya Gartoulla, Penelope Robinson, and Susan Davis, M.B.B.S., Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, found hot flashes, depressive symptoms, and use of antidepressant medication to be common in the age range of women included in the study.

The researchers also examined whether or not moderate-severe depression was associated with a greater likelihood of psychotropic medication use, smoking, or binge drinking at least once a week.

“The results of this study shed further light on therapeutic findings, with both anti-depressant medication and estrogen therapy having the potential to improve hot flashes and mood,” said Susan G. Kornstein, M.D., editor-in-chief of the Journal of Women’s Health.

Source: Journal of Women’s Health/Mary Ann Liebert

Gaming Software Can Personalize Therapy Programs

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 6:15am

Emerging research suggests software programs that use game features in non-game contexts can improve individual motivation to follow prescribed or recommended therapy regimens.

Penn State engineers used machine learning to train computers to develop personalized mental or physical therapy regimens — for example, to overcome anxiety or recover from a shoulder injury — so many individuals can each use a tailor-made program.

“We want to understand the human and team behaviors that motivate learning to ultimately develop personalized methods of learning instead of the one-size-fits-all approach that is often taken,” said Dr. Conrad Tucker, an assistant professor of engineering design technology.

“Using people to individually evaluate others is not efficient or sustainable in time or human resources and does not scale up well to large numbers of people,” said Tucker.

“We need to train computers to read individual people. Gamification explores the idea that different people are motivated by different things.”

To begin creating computer models for therapy programs, the researchers tested how to most effectively make the completion of a physical task into a gamified application by incorporating game features like scoring, avatars, challenges, and competition.

“We’re exploring here how gamification could be applied to health and wellness by focusing on physically interactive gamified applications,” said Christian Lopez, graduate student in industrial and manufacturing engineering, who helped conduct the tests using a virtual-reality game environment.

In the virtual-reality tests, researchers asked participants to physically avoid obstacles as they moved through a virtual environment. The game system recorded their actual body positions using motion sensors and then mirrored their movements with an avatar in virtual reality.

Participants had to bend, crouch, raise their arms, and jump to avoid obstacles. The participant successfully avoided a virtual obstacle if no part of their avatar touched the obstacle. If they made contact, the researchers rated the severity of the mistake by how much of the avatar touched the obstacle.

In one of the application designs, participants could earn more points by moving to collect virtual coins, which sometimes made them hit an obstacle.

“As task complexity increases, participants need more motivation to achieve the same level of results,” said Lopez. “No matter how engaging a particular feature is, it needs to move the participant towards completing the objective rather than backtracking or wasting time on a tangential task. Adding more features doesn’t necessarily enhance performance.”

Tucker and Lopez created a predictive algorithm to forecast the outcome of an event. The tool helped to rank the potential usefulness of a game feature. They then tested how well each game feature motivated participants when completing the virtual-reality tasks.

They compared their test results to the algorithm’s predictions as a proof of concept and found that the formula correctly anticipated which game features best motivated people in the physically interactive tasks.

The researchers found that gamified applications with a scoring system, the ability to select an avatar, and in-game rewards led to significantly fewer mistakes and higher performance than those with a win-or-lose system, randomized gaming backgrounds, and performance-based awards.

Sixty-eight participants tested two designs that differed only by the features used to complete the same set of tasks.

The researchers chose the tested game features from the top-ranked games in the Google Play app store, taking advantage of the features that make the games binge-worthy and re-playable, and then narrowed the selection based on available technology.

Their algorithm next ranked game features by how easily designers could implement them, the physical complexity of using the feature, and the impact of the feature on participant motivation and ability to complete the task.

Investigators discovered that if a game feature is too technologically difficult to incorporate into the game, too physically complex, does not offer enough incentive for added effort, or works against the end goal of the game, then the feature has low potential usefulness.

Study results appear in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. Researchers believe their findings may help to boost workplace performance and personalize virtual-reality classrooms for online education.

“Game culture has already explored and mastered the psychological aspects of games that make them engaging and motivating,” said Tucker. “We want to leverage that knowledge towards the goal of individualized optimization of workplace performance.”

To do this, Tucker and Lopez next want to connect performance with mental state during these gamified physical tasks. Heart rate, electroencephalogram signals, and facial expressions will be used as proxies for mood and mental state while completing tasks to connect mood with game features that affect motivation.

Source: Penn State