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Updated: 2 hours 7 min ago

Math Difficulties in Preterm Children Linked to Overall IQ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Ruhr-Universitaet-Bochum

Girl using math flash cards photo by shutterstock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Brown University 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: University College London


Liberal or Conservative: Is It in Your DNA?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: University of Nebraska-Lincoln 

Reduce Depression, Decrease Dementia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: American Academy of Neurology

Depressed elderly man photo by shutterstock.

New Biomarker for Postpartum Depression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Max Planck Institute

Abstract of brain photo by shutterstock.

Life Stressors Trigger Alcohol Problems in Vets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Elsevier

Upset veteran photo by shutterstock.

Tips to Improve Happiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: University of Cincinnati

TeleSupport Helps Reduce Caregiver Stress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Lifespan

Preschool Depression May Continue for a Decade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Washington University – St. Louis

Depressed preschool boy photo by shutterstock.

Teen Sleepless Nights Linked with Depression and Anxiety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: University of Adelaide

Tired high school student photo by shutterstock.

Improved Tests for Memory Disorders Will Lead to Early/Better Interventions

Thu, 07/31/2014 - 5:30am

New research from the UK posits that more accurate tests could be created to diagnose diseases such as Alzheimer’s or memory problems stemming from head injuries.

Identification of memory disorders in the early stages can lead to earlier and more effective interventions.

Researchers investigated the components of memory using a combination of tests and neuroimaging.

The strategy could lead to a new diagnostic tool for distinguishing between different types of dementia, memory damage from stroke, or forms of amnesia caused by head trauma.

Dr. Louis Renoult, a lecturer at the University of East Anglia (UEA) said, “We are creating a new model of how we look at memory that’s more nuanced and gives us a better picture of how memories, particularly long-term memories, are imprinted.”

The findings, published in The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, are part of an international project with contributions from academics at the University of Ottawa, the State University of New York College at Old Westbury, and the Rotman Research Institute, Baycrest, Toronto.

Dr Renoult said, “If patients lose semantic memory, they struggle with knowledge of everyday objects in the world, and have trouble communicating.

“But if you provide some personal application to those objects — for example showing a dog to someone who kept a dog as a pet — the patient may demonstrate they’ve retained memory of that object.

“The research shows this retained memory performance may result from the brain’s automatic activation of personal episodes by related knowledge.

“We haven’t previously been aware of this intermediate form of memory, which combines semantic knowledge with autobiographical, or ‘episodic’ memory.

“The hope is that advanced methods could be developed to test this newly discovered intermediate form of memory, leading to better approaches to rehabilitation.”

The research was undertaken in 2011-2012 and involved a cohort of 19 healthy subjects.

Source: University of East Anglia

Abstract of brain photo by shutterstock.

Timing Important for Enjoying Accomplishments

Wed, 07/30/2014 - 8:30am

New research suggests that when we accomplish a goal too early in the process, we may not be as happy as we would be if the goal was achieved during an expected interval.

The typical progression is: set goal, work to achieve goal, attain goal, and react accordingly — but, when the script isn’t followed, the positive reaction is reduced.

In “Feeling Good at the Right Time: Why People Value Predictability in Goal Attainment,” researchers found that when people learned, for example, that they would win a game, get a job offer, or be accepted to college before their predetermined time, the experience was muted twice — when they learned early, and then when the goal was achieved.

“We basically show that people want to feel good at the right time — that is, when a goal is achieved and not before then,” says Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago.

Researchers conducted four studies, and found that when people made script-consistent errors in recalling an attained goal, that people were happier when good news followed the predetermined script.

Conversely, people valued goals less when they learn early that they will be achieving them. People also had a mellowed reaction to achieving the goal if they were certain beforehand that the goal would be achieved.

“When people learn that a goal will be achieved before it actually is, they often try to suppress the positive emotion in order to feel it at the ‘right time,’” Fishbach says.

“The result is that people don’t feel as happy when they get the news — because it’s not the right time — as well as when the goal is officially achieved — because by then it’s no longer ‘news.’”

Fishbach speculates that, among other possible reasons, this muting may occur because of the fragility of positive emotion, noting that it is much easier for a good mood to sour than it is to overcome a bad mood.

“Once positive emotion is ‘tampered with,’ it appears to be difficult to reignite,” they write.

“It appears that positive emotion can be dampened relatively easily, but reawakening it appears to be more difficult.”

Source: University of Chicago Booth School of Business

Rich just ahead sign photo by shutterstock.

Emotional + Social = General Intelligence

Wed, 07/30/2014 - 7:45am

New research discovers the brain regions that help to optimize social functioning are also important for general intelligence and emotional intelligence.

This finding suggests general intelligence emerges from the emotional and social context of one’s life.

“We are trying to understand the nature of general intelligence and to what extent our intellectual abilities are grounded in social cognitive abilities,” said Aron Barbey, a University of Illinois professor of neuroscience.

As reported in the journal Brain, studies in social psychology indicate that human intellectual functions originate from the social context of everyday life.

“We depend at an early stage of our development on social relationships — those who love us care for us when we would otherwise be helpless,” says Barbey.

“Social interdependence continues into adulthood and remains important throughout the lifespan,” Barbey said.

“Our friends and family tell us when we could make bad mistakes and sometimes rescue us when we do,” he said.

“And so the idea is that the ability to establish social relationships and to navigate the social world is not secondary to a more general cognitive capacity for intellectual function, but that it may be the other way around.

“Intelligence may originate from the central role of relationships in human life and therefore may be tied to social and emotional capacities.”

In the study, researchers studied 144 Vietnam veterans injured by shrapnel or bullets that penetrated the skull, damaging distinct brain tissues while leaving neighboring tissues intact.

Using computerized tomography (CT) scans, the scientists painstakingly mapped the affected brain regions of each participant, then pooled the data to build a collective map of the brain.

The researchers used a battery of carefully designed tests to assess participants’ intellectual, emotional, and social capabilities.

They then looked for patterns that tied damage to specific brain regions to deficits in the participants’ ability to navigate the intellectual, emotional, or social realms. Social problem solving in this analysis primarily involved conflict resolution with friends, family, and peers at work.

As in their earlier studies of general intelligence and emotional intelligence, the researchers found that regions of the frontal cortex (at the front of the brain), the parietal cortex (further back near the top of the head) and the temporal lobes (on the sides of the head behind the ears) are all implicated in social problem solving.

The regions that contributed to social functioning in the parietal and temporal lobes were located only in the brain’s left hemisphere, while both left and right frontal lobes were involved.

“The brain networks found to be important to social adeptness were not identical to those that contribute to general intelligence or emotional intelligence, but there was significant overlap,” Barbey said.

“The evidence suggests that there’s an integrated information-processing architecture in the brain, that social problem solving depends upon mechanisms that are engaged for general intelligence and emotional intelligence,” he said.

“This is consistent with the idea that intelligence depends to a large extent on social and emotional abilities, and we should think about intelligence in an integrated fashion rather than making a clear distinction between cognition and emotion and social processing.

“This makes sense because our lives are fundamentally social — we direct most of our efforts to understanding others and resolving social conflict. And our study suggests that the architecture of intelligence in the brain may be fundamentally social, too.”

Source:University of Illinois

Abstract concept of intelligence photo by shutterstock.

Mice Study Finds Brain Marker that Identifies Risk for Stress-Related Problems

Wed, 07/30/2014 - 7:00am

New research confirms that some people can handle stressful situations better than others.

The difference, according to scientists, is not a result of genes as even identical twins show differences in how they respond to stress.

In a new study, researchers identified a specific electrical pattern in the brains of genetically identical mice that predicts how well individual animals will fare in stressful situations.

The findings, as published in Nature Communications, may eventually help researchers prevent potential consequences of chronic stress — such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and other psychiatric disorders — in people who are prone to these problems.

“In soldiers, we have this dramatic, major stress exposure, and in some individuals it’s leading to major issues, such as problems sleeping or being around other people,” said senior author Kafui Dzirasa, M.D., Ph.D.

“If we can find that common trigger or common pathway and tune it, we may be able to prevent the emergence of a range of mental illnesses down the line.”

In the new study, Dzirasa’s team analyzed the interaction between two interconnected brain areas that control fear and stress responses in both mice and men: the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala.

The amygdala plays a role in the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. The prefrontal cortex is involved in planning and other higher-level functions.

It suppresses the amygdala’s reactivity to danger and helps people continue to function in stressful situations.

Implanting electrodes into the brains of the mice allowed the researchers to listen in on the tempo at which the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala were firing and how tightly the two areas were linked — with the ultimate goal of figuring whether the electrical pattern of cross talk could help decide how well animals would respond when faced with an acute stressor.

Indeed, in mice that had been subjected to a chronically stressful situation — daily exposure to an aggressive male mouse for about two weeks — the degree to which the prefrontal cortex seemed to control amygdala activity was related to how well the animals coped with the stress, the group found.

Next the group looked at how the brain reacted to the first instance of stress, before the mice were put in a chronically stressful situation. The mice more sensitive to chronic stress showed greater activation of their prefrontal cortex-amygdala circuit, compared with resilient mice.

“We were really both surprised and excited to find that this signature was present in the animals before they were chronically stressed,” Dzirasa said. “You can find this signature the very first time they were ever exposed to this aggressive dangerous experience.”

Dzirasa hopes to use the signatures to come up with potential treatments for stress. “If we pair the signatures and treatments together, can we prevent symptoms from emerging, even when an animal is stressed? That’s the first question,” he said.

The group also hopes to delve further into the brain, to see whether the circuit-level patterns can interact with genetic variations that confer risk for psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia.

Researchers anticipate the new study will help them separate stress-susceptible and resilient animals before they are subjected to stress, thus allowing them to identify molecular, cellular, and systemic differences.

Source: Duke University

Abstract of brain photo by shutterstock.

Even Short Runs Can Help You Live Longer

Wed, 07/30/2014 - 6:15am

A new study finds that running for only a few minutes a day or at slow speeds may significantly reduce a person’s risk of death from cardiovascular disease when compared to someone who does not run.

While it is well known that exercise can improve health, authorities traditionally believed 75 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week were necessary to improve cardiac functions and convey health benefits.

In the study, researchers followed 55,137 adults between the ages of 18 and 100 over a 15-year period to determine whether there is a relationship between running and longevity.

Data was drawn from the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study, where participants were asked to complete a questionnaire about their running habits.

In the study period, 3,413 participants died, including 1,217 whose deaths were related to cardiovascular disease.

In this population, 24 percent of the participants reported running as part of their leisure-time exercise.

As reported in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, compared with non-runners, the runners had a 30 percent lower risk of death from all causes and a 45 percent lower risk of death from heart disease or stroke.

Runners on average lived three years longer compared to non-runners.

Also, to reduce mortality risk at a population level from a public health perspective, the authors concluded that promoting running is as important as preventing smoking, obesity, or hypertension.

The benefits were the same no matter how long, far, frequently, or fast participants reported running.

Benefits were also the same regardless of sex, age, body mass index, health conditions, smoking status, or alcohol use.

The study showed that participants who ran less than 51 minutes, fewer than six miles, slower than six miles per hour, or only one to two times per week had a lower risk of dying compared to those who did not run.

D.C. Lee, Ph.D., lead author of the said they found that runners who ran less than an hour per week have the same mortality benefits compared to runners who ran more than three hours per week.

Thus, it is possible that more may not be better in relation to running and longevity.

Researchers also looked at running behavior patterns and found that those who persistently ran over a period of six years on average had the most significant benefits, with a 29 percent lower risk of death for any reason and 50 percent lower risk of death from heart disease or stroke.

“Since time is one of the strongest barriers to participate in physical activity, the study may motivate more people to start running and continue to run as an attainable health goal for mortality benefits,” Lee said.

“Running may be a better exercise option than more moderate intensity exercises for healthy but sedentary people since it produces similar, if not greater, mortality benefits in five to 10 minutes compared to the 15 to 20 minutes per day of moderate intensity activity that many find too time consuming.”

Source: American College of Cardiology

Happy couple running photo by shutterstock.

Healthy Lifestyle Retards Cells Aging

Wed, 07/30/2014 - 5:30am

New research presents evidence that while the impact of life’s stressors accumulate overtime and accelerate cellular aging, a healthy lifestyle may counteract many of these effects.

In the new study, University of California, San Francisco researchers discovered maintaining a healthy diet, exercising, and sleeping well reduced the negative effects of life stress.

“The study participants who exercised, slept well, and ate well had less telomere shortening than the ones who didn’t maintain healthy lifestyles, even when they had similar levels of stress,” said lead author Eli Puterman, Ph.D.

“It’s very important that we promote healthy living, especially under circumstances of typical experiences of life stressors like death, caregiving, and job loss.”

The paper will be published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Telomeres are the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes that affect how quickly cells age. They are combinations of DNA and proteins that protect the ends of chromosomes and help them remain stable.

As they become shorter, and as their structural integrity weakens, the cells age and die quicker. Telomeres also get shorter with age.

In the study, researchers examined three healthy behaviors — physical activity, dietary intake, and sleep quality — over the course of one year in 239 post-menopausal, non-smoking women.

The women provided blood samples at the beginning and end of the year for telomere measurement and reported on stressful events that occurred during those 12 months.

In women who engaged in lower levels of healthy behaviors, there was a significantly greater decline in telomere length in their immune cells for every major life stressor that occurred during the year.

Yet women who maintained active lifestyles, healthy diets, and good quality sleep appeared protected when exposed to stress — accumulated life stressors did not appear to lead to greater shortening.

“This is the first study that supports the idea, at least observationally, that stressful events can accelerate immune cell aging in adults, even in the short period of one year.”

Researchers were excited to find that during tines of high stress, keeping active, eating, and sleeping well attenuated the accelerated aging of our immune cells.

In recent years, shorter telomeres have become associated with a broad range of aging-related diseases, including stroke, vascular dementia, cardiovascular disease, obesity, osteoporosis diabetes, and many forms of cancer.

Research on telomeres, and the enzyme that makes them, telomerase, was pioneered by three Americans, including University of California, San Francisco molecular biologist and co-author Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D. Blackburn co-discovered the telomerase enzyme in 1985.

The scientists received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 for their work.

“These new results are exciting yet observational at this point.

“They do provide the impetus to move forward with interventions to modify lifestyle in those experiencing a lot of stress, to test whether telomere attrition can truly be slowed,” said Blackburn.

Source: University of California, San Francisco

Healthy living concept photo by shutterstock.

Childhood Obesity Linked to Earlier Puberty, Health Problems

Tue, 07/29/2014 - 8:30am

New research from the UK identifies a link between obesity in childhood and the lowering of the age of puberty.

In a new investigation, endocrinologists studied a protein called sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG).

SHBG binds to the sex hormones androgen and estrogen with SHGB levels initially high in childhood then declining significantly before puberty — in essence ‘allowing’ puberty to happen.

The research team analyzed data from the EarlyBird longitudinal study of 347 schoolchildren in Plymouth, UK, aged five to 15 years.

The findings of this assessment showed that a child who is heavier at age five tends to have lower levels of SHBG throughout childhood and reaches puberty sooner.

The tendency was more striking in girls than in boys.

The study suggested that a combination of hormonal disturbances that are associated with weight gain and obesity, together with inflammation, might be the biological mechanism that explains the observed relationship between weight gain and the declining age of puberty.

It is not known why increasing body weight is associated with earlier puberty, especially in girls, but one possible explanation for this is that humans, like all mammals, require large amounts of energy to reproduce.

Throughout most of evolution, a well-nourished state would have greatly favored successful pregnancy in a world with high perinatal mortality.

Conversely, a state of poor nutrition and low body weight, is disadvantageous to reproduction, and slows down reproductive maturation or leads to infertility.

Deliberate weight control in female athletes and dancers, or the state of anorexia nervosa, still result in the same phenomenon of infertility.

Thus, the hormones that control appetite and body weight interact closely with those that allow fertility.

The new findings show that SHBG is part of an interaction between the body’s systems for controlling energy balance and reproduction.

The findings are of additional interest because they might go some way to answering the question of why, historically, the age of puberty has declined over the past century.

For example, the onset of puberty in girls in 1920 was 14.6 years; in 1950 13.1; in 1980 12.5; and in 2010 10.5.

In boys, puberty has always tended to occur a year or so later than in girls.

The findings also open a debate about the role of the worldwide obesity epidemic in the general lowering of the age of puberty.

The World Health Organization recognizes childhood obesity as one of the most serious global health challenges for the 21st century.

Figures from the UK’s 2012/2013 National Child Measurement Program show that almost a third of 10 to 11 year old’s and over a fifth of four to five year old’s were either obese or overweight.

Alarming, childhood obesity also increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes in later life.

Professor Jonathan Pinkney comments, “There are critical windows early in life which the die is cast for our long term health. We know that weight gain often begins early and we wanted to investigate how early weight gain might be linked to earlier puberty.”

He added: “Here we have found compelling evidence that hormonal effects of obesity, and associated inflammation, affect levels of SHBG and hence the age when puberty commences. As a higher proportion of youngsters around the world have become obese, so has the age of puberty dropped. We now know that the relation between these issues is more than coincidental.”

He concluded: “These findings have significant implications for children’s development and public health around the world.

“Reduction in the age of puberty, as a result of early weight gain, expedites physical and psychosocial development at a younger age, and this potentially means an earlier ability to reproduce as well as poorer long term adult health.

“The observed effects on puberty are another reason to take action against childhood obesity”.

Source: University of Plymouth

Overweight child photo by shutterstock.

Facial Features Provide First Impression

Tue, 07/29/2014 - 7:45am

Accurate or not, first impressions appear to stem from how a person looks.

Researchers in the Department of Psychology at the University of York determined a first impression is accurately predicted from measurements of physical features in everyday images of faces, such as those found on social media.

Investigators explain that when we look at a picture of a face we rapidly form judgments about a person’s character, for example whether they are friendly, trustworthy, or competent.

Even though it is not clear how accurate they are, these first impressions can influence our subsequent behavior (for example, judgments of competence based on facial images can predict election results).

The impressions we create through images of our faces (“avatars” or “selfies”) are becoming more and more important in a world where we increasingly get to know one another online rather than in the flesh.

Previous research has shown that many different judgments can be boiled down to three distinct “dimensions”: approachability (do they want to help or harm me?), dominance (can they help or harm me?), and youthful-attractiveness (perhaps representing whether they’d be a good romantic partner – or a rival!).

To investigate the basis for these judgments the research team took ordinary photographs from the web and analyzed physical features of the faces to develop a model that could accurately predict first impressions.

Each of 1,000 faces was described in terms of 65 different features such as “eye height”, “eyebrow width”, and so on. By combining these measures the model could explain more than half of the variation in human raters’ social judgments of the same faces.

Reversing the process it was also possible to create new cartoon-like faces that produced predictable first impressions in a new set of judges. These images also illustrate the features that are associated with particular social judgments.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), shows how important faces and specific images of faces can be in creating a favorable or unfavorable first impression.

It provides a scientific insight into the processes that underlie these judgments and perhaps into the instinctive expertise of those (such as casting directors, portrait photographers, picture editors, and animators) who create and manipulate these impressions professionally.

Richard Vernon, a Ph.D. student who was part of the research team, said: “Showing that even supposedly arbitrary features in a face can influence people’s perceptions suggests that careful choice of a photo could make (or break) others’ first impressions of you.”

Fellow Ph.D. student, Clare Sutherland, said: “We make first impressions of others so intuitively that it seems effortless — I think it’s fascinating that we can pin this down with scientific models. I’m now looking at how these first impressions might change depending on different cultural or gender groups of perceivers or faces.”

Professor Andy Young, of the Department of Psychology at York, said, “Showing how these first impressions can be captured from very variable images of faces offers insight into how our brains achieve this seemingly remarkable perceptual feat.”

Dr Tom Hartley, who led the research with Professor Young, added, “In everyday life I am not conscious of the way faces and pictures of faces are influencing the way I interact with people.

“Whether in ‘real life’ or online; it feels as if a person’s character is something I can just sense. These results show how heavily these impressions are influenced by visual features of the face — it’s quite an eye opener!”

Source: University of York

Comparison of facial features photo by shutterstock.

Aerobic Exercise May Boost Memory

Tue, 07/29/2014 - 7:00am

Older women with mild cognitive impairment may benefit significantly from regular aerobic exercise, new findings show. Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is an established risk factor for dementia and “represents a vital opportunity for intervening,” say Dr. Teresa Liu-Ambrose of the University of British Columbia, Canada, and colleagues in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Currently, 35.6 million people worldwide have dementia and this number is expected to increase to 115.4 million by the year 2050.

“Exercise is a promising strategy for combating cognitive decline by improving brain structure and function,” they write. Aerobic training in particular may benefit otherwise healthy community-dwelling older people.

They recruited 86 women aged 70 to 80 years with probable MCI. The women undertook either aerobic training (brisk walking), resistance training (lunges, squats, and weights), or balance and tone training twice a week, for six months. The balance and tone training was not strenuous exercise, and was considered the “control” group.

At the start and the end, the women were given MRI scans of their hippocampal volume. The hippocampus plays important roles in short-term and long-term memory, and spatial navigation, and appears to be very sensitive to the effects of aging and neurological damage. Tests were also given to measure verbal memory and learning.

Compared with the balance and tone “control” group, aerobic training significantly improved left, right, and total hippocampal volumes, the team reports. “We observed a 5.6 percent increase in the left hippocampus, a 2.5 percent increase in the right hippocampus, and a four percent increase in the total hippocampus,” they write.

But they add that there was “some evidence” that increased left hippocampal volume was linked with poorer verbal memory. However, in earlier studies, increased left hippocampal volume has been linked to better performance on verbal memory tests.

“The relationship between brain volume and cognitive performance is complex, and requires further research,” say the authors.

“We might have assumed a one percent gain in hippocampal volume should improve verbal learning memory by one percent, but our results suggest that it may not be that simple,” said Dr. Liu-Ambrose. “There may be other factors we are not considering.”

Limitations of this study include the lack of male participants and those aged below 70 and over 80. But the authors do recommend regular aerobic exercise to help prevent mild cognitive decline, in addition to its many other heath benefits.

They conclude, “Aerobic training significantly increased hippocampal volume in older women with probable MCI. More research is needed to ascertain the relevance of exercise-induced changes in hippocampal volume on memory performance in older adults with MCI.”

“The degree of benefit in terms of brain structure might actually be greater in people with early functional complaints than in healthy older people,” the team adds. “Understanding the effect of exercise on the hippocampus will increase our appreciation of the role exercise may play in dementia prevention,” they conclude.

Our understanding of the impact of exercise on MCI would now benefit from studies with more participants, as well as a focus on the different MCI subtypes (single-domain versus multidomain MCI).

The intensity of aerobic exercise performed may not be crucial, according to a 2012 study. Dr. Slivia Varela of the University of Vigo, Spain, and colleages looked at the effects of aerobic exercise at two different intensities on 48 elderly people with MCI living in care homes.

Aerobic exercise at 40 percent of resting heart rate has similar effects after three months to aerobic exercise at 60 percent of resting heart rate. Both led to “marginal improvements” on cognitive level as measured by the Mini Mental State Examination, and functional ability, measured by the Timed Up and Go test.

“No statistically significant differences were found at any time during the evaluation regarding cognitive level and functional autonomy,” write the researchers in the journal Clinical Rehabilitation. “Intensity does not seem to be a determining factor when aerobic exercise is performed by people with MCI.”

Potential mechanisms behind the cognition-enhancing effects of aerobic exercise have been investigated in animal research. They include beneficial effects on neuron function, neuron inflammation, hormonal responses to stress, and the amount of amyloid in the brain. Amyloid deposits raise the risk of Alzheimer’s disease as well as brain hemorrhages.

Of course exercise also has positive effects on physiological processes such as cardiovascular health and glucose regulation that, when compromised, increase the risk of developing cognitive impairment and dementia.


Ten Brinke, L. F. et al. Aerobic exercise increases hippocampal volume in older women with probable mid cognitive impairment: a six month randomised controlled trial. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 9 April 2014, doi 10.1136/bjsports-2013-093184

Varela, S. et al. Effects of two different intensities of aerobic exercise on elderly people with mild cognitive impairment: a randomized pilot study. Clinical Rehabilitation, May 2012 doi: 10.1177/0269215511425835

Doctor monitoring elderly woman walking on a treadmill photo by shutterstock.