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Updated: 1 hour 16 min ago

Study: Gay, Lesbian Neighborhoods Becoming More Diverse

Mon, 03/25/2019 - 6:45pm

Gay and lesbian spaces in cities are diversifying and spreading out rather than disappearing, according to a new study at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

It is commonly believed that major urban cities have just one gay neighborhood — or “gayborhood” — where all gay people live, and the rest are straight spaces. However, only 12 percent of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) adults in the U.S. currently live in a gayborhood, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center. The survey also found that 72 percent of LGBTQ Americans have never lived in a gayborhood.

The study, published as part of a special selection of essays in the journal City & Community, shows that LGBTQ people are increasingly living in “cultural archipelagos” beyond the gayborhood.

“LGBTQ Americans are an incredibly diverse group of people. Why wouldn’t we expect that diversity to express itself in the places they live and call home as well?” said Dr. Amin Ghaziani, associate professor in UBC’s department of sociology.

The study pulled data from the 2010 U.S. census to determine location patterns of lesbians, transgender people, same-sex couples with children, and LGBTQ people of color. While members of these subgroups don’t always feel welcome in the nation’s gayborhoods, the data shows that they do have their own places.

In many cities, clusters of same-sex couples with children have sprung up in areas well outside of gayborhoods, the study found. In Chicago and the outer boroughs of New York, queer communities of color have emerged. Places like “Chocolate Chelsea” and “Hell’s Cocina” in New York provide alternatives to the predominant whiteness of traditional gayborhoods.

African-Americans in same-sex partnerships are more likely to live in communities where there are higher populations of other African-Americans, rather than other LGBTQ people.

In addition, rural areas draw more same-sex female couples than male couples, and female couples tend to live where the median housing price per square foot is lower; perhaps a reflection of the gender pay gap. Researcher found the top zip codes for lesbian couples include Provincetown, Massachusetts; Northampton, Massachusetts; and the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. Gay men, however, are more likely to live in the Castro district in San Francisco or West Hollywood.

Overall, the findings reveal that the emergence of “mini-enclaves” and “little planets,” as one of Ghaziani’s interviewees dubbed them, could be a more significant development than the so-called decline of gayborhoods.

“We talk so much about the decline of the gayborhood,” said Ghaziani. “These areas are undoubtedly changing, but if we over-emphasize loss then we will not see the dynamic new developments that are taking place. We need to broaden our view beyond the gayborhood.”

Source: University of British Columbia


Childhood Trauma May Affect Brain Structure, Leading to More Severe Depression

Mon, 03/25/2019 - 6:30am

Childhood trauma may alter the structure of the brain in a way that makes clinical depression more likely to be severe and recurrent, according to new research published in The Lancet Psychiatry journal.

Some studies have shown a link between maltreatment and altered brain structure, while others have shown a link between maltreatment and major depressive disorder. The new study is the first to directly establish an association between maltreatment experiences, brain structural alterations and clinical course of depression.

For the study, researchers evaluated 110 patients, ages 18 to 60 years, who had been admitted to the hospital following a diagnosis of major depression.

Symptom severity was measured using questionnaires and interviews at two time points — at the time of initial recruitment (between 2010 and 2016) and at a two-year follow-up visit. All participants underwent a structural MRI scan at recruitment. The presence and level of childhood maltreatment was also asked via a questionnaire.

Results from MRI images suggest that both childhood maltreatment and recurring depression are associated with similar reductions in surface area of the brain’s insular cortex, a region believed to help regulate emotion and self-awareness.

The findings suggest that the observed reduction could make a future relapse more likely. Childhood maltreatment is one of the strongest risk factors for major depression.

“Our findings add further weight to the notion that patients with clinical depression who were mistreated as children are clinically distinct from non-maltreated patients with the same diagnosis,” said Dr. Nils Opel from the University of Münster, Germany, who led the research.

“Given the impact of the insular cortex on brain functions such as emotional awareness, it’s possible that the changes we saw make patients less responsive to conventional treatments. Future psychiatric research should therefore explore how our findings could be translated into special attention, care and treatment that could improve patient outcomes,” Opel said.

Patients were divided into two groups: those who did not experience any depressive episode in the two-year period (35 people, 17 men and 18 women) and those who experienced at least one additional depressive relapse (75 people, 35 men and 40 women).

Of the 75 patients in the relapse sample, 48 had experienced one additional episode, seven reported two episodes, and six experienced three episodes, while 14 had a remission period of less than two months and could therefore be regarded as having chronic depression. Childhood maltreatment was significantly associated with depression relapse.

Previous studies have only explored clinical state at the time of follow-up and did not consider clinical symptoms between assessments. For the new study, researchers assessed information on depressive symptoms over a full two-year period. Two years after they were recruited, all participants were invited to take part in a follow-up assessment in which symptoms within the full two-year period were assessed retrospectively.

A limitation of this work is that experiences of childhood maltreatment and depressive symptoms were asked about in retrospect and therefore could be subject to recall bias, the researchers said.

Source: The Lancet

Study: Teens Who Choose Solitude Know What’s Best for Them

Mon, 03/25/2019 - 6:00am

Young people who choose solitude may be doing what is best for themselves, according to a new study published in the Journal of Adolescence. The findings suggest that spending a lot of time alone isn’t necessarily a red flag for isolation or depression, but the key factor here is “choice.”

When solitude is imposed on young people, whether as punishment or as a result of social anxiety, it can be problematic. But chosen solitude can lead to personal growth and self-acceptance, say the researchers from the University of California (UC), Santa Cruz, and Wilmington College.

“Solitude has gotten a lot of bad press, especially for adolescents who get labeled as social misfits or lonely,” said co-author Dr. Margarita Azmitia, professor of psychology at UC Santa Cruz. “Sometimes, solitude is good. Developmentally, learning to be alone is a skill, and it can be refreshing and restorative.”

Most research on this issue doesn’t differentiate between solitude and loneliness, said Azmitia. “There’s a stigma for kids who spend time alone. They’re considered lacking in social skills, or they get labeled ‘loners,’ ” she said.

“It’s beneficial to know when you need to be alone and when you need to be with others. This study quantifies the benefits of solitude and distinguishes it from the costs of loneliness or isolation.”

Virginia Thomas, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Wilmington College, spearheaded the study as a graduate student in Azmitia’s lab, where she specialized in the role of solitude in identity development and emotional wellbeing.

When teens choose to spend time alone, says Thomas, solitude can provide an opportunity for self-reflection, creative expression, or spiritual renewal. But it can be challenging when it is imposed on them — when they pull away from social events because they lack friends, feel awkward, experience social anxiety, or are being punished.

To distinguish between these motivations, the researchers developed a 14-item survey that asked participants to rate their reasons for solitude on a four-point scale, asking questions like, “I feel energized when I spend time by myself,” and “I enjoy the quiet,” versus “I feel uncomfortable when I’m with others,” and “I regret things I say or do when I’m with others.”

“We got clear results that are pretty reliable indicators of adaptive versus maladaptive solitude,” said Thomas.

The findings show that young people who go into solitude because they feel rejected or want to retreat into isolation are at greater risk of social anxiety, loneliness, and depression, and they tend to have lower levels of identity development, autonomy, and positive relationships with others. On the other hand, those who seek solitude for positive reasons, such as self-reflection or a desire for peace and quiet, face none of these risks.

“These results increase our awareness that being alone can be restorative and a positive thing,” said Thomas. “The question is how to be alone without feeling like we’re missing out. For many people, solitude is like exercising a muscle they’ve never used. You have to develop it, flex it, and learn to use time alone to your benefit.”

Solitude serves the same positive functions in introverts and extroverts. “Introverts just need more of it,” noted Thomas.

“Our culture is pretty biased toward extroversion,” she said. “When we see any sign of shyness or introversion in children, we worry they won’t be popular. But we overlook plenty of well-adjusted teens and young adults who are perfectly happy when alone, and who benefit from their solitude.”

The researchers encourage parents to appreciate the benefits of solitude for their children. “Parents can help their children understand that being alone isn’t bad. It doesn’t mean nobody likes you,” said Azmitia. “Solitude can improve the well-being of kids who are overstimulated. They can learn to regulate their behavior, on their own, without being told to.”

“We need to build our cultural understanding that we don’t have to be social all the time,” said Azmitia. “Sometimes alone time is good time.”

Source: University of California- Santa Cruz


Infection in Pregnancy Tied to Greater Risk of Autism, Depression in Kids

Sun, 03/24/2019 - 9:14pm

Individuals whose mothers were hospitalized for an infection during pregnancy are at greater risk for autism and depression, according to a new Swedish study of nearly 1.8 million children.

“The results indicate that safeguarding against and preventing infection during pregnancy as far as possible by, for instance, following flu vaccination recommendations, may be called for,” said Dr. Verena Sengpiel, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

The findings are published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

Maternal infection with certain infectious agents, such as cytomegalovirus (CMV) or the herpes virus, are already known to be capable of harming fetal brain development and increasing the risk of certain psychiatric disorders.

The new findings, however, add to this knowledge by revealing that infection in general during pregnancy, too — including when the actual infectious agent does not reach the fetal brain — is linked to a greater risk of the child developing autism or depression later in life.

The researchers studied data on all children, totaling almost 1.8 million, born in Sweden during the years 1973-2014. The particulars from the Swedish Medical Birth Register were linked to the national inpatient register, which records whether the mother was treated in hospital with an infection diagnosis during pregnancy.

Using the inpatient register, the researchers also monitored these children’s mental health until 2014, when the oldest were aged 41.

The results show that if, during pregnancy, a mother with an infection diagnosis received hospital treatment, there was a significant increase in the risk of her child needing hospital care later in life, with a diagnosis of either autism or depression. The increase in risk was 79 percent for autism and 24 percent for depression.

No link was found between the mothers being in the hospital with an infection diagnosis during pregnancy and two other psychiatric diagnoses studied in their children: bipolar disorder and psychosis, including schizophrenia.

The pregnant women in the study may have been hospitalized with diagnoses other than infections, but then had infections diagnosed during their stay as well. The heightened risk of mental ill-health in the child was also evident after infections in their mothers that are usually considered mild, such as a common urinary tract infection.

The study was observational and offers no answer on how maternal infection during pregnancy impacts fetal brain development. However, other research has shown that an infection in the mother leads to an inflammatory reaction, and that some inflammatory proteins can affect gene expression in fetal brain cells.

Other studies have also found that inflammation in the mother increases production of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the placenta, which may affect fetal brain development.

Source: University of Gothenburg


REM Sleep Disorder Linked to Parkinson’s

Sun, 03/24/2019 - 7:12pm

In a new multi-center study of more than 1,200 people, Canadian researchers discovered rapid eye movement (REM) sleep behavior disorder is a strong predictor of Parkinson’s disease.

The study, led by Dr. Ron Postuma at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital followed 1,280 patients with rapid eye movement (REM) sleep behavior disorder. The study is the largest of its kind performed on patients with this disorder, which causes violent acting out of dreams as the normal paralysis during sleep is lost.

Study findings appear in the journal Brain.

REM sleep disorder has been closely correlated with Parkinson’s disease (PD) and related diseases such as Lewy body dementia and multiple system atrophy. To test drugs that may prevent PD from occurring, researchers need to identify people who are at high risk of the disease before it develops.

The period between development of REM sleep disorder and symptoms of PD is particularly long, making those with the disorder good candidates for clinical trials to test new PD therapies.

To select patients for clinical trials, however, it is important to know as precisely as possible what chances each patient has of developing PD, as there is significant variability among those with REM sleep disorder.

In the present study, patients performed tests that measured their motor, cognitive, autonomic and special sensory abilities over a period of years. Researchers found that 73.5 per cent of the patients had developed PD after 12 years of follow up, and that patients who experienced motor difficulties were three times more likely to develop PD or related diseases.

Other significant indicators of future PD development included mild cognitive and olfactory impairment.

Researchers used a sophisticated imaging technique — dopamine transporter (DAT) imaging — to test patients for future PD progression. Interestingly, this relatively complicated and expensive test was not found to be any more effective at predicting PD progression than the motor testing, which is a simple office-based test that takes five minutes to administer.

While previous studies of REM sleep disorder and PD came from single centers, this study was done across multiple centers in North America, Europe and Asia, making the findings more robust. Overall, the findings will improve the selection process for clinical trials and help doctors prioritize patients for therapies that prevent the disease.

“We confirmed a very high risk of PD in people with REM sleep disorder and found several strong predictors of this progression,” Postuma said.

“As new disease-modifying treatments are being developed for PD and related diseases, these patients are ideal candidates for neuroprotective trials.”

Source: McGill University

Eating Breakfast with Parents Tied to Better Body Image for Kids

Sun, 03/24/2019 - 7:06pm

A new study has found that consistently eating breakfast as a family might promote positive body image for children and adolescents.

“We know that developing healthy behaviors in adolescence, such as eating breakfast every day and eating family meals, can have long-term effects into adulthood,” said Dr. Virginia Ramseyer Winter, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work and director of the University of Missouri Center for Body Image Research and Policy.

“Children and adolescents are under a lot of pressure from social media and pop culture when it comes to physical appearance. Having a healthy relationship with food from eating breakfast and spending meal time with family might have a significant impact on well-being.”

For the new study, researchers analyzed data from more than 12,000 students in more than 300 schools in all 50 states and Washington D.C. They looked at data related to eating behaviors, including frequency of eating breakfast and eating meals with a parent.

The researchers found that eating breakfast during the week more frequently was associated with positive body image.

Just over half of the students reported eating breakfast five days a week, while nearly 17 percent reported never eating breakfast. More than 30 percent reported eating breakfast fewer than five times a week. The researchers also found that boys were more likely to eat breakfast than girls.

Additionally, the researchers found that children were much more likely to have a positive body image if they regularly ate breakfast with a parent.

“We know that the health behaviors of a parent can have long-term effects on a child,” Ramseyer Winter said. “Results of this study suggest that positive interactions with food — such as eating breakfast and having family meals together — could be associated with body image.”

The study was published in Social Work in Public Health.

Source: University of Missouri-Columbia

Altered Neuron Growth May Be Why Some Depressed People Don’t Respond to SSRIs

Sun, 03/24/2019 - 6:00am

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most commonly prescribed medication for major depressive disorder (MDD), yet scientists still do not understand why they don’t work in nearly 30 percent of patients.

A new study by researchers at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, discovered differences in growth patterns of neurons of SSRI-resistant patients. Published in Molecular Psychiatry, the study has implications for depression, as well as other psychiatric conditions, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia that likely also involve abnormalities of the serotonin system in the brain, according to the researchers.

“With each new study, we move closer to a fuller understanding of the complex neural circuitry underlying neuropsychiatric diseases, including major depression,” said Salk Professor Rusty Gage, the study’s senior author, president of the Institute, and the Vi and John Adler Chair for Research on Age-Related Neurodegenerative Disease.

“This paper, along with another we recently published, not only provides insights into this common treatment, but also suggests that other drugs, such as serotonergic antagonists, could be additional options for some patients.”

The cause of depression is still unknown, but scientists believe the disease is partly linked to the serotonergic circuit in the brain, the researcher explains. This is largely because SSRIs, which increase levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin at neuron connections, help alleviate the symptoms of many people diagnosed with depression.

However, the mechanism of why some people respond to SSRIs, while others do not, remains a mystery.

Solving that mystery has been challenging because it requires studying the 300,000 neurons that use the neurotransmitter serotonin for communication within a brain of 100 billion total neurons, researchers point out. One way scientists have recently overcome this obstacle is to generate these serotonergic neurons in the lab.

The team’s previous study published in Molecular Psychiatry showed that SSRI non-responders had increased receptors for serotonin, which made the neurons hyperactive in response to serotonin. In the new study, researchers wanted to examine SSRI non-responders from a different angle.

“We wanted to know if serotonin biochemistry, gene expression, and circuitry were altered in SSRI non-responders compared to responders using serotonergic neurons derived from MDD patients,” said Dr. Krishna Vadodaria, a Salk staff scientist and first author of the new paper. “Using neurons derived from actual MDD patients provides a novel representation of how SSRI responders compare to non-responders.”

From a large-scale clinical study of 800 MDD patients, the researchers selected the most extreme cases of SSRI response — patients who drastically improved when taking SSRIs and patients who saw no effect.

The researchers took skin samples from these patients and reprogrammed the cells into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to create serotonergic neurons they could study.

The scientists examined serotonin targets in patient serotonergic neurons, including the enzyme that makes serotonin, the protein that transports it, and the enzyme that breaks it down, but found no differences in biochemistry interactions between groups. Instead, the researchers observed a difference in how the neurons responded based on their shape.

Neurons from SSRI non-responders had longer neuron projections than responders, the researchers discovered.

Abnormal features could lead to too much neuronal communication in some areas of the brain and not enough in other parts, altering communication within the serotonergic circuitry and explaining why SSRIs do not always work to treat MDD, the researchers explain.

“These results contribute to a new way of examining, understanding, and addressing depression,” Gage said.

Source: The Salk Institute

Photo: These are human serotonergic neuron projections (red) and cell bodies (green). Credit: Salk Institute.

Childhood Anxiety Linked to Later Problems With Alcohol

Sat, 03/23/2019 - 11:00am

New research has found evidence that children and adolescents with higher levels of anxiety may be at a greater risk of developing alcohol problems.

Many studies have investigated the relationship between anxiety and alcohol use, but the evidence has been unclear, say researchers at the University of Bristol in the U.K.. Some studies found higher anxiety is linked to greater alcohol use, while others found anxiety is linked to lower alcohol use, or there was no association.

For their study, researchers at the university’s Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group carried out a systematic review of 51 prospective cohort studies from 11 countries: the United States, Germany, Finland, UK, Netherlands, Australia, Taiwan, Canada, New Zealand, Sweden, and Norway. The study sought to explore whether early anxiety is linked to later alcohol use and alcohol use disorders.

The researchers found that 46 studies included males and females, four had an all-male sample, and one had an all-female sample. The study sample sizes ranged from 110 to 11,157 participants. Anxiety exposure ages ranged from three to 24 years, and alcohol outcome ages ranged from 11 to 42 years.

The researchers found some evidence of a link between child and adolescent anxiety and later alcohol use disorders. However, associations of anxiety with later drinking frequency, quantity, and binge drinking were more inconsistent, they report.

“Our findings indicate that young people with higher anxiety may have a greater risk of developing alcohol problems,” said Maddy Dyer, a Ph.D. student in the School of Psychological Science’s Tobacco and Alcohol Research Group, who led the research. 

“Further research is needed to understand why there are differences in associations for alcohol consumption levels versus problematic use, and to establish which individuals with anxiety develop alcohol problems. This could lead to improvements in personalized interventions.”

The study is published in the journal Addiction.

Source: University of Bristol

Recipe for Creativity: Crank Out Ideas and Step Away

Sat, 03/23/2019 - 10:48am

A new study suggests there is an effective formula employers can use to unlock employees’ creative potential: Reward workers to generate an abundance of ideas — even mediocre ones — and then have them step away from the project for an “incubation period.”

The findings, published in the journal Accounting Review, reveal that people who were rewarded simply for churning out ideas, whether good or bad, ultimately ended up producing more creative ideas than those who received no pay incentives or those whose pay was based on the quality of their ideas rather than quantity. All the study participants stepped away from the initial task for a time and returned to it later.

“Creativity is not instantaneous, but if incentives promote enough ideas as seeds for thought, creativity eventually emerges,” said co-author Dr. Steven Kachelmeier, the Randal B. McDonald Chair in Accounting from the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin.

Creative performance is known to be enhanced by an incubation period, but this study posed a new question: What happens when you add incentives for idea generation to the equation?

Kachelmeier and his co-authors, Laura Wang from McCombs and Michael Williamson, from the Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, conducted two experiments. First, they asked participants to create rebus puzzles — riddles where words, phrases or sayings are represented using a combination of images and letters.

Some participants were offered pay based on the number of ideas they proposed, some only for ideas that met a standard for creativity, and others a fixed wage of $25, regardless of the quantity or quality of their puzzle ideas.

Initially, none of the incentivized groups outperformed the fixed-wage group in measures of creativity, as judged by an independent panel. Creativity incentives, it would seem, do not work instantly.

But when participants returned to the creativity task 10 days later, those who had originally been paid to come up with as many ideas as they could had “a distinct creativity advantage,” outperforming the other groups in both the quantity and quality of ideas, Kachelmeier said.

The resting period that took place after participants had cranked out ideas was key to their success, the researchers said. Combining mass idea generation with an incubation period results in much more creative productivity than when either of the two strategies is used in isolation.

How much time is needed? That’s the question the team explored in the next experiment, in which they paid half of the participants a fixed amount and the rest of the participants according to the number of ideas they produced. As before, the pay-for-quantity participants yielded more, but not better, initial ideas than the fixed-pay group.

But after the participants went on a quiet, 20-minute walk around campus, the pay-for-quantity group once again produced more and better puzzles.

“You need to rest, take a break and detach yourself, even if that detachment is just 20 minutes,” Kachelmeier said. “The recipe for creativity is try — and get frustrated because it’s not going to happen. Relax, sit back, and then it happens.”

Source: University of Texas at Austin

ADHD Drug May Increase Risk of Psychosis in Young People

Sat, 03/23/2019 - 6:00am

A new “Big Data” study finds that teens and young people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who begin treatment with amphetamine medications are at greater risk for psychosis.

The research looked at the two most common ADHD treatments and found that, although the risk of psychosis is low, it is higher for patients taking amphetamines (marketed as Adderall and Vyvanse) than for those taking methylphenidates (marketed as Ritalin or Concerta).

Researchers at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School reviewed the data of 221,846 patients (ages 13 to 25) diagnosed with ADHD who started taking amphetamines or methylphenidate between January 1, 2004, and September 30, 2015.

They found that one in every 486 patients started on an amphetamine developed psychosis that required treatment with antipsychotic medication compared to 1 in 1,046 patients started on a methylphenidate.

“The findings are concerning because the use of amphetamines in adolescents and young adults has more than tripled in recent years. More and more patients are being treated with these medications,” said researcher Lauren V. Moran, M.D., and lead author of the paper.

“There is not a lot of research comparing the safety profiles of amphetamines and methylphenidate, despite increasing use of these medications,” said Moran, although clinicians have long observed “patients without previous psychiatric history coming with psychosis in the setting of stimulant use.”

Despite the increased risk, Moran emphasizes that the study was limited to youth who had been recently diagnosed with ADHD and therefore only recently begun treatment. “People who have been on a drug like Adderall for a long time who are taking the drug as prescribed and are tolerating it well are not likely to experience this problem” said Moran.

The analysis is the first to use ADHD drug data taken from routine patient care rather than clinical trial data. Using this type of data ensures that study results reflect treatment patterns in large and varied populations, in contrast to the precisely uniform care received by subjects in controlled research trials. As a result, the findings are more likely to be relevant to a wide group of patients.

“We analyzed two large insurance claims databases to understand the risk for patients who start taking amphetamines to treat ADHD in a way that aligns with real-world evidence generation processes suggested by regulatory agencies,” said Sebastian Schneeweiss, M.D., Sc.D., professor at Harvard Medical School.

“The study illustrates the importance of using data from the real world, from diverse patients, to better understand the safety of commonly prescribed medications and allow physicians to weigh benefits and risks.”

The research paper is published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Source: McLean Hospital


Many in Addiction Recovery Face Chronic Health Issues

Fri, 03/22/2019 - 6:30am

More than a third of people recovering from addiction continue to suffer from chronic physical disease, according to a new study conducted by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Recovery Research Institute.

The research, published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine, is the first to look at the national prevalence of medical conditions that are often caused or worsened by excessive and chronic alcohol or drug use among people in addiction recovery.

“The prodigious psychological, social and interpersonal impact of excessive and chronic alcohol and other drug use is well characterized,” said lead and corresponding author David Eddie, Ph.D., research scientist at the Recovery Research Institute. “Less well appreciated is the physical disease burden, especially among those who have successfully resolved a significant substance use problem.”

The researchers analyzed information from a nationally representative sample of more than 2,000 U.S. adults describing themselves as in recovery from problems with the use of alcohol, cannabis, opioids, stimulants or other drugs.

Of these, 37 percent had been diagnosed with one or more of nine alcohol- and drug-exacerbated diseases and health conditions: liver disease, tuberculosis (TB), HIV/AIDS or other sexually transmitted infections (STIs), cancer, hepatitis C, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease and diabetes.

The presence of these diseases was found to be tied to significant reductions in participants’ quality of life, and all are known to reduce life expectancy.

The researchers found that levels of hepatitis C, COPD, heart disease and diabetes were more heightened among individuals in recovery, compared with the general population. The prevalence of hepatitis C was significantly higher in the opioid and stimulant groups than those who reported alcohol as their primary substance.

Lifetime prevalence of HIV/AIDS and other STIs was significantly higher in the stimulant group than in the alcohol group. Factors such as each additional substance used 10 or more times, older age at disease onset, and resolving the alcohol or other drug problem later in life were linked to a 4 to 7 percent increase in the odds of having two or more chronic physical diseases.

“Although finding that those using injected drugs had higher rates of hepatitis C and HIV may seem intuitive, other findings are not,” says Eddie, an MGH clinical psychologist and an instructor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School.

“For instance, those citing cannabis as their primary substance did not have lower rates of alcohol-related liver disease than participants who primarily used alcohol. It may be that these individuals had prior histories of heavy alcohol involvement.”

Those recovering from opioid addiction had the lowest rates of heart disease, and diabetes was least common among those who reported cannabis as their primary substance. There were no significant differences between primary substance groups in rates of TB or COPD.

In general, being younger and having more social stability and economic resources — such as higher education, being married or living with a partner, and being employed — were linked to few or no physical diseases. Being female, Hispanic or having a household income greater than $50,000 were also linked to a reduced risk of physical disease.

“We’ve known for a long time that chronic and heavy substance use can cause a multitude of diseases directly and indirectly,” Eddie said.

“The extent to which these diseases and health conditions continue to persist for the millions of Americans who achieve recovery remains to be clarified, but this study highlights the fact that these negative impacts may continue to affect quality of life even when people achieve addiction recovery.”

“Earlier and more assertive intervention is needed for individuals with alcohol and other drug problems to help prevent these other diseases,” he said.

“In addition, addiction treatment needs to be more seamlessly integrated with primary health care, and more research is needed to explore the complex relationships between alcohol and other drug use and physical disease.”

Source: Massachusetts General Hospital



Delusions May Stem from ‘Sticky’ Beliefs

Fri, 03/22/2019 - 6:00am

A study published in the journal Brain offers new insights into the development of delusions — false beliefs that are rigidly held with strong conviction despite contradictory evidence. Based on the findings, the researchers framed delusions as “sticky” beliefs that tend to evolve in an unusually slow manner.

An estimated 80-90 percent of patients with schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders experience delusions, but scientists are still unsure of what causes these often distressing and debilitating beliefs.

A long-held hypothesis is that delusions are caused by alterations in one’s ability to make inferences. An inference is a person’s “best guess” based on all available evidence and reasoning.

Delusional and delusion-prone individuals may have a tendency to gather less data before forming beliefs. Other experiments have suggested that other cognitive processes may be involved.

“The experiments typically used to understand the link between inference and delusions have focused on cognitive and decision-making skills, but they haven’t conclusively shown a link between inference-making and delusion severity,” said Guillermo Horga, M.D., Ph.D., the Florence Irving Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and lead author of the paper.

“We developed a novel experiment to determine whether delusions stem from abnormalities in inference.”

In the experiment, researchers at Columbia University and New York State Psychiatric Institute asked 26 adults with schizophrenia, including 12 who were being treated with antipsychotic medications, and 25 healthy individuals to draw beads from one of two hidden jars.

Based on the type of bead, the participants must guess from which jar the beads are being pulled. For example, one jar might hold mostly green and a few pink beads, while another jar holds the opposite ratio.

Participants were given money, which could be used to bet on which jar the bead came from. The participants were told that drawing additional beads would help them bet correctly, though it would diminish their winnings. Throughout the experiment, they were asked to rate the odds of their bet on the identity of the jar.

“We found that patients who experienced more severe delusions tended to seek more information in the task before making a guess than their less-delusional counterparts. This is a truly novel finding, and it helps confirm the fact that rigidity is an important part of delusional beliefs,” says Horga.

Using computational modeling, the team developed a framework casting delusions as “sticky” beliefs that evolve in an unusually slow way. This may explain why delusional patients seek more information than non-delusional individuals. It could also help to identify new treatment approaches, such as neurostimulation of the prefrontal brain areas involved in updating beliefs, or cognitive training to shape inference-making.

“Previous work suggested that psychotic patients ‘jump to conclusions,’ but in our study we saw that individuals with more delusional beliefs took more beads from the jar before they made up their minds,” Horga said.

“While participants with schizophrenia jumped to conclusions more than healthy individuals, delusions specifically were associated with slower change in individuals’ beliefs.”

Source: Columbia University Irving Medical Center

Eating Nuts for Years Tied to Better Cognition in Older Adults

Thu, 03/21/2019 - 10:30pm

People who consume just a handful of nuts each day for several years can significantly improve their cognitive function in old age, according to a new study from the University of South Australia (UniSA).

The research, which involved 4,822 Chinese adults ages 55 and older, shows that eating more than 10 grams of nuts per day (including peanuts, a legume) was linked to better mental functioning, including improved thinking, reasoning and memory.

Lead researcher Dr. Ming Li said the study is the first to find a link between cognition and nut consumption in older Chinese adults. The findings provide important insights into the increasing mental health issues (including dementia) faced by aging populations.

“Population aging is one of the most substantial challenges of the twenty-first century. Not only are people living longer, but as they age, they require additional health support which is placing unprecedented pressure on aged-care and health services,” Li said.

“In China, this is a massive issue, as the population is aging far more rapidly than almost any other country in the world. Improved and preventative health care including dietary modifications can help address the challenges that an aging population presents.”

“By eating more than 10 grams (or two teaspoons) of nuts per day older people could improve their cognitive function by up to 60 percent, compared to those not eating nuts, effectively warding off what would normally be experienced as a natural two-year cognition decline.”

The UniSA researchers evaluated nine waves of data collected for more than 22 years from the China Health Nutrition Survey. They found that 17 percent of participants were regular consumers of nuts (mostly peanuts). Li said peanuts have specific anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects which can alleviate and reduce cognitive decline.

“Nuts are known to be high in healthy fats, protein and fiber with nutritional properties that can lower cholesterol and improve cognitive health,” Li says. “While there is no cure for age-related cognition decline and neurogenerative disease, variations in what people eat are delivering improvements for older people.”

The World Health Organization estimates that globally, the number of people living with dementia is at 47 million. By 2030, this is projected to rise to 75 million and by 2050, global dementia cases are estimated to almost triple. China has the largest population of people with dementia.

“As people age, they naturally experience changes to conceptual reasoning, memory, and processing speed. This is all part of the normal ageing process,” Li said.

“But age is also the strongest known risk factor for cognitive disease. If we can find ways to help older people retain their cognitive health and independence for longer — even by modifying their diet — then this absolutely worth the effort.”

Source: University of South Australia


Some Autistic Kids Are In Tune with Mom’s Emotions

Thu, 03/21/2019 - 10:16pm

For children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), recognizing facial expressions in others is especially challenging. New research, however, finds that some ASD children display skilled and proficient emotional processing skills when viewing their mother’s faces.

Typically, ASD children show impairments in social interactions including a lack of interest in initiating conversation and the inability to make traditional eye contact. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 59 children has been identified with ASD, which occurs in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups.

Although prior studies have assessed the ability to recognize facial emotion in both children and adults with ASD, results have been surprisingly inconsistent. Furthermore, studies in children with ASD have typically only tested using unfamiliar images, with two-types of expressions, “neutral” and “emotional,” and with wide age-ranges.

In an effort to expand knowledge on emotional processing among those with ASD, researchers from Florida Atlantic University’s conducted a study in children with and without ASD, ages 4 to 8 years old. They used five distinct facial emotions; happy, sad, anger, fear, and neutral, which served as a control.

They used facial emotion recognition tasks that featured both familiar and unfamiliar faces. They wanted to test how familiarity influences performance in these two groups of children using a constant familiar stimulus — their mothers.

The researchers also explored how high-functioning children with ASD differed from typically developing children in their ability to recognize positive and negative facial expressions. Evidence has shown that children with ASD have a harder time recognizing negative facial expressions like sadness and anger compared to positive expressions like happiness and excitement.

Investigators believe their findings, which appear in the journal Child Psychiatry & Human Development, provide evidence that children without ASD are more proficient in recognizing unfamiliar facial emotion expressions than children with ASD. This difference is particularly strong for perceiving negative emotions such as fear and sadness.

Intriguingly, researchers also discovered that children with high-functioning ASD have adept and competent emotional processing skills when viewing their mother’s faces. They are just as “in-tune” with their mother’s feelings and emotions as children without ASD. The two groups of children did not differ in recognizing expressions from familiar faces.

“The result that the two groups of children did not differ in their ability to recognize familiar expressions is very insightful. Previous neurological and eye-tracking studies have hinted at this possibility, but it has rarely been demonstrated at the conscious level on a self-report test,” said Nathaniel A. Shanok, a doctoral student and lead author.

Co-author Nancy Aaron Jones, Ph.D., is an associate psychology professor and director of the WAVES Laboratory in FAU’s College of Science. “Future large-scale studies should investigate if this effect also is pertinent to expressions from additional familiar individuals like fathers, siblings and classmates.”

Children with ASD are less skilled at processing emotional information, especially sad faces, when they view the faces of strangers. Findings from this study show that children with ASD are perceptive to their mother’s emotions, which may indicate greater potential to learn and socialize with people they know rather than with strangers.

“It’s unclear whether the ability of children with autism spectrum disorder to gauge emotional information from strangers’ faces is due to genuine deficits in their processing ability, the indifferent nature of negative emotions, or due to a general pattern of disinterest in negative emotion displays or unfamiliar people,” said Jones.

Shanok, Aaron Jones and Nikola N. Lucas, Ph.D., co-author at Ashford University in San Diego, note that for children with ASD, further difficulties in recognizing negative or complex facial emotional expressions may be due in part to variations in eye contact and eye tracking behavior.

Other studies have shown that these children focus less on the eyes and more on other facial areas that are less informative of an individual’s emotional state. This finding explains their difficulty with recognizing sad and other expressions as well as rarely struggling with recognizing happy expressions, as too was the case for the FAU study.

This study highlights the importance of understanding facial emotion recognition skills in children with ASD and potentially enhancing facial emotion recognition tasks to include expressions from both familiar and unfamiliar individuals.

The researchers say administering this type of task in children who vary in socio-emotional processing skills may help developmental scientists and clinicians to understand the types of social situations that are more challenging for this group.

Portions of this study are being presented at the upcoming Society for Research in Child Development conference in Baltimore and will examine the links between brain activation patterns and emotion processing in children on the autism spectrum.

In addition, this research continues to be conducted as the FAU WAVES laboratory team is currently collecting data using a computerized program that gradually moves from one expression to the next (a morphing program) in hopes to understand real-time emotional processing abilities in children with autism.

Source: Florida Atlantic University/EurekAlert

Study: Inflammation Links Heart Disease and Depression

Thu, 03/21/2019 - 6:45am

It is well-established that individuals with heart disease are more likely to suffer from depression, and vice versa. Now in a new study, researchers at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. have identified an important factor linking these two conditions: inflammation.

Although inflammation is the body’s natural response to fighting off infection, chronic inflammation is very harmful. Long-term inflammation can be caused by psychological stress as well as lifestyle factors such as smoking, excessive alcohol intake, physical inactivity and obesity.

The association between heart disease and depression is well documented. Heart attack patients are at a significantly greater risk of depression. Yet scientists have been unable to determine whether this is due to the two conditions sharing common genetic factors or shared environmental factors.

“It is possible that heart disease and depression share common underlying biological mechanisms, which manifest as two different conditions in two different organs — the cardiovascular system and the brain,” says Dr. Golam Khandaker, a Wellcome Trust Intermediate Clinical Fellow at the University of Cambridge. “Our work suggests that inflammation could be a shared mechanism for these conditions.”

For the study, Khandaker with Dr. Stephen Burgess and a team of Cambridge researchers investigated this link by studying the data of nearly 370,000 middle-aged individuals from the UK Biobank.

First, they looked at whether family history of coronary heart disease was tied to a risk of major depression. They discovered that individuals who reported at least one parent having died of heart disease were 20 percent more likely to develop depression at some point in their life.

Next, the researchers calculated a genetic risk score for coronary heart disease — a measure of the contribution made by the various genes known to increase the risk of heart disease. Heart disease is a “polygenic” disease; caused not by a single genetic variant, but rather by a large number of genes, each increasing a person’s risk of developing heart disease by a small amount.

Unlike for family history, however, the researchers did not find a strong link between the genetic predisposition for heart disease and the likelihood of experiencing depression.

Together, these findings suggest that the association between heart disease and depression cannot be explained by a common genetic predisposition to the two diseases. Rather, it suggests that something about an individual’s environment, such as the risk factors they are exposed to, not only increases their risk of heart disease, but also raises their risk of depression.

This finding was further supported by the next stage of the study. The team used a randomizing technique to investigate 15 biomarkers, or biological “red flags,” associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease.

Of these common biomarkers, they found that triglycerides (a type of fat found in the blood) and the inflammation-related proteins IL-6 and CRP were also risk factors for depression. Both IL-6 and CRP are inflammatory markers that are produced in response to damaging stimuli, such as infection, stress or smoking.

Research by Khandaker and others has previously shown that individuals with heightened levels of IL-6 and CRP in the blood are more prone to developing depression, and that levels of these biomarkers are high in some patients during an acute depressive episode. Elevated markers of inflammation are also seen in people with treatment resistant depression.

“This study adds important new insight into the emergence and risk of depression, a significantly under researched area,” said Dr. Sophie Dix. “Taking a holistic view of a person’s health — such as looking at heart disease and depression together — enables us to understand how factors like traumatic experiences and the environment impact on both our physical and mental health.”

“We need to stop thinking about mental and physical health in isolation and continue this example of bringing sciences together to create real change.”

The findings are published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Source: University of Cambridge


Case Study Shows Psychosis Tied to Bacterial Infection

Thu, 03/21/2019 - 6:00am

In a new case study published in the Journal of Central Nervous System Disease, researchers from North Carolina State University describe an adolescent diagnosed with rapid onset schizophrenia who was later found to have Bartonella henselae infection.

Bartonella is a bacteria most commonly known for its role in cat scratch disease.

The case adds to the growing body of evidence that Bartonella infection can mimic a host of chronic health conditions, including mental illness, and could open up new avenues of research into bacterial or microbial causes of psychiatric disorders.

There are at least 30 different known species of Bartonella, and 13 of these have been found to affect humans. Until recently, the bacteria was believed to be a short-lived (or self-limiting) infection.

Bartonella is notorious for “hiding” in the linings of blood vessels, but with the invention of new, more sensitive diagnostic tools, the bacteria has been detected in the blood or cerebrospinal fluid of patients with a variety of neurological symptoms. In fact, Bartonella has been found in individuals diagnosed with chronic illnesses ranging from migraines to seizures to rheumatoid illnesses.

In this case study, an adolescent who presented with sudden-onset psychotic behavior was initially diagnosed with schizophrenia. The patient was seen and treated by numerous specialists and therapists over an 18-month period; however, all conventional treatments for both psychosis and autoimmune disorders failed.

Finally a physician recognized the patient’s skin lesions as those often associated with the Bartonella infection. The patient tested positive for the bacteria and was given combination antimicrobial chemotherapy which led to a full recovery.

“This case is interesting for a number of reasons,” said Dr. Ed Breitschwerdt, Melanie S. Steele Distinguished Professor of Internal Medicine at NC State and lead author of the case report.

“Beyond suggesting that Bartonella infection itself could contribute to progressive neuropsychiatric disorders like schizophrenia, it raises the question of how often infection may be involved with psychiatric disorders generally,” he said.

“Researchers are starting to look at things like infection’s role in Alzheimer’s disease, for example. Beyond this one case, there’s a lot of movement in trying to understand the potential role of viral and bacterial infections in these medically complex diseases. This case gives us proof that there can be a connection, and offers an opportunity for future investigations.”

Source: North Carolina State University


Tweaking Exposure Therapy Can Improve Outcomes for PTSD

Wed, 03/20/2019 - 6:00am

Researchers may have found a way to improve a first-line  treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by changing how the brain learns to respond less intensely  to fearful conditions.

The study by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School suggests a potential improvement to exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is the current gold standard for PTSD treatment and anxiety reduction. The method helps people gradually approach their trauma-related memories and feelings by confronting those memories in a safe setting, away from actual threat.

In a study of 46 healthy adults, researchers compared participants’ emotional reactions to replacing an unpleasant electric shock on the wrist with a surprise neutral tone, instead of simply turning off the shocks. Omitting the feared shocks is the current norm in exposure therapy.

The participants’ brain activity was measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Their emotional reactions were measured by how much they were sweating from their hands.

Compared with simply turning off the shocks, replacing the feared shocks with a neutral tone was associated with stronger activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area critical for learning safety and inhibiting fear.

Researchers discovered replacing the feared shock with a simple tone lowered participants’ emotional reactions to pictures that previously had been associated with the electric shock when participants were tested the next day. Study findings appear in the Journal of Neuroscience.

“This simple treatment of replacing an expected threat with an innocuous sound resulted in a long-lasting memory of safety, which suggests that the brain may be able to better control its fear response by means of a pretty straightforward, nonpharmaceutical intervention,” said lead study author Joseph Dunsmoor, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Dell Medical School.

In the study, Dunsmoor’s team randomly divided participants to two groups: those who had the shock turned off and those who had the shock replaced by a neutral tone. Both groups were exposed to a picture of a face paired with an electric shock on the wrist on day one of the study.

The groups were then exposed to the pictures with the shock turned off, or with the shock replaced by the surprising tone. Both groups returned the next day to measure brain activity and emotional reactions to the fear-conditioned pictures.

The researchers measured participants’ brain activity to the fear-conditioned pictures using fMRI scans. They also measured participants’ emotional responses to the threat of receiving an electric shock based on the amount of sweat recorded from a hand.

“It is well-known that the brain learns by surprise,” says Dunsmoor. “Our study suggests that replacing expected aversive events with neutral and unexpected events, even a simple tone, is one way to capture attention so that the brain can learn to regulate fear more effectively.”

Source: University of Texas at Austin

Holocaust Survivors With PTSD May Pass Down Negative Views of Aging to Adult Children

Tue, 03/19/2019 - 6:00am

A new Israeli study finds that negative views on aging are often passed down in families of Holocaust survivors with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The findings, published in the Journals of Gerontology: Series B, show that Holocaust survivors with PTSD view themselves as aging less successfully compared to survivors without PTSD as well as to older adults who weren’t exposed to the Holocaust.

The research is important, as individuals who maintain a positive view on aging tend to have a stronger sense of well-being, increased self-efficacy and the motivation to maintain a healthy lifestyle, all of which ultimately influence physical and biological aging. But exposure to trauma, directly or indirectly, may significantly impact these views.

According to the study, post-traumatic Holocaust survivors and their children perceived aging more negatively, were more focused on frailty, loneliness and the imminent threat of death. However, they could still account for some positive aspects of aging.

“This may be explained by the accumulation of life experience and wisdom, and the opportunity to share their insights with younger generations,” said Professor Amit Shrira, of the Interdisciplinary Department of Social Sciences at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

“This is proof of the unique strengths of many survivors — even those who suffer from a high level of mental distress, but are not entirely overwhelmed by the aftereffects of the trauma.”

Although most survivors and their adult children manifest impressive resilience, negative views on aging may put them at greater risk for physical deterioration. Because of this, the study emphasizes the need to address such perceptions in interventions with survivors’ families.

The researchers believe that interventions could promote more complex, differentiated perceptions of aging by taking into account potential losses alongside the possibility of maintaining function, and even gaining new abilities, in old age. “Promoting such views on aging can increase the sense of self-efficacy and help in the preservation of physical health among survivors and their offspring,” said Shrira.

Most research on intergenerational transmission of trauma has focused on one generation, either the survivors themselves or their children (or grandchildren). In a 2016 study, Shrira found that the offspring of Holocaust survivors are especially anxious about aging and dying.

By evaluating both survivors and offspring in the new study, he able to correlate behaviors, perceptions, and feelings among parents and their offspring. This provided further evidence that negative views on aging were transmitted from post-traumatic parents to their children.

Source: Bar-Ilan University


Healthy Diet Early On May Mean Fitter Brain in Middle Age

Mon, 03/18/2019 - 10:01pm

Eating a heart-healthy diet in young adulthood — one rich in fruits and vegetables, moderate in nuts, fish and alcohol, and low in meat and full-fat dairy — is associated with better cognitive performance in middle age, according to a new study.

“Our findings indicate that maintaining good dietary practices throughout adulthood can help to preserve brain health at midlife,” said study author Claire T. McEvoy, Ph.D., of Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland.

The study included 2,621 people who were an average age of 25 at the start of the study and were then followed for 30 years. They were asked about their diet at the beginning of the study and again seven and 20 years later.

Cognitive function was tested twice, when they were about 50 and 55 years old, according to the researchers.

Dietary patterns were evaluated to see how closely they adhered to three heart-healthy diets: The Mediterranean diet, the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, and diet quality score designed as part of a study called the CARDIA a priori Diet Quality Score, or APDQS.

The Mediterranean diet emphasizes whole grains, fruits, vegetables, healthy unsaturated fats, nuts, legumes, and fish and limits red meat, poultry, and full-fat dairy.

The DASH diet emphasizes grains, vegetables, fruits, low-fat dairy, legumes, and nuts and limits meat, fish, poultry, total fat, saturated fat, sweets, and sodium.

The APDQS diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, legumes, low-fat dairy, fish, and moderate alcohol, and limits fried foods, salty snacks, sweets, high-fat dairy, and sugar-sweetened soft drinks.

For each diet, study participants were divided into one of three groups — low, medium or high adherence score — based on how closely they followed the diet, the researchers explained.

The researchers found that people who followed the Mediterranean diet and the APDQS diet had less decline in their cognitive function at middle age between ages 50 and 55.

People with high adherence to the Mediterranean diet were 46 percent less likely to have poor thinking skills than people with low adherence to the diet, according to the study’s findings. Of the 868 people in the high group, 9 percent had poor thinking skills, compared to 29 percent of the 798 people in the low group, the researchers discovered.

People with high adherence to the APDQS diet were 52 percent less likely to have poor thinking skills than people with low adherence to the diet. Of the 938 people in the high group, 6 percent had poor thinking skills, compared to 32 percent of the 805 people in the low group, the study showed.

The results were adjusted for other factors that could affect cognitive function, such as level of education, smoking, diabetes, and physical activity.

McEvoy noted there were large differences in fruit and vegetable intake between the low and high groups for the diets.

For the Mediterranean diet, the low group had an average of 2.3 servings of fruit per day and 2.8 of vegetables, compared to 4.2 servings of fruit and 4.4 of vegetables for the high group. For the APDQS diet, the low group ate 2.7 servings of fruit and 4.3 of vegetables, compared to 3.7 and 4.4 for the high group, according to the study’s findings.

McEvoy added the study does not show that a heart-healthy diet results in better thinking skills. It only shows an association between the two.

This association was not seen with the DASH diet, the researcher noted.

“One possibility is that DASH does not consider moderate alcohol intake as part of the dietary pattern, whereas the other two diets do,” McEvoy said. “It’s possible that moderate alcohol consumption as part of a healthy diet could be important for brain health in middle age, but further research is needed to confirm these findings.”

“While we don’t yet know the ideal dietary pattern for brain health, changing to a heart-healthy diet could be a relatively easy and effective way to reduce the risk for developing problems with thinking and memory as we age,” she continued.

The study was published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Source: American Academy of Neurology

Facial Expressions Alone May Not Convey Emotional State

Mon, 03/18/2019 - 9:26pm

New research clarifies that emotional intelligence involves much more than reading people’s micro-expressions. When it comes to reading a person’s state of mind, the visual context of background and action is as important as facial expressions and body language.

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley give the example of actor James Franco in the Oscar-nominated movie “127 hours.” In one scene, Franco looks vaguely happy as he records a video diary in the movie. But when the camera zooms out, the audience sees that his arm is crushed under a boulder, and that his smile belies his agony.

The new viewpoint challenges decades of research positing that emotional intelligence and recognition are based largely on the ability to read facial micro-expressions. The expressions were believed to be an indicator of happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust, contempt and other positive and negative moods and sentiments.

The new study, to appear online this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests emotional detection requires more than a facial “read.”

“Our study reveals that emotion recognition is, at its heart, an issue of context as much as it is about faces,” said lead author Zhimin Chen, a doctoral student in psychology at UC Berkeley.

In the study, researchers blurred the faces and bodies of actors in dozens of muted clips from Hollywood movies and home videos. Despite the characters’ virtual invisibility, hundreds of study participants were able to accurately read their emotions by examining the background and how they were interacting with their surroundings.

The “affective tracking” model that Chen created for the study allows researchers to track how people rate the moment-to-moment emotions of characters as they view videos.

Chen’s method is capable of collecting large quantities of data in a short time, and could eventually be used to gauge how people with disorders like autism and schizophrenia read emotions in real time, and help with their diagnoses.

“Some people might have deficits in recognizing facial expressions, but can recognize emotion from the context,” Chen said. “For others, it’s the opposite.”

Moreover, the findings, based on statistical analyses of the ratings collected, could inform the development of facial recognition technology.

“Right now, companies are developing machine learning algorithms for recognizing emotions, but they only train their models on cropped faces and those models can only read emotions from faces,” Chen said. “Our research shows that faces don’t reveal true emotions very accurately and that identifying a person’s frame of mind should take into account context as well.”

For the study, Chen and study senior author Dr. David Whitney, a UC Berkeley vision scientist and psychology professor, tested the emotion recognition abilities of nearly 400 young adults. The visual stimuli they used were video clips from various Hollywood movies as well as documentaries and home videos that showed emotional responses in more natural settings.

Study participants went online to view and rate the video clips. A rating grid was superimposed over the video so that researchers could track each study participant’s cursor as it moved around the screen, processing visual information and rating moment-to-moment emotions.

In the first of three experiments, 33 study participants viewed interactions in movie clips between two characters, one of which was blurred, and rated the perceived emotions of the blurred character. The results showed that study participants inferred how the invisible character was feeling based not only on their interpersonal interactions, but also from what was happening in the background.

Next, approximately 200 study participants viewed video clips showing interactions under three different conditions: one in which everything was visible, another in which the characters were blurred, and another in which the context was blurred. The results showed that context was as important as facial recognition for decoding emotions.

In the final experiment, 75 study participants viewed clips from documentaries and home videos so that researchers could compare emotion recognition in more naturalistic settings. Again, context was as critical for inferring the emotions of the characters as were their facial expressions and gestures.

“Overall, the results suggest that context is not only sufficient to perceive emotion, but also necessary to perceive a person’s emotion,” said Whitney, a UC Berkeley psychology professor. “Face it, the face is not enough to perceive emotion.”

Source: University of California Berkeley