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Updated: 1 hour 11 min ago

Fear & Anger May Affect Conservatives and Liberals Differently

Tue, 01/15/2019 - 7:00am

Fear and anger related to the 2016 presidential election and climate change — one of the campaign’s major issues — had different effects on the way conservatives and liberals processed information, according to new research.

The study, published in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, suggest that certain emotional underpinnings of political ideology motived how voters sought and processed information about the election and global warming.

“This has important implications for how political dialogue is shaped,” said Dr. Janet Yang, the study’s lead author and a University at Buffalo communication researcher. “It’s not just what the candidates are saying; it’s also how we communicate with one another.”

One point to consider is how political speech evokes intentional and unintentional reactions, she said.

“The more we think about political speech, the more we need to study and monitor the emotions related to it more carefully,” she explained. “Emotional reactions have consequences that should be explored.”

This is true in journalism, as well, she noted.

“In climate change coverage, I think journalists often use language or images that have emotional implications, like the lonely polar bear floating on ice, which could elicit different responses for different people,” she said. “But if we’re able to talk about these issues with the emotional component in mind, then we’re more likely to get people to move toward collective action.”

The goal of Yang’s research team, which included Haoran Chu, a UB graduate student, and Dr. LeeAnn Kahlor, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, was to explore whether risk perception and the emotional responses to that risk — fear and anger — affected information processing, depending on political leanings.

“People usually don’t think of elections as a risk topic, but because the campaigns of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had emotion-laden narratives, we thought it would be interesting to see if people thought about elections as bearing potential risks,” she said.

The researchers used the Risk Information Seeking and Processing Model, which seeks to understand what contributes to information seeking and information processing related to risk topics.

The model’s premise is that risk perception is both cognitive and emotional. It’s not exclusively a calculation of likelihood and severity, according to the researchers.

Emotion is critical and lack of information is central to the model. The theory argues that people continue processing information until they’ve accomplished their processing goals, the researchers explained.

The researchers collected data from two independent surveys of about 500 U.S. adults in the weeks leading up to the general election in 2016. One questionnaire was about the election and the other climate change.

“Emotion does different things depending on the context, which is quite fascinating,” said Yang.

In the election context, conservatives who sensed fear about the election reported a high need for information, according to the study’s findings. This led them to deal with media coverage, conversations, and other information about the election with a lot of attention, which is considered a systematic approach to information processing.

Related to climate change, liberals who experienced fear were more likely to process information carefully, the researchers noted.

Curiously, anger didn’t influence information-processing strategies as much as fear, according to Yang. However, liberals who were angry when thinking about climate change reported higher perceived knowledge about this topic.

“Fear and anger had very different influences on information-processing strategies,” said Yang. “These emotions also drive conservatives and liberals in distinctive ways.”

Source: University at Buffalo

Recalling Happy Memories in Adolescence Can Cut Depression Risk

Tue, 01/15/2019 - 6:30am

In a new study, University of Cambridge researchers found that  recalling positive events and experiences can help young people build resilience against depression in later life.

Depression is now the leading cause of disability worldwide, affecting more than 300 million people. The condition often first emerges in adolescence, a critical developmental time period when an individual experiences substantial changes in their brain structure and chemistry.

Moreover, a known risk factor of depression is exposure to early life stress, such as illness, parents’ separation or death, or adverse family circumstances.

“Mental health disorders that first occur in adolescence are more severe and more likely to recur in later life,” said Dr. Anne-Laura van Harmelen, the study’s senior author.

“With child and adult mental health services underfunded and overstretched, it is critical that we identify new ways to build resilience, particularly in those adolescents who are most at risk for depression.”

Reminiscing about past events is something people often do, according to researchers — sometimes as a strategy for lifting mood. Given this knowledge, a team of researchers from the University of Cambridge and University College London set out to examine whether remembering positive experiences could protect against stress when it occurs in adolescence.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers analyzed data from 427 young people, average age of 14 years, all of whom were considered to be at risk of depression. To test the hypothesis that recalling positive memories is beneficial to teens’ mental health, researchers assessed two signs of vulnerability to depression: negative self-related thoughts and high morning levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

At the start of the experiment, all participants took part in a ‘cued recall Autobiographical Memory Test’. This involved giving the participants a word, either positive or negative, and asking them to recall a specific memory related to the word.

Previous studies have shown that people who are depressed find it difficult to recall specific memories, relying instead on more general recollections.

In a semi-structured interview, the participants reported on the frequency of moderate to severe negative life events in the past 12 months. In addition, they self-reported any symptoms of depression during the previous two weeks and negative self-related thoughts.

The interviews were then repeated 12 months later. The researchers also took saliva samples across four days at both the start of the study and after a year to examine levels of morning cortisol.

The team found that recalling specific positive memories was associated with fewer negative self-related thoughts and with lower levels of cortisol 12 months later. In other words, remembering more specific positive events reduced their vulnerability to depression over the course of one year.

Further investigation showed that recalling positive events only reduced negative self-related thoughts and depressive symptoms in response to stressful life events, but not if the adolescents had experienced no stressful life events.

“Our work suggests that ‘remembering the good times’ may help build resilience to stress and reduce vulnerability to depression in young people,” said Cambridge graduate student Adrian Dahl Askelund, the study’s lead author.

Source: University of Cambridge/EurekAlert

Military Wives May Have Greater Risk of Perinatal Depression

Tue, 01/15/2019 - 6:00am

Women whose partners are away on military deployment are at greater risk of developing depression during pregnancy and just after giving birth, according to a new U.K. study published in the Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

The findings show that lone parenting can further exacerbate these depressive symptoms, but strong social support can act as a buffer.

Previous research has shown that poor mental health during the perinatal period (around the time of childbirth) is linked to a number of adverse outcomes for the mother and family. The unique circumstances surrounding military partners’ living situations may leave them particularly vulnerable to developing perinatal mental health problems.

For the study, researchers from the Veterans and Families Institute for Military Social Research (VFI) at Anglia Ruskin University in England reviewed 13 U.S. studies which looked at the perinatal mental health or well-being of military spouses.

They found that pregnant military wives report more depressive symptoms at all stages of their pregnancy and all stages of their partner’s deployment cycle. In particular, deployment of the military spouse is linked to social isolation and increased anxiety and stress for the pregnant partner at home, leading to a higher risk of perinatal depression.

This depression can be worsened by the stress of lone parenting for the duration of the deployment and coping with the subsequent change in day-to-day family life and parenting roles following the return of the serving partner.

“Women who have a serving partner in the military not only have to deal with pregnancy and the additional demands this places on their mental health, but they may also be very worried about the welfare of their partner. In addition they are lacking that essential support while their spouse is away,” said lead author Dr. Lauren Godier-McBard, research fellow at Anglia Ruskin’s VFI.

“The evidence we found indicates that social support is an important protective factor for military spouses during the perinatal period. This may be particularly important for reducing anxiety during the deployment of their serving partner. There may be benefits to specialized support for military spouses.”

“While this review focused on U.S. studies, the cultural and situational similarities between the two nations and their militaries mean there may be lessons the U.K. can take from this analysis. However, there remains a paucity of U.K. research on this subject.”

Source: Anglia Ruskin University

Analytic Model May Better Predict Who Will Develop PTSD

Mon, 01/14/2019 - 7:00am

A newly developed analytic model can predict with significant accuracy which trauma victims are most likely to develop chronic post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The findings are published in the journal World Psychiatry.

Since chronic PTSD is so difficult to treat, knowing soon after trauma exposure how likely a survivor is to develop the disorder can help clinicians know whether to initiate early therapies — even as early as the emergency room, where most trauma victims are first seen.

An international research team led by psychiatrists at New York University’s (NYU) School of Medicine analyzed the medical records of nearly 2,500 patients in 10 longitudinal studies of civilian trauma survivors treated in emergency departments in the United States, Australia, Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Israel.

The study participants, all of whom had experienced trauma ranging from traffic and workplace accidents to assaults and terrorist attacks, were initially evaluated using the Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale for DSM-IV (CAPS), considered the “gold standard” for assessing PTSD.

All subjects had a CAPS interview within 60 days of their traumatic event and a follow-up interview four to 15 months later.

The researchers took these CAPS scores and further analyzed them using the Brier Score, a measurement developed in the 1950s, as well as other validation methods to estimate of each individual’s risk of developing PTSD nine to 15 months later.

The researchers discovered that this approach could, indeed, predict chronic PTSD with high confidence and calculate, with similar accuracy, additional risk tied to other factors such as sex, lower education or a lifetime experience of interpersonal trauma.

In particular, the research team found that PTSD prevalence after follow-up was on average 11.8 percent in those exposed to a traumatic event: 9.2 percent in men and 16.4 percent in women.

They also found that women with less than a secondary education and previous exposure to interpersonal trauma, such as child abuse or sexual assault, had a much higher risk of chronic PTSD.

Other previously known risk factors such as age, marital status and type of trauma did not increase a person’s risk of developing PTSD.

The researchers say that patients with higher initial CAPS scores could require earlier intervention, while lower scores might justify a “watchful waiting” approach with additional follow-up assessments.

“We are moving from the near impossible task of trying to predict who will develop PTSD to more accurately identifying a risk score for each individual who was exposed to a traumatic event,” said Arieh Y. Shalev, M.D., the Barbara Wilson Professor of Psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine and lead author of the report. ”

Knowing that a person has an increased risk for PTSD will help mitigate it more rapidly, and with fewer residual consequences.”

“Early symptoms, previously known to globally predict the risk of PTSD among trauma survivors (e.g., 11 percent in road traffic accidents or 38 percent following terror in our previous work) were unable to tell us who, within a group, was at particularly high risk. We now can precisely predict each individual’s risk, thus moving PTSD evaluation to a more personalized and individualized risk estimate.”

For example, the new analysis model can help determine that a specific patient will likely remain with chronic PTSD unless treated, whereas another from the same study group may only have 2 percent risk. “It is a more immediate call for action that the previous group estimates could not provide,” Shalev says.

The researchers say that the new PTSD evaluation model joins a large family of online tools used in other clinical areas, such as heart disease and cancer, to assign a likelihood of developing a disease or a recurrence based on current information (e.g., cholesterol, weight and smoking history in heart attacks).

In the United States, 70 percent of adults have experienced some type of trauma, and over 10 percent will go on to develop PTSD.

The published study includes an online tool allowing clinicians immediate access to the risk estimate model.

Source: NYU Langone Health/ NYU School of Medicine


Patient Survey: Many ER Workers Lack Knowledge of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Mon, 01/14/2019 - 6:00am

In the first known study to look at how chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) is handled in the emergency department (ED), researchers found that many health care workers have a profound lack of understanding of the disorder and that most CFS patients do not receive proper care in the ED.

The study, published in the journal Open Access Emergency Medicine, is based on a novel online questionnaire of CFS patients who rated their perceptions of care in a hospital’s emergency department.

CFS is a complicated syndrome characterized by extreme fatigue that can’t be explained by any underlying medical condition. The fatigue often worsens with physical or mental activity, and doesn’t improve with rest.

Symptoms may also include loss of memory or concentration, headaches, enlarged lymph nodes and unexplained muscle or joint pain.

According to the survey, two out of three respondents reported they either would not go to an ED because they believed they wouldn’t be taken seriously, or had previous unsatisfactory experiences. Only a third of patients in the survey said they received appropriate treatment in the ED.

“The high proportion of patients who were basically told ‘It is all in your head’ by ED staff indicates that there is much misunderstanding and misgivings about the diagnosis of CFS,” said the study’s senior investigator, allergist and immunologist James N. Baraniuk, M.D., a professor of medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center who treats people with CFS.

“These patients should feel they are respected and that they can receive thorough care when they feel sick enough to go to an ED.”

Baraniuk says more training is needed for ED staff and physicians to better understand the disorder.

The 282 participants in the survey all had physician-diagnosed CFS. Participants were predominantly women (87 percent), educated (70 percent had at least a college degree), and had a primary care physician (93 percent).

The survey revealed the following:

  • Only 59 percent of CFS patients had gone to an ED. Among those who did, 42 percent were dismissed as having psychosomatic complaints;
  • CFS patients who went to the ED collectively rated caregivers’ knowledge about CFS at 3.6 on a 10-point scale;
  • 41 percent of CFS respondents did not go to the ED when ill because they felt nothing could be done or they would not be taken seriously.

“An already-available CFS Symptom Severity Questionnaire can be used in the ED to assist with the diagnosis of CFS, and to differentiate exacerbations of CFS symptoms from medical emergencies such as heart attacks or infections,” Baraniuk said.

The number one reason for going to the ED was orthostatic intolerance, which occurs when a person feels faint when standing or sitting upright because not enough blood is reaching the brain and heart. The symptoms only improve when a person lies down. According to the survey, 33 percent had symptoms consistent with this condition

“This is of importance because it provides a starting point for diagnosis and treatment by ED physicians,” Baraniuk said. “This condition is something that can be readily addressed by ED caregivers. There is a real need for physician education that will improve their efficiency in identifying and treating CFS and in distinguishing CFS symptoms from other diseases in the exam room.”

Also common among those diagnosed with CFS are intolerance to exercise and intolerance to alcohol consumption, so these two symptoms can help distinguish CFS from other conditions, said study co-author Christian R. Timbol, M.D., who worked with Baraniuk as a medical student before becoming an emergency medicine resident physician at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia.

Chronic fatigue syndrome affects between 836,000 and 2.5 million Americans, according to a National Academy of Medicine review of over 9,000 articles covering 64 years of research.

Source: Georgetown University Medical Center

Targeted Cognitive Training Can Aid Those With Severe Schizophrenia

Sun, 01/13/2019 - 9:43pm

A new study shows that targeted cognitive training (TCT) benefits patients with severe schizophrenia, improving verbal learning and auditory perception while lessening the severity of auditory hallucinations.

Schizophrenia is among the most difficult mental illnesses to treat, according to researchers at the University of California San Diego.

One reason is that it is characterized by a wide range of dysfunction, from hallucinations and mood disorders to cognitive impairment, especially verbal and working memory, researchers said.

They add that issues with verbal and working memory can be explained, in part,  by abnormalities in early auditory information processing.

Recently, targeted cognitive training (TCT) has emerged as a promising therapeutic intervention for schizophrenic patients. TCT uses computerized training, such as sophisticated brain games, to target specific neural pathways, including memory, learning and auditory-based senses, to alter the way the patients process information.

TCT has proven effective for mild to moderate forms of schizophrenia under carefully controlled conditions. But it has been unclear whether the approach might benefit patients with chronic, refractory schizophrenia treated in non-academic settings, such as those cared for in locked residential rehabilitation centers, the researchers noted.

That led a research team at the UC San Diego School of Medicine to investigate whether TCT improved auditory and verbal outcomes among the most difficult of schizophrenia patients.

“Chronic, treatment-refractory patients mandated to locked residential care facilities make up just a small subgroup of persons with schizophrenia, but they consume a disproportionately large share of mental health care resources. Finding an effective therapy for them is critical,” said Gregory A. Light, PhD, professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego School of Medicine and director of the Mental Illness, Research, Education and Clinical Center at the Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System, who led the research.

Light’s research team studied 46 patients with schizophrenia psychosis recruited from a community-based residential treatment program, each following acute hospitalization. All were deemed “gravely disabled,” unable to care for themselves, and under the guardianship of a private party or government agency, the researchers report.

Patients were randomized to either standard treatment-as-usual (TAU) or TAU plus TCT, in which they used laptop computers to perform various learning and memory game exercises, often involving auditory cues.

The researchers found that in patients who completed the roughly three months of TAU-TCT treatment, verbal learning and auditory perception scores improved, while the severity of auditory hallucinations lessened.

The researchers note the benefits were not negatively impacted by age, clinical symptoms, medication, or the duration of their illness.

“Our results suggest that chronically ill, highly disabled patients can benefit from TCT,” said Light. “That contradicts current assumptions.”

The study was published in Schizophrenia Research.

Source: University of California San Diego

Connection to Nature Can Ease Distress, Hyperactivity in Kids

Sun, 01/13/2019 - 9:37pm

A new Hong Kong study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, finds that when preschoolers are connected to nature, they have fewer behavioral and emotional difficulties, show improved prosocial behaviors and are less distressed and hyperactive.

Previous research has shown that children who live in areas with less green space may be at greater risk for symptoms of stress, depression and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In fact, 16 percent of preschoolers in Hong Kong and up to 22 percent in China show signs of mental health problems.

But in Hong Kong, even though 90 percent of the population lives within 400 meters (1,312 feet) of green spaces, families don’t seem to be using these areas, say the researchers.

“We noticed a tendency where parents are avoiding nature. They perceive it as dirty and dangerous, and their children unfortunately pick up these attitudes. In addition, the green areas are often unwelcoming with signs like “Keep off the grass,” said Dr. Tanja Sobko from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Hong Kong.

Sobko and her collaborator Professor Gavin Brown, Director of the Quantitative Data Analysis and Research Unit at the University of Auckland in New Zealand developed a new 16-item parent questionnaire to measure “connectedness to nature” in very young children.

The questionnaire identified four areas that reflect the child-nature relationship: enjoyment of nature, empathy for nature, responsibility toward nature, and awareness of nature.

Altogether, 493 families with children aged between 2 and 5 have participated in the study. The new questionnaire was tested against the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire, a well-established measurement of psychological well-being and children’s behavior problems.

The results show that parents who reported their child as being more connected to nature had kids who were less distressed, less hyperactive, had fewer behavioral and emotional difficulties, and improved prosocial behavior.

Interestingly, children who took greater responsibility toward nature had fewer peer difficulties. The findings offer a new possibility for investigating the link between the outdoor environment and well-being in preschool children.

The study is part of Sobko’s research-based program Play&Grow, which is the first in Hong Kong to promote healthy eating and active playtime with preschool children by connecting them to nature. Launched in 2016, it has so far included almost 1,000 families from all over Hong Kong.

The new scale has already attracted international attention and is being adopted by universities worldwide including Western Australia and Deakin Universities.

Source: The University of Hong Kong


Victims of Bullying, Sexual Abuse Often Have Lower Quality of Life

Sun, 01/13/2019 - 6:00am

Victims of sexual abuse or bullying tend to have a lower quality of life similar to people living with chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, depression or severe anxiety, according to a new Australian study published in the journal BMC Public Health.

They are also much more likely to engage in harmful behaviors like smoking and binge eating.

Researchers from the University of Adelaide evaluated around 3,000 South Australians who took part in face-to-face interviews to measure the age of onset and duration of bullying and sexual assault.

The study included participants of all ages, urban and rural settings and socioeconomic levels living in South Australia.

“In Australia almost half of all adults have experienced bullying and 10 percent have experienced some form of sexual abuse, and these experiences have had long-term effects on harmful behaviours, depression and quality of life,” says Dr. David Gonzalez-Chica from the University of Adelaide’s Medical School.

Although 60-70 percent of these types of abuse occurred in childhood or adolescence, they were associated with worse outcomes later in life.

“Sexual abuse and bullying were related to harmful behaviors like smoking dependence and binge eating, antidepressant use, and reduced quality of life,” Gonzalez-Chica says.

“Those who suffered bullying and sexual abuse were three times more likely to be binge eaters than people who had never experienced these forms of abuse. Antidepressant use was up to four times more likely and smoking dependence was twice as frequent.”

In fact, if participants reported two or more adverse outcomes (smoking dependence, binge eating, antidepressant use, and a lower quality of life) the probability they had suffered bullying and/or sexual abuse ranged between 60-85 percent.

“Talking about an experience of bullying or sexual abuse in a face-to-face interview is very complicated because of the sensitive nature of these questions,” Gonzalez-Chica says.

“The study showed that it is feasible to use such kind of short but well-structured questions instead of long questionnaires to explore these issues.”

This type of short questioning may be particularly relevant for medical appointments where there is limited time for exploring so many different outcomes.

“If a doctor finds a patient with multiple harmful behaviors — like smoking dependence and binge eating — who is depressed and has a lower quality of life, they should consider exploring whether these patients were victims of bullying and/or sexual abuse, as according to our results it is very likely they suffered from these forms of abuse,” Gonzalez-Chica says.

“Identifying survivors of both forms of abuse is important to provide support and reduce more severe mental and physical consequences, such as suicide.”

Source: University of Adelaide

Assessing Psychological Flexibility May Help Tailor Therapy to Individual Patient

Sat, 01/12/2019 - 7:27am

In a new study, U.K. researchers have analyzed degrees of psychological flexibility and identified three distinct classes: high, moderate and low. Delineating psychological flexibility provides clinicians with diagnostic tools with which to create more individual therapeutic solutions, researchers said.

Such flexibility is a key part of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), in which a therapist helps the client accept rather than try to eliminate their difficult feelings, develop mindfulness and commit to behavior change strategies.

Researchers define psychological flexibility as the ability to contact the present moment more fully as a conscious person, and to change or persist in behavior for valued goals. Developing psychological flexibility ultimately helps people become unstuck, deal with stress, improve well-being, and build more meaningful lives around what they truly value.

“Our study provides a clearer view to clinicians of the wider spectrum of psychological flexibility, which we hope will help them to facilitate greater change in their clients, in a way which is better tailored to their needs,” said study leader Dr. Ian Tyndall from the department of psychology at the University of Chichester.

Until now, clinicians have had little scientific understanding of how the different elements of psychological flexibility worked together to help a person cope with psychological distress. It appeared to be a “one size fits all” construct, thereby limiting a clinician’s ability to tailor ACT to the individual needs of their clients.

In the study, those in the low psychological flexibility subgroup reported the highest levels of psychological distress, compared to the lowest levels of psychological distress reported by those in the high psychological flexibility subgroup.

Clearly, the therapeutic requirements for those with high levels of psychological distress are very different than those at the other end of the spectrum, researchers said.

It is believed that if clinicians have stronger knowledge of these different levels of psychological distress, they can better tailor the ACT offered to their clients, with benefits not just for the client but for public health in general.

“With more and more people presenting with psychological distress, and seeking professional assistance with their conditions, it is important that the concept of psychological flexibility provides the necessary nuance to underpin successful therapy,” Tyndall said.

Tyndall conducted the study with Dr. Antonina Pereira, also from the Department of Psychology.

According to figures from the National Health Service (NHS) England, around 1.4 million people were referred for NHS mental health therapy during 2017. This does not take into account people who accessed mental health therapy from private sources.

The research team at the University of Chichester worked with colleagues from Coventry University, the University of Milano-Biccoca, Italy, Trinity College Dublin and Maynooth University, Ireland.

The findings are published in the journal Behavior Modification.

Source: University of Chichester


Excessive Body Fat Around Abdomen Linked to Shrinking Brain

Sat, 01/12/2019 - 6:58am

Carrying extra body fat, especially around the middle of the body, may be linked to brain shrinkage, according to a new study.

For the study, researchers determined obesity by measuring body mass index (BMI) and waist-to-hip ratio in study participants. Using magnetic resonance imaging, they then discovered that those with higher ratios of both measures had the lowest brain volume.

“Existing research has linked brain shrinkage to memory decline and a higher risk of dementia, but research on whether extra body fat is protective or detrimental to brain size has been inconclusive,” said study author Mark Hamer, Ph.D., of Loughborough University in Leicestershire, England.

“Our research looked at a large group of people and found obesity, specifically around the middle, may be linked with brain shrinkage.”

The study looked at 9,652 people with an average age of 55. Of that group, 19 percent were determined to be obese. Researchers measured BMI, waist-to-hip ratio and overall body fat.

BMI is determined by dividing a person’s weight by the square of their height. People with a BMI above 30 are considered obese.

Waist-to-hip ratio is determined by dividing waist circumference by hip circumference. People with bigger bellies compared to their hips have higher ratios. Men above 0.90 and women above 0.85 are considered to be centrally obese.

After surveying the participants about their health, the researchers then used magnetic resonance imaging to determine brain volumes for white and gray brain matter and volumes in the various regions of the brain.

Gray matter contains most of the brain’s nerve cells and includes brain regions involved in self-control, muscle control, and sensory perception. White matter contains nerve fiber bundles that connect various regions of the brain.

After adjusting for other factors that may affect brain volume, such as age, physical activity, smoking and high blood pressure, researchers found that while a high BMI alone was linked to slightly lower brain volumes, those with high BMI and waist-to-hip ratios had lower gray matter brain volumes than participants who did not have a high waist-to-hip ratio.

Specifically, researchers found that 1,291 people who had a high BMI and a high waist-to-hip ratio had the lowest average gray matter brain volume of 786 cubic centimeters. That’s compared to 3,025 people of healthy weight who had an average gray matter brain volume of 798 cubic centimeters and 514 people with a high BMI but without high waist-to-hip ratio who had an average gray matter brain volume of 793 cubic centimeters.

The researchers note they found no significant differences in white matter brain volume.

“While our study found obesity, especially around the middle, was associated with lower gray matter brain volumes, it’s unclear if abnormalities in brain structure lead to obesity or if obesity leads to these changes in the brain,” said Hamer.

“We also found links between obesity and shrinkage in specific regions of the brain. This will need further research, but it may be possible that someday regularly measuring BMI and waist-to-hip ratio may help determine brain health.”

A limitation of the study was that only 5 percent of those invited to participate in the study took part, and those who participated tended to be healthier than those who did not, so the results may not reflect the population as a whole, researchers noted.

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

Source: The American Academy of Neurology

Sex May Initiate Romantic Attachment

Fri, 01/11/2019 - 7:00am

A series of studies suggest that sex can help to initiate romantic relationships between potential partners.

Researchers believe sexual desire may provides a magnetism that keeps partners together long enough to form a bond; this bond in turn may enhance childhood survival by reinforcing joint parenting.

In the research, psychologists from the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and the University of Rochester conclude that sexual desire may play a major role not only in attracting potential partners to each other, but also in encouraging the formation of an attachment between them.

“Sex may set the stage for deepening the emotional connection between strangers,” says the study’s lead author, Dr. Gurit Birnbaum, a social psychologist and associate professor of psychology at the IDC Herzliya.

“This holds true for both men and women. Sex motivates human beings to connect, regardless of gender.” The study was limited to heterosexual relationships. Moreover, investigators discovered either gender can initiate the encounter.

According to Birnbaum, some believe that men are more likely than women to initiate relationships when sexually aroused, but when one focuses on more subtle relationship-initiating strategies, both men and women try to connect with potential partners when sexually aroused.

For the investigation, researchers performed four interrelated studies in which participants were introduced to a new acquaintance of the opposite sex in a face-to-face encounter. The studies demonstrated that sexual desire triggers behaviors that can promote emotional bonding during these encounters.

“Although sexual urges and emotional attachments are distinct feelings, evolutionary and social processes likely have rendered humans particularly prone to becoming romantically attached to partners to whom they are sexually attracted,” said co-author Dr. Harry Reis, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester.

In the first study, the researchers looked at whether sexual desire for a new acquaintance would be associated with non-verbal cues signaling relationship interest. These so-called immediacy behaviors are displayed in the synchronization of movements, close physical proximity, and frequent eye contact with a study insider who worked with the scientists.

The study participants, all of whom identified as single and heterosexual, were recruited at a university in central Israel.

Study 1 included 36 women and 22 men who lip-synced to pre-recorded music with an attractive, opposite-sex study insider. Afterwards, participants rated their desire for the insider, whom they believed to be another participant.

The scientists found that the greater the participant’s desire for the insider, the greater their immediacy behaviors towards, and synchronization with, the insider.

Study 2 replicated the finding with 38 women and 42 men who were asked to slow dance with an attractive, opposite-sex insider, whom they believed to be a study participant. Again, the researchers found a direct association between synchronization of body movement and desire for the insider.

Study 3 included 42 women and 42 men and established a causal connection between activating the sexual behavior system and behaviors that help initiate relationships. In order to activate the sexual system, the researchers used a subliminal priming technique in which they flashed an erotic, non-pornographic image for 30 milliseconds on a screen, which participants were not aware of seeing.

Next, participants interacted with a second study participant — essentially a potential partner — discussing interpersonal dilemmas while being videotaped. Afterwards judges rated the participants’ behaviors that conveyed responsiveness and caring.

The scientists found the activation of the sexual system also resulted in behaviors that suggested caring about a potential partner’s well-being, an established signal for interest in a relationship.

Study 4 included 50 women and 50 men. Half the group watched an erotic, non-pornographic video scene from the movie The Boy Next Door. The other half watched a neutral video of rainforests in South America.

Next, study participants were assigned an attractive opposite-sex insider and told to complete a verbal reasoning task. The insider pretended to get stuck on the third question and asked the participant for help. The researchers found that those participants who had watched the erotic movie scene were quicker to help, invested more time, and were perceived as more helpful, than the neutral video control group.

According to Birnbaum, human sexual behavior evolved to ensure reproduction. As such, sex and producing offspring don’t depend on forming an attachment between partners.

However, the prolonged helplessness of human children promoted the development of mechanisms that keep sexual partners bonded to each other so that they can jointly care for their offspring.

“Throughout human history, parents’ bonding greatly increased the children’s survival chances,” she says.

Prior neuroimaging research has shown that similar brain regions (the caudate, insula, and putamen) are activated when a person experiences either sexual desire or romantic love. The researchers surmise this pattern hints at a neurological pathway that causes sexual activation — the neural processes that underlie a sexual response — to affect emotional bonding.

They conclude that experiencing sexual desire between previously unacquainted strangers may help facilitate behaviors that cultivate personal closeness and bonding.

Source: University of Rochester

Child Abuse History Tied to Much Higher Risk of Suicide

Fri, 01/11/2019 - 6:15am

Adults with a history of childhood physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse or neglect are at least two to three times more likely to attempt suicide, according to a new large-scale study conducted by U.K. psychologists at The University of Manchester and the University of South Wales.

The researchers analyzed 68 global studies involving 262,000 adults ages 18 years or older who had been exposed to childhood abuse and neglect.

The findings, published in the journal Psychological Medicine, show that suicide attempts were three times more likely for people who experienced childhood sexual abuse; two and a half times more likely for those who experienced childhood physical abuse; and two and a half times more likely for those who experienced childhood emotional abuse or neglect.

Adults who experienced multiple types of childhood abuse were up to five times more likely to attempt suicide. The risk of suicide attempts increased with age, and those not in contact with mental health clinicians were at the highest risk level.

“Around one adult in every three has experienced abuse as a child,” said study leader Dr. Maria Panagioti from The University of Manchester, also based at the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Greater Manchester patient safety translational research.

“This study conclusively gives us solid evidence that childhood abuse and neglect is associated with increased likelihood that they will be at risk of suicide as adults.”

“And that has important implications on healthcare. Other studies have shown that in the US, for example, the economic burden of childhood maltreatment is estimated to be around $124 billion.”

Current treatment for people with suicidal behaviors often centers around cognitive behavioral therapy, says Panagioti, but that assumes people will seek help themselves. These findings show that those who are not under the care of clinicians are also at risk.

Panagioti says there needs to be a new approach to identify these people living in the community and that we should focus efforts on effective community interventions.

“These findings not only provided a clear picture of the connection between abuse or neglect in childhood and suicide attempts later on in life, but also recognised that efficient interventions should take a broader community-based approach,” adds Dr. Ioannis Angelakis from the University of South Wales.

Source: University of Manchester

Similar Decision-Making Traits Found in Facebook Addicts and Substance Abusers

Fri, 01/11/2019 - 5:30am

A new study shows a link between excessive social media use and risky decision-making, a trait commonly found in substance addiction.

“Around one-third of humans on the planet are using social media, and some of these people are displaying maladaptive, excessive use of these sites,” said Dar Meshi, lead author and assistant professor at Michigan State University (MSU). “Our findings will hopefully motivate the field to take social media overuse seriously.”

The study, published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, is the first to look at the association between social media use and risky decision-making.

“Decision making is oftentimes compromised in individuals with substance use disorders. They sometimes fail to learn from their mistakes and continue down a path of negative outcomes,” Meshi said.

“But no one previously looked at this behavior as it relates to excessive social media users, so we investigated this possible parallel between excessive social media users and substance abusers. While we didn’t test for the cause of poor decision-making, we tested for its correlation with problematic social media use.”

For the study, 71 participants completed a survey that measured their psychological dependence on Facebook. Questions on the survey asked about users’ preoccupation with the platform, their feelings when unable to use it, attempts to quit and the impact that Facebook has had on their job or studies.

Participants then completed the Iowa Gambling Task, a common exercise used by psychologists to measure decision-making skills. During the task, users must identify outcome patterns in decks of cards to choose the best possible deck.

The findings show that a poor performance on the gambling task was tied to more excessive social media use. The better participants did in the task, the less their social media use.

These results are similar to those found among substance abusers. People who abuse opioids, cocaine, methamphetamine, among others — have similar outcomes on the Iowa Gambling Task, thus showing the same deficiency in decision-making.

“With so many people around the world using social media, it’s critical for us to understand its use,” Meshi said.

“I believe that social media has tremendous benefits for individuals, but there’s also a dark side when people can’t pull themselves away. We need to better understand this drive so we can determine if excessive social media use should be considered an addiction.”

Source: Michigan State University

UK Study: How Cat Owners Feel About Pets’ Hunting Behaviors

Thu, 01/10/2019 - 6:58am

In a new U.K. study, researchers interviewed cat owners about their pets’ roaming and hunting behaviors, what worries them, and what they feel is their responsibility.

The findings show that while many cat owners worry about their pets wandering the streets and and tend to dislike their compulsion to catch wildlife, they feel that this predatory behavior is an unavoidable instinct they can do little to change.

Cat owners who did want to limit hunting felt this was difficult to achieve without locking cats indoors, and hardly any owners wanted this.

“We found a spectrum of views on hunting, from owners who see it as positive for pest control to those who were deeply concerned about its consequences for wild animal populations,” said lead author Dr. Sarah Crowley, of the Environment and Sustainability Institute on the University of Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall.

“However, because hunting is a natural cat behavior, few owners believed they could effectively control this without negatively affecting their cats’ welfare.”

The researchers interviewed 48 cat owners from urban, suburban and rural areas in Cornwall and Oxfordshire.

Cats vary in the amount they hunt, with some catching multiple birds and small mammals every week, while many others stay indoors or wouldn’t chase a mouse if it ran right past them.

Many conservationists are nevertheless concerned about the effect even a minority of hunting cats might have on wildlife, especially declining species like house sparrows.

Current methods of preventing cats from catching wild prey include fitting them with collars with bells and bright colors, and keeping them indoors at night.

“Cat owners understandably make their pets’ health and well-being a priority, and many feel that cats need free access to the outdoors,” said Professor Robbie McDonald, head of Exeter’s Wildlife Science group, who is leading the research.

“At the same time, having such independent pets creates extra anxieties for owners about both their cats’ safety while ranging free, and their impacts on wildlife. We are working closely with cat owners and cat welfare organisations. Our aim is to find practical ways of reducing hunting, while enhancing cat health and welfare.”

Sponsorship for the study comes from the independent bird conservation charity SongBird Survival. The study is overseen by an advisory group including veterinarians, cat behavior and welfare experts, and representatives from SongBird Survival, International Cat Care and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).

“We are very concerned about the significant adverse impacts that free-ranging domestic cats can have on our songbirds and other wildlife,” said Robert Middleditch, SongBird Survival’s Chairman.

“We are therefore delighted to have commissioned this important project, and believe that working with cat owners to find practical solutions, while promoting responsible pet ownership, can benefit both vulnerable wildlife and cats.”

Sam Watson, cat welfare expert at the RSPCA says the study is valuable as it helps shed light on pet owners’ sense of responsibility towards their cats and any potential impact they could have on wildlife.

“While there is still lots of debate as to whether cats have detrimental effects on wild bird populations, on an individual level predation attempts by cats are likely to cause considerable suffering, so we would welcome any practical solutions which would help to avoid this.” said Watson.

Source: University of Exeter


Can Some Common Drugs Also Benefit Mental Health?

Thu, 01/10/2019 - 6:00am

Medications used for high blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol may also provide significant benefit to people with serious mental illness (SMI), say researchers at University College London.

The new study suggests the widely used drugs may potentially  benefit those with conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or non-affective psychosis.

Results from the large cohort study appear in JAMA Psychiatry.

In the study, researchers assessed the health data records of 142,691 patients with SMI in Sweden. Scientists focused on those patients who had either been prescribed medications for high cholesterol, high blood pressure or for those with diabetes.

Investigators tracked the use of hydroxylmethyl glutaryl coenzyme A reductase inhibitors (HMG-CoA RIs) – commonly known as statins – used to lower cholesterol and reduce heart disease. They also reviewed utilization of L-type calcium channel antagonists (LTCC) prescribed to reduce high blood pressure such as amlodipine (Norvasc) and diltiazem (Cardizem); and biguanides (such as Metformin) for treatment of diabetes.

Researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, and the University of Hong Kong, analyzed patients’ health records relating to self-harm and psychiatric hospitalization. They assessed whether these episodes occurred during a period when patients were taking the prescribed medication or in periods when they were not.

The study found that exposure to any of the study drugs was associated with reduced rates of psychiatric hospitalization compared with unexposed periods. Self-harm was reduced in patients with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia during exposure to all study drugs and in patients with non-affective psychosis taking L-type calcium channel antagonists.

Lead author Dr. Joseph Hayes (UCL Psychiatry), said, “Serious mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, are associated with high levels of morbidity and are challenging to treat.

“Many widely used drugs, such as statins, have long been identified as having the potential for repurposing to benefit these disorders. This study is the first to use large population data sets to compare patient’s exposure to these commonly used drugs and the potential effects on people with serious mental illnesses.

“Our research provides additional evidence that exposure to HMG-CoA RIs, LTCC antagonists, and biguanides might lead to improved outcomes for individuals with SMI,” he said.

“Given these drugs are commonly used and well-known to doctors they should be further investigated as repurposed agents for psychiatric symptoms.”

Researchers said all the studied drugs are known to have an effect on the central nervous system. However, the mechanism of action is not well-understood. Investigators are hopeful that a clearer understanding of the association may lead to new drug development to benefit those with serious mental illness.

Hayes added, “All three studied drugs are globally licensed, commonly used, cheap, and relatively safe medications. They are therefore ideal candidates for repurposing.

“If substantiated, this study has considerable implications for clinical practice and drug development.”

The studied drugs’ effects on patients were independent of whether patients were on or off drugs aimed at treating their mental illness (such as antipsychotic medication or mood stabilizers).

Source: University College London/EurekAlert

New Research Finds 1 in 4 Suicide Attempts Linked to Perceptual Difficulties

Wed, 01/09/2019 - 11:27am

A new study finds that one-quarter of suicide attempts are associated with a dysfunction in how the brain interprets basic perceptual information, such as what we see, hear and think.

According to researchers at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, this dysfunction can predict suicidal behavior, and offers new prospects for treatment and suicide prevention.

Symptoms such as depressed mood, feelings of worthlessness, and a sense of hopelessness are well documented in suicidal behavior. However, in an analysis of more than 80,000 people, new research has revealed that one quarter of individuals who attempted or died by suicide had problems in basic sensory experiences, such as hearing or seeing things that aren’t really there — otherwise known as “perceptual abnormalities.”

These episodes are not necessarily associated with psychotic illnesses or depression and can occur in people who do not experience mental illness, according to the study.

Research over the past 15 years has shown that experiences such as “hearing voices” are far more common than previously thought, with about 5 to 7 percent of the general population reporting at least occasionally having experiences such as hearing voices. For some people, these experiences emerge when the brain is under stress or when coping levels are exceeded, according to the researchers.

“Our research shows that if we can understand and treat the factors associated with these perceptual abnormalities, we could prevent at least a quarter of suicide attempts and deaths,” said Dr. Ian Kelleher, a RCSI Psychiatry Research Lecturer and study lead. “Given that about 1 million people die by suicide every year, that’s a very encouraging prospect for suicide prevention.”

“These findings show the need both for clinicians to pay particular attention to patients reporting experience of psychotic experience, and for greater funding for research into recognizing a psychosis subtype of suicide,” he continued.

“If we are to understand suicide, we need to understand a lot more about perceptual abnormalities,” added doctoral student and co-author Kathryn Yates of RCSI Psychiatry.

“What causes people to hear voices? How do these experiences relate to the biological and social factors involved in suicide risk? There are still a lot of unanswered questions, but this research points to new avenues to improve prediction of suicidal behavior.”

The study was published in JAMA Psychiatry.

Source: Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland

Breastfeeding Study Sheds Light on How Babies Becomes Right- or Left-Handed

Wed, 01/09/2019 - 7:30am

A new study of about 60,000 mother-infant pairs finds that left-handedness in babies is less common among those who were breastfed as compared to those who were bottlefed.

The findings, published in the journal Laterality: Asymmetries of Body, Brain and Cognition, provide further insight into the development of complex brain functions which ultimately determine which hand the infant will likely use.

Controversy remains over whether breastfed and bottlefed infants have distinct neurodevelopmental life courses. Some research has shown that breastfed infants show increased right-handedness, increased intelligence, increased head circumference, decreased speech problems, and decreased multiple sclerosis.

These associations have been interpreted by some as causal and explained on the biological basis that breastfeeding leads to increased myelinization and grey matter volume. However, others say these are assumptions based on a faulty line of reasoning — a reflection of the inability to disentangle breastfeeding from confounders such as socioeconomic factors and health awareness.

Therefore, the goal of the new study was to initiate a systematic search for existing data sources to explore the association between breastfeeding and non-right-handedness.

“We think breastfeeding optimizes the process the brain undergoes when solidifying handedness,” said Dr. Philippe Hujoel, the study’s author, a professor at the University of Washington’s School of Dentistry and an adjunct professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health.

“That’s important because it provides an independent line of evidence that breastfeeding may need to last six to nine months.”

Importantly, the study does not imply, however, that breastfeeding leads to right-handedness, Hujoel said. Handedness, whether it be right- or left-handed, is set early in fetal life and is at least partially determined by genetics.

Instead, the study sheds light on when the region of the brain that controls handedness localizes to one side of the brain, a process known as brain lateralization. Possibly, the research shows, breastfeeding optimizes this lateralization towards becoming right- or left-handed.

For the study, the researchers analyzed data of seven national surveys in five countries involving 62,129 mother-child pairs. These surveys had low risk of bias.

A meta-analysis showed that breastfeeding for < 1 month, 1 to 6 months, and > 6 months, when compared to bottle feeding, was associated with a 9 percent, 15 percent and 22 percent decreased prevalence of non-right-handedness, respectively.

Breastfeeding for longer than 9 months was not linked to further reductions in the prevalence for non-right-handedness. It is concluded that the critical age window for establishing hemispheric dominance in handedness includes the first 9 months of infancy and is in part determined by nurture.

Source: University of Washington

Unconventional Approach for PTSD May Expand Treatment Options

Wed, 01/09/2019 - 7:00am

In a pilot study, German and Swedish researchers discover playing a specific video game in association with a behavioral intervention program reduced the number of flashbacks associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A team of researchers from Ruhr-Universität Bochum and the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden used the computer game Trelis, a tile-matching puzzle video game, as an intervention among a group of 20 individuals hospitalized for PTSD. They found the number of flashbacks for the stressful events decreased.

Professor Henrik Kessler and Dr. Aram Kehyayan from the Department of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy at the University Hospital Bochum, and Professor Emily Holmes, from the Karolinska Institutet, report their findings online in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

Researchers explain that one of the most serious symptoms of PTSD is the involuntary recurrence of visual memories of traumatic experiences.

“PTSD can be treated well using the therapies available,” said Kessler. “However, there are many more patients than therapy places. That’s why the researchers are looking for methods outside conventional treatments that can relieve the symptoms.”

About 10 years ago, Holmes and her team found that the computer game Tetris can suppress flashbacks caused by horror films in healthy people when played shortly after watching the film.

In the current study, the research team tested whether this effect can also help patients with PTSD, for whom the cause of the stressful memories mostly dates back years.

The study involved 20 patients with complex PTSD who were hospitalized for six to eight weeks for regular therapy.

In addition to the usual individual and group therapies, they also underwent a special intervention. This consisted of writing one of their stressful memories down on a sheet of paper. Then they tore up the piece of paper — without talking about the content — and played Tetris on a tablet for 25 minutes.

Over the weeks, individuals recorded their different flashbacks —such as experiences of violence in different situations — in a diary. Then, the specific content of the flashback was targeted in a sequential manner.

In doing this, researchers discovered the intervention reduced flashbacks on the specific content addressed. However, the number of flashbacks remained relatively constant for the untargeted flashback contents.

As the study progressed, the various flashback contents were targeted one after the other. Overall, the number of flashbacks for the situations that were targeted fell by an average of 64 percent.

Flashbacks for which contents were never targeted decreased by only eleven percent. The intervention had an overall effect for 16 of the 20 patients tested.

The researchers posited that the success of the method is based on the following mechanism: When patients visualize the stressful memory in detail, the areas for visuospatial processing in the brain are activated.

These same areas are also important for playing Tetris. Both tasks therefore require comparable and limited resources, resulting in interference.

Whenever a patient consciously remembers the content of a flashback, the associated memory trace becomes temporarily unstable. If interference occurs during this time, the memory trace could be weakened when it is stored again, resulting in fewer flashbacks, the scientists suspect.

“In our study, the intervention was supervised by a team member, but he did not play an active role and did not read the written traumatic memories,” explains Kessler.

“Our hope is that we will be able to derive a treatment that people could perform on their own to help them cope, even if there are no places available for therapy. However, the intervention cannot replace complex trauma therapy, but can only alleviate a central symptom, flashbacks.”

Source: Ruhr-University Bochum

Gene Mutation May Be Tied to Severity of Social Deficits in Autism

Wed, 01/09/2019 - 6:30am

A specific gene mutation appears to be tied to the severity of social deficits in kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to a new pilot study conducted by the Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C.

The findings, published in the journal Autism Research, may be the first step toward identifying a novel biomarker to help guide interventions for children with autism.

As many as 1 in 40 children are affected by ASD. Early social symptoms of the disorder may include not making eye contact, not responding to one’s name when called, an inability to follow a conversation of more than one speaker or incessantly repeating certain words or phrases.

These symptoms often appear by the time a child turns 3.

The developmental disorder is believed to be linked, in part, to disrupted circuitry within the amygdala, a brain structure integral for processing social-emotional information.

In the new study, the researchers found that a particular gene, known as PAC1R, is expressed during key periods of brain development when the amygdala — an almond-shaped cluster of neurons — develops and matures.

A properly functioning amygdala, along with brain structures like the prefrontal cortex and cerebellum, is crucial to the development of a child’s social-emotional processing.

“Our study suggests that an individual with autism who is carrying a mutation in PAC1R may have a greater chance of more severe social problems and disrupted functional brain connectivity with the amygdala,” said Joshua G. Corbin, Ph.D., interim director of the Center for Neuroscience Research at Children’s National Health System and the study’s co-senior author.

“Our study is one important step along the pathway to developing new biomarkers for autism spectrum disorder and, hopefully, predicting patients’ outcomes.”

The research team’s insights came through investigating multiple lines of evidence, including mining publicly available genome-wide data, researching with experimental models, and conducting neuroimaging studies with ASD patients.

All told, the project is the result of six years of painstaking research and data collection, researchers said. This also includes banking patients’ saliva samples collected during clinical visits for future retrospective analyses to determine which genetic mutations were correlated with behavioral and functional brain deficits, Corbin said.

“We homed in on this project to look at about a dozen genes to assess correlations and brought in experts from genetics and genomics at Children’s National to sequence genes of interest,” he added.

“Linking the bench to bedside is especially difficult in neuroscience. It takes a huge amount of effort and dozens of discussions, and it’s very rare. It’s an exemplar of what we strive for.”

Source: Children’s National Health System


Obsessive Compulsive Symptoms in Youth Tied to Greater Risk for Psychiatric Disorders

Tue, 01/08/2019 - 7:04am

Many children exhibit obsessive compulsive symptoms, such as repetitive and ritualistic behaviors, but when these behaviors become disruptive to the child’s life or when intrusive thoughts emerge, it may be a red flag for serious psychiatric conditions, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

“Repetitive actions are common in young children, and are in fact a healthy part of development,” said lead author of the study Ran Barzilay, M.D., Ph.D., child and adolescent psychiatrist and research scientist from the Lifespan Brain Institute (LiBI) at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).

“It’s when these symptoms continue into adolescence and start to interfere with day-to-day activities that we really need to examine the cause and treatments available.”

For the study, researchers at LiBI and the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania aimed to identify patterns in obsessive compulsive symptoms that may serve as a red flag for serious mental disorders. More than 7,000 participants ages 11 to 21 underwent structured psychiatric interviews, including screenings for obsessive compulsive symptoms and other major mental health disorders.

Obsessive compulsive symptoms were divided into four categories: bad thoughts, repeating/checking, symmetry, and cleaning/contamination.

The research team then investigated the association of these symptoms with lifetime diagnoses of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), depressive episode, psychosis, and suicidal ideation.

According to the findings, obsessive compulsive symptoms were common (38.2 percent) in young people who were not seeking mental health treatments, particularly in females and after puberty. Only three percent of the cohort actually met the qualifications for OCD.

All obsessive compulsive symptoms were linked to higher rates of OCD, depression, psychosis and suicidal ideation. However, intrusive bad thoughts — prevalent in more than 20 percent of the sample — showed the most substantial associations with major psychiatric conditions.

These bad thoughts include thoughts about harming oneself or others, picturing violent images, or fear that one would do something bad without intending to. Children with these types of thoughts were more likely to develop serious psychopathology beyond OCD, including depression and suicide.

“Our hope is that these results will propel both mental health professionals and non-mental health practitioners, such as pediatricians, to probe for these symptoms during their patients’ visits,” said the study’s principal investigator Raquel Gur, M.D., Ph.D., director of the LiBI and a professor of psychiatry, neurology and radiology in the Perelman School of Medicine.

“These symptoms may be vital for identifying adolescents who are on a potentially debilitating psychiatric trajectory.”

The researchers suggest that screening for obsessive compulsive symptoms during medical visits may offer a window for clinicians to identify serious psychiatric conditions.

Source: Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia