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Updated: 44 min 44 sec ago

Family Environment Affects Teen Brain Development

Sat, 05/23/2020 - 6:00am

Childhood environment and socioeconomic status appear to affect cognitive ability and brain development during adolescence, independently of genetic factors, according to a new study by a research team at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.

The findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), demonstrate how important the family environment is, not just during early infancy but throughout all of adolescence.

While the way in which genes and environment (nature vs. nurture) affect the brain and cognitive faculties is still hotly debated, previous research has not taken genes into account while looking at the environmental effects.

The Swedish research team conducted a study in which they analyze environmental factors while also looking at a new genetic measure: an index value based on a cluster of the 5,000 or so DNA locations that are most strongly linked to educational achievements.

The study involved 551 adolescents from different socioeconomic environments in different areas in Europe. At the age of 14, the participants gave DNA samples, completed cognitive tests and had their brain imaged in an MR (magnetic resonance) scanner. The process was repeated again five years later.

At the age of 14, genes and environment were independently linked to cognitive ability (measured using working memory tests) and brain structure. However, the environmental effects were found to be 50 to 100 percent stronger than the genetic effects. Differences in socioeconomic status were associated with differences in the total surface area of the neocortex.

“The previous debate was whether there is a special area that is affected by the environment, such as long-term memory or language,” said Nicholas Judd, doctoral student at the Department of Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet and co-first author of the study along with his departmental colleague Bruno Sauce, Ph.D.

“However, we’ve been able to show that the effect occurs across the neocortex and so probably affects a whole host of functions.”

Genetic differences were also linked to brain structure, affecting not only the brain’s total area but also specifically an area of the right parietal lobe known to be important for mathematical skills, reasoning and working memory. This is the first time a brain area has been identified that is linked to this genetic index.

When the research team followed up on the teens five years later, they were able to look at how genes and the environment had affected the brain’s development during adolescence. What they found was that while the genes did not explain any of the cerebral changes, the environment did. However, it is unknown which aspect of the environment is responsible for this.

“There are a number of possible explanations, such as chronic stress, diet or intellectual stimulation, but the study shows just how important the environment is, not only during early childhood,” said  principal investigator Dr. Torkel Klingberg, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Karolinska Institutet.

“Finding the most important environmental factors for optimising childhood and adolescent development is a matter for future research.”

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Source: Karolinska Institutet


Learning to Self-Nudge Helps Improve Self-Control

Fri, 05/22/2020 - 7:00am

Despite knowing better, humans often make unhealthy choices. And when we make choices that aren’t good for us, we feel bad about it later. But a new study suggests it is possible to strengthen our self-control by making simple changes to our environment.

Researchers from the University of Helsinki and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development explain that enhancing the ability to improve self-control is always important but may be even more so in adapting to life in self-isolation.

Indeed, we are all figuring out how to restructure our lives. Home confinement may mean greater temptations as the kitchen and pantry are literally down the hall. This makes it difficult to resist certain temptations — even when we know they aren’t good for us.

We reach for sugary snacks rather than crunching on vegetable sticks, scroll through our social media feeds for hours on end, and lie around on the couch binge-watching one series after another instead of getting up and going out for a run. In short, we often decide on the option that’s more comfortable, enjoyable or attractive in the short term rather than the one that’s better for us in the long term.

Companies often take advantage of precisely these biological, psychological, and social weak spots when shaping advertising campaigns or designing apps and products. But to combat the new temptations, self-nudging is a behavioral science technique that we can all use to improve our self-control.

Researchers Ralph Hertwig, Director of the Center for Adaptive Rationality at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, and Samuli Reijula, philosopher at the University of Helsinki, describe how it works in an article published in Behavioral Public Policy.

The idea behind self-nudging is that people can design and structure their own environments in ways that make it easier for them to make the right choices and ultimately to reach their long-term goals.

The first step is to understand how the environment in which we make our choices — also known as the choice architecture — influences our decisions. The second step is to change that architecture. This could be adjusting the constant notifications from our smartphone or changing the way we position foods in our fridge. The goal is to enable us to make choices that are in our own interests. In other words, to nudge ourselves in the direction we want to go.

The researchers describe four categories of self-nudging tools:

  1. We can use reminders and prompts. For instance, a car driver can tape a note to their car door handle as a reminder to always use the ‘Dutch reach’ method when getting out — in other words, to use the hand furthest from the handle to open the door, as it forces them to check over their shoulder for approaching cyclists.
  2. We can choose a different framing. We can frame the decision between jogging and not jogging as a decision between health and sickness in old age, for example, or we can welcome every flight of stairs as an opportunity to increase our life expectancy by a small amount.
  3. We can reduce the accessibility of things that can harm us by making them less convenient or, conversely, we can make it easier to do the things we want to do — for example, by changing the default settings of our devices and disabling notifications from social media apps.
  4. We can use social pressure and self-commitments to increase accountability. For example, someone might make a public commitment to a friend that they will donate a given sum to a political party they abhor if they don’t meet a work deadline.

“Various needs and desires are always competing for attention in our minds and bodies. Self-nudging can help us to negotiate these internal conflicts. It is a practical tool that can enhance self-understanding,” says Samuli Reijula, philosopher at the University of Helsinki.

Self-nudging applies insights from research on nudging, which has gained increasing popularity among psychologists, behavioral economists and politicians in recent years. The idea is to help people make more rational, healthier decisions by steering their behavior in a certain direction without the need for bans or financial incentives. But nudging has had a mixed reception among researchers.

“Nudging always involves an information gap. For example, a government that uses nudging determines its citizens’ behavior by deciding on what’s good for them and introducing measures to nudge them in that direction. Citizens sometimes don’t even know that they’re being nudged, or how.

This raises concerns about paternalism and manipulation,” says Ralph Hertwig, Director of the Center for Adaptive Rationality at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. What’s more, policymakers can only make changes in the public sphere, but many of our choices are made in the private sphere. Self-nudging avoids the problem of the information gap and extends the reach of nudging to the private domain.

A typical example of a nudge in a cafeteria or school canteen would be to position fruit at eye level while hiding cakes and puddings away in a less accessible back corner. Policymakers who are aware of the harmful long-term health effects of people’s inborn craving for sugar can influence their choices by changing the layout of the options available in public canteens. But once we get home, those nudges no longer apply.

Self-nudgers, on the other hand, learn to understand the environmental factors that challenge their self-control and are able to apply the same evidence-based principles that nudging uses in the public sphere to their immediate environments. For example, they could decide to keep the biscuit tin at the very back of the top shelf in their own kitchen.

“In this way, it’s no longer policymakers who are nudging us, we’re nudging ourselves — if we choose to do so. A government that gives its citizens targeted and easily understandable information on ways of using self-nudging in formats such as fact boxes, apps, or brochures can pursue socially accepted goals such as promoting healthier eating habits by enabling its citizens to make more informed and self-determined decisions.

Of course, self-nudges do not replace regulations and other measures but they extend the policy makers’ toolkit,” says Ralph Hertwig.

Source: Max-Planck-Gesellschaft

What Allows Some Psychopaths to Be Successful?

Fri, 05/22/2020 - 6:30am

It is well-known that some people with psychopathic traits lean toward antisocial behaviors, including violence, but many psychopathic individuals refrain from any criminal acts. Understanding what allows these psychopaths to be “successful” has remained a mystery.

Now a new study by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) sheds light on the mechanisms underlying the formation of this “successful” phenotype.

When describing certain psychopathic individuals as “successful” versus “unsuccessful,” the researchers are referring to life trajectories or outcomes. A “successful” psychopath, for example, might be a CEO or lawyer high in psychopathic traits, whereas an “unsuccessful” psychopath might have those same traits but is incarcerated.

“Psychopathic individuals are very prone to engaging in antisocial behaviors, but what our findings suggest is that some may actually be better able to inhibit these impulses than others,” said lead author Emily Lasko, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

“Although we don’t know exactly what precipitates this increase in conscientious impulse control over time, we do know that this does occur for individuals high in certain psychopathy traits who have been relatively more ‘successful’ than their peers.”

The study tests a compensatory model of “successful” psychopathy, which theorizes that relatively “successful” psychopathic individuals develop greater conscientious traits that serve to inhibit their heightened antisocial impulses.

“The compensatory model posits that people higher in certain psychopathic traits (such as grandiosity and manipulation) are able to compensate for and overcome, to some extent, their antisocial impulses via increases in trait conscientiousness, specifically impulse control,” Lasko said.

To test this model, the team studied data of 1,354 serious juvenile offenders who were adjudicated in court systems in Arizona and Pennsylvania.

“Although these participants are not objectively ‘successful,’ this was an ideal sample to test our hypotheses for two main reasons,” the researchers write. “First, adolescents are in a prime developmental phase for the improvement of impulse control, allowing us the longitudinal variability we would need to test our compensatory model. Second, offenders are prone to antisocial acts, by definition, and their rates of recidivism provided a real-world index of ‘successful’ versus ‘unsuccessful’ psychopathy phenotypes.”

The results show that higher initial psychopathy was linked to steeper increases in general inhibitory control and the inhibition of aggression over time. That effect was magnified among “successful” offenders, or those who reoffended less.

The study lends support to the compensatory model of “successful” psychopathy, Lasko said.

“Our findings support a novel model of psychopathy that we propose, which runs contradictory to the other existing models of psychopathy in that it focuses more on the strengths or ‘surpluses’ associated with psychopathy rather than just deficits,” she said.

“Psychopathy is not a personality trait simply composed of deficits — there are many forms that it can take.”

Lasko is a researcher in VCU’s Social Psychology and Neuroscience Lab, which seeks to understand why people try to harm one another. David Chester, Ph.D., director of the lab and an assistant professor of psychology, is co-author of the study.

The new findings may be useful in clinical and forensic settings, Lasko said, particularly for developing effective prevention and early intervention strategies in that they could help identify strengths that psychopathic individuals possess that could deter future antisocial behavior.

The study, titled “What Makes a ‘Successful’ Psychopath? Longitudinal Trajectories of Offenders’ Antisocial Behavior and Impulse Control as a Function of Psychopathy,” will be published in the journal Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment.

Source: Virginia Commonwealth University

Just 6 Months of Aerobics May Improve Thinking, Memory in Older Adults

Fri, 05/22/2020 - 6:30am

A new Canadian study suggests that older adults, even those who are minimally active to begin with, may perform better on certain thinking and memory tests after engaging in several months of aerobic exercise.

The findings, published in the journal Neurology, show that after six months of exercise, participants improved by 5.7% on tests of executive function, which includes mental flexibility and self-correction. Verbal fluency, which tests how quickly you can retrieve information, increased by 2.4%.

“This change in verbal fluency is what you’d expect to see in someone five years younger,” said study author Marc J. Poulin, Ph.D., D.Phil., from the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada.

“As we all find out eventually, we lose a bit mentally and physically as we age. But even if you start an exercise program later in life, the benefit to your brain may be immense.”

For the study, 206 adults (average age 66) participated in a 6-month, supervised aerobic exercise program held three days a week. Before the study began, the participants had exercised no more than four days per week at a moderate intensity of 30 minutes or less, or no more than two days per week at a high intensity for 20 minutes or less per day.

The participants had no history of heart or memory problems and were given thinking and memory tests at the start of the study, as well as an ultrasound to measure blood flow in the brain. Physical testing was repeated at three months, and thinking and physical testing repeated at the end of the six months.

As the participants progressed through the program, they increased their workout from an average of 20 minutes a day to an average of at least 40 minutes. In addition, they were asked to work out on their own once a week.

Before and after six months of aerobic activity, the participants’ average peak blood flow to the brain was measured using ultrasound. Blood flow rose from an average of 51.3 centimeters per second (cm/sec) to an average of 52.7 cm/sec, a 2.8% increase.

The increase in blood flow with exercise was linked to a number of modest but significant improvements in aspects of thinking that usually decline as we age, Poulin said.

“Sure, aerobic exercise gets blood moving through your body. As our study found, it may also get blood moving to your brain, particularly in areas responsible for verbal fluency and executive functions. Our finding may be important, especially for older adults at risk for Alzheimer’s and other dementias and brain disease,” said Poulin.

“Our study showed that six months’ worth of vigorous exercise may pump blood to regions of the brain that specifically improve your verbal skills as well as memory and mental sharpness,” said Poulin. “At a time when these results would be expected to be decreasing due to normal aging, to have these types of increases is exciting.”

A limitation of the study was that the people doing the exercise were not compared to a similar group of people who were not exercising, so the results may have been due to other factors. However, the researchers tried to control for this by testing participants twice over six months before the start of the program. In addition, some of the exercise was unsupervised, so the amount reported may be unreliable.

Source: American Academy of Neurology

About 10 Percent of Gamers Show Pathological Addiction

Fri, 05/22/2020 - 5:30am

In a new six-year study, the longest ever conducted on video game addiction, researchers found that about 90% of gamers do not play in a way that is harmful or causes negative long-term consequences. However, a significant minority can experience true addiction and as a result can suffer mentally, socially and behaviorally.

The findings are published in the journal Developmental Psychology.

“The aim of this particular study is to look at the longer-term impact of having a particular relationship with video games and what it does to a person over time,” said Sarah Coyne, a professor of family life at Brigham Young University (BYU) and lead author of the research. “To see the impact, we examined the trajectories of pathological video gameplay across six years, from early adolescence to emerging adulthood.”

In addition to finding long-term consequences for addicted gamers, the study also breaks down gamer stereotypes and found that pathological gaming is not a one size fits all disorder.

Pathological video gameplay is characterized by excessive time spent playing video games, difficulty disengaging from them and disruption to healthy functioning due to gaming.

Approximately 10% of gamers fall into the pathological video gameplay category. When compared to the non-pathological group, the addicted gamers exhibited higher levels of depression, aggression, shyness, problematic cell phone use and anxiety by emerging adulthood.

This was despite the groups being the same in all these variables at the initial time point, suggesting that video games may have been important in developing these negative outcomes.

To measure predictors and outcomes to video game addiction, the study looked at 385 adolescents as they transitioned into adulthood. Each participant completed multiple questionnaires once a year over a six-year period. These questionnaires measured depression, anxiety, aggression, delinquency, empathy, prosocial behavior, shyness, sensory reactivity, financial stress and problematic cell phone use.

The researchers found two main predictors for video game addiction: being male and having low levels of prosocial behavior. Having higher levels of prosocial behavior, or voluntary behavior meant to benefit another person, tended to be a protective factor against the addiction symptoms.

Aside from the predictors, Coyne also found three distinct trajectories of video game use. Seventy-two percent of adolescents were relatively low in addiction symptoms across the six years of data collection. Another 18% of adolescents started with moderate symptoms that did not change over time, and only 10% of adolescents showed increasing levels of pathological gaming symptoms throughout the study.

The findings suggest that although 90% of gamers are not playing in a way that is dysfunctional or detrimental to their life, there is still a sizable minority who are truly addicted to video games and suffer addiction symptoms over time.

These results also counteract the stereotype of gamers living in their parents’ basement, unable to support themselves financially or get a job because of their fixation on video games. At least in their early twenties, pathological users of video games appear to be just as financially stable and forward-moving as gamers who are not addicted.

“I really do think that there are some wonderful things about video games,” Coyne said. “The important thing is to use them in healthy ways and to not get sucked into the pathological levels.”

Source: Brigham Young University

Social Media Can Improve Social Distancing Among Teens

Thu, 05/21/2020 - 5:47pm

New research suggests social media can be used to encourage adolescents to follow social distancing guidelines. Investigators discovered social distancing guidance is more effective when adolescents are allowed to develop and deliver their own campaigns.

If a peer social influencer delivers the message, attitudes around the importance of social distancing may change. The research is timely, as many adolescents are choosing to ignore the guidelines set out by governments during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new study suggests peer-to-peer campaigns are likely to be more successful in changing attitudes.

“For many people, adolescence — between the ages of 10 and 24 — is when you want to be making more social connections, not losing them. It’s also a time of increased risk-taking and sensitivity to peer influence,” said first author Dr. Jack Andrews of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London.

“For some adolescents it’s a challenge to stick to social distancing rules, particularly if their friends aren’t following the rules.”

Breaking social distancing rules is a risk-taking behavior, putting at risk the health of the rule-breaker and of others — in many places with legal or financial consequences.

But adolescents are particularly sensitive to the negative effects of social exclusion, and may prefer to risk breaking the rules rather than lose their friends, said Cambridge researchers.

Their paper appears in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

Campaigns led by adults that try to influence adolescent behavior often have mixed success. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the widespread implementation of social distancing measures, led by governments, which are likely to be in place in some form for the foreseeable future.

However, media reports of large student gatherings in the US in March demonstrated the challenge of stopping young people from meeting their friends face-to-face.

Social distancing guidance could be more effective if adolescents are allowed to develop and deliver their own campaigns, focused on changing peer attitudes around the importance of social distancing. With the current restrictions on face-to-face interventions, social media is expected to be particularly effective in promoting social distancing behaviors amongst adolescents.

“Adolescents look to their peers to understand social norms, and align their behavior with the group they want to belong to. The speed and extent of peer influence online is likely to amplified, because social media has such a wide and immediate reach,” said Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Psychology, who led the report.

Previous studies have shown that adolescents are more likely to take certain risks, such as experimenting with drugs or posting sexual content online, when peers are present or doing the same things. Adolescents are also more likely to get involved in beneficial activities, such as volunteering in the community, if they know others who are doing them.

Young people’s capacity to encourage each other in a positive way has been demonstrated in previous studies, for example in a peer-led approach to reducing bullying in schools. This study identified highly-connected, well-liked students, and asked them to develop their own anti-bullying campaigns to share with their peers. Bullying dropped by 25 percent as a result, compared with other schools.

“The advantage of social media influencers is that the motivation for social distancing comes naturally from the young people themselves. Influencers could post videos or photos online, for example, showing how they are following social distancing rules by staying at home, and add tags to increase their visibility through sharing and Likes. Many YouTubers are already doing this. It’s really just presenting public health advice in a more accessible way that adolescents are more likely to listen to,” said Blakemore.

If social distancing can be established as a group norm amongst friends, it is more likely to be copied by others. Another advantage of targeting social media influencers is that they exist across many spheres of interest so have the potential to reach diverse groups of young people.

The researchers say that to create positive change, adolescents must be given the capacity to lead their own ideas. They hope that their proposals will be taken up by charities and public health bodies who can work with influencers to make sure the correct type of information is being shared.

Source: University of Cambridge

Study Suggests Casting a Wider Net of Distress to Prevent Youth Suicide

Thu, 05/21/2020 - 11:14am

A new study suggests the vast majority of young people who self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts appear to have only mild or moderate mental distress. Cambridge University researchers said young people do not display the more obvious symptoms associated with a diagnosable disorder, making detection harder and exacerbating the risk of harm.

As such, measures to reduce suicide risk in young people should focus on the whole population, not just those who are most distressed, depressed or anxious, say the investigators.

They argue that the small increases in stress across the entire population due to the coronavirus lockdown could cause far more young people to be at risk of suicide than can be detected through evidence of psychiatric disorders.

“It appears that self-harm and suicidal thinking among young people dramatically increases well within the normal or non-clinical range of mental distress,” said Professor Peter Jones, senior author of the study from Cambridge’s Department of Psychiatry.

“These findings show that public policy strategies to reduce suicide should support better mental health for all young people, not only those who are most unwell,” said Jones.

“Even modest improvements in mental health and well-being across the entire population may prevent more suicides than targeting only those who are severely depressed or anxious.”

Recent studies suggest a broad range of mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, impulsive behavior and low self-esteem can be taken as a whole to measure levels of “common mental distress.”

For the research, scientists analyzed levels of such distress in two large groups of young people through a series of questionnaires.

They also separately collected self-reported data on suicidal thinking and non-suicidal self-injury — predictive markers for increased risk of suicide — which are the second most common cause of death among 10-24 year-olds worldwide.

Both groups consisted of young people aged 14-24 from London and Cambridgeshire. The first contained 2,403 participants. The study’s methods and findings  were then reproduced with a separate group of 1,074 participants.

“Our findings are noteworthy for being replicated in the two independent samples,” said Jones.

Common mental distress scores increase in three significant increments above the population average: mild mental distress, followed by moderate, and finally severe distress and beyond. The latter often manifests as a diagnosable mental health disorder.

Those with severe mental distress were found to have the highest for risk of suicide. But the majority of all participants experiencing suicidal thoughts or self-harming — 78 percent and 76 percent respectively in the first sample, 66 percent and 71 percent in the second — ranked as having either mild or moderate levels of mental distress.

“Our findings help explain why research focusing on high-risk subjects has yet to translate into useful clinical tools for predicting suicide risk,” said Jones. “Self-harm and suicidal thoughts merit a swift response even if they occur without further evidence of a psychiatric disorder.”

The findings point to a seemingly contradictory situation, in which most of the young people who take their own life may, in fact, be from the considerably larger pool of those deemed as low- or no-risk for suicide.

“It is well known that for many physical conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, small improvements in the risks of the overall population translate into more lives saved, rather than focusing only on those at extremely high risk,” said Jones.

“This is called the ‘prevention paradox’, and we believe our study is the first evidence that mental health could be viewed in the same way. We need both a public health and a clinical approach to suicide risk.”

Jones noted that we are surrounded by technology designed to engage the attention of children and young people, and its effect on well-being should be seen by industry as a priority beyond profit.

“At a government level, policies affecting the economy, employment, education and housing, to health, culture and sport must all take account of young people; supporting their well-being is an investment, not a cost,” he said. “This is particularly important as the widespread effects of the Covid-19 pandemic unfold.”

The Cambridge researchers conducted the study with colleagues from University College London. It was supported by the Wellcome Trust and the National Institute for Health Research, and appears in the journal BMJ Open.

Source: Cambridge University

How Social Media Platforms Can Contribute to Dehumanization

Thu, 05/21/2020 - 6:30am

In a recent analysis of online communication on Facebook, researchers demonstrated how social media and an individual’s sense of identity can be used to dehumanize entire groups of people. The study looked at the breakdown of communication between Facebook users with opposing political viewpoints.

The findings, published in the journal Social Media + Society, suggest the need to foster more healthy communication online.

“Fundamentally, we wanted to examine how online platforms can normalize hatred and contribute to dehumanization,” said Dr. Jessica Jameson, co-author of a paper on the work and a professor of communication at North Carolina State University. “And we found that an established model of the role identity plays in intractable conflicts seems to explain a great deal of this behavior.”

The researchers found that the breakdown between groups with opposing viewpoints tends to happen in three stages: Seeing the other group as a threat to your identity; distorting or dismissing any new information from the other group as irrelevant; and finally, becoming locked in your own viewpoint of the other group.

For the study, Jameson worked with a research team at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem to evaluate online conversations on a Facebook page that was noteworthy in Israel for propagating right-wing hate speech. Specifically, the team looked at comments on the page that were related to other Israeli Jews who commenters felt were not politically right wing.

“We found that the language used in these Facebook interactions hewed very closely to three stages we see in Terrell Northrup’s theory of intractable conflict,” said Jameson. “One stage is the threat,  meaning that the people in one group perceive another group as a threat to their identity.”

“For example, one representative comment we found was that ‘The leftists are our devil, because of their existence the country is being destroyed and the army weakened’.”

“A second stage is distortion. This basically means that the first group will not engage with new information regarding the other group, instead distorting it or dismissing it as irrelevant for some reason,” said Jameson.

“For example, ‘I don’t know if I really want to know the answer to the question of whether the thinking of the left is due to infinite stupidity or infinite naivete’.”

“A third stage is rigidification, where people become locked into their positions, making it difficult or impossible to change their views of the other group,” Jameson said.

“This is where dehumanization occurs, and we see people referring to the political left as ‘cockroaches,’ ‘vermin,’ or ‘stinking dogs.’ And when people stop seeing members of a group as human — that’s dangerous.”

“Look, when social media tools are used for community-building, or to provide social support, or to engage people who have otherwise remained silent, they are very valuable,” Jameson said.

“The concern that is raised by our work here is that when one identity group uses these platforms to dehumanize another group, there is no possibility for conversation with those who have different views. And things may potentially become dangerous.”

“I don’t think having social media companies police their own sites is the answer,” she said. “But I do think this work highlights the need for more efforts aimed at fostering healthy communication between groups.”

Source: North Carolina State University



Exercise Can Aid Memory, May Slow Alzheimer’s

Thu, 05/21/2020 - 6:14am

Emerging research augments evidence linking exercise to brain health, with some researchers suggesting fitness may even improve memory. A new study lends proof that exercise improves blood flow to two key regions of the brain associated with memory.

Investigators from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center mapped brain changes after one year of aerobic workouts and found  increased blow flow into critical areas of the brain associated with memory. Notably, the study showed this blood flow can help even older people with memory issues improve cognition, a finding that scientists say could guide future Alzheimer’s disease research.

“Perhaps we can one day develop a drug or procedure that safely targets blood flow into these brain regions,” said Binu Thomas, Ph.D., a UT Southwestern senior research scientist in neuroimaging.

“But we’re just getting started with exploring the right combination of strategies to help prevent or delay symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. There’s much more to understand about the brain and aging.”

The study documented changes in long-term memory and cerebral blood flow in 30 participants, each of them 60 or older with memory problems. Half of the participants underwent 12 months of aerobic exercise training; the rest did only stretching.

The study appears in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

The exercise group showed 47 percent improvement in memory scores after one year compared with minimal change in the stretch participants. Brain imaging of the exercise group, taken while they were at rest at the beginning and end of the study, showed increased blood flow into the anterior cingulate cortex and the hippocampus, neural regions that play important roles in memory function.

Other studies have documented benefits for cognitively normal adults on an exercise program, including previous research from Thomas that showed aging athletes have better blood flow into the cortex than sedentary older adults. But the new research is significant because it plots improvement over a longer period in adults at high risk to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

“We’ve shown that even when your memory starts to fade, you can still do something about it by adding aerobic exercise to your lifestyle,” Thomas said.

The search for dementia interventions is becoming increasingly pressing: More than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, and the number is expected to triple by 2050.

Recent research has helped scientists gain a greater understanding of the molecular genesis of the disease, including a 2018 discovery from UT Southwestern’s Brain Institute that is guiding efforts to detect the condition before symptoms arise.

Neverthess, the billions of dollars spent on researching how to prevent or slow dementia have yielded no proven treatments that would make an early diagnosis actionable for patients.

UT Southwestern scientists are among many teams across the world trying to determine if exercise may be the first such intervention. Evidence is mounting that it could at least play a small role in delaying or reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

For example, a 2018 study showed that people with lower fitness levels experienced faster deterioration of vital nerve fibers in the brain called white matter. A study published last year showed exercise correlated with slower deterioration of the hippocampus.

Regarding the importance of blood flow, Thomas said it may some day be used in combination with other strategies to preserve brain function in people with mild cognitive impairment.

“Cerebral blood flow is a part of the puzzle, and we need to continue piecing it together,” Thomas said. “But we’ve seen enough data to know that starting a fitness program can have lifelong benefits for our brains as well as our hearts.”

Source: UT Southwesters/EurekAlert

Movement-Based Yoga Shown to Boost Mental Health

Wed, 05/20/2020 - 7:00am

An Australian study finds the ancient practice of yoga may provide a sustainable exercise alternative for people isolating at home.

Investigators from the University of South Australia (UniSA), discovered that movement-based yoga can significantly improve mental health. The study appears in the British Journal of Sports Medicine  and was conducted in partnership with the Federal University of Santa Maria, UNSW Sydney, Kings College London and Western Sydney University.

Investigators found the mental health improvements were proportional to the amount of yoga they practiced. This dose-response suggests that the more a person practices yoga, the greater the benefits.

Lead researcher and UniSA PhD candidate Jacinta Brinsley said it’s a welcome and timely finding given strict social distancing measures that limit exercise options.

“As self-isolation escalates and people find themselves working from home and unable to physically catch up with their friends and family, we’re likely to see more people feel lonely and disconnected,” Brinsley said.

“Exercise has always been a great strategy for people struggling with these feelings as it boosts both mood and health. But as gyms and exercise classes of all kinds are now closed — even jogging with a friend is strongly discouraged — people are looking for alternatives, and this is where yoga can help.

“Our research shows that movement-based yoga improved symptoms of depression (or improved mental health) for people living with a range of mental health conditions including anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and major depression. So, it’s very good news for people struggling in times of uncertainty.”

Researchers examined 19 studies (1080 participants) across six countries (US, India, Japan, China, Germany and Sweden), where individuals had a formal diagnosis of a mental disorder, including depression and anxiety. The researchers defined movement-based yoga as any form of yoga where participants are physically active at least 50 percent of the time, that is forms of yoga that emphasize holding poses and flowing through sequences of poses.

Globally, around 450 million people suffer from mental health issues, with the World Health Organization reporting that one in four people will be affected by a mental health condition or a neurological disorder at some point in their lives. In Australia, almost half of adults (aged 18-85 years) will experience mental illness.

Associate Professor Simon Rosenbaum said while the results are promising, challenges remain.

“Importantly, the most vulnerable in our community are often the least likely to have access to exercise or yoga programs despite the potential benefits,” Rosenbaum said.

“Our results have significant implications and demonstrate that you don’t necessarily need to go for a jog to benefit from movement.”

Source: University of South Australia

‘Power Posing’ May Help Students Feel More Confident

Wed, 05/20/2020 - 6:30am

Assuming a dominant body posture, called “power posing,” may help children feel more confident in school, according to a new German study of more than 100 fourth graders.

The findings are published in the journal School Psychology International.

Whether we’re feeling insecure, irritated, excited or confident, our body posture often gives us away. But according to the new study, it can work the opposite way as well: Standing in a confident manner may make a person feel more confident.

Research on so-called power posing looks at the extent to which a certain body posture might influence a person’s feelings and self-esteem.

In the new study, a research team of psychologists from Martin Luther University (MLU) Halle-Wittenberg and the Otto Friedrich University of Bamberg in Germany provide initial evidence showing that simple poses can help students feel better at school.

“Body language is not just about expressing feelings, it can also shape how a person feels,” said Dr. Robert Körner from the Institute of Psychology at MLU. “Power posing is the nonverbal expression of power. It involves making very bold gestures and changes in body posture.”

Until now, most of the research has revolved around studying the effects on adults. The new study is the first to look at this effect in children. “Children from the age of five are able to recognize and interpret the body posture of others,” the psychologist said.

The study involved an experiment with 108 fourth graders: One group of students was told to assume two open and expansive postures for one minute each, while the other group was instructed to pose with their arms folded in front of them and their heads down.

The students then completed a series of psychological tests. The results show that children who had performed higher power poses indicated better mood, higher self-esteem and a more positive student-teacher relationship compared to the children in the other group. The effects were particularly striking when it came to questions concerning school.

“Here, power posing had the strongest effect on the children’s self-esteem,” said Körner. “Teachers could try and see whether this method helps their students.”

However, Körner asserts that the results of the new study should not be blown out of proportion and that expectations about this technique should be kept in check. For example, the effects observed were only short-term. In addition, any serious emotional problems or mental illness must be treated by trained professionals.

The new study is consistent with earlier findings on power posing; however, the concept is still somewhat controversial in the field of psychological research. Some of the findings, which indicated effects on hormones or behavior, for example, could not be replicated. However, this is also the case for other studies in psychology and other scientific disciplines.

“To make our study even more objective and transparent, we pre-registered it and all of the methodology. This means that we specified everything in advance and could not change anything afterwards,” said Körner.

The study is published in the journal School Psychology International.

Source: Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg


Women May Be More Likely to Get Inaccurate Performance Reviews

Wed, 05/20/2020 - 6:00am

New research suggests women may receive a break at work during their performance evaluation because of efforts to preserve relationships. Cornell University investigators believe the fibs or “white lies” serve a purpose but they can cause problems in the workplace, where honest feedback, even when it’s negative, is important.

In the new study, Drs. Lily Jampol and Vivian Zayas, an associate professor of psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences, discovered women are more likely to be given inaccurate performance feedback.

Their paper appears in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Zayas and Jampol found that underperforming women are given less truthful but kinder performance feedback compared to equally underperforming men.

White lies are told to preserve relationships, avoid harming the other person or to present one’s self in a positive light, among other reasons, Jampol said. Though they often reflect benign intentions, in some contexts they can be problematic.

“Given that developmental performance feedback is a ubiquitous and important process in most workplaces and of many people’s working lives, access to fair and accurate feedback should be available to anyone needing improvement, regardless of his or her social group,” the authors conclude.

“Here we have exposed one factor that may, to a certain degree, impede this access — being a woman.”

The study adds to a robust body of research showing gender differences in performance evaluations.

Previous research has shown, for example, that women are described more warmly and with more positive words than men in narrative performance reviews, while being evaluated more negatively on more objective, quantitative measures of performance.

Women are praised for their work while being allocated fewer resources than men. Women also report receiving less negative feedback from managers.

The primary aim of this new study, Zayas said, was “to provide empirical evidence that there is a greater propensity to positively distort information, or tell white lies, to women during person-to-person feedback.”

The researchers used two studies to test this hypothesis.

In the first, which measured participants’ perceptions of another person’s actions, participants read a hypothetical manager’s assessment of an employee’s poor performance. Then they read what feedback the manager chose to give directly to the employee.

Participants were randomly assigned to read different feedback statements, ranging from truthful feedback, which was the harshest, to the least truthful statement, which was also the nicest.

Study participants were asked to guess the employee’s gender based on the feedback the manager had chosen to give.

“Participants overwhelmingly guessed that an underperforming employee who had been told a white lie — the least truthful, but the nicest feedback — was a woman,” said Jampol, a diversity, equity and inclusion strategist at ReadySet, a consulting firm in Oakland, California.

“This finding suggests that participants believe that this is a likely occurrence in giving feedback.”

The second study examined whether the participants themselves were more likely to tell white lies to an underperforming woman, compared with a man.

For the second study, the researchers asked participants to grade two poorly written essays, with the writers identified solely by their initials, AB or SB; their genders were not known. Given that participants did not know the gender of the writers and the evaluation was done privately, their grades represent how they truly evaluated the essay.

After submitting their grades, study participants were asked to provide feedback directly to each writer over chat, so that the writer could improve. At this point, the writers’ names (Andrew or Sarah) were revealed, revealing that one was a man, the other a woman.

Participants submitted a grade to each writer, as well as substantive comments to improve their essays.

Participants were more likely to tell white lies to the woman writer, inflating Sarah’s grades nearly a full letter grade higher than from their initial private evaluation.

They also gave her more positive comments than they gave Andrew. In contrast, the man’s in-person feedback was statistically indistinguishable from the participants’ undisclosed evaluations of his work.

The studies reveal a potential obstacle to equality, Jampol and Zayas said.

Source: Cornell University/EurekAlert

Recalling Childhood Abuse May Matter More for Mental Health Than Records

Tue, 05/19/2020 - 6:30am

Recalling a personal account of childhood maltreatment is more closely linked to mental health problems than legal proof that the maltreatment occurred, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

The findings suggest that the subjective experience of maltreatment as a child may play a more vital role in adult emotional disorders than the event itself, and as a result, clinical work focusing on a patient’s memories and thinking patterns around abuse and neglect could be more influential on mental health than previously thought.

A research team from King’s College London and City University of New York analyzed data of nearly 1,200 people. They found that individuals who had been identified as victims of child maltreatment by official court records,  but who did not recall the experience, were at no greater risk of adult psychiatric disorders than those with neither objective nor subjective experiences of abuse or neglect.

However, court-documented victims of maltreatment who also remembered the experience were nearly twice as likely to have emotional disorders in adulthood, such as depression and anxiety. In addition, those who remembered the experience of child maltreatment but did not have court evidence were at a similarly higher risk of psychiatric disorders.

“This is the first study that has comprehensively investigated the relative contribution of objective and subjective experience of childhood maltreatment in the development of psychiatric disorders,” said Professor Andrea Danese from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) King’s College London and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust.

“We often think that objective and subjective experiences are one of the same, but we have found here that this is not quite true for childhood maltreatment — and that people’s own accounts of their experience are very important for their risk of psychopathology.”

“Our findings offer new hope that psychological treatments that address memories, cognitions and attitudes related to child maltreatment can help relieve the heavy mental health toll associated with this experience. This is a valuable insight at a time when there may be a rise in cases of child maltreatment due to restrictions to normal life and social care imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Specifically, the study showed that subjects with a combination of subjective reports and official records of childhood maltreatment had a 35% greater risk of experiencing any form of psychopathology compared to those with no measures of maltreatment at all.

Participants who identified themselves as victims of childhood maltreatment but with no official record of abuse or neglect had a 29% greater risk of any psychopathology. However, those who had official records of childhood maltreatment but no subjective reports of the experience appeared to be at no greater risk of developing any psychopathology.

The researchers looked at data from a unique sample in the U.S. Midwest, consisting of 908 people who had been identified as victims of child abuse or neglect on official court records from 1967-1971, alongside a comparison group of 667 people who had been matched on age, sex, ethnicity and family social class but who had no official records of abuse or neglect.

The participants were followed up about 20 years later at an average age of 28.7 years and were evaluated for psychiatric problems and asked to provide their own accounts of abuse and neglect as children. At follow-up there remained a total of 1,196 in the sample.

A major strength of the study was the use of objective measures of child abuse and neglect based on official records from juvenile and adult criminal courts, which were the basis for legal actions to protect children and prosecute perpetrators. Subjective measures of maltreatment were based on retrospective reports of physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect.

The study looked at a range of psychiatric disorders including depression, dysthymia, generalized anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), antisocial personality disorder, alcohol abuse and/or dependence, and drug abuse and/or dependence.

Further analysis into the different types of mental health conditions found that those with personal recall of childhood maltreatment were almost twice as likely to experience the emotional problems, such as depression and anxiety. They were also more than five times as likely to develop behavioral problems, such as antisocial personality, and also more likely to develop alcohol or substance abuse and/or dependence.

“Traditionally, as researchers, we have been concerned about establishing whether abuse and neglect have occurred, or what neurological or physical damage these experiences may have caused to the victims,” said Danese.

“This is, of course, very important, but the reality may be less deterministic. The actual occurrence of the event may not be as important in the development of psychiatric disorders as how the victim has experienced and responded to the event or, more generally, how people think about their childhood experiences.”

Source: King’s College London



Study Probes Mental Illness Outcomes in Severe Coronavirus Cases

Tue, 05/19/2020 - 6:00am

Based on previous epidemics, most people admitted to the hospital with severe COVID-19 should recover without developing mental illness, according to a recent meta-analysis published in The Lancet Psychiatry journal.

In the longer term, however, some coronavirus survivors may be at risk for depression, anxiety, fatigue, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the months and years following discharge from hospital.

There are several reasons why severe coronavirus infections might have psychiatric consequences, including possible direct effects of viral infection (including on the central nervous system), the degree of physiological compromise (eg, low blood oxygen), the immune response, and medical interventions.

Other reasons relate to the wider social impact, including social isolation, the psychological impact of a novel severe and potentially fatal illness, concerns about infecting others, and stigma.

The review looked at coronavirus infections of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2002 and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in 2012. Researchers said the study only looked at severe cases in which individuals were treated in the hospital, and does not apply to milder cases or asymptomatic cases.

“Our analysis of more than 3,550 coronavirus cases suggests that most people will not suffer from mental health problems following coronavirus infection,” said Dr. Jonathan Rogers from University College London, UK, who co-led the research.

“While there is little evidence to suggest that common mental illnesses beyond short-term delirium are a feature of COVID-19 infection, clinicians should monitor for the possibility that common mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, fatigue, and PTSD could arise in the weeks and months following recovery from severe infection, as has been seen with SARS and MERS.”

Rogers said, “With few data yet for COVID-19, high quality, peer-reviewed research into psychiatric symptoms of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2 as well as investigations to mitigate these outcomes is needed. Monitoring for the development of symptoms should be a routine part of the care we provide.”

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has affected a large proportion of the world’s population, relatively little is known about its potential effects on mental health.

To investigate this further, the authors conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of all studies and preprint articles (reporting data on the psychiatric and neuropsychiatric features of individuals with suspected or laboratory-confirmed coronavirus infection (SARS, MERS, or SARS-CoV-2).

In total, the authors looked at 65 peer-reviewed studies, and analyzed the psychiatric consequences of coronavirus infections in more than 3,550 patients hospitalized with SARS, MERS, and COVID-19,

Analysis of data from two studies that systematically assessed common symptoms of patients admitted to hospital with SARS and MERS found that confusion occurred in 28% (36/129) of patients, suggesting delirium was common during acute illness. There were also frequent reports of low mood (42/129; 33%), anxiety (46/129; 36%), impaired memory (44/129; 34%), and insomnia (34/208; 12%) during the acute stage.

Twelve studies focusing on COVID-19 seemed to show a similar picture, with evidence of delirium (confusion in 26/40 intensive care unit patients, 65%; agitation in 40/58 ICU patients, 69%; and altered consciousness in 17/82 patients who subsequently died, 21%) while acutely ill.

Six studies looking at SARS and MERS patients after recovery from initial infection found frequent reports of low mood (35/332 patients, 11%), insomnia (34/208, 12%), anxiety (21/171, 12%), irritability (28/218, 13%), memory impairment (44/233, 19%), fatigue (61/316, 19%), and frequent recall of traumatic memories (55/181, 30%) over a follow-up period ranging from 6 weeks to 39 months.

The research team estimates that the prevalence of PTSD among SARS and MERS survivors was 33% at an average of 34 months after the acute stage of illness, while rates of depression and anxiety disorders was around 15% at an average of 23 months and one year after the acute stage respectively.

However, the authors warn that these may be overestimates of the true mental health burden resulting from these outbreaks.

“It is likely that the apparently high rates of anxiety disorders, depression, and PTSD seen in SARS and MERS patients overestimate the actual burden,” said co-lead author Dr. Edward Chesney from King’s College London, UK.

“The lack of adequate comparison groups or assessment of patients’ previous psychiatric history means that it is hard to separate the effects of coronavirus infections from pre-existing conditions, the impact of an epidemic on the population as a whole, or that selection bias (the possibility that patients were recruited into studies on the basis of factors that were associated with subsequent development of psychiatric illness) led to high prevalence figures.”

The authors note several limitations in the analysis, including the use of preprint articles that had not been subject to peer review; the exclusion of non-English-language articles; and the small sample size of several studies.

In addition, systematic assessment of psychiatric symptoms was rare, and the use of self-reported data (which might not be accurate) was common, while few studies included objective biological measures, such as blood markers of genetic, inflammatory, and immune function, or brain imaging.

Finally, follow-up time for the post-illness studies varied between 60 days and 12 years, which makes direct comparison between studies difficult.

“Findings from previous coronavirus outbreaks are useful, but might not be exact predictors of prevalences of psychiatric complications for patients with COVID-19,” writes Dr. Iris Sommer (who was not involved in the study) from the University Medical Centre Groningen in the Netherlands.

“The warning from Rogers and colleagues that we should prepare to treat large numbers patients with COVID-19 who go on to develop delirium, posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression is an important message for the psychiatric community.”

“Treatment of patients admitted to the hospital for SARS-CoV-2 infection seems to be different from treatment of those admitted for SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV infections. Furthermore, the social situation to which COVID-19 survivors return is completely different from that of SARS and MERS survivors. These differences are relevant for the prevalence of psychiatric disorders in both acute and post-illness stages.”

Source: The Lancet

Media Coverage of Autism Has Shifted From ‘Cause and Cure’ to ‘Acceptance’

Mon, 05/18/2020 - 8:48pm

A new study finds that the media’s coverage of autism has shifted over time from a focus on “cause and cure” toward one of acceptance and accommodation.

The study authors, who looked at 315 articles published from 2007 to 2017, chose to examine the influential Washington Post because it is widely read by legislators and policymakers.

The findings, published in the journal Disability and Society, suggest that media representations of autism are changing to reflect new public attitudes generated in part by the autistic rights movement.

“There’s less focus on cause and a bigger focus on accommodation,” said co-author Noa Lewin, whose undergraduate senior thesis at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) was the basis of the study. “Coverage has shifted more toward how to make life better for autistic people and less on what is causing autism.”

The paper is based on a content analysis of coverage beginning in 2007 — before the presumed link between the MMR vaccine and autism had been completely debunked — and ends 10 years later, when the neurodiversity rights movement had advanced understanding and awareness about the range of ways brains function. For example, the movement asserted that variations from “normal” are not necessarily deficits.

Dr. Nameera Akhtar, a professor of psychology at UCSC and the corresponding author of the paper, is at the forefront of paradigm-shifting scholarship about autism and has called for greater understanding of autism.

“The autism self-advocacy movement has been around for a while, but the idea that autism is something that should be accommodated rather than ‘cured’ is new for people who haven’t been exposed to it,” she said.

In their analysis, the team found that the Post’s articles over time were more likely to talk about “neurodiversity” and to acknowledge the strengths of autistic people. Articles also began to describe accommodations for autistic people, and a few began to feature the voices of autistic people themselves — a trend Lewin, who is autistic, particularly appreciated.

“I remember one article about autism-related legislation that quoted a member of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN),” said Lewin, who links the increased visibility of people with autism to the broader disability-rights movement.

“We tend to think of a disability as a medical tragedy, and we don’t think about how attitudes, systemic ableism, and barriers contribute to that.”

Although the media over time gradually placed more emphasis on autistic skills and strengths, they continued to use negative terms to describe autistic people. For example, the terms “high functioning” and “low functioning” continue to appear, despite autistic advocates’ preference for more specific language, such as “speaking” and “non-speaking.” And the emphasis on strengths was on autistic people who can do things like speak conversationally and hold jobs.

“The Post’s coverage reflected a widespread belief that having a disability is okay if you’re able to fit into a neurotypical world or if it offers a special talent or skill with social value, like being really good with computers,” said Lewin.

Akhtar is pleased to see media representations of autism changing, and said she was delighted to collaborate with Lewin on the paper.

“Autistic people should be involved in research about autism,” she said. “I was happy to work with Noa and to gain this insider’s perspective. I learned a lot. You learn to broaden your way of thinking by interacting with people with different experiences.”

Source: University of California- Santa Cruz


Youth Who Get Job Skills Training Less Likely to Use Drugs In Long Run

Mon, 05/18/2020 - 7:00am

A new study shows that job skills training for low-income youth does more than help them get better jobs. It makes them significantly less likely to use illicit drugs, even 16 years later.

However, these positive effects on drug use were only seen in those who received job-specific skills training, but not in youth who received only basic job services, such as help with a job search or a General Education Development (GED) program, according to researchers at The Ohio State University.

The study’s results showed that the use of illicit drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, declined for youth who received job-skills training, down to 2.8 percent after 16 years. However, illicit drug use increased for those who received only basic services, up to 5.2 percent in the same time.

“We have to look at what kind of job services we provide low-income youth, because they don’t all provide the same level of benefits,” said Dr. Sehun Oh, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of social work at Ohio State University. “There were positive spillover effects from job training on drug misuse, which we did not see in youth who were provided only more basic services.”

The results are important because federal and state governments emphasize a “job-first” approach that focuses on helping adults in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program obtain immediate employment, Oh said.

Under a “job first” approach, people usually receive only basic services, which alone were not found to be helpful in preventing drug misuse in this study, he noted

The study used data about young people from around the country who participated in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997. The NLSY97 interviewed people who were between the ages of 13 and 17 in 1997 and then interviewed the same people 17 times until 2016. The NLSY is conducted by Ohio State’s Center for Human Resource Research for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The researchers identified 581 people from NLSY97 who participated in government-sponsored employment programs for low-income youth and adults.

About half reported receiving job skills training services, such as vocational training, on-the-job training, work experience and other classroom training for a specific job. The other half received only basic services, such as a GED program or job-search assistance.

Results showed that binge drinking decreased significantly among both the basic services and job skills training groups, with no group differences found in the trends, according to the researchers.

Slightly more than 40 percent of both groups said they engaged in binge drinking (5 or more drinks on one occasion in the past month) at the start of the study, which declined to 30 percent in year 16.

Marijuana use was relatively steady for both groups over the entire period of the study, with 11 to 16 percent of the groups reporting they had used the drug in the past year.

The reduction seen in the use of illicit drugs like cocaine and heroin is an advantage of job skills training programs that has not been studied before, Oh said.

“Substance misuse is a significant public health problem in the United States,” he said. “Giving people the skills needed to get good jobs is one way to help fight that crisis, and one that doesn’t come from a ‘jobs-first’ approach.”

The study was published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Source: The Ohio State University

Strong Relationships Can Promote Physical Activity in Older Adults

Mon, 05/18/2020 - 6:00am

Older adults who have strong relationships, whether with a romantic partner or through friendships, are more likely to engage in regular physical activity, according to researchers at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.

“These results are important because they reinforce that relationships are key to influencing positive health behaviors, including physical activity,” said Dr. Catherine Pirkle, a co-author of the study and an associate professor of public health.

The researchers say that during the current COVID-19 pandemic, it is still crucial to remember the importance of social relationships and maintaining physical activity as a way to reduce chronic disease and premature death. They suggest finding innovative ways to stay socially connected and active while still following public health guidelines.

The findings, published in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, show that both individual and interpersonal factors seem to have a strong influence on whether older adults meet physical activity guidelines. Specifically, participants with higher education levels, a strong relationship with a life partner or a network of close friends were much more likely to engage in regular physical activity.

On the other hand, being female and having depression were linked to less physical activity among the participants.

“We wanted to better understand how adults’ levels of physical activity are affected by other aspects of their lives,” said lead author Chevelle Davis, a current Ph.D. student in the Office of Public Health Studies under the Myron B. Thompson School of Social Work. “Physical activity among older adults is largely understudied in middle-income countries.”

For the study, the authors looked at data of 1,193 adults ages 65-74 in Albania, Brazil and Colombia. The study sought to understand how individual, interpersonal, organizational and community factors influenced whether the older adults reached physical activity guidelines, defined as 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week through walking.

“In the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is critical not to forget the importance of social relationships and maintaining physical activity to reduce chronic disease and premature death,” said Pirkle. “Older adults who experience social isolation are at greater risk of depression, cognitive decline and other poor health outcomes.

“We must find innovative ways to maintain connectedness and physical activity, while also following public health guidelines.”

Importantly, the research team found that female participants, as well as all those who were struggling with depression, were less likely to engage in regular physical activity.

Mental health challenges are likely to increase in this time, but walking, which is generally safe and acceptable to most older adults, has been shown to protect against depression symptoms. Walking and other forms of physical activity are allowed in parks at this time.

“Our findings echo other studies that have demonstrated the importance of connectivity in the aging process across different cultures. We hope this study can be used to inform health approaches and interventions targeting older adults to keep them healthy in this pandemic and beyond,” said Pirkle.

According to the CDC, physical activity among older adults helps maintain the ability to live independently and reduces the risk of falling and fracturing bones. Physical activity also reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression and improves mood and feelings of well-being.

Source: University of Hawai’i at Mānoa

Autistic Children Face Higher Risk of Developing Eating Disorders

Sun, 05/17/2020 - 11:41pm

A new study finds that autistic traits can set the stage for eating disorders.

Previous research has found that about 20 percent to 30 percent of adults with eating disorders have autism, while up to 10 percent of children with eating disorders have autism.

But until now, it hasn’t been clear whether the autistic traits result from the eating disorders or precede them, according to researchers at University College London in England.

In their new longitudinal study, the researchers discovered that autistic traits in childhood come before behaviors characteristic of eating disorders, and so could be a risk factor for developing eating disorders.

“We have found that young children with autistic traits at age 7 are more likely than their peers to end up developing eating disorder symptoms in adolescence,” said lead author Dr. Francesca Solmi of UCL Psychiatry. “Most other studies looked at snapshots in time, rather than tracking people over multiple years, so it wasn’t clear whether autism increases the risk of eating disorders, or if symptoms of eating disorders could sometimes resemble autistic traits.”

The study involved 5,381 adolescents who have been participating in longitudinal research from birth as part of the University of Bristol’s Children of the 90s cohort study.

The researchers considered whether they had autistic social traits at age 7, 11, 14, and 16, and disordered eating — fasting, purging, prolonged dieting, or binge-eating — at age 14.

The researchers investigated autistic traits reported by the mother, rather than a diagnosis of autism. That meant that the study findings included children who do not necessarily have autism, but also included children with autism who might not have been diagnosed.

In the study group, 11.2 percent of girls reported at least one disordered eating behavior within the previous year, with 7.3 percent experiencing them monthly and 3.9 percent weekly. That compares to 3.6 percent of boys (2.3 percent monthly and 1.3 percent weekly).

Adolescents with eating disorders showed higher levels of autistic traits by age 7, suggesting that the autistic traits predated the disordered eating, according to the researchers, who noted that eating disorders are very rare at age 7.

Children who displayed higher autistic traits at age 7 were 24 percent more likely to have weekly disordered eating behaviors at age 14.

While the study did not investigate the reasons behind the relationship, the researchers point out that children with autism may have difficulties with social communication and developing friendships, which could contribute to higher rates of depression and anxiety at young ages. Disordered eating might result from dysfunctional methods of coping with these emotional difficulties, they postulate.

Other autistic traits, while not included in the specific measure of autistic social traits used, may also be linked to eating disorders, such as rigidity of thinking, inflexible behaviors, unusual sensory processing, and tendencies towards repetitive behaviors, the researchers said.

“The next step is to learn more about why those with autistic traits have a higher risk of developing an eating disorder so we can then design interventions to prevent eating disorders,” said co-author Dr. William Mandy of UCL Psychology and Language Sciences. “Around a fifth of women presenting with anorexia nervosa have high levels of autistic traits and there is some evidence that these women benefit the least from current eating disorder treatment models. People with autism and eating disorders may need a different approach towards treatment.”

“Parents and other carers of children with autism should be aware there is an increased risk of developing eating disorders,” added senior author Professor Glyn Lewis of UCL Psychiatry. said. “Being alert to eating disordered behaviors and seeking help early could be helpful.”

The study was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Source: University College London

In Co-Parenting, Spousal Presence Affects Brain Chemistry

Sun, 05/17/2020 - 11:37pm

A new study reveals how the physical presence of spouses who are co-parenting can alter one another’s brain activity.

Researchers from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) analyzed how the brain activity of 24 husband-wife pairs from Singapore changed in response to recordings of infant stimuli such as crying, when they were physically together and when they were apart.

For the study, the researchers monitored the parents’ prefrontal cortex — a brain region linked to complex behavior and emotional states — with functional Near-infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS), a non-invasive optical imaging technique that measures brain signals based on the level of oxygenated and deoxygenated blood in the brain.

Before the experiment, couples answered a questionnaire that aims to measure how often the mother or father takes the lead in co-parenting. The couples were then exposed to infant and adult laughter and cries, as well as a static sound either together (in the same room at the same time) or separately (in different rooms at different times).

The results reveal that when the spouses were physically together, their brains showed more similar responses than when they were apart. This effect was only found in true couples and not in randomly matched study participants.

When similar brain activity in the same area of the brain (i.e. greater synchrony) is observed in two people, it suggests that both are highly attuned to each other’s emotions and behaviors.

“Our study indicates that when spouses are physically together, there is greater synchrony in their attentional and cognitive control mechanisms when parenting,” said senior author NTU Associate Professor Gianluca Esposito, who holds a joint appointment in the School of Social Sciences and the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine.

“Since the brain response of parents may be shaped by the presence of the spouse, then it is likely that spouses who do not spend much time together while attending their children may find it harder to understand each other’s viewpoint and have reduced ability to coordinate co-parenting responsibilities. This may undermine the quality of parental care in the long run.”

Esposito, who also leads the Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab (SAN-Lab) at NTU, said more time together while caring for a child may seem like a “waste of time.” However, it may prove to help the couple with parenting.

“This finding is particularly useful for parents who are working from home during this “circuit breaker” period in Singapore — as families spend more time together at home as part of social distancing measures in the fight against COVID-19. The entire family interacting together for an extended period may be stressful, but parents can take this time to tune into each other’s behaviour and emotions while caring for their children.”

The study, undertaken in collaboration with researchers from the United States’ National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and Italy’s University of Trento, was published in Nature Scientific Reports.

“Our study brings us a step closer in uncovering how the parental brain may be shaped by the physical presence of the co-parenting spousal partner,” said first author Ms. Atiqah Azhari, an NTU PhD candidate at the SAN-Lab.

“To ascertain how synchrony may be beneficial or not for the couple or child, future research should look into how synchrony during positive and negative emotional situations directly affects coordinated caregiving behaviours.”

The paper’s co-first author Ms Mengyu Lim, who is a Project Officer at the SAN-Lab at NTU, said, “The findings of this study may be empowering for those who experience parenting stress — that we should not think of parenting as an individual task, but a shared responsibility with the spouse. Co-parenting requires active teamwork, communication, and trust in each other.”

The study builds on Esposito’s previous research on the effects of parenting stress in the brains of both mothers and their children.

Source: Nanyang Technological University



Stress Changes How We Deal with Risk Information

Sat, 05/16/2020 - 7:30am

New research reveals that stress changes the way we deal with risk information.

The research sheds light on how stressful events, such as a global crisis, can influence how information and misinformation about health risks spreads in social networks, according to researchers at the University of Konstanz in Germany.

“The global coronavirus crisis, and the pandemic of misinformation that has spread in its wake, underscores the importance of understanding how people process and share information about health risks under stressful times,” said Dr. Wolfgang Gaissmaier, a professor in social psychology at the University of Konstanz and senior author on the study.

“Our results uncovered a complex web in which various strands of endocrine stress, subjective stress, risk perception, and the sharing of information are interwoven.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how risk information, such as about dangers to our health, can spread through social networks and influence people’s perception of the threat, with severe repercussions on public health efforts, according to the researchers.

However, whether stress influences this has never been studied, they noted.

“Since we are often under acute stress even in normal times and particularly so during the current health pandemic, it seems highly relevant not only to understand how sober minds process this kind of information and share it in their social networks, but also how stressed minds do,” said Dr. Jens Pruessner, a professor in clinical neuropsychology working at the Reichenau Centre of Psychiatry, which is also an academic teaching hospital of the University of Konstanz.

To do this, researchers had participants read articles about a controversial chemical substance, then report their risk perception of the substance before and after reading the articles. They also were asked to say what information they would pass on to others, according to the researchers.

Just prior to this task, half of the group was exposed to acute social stress, which involved public speaking and mental arithmetic in front of an audience, while the other half completed a control task.

The results showed that experiencing a stressful event drastically changes how we process and share risk information, according to the study’s findings.

Stressed participants were less influenced by the articles and chose to share concerning information to a significantly smaller degree.

“Notably, this dampened amplification of risk was a direct function of elevated cortisol levels indicative of an endocrine-level stress response,” the researchers reported.

In contrast, participants who reported subjective feelings of stress showed higher concern and more alarming risk communication, the study discovered.

“On the one hand, the endocrine stress reaction may thus contribute to underestimating risks when risk information is exchanged in social contexts, whereas feeling stressed may contribute to overestimating risks, and both effects can be harmful,” said Dr. Nathalie Popovic, first author on the study and a former graduate student at the University of Konstanz.

“Underestimating risks can increase incautious actions, such as risky driving or practicing unsafe sex. Overestimating risks can lead to unnecessary anxieties and dangerous behaviors, such as not getting vaccinated.”

By revealing the different effects of stress on the social dynamics of risk perception, the study shines light on the relevance of such work not only from an individual, but also from a policy perspective, according to the researchers.

“Coming back to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it highlights that we do not only need to understand its virology and epidemiology, but also the psychological mechanisms that determine how we feel and think about the virus, and how we spread those feelings and thoughts in our social networks,” Gaissmaier said.

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Source: University of Konstanz