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Kids Like Books That Explain Why and How Things Happen

Thu, 04/16/2020 - 6:30am

A new study finds that children prefer storybooks that explain why and how things happen, a more nuanced and logical view of the world than may be expected. Investigators discovered children possess an insatiable appetite to understand why things are the way they are, leading to their apt description as “little scientists.”

While researchers have been aware of children’s interest in causal information, they didn’t know whether it influenced children’s preferences during real-world activities, such as reading.

The new study finds that children prefer storybooks containing more causal information. The results could help parents and teachers to choose the most engaging books to increase children’s interest in reading, which is important in improving early literacy and language skills.

Children have a burning urge to understand the mechanics of the world around them, and frequently bombard parents and teachers with questions about how and why things work the way they do (sometimes with embarrassing consequences).

Researchers have been aware of children’s appetite for causal information for some time. However, no one had previously linked this phenomenon to real-world activities such as reading or learning.

“There has been a lot of research on children’s interest in causality, but these studies almost always take place in a research lab using highly contrived procedures and activities,” said researcher and doctoral student Margaret Shavlik of Vanderbilt University, Tennessee.

“We wanted to explore how this early interest in causal information might affect everyday activities with young children, such as joint book reading.”

The study appears in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Researchers and parents understand that learning the factors that motivate children to read books is important. Encouraging young children to read more improves their early literacy and language skills and could get them off to a running start with their education.

Reading books in the company of a parent or teacher is a great way for children to start reading, and simply choosing the types of book that children most prefer could be an effective way to keep them interested and motivated.

In the study, Shavlik and her colleagues Drs. Amy Booth of Vanderbilt and Jessie Raye Bauer, then of the University of Texas at Austin, hypothesized that children prefer books with more causal information. They set out to investigate whether this was true by conducting a study involving 48 children aged 3-4 years from Austin. Their study involved an adult volunteer who read two different but carefully matched storybooks to the children, and then asked them about their preferences afterwards.

“We read children two books: one rich with causal information, in this case, about why animals behave and look the way they do, and another one that was minimally causal, instead just describing animals’ features and behaviors,” said Shavlik.

The children appeared to be equally as interested and enthusiastic while reading either type of book. However, when asked which book they preferred they tended to choose the book loaded with causal information, suggesting that the children were influenced by this key difference.

“We believe this result may be due to children’s natural desire to learn about how the world works,”  Shavlik said.

So, how could this help parents and teachers in their quest to get children reading? “If children do indeed prefer storybooks with causal explanations, adults might seek out more causally rich books to read with children. This, in turn may increase the child’s motivation to read together, making it easier to foster early literacy,” she said.

The study gives the first indicator that causality could be a key to engaging young minds during routine learning activities. Future studies could investigate if causally-rich content can enhance specific learning outcomes, including literacy, language skills and beyond. After all, learning should be about understanding the world around us, not just memorizing information.

Source: Frontiers/EurekAlert

Targeting Area Crime Lets Residents Enjoy Local Parks

Thu, 04/16/2020 - 6:00am

Public parks are valuable community assets, but crime in the area can “lock up” their value. A new study reveals that crime directly affects the use that people get from their local parks, and when crime is reduced, the park’s environmental value can be brought back.

The findings are published in the Journal of Public Economics.

“Our research is the first to rigorously quantify this effect, which turns out to account for nearly half of the total value of parks in major U.S. cities,” said Dr. Peter Christensen, environmental economist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (U of I), and one of the study’s authors.

Previous studies have failed to account for the importance of safety in parks, and therefore, some have concluded that public parks provide little value to a community.

Christensen explained that “several studies estimate amenity value using city-wide samples that include both safe and dangerous parks. This is like taking the average of an amenity and a dis-amenity. It can produce noisy estimates and the appearance of zero value, which may not actually reflect the value of any park in the sample.”

“These kinds of results can fuel the misconception that people in some inner-city neighborhoods, often minority communities, do not value their parks. Our study shows that in fact they do. And that value goes up as neighborhood parks are made safe,” Christensen said.

While it’s challenging to directly estimate the value of public goods such as parks, economists have developed methods that estimate the value of environmental amenities — those that residents will pay to live near. The housing market also captures the losses from disamenities such as landfills or, in this case, crime.

For the study, Christensen and co-authors David Albouy and Ignacio Sarmiento-Barbieri analyzed housing prices from Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York over a 15-year period.

Through statistical analysis, the research team was able to rule out other factors and isolate the relationship between property values and changes in crime rates within a half mile of the more than 1,300 public parks in the sample.

The researchers found that housing value increases by 5% within a half mile of a park if the area is safe. As you get further away from the park, the effect diminishes and ultimately disappears.

If crime levels are double the average rate, there is no premium value in housing prices near parks. And if crime rates are higher than that, there is a negative effect of up to 3%.

In other words, parks may make crime (already a “public bad”) worse, Christensen says. “A park can actually become a disamenity in the sense that you would pay to the live away from it.”

In many of the study locations, crime has been reduced over the 15-year period, while in other areas it has remained constant or increased.

The findings show that where crime has gone down, the inherent housing value of parks has been unlocked. And this unlocked value is much larger than you might expect, the researchers note. They estimate that reductions in crime have “unlocked” almost $7 billion in property value near urban parks in the Chicago, Philadelphia and New York and calculate another $10 billion of potential value that is still locked up.

“The first implication is that policymakers need to consider the considerable potential to unlock amenity value through increased safety. The other side of this coin is that terrific parks will lose value if a neighborhood becomes unsafe. This has happened over the past several decades in a number of neighborhoods in the sample,” he noted.

A second implication is that allocating resources to reduce crime near parks through targeted efforts such as hotspot policing might be an important first use of public funds. The value of enhancing park features, such as building a new playground in a dangerous park, may be limited by the crime risk.

Christensen cites a spike in homicide risk in Chicago. “A number of those shootings that are in our data have involved children caught in the cross-fire in neighborhood parks. These are tragedies for families and communities that can also affect a neighborhood’s use of public space in the aftermath,” he said.

“It is well-documented that open space is in short supply in many urban areas. For communities that are already housing-constrained and may not be able to commit additional land resources to open space, policymakers and parks departments can consider ways of unlocking value through complementarities like public safety,” he said.

“Complements like this [between safety and parks] are attractive because they can provide larger returns to public investments. Tax dollars that reduce crime near parks produce benefits from the overall reduction of risk and also because the park is now a much more valuable place.”

Source: University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences

Many College Students Swayed by Dubious Internet Info

Wed, 04/15/2020 - 6:30am

A new German study finds that college students struggle to critically assess information from the Internet and are often influenced by unreliable sources.

For the study, researchers from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) and Goethe University Frankfurt administered the Critical Online Reasoning Assessment (CORA) to students from various disciplines such as medicine and economics.

“Unfortunately, it is becoming evident that a large proportion of students are tempted to use irrelevant and unreliable information from the Internet when solving the CORA tasks,” reported Professor Olga Zlatkin-Troitschanskaia from JGU. The study was conducted as part of the Rhine-Main Universities (RMU) alliance.

Using the Internet to study offers many opportunities, but it also entails risks. It has become evident that not only “fake news” but also “fake science” with scientifically incorrect information is being spread on the Internet.

This is particularly true when it comes to controversial social issues such as the coronavirus crisis — but it actually goes much deeper.

“Having a critical attitude alone is not enough. Instead, Internet users need skills that enable them to distinguish reliable from incorrect and manipulative information. It is therefore particularly important for students to question and critically examine online information so they can build their own knowledge and expertise on reliable information,” said Zlatkin-Troitschanskaia.

To study how students deal with online information, Zlatkin-Troitschanskaia and her team have developed a new test based on the Civic Online Reasoning (COR) assessment developed by Stanford University.

During the test, the participants are presented with short tasks. They are asked to freely browse the Internet, focusing on relevant and reliable information that will help them to solve the tasks within the relatively short time frame of 10 minutes, and to justify their solutions using arguments from the online information they used.

The final analysis is based on the participants’ responses to the tasks. In addition, their web search activity while solving the tasks is recorded to examine their strengths and weaknesses in dealing with online information in more detail.

“We can see which websites the students accessed during their research and which information they used. Analyzing the entire process requires complex analyses and is very time-consuming,” said Zlatkin-Troitschanskaia.

The assessments have so far been conducted in two German federal states. To date, 160 students from different disciplines have been assessed; the majority of the students studied medicine or economics and were in their first or second semester.

The findings are surprising: Almost all test participants had difficulties solving the tasks. On a scale of 0 to 2 points per task, the students scored only 0.75 points on average, with the results ranging from 0.50 to 1.38 points.

“The majority of the students did not use any scientific sources at all,” said Zlatkin-Troitschanskaia, pointing out that no domain-specific knowledge was required to solve the CORA tasks.

“We are always testing new groups of students, and the assessment has also been continued as a longitudinal study. Since we first started conducting these assessments two years ago, the results are always similar: The students tend to achieve low scores.”

However, students in higher semesters perform slightly better than those in their first year of study. Critical online reasoning skills could therefore be promoted during the course of studies. In the U.S., a significant increase in these skills was seen only a few weeks after implementing newly developed training approaches.

The findings show that most students do not succeed in correctly evaluating online sources in the given time and in using relevant information from reliable sources on the Internet to solve the tasks.

“As we know from other studies, students are certainly able to adequately judge the reliability of well-known media portals and Internet sources. We could build on this fact and foster the skills required to critically evaluate new sources and online information and to use the Internet in a reflected manner to generate warranted knowledge,” concluded Zlatkin-Troitschanskaia.

Skills related to critically dealing with online information and digital sources are regarded as an essential prerequisite for learning in the 21st century. However, there are still very few training approaches and assessments available for students to foster these skills, especially online.

“The RMU study is still in the early stages of development. We have only just developed the first test of this kind in Germany,” Zlatkin-Troitschanskaia said.

“We are currently in the process of developing teaching/learning materials and training courses and of testing their effectiveness. The analysis of the processing will be particularly useful when it comes to offering students targeted support in the future.”

Source: Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz


PTSD May Lead to Pregnancy Complications Among Female Veterans

Wed, 04/15/2020 - 6:00am

New research suggests elevated symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and moral injury can lead to pregnancy complications among women military veterans.

Veterans Affairs researchers found lingering PTSD symptoms and moral injury (distress) were predictors of adverse pregnancy outcomes such as preterm birth and gestational diabetes. Individually, PTSD symptoms also predicted postpartum depression, anxiety, and a self-described difficult pregnancy.

Dr. Yael I. Nillni, a researcher with the National Center for PTSD at the VA Boston Healthcare System and Boston University School of Medicine, lead the study. Researchers believe the findings suggest that “screening for PTSD and moral injury during the perinatal period is important to identify women who may need treatment for these problems.”

The findings appear in the Journal of Traumatic Stress.

Post-traumatic stress disorder results from experiencing traumatic events, such as military combat. Symptoms include re-experiencing the trauma through flashbacks or nightmares, numbness, sudden anger, and hyperarousal.

Researchers note that PTSD is more common in women veterans than civilian women. In addition to combat, experiences such as childhood abuse, military sexual trauma, and sexual harassment can cause PTSD in women veterans.

Moral injury refers to distress related to transgression of deeply held moral beliefs. It can lead to feelings of shame, guilt, and demoralization. Moral injury can result from a number of experiences, such as combat and military sexual trauma.

Experiencing leadership failures or perceived betrayal by peers, the military, or the government have also been linked with moral injury in veterans. Past research has shown that a person does not need to be directly involved in a transgressive act to face moral injury. Being exposed to transgressions can also lead to moral injury.

While PTSD and moral injury frequently occur together in veterans, they are distinct conditions.

Previous VA research has shown PTSD may increase the risk of gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia, and preterm birth. Some evidence suggests that moral injury can negatively impact physical health, but its effects on pregnancy have not been studied.

In the new study, researchers sought to better understand how these two conditions affect pregnancy. To do this, they followed 318 women veterans who became pregnant within three years of separating from military service.

Investigators found that women with elevated PTSD symptoms were at greater risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes than women with lower symptoms PTSD. Elevated symptoms of moral injury also increased the risk of adverse outcomes.

Both conditions raised the risk of gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia, and preterm birth. Only PTSD increased the risk of postpartum depression, anxiety, and the perception of a difficult pregnancy.

For both PTSD and moral injury, the more severe the symptoms, the higher the likelihood of pregnancy complications.

The results were consistent with other studies on PTSD and pregnancy. In 2018, VA and the Department of Defense published clinical practice guidelines that emphasize the importance of screening for mental health conditions during pregnancy. The new findings add evidence to the idea that both PTSD and moral injury should be screened for and treated during pregnancy.

Nillni stressed the importance of screening for pregnant women both within and outside VA health care settings.

“Given that many women receive obstetric care outside of the VA,” she said, “increased awareness of the impact of PTSD and moral injury on perinatal outcomes is imperative to improve screening during this sensitive time and connect at-risk women veterans to services.”

Source: Veterans Affairs

Mediterranean Diet Tied to Better Cognitive Function

Tue, 04/14/2020 - 11:21pm

New research adds to the growing body of evidence showing the cognitive and mental health benefits of eating a Mediterranean diet; one high in vegetables, whole grains, fish, and olive oil.

According to an analysis of data from two major eye disease studies, researchers found that participants who most closely adhered to a Mediterranean diet exhibited better cognitive function. Among these subjects, high fish and vegetable consumption appeared to have the greatest protective effect on cognition.

Researchers at the National Eye Institute (NEI), part of the National Institutes of Health, led the analysis of data from the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS) and AREDS2. They published their findings in the journal Alzheimer’s and Dementia.

“We do not always pay attention to our diets. We need to explore how nutrition affects the brain and the eye,” said Emily Chew, M.D., director of the NEI Division of Epidemiology and Clinical Applications and lead author of the studies.

The research team looked at the effects of nine components of the Mediterranean diet on cognitive function. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes consumption of whole fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, fish, and olive oil, as well as reduced consumption of red meat and alcohol.

The AREDS and AREDS2 studies assessed the effects of vitamins on age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which damages the light-sensitive retina. AREDS included about 4,000 participants with and without age-related macular degeneration, and AREDS2 involved about 4,000 participants with age-related macular degeneration.

The research team evaluated the AREDS and AREDS2 subjects regarding their diet at the start of the studies. The AREDS study tested participants’ cognitive function at five years, while AREDS2 tested cognitive function in subjects at baseline and again two, four, and 10 years later.

The researchers used standardized tests based on the Modified Mini-Mental State Examination to measure participants’ cognitive function as well as other tests. The team evaluated diet with a questionnaire that asked participants their average consumption of each Mediterranean diet component during the previous year.

The findings reveal that participants with the greatest adherence to the Mediterranean diet had the lowest risk of cognitive impairment. High fish and vegetable consumption appeared to have the greatest protective effect. At 10 years, AREDS2 participants with the highest fish consumption had the slowest rate of cognitive decline.

The numerical differences in cognitive function scores between participants with the highest versus lowest adherence to a Mediterranean diet were relatively small, meaning that individuals likely won’t see a difference in daily function. But at a population level, the effects clearly show that cognition and neural health depend on diet.

The research team also found that participants with the ApoE gene, which puts them at high risk for Alzheimer’s disease, on average had lower cognitive function scores and greater decline than those without the gene. Alzheimer’s is an irreversible progressive brain disorder.

The benefits of close adherence to a Mediterranean diet were similar for people with and without the ApoE gene, meaning that the effects of diet on cognition are independent of genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

Previous studies have shown that eating a Mediterranean diet can slow memory loss and reduce loss of brain volume in older adults.

Source: NIH/ National Eye Institute

Study: Screen Time Has Little Impact on Kids’ Social Skills

Tue, 04/14/2020 - 10:47pm

A new study suggests that, despite the large amount of time spent on smartphones and social media, young people today are just as socially skilled as those from the previous generation.

Researchers compared teacher and parent evaluations of children who started kindergarten in 1998, six years before Facebook launched, with those who began school in 2010, when the first iPad debuted.

The findings, published online in the American Journal of Sociology, show that both groups of kids received similar ratings on their interpersonal skills, including the ability to form and maintain friendships and get along with those who are different. The two groups were also rated similarly on self-control, such as the ability to regulate their temper.

In other words, the kids are still all right, said Dr. Douglas Downey, lead author of the study and professor of sociology at The Ohio State University.

“In virtually every comparison we made, either social skills stayed the same or actually went up modestly for the children born later,” Downey said. “There’s very little evidence that screen exposure was problematic for the growth of social skills.”

The idea for the study came several years ago when Downey had an argument at a pizza restaurant with his son, Nick, about whether social skills had declined among the new generation of youth.

“I started explaining to him how terrible his generation was in terms of their social skills, probably because of how much time they spent looking at screens,” Downey said. “Nick asked me how I knew that. And when I checked there really wasn’t any solid evidence.”

So Downey, along with his colleague Dr. Benjamin Gibbs, associate professor of sociology at Brigham Young University, decided to investigate. They analyzed data from The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS), which is run by the National Center for Educational Statistics. The ECLS follows children from kindergarten to fifth grade.

The researchers compared data on the ECLS-K group that included children who began kindergarten in 1998 (19,150 students) with the group that began kindergarten in 2010 (13,400 students).

The students were evaluated by teachers six times between the start of kindergarten and the end of fifth grade. They were also assessed by parents at the beginning and end of kindergarten and the end of first grade. The researchers focused primarily on the teacher evaluations, because they followed children all the way to fifth grade, although the results from parents were comparable.

The findings show that from the teachers’ perspective, children’s social skills did not decline between the 1998 and 2010 groups. And similar patterns persisted as the children continued through fifth grade.

In fact, teachers’ evaluations of children’s interpersonal skills and self-control tended to be slightly higher for kids in the 2010 group than those in the 1998 group, Downey said. Even the kids within the two groups who had the heaviest exposure to screens showed similar development in social skills compared to those with little screen exposure.

There was one exception, however: Social skills were slightly lower for children who accessed online gaming and social networking sites several times a day.

“But even that was a pretty small effect,” Downey said. “Overall, we found very little evidence that the time spent on screens was hurting social skills for most children.”

Downey said that while he was initially surprised to see that more screen time didn’t impact social skills, he really shouldn’t have been.

“There is a tendency for every generation at my age to start to have concerns about the younger generation. It is an old story,” he said.

These concerns often involve “moral panic” over new technology, Downey explained. Adults tend to get worried when technological change starts to undermine traditional relationships, particularly the parent-child relationship.

“The introduction of telephones, automobiles, radio all led to moral panic among adults of the time because the technology allowed children to enjoy more autonomy,” he said. “Fears over screen-based technology likely represent the most recent panic in response to technological change.”

If anything, new generations are learning that having good social relationships means being able to communicate successfully both face-to-face and online, Downey said.

“You have to know how to communicate by email, on Facebook and Twitter, as well as face-to-face. We just looked at face-to-face social skills in this study, but future studies should look at digital social skills as well.”

Source: Ohio State University

Creativity Triggers Reward Signals in the Brain

Mon, 04/13/2020 - 6:00am

While creativity is one of humanity’s most distinctive abilities, it obviously is not necessary for survival because many species that do not possess it have managed to flourish far longer than humans.

So what drove the evolutionary development of creativity?

A new neuroimaging study led by Yongtaek Oh, a Drexel University doctoral candidate, and John Kounios, Ph.D., a professor in Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences and director of its Creativity Research Lab, discovered that creativity triggers a burst of activity in the brain’s reward system — the same reward system that responds to delicious foods, addictive substances, orgasms, and other basic pleasures..

Because reward-system activity motivates the behaviors that produce it, individuals who experience insight-related neural rewards are likely to engage in further creativity-related activities, potentially to the exclusion of other activities — something that many puzzle aficionados, mystery-novel devotees, starving artists, and underpaid researchers may find familiar, according to Kounios.

“The fact that evolution has linked the generation of new ideas and perspectives to the human brain’s reward system may explain the proliferation of creativity and the advancement of science and culture,” he said.

The study focused on the phenomenon of aha moments, or insights, as prototypical instances of creativity, according to the researchers. Insights are sudden experiences of non-obvious perspectives, ideas, or solutions that can lead to inventions and other breakthroughs. Many people report that insights are accompanied by a mind-expanding rush of pleasure.

The team recorded people’s high-density electroencephalograms (EEGs) while they solved anagram puzzles, which required them to unscramble a set of letters to find a hidden word. These puzzles serve as small-scale models of more complex forms of problem-solving and idea generation, the researchers explained. They noted which solutions were achieved as insights that suddenly popped into awareness, in contrast to solutions that were generated by methodically rearranging the letters to look for the right order.

The test subjects also filled out a questionnaire that measured their “reward sensitivity,” a basic personality trait that reflects the degree to which an individual is generally motivated to gain rewards rather than avoid losing them.

The test subjects showed a burst of high-frequency “gamma-band” brainwaves associated with aha-moment solutions, according to the study’s findings. However, only highly reward-sensitive people showed an additional burst of high-frequency gamma waves about a tenth of a second later. This second burst originated in the orbitofrontal cortex, a part of the brain’s reward system, the researchers noted.

The study shows that some people experience creative insights as intrinsically rewarding, they said.

Because this reward-related burst of neural activity occurred so quickly after the initial insight — only a tenth of a second — it did not result from a conscious appraisal of the solution. Rather, this fast reward response was triggered by, or integrated with, the insight itself, the researchers said.

Low-reward-sensitivity test subjects did experience nearly as many insights as the high-reward-sensitivity ones, but their insights did not trigger a significant neural reward response. That means neural reward is not a necessary accompaniment to insight, though it occurs in many people, the researchers said.

This study suggests that measurements of general reward sensitivity may help to predict who will practice, develop, and expand their creative abilities over time.

The study was published in the journal NeuroImage.

Source: Drexel University

Experts Call For More Mind-Body Medicine to Combat Stress-Related Illness

Mon, 04/13/2020 - 5:30am

In a new commentary published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, experts in mind-body medicine call for broader use of stress-reduction practices, such as meditation, yoga and mindfulness, in patient treatment plans and medical research.

The authors of the paper include researchers from the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and the University of California (UC) Davis Health.

Researchers have found that excessive and persistent stress are major contributors to disease and mortality. For example, stress tends to worsen anxiety and depression and also plays a role in conditions such as cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, headaches and chronic pain, according to lead author Dr. Michelle Dossett of UC Davis Health.

“By reducing the body’s stress response, mind-body practices can be a powerful adjunct in medicine by helping to decrease patients’ symptoms and improving their quality of life,” said Dossett, who was a physician and researcher with the Benson-Henry Institute when the perspective was written.

Dossett also noted that these mind-body practices can be helpful in reducing stress related to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Despite its recent rise in popularity in the last few years among the general public, mind-body medicine isn’t new, even in the West. Researchers at the Benson-Henry Institute have been integrating the field of mind-body medicine into MGH’s clinical care, research and training programs since 2006.

Early studies on the advantages of these holistic approaches dates back more than 40 years, when the institute’s founder and senior author of the commentary, Dr. Herbert Benson, became one of the first Western physicians to bring spirituality and healing into medicine and is most famously known for his work with the Relaxation Response.

“The Relaxation Response,” Benson has stated, “is an inborn, anti-stress capacity that transcends the differences that separate mind from body, science from spirituality and one culture from another.”

At the Benson-Henry Institute, mind-body medicine is widely recognized as the third leg of a three-legged stool: The first leg is surgery, the second is pharmaceuticals and the third is self-care, in which patients learn techniques to help improve their own health through mind-body medicine, nutrition and exercise.

“Western medicine has produced revolutionary health benefits through advances in pharmacotherapies and procedures,” the researchers wrote in the paper.

“It now faces enormous challenges in battling stress-related noncommunicable diseases. …Chronic pain, often perpetuated by psychosocial stress, has become an epidemic that our pharmaceutical arsenal is poorly equipped to handle and medical costs continue to soar.”

“Mind-body therapies can be a helpful adjunct in managing chronic pain and other stress-related noncommunicable diseases by fostering resilience through self-care,” they write.

The new paper also addresses the preconceived notions of skeptical patients regarding mind-body medicine as well as the anticipated barriers of service coverage and clinician education on the appropriate use of these tools. These challenges further emphasize the need for continued research and investment into the development and implementation of personalized practices to maximize their public health potential.

Benson and co-author Dr. Gregory Fricchione, who is the Benson-Henry Institute’s current director, lead the field of mind-body medicine and research on counteracting the harmful effects of stress, thereby promoting health and reducing the vulnerability to stress-related illnesses.

Source: University of California- Davis Health

Video Games Can Be Powerful Tools for Cognitive Training

Sun, 04/12/2020 - 7:48pm

A new study finds that expert players of action real-time strategy video games, such as World of Warcraft, become better at allocating brain resources between visual stimuli that compete for attention.

The video games, which are won through strategic planning, selective attention, sensorimotor skills and teamwork, place considerable demands on the brain, according to researchers.

Previous research has shown that playing video games can improve cognitive development, such as greater sensitivity to contrasts, better eye-to-hand coordination, and superior memory. But researchers note the long-term effects of gaming on a key cognitive function called temporal visual selective attention — the capacity to distinguish between important and irrelevant information within a rapid stream of visual stimuli — has never been studied.

In a new study, researchers show for the first time that expert players of real-time strategy games have faster information processing, allocate more cognitive power to individual visual stimuli, and allocate limited cognitive resources between successive stimuli more effectively through time.

These findings, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, suggest that playing these games can cause long-term changes in the brain and lead to an improvement in temporal visual selective attention, according to the researchers.

“Our aim was to evaluate the long-term effect of experience with action real-time strategy games on temporal visual selective attention,” said author Dr. Diankun Gong, an associate professor in the Ministry of Education Key Laboratory for Neuroinformation at the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China.

“In particular, we wanted to reveal the time course of cognitive processes during the attentional blink task, a typical task used by neuroscientists to study visual selective attention.”

Attentional blink is the tendency of focused observers to “blink” — to fail to properly register — a visual stimulus if it appears so quickly after a previous stimulus that cognitive processing of the first hasn’t finished, the researchers explained. In a typical blink task, people are shown a stream of digits and letters in quick succession and asked to press a button each time they see one of two target letters (for example D and M).

People often “blink” a second target if it appears within 200-500 milliseconds of the first, the researchers noted. Electroencephalograms (EEGs) suggest that this is due to competition for cognitive resources between the first stimulus — with the need to encode it in working and episodic memory, and to select the appropriate response — versus the second.

In other words, people often fail to register M because brain resources are temporarily used up by the ongoing need to process any D shown more than 200 ms and less than 500 ms earlier, the researchers said.

To study the effect of gaming on temporal visual selective attention, the researchers recruited 38 healthy young male students from the University of Electronic Science and Technology for their experiment.

Half of the volunteers were expert players of the typical action real-time strategy game League of Legends, where teammates work together to destroy the towers of an opposing team. They had played the game for at least two years and were masters, based on their ranking among the top 7 percent of players.

The others were beginners, with less than six months experience of the same game, and ranked among the bottom 30 percent to 45 percent.

All volunteers were seated in front of a screen and tested in a blink task, with 480 trials over a period of approximately two hours.

The greater a volunteer’s tendency to “blink” targets, the less frequently he would press the correct button when one of the two targets appeared on the screen, and the worse he did overall in the task.

The volunteers also wore EEG electrodes on the sides and top of their scalps, allowing the researchers to measure and localize the brain’s activity throughout the experiment. These electrodes recorded Event-Related Potentials (ERPs), tiny electric potentials (from -6 to 10 μV) that last from 0 to 800 ms after each non-blinked stimulus, and which represent the neural processes for registering and consolidating its memory, the researchers explained.

The researchers focused on the so-called P3b phase of the ERP, a peak between 200 and 500 ms after the stimulus, because previous research has shown that its timing and amplitude accurately reflects performance in the blink task. The later P3b occurs and the less pronounced it is, the more likely it is that a stimulus will be “blinked,” researchers explained.

“We found that expert League of Legends players outperformed beginners in the task. The experts were less prone to the blink effect, detecting targets more accurately and faster, and as shown by their stronger P3b, gave more attentional cognitive resources to each target,” said coauthor Dr. Weiyi Ma, an assistant professor in Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Arkansas in the United States.

“Our results suggest that long-term experience of action real-time strategy games leads to improvements in temporal visual selective attention. The expert gamers had become more effective in distributing limited cognitive resources between successive visual targets,” said author Dr. Tiejun Liu of the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China. “We conclude that such games can be a powerful tool for cognitive training.”

Source: Frontiers

Kids of Parents With Mental Illness May Have Greater Risk of Injuries

Sun, 04/12/2020 - 8:06am

Children whose parents have mental illness tend to have a greater risk of injuries compared to their peers, according to a new study led by Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.

The risk for injuries peaks during the first year of life, after which it declines but remains somewhat elevated up to age 17. The findings emphasize the need for parents with mental illness to receive extra support around child injury prevention measures as well as early treatment of mental disorders among expecting parents.

Between 7 to 11 percent of all children in Sweden have at least one parent diagnosed with a mental illness, according to the researchers’ estimates.

Prior efforts to protect at-risk children have focused primarily on preventing neglect and maltreatment, and to a lesser degree on safeguarding kids from accidents and injuries. However, according to the researchers, it might be possible to reduce child injuries by helping parents with mental illness to adopt preventive safety measures in their homes and outside.

“Our results show there is a need for increased support to parents with mental illness, especially during the first year of life,” said Alicia Nevriana, Ph.D. student at the Department of Global Public Health and the study’s corresponding author.

“There are already recommendations for new parents to ensure their children’s safety, but we think there is a need to update these recommendations also by taking into account parents’ mental health.”

Children up to one-year-old had a 30 percent higher risk of injuries if they had a parent with mental illness. The risk declined with age but remained somewhat elevated (6 percent) for children ages 13 to 17.

The research team found that the risk of injuries was slightly higher among kids whose parents had more common mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety and stress-related illnesses, compared to those with more serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. The risk was also slightly higher for maternal compared to paternal mental illness.

In addition, the risk was somewhat higher for more uncommon types of injuries, such as interpersonal violence, compared to more common injuries like falls or traffic accidents. The research team notes, however, that violence-related injuries are also rare in families with mental illness.

The study, which was conducted in collaboration with researchers at the University of Manchester in the U.K., tracked 1.5 million children living in Sweden and born between 1996 to 2011. Of these, more than 330,000 had at least one parent diagnosed with a mental illness during that period or five years earlier.

The results do not explain why children of parents with mental illness have a greater risk of injuries. Some plausible explanations may be that some parents with mental illness struggle to adequately supervise their children and to childproof their homes, according to the researchers.

“Mental illness is often associated with worse socioeconomic conditions, which might lead to the family living in a less safe in- and outdoor environment or cannot afford some security measures,” Nevriana says. “We cannot entirely exclude that the higher risks in our study might be partly explained by the family’s socioeconomic conditions, even though we tried to control for socioeconomic factors as best as we could.

“We have also not studied whether certain medications for mental illness, especially those with an impact on alertness and attention, could affect the children’s risk of injury, and this should be studied in future research.”

Source: Karolinska Institutet



Study Questions Whether Marijuana Helps With Severe Pain

Sat, 04/11/2020 - 7:00am

A new study finds it’s not clear whether medical marijuana is effective for severe pain.

The study found that medical marijuana users who say they have high levels of pain are more likely than those with low pain to say they use cannabis three or more times a day. However, the daily marijuana users with severe pain also reported their health had become worse in the past year.

The results don’t necessarily mean that marijuana is not effective in treating at least some kinds of pain, according to the researchers. But it suggests more research is needed before marijuana is accepted as an effective treatment for severe pain.

“It’s not clear if marijuana is helping or not,” said Dr. Bridget Freisthler, co-author of the study and a professor of social work at The Ohio State University. “The benefits aren’t as clear-cut as some people assume.”

One issue is the complex relationship between pain, marijuana use, and self-reported health, according to Dr. Alexis Cooke, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral scholar in psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.

“Having high chronic pain is related to poorer health, so it may be that people who are using marijuana more often already had worse health to begin with,” Cooke said. “There are still a lot of questions to answer.”

The study involved a survey of 295 medical marijuana dispensary patients in Los Angeles. The surveys were conducted in 2013, when California allowed marijuana use only for medical purposes.

All participants were asked how often they used marijuana. They then rated how their current health compared to one year ago (on a five-point scale from “much better” to “much worse”)  and were asked two questions about their pain levels. Based on their answers, the researchers rated participants’ pain as low, moderate, or high.

Among those surveyed, 31 percent reported high pain, 24 percent moderate pain, and 44 percent were in the low-pain category, according to the study’s findings.

Daily marijuana use was reported by 45 percent of those surveyed, with 48 percent saying they used three or more times per day, the researchers said.

The percentage of participants who used marijuana every day did not differ by pain categories, according to the study’s findings.

But about 60 percent of those who reported high pain used the drug three or more times a day, compared to 51 percent of those with moderate pain and 39 percent of those in the low-pain group.

Findings showed no association between daily marijuana use and change in health status among those with low levels of pain. But daily marijuana use was linked to worsening health status among those reporting high levels of pain, the researchers reported.

However, there was no association between how often participants used marijuana per day and changes in health status. There’s no easy explanation for this, according to Freisthler.

“It shows how little we know about marijuana as medicine, how people are using it, the dosages they are receiving, and its long-term effects,” she said.

People use marijuana for a variety of different types of pain, including cancer, joint pain, HIV, and nerve pain. Researchers don’t know if marijuana has different effects on different causes of pain, Cooke said.

“Chronic pain is also associated with depression and anxiety,” she said. “Marijuana may help with these problems for some people, even if it doesn’t help with the pain.”

Marijuana use also seems to help people who have lost their appetite due to pain or nausea caused by cancer drugs.

“It may not be the pain that patients are trying to address,” Cooke said.

The results suggest we need to know more about the link between marijuana and pain relief, Freisthler said.

“Particularly since the opioid crisis, some people have been touting marijuana as a good substitute for opioids for people in pain,” she said. “But our study suggests we don’t know that marijuana is helping to address pain needs.”

The study was published in the International Journal of Drug Policy.

Source: The Ohio State University

Behavioral Changes May Signal Early Stages of Alzheimer’s

Sat, 04/11/2020 - 6:00am

In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, found a link between mild behavioral impairment (MBI) and biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease in elderly subjects.

MBI is defined as the late-life onset of behavioral changes in five domains:  interest, motivation, and drive; mood or anxiety symptoms; control over behavior and impulses; social graces, tact, and empathy; and thoughts and perception.

“We found that the presence and severity of MBI in these cognitively healthy individuals was strongly associated with the presence of amyloid plaques in the brain, which is one of the first pathological changes in early stages of Alzheimer’s,” said researcher Firoza Lussier, a master’s student in McGill’s Integrated Program in Neuroscience.

The findings are published in the journal Alzheimer’s and Dementia.

In recent years, researchers have conducted more than 100 clinical trials in the hopes of finding new indicators able to flag the onset of Alzheimer’s disease before the appearance of clinical symptoms, such as memory loss. While MBI had already been suggested to be an indicator, its role had not yet been confirmed.

In the new paper, the researchers show that MBI may very well offer important clues about the early stages of dementia.

In order to verify MBI’s link to the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, the research team used imaging techniques to measure amyloid plaque deposits — a protein at the core of Alzheimer’s disease — in the brains of nearly 100 cognitively healthy elderly individuals with varying degrees of MBI from the Translational Biomarkers in Aging and Dementia (TRIAD) cohort.

“The unique design of the McGill TRIAD cohort allows young scientists like Firoza to discover the impact of diseases in which specific proteins have become abnormal on human behavior,” said Dr. Pedro Rosa-Neto, director of the McGill University Research Centre for Studies in Aging.

It has been noted that MBI could potentially serve as an interesting proxy for clinicians to identify Alzheimer’s disease before the manifestation of symptoms. This could be done with the help of the Mild Behavioural Impairment Checklist (MBI-C), an instrument used to codify mental disorder symptoms attributable to diseases of the nervous system in pre-dementia populations.

“This is an important study because it may help identify people who are at a higher risk of progression of Alzheimer’s disease by employing a user-friendly clinical scale developed in Canada by Dr. Zahinoor Ismail, and already available world-wide,” said Dr. Serge Gauthier, director of the Alzheimer Disease and Related Disorders Research Unit.

Lussier and her colleagues now hope to conduct more imaging studies to confirm whether MBI is predictive of changes in Alzheimer’s disease biomarkers.

Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative condition marked by progressive memory loss and a decline in activities of daily living. The condition affects more than 5.4 million people in the U.S., with an individual developing AD every 67 seconds.

Source: McGill University

‘Anti-Vaxxers’ May Think Differently Than Other People

Sat, 04/11/2020 - 5:00am

A new study shows people who are skeptical about vaccines actually think differently than other people.

As the anti-vaxxer movement has become increasingly widespread in the United States, two researchers in the Texas Tech University Department of Psychological Sciences set out to discover why some people are unwilling to get vaccinated or to vaccinate their children.

In the study published in the journal Vaccine, doctoral student Mark LaCour and Dr. Tyler Davis suggest some people find vaccines risky because they overestimate the likelihood of negative events, particularly those that are rare.

The fact that these overestimations carry over through all kinds of negative events — not just those related to vaccines — suggests that people higher in vaccine skepticism actually may process information differently than people lower in vaccine skepticism, said Davis, an associate professor of experimental psychology and director of the Caprock FMRI Laboratory.

“We might have assumed that people who are high in vaccine skepticism would have overestimated the likelihood of negative vaccine-related events, but it is more surprising that this is true for negative, mortality-related events as a broader category,” Davis said. “Here we saw an overestimation of rare events for things that don’t have anything to do with vaccination. This suggests that there are basic cognitive or affective variables that influence vaccine skepticism.”

In their first experiment for the study, LaCour and Davis surveyed 158 participants to determine the level of vaccine skepticism underlying their perceived dangers, feelings of powerlessness, disillusionment, and trust in authorities regarding vaccines. Participants then estimated the frequency of death associated with 40 different causes, ranging from cancers, animal bites and childbirth to fireworks, flooding and car accidents.

The researchers found that people higher in vaccine skepticism were less accurate in their estimations of how frequently these causes of death occur. Specifically, they found that higher vaccine skepticism was associated with an overestimation of rare events.

The second experiment followed the same procedures as the first, but participants additionally estimated the frequency of neutral or positive events — such as papal visits to the United States, triplet births or Willie Nelson concerts — to test whether the negative tone of mortality statistics may play a role.

The researchers discovered that people higher in vaccine skepticism were less accurate in their estimations of mortality-related events and overestimated the negative events more than the neutral or positive events.

“My takeaway is that vaccine skeptics probably don’t have the best understanding of how likely or probable different events are,” said LaCour. “They might be more easily swayed by anecdotal horror stories.

“For example, your child can have a seizure from getting vaccinated. It’s extremely rare, but it is within the realm of possibility. If you were so inclined, you could follow Facebook groups that publicize extremely rare events. These cognitive distortions of anecdotes into trends are probably exacerbated by decisions to subscribe to statistically non-representative information sources.”

While the researchers didn’t find an association between a person’s education level and their vaccine skepticism, LaCour and Davis believe there is a difference in the information being consumed and used by people higher in vaccine skepticism.

“It may be the case that they are specifically seeking out biased information, for example, to confirm their skeptical beliefs,” Davis said. “It could be that they have more of an attentional bias to negative, mortality-related events, which makes them remember this information better.

“Strategies to get the right information to people through public service announcements or formal education may work, but it doesn’t seem to be an issue that people with higher vaccine skepticism are less educated in any fundamental way in terms of basic science or math education. Thus, simple increases in these alone — without targeted informational interventions — would seem unlikely to help.”

The results leave open many new avenues for further research, according to LaCour.

“Do some people encode scary stories — for instance, hearing about a child that has a seizure after getting vaccinated — more strongly than others and then consequently remember these anecdotes more easily?” he asked. “Do they instead have certain attitudes and search their memory harder for evidence to support this belief? Is it a bit of both? How can you counteract these processes?”

“I’m excited that we’re finding basic, cognitive factors that are linked with vaccine skepticism: It could end up being a way of reaching this diverse group,” he concluded.

Source: Texas Tech University

Should Newborns Be Separated From Mothers With COVID-19?

Fri, 04/10/2020 - 11:08pm

In a new commentary, Alison Stuebe, M.D., president of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, lays out the pros and cons of separating newborn infants from their mothers who test positive for the new coronavirus (COVID-19).

In general, she notes that while separation may lower the risk of virus transmission from mother to infant during the hospital stay, it has known negative outcomes for both mother and infant, including disrupting breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact during the critical hours and days following birth.

Infants who lack skin-to-skin contact with their mothers tend to have higher heart and respiratory rates and lower glucose levels. Disrupting breastfeeding also puts the infant at heightened risk for developing severe respiratory infections, including pneumonia and COVID-19. The separation also stresses the mother which can make it harder for her to fight off the virus.

The new commentary is published in the journal Breastfeeding Medicine.

Overall, research on this topic is limited and recommendations regarding the first days after delivery differ among experts. Although multiple public health organizations recommend keeping mothers and infants together, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises facilities to consider separating mothers and babies temporarily until the mother is no longer contagious, and recommends that the risks and benefits of temporary separation should be discussed with the mother by her healthcare team.

In her commentary, Stuebe, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, noted there is no evidence to show that early separation of infants and mothers with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 improves outcomes.

While infant-mother separation may reduce the risk of transmission of the virus from mother to newborn during the hospital stay, it has potential negative consequences for both mother and infant.

Stuebe, who is also distinguished professor in infant and young child feeding at the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, outlined several risks of separating mothers and infants in the hospital These include the disruption of breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact during the critical hours and days following birth. For example, infants who lack skin-to-skin contact with their mothers tend to have higher heart rates and respiratory rates and lower glucose levels.

The separation also stresses the mother, which could make it more difficult for her to fight off the viral infection. In addition, separation interferes with the provision of maternal milk to the infant, which is vital for the development of the infant’s immune system. Separation also disrupts breastfeeding, which puts the infant at increased risk of severe respiratory infections, including pneumonia and COVID-19.

“As we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic,” Stuebe writes, “I am hopeful that we can center mothers and babies and remember to first do no harm.”

Arthur I. Eidelman, M.D., editor-in-chief of Breastfeeding Medicine, concurs that “there is no need or indication to categorically separate infants from COVID-19 suspect or positive mothers other than in circumstances wherein the mother’s medical condition precludes her caring for the infant. Feeding mothers’ own breast milk, either by nursing or by feeding of expressed milk, is OK and desired!”

Breastfeeding Medicine is the official journal of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine published by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. publishers.

Source: Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.

Classical Music During Sleep Helps Students Learn

Fri, 04/10/2020 - 7:30am

In a quest to improve student performance, researchers studied if college students would benefit from listening to classical music by Beethoven and Chopin during a computer-interactive lecture. Then, in recognition that sleep has been proven to improve memory, the same music was played again that night as the students slept.

The next day, test scores were compared among participants and a comparison group that were in the same lecture, but instead slept that evening with white noise in the background. Baylor University researchers found that student who slept listening to the classical music did better on the exam.

However, over the long haul — when students took a similar test nine months later — the boost did not last. Scores dropped to floor levels, with everyone failing and performance averaging less than 25% for both groups.

Nevertheless, targeted memory reactivation (TMR) may aid during deep sleep, when memories are theorized to be reactivated and moved from temporary storage in one part of the brain to more permanent storage in other parts, researchers said.

The study, supported by the National Science Foundation, was conducted by Baylor’s Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory (SNAC). The research appears in the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.

“All educators want to teach students how to integrate concepts, not just memorize details, but that’s notoriously difficult to do,” said Michael K. Scullin, Ph.D., director of Baylor’s sleep lab and assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience.

“What we found was that by experimentally priming these concepts during sleep, we increased performance on integration questions by 18% on the test the next day. What student wouldn’t want a boost or two to their letter grade? The effects were particularly enhanced in participants who showed heightened frontal lobe activity in the brain during slow wave sleep, which is deep sleep.”

He noted that the effects emerged when using gold standard procedures: neither participants nor experimenters knew who received a particular treatment, sleep was measured using EEG in a laboratory setting, and the learning materials matched those that would actually be used in a college classroom, in this case an undergraduate microeconomics lecture.

Poor sleep is widespread in college students, with 60% habitually sleeping fewer than the recommended seven hours on 50% to 65% of nights. While students may be more concerned about immediate test results — and TMR may help them cram for an exam — learning by rote (item memory) does not normally benefit grasping and retaining a concept.

For the study, researchers recruited 50 college students ages 18 to 33 for a learning task with a self-paced, computer-interactive lecture; and for two overnight polysomnography sessions, with the first night an adaptation to the lab and screening for sleep disorders, and the second done the evening of the lecture.

During the lecture, soft background selections were played from a computer: the first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Piano Sonata, the first movement of Vivaldi’s “Spring” Violin Concerto and Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 9, No. 2.

That night in Baylor’s sleep lab, research personnel applied electrodes and used computers to monitor sleep patterns of both test and control groups. Once technicians observed a person was in deep sleep, they played either the classical music or the white noise — depending on whether the individual was in the test or control group — for about 15 minutes.

“Deep slow wave sleep won’t last super long before shifting back to light sleep, so we couldn’t play them endlessly,” Scullin said. “If we played it during light sleep, the music probably would have awoken participants. The first slow wave cycle is the deepest and longest.”

The music choice was important, researchers said.

“We ruled out jazz because it’s too sporadic and would probably cause people to wake,” Scullin said. “We ruled out popular music because lyrical music disrupts initial studying. You can’t read words and sing lyrics — just try it. We also ruled out ocean waves and ambient music because it’s very easy to ignore. You’re going to have a heck of a time forming a strong association between some learning material and a bland song or ambient noise.

“That left us with classical music, which many students already listen to while studying,” he said. “The songs can be very distinctive and therefore pair well with learning material.”

In the microeconomics exam the next day, the TMR of classical music more than doubled the likelihood of passing the test when compared with the control condition of white noise.

Scullin cautioned against confusing the Baylor study’s findings with the so-called “Mozart Effect” — the finding that having students listen to Mozart pieces led to better scores on intelligence tests. Subsequent tests of the “Mozart Effect” found that it either did not replicate or that boosts were strictly due to increased arousal when listening to energetic music.

“Mozart doesn’t make memories,” Scullin said.

Previous researchers have found that memories associated with sensory cues — such as an odor or song — are re-activated when the same cue is received later. When that happens during deep sleep, the corresponding memories are activated and strengthened, said co-researcher Chenlu Gao, a doctoral candidate of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor.

Early experimenters also played audio tapes during sleep to test whether individuals can learn new knowledge while sleeping. But while those experiments failed to create new memories, “our study suggests it is possible to reactivate and strengthen existing memories of lecture materials during sleep,” Gao said.

“Our next step is to implement this technique in classrooms — or in online lectures while students complete their education at home due to COVID-19 social distancing measures — so we can help college students ‘re-study’ their class materials during sleep.”

“We think it is possible there could be long-term benefits of using TMR but that you might have to repeat the music across multiple nights,” Scullin added. “After all, you wouldn’t just study material a single time and then expect to remember it months later for a final exam. The best learning is repeated at spaced-out intervals — and, of course, while maintaining good sleep habits.”

Source: Baylor University/EurekAlert

Meeting Housing Needs Improves Health Outcomes for At-Risk Families

Fri, 04/10/2020 - 6:30am

Families facing housing instability or homelessness who enroll in a program designed to support their housing and health needs see significant improvements in child health and parent mental health outcomes within six months, according to a new study by researchers from Boston Medical Center.

The program, called Housing Prescription as Health Care (HPHC), helps families experiencing homelessness and housing instability in Boston and uses a multi-dimensional approach to address families’ specific needs. The program is led by Children’s HealthWatch at Boston Medical Center.

Between the years 2016 and 2019, the HPHC pilot program enrolled 78 families to determine whether the coordination of services that address housing, financial, legal, social, and health needs may improve health outcomes when compared with current approaches.

The intervention was shown to reduce the number of children with fair or poor health by 32% in the first six months of the study.

The study findings are published in the journal Health Affairs.

“Our study aimed to explore how a multi-faceted intervention designed for families experiencing housing instability and homelessness might improve the health of children and their families,” said Allison Bovell-Ammon, M.Div, director of policy strategy at Children’s HealthWatch and the study’s corresponding author. “Secure housing allows families to direct focus toward their health, while living in an environment that allows them to thrive.”

At the start of the randomized controlled trial, 71% of families in the intervention group and 64% of those in the control group identified as homeless, while 58% and 55% reported they were behind on rent.

At the six-month mark, 67 families completed the follow-up, and an analysis showed improvement in the number of children identified as having fair or poor health and in the average anxiety and depression among parents in the intervention group.

On average, scores for anxiety and depression among adult family members declined by 1.38 and 1.04 points, using the Patient Health Questionnaire-2 for depression and the Generalized Anxiety Disorder two-item scale for anxiety.

Within the intervention group, there were also significant changes in child health status, and at the 6-month point, children who were housed had a lower prevalence of developmental risk than kids who were not housed. The families in the intervention group also showed a decrease in being behind on rent, and both groups demonstrated significant reductions in their use of health care.

“Without significant new investment from the federal government, it will be difficult for health systems to adequately respond to housing needs,” said Megan Sandel, MD, MPH, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center and coauthor on this study. “Our goal is to set families on a positive trajectory toward stability, but we can’t do this alone.”

More research is needed to determine the long-term impacts of this model and to define the cost benefits associated with the direct benefits of improving child physical health and parent mental health services. This is important for understanding the ways in which tailored housing and health interventions may be able to produce a positive return on investment within pediatric populations.

Funding for this pilot study was supported by Boston Foundation’s Health Starts at Home Initiative, and the Social Interventions Research and Evaluation Network. This project was done in partnership with Project HOPE, the Boston Housing Authority, MLPB, and Neustra Comunidad.

Source: Boston Medical Center

Many Security Guards Struggle With PTSD, Lack Mental Health Support

Fri, 04/10/2020 - 6:00am

A new U.K. study reveals that 40% of security guards show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as these workers are commonly exposed to episodes of verbal and physical abuse.

The study findings are published in the journal Policing and Society.

Security guards play a valuable role in many aspects of our daily life. They patrol public streets, shopping areas and transport hubs; police night-time and entertainment venues; guard sensitive and important infrastructure such as government buildings, courts, social security officers, airports and ports; they also transport valuables and prisoners.

Contact with the general public is a key factor in most of the roles taken on by security officers. The research team found this often produces conflict, leading to many challenges. This could be anything from verbal abuse to violent assault. In extreme cases, security guards have been killed in the course of their duties.

The new study is the largest to date focused on the mental health of British private security workers.

For the study, researchers at the University of Portsmouth interviewed 750 security officers and found that almost 40% showed symptoms of PTSD. Another key finding of the study shows a real lack of provision by security companies for employee mental health and well-being services.

The research was led by Dr. Risto Talas and Professor Mark Button, Professor of Criminology in the Institute of Criminal Justice Studies at the University of Portsmouth in England.

“With almost 40% of those surveyed exhibiting symptoms of PTSD, it leaves a very clear message that the issue of mental health is not currently being taken seriously by security managers. There is an emerging picture of a failure by the security industry to address these issues,” said Professor Button.

Within the last 50 years, the private security industry has transformed from a small niche sector to a huge global industry. In the UK alone, where the study was conducted, there are more than 350,000 licensed security guards, with many others working in the sector who don’t need a license.

The research showed that 64.6% of security guards suffered verbal abuse at least once a month (50% of these were as regular as once a week). In addition, 43% of respondents reported threats of violence at least once a month (10% were getting threatened on a daily basis).

The research team also found that more than 30% of those surveyed reported some kind of physical assault in the workplace once a year. Almost 10% reported a minor physical assault at least once a month.

Another key finding was the lack of mental health and well-being services provided by the security companies to their employees. And managers in general were unable or unwilling to accept that some employees were struggling with poor mental health or well-being.

“The research has revealed a worrying lack of support provided by the security companies. This must change and more research is required on what the security industry as a whole must do to address this issue before it becomes a larger societal issue, with added pressure on the limited mental health and wellbeing services provided by the NHS,” said Professor Button.

Source: University of Portsmouth

Phone Therapy Reduces Depression in Parkinson’s Patients

Fri, 04/10/2020 - 5:30am

While depression is common in people with Parkinson’s disease, contributing to faster physical and mental decline, it is often overlooked and undertreated. Cognitive behavioral therapy has shown promising results for treating depression in people with Parkinson’s, yet many patients don’t have access to therapists who understand Parkinson’s and can provide this evidence-based depression treatment.

But there’s good news: A new study shows that participating in cognitive behavioral therapy by telephone may be effective in reducing depression symptoms for people with Parkinson’s.

“These results are exciting because they show that specialized therapy significantly improves depression, anxiety, and quality of life in people with Parkinson’s disease and also that these results last for at least six months,” said study author Roseanne D. Dobkin, Ph.D., of Rutgers-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, N.J., and a member of the American Academy of Neurology. “While these findings need to be replicated, they also support the promise of telemedicine to expand the reach of specialized treatment to people who live far from services or have difficulty traveling to appointments for other reasons.”

The study included 72 people with an average age of 65 who had Parkinson’s disease for an average of six years and depression for nearly three years. The majority were taking antidepressants, and many were already receiving other kinds of talk therapy, the researchers report.

For three months, half of the people took part in weekly, one-hour sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy by telephone, while also continuing their usual medical and mental health care.

The cognitive behavioral sessions focused on teaching new coping skills and thinking strategies individually tailored to each participant’s experience with Parkinson’s disease.

Additionally, their care partners, such as a spouse, another family member, or a close friend, were trained to help the person with Parkinson’s use these new skills in between sessions.

After the three months were up, participants could choose to continue the sessions up to once a month for six months.

The other half of the patients received their usual care, which, for many, included taking antidepressants and/or receiving other forms of talk therapy in their community.

At the beginning of the study, the participants had an average score of 21 on a measure of depression symptoms, where scores of 17 to 23 indicate moderate depression, according to the researchers. After three months of cognitive behavioral therapy, scores for that group fell to an average of 14, which indicates mild depression. The people receiving their usual care had no change in their scores, according to the study’s findings.

Six months after finishing the weekly cognitive behavioral sessions, those participants had maintained their improvements in mood, the researchers reported.

According to the study’s findings, 40 percent of those who engaged in cognitive behavioral therapy met the criteria for being “much improved” in their depression symptoms, while none of the people who simply continued their usual care did.

“Depression affects up to 50 percent of people with Parkinson’s disease and may occur intermittently throughout the course of illness,” Dobkin said. “Additionally, in many instances, depression is a more significant predictor of quality life than motor disability. So, easily accessible and effective depression treatments have the potential to greatly improve people’s lives.”

A limitation of the study was that it did not include people with very advanced Parkinson’s disease or those who also had dementia, so the results may not apply to them, the researchers noted. Also, while insurance coverage for telemedicine is growing, it is not yet available in all cases or all states.

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

Source: American Academy of Neurology

Best Support is to Validate Concerns of Stressed-Out Friends

Thu, 04/09/2020 - 7:30am

In a new study, Pennsylvania State University researchers studied how people responded to a variety of different messages offering emotional support. They found that messages that validated a person’s feelings were more effective and helpful than ones that were critical or diminished emotions.

Investigator believe their findings can help people provide better support to their friends and families. The research appears in a virtual special issue of the Journal of Communication.

“One recommendation is for people to avoid using language that conveys control or uses arguments without sound justification,” said Xi Tian, a graduate assistant in communication arts and sciences.

“For example, instead of telling a distressed person how to feel, like ‘don’t take it so hard’ or ‘don’t think about it,’ you could encourage them to talk about their thoughts or feelings so that person can come to their own conclusions about how to change their feelings or behaviors.”

Tian said that previous research has shown that social support can help alleviate emotional distress, increase physical and psychological well-being, and improve personal relationships.

However, be careful on how you phase your encouragement. Researchers found that depending on how support is phrased or worded,  it could be counterproductive. Indeed, messages intended to provide support could actually increase stress or reduce a person’s confidence that they can manage their stressful situation.

Dr. Denise Solomon, department head and professor of communication arts and sciences, said they were trying to learn more about why well-intentioned attempts to comfort others are sometimes seen as insensitive or unhelpful.

“We wanted to examine the underlying mechanism that explains why some supportive messages may produce unintended consequences,” Solomon said. “We also wanted to understand how people cognitively and emotionally respond to insensitive social support.”

For the study, the researchers recruited 478 married adults who had recently experienced an argument with their spouse. Before completing an online questionnaire, participants were asked to think about someone with whom they had previously discussed their marriage or spouse.

Then, they were presented with one of six possible supportive messages and were asked to imagine that person giving them that message. Lastly, the participants were asked to rate their given message on a variety of characteristics.

“We manipulated the messages based on how well the support message validates, recognizes, or acknowledges the support recipients’ emotions, feelings, and experiences,” Tian said.

“Essentially, the messages were manipulated to exhibit low, moderate, or high levels of person-centeredness, and we created two messages for each level of person-centeredness.”

According to the researchers, a highly person-centered message recognizes the other person’s feelings and helps the person explore why they might be feeling that way. For example, “Disagreeing with someone you care about is always hard. It makes sense that you would be upset about this.”

Meanwhile, a low person-centered message is critical and challenges the person’s feelings. For example, “Nobody is worth getting so worked up about. Stop being so depressed.”

After analyzing the data, the researchers found that low person-centered support messages did not help people manage their marital disagreement in a way that reduced emotional distress.

“In fact, those messages were perceived as dominating and lacking argument strength,” Tian said. “Those messages induced more resistance to social support, such that the participants reported feeling angry after receiving the message. They also reported actually criticizing the message while reading it.”

In contrast, high person-centered messages produced more emotional improvement and circumvented reactance to social support.

“Another recommendation that can be taken from this research is that people may want to use moderately to highly person-centered messages when helping others cope with everyday stressors,” said Solomon.

The researchers said people can try using language that expresses sympathy, care and concern.

For example, “I’m sorry you are going through this. I’m worried about you and how you must be feeling right now.” Acknowledging the other person’s feelings or offering perspective — like saying “It’s understandable that you are stressed out since it’s something you really care about” — may also be helpful.

Source: Penn State

Movement Toward Gender Equality Has Slowed in Some Areas

Thu, 04/09/2020 - 7:14am

Over the last half-century, women have made significant progress in career advancement and education, but within the last few decades, the momentum has slowed down in several areas and stalled in others, according to a new five-decade analysis from New York University (NYU).

“Substantial progress has been made toward gender equality since 1970 on employment and earnings as well as in women’s access to certain fields of study and professions,” said Paula England, a professor of sociology at NYU and the study’s senior author.

“However, movement toward gender equality has slowed down, and in some cases, stalled completely.”

The study, titled “Is the Gender Revolution Stalled? An Update,” is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The findings show that movement toward gender equity, which accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s, slowed or stopped beginning in the 1990s.

“Early changes were like picking the low-hanging fruit — the most obvious barriers came down and plenty of women jumped at the new opportunities,” said England. “Further progress will require deeper cultural and institutional change.”

The analysis, which was co-authored by NYU doctoral candidates Andrew Levine and Emma Mishel, reviewed data for the years 1970 through 2018 from the U.S. government’s Current Population Surveys and American Community Surveys, as well as from the National Center for Education Statistics. Among the NYU research team’s findings were the following:

  • Employment among women (ages 25 to 54) rose steadily from 1970 to 2000, moving from 48 percent employed in 1970 to 75 percent employed in 2000. In subsequent years, it declined, plateaued, and then declined more in the Great Recession (2008-2010), reaching a bottom of 69 percent, before rebounding to 73 percent in 2018.
  • Men’s median hourly earnings (in constant 2018 dollars) were approximately $27-28/hour in the 1970s, then fell to below $23/hour by the mid-1990s. Since then, the median went up in the late 1990s, declined during the Great Recession, and rebounded some since. But it has always been between $22 and $25/hour since the mid-1990s. During this same period (1970-2017), women’s median earnings have always been lower than men’s. In the 1970s, they were stable at about $17/hour. They began to rise in the early 1980s and continued to do so for the rest of the decade; median earnings also rose in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Since then, they have been fairly flat at about $20/hour.
  • The ratio of women’s to men’s median hourly earnings was fairly stable at approximately .60 in the 1970s, then increased dramatically in the 1980s to .74. The ratio has shown a net rise in each decade since 1990, but at a much slower rate than was observed in the 1980s. By 2018, women earned 83 percent of what men did at the median earnings level. In percentage points, the rise in the past three decades (1990 to 2018) was less than it was in the single decade of the 1980s.
  • For bachelor’s degrees, 76 percent as many women as men got undergraduate diplomas in 1970-71; by 2015-16, women were outpacing men, with 34 percent more women than men getting bachelor’s degrees. Similarly, only 13 percent as many women as men received doctoral degrees in 1970-71; in 2015-16, 18 percent more women than men were getting doctorates.

Yet despite educational gains, occupations still show notable levels of segregation — meaning that some occupations are mostly men while others are mostly women. However, such segregation has declined in recent decades.

To gauge this, the team observed different women’s and men’s distributions across occupations, dividing all jobs into approximately 70 categories. Among occupations in the analyses were managers, engineers, natural scientists, K-12 teachers, retail sales workers, secretaries, police, firefighters, and farmers.

The researchers calculated the index of dissimilarity for the occupational categories, an index in which 0 signifies no segregation and 1 constitutes total segregation.

The analysis reveals that segregation of occupations has fallen steadily since 1970, moving from .60 to .42. However, it moved much faster in the 1970s and 1980s than it has since 1990: segregation dropped by .12 in the 20-year period after 1970, but by a much smaller .05 in the quarter of a century after 1990.

For fields requiring a college degree, occupational segregation results in part from women and men getting degrees in different fields. To determine how much the segregation of fields has changed, the team looked at national data from the National Center for Education Statistics that classify the fields in which people get degrees into 17 broad categories, including biology, business, journalism, computer science, education, engineering, English, psychology, social sciences, and arts.

The types of bachelor’s degrees men and women earn reveals persistent, though declining, segregation. For undergraduate degrees, the segregation index has dropped from .47 in 1970 to .33 in 2015, but the drop was not continuous — segregation declined until it reached .28 in 1998 and has come up again slightly since.

For doctoral degrees, the index moved from .35 in 1970 to a low of .18 in 1987 and has not gone lower since — in fact, it has risen slightly. Thus, desegregation of both levels of degrees has stalled for 20 or more years.

This enduring segregation is important because, the researchers note, for the one third of adult Americans who have a bachelor’s degree or more, occupation and earnings are strongly impacted by their field of study.

“The slowdown on some indicators and stall on others suggests that further progress requires substantial institutional and cultural change,” said England.

“Progress may require increases in men’s participation in household and care work, government-funded child care, and adoption by employers of policies that reduce gender bias and help both men and women combine jobs with family care responsibilities.”

Source: New York University