Psych Central News Psychology, psychiatry and mental health news and research findings, every weekday. 2016-05-24T13:35:36Z Traci Pedersen <![CDATA[Encouraging Texts Can Help Smokers Quit]]> 2016-05-24T13:35:36Z 2016-05-24T13:30:54Z Encouraging Texts Can Help Smokers QuitSmokers who receive encouraging text messages, such as “You can do it!” and “Be strong” are more likely to be successful in their quitting attempts, according to a new study […]]]> Encouraging Texts Can Help Smokers Quit

Smokers who receive encouraging text messages, such as “You can do it!” and “Be strong” are more likely to be successful in their quitting attempts, according to a new study from The Miriam Hospital’s Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine in Providence, R.I.

The new findings are published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (mHealth and uHealth).

“Tobacco use is one of the leading preventable global health problems, and text messaging has the promise to reach a wider audience with minimal costs and fewer resources,” said researcher Lori Scott-Sheldon, Ph.D. She and co-author Beth Bock, Ph.D., are senior research scientists at the centers and faculty in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University.

An estimated 40 million U.S. adults (16.8 percent of the population) were cigarette smokers in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Of these, 76.8 percent smoked every day, and 23.2 percent smoked some days.

Text messaging or short message service (SMS) interventions can offer a variety of people support, reminders and health education information with short and simple messages. SMS interventions can be easily adapted to fit an individual’s health needs.

Using meta-analysis, a statistical method that combines the findings from independent studies, the researchers conducted the most extensive systematic review of the literature to date. The data included 20 manuscripts with 22 text messaging interventions for smoking cessation from 10 countries.

“The evidence provides unequivocal support for the efficacy of text messaging interventions to reduce smoking behavior, but more research is needed to understand for whom they work, under what conditions, and why,” said Scott-Sheldon.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tobacco use remains the single largest preventable cause of death and disease in the United States. More than 480,000 Americans die each year from smoking-related causes, with more than 41,000 of these deaths from exposure to secondhand smoke.

Furthermore, smoking-related illness costs more than $300 billion a year, including nearly $170 billion in direct medical care for adults and $156 billion in lost productivity.

“Text messaging enjoys near-market saturation and is a widely preferred method of communication with deep penetration across diverse groups,” Bock said. “Wide availability of an attractive and effective smoking cessation program can exert a powerful, sustained impact on public health.”

Source: Lifespan

Traci Pedersen <![CDATA[Screen-Time Linked to Higher Anxiety in PreK Moms]]> 2016-05-24T12:10:08Z 2016-05-24T12:45:47Z Screen-Time Linked to Higher Anxiety in PreK MomsMoms of young children who engage in more screen-based sedentary behaviors, such as spending time on smartphones, tablets, or computers, tend to have greater levels of anxiety, according to a […]]]> Screen-Time Linked to Higher Anxiety in PreK Moms

Moms of young children who engage in more screen-based sedentary behaviors, such as spending time on smartphones, tablets, or computers, tend to have greater levels of anxiety, according to a new study by researchers at Deakin University in Australia.

In fact, the findings show that for every extra hour of screen-time, anxiety levels increase, and this remains true even for moms who are otherwise physically active.

“Women are a high risk group for developing anxiety, with women aged 25-34 years almost twice as likely to experience an anxiety disorder compared to men of the same age. The risk of anxiety has been shown to peak between the ages of 25-44, which are the key childbearing years for women,” said lead researcher Dr. Megan Teychenne from the Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN) at Deakin University.

“At the same time, there is some limited data available that shows women aged 25-34 years, spend the greatest amount of time in sedentary behavior compared to any other age group,” she says.

Furthermore, maternal anxiety has been shown to be a key predictor of child anxiety, so it is critical to identify strategies to reduce the risk of anxiety in mothers, says Teychenne..

For the study, researchers asked 528 Australian mothers with children aged two to five years to complete a survey, in which they reported how much time they spent using screens (TV, computer and devices such as tablets and smartphones) for leisure purposes. They were also screened for heightened symptoms of anxiety.

The findings show that for every hour the participants used a computer or handheld device, their anxiety levels increased. However, no link was found between TV viewing and anxiety symptoms.

Furthermore, even if the mothers engaged in large amounts of physical activity, if they also spent long periods of their leisure time on a computer or handheld device they were still at greater risk of anxiety.

Teychenne says that the new findings can help researchers gain a better understanding of how alternative strategies may help reduce the risk of anxiety for mothers with young children.

“We know that a lot of mothers with young children are incredibly busy looking after their children, however, if they tend to spend long periods of leisure time on their computer, smartphone or tablet, they may actually be increasing their risk of developing anxiety,” said Teychenne.

“Given that a lack of time can be a huge barrier to these mums being more active, a more feasible approach may be to instead try to reduce their sedentary behavior,” she said.

Teychenne offers time-restricted moms a few simple strategies they can use to avoid overuse of technology.

“Mums could try a ‘digital detox’ by limiting the time they spend on social media, or browsing the web at night and make this a challenge they set with friends. They could also try taking short breaks from the screen by standing up every 20-30 minutes and going for a walk to get a glass of water, or even just to stretch,” she says.

“Reducing the time that mothers with young children spend using computers and handheld electronic devices for leisure purposes may be an important and cost effective strategy to lower the risk of anxiety in this high-risk target group.”

The study was published recently in PLOS ONE.

Source: Deakin University


Traci Pedersen <![CDATA[Extreme Beliefs Often Mistaken for Insanity]]> 2016-05-24T11:44:11Z 2016-05-24T12:15:06Z Extreme Beliefs Often Mistaken for InsanityA clearer distinction needs to be made between an extreme belief system and insanity, particularly in our justice system, as the former is often misinterpreted as the latter, according to University […]]]> Extreme Beliefs Often Mistaken for Insanity

A clearer distinction needs to be made between an extreme belief system and insanity, particularly in our justice system, as the former is often misinterpreted as the latter, according to University of Missouri School of Medicine researchers who studied the 2011 case of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik.

The researchers assert that a new forensic term be used to classify non-psychotic behavior that leads to criminal acts of violence.

When people commit acts of horrific violence, others often assume that mental illness is at the root of it. And yet, at times, the perpetrator is found to be clinically sane, and instead has committed a violent crime due to an extreme belief system.

“When these types of tragedies occur, we question the reason behind them,” said Tahir Rahman, M.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Missouri School of Medicine and lead author of the study.

“Sometimes people think that violent actions must be the byproduct of psychotic mental illness, but this is not always the case,” he said. “Our study of the Breivik case was meant to explain how extreme beliefs can be mistaken for psychosis, and to suggest a new legal term that clearly defines this behavior.”

An “extreme overvalued belief” is a belief that is shared by others and often cherished, amplified and defended by the accused, said Rahman. The individual has an intense emotional commitment to the belief and may act violently because of it.

Although this person may have other forms of mental illness, the belief and the actions associated with it are not the result of insanity.

“In courts of law, there are not clearly defined, standard methods of diagnosing insanity for legal purposes,” Rahman said. “This new term will help forensic psychiatrists properly identify the motive for the defendant’s criminal behavior when sanity is questioned.”

Anders Breivik was a Norwegian terrorist who killed 77 people in 2011 in a car bombing in Oslo and a mass shooting at a youth camp on the island of Utøya in Norway. Claiming to be a “Knights Templar” and a “savior of Christianity,” Breivik stated that he committed this violence in an effort to save Europe from multiculturalism.

Breivik was examined by two teams of court-appointed forensic psychiatrists. The first psychiatric team diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia. However, after widespread criticism, a second team concluded that Breivik was not psychotic and diagnosed him instead with narcissistic personality disorder. Breivik was sentenced to 21 years in prison.

“Breivik believed that killing innocent people was justifiable, which seems irrational and psychotic,” said Rahman, who also conducts forensic psychiatric examinations but was not involved with the Breivik case.

“However, some people without psychotic mental illness feel so strongly about their beliefs that they take extreme actions. Current clinical guides, such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, offer vague descriptions of alternative reasons a person may commit such crimes. Our suggested term for criminally violent behavior when psychosis can be ruled out is ‘extreme overvalued belief.'”

More studies on extreme overvalued beliefs are needed to understand how they develop, said Rahman. Identifying those at risk may give mental health professionals an opportunity to intervene before any violence occurs.

“Certain psychological factors may make people more vulnerable to developing dominating and amplified beliefs,” Rahman said. “However, amplification of beliefs about issues such as immigration, religion, abortion or politics also may occur through the internet, group dynamics or obedience to charismatic authority figures.”

“We already warn our youth about the dangers of alcohol, drugs, teen pregnancy and smoking. We need to add the risk of developing extreme overvalued beliefs to that list as we work toward reducing the violence often associated with them.”

The study is published in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

Source: University of Missouri-Columbia


Janice Wood <![CDATA[Higher Blood Pressure Fluctuations Tied to Cognitive Decline]]> 2016-05-24T10:34:47Z 2016-05-24T11:15:12Z Higher Blood Pressure Fluctuations Tied to Cognitive DeclineA new study shows that higher long-term variability in blood pressure readings are linked to faster declines in brain and cognitive function among older adults. “Blood pressure variability might signal […]]]> Higher Blood Pressure Fluctuations Tied to Cognitive Decline

A new study shows that higher long-term variability in blood pressure readings are linked to faster declines in brain and cognitive function among older adults.

“Blood pressure variability might signal blood flow instability, which could lead to the damage of the finer vessels of the body with changes in brain structure and function,” said Bo (Bonnie) Qin, Ph.D., lead study author and a postdoctoral scholar at Rutgers Cancer Institute in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

“These blood pressure fluctuations may indicate pathological processes such as inflammation and impaired function in the blood vessels themselves.”

For the study, researchers analyzed data from 976 Chinese adults who participated in the China Health and Nutrition Survey over a period of five years. Half of the study participants were women, while all were 55 years or older.

Blood pressure variability was calculated from three or four visits to a health professional. Participants also underwent a series of cognitive quizzes, such as performing word recall and counting backwards, the researchers explained.

According to the study’s findings:

  • higher visit-to-visit variability in the top number in a blood pressure reading (systolic blood pressure) was associated with a faster decline of cognitive function and verbal memory;
  • higher visit-to-visit variability in the bottom number (diastolic blood pressure) was associated with faster decline of cognitive function among adults ages 55 to 64, but not among those age 65 and older;
  • neither average systolic or diastolic blood pressure readings were associated with brain function changes.

Qin said that while physicians tend to focus on average blood pressure readings, high variability may be something doctors should monitor as well.

“Controlling blood pressure instability could possibly be a potential strategy in preserving cognitive function among older adults,” she said.

The researchers note that the study was observational and does not suggest a direct cause and effect between blood pressure variability and brain function decline.

However, the findings add to a growing body of evidence that variations in blood pressure readings — perhaps more so than averages — may indicate an increased risk for some additional health problems, the researchers said.

Clinical intervention trials and longer term studies are needed to confirm the findings, the researchers added.

The study was published in the American Heart Association’s journal Hypertension.

Source: American Heart Association
High blood pressure photo credit American Heart Association

Janice Wood <![CDATA[Distinctive Cues May Boost Effectiveness of Reminders]]> 2016-05-24T10:43:22Z 2016-05-24T10:30:14Z Distinctive Cues Boost Effectiveness of RemindersNeed help remembering to pay the electric bill or take the clothes out of the dryer? New research shows that linking those everyday tasks with distinctive cues that we encounter […]]]> Distinctive Cues Boost Effectiveness of Reminders

Need help remembering to pay the electric bill or take the clothes out of the dryer?

New research shows that linking those everyday tasks with distinctive cues that we encounter at the right place and the right time will help us follow through.

While there are many ways to remind ourselves to do something in the future — setting an alert on our smartphones or a quick note on a Post-It — these strategies often don’t work because they don’t provide a reminder that will be noticed when we need it most, according to researchers.

“Our results suggest that people are more likely to follow through on their good intentions if they are reminded to follow through by noticeable cues that appear at the exact place and time in which follow-through can occur,” said study author and psychological scientist Dr. Todd Rogers of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

These “reminders through association” may be a tool for remembering and following through on these tasks, according to Rogers and co-author Dr. Katherine Milkman of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

The researchers noted that, by design, these cue-based reminders don’t depend on technology, but rather on the human mind. What’s more, they are delivered exactly when we need them.

In one experiment for the study, 87 participants completed an hour-long computer task. During the task, they learned they would be able to have a dollar donated to a food bank in addition to receiving compensation for participating in the study. To ensure the donation would be made, however, they had to pick up a paper clip when they collected their payment.

Some students saw a second message stating that an elephant statue would be sitting on the counter where they collected their payment as a reminder to pick up a paper clip; others were simply thanked for their participation.

According to the researchers, this simple cue boosted follow-through. The results showed that 74 percent of the students who received the elephant statue as a cue ended up taking a paper clip compared to only 42 percent who didn’t receive a cue.

But this doesn’t mean that any cue will do, the researchers noted. Additional studies conducted online indicated that distinctiveness matters. That’s because a reminder cannot work if it is not noticed, they say.

For the online study, participants again learned about an opportunity to support a charitable organization. To have a donation made on their behalf, they had to choose a specific answer on a specific page of the survey they were about to complete. On that page, they would see a cue to remind them to select the correct answer.

The results revealed that cues that were distinctive compared to the other cues in the surrounding environment were more effective reminders.

In one experiment, for example, Rogers and Milkman found that a distinctive cue — an image of one of the aliens from the “Toy Story” movies — was more effective than a written reminder when both cues were surrounded by other flyers and promotional signs.

In another experiment, data collected from customers at a coffee shop suggest that the “reminders through association” approach may also be useful for organizations that want to help their clients remember to follow through on intentions.

Over the course of one business day, 500 customers were given a coupon that would be valid at the coffee shop two days later. Only some customers were told that a stuffed alien would be sitting near the cash register to remind them to use their coupon.

About 24 percent of the customers who were given a cue remembered to use their coupon, compared to only 17 percent of the customers who received no cue — a 40 percent increase in coupon usage, the researchers reported.

While distinctive cues may serve as reminders, people don’t always make the most of them.

Results from another online study with 605 participants showed that participants failed to anticipate the limitations of their own memories. In doing so, they missed out on potential earnings by choosing not to pay a nominal fee to receive a cue-based reminder, the researchers noted.

Taken together, the study’s findings suggest that reminders through association offer a no-cost, low-effort strategy for remembering to complete the tasks that tend to fall through the cracks in daily life, the researchers concluded.

The study was published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Janice Wood <![CDATA[Mouse Study IDs How Brain Connects Memories Over Time]]> 2016-05-23T12:53:45Z 2016-05-23T15:45:39Z Mouse Study IDs How Brain Connects Memories Over TimeUsing a miniature microscope, neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have identified in mice how the brain links different memories over time. And while aging weakens these […]]]> Mouse Study IDs How Brain Connects Memories Over Time

Using a miniature microscope, neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) have identified in mice how the brain links different memories over time.

And while aging weakens these connections, the researchers say they devised a way for the middle-aged brain to reconnect separate memories.

The findings, published in Nature, suggest a possible intervention for people suffering from age-related memory problems, according to the researchers.

“Until now, neuroscientists have focused on how the brain creates and stores single memories,” said principal investigator Dr. Alcino Silva, a professor of neurobiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “We wanted to explore how the brain links two memories and whether the passage of time affects the strength of the connection.”

“In the real world, memories don’t happen in isolation,” added first author Dr. Denise Cai, a researcher in Silva’s lab. “Our past experiences influence the creation of new memories and help us predict what to expect and make informed decisions in the future.”

In their experiment, the neuroscientists tested in young and middle-aged mice whether the brain linked memories of experiences separated by five hours versus seven days.

To accomplish this, they used a miniature microscope, called a Miniscope, that was developed by UCLA neuroscientists Drs. Peyman Golshani, Baljit Khakh and Silva with funding from the presidential BRAIN Initiative and the Geffen School.

The microscope’s powerful camera allowed the scientists to peer into the brains of young mice and observe their cells in action. The tiny, head-mounted microscope illuminated the neurons firing as the mice moved freely in their natural environments.

For 10 minutes at a time, each mouse was placed in three boxes, all unique in terms of fragrance, shape, lighting, and flooring. A week’s time separated placement in the first and second boxes. Only five hours separated the time spent in the second and third boxes, where the mouse later received a small shock to the foot.

Two days later, the researchers returned each mouse to all three boxes. As expected, the mice froze with fear when it recognized the inside of the third box.

What happened next, however, came as a surprise, according to the researchers.

“The mouse also froze in the second box, where no shock occurred,” Silva observed. “This suggests that the mouse transferred its memory of the shock in the third box to its experience in the second box five hours earlier.”

When Silva and Cai examined the mice’s brains, the neural activity confirmed their hypothesis.

“The same brain cells that recorded the mouse’s shock in the third box also encoded its memory of the second box a few hours earlier,” Cai said. “We saw 20 percent more overlap in the neural circuits that recorded the animal’s experiences in the memories that unfolded closer in time.”

“The memories became interrelated in how they were encoded and stored by the brain, such that the recall of one memory triggered the recall of another memory related in time,” Silva further explained.

Based on an earlier finding by Silva, the research team knew that a cell is most likely to encode a memory when it’s aroused and ready to fire. Neuroscientists refer to this condition as excitability.

“The excitable brain is already warmed up,” Silva said. “It’s like stretching your muscles before exercise or revving your car engine before you drive.”

Suspecting that aging weakens the neurons’ ability to fully excite, the researchers conducted a similar experiment in middle-aged mice. They introduced each of the mice to two boxes, five hours apart, and administered a foot shock in the second box.

When they returned the animals to the boxes two days later, the results were clear.

“The older mice froze only in the box where they had received a shock,” Cai revealed. “They did not react in the first box.”

Using the Miniscopes confirmed that the brains of the older mice did not connect the two memories. Each memory was encoded on its own neural circuit.

The team next focused on boosting the older mice’s ability to link memories. Cai used a biological tool to excite neurons in a part of the hippocampus — the memory center of the brain — before introducing the mice to the first box.

She stimulated the same cells before placing the mice in the first box and the second box, where they received a foot shock two days later.

“The proof in the pudding arrived when we reintroduced the middle-aged mice to the first box,” Silva said. “The animals froze — they now linked the shock that happened in the second box to the first. This suggests that increased excitability had reversed their age-related inability to link memories.”

Cai and Silva report they are now testing an FDA-approved drug’s effect on the ability of middle-aged mice to connect memories.

Source: University of California, Los Angeles
Abstract of the brain photo by shutterstock.

Janice Wood <![CDATA[Telephone Therapy, Sleep Diary Can Aid Sleep in Menopause]]> 2016-05-23T13:29:17Z 2016-05-23T15:00:54Z Telephone Therapy, Sleep Diary Can Aid Sleep in MenopauseTalking on the phone with a “sleep coach” and keeping a nightly sleep diary significantly improve sleep quality and reduce insomnia in women through all stages of menopause, according to […]]]> Telephone Therapy, Sleep Diary Can Aid Sleep in Menopause

Talking on the phone with a “sleep coach” and keeping a nightly sleep diary significantly improve sleep quality and reduce insomnia in women through all stages of menopause, according to a new study.

Published in JAMA Internal Medicine, the study also found that phone-based cognitive-behavioral therapy significantly reduced the degree to which hot flashes, or vasomotor symptoms, interfered with daily functioning.

This is good news for women who do not want to use sleeping pills or hormonal therapies to treat menopause-related insomnia and hot flashes, according to Dr. Katherine Guthrie, a member of the Public Health Sciences and Clinical Research divisions at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and a co-author of the study.

“Most women experience nighttime hot flashes and problems sleeping at some point during the menopause transition,” she said. “Poor sleep leads to daytime fatigue, negative mood, and reduced daytime productivity. When sleep problems become chronic — as they often do — there are also a host of negative physical consequences, including increased risk for weight gain, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.”

“Many women do not want to use sleeping medications or hormonal therapies to treat their sleep problems because of concerns about side-effect risks,” she continued. “For these reasons, having effective, non-pharmacological options to offer them is important.”

The research is believed to be the first and the largest study to show that cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia helps healthy women with hot flashes to sleep better. It was conducted via MsFLASH, a research network funded by the National Institute on Aging that conducts randomized clinical trials focused on relieving the most common, bothersome symptoms of menopause.

The clinical trial involved more than 100 Seattle-area women between the ages of 40 and 65 with moderate insomnia who experienced at least two hot flashes a day.

All of the women were asked to keep diaries to document their sleep patterns throughout the study, rating the quantity, frequency, and severity of their hot flashes at the beginning of the study, at eight weeks, and at 24 weeks.

Half of the women were selected at random to take part in a cognitive behavioral therapy intervention that involved talking with a sleep coach for less than 30 minutes six times over eight weeks.

Importantly, non-sleep specialists — a social worker and a psychologist — delivered the therapy, the researchers pointed out. Before conducting the phone sessions they underwent a day of training in cognitive behavioral therapy techniques.

“Since the intervention was delivered by non-sleep specialists over the phone, it potentially could be widely disseminated through primary and women’s health centers to women who do not have good access to behavioral sleep-medicine specialists or clinics,” said Dr. Susan McCurry, a clinical psychologist and research professor at the University of Washington School of Nursing and the study’s first and corresponding author.

“Such an intervention would be much less expensive to deliver than traditional, in-person cognitive behavioral therapy protocols, which are typically six to eight sessions that are one hour each.”

The goal of the therapy was to get women to the point where they consistently estimated that they were asleep at least 85 percent of the time they were in bed.

To this end, they were given specific sleep/wake schedules and were taught to limit time spent in bed at night, which ultimately helped them fall asleep more quickly and stay asleep.

They also were taught “stimulus-control” rules, which are designed to strengthen the association between bed and sleep, according to the researchers.

“For example, the women were asked to not do anything in bed except sleep and have sex,” McCurry said. “So, no reading, watching television, checking email, or paying bills in bed.”

Stimulus control also emphasizes the importance of getting up at the same time each day and not napping during the day.

The women received an educational booklet about menopause and were given information about how sleep normally changes with age. They learned to create bedtime routines and an environment conducive to sleep, such as turning off electronics at least 30 minutes prior to bed, not drinking caffeine or alcohol after dinner, and keeping their bedroom a slightly cool temperature.

They also were taught a technique called “constructive worry” to practice when ruminating thoughts kept them awake at night, the researchers reported.

The other half of the women were assigned to a menopause education control intervention. They also talked to a sleep coach with the same frequency and duration as the cognitive behavioral therapy group.

They received information about women’s health, including diet and exercise, and how they related to hot flashes and sleep quality. The coaches reviewed their weekly sleep diaries with them and provided the same educational booklet about menopause that the other group received.

The coaches did not, however, teach cognitive strategies such as constructive worry, and they made no recommendations regarding sleep/wake schedules or restricting time in bed.

“This intervention was supportive but very non-directive,” McCurry said.

The study’s findings show that women in the cognitive behavioral therapy group experienced statistically significant, clinically meaningful, and long-term, sustained improvements in sleep as compared to the women in the menopause education group.

The women who received cognitive behavioral therapy also fared better with regard to hot flashes. Although the frequency and severity of their hot flashes did not change, the women reported that the vasomotor symptoms interfered less with their daily functioning than prior to receiving such therapy.

The researchers said that delivering this therapy by phone potentially allows it to be an efficient, cost-effective way to reach large numbers of women seeking treatment for midlife sleep problems.

They also noted that these results support further research, such as testing the effectiveness of phone-based cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia versus traditional pharmacological approaches.

“This study demonstrates that it is possible to significantly improve the sleep of many women going through the menopausal transition without the use of sleeping medications or hormone therapies, even if hot flashes are waking them up at night,” Guthrie said. “This is good news for millions of women who are suffering from poor sleep at this time of life.”

Source: Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

Traci Pedersen <![CDATA[New Autism Classification Focuses on Kids’ Strengths, Not Deficits]]> 2016-05-23T13:27:59Z 2016-05-23T12:00:32Z New Autism Classification Focuses on Kids' Strengths, Not DeficitsGoing well beyond the simple labels of “high-functioning” or “low-functioning” when describing children with autism, a group of researchers has developed an autism classification system that more specifically defines a […]]]> New Autism Classification Focuses on Kids' Strengths, Not Deficits

Going well beyond the simple labels of “high-functioning” or “low-functioning” when describing children with autism, a group of researchers has developed an autism classification system that more specifically defines a child’s level of social communications ability.

The system, called the Autism Classification System of Functioning: Social Communication or ACSF:SC, will allow the child’s care team to better understand where a child falls in the communication spectrum. And rather than focusing on the child’s level of disability, it focuses on what the child can do.

“This is not a test, but more like describing the colors of a rainbow,” said researcher Dr. Briano Di Rezze, a scientist with CanChild Centre for Childhood Disability Research at McMaster University.

“Currently we hear terms like ‘high-functioning’ or ‘low-functioning’ to describe children with ASD. However there is no common interpretation of what those terms mean, which makes them unreliable because clinicians, therapists, and parents aren’t using them in the same way,” said Di Rezze, lead author for the paper published in the international journal Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology.

Led by CanChild, the system was developed by a team of senior researchers and clinicians and then tested by parents and professionals across the United States. The tool offers a standardized and simplified way for clinicians, therapists, teachers, and parents to discuss a child’s social communication abilities from the standpoint of what the child can do rather than what they cannot.

Simplified, the assessment tool for preschool children uses word pictures that describe five levels of social communication and can determine a child’s ability within two conditions: when they are performing at their best, known as their capacity, and what they do on a regular basis, known as their typical performance.

Over the past two decades, CanChild researchers and their colleagues in Sweden and the U.S. have created several functional classifications systems. The first and most well-known of these systems is the Gross Motor Function Classification System (GMFCS) for children with cerebral palsy, a tool that is now used worldwide in more than 40 languages.

The new autism classification system has the potential to be as influential as the GMFCS, said Dr. Peter Rosenbaum, one of the original developers of the GMFCS, co-founder of CanChild and a professor of developmental pediatrics at McMaster’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine.

“We hope that the ACSF:SC has the same transformative impact in the field of autism as the GMFCS has been reported to have in the field of cerebral palsy. Its applicability in communication with families, and in clinical services, research, and policy-making, will be very exciting.”

Source: McMaster University

Traci Pedersen <![CDATA[Bipolar Disorder May Have Genetic Links to Autism, Schizophrenia]]> 2016-05-23T13:24:59Z 2016-05-23T11:15:26Z Bipolar Disorder May Have Genetic Links to Autism, SchizophreniaIn a new study, scientists have discovered an overlap between rare genetic variations linked to bipolar disorder (BD) and those implicated in autism and schizophrenia. The study, which adds to […]]]> Bipolar Disorder May Have Genetic Links to Autism, Schizophrenia

In a new study, scientists have discovered an overlap between rare genetic variations linked to bipolar disorder (BD) and those implicated in autism and schizophrenia.

The study, which adds to the growing body of evidence that many psychiatric diseases share genetic roots, was conducted by researchers at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. The findings are the first to show a genetic overlap specifically between bipolar disorder and autism.

Bipolar disorder is a debilitating mental illness that affects between one and three percent of the population. Although many bipolar patients are helped by drug treatments, such as lithium, about one-third of people affected by BD do not respond well to current therapies.

And while it’s well-known that bipolar disorder is highly heritable, identifying specific genetic variants that contribute to the illness has proven difficult.

Within the last decade, advances in human genome studies have helped scientists uncover many common variations, but none of these variations alone have a large effect. Even more recently, the premier of rapid and relatively cheap next-generation gene sequencing technology has provided an opportunity to find rare variations that might individually have a large effect.

“Common variations are thought to each individually have only a tiny impact — for example, increasing a person’s likelihood of getting a disease by 10 to 20 percent,” says James Potash, M.D., University of Iowa professor and DEO of psychiatry, and senior author of the new study.

“The hope with rare variations is that they individually have a much bigger impact, like doubling or quadrupling risk for disease.”

The researchers used a case-control approach with family-based exome sequencing to maximize their chances of identifying rare variants that contribute to BD.

The case-control approach is fairly simple and works in the following way: If a genetic variant is found more often in the group of individuals who have the disease compared to a control group of people without the condition, then the gene variation might be associated with increasing susceptibility to the disease. Having a huge amount of data is key to the success of this approach.

Family exome sequencing is a little more complicated. When scientists compare the exome sequences of family members — both those affected and unaffected by BD — they are able to distinguish variants that “travel with” or segregate with the disease. This approach has long been used to identify gene variants or mutations that are passed from parents to children that cause disease.

The researchers discovered 84 rare variants (in 82 genes) that segregated with BD and that were also predicted to be damaging to the proteins encoded by those genes. Then they tested the likelihood that these rare variations might be involved in causing BD by looking for them in three large case-control datasets that included genome sequences from a total of 3,541 individuals with BD and 4,774 control patients.

While the approach was not powerful enough to identify any of the individual rare variants as definitively associated with BD, 19 genes did stand out as being over-represented in BD cases compared to controls.

“The results were not strong enough for us to say ‘we have pinpointed the genetic culprits.’ But it was strong enough for us to remain interested in these genes as potential contributors to bipolar disorder,” said Potash, who also is the Paul W. Penningroth Professor and Chair of Psychiatry and a member of the Pappajohn Biomedical Institute at the niversity of Iowa.

However, when the researchers looked at the 19 genes as a group, they realized that several were also members of groups of genes that had been implicated in autism and schizophrenia.

“It turned out that the schizophrenia and the autism genes were all more represented among our 82 genes than you would expect by chance,” Potash said. “And when we looked at our whittled down group of 19 genes, the autism genes continued to be unexpectedly prominent among them.

“With studies like this we are finally, after decades of effort, making real progress in nailing down groups of genes and variations in them that play a role in causing bipolar disorder,” Potash said.

“The mechanistic insights we gain from identifying associated genes we hope will point us in the direction of developing new treatments to make a difference for the many people affected by this illness.”

The findings are published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

Source: University of Iowa Healthcare

Traci Pedersen <![CDATA[Virtual Reality Can Help Med Students Empathize with Elderly]]> 2016-05-23T13:18:56Z 2016-05-23T10:30:14Z Virtual Reality Can Help Med Students Empathize with ElderlyBy entering a new virtual reality experience, young medical students going into the field of gerontology may now have the opportunity to feel what it’s actually like to be a […]]]> Virtual Reality Can Help Med Students Empathize with Elderly

By entering a new virtual reality experience, young medical students going into the field of gerontology may now have the opportunity to feel what it’s actually like to be a 74-year-old patient.

The project, called “We are Alfred,” allows young residents to build empathy with their elderly patients and experience what they often go through on a daily basis.

“The project is focusing on comfort,” said Dr. Eric Swirsky, clinical assistant professor of biomedical and health information sciences and a faculty adviser for the project. “It’s not curing, it’s not curative, it’s not even treatment-oriented. It’s about comforting and understanding where the patient is so that you can be with him.”

“We are Alfred” was the research project of Carrie Shaw, a master’s student in biomedical visualization. Shaw’s goal was to develop an interactive, experiential product that could be used for curriculum in geriatrics — the health and care of elderly people.

“[We’re] trying to portray different kinds of medical conditions, sensory changes from the first-person perspective of a patient,” said Shaw.

As the U.S. population becomes older, the field of geriatrics is expected to experience significant growth in the next decade. This may lead to a greater disconnection between older patients and the new young doctors who treat them.

“[Medical students] are usually in their early 20s and not experiencing those kinds of challenges yet, so we decided to create something that would give them the experience of what it might be like to go through the aging process,” Shaw said.

Once students put on the Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 headset and some headphones, they become an elderly patient named Alfred. They then proceed to experience seven minutes of having their audio-visual impairments misdiagnosed as cognitive ones.

The headset includes a Leap Motion device that tracks and projects users’ hands in the story to make them feel like they’re Alfred. It is a full 360-degree virtual reality experience.

Students from many disciplines came together to create the entire story of Alfred. University of Illinois at Chicago engineering students Thomas Leahy and Jakub Borowski used programming techniques and development tools to put together footage and add simulations of medical issues such as severe macular degeneration or hearing loss.

“There were a lot of different, new technologies that we were trying to integrate together, and I think that was one of the biggest themes of our whole project,” said Leahy.

The group did a lot of troubleshooting and relied on each others’ expertise and ideas to solve problems and tackle challenges.

“I think there’s just so much strength in diversity,” Shaw said. “It speaks to the complexity of life. If you work in one discipline, it’s easy to focus in on that one thing, working with yourself, but if you can balance working across a group of people with different ideas and perspectives, what you create winds up looking a little bit more like the things we actually have to deal with in the world.”

The project won first place in the Art/Design/Humanities & Social Sciences Category among graduate student projects at the University of Illinois at Chicago Research Forum, as well as the Vesalius Trust Scholarship Award.

Source: University of Chicago at Illinois

Janice Wood <![CDATA[Poorer Families Less Likely to Use Online Learning Tools]]> 2016-05-22T15:08:08Z 2016-05-22T13:45:18Z Poorer Families Less Likely to Use Online Learning ToolsA plethora of free educational programs, games, and services have launched online in recent years, designed to help children succeed academically, as well as close the achievement gap between the […]]]> Poorer Families Less Likely to Use Online Learning Tools

A plethora of free educational programs, games, and services have launched online in recent years, designed to help children succeed academically, as well as close the achievement gap between the rich and poor.

Instead, the gap seems to be getting larger because of these online tools, according to a new study.

Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology found that low-income parents are less likely to use these online resources or, when they do, they do so less effectively because of differences in motivation and parenting practices.

“A key goal for low-income parents is making sure their children stay in school, so often they are more focused on monitoring whether their kids are doing homework and going to class,” said Dr. Betsy DiSalvo, an assistant professor in the School of Interactive Computing, who led the study. “Their attention is directed towards school and not what could happen outside the classroom.”

Higher-income parents are more likely to act as learning brokers or resource providers by searching for opportunities outside of school, whether it be a book, online game, or extracurricular activity, she noted.

For the study, the researchers interviewed 63 parents across socio-economic groups. They also conducted an online survey of 997 parents in partnership with ACT, a national education testing services organization.

The study’s findings show that even when low-income parents turn to online resources they face greater challenges.

“They had lower perceived technical skills when it came to using computers and portable devices and conducting searches online,” DiSalvo said. “Even when they could do it, they downplayed their abilities.”

“If we can capture these parents and give them access to these educational resources, we can help them help their children,” she said. “These tools are supposed to improve learning for all children, but if they are not being used by lower-income students, they are coming to school at an even greater disadvantage.”

Lower-income parents also seem to experience greater face-saving concerns, she noted.

“Most parents are worried about saving face when asking for help with parenting,” she said. “But this study shows it might be worse for low income parents.”

There also were differences between how high-income and lower-income parents use social networks for education. Lower-income parents talk very little online about finding educational tools and instead go personally to the school resources center.

“Higher-income parents form Google groups, or search parenting blogs and message boards to learn about new tools,” she said. “They will seek out that one mother who seems connected to everything and always knows what’s going on.”

The study’s finding, presented recently at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, are being used to develop an online parent portal that will address the needs of lower-income parents, according to the researcher.

“Across the board, parents we talked to are passionate about their kids’ education, but even those who are heavily invested are still struggling to help their children,” DiSalvo said.

“If we think these online resources are the answer to helping children, we need to design them so that low-income parents will find them and use them.”

Source: Georgia Institute of Technology

Janice Wood <![CDATA[Helping Dropouts Fare Better in Life]]> 2016-05-22T15:01:41Z 2016-05-22T13:00:39Z Helping Dropouts Fare Better in LifeA new study finds that certain life experiences — from being fired from a job to being arrested — can worsen the negative effects of dropping out of school. But […]]]> Helping Dropouts Fare Better in Life

A new study finds that certain life experiences — from being fired from a job to being arrested — can worsen the negative effects of dropping out of school.

But there are interventions and treatments that can improve the odds for dropouts, according to researchers from Duke University.

Published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, the study followed 585 children from age five to age 27. It looked at the factors that increased the children’s risk of dropping out, how high school dropouts fared later in life, and what factors prevented negative outcomes.

The children, from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, lived in Knoxville and Nashville, Tennessee, and Bloomington, Indiana.

According to the study’s findings, by age 24, 14 percent of the study’s participants had dropped out and had not received a GED, comparable to national statistics.

The researchers found that, compared to high school graduates, the dropouts were three times more likely to have been arrested by age 18 and four times as likely to need government assistance by age 27.

They also were twice as likely to be fired from a job two or more times, to have used drugs in the past six months, and to report poor health by age 27.

Additionally, the study found that most dropouts face multiple hardships as adults. Researchers discovered that the dropouts were 24 times more likely than high school graduates to experience four or more negative outcomes by age 27.

However, the researchers also discovered that the risk of these hardships — such as getting arrested, needing government assistance, being fired or having poor health — declined if they received treatment for behavioral, emotional, or drug problems by age 24.

“It suggests that treatment can serve as a turning point,” said lead researcher Dr. Jennifer E. Lansford, a Duke University research professor of public policy and a faculty fellow of the university’s Center for Child and Family Policy.

“It could make it more likely for you to hold a job or not be in jail. It’s evidence that these kinds of treatments can work.”

Researchers also found dropouts suffered more problems in later life if they were rejected by classmates in elementary school or became parents themselves at a young age.

Improving peer relationships in elementary schools and reducing teen pregnancies are worthy investments and may even help reduce the drop-out rate, the researchers suggest.

Source: Duke University

Traci Pedersen <![CDATA[Refugee Kids Succeed In School if Supported]]> 2016-05-22T14:56:42Z 2016-05-22T12:15:27Z Refugee Kids Succeed In School if SupportedDespite some struggles with mental health issues, refugee children are capable of achieving similar academic success as non-refugee children if adequately supported, according to a new comprehensive review published in […]]]> Refugee Kids Succeed In School if Supported

Despite some struggles with mental health issues, refugee children are capable of achieving similar academic success as non-refugee children if adequately supported, according to a new comprehensive review published in the journal Pediatrics.

And while emotional and behavioral problems were more common among refugee children, particularly those under the age of 10, the findings show that internalized issues, such as anxiety and depression, were more prevalent than external outbursts that affect classmates, such as aggression or hyperactivity.

“Despite the thousands of refugees resettled annually, there isn’t a lot of research exploring learning challenges of refugee children and no research at all on autism spectrum disorder, language impairments or dyslexia,” said Dr. Ripudaman Minhas, an author of the study and a developmental pediatrician at St. Michael’s Hospital.

“However, the existing evidence suggests that children of refugee backgrounds have the potential to perform just as well as their peers when provided with supportive resources and even have similar rates of high school completion.”

Researchers from St. Michael’s Hospital and the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, looked at data from 34 studies on learning difficulties in refugee children to identify gaps in knowledge, risk factors for lower academic outcomes and resources for success.

They found tremendous gaps — especially in early childhood data — with almost no research on refugee children in low and middle-income countries, despite 86 percent of refugees settling in those areas.

The researchers discovered that faculty in both primary and secondary schools tend to have lower expectations of refugee children. They also found that academic success among refugee children was almost always associated with supportive peer relationships; however, refugee children have quite a bit of difficulty forming such relationships and frequently experience bullying, racism, and discrimination.

There is also a higher incidence of attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) in refugee children whose parents experienced trauma, compared to those whose parents did not experience trauma. Approximately 90 percent of children diagnosed with ADHD also met criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

With the arrival of 25,000 Syrian refugees in Canada, many of them children, Minhas said it’s important for communities to be aware that a child’s experiences in early life significantly affect development potential, relationships, and their ability to navigate and succeed in society.

“Many refugees settled in developing or developed countries have fled situations of war, discrimination or trauma — often void of basic human rights, including consistent access to education,” said Minhas.

“Although it’s clear that refugee children’s pre-migration experiences influence their learning and can cause difficulties, some of the most important factors for success occur in the post-migration environment, many of which can be addressed in the country of settlement.”

For educators, Minhas emphasizes that refugee children be monitored and supported in light of any traumatic experiences they may have encountered. They also encourage two-way communication between educators and students for increased academic success.

Source: St. Michael’s Hospital

Traci Pedersen <![CDATA[Returning to Workforce, Women Should Explain Employment Gap]]> 2016-05-22T14:53:40Z 2016-05-22T11:30:09Z Returning to Workforce, Women Should Explain Employment GapIn a first-of-its-kind study, two economists from Vanderbilt Law School have found that a female applicant returning to the workforce can significantly raise her chances of getting hired if she […]]]> Returning to Workforce, Women Should Explain Employment Gap

In a first-of-its-kind study, two economists from Vanderbilt Law School have found that a female applicant returning to the workforce can significantly raise her chances of getting hired if she offers personal information that clarifies any gaps in her work history.

“Our study provides the first-ever evidence that women who conceal personal information dramatically lower their hiring prospects,” said Dr. Joni Hersch, professor of law and economics at Vanderbilt Law School.

The findings contradict long-held conventional wisdom that if a woman wants equal footing professionally, she must withhold any personal or family-related information, even if it explains why she has employment gaps.

This “don’t ask, don’t tell” concept is so strong, in fact, that many people — both employers and employees — think it is illegal, or at least inappropriate, to ask an applicant about children or marital status. But in reality, this concept is simply a suggestion by the the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) — not a law, explain the researchers.

For the study, the researchers asked 3,022 participants to act as “potential employers” and to choose between two job candidates, described as mostly similar except for their openness about a 10-year gap in their job histories.

The “open” applicants used excuses such as they had been taking time off work to raise children or they’d just had a recent divorce and now need to return to work. No information was given in the other scenarios.

The statistics were striking.

“Employers overwhelmingly preferred to hire candidates who provided information to explain a resume gap, regardless of content. Any information that could flesh out a woman’s job history and qualifications improved employment prospects relative to no explanation for an otherwise identical job candidate,” added Vanderbilt co-author Jennifer Bennett Shinall.

In fact, women who gave personal information raised their chance of being hired by 30 to 40 percentage points, compared to comparable female candidates who provided no personal information.

“I was shocked by the results,” said Hersch. “The personal information gave no indication whether the woman would be a more or less productive employee. This was entirely neutral information. Yet the number of people who preferred the woman who explained her resume gap was staggering.”

The findings are consistent with the behavioral economics theory of ambiguity aversion.

“Individuals prefer known risks over unknown risks,” said Hersch. “It boils down to any explanation for your exit and your re-entering the workforce is better than no explanation,” added Shinall.

Regarding the EEOC guideline that discourages employers from asking about family matters, it is a suggestion that was taken seriously — but not a law. Specifically, it’s a recommendation aligned with the goal of encouraging compliance with Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and improving workplace equity, explain the researchers.

But the new findings show that workplace information restrictions may now serve to stifle workplace equity.

“The beauty of our results is that we don’t need to change the law to implement our proposal,” Hersch said. “The EEOC gives advice and guidance, but it’s not the law.”

Guidelines, unlike laws, are easily adapted.

The researchers suggest that the EEOC shift from the existing mantra of “don’t ask, don’t tell” to the reasonable accommodation model already recommended for disabled employees.

“The idea behind reasonable accommodation is that there’s an interactive process where the employer and employee have an honest conversation about each side’s needs and wants,” said Hersch.

“This would prevent women from being fearful about giving information or asking for work/life balance modifications such as telecommuting or alternate work schedules.”

The researchers suggest that this honest conversation happen during the interview process.

“If we start to encourage these types of conversations between employers and employees on an official level, it could lead to meaningful change in the quality of applicants, particularly in industries that have been so resistant to providing family-friendly work policies,” added Shinall.

The researchers believe changing the mindset behind communicating about personal issues would ultimately lead to more qualified candidates.

“We have a significant number of highly educated, highly qualified women who take a few years off to raise children, and want to come back into the labor market. And the fact of the matter is they seem to be getting bad advice from recruiters and career websites urging them to pretend their private lives don’t exist. And the EEOC guidance is not helping their transition back into the economy to take these high power jobs,” said Shinall.

The paper is published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review.

Source: Vanderbilt University

Janice Wood <![CDATA[Baby’s Cries Disrupt Parent’s Cognitive Functions]]> 2016-05-21T14:04:37Z 2016-05-21T13:45:29Z Baby’s Cries Disrupt Parent’s Cognitive FunctionsA baby’s cry not only gets our attention, it also rattles our executive functions — the neural and cognitive processes we use for making everyday decisions, according to a new […]]]> Baby’s Cries Disrupt Parent’s Cognitive Functions

A baby’s cry not only gets our attention, it also rattles our executive functions — the neural and cognitive processes we use for making everyday decisions, according to a new study.

“Parental instinct appears to be hardwired, yet no one talks about how this instinct might include cognition,” said Dr. David Haley, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough and a co-author of the study.

“If we simply had an automatic response every time a baby started crying, how would we think about competing concerns in the environment or how best to respond to a baby’s distress?”

Published in PLOS ONE, the study examined what effect hearing audio clips of a baby laughing or crying had on adults completing a cognitive conflict task.

The researchers used the Stroop task, in which participants were asked to rapidly identify the color of a printed word while ignoring the meaning of the word itself.

Brain activity was measured using electroencephalography (EEG) during each trial of the cognitive task, which took place.

The data revealed that the infant cries reduced attention to the task and triggered greater cognitive conflict processing than the infant laughs, according to the researchers.

Cognitive conflict processing is important because it controls attention — one of the most basic executive functions needed to complete a task or make a decision, noted Haley, who runs the university’s Parent-Infant Research Lab.

“Parents are constantly making a variety of everyday decisions and have competing demands on their attention,” said Joanna Dudek, a graduate student in the lab and the lead author of the study.

“They may be in the middle of doing chores when the doorbell rings and their child starts to cry. How do they stay calm, cool, and collected, and how do they know when to drop what they’re doing and pick up the child?”

A baby’s cry has been shown to cause aversion in adults, but it could also create an adaptive response by “switching on” the cognitive control parents use to respond to their child’s emotional needs while also addressing other demands in everyday life, Haley added.

“If an infant’s cry activates cognitive conflict in the brain, it could also be teaching parents how to focus their attention more selectively,” he explained. “It’s this cognitive flexibility that allows parents to rapidly switch between responding to their baby’s distress and other competing demands in their lives, which, paradoxically, may mean ignoring the infant momentarily.”

The study’s findings add to a growing body of research suggesting that infants occupy a privileged status in our neurobiological programming, one deeply rooted in our evolutionary past. But, it also reveals an important adaptive cognitive function in the human brain, according to Haley.

The next steps in the research will be to look at whether there are individual differences in the neural activation of attention and conflict processing in new mothers that may affect their capacity to respond sensitively to their own infants’ cries, Haley concluded.

Source: University of Toronto