1. MRIs predict which high-risk babies will develop autism as toddlers

    February 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of North Carolina Health Care media release:

    autism_stairsUsing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in infants with older siblings with autism, researchers from around the country were able to correctly predict 80 percent of those infants who would later meet criteria for autism at two years of age.

    The study, published in Nature, is the first to show it is possible to identify which infants — among those with older siblings with autism — will be diagnosed with autism at 24 months of age.

    “Our study shows that early brain development biomarkers could be very useful in identifying babies at the highest risk for autism before behavioral symptoms emerge,” said senior author Joseph Piven, MD, the Thomas E. Castelloe Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. “Typically, the earliest an autism diagnosis can be made is between ages two and three. But for babies with older autistic siblings, our imaging approach may help predict during the first year of life which babies are most likely to receive an autism diagnosis at 24 months.”

    This research project included hundreds of children from across the country and was led by researchers at the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (CIDD) at the University of North Carolina, where Piven is director. The project’s other clinical sites included the University of Washington, Washington University in St. Louis, and The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Other key collaborators are McGill University, the University of Alberta, the University of Minnesota, the College of Charleston, and New York University.

    This study could not have been completed without a major commitment from these families, many of whom flew in to be part of this,” said first author Heather Hazlett, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at the UNC School of Medicine and a CIDD researcher. “We are still enrolling families for this study, and we hope to begin work on a similar project to replicate our findings.”

    People with Autism Spectrum Disorder (or ASD) have characteristic social deficits and demonstrate a range of ritualistic, repetitive and stereotyped behaviors. It is estimated that one out of 68 children develop autism in the United States. For infants with older siblings with autism, the risk may be as high as 20 out of every 100 births. There are about 3 million people with autism in the United States and tens of millions around the world.

    Despite much research, it has been impossible to identify those at ultra-high risk for autism prior to 24 months of age, which is the earliest time when the hallmark behavioral characteristics of ASD can be observed and a diagnosis made in most children.

    For this Nature study, Piven, Hazlett, and researchers from around the country conducted MRI scans of infants at six, 12, and 24 months of age. They found that the babies who developed autism experienced a hyper-expansion of brain surface area from six to 12 months, as compared to babies who had an older sibling with autism but did not themselves show evidence of the condition at 24 months of age. Increased growth rate of surface area in the first year of life was linked to increased growth rate of overall brain volume in the second year of life. Brain overgrowth was tied to the emergence of autistic social deficits in the second year.

    Previous behavioral studies of infants who later developed autism — who had older siblings with autism -revealed that social behaviors typical of autism emerge during the second year of life.

    The researchers then took these data — MRIs of brain volume, surface area, cortical thickness at 6 and 12 months of age, and sex of the infants — and used a computer program to identify a way to classify babies most likely to meet criteria for autism at 24 months of age. The computer program developed the best algorithm to accomplish this, and the researchers applied the algorithm to a separate set of study participants.

    The researchers found that brain differences at 6 and 12 months of age in infants with older siblings with autism correctly predicted eight out of ten infants who would later meet criteria for autism at 24 months of age in comparison to those infants with older ASD siblings who did not meet criteria for autism at 24 months.

    “This means we potentially can identify infants who will later develop autism, before the symptoms of autism begin to consolidate into a diagnosis,” Piven said.

    If parents have a child with autism and then have a second child, such a test might be clinically useful in identifying infants at highest risk for developing this condition. The idea would be to then intervene ‘pre-symptomatically’ before the emergence of the defining symptoms of autism.

    Research could then begin to examine the effect of interventions on children during a period before the syndrome is present and when the brain is most malleable. Such interventions may have a greater chance of improving outcomes than treatments started after diagnosis.

    “Putting this into the larger context of neuroscience research and treatment, there is currently a big push within the field of neurodegenerative diseases to be able to detect the biomarkers of these conditions before patients are diagnosed, at a time when preventive efforts are possible,” Piven said. “In Parkinson’s for instance, we know that once a person is diagnosed, they’ve already lost a substantial portion of the dopamine receptors in their brain, making treatment less effective.

    Piven said the idea with autism is similar; once autism is diagnosed at age 2-3 years, the brain has already begun to change substantially.

    “We haven’t had a way to detect the biomarkers of autism before the condition sets in and symptoms develop,” he said. “Now we have very promising leads that suggest this may in fact be possible.”


  2. Married people have lower levels of stress hormone

    February 15, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Carnegie Mellon University media release:

    couple on dateStudies have suggested that married people are healthier than those who are single, divorced, or widowed. A new Carnegie Mellon University study provides the first biological evidence to explain how marriage impacts health.

    Published in Psychoneuroendocrinology, the researchers found that married individuals had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than those who never married or were previously married. These findings support the belief that unmarried people face more psychological stress than married individuals. Prolonged stress is associated with increased levels of cortisol which can interfere with the body’s ability to regulate inflammation, which in turn promotes the development and progression of many diseases.

    “It’s is exciting to discover a physiological pathway that may explain how relationships influence health and disease,” said Brian Chin, a Ph.D. student in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences’ Department of Psychology.

    Over three non-consecutive days, the researchers collected saliva samples from 572 healthy adults aged 21-55. Multiple samples were taken during each 24-hour period and tested for cortisol.

    The results showed that the married participants had lower cortisol levels than the never married or previously married people across the three day period. The researchers also compared each person’s daily cortisol rhythm — typically, cortisol levels peak when a person wakes up and decline during the day. Those who were married showed a faster decline, a pattern that has been associated with less heart disease, and longer survival among cancer patients.

    These data provide important insight into the way in which our intimate social relationships can get under the skin to influence our health,” said laboratory director and co-author Sheldon Cohen, the Robert E. Doherty University Professor of Psychology.


  3. Retail therapy for jealous partners

    January 26, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Society for Consumer Psychology media release:

    Have you ever felt jealous about the attention your romantic partner was giving to someone else? Perhaps your significant other seems to be enjoying a conversation with someone a little too much, or a co-worker is flirting with your partner at a company holiday party.

    Researcher Xun (Irene) Huang, PhD, was eager to investigate whether these feelings of jealously motivated consumers to buy things that were more likely to recapture the attention of their partners. She and her team conducted a series of five different experiments, and the results revealed that feelings of jealousy increase the desire for eye-catching products — such as a bright colored coat instead of a dull-colored one, or a T-shirt with a big logo design versus a low-key design. A summary of their findings is available online in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

    We believe that this effect is not just restricted to jealousy in romantic relationships,” says Huang, a professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “Children can be jealous of a sibling’s relationship with their parents, or workers might be jealous of a colleague’s close relationship with a supervisor.”

    The researchers also found that the desire for eye-grabbing products disappeared when there was little chance that the product would be noticed by others in public. Participants who were experiencing feelings of jealously in one experiment were more likely to buy a noticeable gold lamp for their office, a public place. But if they were buying a lamp for their bedroom, interest in a gold lamp versus a plain grey one was equal.

    The researchers were surprised to discover that the desire to recapture someone’s attention with eye-catching products even outweighed the risk of public embarrassment. In one experiment, participants were asked to imagine that they had been invited to a party. One group had been invited to a costume party organized by friends, and the other group had been invited to a formal welcoming party for new staff members at their company.

    Then they were asked to choose whether they’d prefer to wear an ordinary pair of sunglasses to the party or a unique and eye-catching pair. The researchers found that participants who were experiencing feelings of jealously opted to wear the eye-catching sunglasses to both types of parties, even though they could garner negative attention for this at a formal work party.

    These findings also have implications for marketing, Huang says. Print advertisements and in-store displays can capture situations in which jealously is at play, which could motivate consumers to buy products that will attract someone’s attention. Television commercials that promote attention-grabbing products might also be effective during sit-coms in which jealously is a common theme.


  4. Benzodiazepines, related drugs increase stroke risk among persons with Alzheimer’s disease

    January 25, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Eastern Finland media release:

    memory lossThe use of benzodiazepines and benzodiazepine-like drugs was associated with a 20 per cent increased risk of stroke among persons with Alzheimer’s disease, shows a recent study from the University of Eastern Finland. Benzodiazepines were associated with a similar risk of stroke as benzodiazepine-like drugs.

    The use of benzodiazepines and benzodiazepine-like drugs was associated with an increased risk of any stroke and ischemic stroke, whereas the association with hemorrhagic stroke was not significant. However, due to the small number of hemorrhagic stroke events in the study population, the possibility of such an association cannot be excluded. The findings are important, as benzodiazepines and benzodiazepine-like drugs were not previously known to predispose to strokes or other cerebrovascular events. Cardiovascular risk factors were taken into account in the analysis and they did not explain the association.

    The findings encourage a careful consideration of the use of benzodiazepines and benzodiazepine-like drugs among persons with Alzheimer’s disease, as stroke is one of the leading causes of death in this population group. Earlier, the researchers have also shown that these drugs are associated with an increased risk of hip fracture.

    The study was based on data from a nationwide register-based study (MEDALZ) conducted at the University of Eastern Finland in 2005-2011. The study population included 45,050 persons diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and 22 per cent of them started using benzodiazepines or benzodiazepine-like drugs.

    The findings were published in International Clinical Psychopharmacology.


  5. The lasting effects of ministrokes may contribute to dementia

    January 24, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Medical University of South Carolina media release:

    hospital emergency signEvidence overwhelmingly supports a link between cognitive decline and cerebrovascular diseases such as atherosclerosis, arteriolosclerosis, and cerebral amyloid angiopathy.

    Not only do individuals with cerebrovascular diseases have a much higher incidence of cortical microinfarcts (mini-strokes), but post-mortem histological and in vivo radiological studies also find that the burden of microinfarcts is significantly greater among people with vascular cognitive impairment and dementia (VCID) than in age-matched, non-demented individuals.

    Until now, the mechanisms by which these miniscule lesions (~0.05 to 3 millimeters in diameter) contribute to cognitive deficits including dementia have been poorly understood.

    Findings from a recent study by investigators at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) provide crucial information for better understanding the impact of microinfarcts, showing that the functional deficits caused by a single microinfarct can affect a larger area of brain tissue and last longer than was previously thought to be the case.

    The functional effects of microinfarcts are extremely difficult to study. Not only are most microinfarcts difficult to detect with standard neuroimaging techniques, mismatches between in vivo functional data and post-mortem histological evidence make it nearly impossible to connect microinfarcts to the timeline of cognitive decline.

    These infarcts are so small and unpredictable, we just haven’t had good tools to detect them while the person was still alive,” said Andy Shih, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Neurosciences and senior author on the article. “So, until now, we basically just had post-mortem snapshots of these infarcts at the end of the dementia battle as well as measures of the person’s cognitive decline, which might have been taken years before the brain became available for study.”

    Intrigued by the mounting evidence linking cognitive decline and microinfarct burden, Shih’s group hypothesized that microinfarcts might disrupt brain function beyond what was visible by histology or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

    Even though a person may experience hundreds of thousands of microinfarcts in their lifetime, each event is extremely small and thought to resolve in a matter of days,” said Shih. “It’s been estimated that, overall, microinfarcts affect less than 2% of the entire human brain. But those estimates of tissue loss are based only on the ‘core’ of the microinfarct, the area of dead or dying tissue that we can see in routine, post-mortem, histological stains.”

    To investigate their theory of broader impacts, the team developed a mouse model so that they could examine the effects of individual cortical microinfarcts on surrounding tissue function in vivo over several weeks post-event. “We needed a preclinical model to create very predictable lesions that we could follow over time,” said Shih. “Also, we needed to be able to obtain readouts of brain activity that were consistent over time.”

    The team used photothrombosis to occlude a single arteriole in the barrel cortex of mice fitted with cranial windows. They then compared functional readouts of sensory-evoked brain activity, indicated by activity-dependent c-Fos expression or in vivo two-photon imaging of single vessel hemodynamic responses, to the location of the microinfarct core.

    Post-mortem, c-Fos immunostaining revealed that an area estimated to be at least 12-times greater in volume than the microinfarct core had been affected by the event. Furthermore, in vivo, two-photon imaging of single vessel, sensory-evoked hemodynamics found that neuronal activity across the affected tissue area remained partially depressed for 14 to 17 days after the microinfarct.

    Together, these data indicate that functional deficits caused by a single microinfarct occur across a much larger area of viable peri-lesional tissue than was previously understood and that the resulting deficits are much longer-lasting.

    I knew larger strokes could have distant effects, but I was surprised that something of this scale could have such a large effect,” said Shih.

    The duration of effect from a single microinfarct was also a surprise for Shih’s team. “The MRI signal increased and then went away as we’d expected, but we were surprised on autopsy to see that there was still lots going on — tissue damage and neuroinflammation,” Shih explained. “Even after three weeks the neurally evoked blood flow responses had only partially recovered. So, that means a microinfarct can come and go and you can see it briefly with MRI but it leaves a lasting impression on brain function-possibly for months.”

    Importantly, a person with VCID is likely to experience other microinfarcts during this recovery time. Furthermore, these tiny infarcts occur not only in the brain’s grey matter, where this study was conducted, but also in the white matter, which sends messages from one part of the brain to another.

    “Over time, after you have a lot of microinfarcts, there may be enough accumulated damage in the brain’s circuitry to equal the impact of a larger event,” said Shih.

    According to Shih, one of the most important messages from this study is that conventional methods used in clinical trials do not reveal the entire impact that microinfarcts have on brain function. He hopes that his team’s contribution to illuminating microinfarct pathology will help inform MRI interpretation in humans and help researchers better explain some of the relationships that they see in clinical studies.

    These findings might also lead to new preventive protocols. “On a clinical level, maybe it’s a situation where therapeutics can play a bigger role. Maybe drugs that we already have can mitigate the cumulative damage of microinfarcts,” speculated Shih. “The neuro-protective idea hasn’t flown very far for acute stroke, in part, because the window of time for protecting the brain from stroke damage is very narrow. But, for microinfarcts, you don’t have to know exactly when they occur. If an MRI shows a person is at high risk for microinfarcts, maybe one day we can put them on a drug for a while to reduce the impacts of these lesions.”


  6. Talking therapy changes brain wiring, study reveals for first time

    January 23, 2017 by Ashley

    From the King’s College London media release:

    psychotherapy discussionA new study from King’s College London and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust has shown for the first time that cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) strengthens specific connections in the brains of people with psychosis, and that these stronger connections are associated with long-term reduction in symptoms and recovery eight years later.

    CBT — a specific type of talking therapy — involves people changing the way they think about and respond to their thoughts and experiences. For individuals experiencing psychotic symptoms, common in schizophrenia and a number of other psychiatric disorders, the therapy involves learning to think differently about unusual experiences, such as distressing beliefs that others are out to get them. CBT also involves developing strategies to reduce distress and improve wellbeing.

    The findings, published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, follow the same researchers’ previous work which showed that people with psychosis who received CBT displayed strengthened connections between key regions of the brain involved in processing social threat accurately.

    The new results show for the first time that these changes continue to have an impact years later on people’s long-term recovery.

    In the original study, participants underwent fMRI imaging to assess the brain’s response to images of faces expressing different emotions, before and after six months of CBT. Participants were already taking medication when they took part in the study, and so were compared to a group receiving medication only. The group receiving medication only did not show any increases in connectivity, suggesting that the effects on brain connections could be attributed to the CBT.

    For the new study, the health of 15 of the 22 participants who received CBT was tracked for eight years through their medical records. They were also sent a questionnaire at the end of this period to assess their level of recovery and wellbeing.

    The results show that increases in connectivity between several brain regions — most importantly the amygdala (the brain’s threat centre) and the frontal lobes (which are involved in thinking and reasoning) — are associated with long-term recovery from psychosis. This is the first time that changes in the brain associated with CBT have been shown to be associated with long-term recovery in people with psychosis.

    Lead author of the study Dr Liam Mason from King’s College London, who is a clinical psychologist at the Maudsley Hospital where the research took place, said: “This research challenges the notion that the existence of physical brain differences in mental health disorders somehow makes psychological factors or treatments less important. Unfortunately, previous research has shown that this ‘brain bias’ can make clinicians more likely to recommend medication but not psychological therapies. This is especially important in psychosis, where only one in ten people who could benefit from psychological therapies are offered them.”

    The researchers now hope to confirm the results in a larger sample, and to identify the changes in the brain that differentiate people who experience improvements with CBT from those who do not. Ultimately, the results could lead to better, and more tailored, treatments for psychosis, by allowing researchers to understand what determines whether psychological therapies are effective.

     


  7. Depression as hard on the heart as obesity and cholesterol

    by Ashley

    From the Helmholtz Zentrum München – German Research Center for Environmental Health media release:

    Depression poses a risk for cardiovascular diseases in men that is just as great as that posed by high cholesterol levels and obesity. This is according to a report recently published in the Atherosclerosis journal by researchers from the Helmholtz Zentrum München, together with colleagues from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and the German Center for Cardiovascular Disease (DZHK).

    According to the World Health Organisation WHO, 350 million people worldwide are affected by depression. But the mental state is not all that is affected, however, and depression can also compromise the body. “Meanwhile there is little doubt that depression is a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases,” explains Karl-Heinz Ladwig. He is group leader at the Institute of Epidemiology II at the Helmholtz Zentrum München, professor of psychosomatic medicine at TUM’s Klinikum rechts der Isar as well as scientist of DZHK. “The question now is: What is the relationship between depression and other risk factors like tobacco smoke, high cholesterol levels, obesity or hypertension — how big a role does each factor play?”

    In order to examine this question, Ladwig and his team analyzed data from 3,428 male patients between the ages of 45 and 74 years and observed their development over a period of ten years. “The work is based on a prospective population-based data set from the MONICA/KORA study that, with a total term of up to 25 years, is one of the few large studies in Europe that allows such an analysis,” reports the statistician Dr. Jens Baumert of Helmholtz Zentrum München, who was also involved in the publication.

    Investigate depression in high-risk patients

    In their analyses, the scientists compared the impact of depression with the four major risk factors. “Our investigation shows that the risk of a fatal cardiovascular disease due to depression is almost as great as that due to elevated cholesterol levels or obesity,” Ladwig summarizes. The results show that only high blood pressure and smoking are associated with a greater risk. Viewed across the population, depression accounts for roughly 15 percent of the cardiovascular deaths. “That is comparable to the other risk factors, such as hypercholesterolemia, obesity and smoking,” Ladwig states. These factors cause 8.4 to 21.4 percent of the cardiovascular deaths.

    “We invested a great deal of time in this work, just due to the long observation period,” says study leader Ladwig. But the effort paid off: “Our data show that depression has a medium effect size within the range of major, non-congenital risk factors for cardiovascular diseases.” Ladwig accordingly proposes consequences here: “In high risk patients, the diagnostic investigation of co-morbid depression should be standard. This could be registered with simple means.”

     


  8. Want to ace an exam? Tell a friend what you learned

    by Ashley

    From the Baylor University media release:

    Students who are given information and tell someone about it immediately recall the details better and longer — a strategy which could be a plus come test time, says a Baylor University researcher.

    This has to be actively replaying or re-generating the information — for example, by telling someone the particulars, as opposed to just simply re-reading the textbook or class notes and studying it again later,” said Baylor psychologist Melanie Sekeres, Ph.D., lead author of the study.

    “What we found in our study was that a week later, the memory was just as good,” she said. “Telling someone else about what you’ve learned is a really effective way for students to study instead of just re-reading the textbook or class notes.”

    In the study, published in the journal Learning & Memory students were shown 24-second clips from 40 films over a period of about half an hour. The study focused on their retention of both the general plot of the films as well as such details as sounds, colors, gestures, background details and other peripheral information that allow a person to re-experience an event in rich and vivid detail, said Sekeres, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences.

    Researchers also found that giving students a brief visual cue from the movie later — even a simple glimpse of the title and a little sliver of a screenshot taken from the film — seemed to jog the memory.

    “With a cue, suddenly, a lot of those details will come back,” Sekeres said. “We don’t permanently forget them, which would indicate lack of storage — we just can’t immediately access them. And that’s good. That means our memories aren’t as bad as we think.”

    Much research on memory examines how brain damage or aging affects recall, but “we wanted to look at the normal course of forgetting in healthy brains — and if anyone should have a good memory, it’s healthy young adults,” Sekeres said. “While the strategy of re-telling information — known as ‘the testing effect’ — has been shown to be a really effective study technique time and again, this study is novel in looking at how our memories change over time for a specialized group.”

    Researchers studied three groups of undergraduate students, each with 20 participants, who were on average 21 years old. After viewing the film clips, researchers asked what they remembered about the films after delays ranging from several minutes after the showings up to seven days later.

    We chose mostly foreign films and somewhat obscure clips that we thought most undergraduates would not have seen,” Sekeres said. “The clips all contained brief scenes of normal, everyday events that mimicked the kind of events you might experience in a day, such as a family having dinner or kids playing at a park.”

    Researchers found that:

    • Not surprisingly, all participants recalled less about both the details and the substance of the films over a longer gap of time. But they forgot the perceptual or ‘peripheral’ details from the films more quickly, and to a greater degree, than the films’ central themes.
    • Significantly, the second group of students, who were given cues before being asked to recall the films, did better at retrieving the faded memory of the peripheral details. However, their retention of central information was not much different from the first group, who did not have such cues.
    • Most noteworthy was that the third group — who retrieved the memory of the films by telling someone about them soon after viewing — remembered both central and peripheral information better over time.

    The “replaying” method takes considerable effort, but it can be worth it, Sekeres said. “We tell students to test yourself, force yourself to tell someone about the lecture. Even by writing out some questions for yourself about the information, then later answering them yourself, you are more likely to remember the information.

    Unfortunately, simply re-reading or passively listening to a recording of your lecture in the hopes of remembering the information isn’t a great study strategy by comparison.”

    Sekeres noted that forgetting some details is to be expected — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

    “The brain is adaptive,” Sekeres said. “We remember the important things, for the most part, and we forget the unimportant details. You don’t want your brain to search through tons of useless information.”

    But clearly, in certain situations — such as giving eyewitness testimony or taking a test — details and context can be vital for more accurate memory, she said. And on a personal level, details make for a richer store of such memories as family times.

    While researchers focused on how cuing and active retrieval of memories affected students, those actions also could be helpful to others in reactivating memories, Sekeres said.

    If there’s something you really want to remember, test yourself — like saying names and recalling, for example, that Jim had the green cap and Susan wore the red dress and brought a casserole,” she said.

    Sekeres said further research would be valuable to determine how the effects of cuing and active retrieval hold up over a period of months or years.

    Her research team currently is using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look into how brain activity changes over time as memories age and lose those peripheral details.

    “Identifying changes in patterns of brain activity that accompany normal forgetting in the healthy brain will help us to understand differences between normal and abnormal memory processing,” Sekeres said. “As researchers, we have to first understand how something normally works before we can try to fix it.”


  9. Macaques, like humans, know how well they can recall memories

    by Ashley

    From the American Association for the Advancement of Science media release:

    Researchers have pinpointed a brain region monkeys use to evaluate their ability to recall memories. To date, this metamemory process, which requires a higher level of self-reflection about our own cognition, was thought by some to be unique to humans, though this research suggests otherwise.

    Evaluating one’s own memory requires access to information about the strength of memory traces, though the brain structures and neural mechanisms involved in this effort — and whether they are distinct from normal memory recall — remain unknown.

    Here, to shed light in this space, Kentaro Miyamoto and colleagues devised a metamemory test in which macaques judged their own confidence in remembering past experiences; the animals opted for higher bets on the outcome of a memory recall test when they were surer their memory judgments were correct.

    Using this setup, as well as whole-brain searches by functional neuroimaging, the researchers identified a specific region in the prefrontal brain essential for metamemory decision making. Its inactivation caused selective impairment of metamemory, but not of memory itself.

    The results pave the way to further study of the neuronal underpinnings of metacognition using an animal model, where metamemory has previously been difficult to evaluate.


  10. Frankly, we do give a damn: Study finds links between swearing and honesty

    January 17, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Cambridge media release:

    computer frustrationIt’s long been associated with anger and coarseness but profanity can have another, more positive connotation. Psychologists have learned that people who frequently curse are being more honest.

    Writing in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science a team of researchers from the Netherlands, the UK, the USA and Hong Kong report that people who use profanity are less likely to be associated with lying and deception.

    Profanity is obscene language which, in some social settings is considered inappropriate and unacceptable. It often refers to language that contains sexual references, blasphemy or other vulgar terms. It’s usually related to the expression of emotions such as anger, frustration or surprise. But profanity can also be used to entertain and win over audiences.

    There are conflicting attitudes to profanity and its social impact has changed over the decades. In 1939, Clark Gable uttering the memorable line “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” in the film Gone with the Wind, was enough to land the producers a $5,000 fine. Nowadays our movies, TV shows and books are peppered with profane words and, for the most part, we are more tolerant of them.

    As dishonesty and profanity are both considered deviant they are often viewed as evidence of low moral standards. On the other hand, profanity can be positively associated with honesty. It is often used to express unfiltered feelings and sincerity. The researchers cite the example of President-elect Donald Trump who used swear words in some of his speeches while campaigning in last year’s US election and was considered, by some, to be more genuine than his rivals.

    Dr David Stillwell, a lecturer in Big Data Analytics at the University of Cambridge, and a co-author on the paper, says: “The relationship between profanity and dishonesty is a tricky one. Swearing is often inappropriate but it can also be evidence that someone is telling you their honest opinion. Just as they aren’t filtering their language to be more palatable, they’re also not filtering their views. ”

    The international team of researchers set out to gauge people’s views about this sort of language in a series of questionnaires which included interactions with social media users.

    In the first questionnaire 276 participants were asked to list their most commonly used and favourite swear words. They were also asked to rate their reasons for using these words and then took part in a lie test to determine whether they were being truthful or simply responding in the way they thought was socially acceptable. Those who wrote down a higher number of curse words were less likely to be lying.

    A second survey involved collecting data from 75,000 Facebook users to measure their use of swear words in their online social interactions. The research found that those who used more profanity were also more likely to use language patterns that have been shown in previous research to be related to honesty, such as using pronouns like “I” and “me.” The Facebook users were recruited from across the United States and their responses highlight the differing views to profanity that exist between different geographical areas. For example, those in the north-eastern states (such as Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and New York) were more likely to swear whereas people were less likely to in the southern states (South Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi).