1. Research shows how faces guide, and reflect, our social lives

    June 25, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Association for Psychological Science press release:

    For most of us, faces provide untold amounts of information about the people in our world. We use faces to identify someone as a friend or stranger, as approachable or hostile, as a member of our group or an outsider. We make judgments about others’ personality traits, such as their trustworthiness, based on our perceptions of their faces. And we typically make all of these determinations without ever being consciously aware that we’re doing it. There is no question: How we perceive faces plays a central role in our social lives.

    A special issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, brings together innovative research and theory in psychological science, computer science, neuroscience, and related fields, illuminating the myriad ways in which face perception infuses how we think and behave.

    In this issue, “researchers from diverse areas within the psychological sciences illustrate various cognitive processes and social consequences, extending from face perception’s basic foundations in recognition, human development, and social and economic behavior, through individual and cultural variation in face processing, to the cutting-edge application of tools in computer science,” writes psychological scientist Nicholas O. Rule of the University of Toronto in his introduction to the special issue.

    The special issue delves into the mechanisms that underlie face perception, exploring the adaptive functions that likely contribute to recognizing faces and facial expressions, the origins and developmental trajectory of face recognition across different people, and the reasons why we sometimes make errors when it comes to recognizing certain faces.

    The issue also shows how we use information from faces to make judgments about other people, including forming quick first impressions and determining the social groups they belong to, whether they possess certain leadership qualities, and the likelihood that they’ll cooperate or act selfishly.

    Articles in the issue illustrate how early experiences can shape face perception, leading to cultural differences in how we attend to facial features and exposure-related differences in how we process faces of different races.

    The articles also show how biases in how we recognize emotions in faces can contribute to the onset and maintenance of mood disorders like depression and aggression. Building computational models that accurately describe the processes involved in face perception could eventually help clinicians in defining, diagnosing, and treating these kinds of disorders.

    Finally, the issue explores how face perception ultimately guides our behavior towards others, influencing whether we decide to engage with someone in prosocial ways and even whether we might dehumanize and harm someone.

    “Together, this collection of brief and accessible reviews will help readers to cultivate an understanding of how humans create and extract meaning from the face, justifying why it maintains such a high priority in perception, cognition, and behavior,” Rule writes.


  2. Study suggests making art activates brain’s reward pathway

    June 23, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Drexel University press release:

    Your brain’s reward pathways become active during art-making activities like doodling, according to a new Drexel University study.

    Girija Kaimal, EdD, assistant professor in the College of Nursing and Health Professions, led a team that used fNIRS (functional near-infrared spectroscopy) technology to measure blood flow in the areas of the brain related to rewards while study participants completed a variety of art-making projects.

    “This shows that there might be inherent pleasure in doing art activities independent of the end results. Sometimes, we tend to be very critical of what we do because we have internalized, societal judgements of what is good or bad art and, therefore, who is skilled and who is not,” said Kaimal of the study that was published The Arts in Psychotherapy. “We might be reducing or neglecting a simple potential source of rewards perceived by the brain. And this biologocial proof could potentially challenge some of our assumptions about ourselves.”

    For the study, co-authored by Drexel faculty including Jennifer Nasser, PhD, and Hasan Ayaz, PhD, 26 participants wore fNIRS headbands while they completed three different art activities (each with rest periods between). For three minutes each, the participants colored in a mandala, doodled within or around a circle marked on a paper, and had a free-drawing session.

    During all three activities, there was a measured increase in bloodflow in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, compared to rest periods where bloodflow decreased to normal rates.

    The prefrontal cortex is related to regulating our thoughts, feelings and actions. It is also related to emotional and motivational systems and part of the wiring for our brain’s reward circuit. So seeing increased bloodflow in these areas likely means a person is experiencing feels related to being rewarded.

    There were some distinctions between the activities in the data collected.

    Doodling in or around the circle had the highest average measured bloodflow increase in the reward pathway compared to free-drawing (the next highest) and coloring. However, the difference between each form of art-making was not statistically significant, according to analysis.

    “There were some emergent differences but we did not have a large-enough sample in this initial study to draw any definitive conclusions,” Kaimal said.

    It was noted and tracked which participants in the study considered themselves artists so that their results could be compared to non-artists. In that way, Kaimal and her team hoped to understand whether past experience played a factor in triggering feelings of reward.

    Doodling seemed to initiate the most brain activity in artists, but free-drawing was observed to be about the same for artists and non-artists. Interestingly, the set coloring activity actually resulted in negative brain activity in artists.

    “I think artists might have felt very constrained by the pre-drawn shapes and the limited choice of media,” Kaimal explained. “They might also have felt some frustration that they could not complete the image in the short time.”

    Again, however, these results regarding artists versus non-artists proved statistically insignificant, which might actually track with Kaimal’s previous research that found experience-level did not have a bearing on the stress-reduction benefits people had while making art.

    Overall, though, the finding that any form of art-making resulted in the significant activation of feelings of reward are compelling, especially for art therapists who see art as a valuable tool for mental health.

    In fact, in surveys administered to the participants after the activities were complete, respondents indicated that they felt more like they had “good ideas” and could “solve problems” than before the activities. Participants even said they felt the three-minute time spans for art-making weren’t long enough.

    “There are several implications of this study’s findings,” Kaimal said. “They indicate an inherent potential for evoking positive emotions through art-making — and doodling especially. Doodling is something we all have experience with and might re-imagine as a democratizing, skill independent, judgment-free pleasurable activity.”

    Additionally, Kaimal felt that the findings of increased self-opinion were intriguing.

    “There might be inherent aspects to visual self-expression that evoke both pleasure and a sense of creative agency in ourselves,” she said.


  3. Quality of early family relationships affects children’s affect regulation

    by Ashley

    From the Suomen Akatemia (Academy of Finland) press release:

    The birth of a child is often a long-awaited and deeply meaningful event for the parents. However, the transition to parenthood also forces the parents to revise their interparental romantic relationship and to answer the new questions arising from parenthood. At the same time as the parents learn how to cope with the new situation, the infant undergoes one of the most intense developmental periods in human life. Previous attachment research has demonstrated the importance of the mother-infant relationship to children’s emotional development, but there is still relatively little research on the role of fathers, the marital relationship and the family as a whole.

    This doctoral study in the field of psychology set out to investigate, firstly, how families change and reorganise during the transition to parenthood and, secondly, the consequences the early family relationships have on children’s emotional development in middle childhood. More specifically, the aim was to study the effects of early family relationships on children’s emotion regulation, psychological defense mechanisms, and the related biases in their social-emotional information processing (i.e. attention biases to emotional facial expressions). In all, 710 Finnish families participated in the longitudinal study conducted during pregnancy, at the child’s ages of two and twelve months and in middle childhood.

    As a central result of the dissertation, seven unique family system types were identified using statistical analyses. The family system types were called cohesive (35 %), authoritarian (14 %), enmeshed (with declining 6 % and quadratic 5 % subtypes), escalating crisis (4 %), disengaged (5 %) and discrepant (15 %). Despite the uniqueness of each family type, the problematic family types predicted children’s inefficient emotion regulation in middle childhood in a similar way.

    Difficulties in emotion regulation also explained why the problematic family types increased the children’s depressive symptoms indicating that family-related difficulties in managing their own negative emotions pose a risk for the children’s mental health. Furthermore, children who had grown in problematic families relied more on psychological defence mechanisms (e.g. denied their own painful emotions and blamed others instead). Family-related alterations in affect regulation were also present in the laboratory experiment: children from enmeshed families tended to direct their attention towards threat-provoking stimuli (i.e. angry facial expressions) whereas children from disengaged families tended to defensively avoid such information.

    Altogether, the results support the theoretical viewpoint that children adapt their affect regulation to fit the demands of their family environment. This may be based on both psychodynamic processes and the effects of the children’s stress regulation system, which has been developed during the evolutionary process. The family as a whole is important for the development of children’s emotion regulation. Therefore, mothers and fathers as well as the interparental romantic relationship and parenting should be considered in health services directed to parents-to-be. Finally, it is noteworthy that the early family relationships accounted for at the most only 10 % of the children’s affect regulation in middle childhood. The relatively modest size of this effect corresponds to the results of previous longitudinal studies.

    The findings of this seven-year longitudinal study shed more light on the understanding of early family dynamics and on the identification of early family related risks. The knowledge may also help to develop focused therapeutic interventions for children who have experienced early family problems and suffer from depressive symptoms. Such children may benefit from strengthening the experience of emotional security, learning more efficient emotion regulation and interventions to correct their biases in the processing of social-emotional information.


  4. Social emotional learning interventions show promise, warrant further study

    by Ashley

    From the Oregon State University press release:

    Developing a child’s social and emotional learning skills in early childhood is seen as a key to the child’s success in school, but researchers are still working to understand which interventions most effectively boost those skills.

    Providing training for early childhood education teachers, embedding direct instruction and practice of targeted skills into daily practice and engaging families in these efforts help to boost the success of these kinds of interventions, Oregon State University researchers suggest in a new paper.

    “We know these skills are essential for children, but there’s still a lot we don’t know about ways to enhance them,” said Megan McClelland, the Katherine E. Smith Healthy Children and Families Professor in Human Development and Family Sciences in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences. “The results to date have been mixed.”

    “We don’t yet know what the ‘key ingredients’ are here, ” added McClelland, the paper’s lead author, “but we do have enough evidence to know we need to keep doing this work.”

    The paper was published in a special issue of the journal Future of Children that is focused on social and emotional learning. McClelland is a nationally recognized expert in child development. Co-authors of the paper are Shauna Tominey, an assistant professor of practice at OSU, Sara Schmitt of Purdue University and Robert Duncan of University of California, Irvine.

    Much of McClelland’s research focuses on the important role of self-regulation skills — the social and emotional skills that help children pay attention, follow directions, stay on task, form healthy friendships and persist through difficulty.

    She has developed and tested social and emotional learning interventions focused on games such as “Red Light, Purple Light,” which is similar to “Red Light, Green Light.” A teacher uses construction-paper circles to represent stop and go. Children follow color cues, such as purple represents stop, orange signals go; then switch to the opposite, where purple means go and orange means stop.

    Additional rules are added later to increase the complexity of the game. The game requires children to listen and remember instructions, pay attention to the adult leading the game and resist natural inclinations to stop or go.

    In the new paper, McClelland and her co-authors reviewed the theory and science behind a number of social emotional learning interventions in early childhood and found that while several such interventions hold promise, more research is needed to understand variations in results among different groups of children, including why some children appear to benefit more than others and whether the programs are cost effective.

    There’s also a general lack of long-term studies that might give researchers a clearer picture of the programs’ effectiveness, McClelland said. Longer-term studies would also help explain “sleeper” effects, where short-term effects are small or not significant, but long-term effects, such as predictors of high school or college completion, are significant and substantive.

    “I look at the long term: Did the child complete college? Were they able to stay out of the criminal justice system?” McClelland said. “Those are some of the most important indicators of the social emotional learning.”

    Overall, studies in the field indicate that children from low-income families tend to show the most gains from social emotional learning interventions, but results for other groups of students are more mixed, although a number of studies show positive effects.

    The review also showed that the most successful interventions tend to be low cost, easily implemented, are fun for kids, including training for teachers, and can be built in to classroom lessons on literacy and math, McClelland said.

    “The bottom line here is that there’s a lot of subtlety to the findings of this work so far,” she said. “Fortunately, we do have some ideas about what’s working, and we have some ideas about where we need to go next in the field.”


  5. Amygdala activity predicts posttraumatic stress disorder

    June 22, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Elsevier press release:

    Neuroimaging measures of emotional brain function after acute trauma may help predict whether a person will develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to a new study in Biological Psychiatry. Led by senior author Dr. Kerry Ressler of Emory University in Georgia and Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, the study reports an association between the activity of two key brain regions involved in emotional regulation, the amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), shortly after trauma and symptoms of PTSD that emerged within the following year.

    “This study introduces a new potential biomarker of PTSD, highlighting new roles for neuroimaging in PTSD research,” said Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry. The identification of a PTSD biomarker has exciting implications for limiting or preventing symptoms of the disorder.

    “The search for such early biological markers of poor recovery is very important, because it will allow us to find the people who are most at risk right after a trauma, and intervene early, before the onset of disorders such as PTSD or depression,” said first author Dr. Jennifer Stevens, of Emory University.

    In the study, Stevens and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure brain activity of 31 people approximately one month after a traumatic incident. The trauma was non-military related and included events such as a car accident or sexual assault. While the participants observed images of fearful faces (an index of threat), the researchers measured how the neural activity reacted in the amygdala and ACC, a brain region that regulates amygdala function, and how the activity changed over time with repeated viewing. Self-reported PTSD symptoms were assessed at 1, 3, 6, and 12 months after trauma.

    People with a greater amygdala response to fearful faces had greater initial symptom severity, and were more likely to maintain PTSD symptoms over the following year. Additionally, those with a sharper drop in ventral ACC activity over repeated viewing of fearful images, called habituation, showed a poorer recovery trajectory. The findings suggest that amygdala reactivity and ventral ACC habituation to a threat predict the emergence of PTSD symptoms after trauma.

    “The findings also suggest that an over-active amygdala may be one of the causes of PTSD, and that we should try to develop treatments that reduce amygdala reactivity,” said Stevens. For example, the region could be targeted with interventions such as psychotherapy or pharmacological treatments that can be administered shortly after trauma occurs.


  6. Study suggests damage to amydala can make sideways faces more memorable and cause ’emotion blindness’

    June 21, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Bath press release:

    People with damage to a crucial part of the brain fail to recognise facial emotions, but they unexpectedly find faces looking sideways more memorable, researchers have found.

    The findings are more evidence that damage to the amygdala affects how facial recognition and gaze perception work in unpredictable ways. Perception and understanding the facial cues of others is essential in human societies.

    Patients with amygdala damage, which is common in epilepsy for example, struggle in their understanding of social signals as well as in everyday communication, which can lead to problems in their interactions with friends and family, finding life partners, and progressing with their professional careers. They often feel misunderstood which contributes to lower levels of life satisfaction.

    Normally we tend to more readily remember faces showing emotions such as fear or anger than neutral expressions. When trying to predict others’ actions, we decipher their facial expressions and follow their gaze to understand the focus of their attention and eventually of their emotion. This is an important process to understand the implications of the situation for our own well-being — which is known as self-relevance — and to interpret social situations and cues.

    The amygdala is particularly responsible for the processing of emotion and self-relevance. Individuals with damage to the amygdala have been observed to have emotion recognition deficits while keeping the perception of others’ eye gaze direction intact.

    But now researchers from the University of Bath, working with neurosurgeons and psychologists in Warsaw, Poland, have shown that individuals with amygdala damage remembered faces looking to the side more than those looking towards them — in contrast with previous studies.

    However, in line with previous research they didn’t remember emotive faces any better than neutral faces.

    Sylwia Hyniewska from the University of Bath said: “Surprisingly we found that individuals with amygdala damage remembered faces looking to the side more than those looking towards them. This effect was independent of the emotional content of the face. This was unexpected given that all research so far focusing on other populations showed either an interaction effect between emotion and gaze, or an improved memory for faces looking towards the observer.

    “We expected our patients to remember faces better when they were looking at them — presented with the direct gaze. However for some reason patients seem to remember faces looking away better. This means that the interaction between the processing of emotions and gaze is more complex than we thought, and not only emotions but also gaze should be studied further in this specific population to develop treatments improving these patients’ well-being.”

    The research is published in the journal Epilepsy and Behaviour.

    The team showed 40 patients with mesial temporal lobe epilepsy (MTLE) and 20 healthy control patients a series of faces with neutral or emotional expressions. Half were looking straight ahead, and half sideways.

    As expected healthy participants had better recognition of emotional faces. The epilepsy patients did not remember emotional faces any better than neutral ones, but did find patients gazing away more memorable than those looking straight ahead.


  7. Sleep duration impacts treatment response for depressed patients with insomnia

    by Ashley

    From the American Academy of Sleep Medicine press release:

    Preliminary results from a new study show that depressed patients with insomnia who sleep seven or more hours per night are more likely to benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI) and achieve depression remission.

    Results show that when insomnia and depression co-occur, longer pre-treatment objective sleep duration is predictive of remission of both disorders when patients are given a combination of CBTI for insomnia and antidepressant medication for depression.

    “A seven-hour, objective sleep duration of patients prior to entering treatment increased their chances of achieving both depression and insomnia remission by their treatment endpoints,” said lead author and co-principal investigator Jack D. Edinger, PhD, professor in the Section of Sleep Medicine at National Jewish Health in Denver, Colorado.

    The study involved 104 adults, including 75 women, who enrolled in the Treatment of Insomnia and Depression Study and completed one baseline night of polysomnography. Participants received 16 weeks of anti-depressant medication and were randomly assigned either to CBTI or sham insomnia therapy. The Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression (HAMD-17) and Insomnia Severity Index were administered at baseline and then bi-weekly during treatment to determine depression and insomnia remission.

    The study was part of a larger research project for which Edinger was co-investigator along with co-investigators Daniel Buysse, MD, from the University of Pittsburgh; Andy Krystal, MD, from Duke University and the University of California, San Francisco; and lead principal investigator Rachel Manber, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University Medical Center.

    “Our findings highlight the importance of adequate objective sleep in the recovery from depression and insomnia,” said Manber. “The data suggest that short sleep duration may be a risk for refractory depression.”

    The research abstract was published recently in an online supplement of the journal Sleep and will be presented Monday, June 5, in Boston at SLEEP 2017, the 31st Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies LLC (APSS), which is a joint venture of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society.


  8. Smiling during victory could hurt future chances of cooperation

    June 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Southern California press release:

    Smile and the whole world smiles with you? Well, not necessarily.

    In a winning scenario, smiling can decrease your odds of success against the same opponent in subsequent matches, according to new research presented by the USC Institute for Creative Technologies and sponsored by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory.

    People who smiled during victory increased the odds of their opponent acting aggressively to steal a pot of money rather than share it in future gameplay, according to a paper presented in May at the International Conference on Autonomous Agents and Multiagent Systems by USC ICT research assistant Rens Hoegen, USC ICT research programmer Giota Stratou and Jonathan Gratch, director of virtual humans research at USC ICT and a professor of computer science at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

    Conversely, researchers found smiling during a loss tended to help the odds of success in the game going forward.

    The study is in line with previous research published by senior author Gratch, whose main interest lies both in how people express these tells — an unconscious action that betrays deception — and using this data to create artificial intelligence to discern and even express these same emotional cues as a person.

    “We think that emotion is the enemy of reason. But the truth is that emotion is our way of assigning value to things,” said Gratch. “Without it, we’d be faced with limitless choices.”

    Gratch and other ICT researchers hope to imbue virtual humans and even robots with value-based assessment using emotional pattern recognition and reaction to form what might be called intuition or gut level decision-making.

    Grin and bear it, but don’t gloat

    Part of this research is accounting for the kind of emotion-based reasoning that might lead someone to act against their rational self-interest for the short-term satisfaction of “payback” — that is, cutting off their nose to spite their opponent’s smiling face.

    For the AAMAS study, 370 participants played a version of the British television game show Golden Balls, where participants decide to “split” or “steal” a pot of money. If both participants choose “split,” they do just that — split the pot. If one player chooses to split with the other stealing, the latter gets the whole thing. If both choose to steal, neither wins.

    Each participant was paid $30, with participants receiving additional tickets for a $100 lottery generated by their total number of successful “steals” and “splits.”

    As participants played the game against each other on video Skype, reactions were recorded and encoded using emotion-tracking software that captures muscle movements in the face including cheek, lip and chin raises, dimples, and the compression and separation of lips.

    As for the motivations of the players, researchers hypothesize that successful, smiling stealers open themselves to future punishment by the loser, while smiling during such a loss is seen as a gesture toward cooperation and a feeling of mutual success.

    Teaching machines the power of a smile

    In a similar study Gratch co-authored with ICT senior research associate Gale Lucas and colleagues in 2016, participants were shown to often misread honesty when negotiating with each other because reassuring cues like head movement, positive language and even smiling signal honesty, but actually more frequently represent dishonest action and behaviors.

    Gratch has worked closely with the USC Marshall School of Business over the last several years to incorporate virtual humans that can understand these types of nuances into the study of negotiation. The Institute for Creative Technologies also works with agencies like the U.S. Army to use virtual humans in negotiation scenarios.

    From Arthur Samuel’s checkers-playing AI of the 1950s and 1960s to the Joshua computer’s tic-tac-toe game of mutually assured destruction in the 1983 movie WarGames, artificial intelligence has been depicted as especially well-suited to beating people at their own, somewhat linear and strategy-based games.

    IBM’s Deep Blue also famously and successfully battled chess master Garry Kasparov in the 1990s, and the computer system Watson did the same with its human opponents on Jeopardy! in 2011.

    In the last year alone, different AIs have beaten top players in both the ancient game of Go and professional poker, the latter relying on bluffing, tells and accurate emotional readings of the opponent.


  9. Brain imaging reveals neural roots of caring

    June 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Cell Press press release:

    When others suffer, we humans empathize. Our feelings of empathy take different forms, such as distress when we imagine and internalize someone’s pain and compassion as we sympathize with their condition. These different feelings involve distinct patterns of brain activity, according to a study in Neuron published June 8. Feelings of empathy may seem subtle and personal, but this study, which used stories of human hardship to inspire feelings of empathic care and distress, found that the brain patterns associated with these feelings are consistent and predictable across individuals.

    “Feelings of empathy are virtues we want to cultivate personally and in society,” says first author Yoni Ashar (@YoniAshar), a graduate student in the lab of Tor D. Wager (@torwager), professor of neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “Understanding these emotions could open the doors to increasing empathy and compassion in personal relationships and on a broader societal level.”

    Ashar has firsthand experience with empathic distress at home. When his toddlers start crying and fussing, sometimes he gets upset, too. “I’m mirroring them,” he says. “But I don’t need to meet them where they are. I can show compassion, or empathic care, instead.”

    To study empathy, the researchers recruited 66 adults to sit in a brain scanner while listening to 24 true short stories of human distress. For instance, in one story, a young drug addict finds help at a boarding school and later is able to help others recover from addiction. Previous studies of empathy examined brain activity in response to static images flashed on a screen. “We took a naturalistic experimental approach that more closely resembles how we encounter the suffering of others in our daily lives,” says Ashar.

    Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers recorded brain activity patterns as subjects listened to the stories. The subjects heard the stories a second time outside the scanner, this time rating their feelings of distress and care over time as the narratives unfolded. The researchers then mapped the feelings to the patterns.

    Brain activity associated with empathy was not rooted in one part of the brain, the way sensory input tends to be processed. Rather, it was spread across the brain and involved multiple brain regions. “The brain is not a modular system where there’s a region that manages empathy,” says Wager. “It’s a distributed process.”

    Patterns associated with empathic care, for instance, overlapped with systems in the brain associated with value and reward, such as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the medial orbitofrontal cortex. In contrast, patterns of empathic distress overlapped with systems in the brain known for mirroring, such as the premotor cortex and the primary and secondary somatosensory cortices, which help an individual simulate or imagine what another person is feeling or thinking.

    The patterns were surprisingly consistent from person to person, to the extent that the researchers could predict, based on brain activity, the feelings of an individual who had never been scanned before. “There is a personal element to when a person might feel empathic care or distress, but when you’re feeling them, you’re activating similar brain regions and brain systems as someone else might,” says Ashar.

    In addition to performing brain scans, the researchers asked a separate group of 200 adults to listen to the stories and provide moment-by-moment ratings of their feelings, this time rating more basic feelings of sadness, disgust, anger, fear, negativity, positivity, and happiness. By mapping ratings of empathy to these ratings of more basic feelings, the researchers found that empathic care was associated with both happy and sad feelings, while empathic distress encompasses generally negative feelings of sadness, anger, fear, and disgust. “This suggests that empathic care, or compassion, reflects a blend of both warmth and distress,” says Ashar.

    Empathic care is thought to inspire helpful behaviors, but empathic distress is thought by some to be a deterrent, initiating a desire to withdraw or turn away. To explore the influence of these different types of empathy on behavior, the study also asked subjects who underwent brain scans to donate portions of their payment for participation in the study. The study found that both forms of empathy increased the likelihood of charitable donations.

    Empathic distress may influence giving, but it is also associated with negative emotions and burnout in caregivers and nurses. So Wager and colleagues are now investigating a 4-week meditation program designed to teach participants to empathize with others in ways that don’t increase distress but do increase care.


  10. Amygdala activity predicts posttraumatic stress disorder

    by Ashley

    From the Elsevier press release:

    Neuroimaging measures of emotional brain function after acute trauma may help predict whether a person will develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to a new study in Biological Psychiatry. Led by senior author Dr. Kerry Ressler of Emory University in Georgia and Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, the study reports an association between the activity of two key brain regions involved in emotional regulation, the amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), shortly after trauma and symptoms of PTSD that emerged within the following year.

    “This study introduces a new potential biomarker of PTSD, highlighting new roles for neuroimaging in PTSD research,” said Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry. The identification of a PTSD biomarker has exciting implications for limiting or preventing symptoms of the disorder.

    “The search for such early biological markers of poor recovery is very important, because it will allow us to find the people who are most at risk right after a trauma, and intervene early, before the onset of disorders such as PTSD or depression,” said first author Dr. Jennifer Stevens, of Emory University.

    In the study, Stevens and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure brain activity of 31 people approximately one month after a traumatic incident. The trauma was non-military related and included events such as a car accident or sexual assault. While the participants observed images of fearful faces (an index of threat), the researchers measured how the neural activity reacted in the amygdala and ACC, a brain region that regulates amygdala function, and how the activity changed over time with repeated viewing. Self-reported PTSD symptoms were assessed at 1, 3, 6, and 12 months after trauma.

    People with a greater amygdala response to fearful faces had greater initial symptom severity, and were more likely to maintain PTSD symptoms over the following year. Additionally, those with a sharper drop in ventral ACC activity over repeated viewing of fearful images, called habituation, showed a poorer recovery trajectory. The findings suggest that amygdala reactivity and ventral ACC habituation to a threat predict the emergence of PTSD symptoms after trauma.

    “The findings also suggest that an over-active amygdala may be one of the causes of PTSD, and that we should try to develop treatments that reduce amygdala reactivity,” said Stevens. For example, the region could be targeted with interventions such as psychotherapy or pharmacological treatments that can be administered shortly after trauma occurs.