1. Study suggests there are genes that up insomnia risk

    June 25, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam press release:

    An international team of researchers has found, for the first time, seven risk genes for insomnia. With this finding the researchers have taken an important step towards the unravelling of the biological mechanisms that cause insomnia. In addition, the finding proves that insomnia is not, as is often claimed, a purely psychological condition. Today, Nature Genetics publishes the results of this research.

    Insomnia is probably the most common health complaint. Even after treatment, poor sleep remains a persistent vulnerability for many people. By having determined the risk genes, professors Danielle Posthuma (VU and VUmc) and Eus Van Someren (Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience, VU and VUmc), the lead researchers of this international project, have come closer to unravelling the biological mechanisms that cause the predisposition for insomnia.

    Hope and recognition for insomniacs

    Professor Van Someren, specialized in sleep and insomnia, believes that the findings are the start of a path towards an understanding of insomnia at the level of communication within and between neurons, and thus towards finding new ways of treatment.

    He also hopes that the findings will help with the recognition of insomnia. “As compared to the severity, prevalence and risks of insomnia, only few studies targeted its causes. Insomnia is all too often dismissed as being ‘all in your head’. Our research brings a new perspective. Insomnia is also in the genes.”

    In a sample of 113,006 individuals, the researchers found 7 genes for insomnia. These genes play a role in the regulation of transcription, the process where DNA is read in order to make an RNA copy of it, and exocytosis, the release of molecules by cells in order to communicate with their environment. One of the identified genes, MEIS1, has previously been related to two other sleep disorders: Periodic Limb Movements of Sleep (PLMS) and Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS). By collaborating with Konrad Oexle and colleagues from the Institute of Neurogenomics at the Helmholtz Zentrum, München, Germany, the researchers could conclude that the genetic variants in the gene seem to contribute to all three disorders. Strikingly, PLMS and RLS are characterized by restless movement and sensation, respectively, whereas insomnia is characterized mainly by a restless stream of consciousness.

    Genetic overlap with other characteristics

    The researchers also found a strong genetic overlap with other traits, such as anxiety disorders, depression and neuroticism, and low subjective wellbeing. “This is an interesting finding, because these characteristics tend to go hand in hand with insomnia. We now know that this is partly due to the shared genetic basis,” says neuroscientist Anke Hammerschlag (VU), PhD student and first author of the study.

    Different genes for men and women

    The researchers also studied whether the same genetic variants were important for men and women. “Part of the genetic variants turned out to be different. This suggests that, for some part, different biological mechanisms may lead to insomnia in men and women,” says professor Posthuma. “We also found a difference between men and women in terms of prevalence: in the sample we studied, including mainly people older than fifty years, 33% of the women reported to suffer from insomnia. For men this was 24%.”

    The risk genes could be tracked down in cohorts with the DNA and diagnoses of many thousands of people. The UK Biobank — a large cohort from England that has DNA available — did not have information as such about the diagnosis of insomnia, but they had asked their participants whether they found it difficult to fall asleep or to have an uninterrupted sleep. By making good use of information from slaapregister.nl (the Dutch Sleep Registry), the UK Biobank was able, for the first time, to determine which of them met the insomnia profile. Linking the knowledge from these two cohorts is what made the difference.


  2. Study suggests meditation as a possible alternative to traditional pain medication

    by Ashley

    From the Leeds Beckett University press release:

    Just ten minutes of mindfulness meditation could be used as an alternative to painkillers, according to research by Leeds Beckett University.

    Results of the study suggest that a single ten-minute mindfulness meditation session administered by a novice therapist can improve pain tolerance, pain threshold and decrease anxiety towards pain.

    The research was carried out by the School of Clinical and Applied Sciences at Leeds Beckett and used a group of 24 healthy university-aged students (12 men and 12 women). They were randomly split into a control group and a meditation group.

    A cold-pressor task was used to cause pain to the participants; they put their hand in warm water for two minutes before removing it and placing it immediately into ice water for as long as they could manage and only removed it when the pain became too much and could no longer be tolerated. They then either sat quietly for ten minutes (control group) or meditated for ten minutes before repeating the cold-pressor task.

    Five groups of data were then collected; anxiety towards pain, pain threshold, pain tolerance, pain intensity and pain unpleasantness. Pre-intervention the figures didn’t differ greatly between the control and meditation groups but following the ten-minute meditation session, the participants from the meditation group saw a significant decrease in anxiety towards pain and a significant increase in pain threshold and pain tolerance.

    Speaking about the results of the study, Dr Osama Tashani, Senior Research Fellow in Pain Studies, said: “While further research is needed to explore this in a more clinical setting on chronic pain patients, these results do show that a brief mindfulness meditation intervention can be of benefit in pain relief. The ease of application and cost effectiveness of the mindfulness meditation may also make it a viable addition to the arsenal of therapies for pain management.

    “The mindfulness mediation was led by a researcher who was a novice; so in theory clinicians could administer this with little training needed. It’s based on traditional Buddhist teachings which focuses attention and awareness on your breathing.”


  3. Spouses’ daily responses to partners’ pain linked with later functioning

    by Ashley

    From the Association for Psychological Science press release:

    The dynamics of spouses’ daily interactions may influence whether an ill partner’s physical functioning improves over time, according to new findings published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

    “We found that osteoarthritis patients whose spouses were more empathically responsive in daily interactions fared better in terms of their physical function than patients whose spouses were less responsive,” says Ohio State researcher Stephanie J. Wilson, lead author on the study who completed the work as part of her dissertation at Penn State. “Their performance on an objective test improved over time: They were better able to stand from a chair unassisted, maintained better balance, and could walk more quickly.”

    “Other research suggests that people who perform better on these tasks also are more likely to remain independent and to live longer,” Wilson explains. “Thus, our findings have direct clinical implications for chronic pain patients.”

    The idea that our social environment affects our health in incremental ways – through the ups and downs of everyday life – forms the basis of various conceptual frameworks, but Wilson and Penn State professors Lynn M. Martire and Martin J. Sliwinski noted that few studies had actually managed to capture these daily dynamics.

    To address this gap in the literature, senior researcher and thesis adviser Lynn Martire designed a novel study and collected data combining daily diary assessments taken over a short term with physical function measurements taken over longer intervals. Specifically, the team examined the association between spouses’ daily responsiveness to their partners with osteoarthritis and changes in the partners’ physical function over the following 18 months.

    The researchers hypothesized that the degree to which spouses showed empathic, solicitous, and punishing responses in response to their partners’ pain would be associated with the partners’ physical well-being over time. Specifically, partners whose spouses provided emotional support, affection, and attention (empathic behaviors) would show improvement in functioning, while those whose spouses took over tasks and encouraged rest (solicitous behaviors) and those whose spouses acted frustrated and appeared irritated (punishing behaviors) would show diminished functioning over time.

    The study included a total of 152 osteoarthritis patients, all of whom were over 50 years old and married or living with a partner. Participants completed short surveys in the evening every day over the 22-day daily diary period. Spouses rated the degree to which their partners had expressed feeling pain; patients rated the degree to which spouses responded to their pain expression with a variety of behaviors. The researchers measured the patients’ physical function — including balance, gait, speed, and ability to rise from a chair — at the beginning of the study, 6 months later, and 18 months later.

    The results showed that patients with spouses who responded to their expressions of pain with empathic behaviors on a daily basis showed improved physical function 6 and 18 months later relative to patients with less empathic spouses. However, the data did not indicate that either solicitous responses or punishing responses were linked with changes in patients’ physical function.

    “Based on previous work, we expected that patients whose spouses were more solicitously responsive — that is, provided more instrumental help such as retrieving medication and taking over chores — would decline in their physical function over time, but this did not hold,” explains Wilson.

    The findings are novel in that they specifically link patterns in couples’ day-to-day interactions to objective clinical measures, capturing the dynamic nature of how spouses influence each other.

    And the results have implications for a particularly broad audience: “One in five adults is diagnosed with some kind of persistent pain in their lives, and osteoarthritis is among the most common conditions that emerge as we get older,” Wilson notes. “It will be important for future studies to examine whether the empathic responsiveness pattern also bodes well for people with other chronic conditions such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease.”


  4. Irregular sleeping patterns linked to poorer academic performance in college students

    June 24, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Brigham and Women’s Hospital press release:

    Previous research has analyzed variations in sleep patterns including number of hours slept, quality of sleep, and sleep-wake times, and found an association with cognitive impairments, health and performance; however, few studies have considered or accurately quantified the effects of regular sleep patterns. In a new study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, researchers objectively measured sleep and circadian rhythms, and the association to academic performance in college students, finding that irregular patterns of sleep and wakefulness correlated with lower grade point average, delayed sleep/wake timing, and delayed release of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin. The results are published in Scientific Reports on June 12, 2017.

    Researchers studied 61 full-time undergraduates from Harvard College for 30 days using sleep diaries. They quantified sleep regularity using the sleep regularity index (SRI), a newly devised metric. Researchers examined the relationship between the SRI, sleep duration, distribution of sleep across the day, and academic performance during one semester.

    “Our results indicate that going to sleep and waking up at approximately the same time is as important as the number of hours one sleeps,” stated Andrew J. K. Phillips, PhD, biophysicist at the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and lead author on the paper. “Sleep regularity is a potentially important and modifiable factor independent from sleep duration,” Phillips said.

    Students with more regular sleep patterns had better school grades on average. Researchers found no significant difference in average sleep duration between most students with irregular sleep patterns and most regular sleepers.

    “We found that the body clock was shifted nearly three hours later in students with irregular schedules as compared to those who slept at more consistent times each night, stated Charles A. Czeisler, PhD, MD, Director of the Sleep Health Institute at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and senior author on the paper. “For the students whose sleep and wake times were inconsistent, classes and exams that were scheduled for 9 a.m. were therefore occurring at 6am according to their body clock, at a time when performance is impaired. Ironically, they didn’t save any time because in the end they slept just as much as those on a more regular schedule.”

    By measuring the timing of melatonin release at sleep onset, the researchers were able to assess the timing of circadian rhythms. On average, melatonin was released 2.6 hours later in students with the most irregular sleep patterns, compared to students with more regular sleep patterns.

    “Using a mathematical model of the circadian clock, we were able to demonstrate that the difference in circadian timing between students with the most irregular sleep patterns and students with regular sleep patterns was consistent with their different patterns of daily light exposure,” stated Phillips. “In particular, regular sleepers got significantly higher light levels during the daytime, and significantly lower light levels at night than irregular sleepers who slept more during daytime hours and less during nighttime hours.”

    Researchers note that the circadian clock takes time to adjust to schedule changes, and is highly sensitive to patterns of light exposure. Irregular sleepers, who frequently changed the pattern of when they slept and consequently their pattern of light-dark exposure, experienced misalignment between the circadian system and the sleep-wake cycle.

    Researchers conclude that light based interventions, including increased exposure to daytime light and less exposure to electronic light-emitting devices before bedtime, may be effective in improving sleep regularity.


  5. Drinking during adolescence can alter brain cell nerve growth

    by Ashley

    From the Research Society on Alcoholism press release:

    The developmental period from adolescence to adulthood is accompanied by a greater vulnerability to addictions — including alcohol use disorders — than is seen in other periods of life. This increased risk may be due to genetic predisposition, poor impulse control, or heightened sensitivity of the still-developing brain to drug-related toxicity. This report describes a study in mice of the neurobehavioral impact of chronic, intermittent alcohol-vapor exposure during adolescence, in an effort to model periodic heavy drinking and compare it with similar drinking behavior during adulthood.

    Researchers conducted two parallel tests in adult male mice following their exposure to alcohol vapors during adolescence (4-6 weeks old) or adulthood (8-10 weeks old). First, they tested the adult mice for changes in the density and structure of dendritic spines (nerve endings) in the infralimbic cortex (IL), prelimbic cortex (PL) and basolateral amygdala (BLA) regions of the brain. Second, they tested the adult mice for alcohol drinking, sensitivity to alcohol intoxication, blood-alcohol clearance, and measures of response to food reward.

    Chronic exposure to alcohol vapors during adolescence produced significant, persistent, and strong regional-specific alterations in neuronal dendritic spine density in IL and BLA neurons, accompanied by a limited set of behavioral alterations. Comparable effects were not seen in the mice exposed to alcohol only during adulthood. Together, these data demonstrate that specific key brain circuits are vulnerable to alcohol’s effects during adolescence, with lasting and potentially detrimental consequences for behavior.


  6. Dining hall intervention helped college students choose healthier options

    June 22, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Elsevier press release:

    As students transition from high school to college, they enter a critical period for weight gain. Although eating in a buffet-style dining hall offers freedom and flexibility in food choice, many students cite the abundance of food available as a cause for weight gain. As most college students’ diets are low in fruits and vegetables and high in calories, sugar, fat, and sodium, researchers from the University of Toronto and Memorial University of Newfoundland created a cross-sectional study to examine whether messaging encouraging fruit, vegetable, and water intake could influence the habits of university students.

    “Our labeling, focused on beverages and fruits and vegetables, may have been useful to decrease students’ consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and increase consumption of water, fruits, and vegetables,” said lead author Mary Scourboutakos, PhD, post-doctoral researcher at the University of Toronto.

    The study was conducted in a dining center on the University of Toronto campus that offered a wide variety of entrees and soups, featured a salad and fruit bar, and had sides, desserts, and 19 beverage options available daily. The first part of the intervention encouraged students to choose water as their beverage by using physical activity calorie equivalent (PACE) labeling, which illustrated the minutes of jogging required to burn the calories in the different beverages offered. In the second part of the intervention, posters were hung in strategically selected locations to promote fruit and vegetable consumption. The posters were placed in attention-grabbing places to maximize exposure to the intervention.

    Data were collected in-person on six events before, and six events after the intervention; inventory data were used as a secondary source. Between 368 and 510 students visited the dining hall for each dinner when data were collected, filling 8,570 beverages cups and taking 3,668 and 954 trips to the salad bar and fruit bar, respectively. After the interventions, sugar-sweetened beverage consumption was reduced and fruit and vegetable intake was increased.

    “We found a significant increase in students drinking water before versus after the intervention, with 43% choosing water before and 54% doing so after,” Scourboutakos said. “Likewise, trips to the fruit bar increased by six percent and trips to the salad bar increased by 12%.”

    These results from a university dining hall setting are promising, particularly regarding the PACE labeling. Interventions to promote increased fruit, vegetable, and water consumption should be repeated in different settings to determine if similarly successful results can be attained.


  7. Culprit hidden in plain sight in Alzheimer disease development

    June 21, 2017 by Ashley

    From the IOS Press press release:

    A new study by researchers at the University of Montana, Universidad del Valle de México, Instituto Nacional de Pediatría, Boise State, and Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, heightens concerns over the detrimental short- and long-term impact of airborne iron-rich strongly magnetic combustion-derived nanoparticles (CDNPs) present in young urbanites’ brains. Using transmission electron microscopy, the researchers documented by abundant combustion nanoparticles in neurons, glial cells, choroid plexus, and neurovascular units of Mexico City children, teens and young adults chronically exposed to concentrations above the US-EPA standards for fine particulate matter. Residents in Mexico City are exposed from conception to harmful neurotoxic air pollutants. These findings are published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

    The detrimental impact of these tiny particles getting into the brain through the nasal and olfactory epithelium, the lungs and the gastrointestinal system is quickly recognized by extensive alterations in critical neuronal organelles including mitochondria, as well as axons and dendrites. Since these nanoparticles are in close contact with neurofilaments, glial fibers and chromatin, the researchers are very concerned about their potential for altering microtubule dynamics, accumulation and aggregation of unfolded proteins, mitochondrial dysfunction, altered calcium homeostasis and insulin signaling, and epigenetic changes.

    Mexico City children, teens and young adults have shown key markers of Alzheimer’s disease (AD): hyperphosphorylated tau and amyloid plaques along with significant brain and intrathecal neuroinflammation, dysregulated immune responses, breakdown of epithelial and endothelial barriers, extensive damage to the neurovascular unit, and brain accumulation of metals associated with combustion. Moreover, these seemingly healthy young people have olfaction deficits, dysregulation of feeding hormones, deficiencies in attention and short-term memory, and below-average scores in Verbal and Full Scale IQ compared to age, gender, and socioeconomic status-matched low air pollution residents. The cognitive problem is particularly serious for overweight female teens carrying an allele of the apolipoprotein E (APOE) ?4, the most prevalent genetic risk factor for AD.

    “In the context of serious continuous exposures to high concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) and ozone, our current electron microscopy findings and the extensive literature associating air pollutants with brain damage, the issue of who is at risk of neurodegeneration at an early age should be an urgent public health concern,” said Dr. Lilian Calderon-Garcidue?as. “The effects of poverty, urban violence and urban stress on impaired cognitive skills are also very important for the developing brain and can’t be ignored. We know gender, BMI, and APOE influence children’s cognitive responses to air pollution.”

    According to the researchers, the problem of having combustion-derived nanoparticles in children’s brains — developing brains — is very serious. These particles are ubiquitous and present in high concentrations in children as young as 3 years old. The particles contain transition neurotoxic metals and they are certainly causing extensive brain damage in key organelles. “The predominant combustion particles in young brains have properties that enable them to cause oxidative damage because these nanoparticles are capable of crossing all barriers. No barrier is spared,” Dr. Calderón-Garcidue?as emphasized.

    Angélica González-Maciel added, “People with children and teens struggling in school and facing a significant increase of violence in school, streets, parks, and public transportation are deeply concerned about the impact these particles have on children’s behavioral patterns and academic performance and parents question what they can do to protect their families.”

    All involved researchers agreed that in spite of the driving restrictions policies [that are clearly ineffective (Davis LW. Sci Rep 7: 41652, 2017)], millions of Mexico City residents continue to be exposed to very unhealthy concentrations of both PM 2.5 and ozone, both known risk factors for AD.

    “Our results,” said Dr. Calderón-Garcidue?as, “highlight the urgent need for significantly decreasing the concentrations of fine particulate matter and ozone in Mexico City and the adjacent polluted states. Multidisciplinary intervention strategies could provide paths for prevention or amelioration of air pollution targeted cognitive deficits and possible long-term AD progression.”

    The combined effects of combustion-derived nanoparticles, residency in a highly-polluted city, poor nutrition, obesity, metabolic syndrome, urban stress, lower brain and cognitive reserves, and APOE ?4 could lead to an acceleration of neurodegenerative changes among precarious young brains.

    The authors concluded: highly oxidative, combustion nanoparticles entering young developing brains — the culprit hidden in plain sight in Alzheimer’s disease development — constitute a very serious public health issue, with grave social and economic consequences.

    Efforts should also be aimed to identify and neuroprotect high risk young populations. Unfortunately, to date that is not happening.


  8. Study suggests friendships may have bigger effect than family relationships

    June 19, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Michigan State University press release:

    The power of friendship gets stronger with age and may even be more important than family relationships, indicates new research by a Michigan State University scholar.

    In a pair of studies involving nearly 280,000 people, William Chopik found that friendships become increasingly important to one’s happiness and health across the lifespan. Not only that, but in older adults, friendships are actually a stronger predictor of health and happiness than relationships with family members.

    “Friendships become even more important as we age,” said Chopik, assistant professor of psychology. “Keeping a few really good friends around can make a world of difference for our health and well-being. So it’s smart to invest in the friendships that make you happiest.”

    For the first study, Chopik analyzed survey information about relationships and self-rated health and happiness from 271,053 participants of all ages from nearly 100 countries. The second study looked at data from a separate survey about relationship support/strain and chronic illness from 7,481 older adults in the United States.

    According to the first study, both family and friend relationships were linked to better health and happiness overall, but only friendships became a stronger predictor of health and happiness at advanced ages.

    The second study also showed that friendships were very influential – when friends were the source of strain, participants reported more chronic illnesses; when friends were the source of support, participants were happier.

    Chopik said that may be because of the optional nature of relationships – that over time, we keep the friends we like and make us feel good and discard the rest. Friends also can provide a source of support for people who don’t have spouses or for those who don’t lean on family in times of need. Friends can also help prevent loneliness in older adults who may experience bereavement and often rediscover their social lives after they retire.

    Family relationships are often enjoyable too, Chopik said, but sometimes they involve serious, negative and monotonous interactions.

    “There are now a few studies starting to show just how important friendships can be for older adults. Summaries of these studies show that friendships predict day-to-day happiness more and ultimately how long we’ll live, more so than spousal and family relationships,” he said.

    Friendships often take a “back seat” in relationships research, Chopik added, which is strange, especially considering that they might be more influential for our happiness and health than other relationships.

    “Friendships help us stave off loneliness but are often harder to maintain across the lifespan,” he said. “If a friendship has survived the test of time, you know it must be a good one – a person you turn to for help and advice often and a person you wanted in your life.”

    The study appears online in the journal Personal Relationships.


  9. Study links social jet lag to worse mood, poorer health and heart disease

    June 18, 2017 by Ashley

    From the American Academy of Sleep Medicine press release:

    Preliminary results of a new study show that social jet lag has emerged as an important circadian marker for health outcomes.

    Results show that social jet lag, which occurs when you go to bed and wake up later on weekends than during the week, is associated with poorer health, worse mood, and increased sleepiness and fatigue. Each hour of social jet lag also is associated with an 11-percent increase in the likelihood of heart disease. These effects are independent of sleep duration and insomnia symptoms, which are related to both social jet lag and health.

    “These results indicate that sleep regularity, beyond sleep duration alone, plays a significant role in our health,” said lead author Sierra B. Forbush, an undergraduate research assistant in the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “This suggests that a regular sleep schedule may be an effective, relatively simple, and inexpensive preventative treatment for heart disease as well as many other health problems.”

    The research team was led by senior author Michael A. Grandner, PhD, MTR, director of the Sleep and Health Research Program. They utilized data from the community-based Sleep and Healthy Activity, Diet, Environment, and Socialization (SHADES) study, analyzing survey responses from 984 adults between the ages of 22 and 60 years.

    Social jet lag was assessed using the Sleep Timing Questionnaire and was calculated by subtracting weekday from weekend sleep midpoint. Overall health was self-reported using a standardized scale, and survey questions also assessed sleep duration, insomnia, cardiovascular disease, fatigue, and sleepiness.

    The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that adults should sleep 7 or more hours per night on a regular basis to promote optimal health. In addition to adequate duration, healthy sleep requires good quality, appropriate timing and regularity.


  10. Study suggests sleep regularity is important for happiness and well-being of college students

    June 17, 2017 by Ashley

    From the American Academy of Sleep Medicine press release:

    Preliminary results from the “SNAPSHOT study,” an NIH-funded collaborative research project between the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and MIT Media Lab Affective Computing Group, suggest that keeping a regular sleep pattern contributes to the happiness and well-being of college students.

    Results show that higher sleep regularity was significantly related to higher morning and evening happiness, healthiness and calmness during the week. Transitioning from an irregular weekly sleep pattern to a regular pattern also was associated with improved well-being, both during the week of regular sleep and on the day following it.

    “We found that week-long irregular sleep schedules are significantly associated with lower self-reported morning and evening happiness, healthiness, and calmness during the week even after controlling for weekly average sleep duration,” said lead author Akane Sano, PhD, research scientist in the Media Lab Affective Computing Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

    The analysis involved 204 college students between the ages of 18 and 25 years who participated in a 30-day field study. Sleep timing and duration were monitored using actigraphy, along with daily morning and evening Internet-based diaries. Self-reports of well-being (happiness, healthiness, and calmness) were collected using daily diaries.

    “Irregular sleep-wake schedules are common in our modern society,” said Sano. “Our results indicate the importance of sleep regularity, in addition to sleep duration, and that regular sleep is associated with improved well-being.”

    According to the authors, this study underlines the necessity of considering sleep regularity as an important factor for understanding self-reported well-being.

    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.