1. Study suggests veterans with PTSD have increased ‘fight or flight’ response

    May 24, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Physiological Society press release:

    Young veterans with combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have an increased ‘fight or flight’ response during mental stress, according to new findings published this week in the Journal of Physiology.

    The team at Emory University School of Medicine, led by Dr Jeanie Park, believe that this contributes to the increased risk of high blood pressure and heart disease in PTSD patients.

    PTSD is prevalent in both military and civilian populations. The lifetime prevalence of PTSD in US adults is 7.8% and around 14% in post-9/11 veterans. PTSD patients are known to have a higher risk for developing high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

    The researchers also found that veterans with PTSD had higher adrenaline levels and less control of their heart rate in response to blood pressure changes. While previous studies have suggested that the sympathetic nervous system- the ‘fight or flight’ response- of veterans is overactive, this study was the first to measure this increased activity directly and provide a potential mechanism behind this response.

    Dr Park and her team took these measurements while the participants experienced two types of mental stress. First-person war images and sounds shown through virtual reality goggles recreated mental stress related to PTSD. Mental arithmetic elicited mental stress un-related to PTSD.

    They studied the physiology of post-9/11 veterans, 14 of whom had PTSD and 14 who did not. They measured blood pressure, performed an electrocardiogram (EKG), and recorded sympathetic nerve activity directly in real-time using electrodes placed inside a large nerve. This technique is called microneurography and is considered the gold-standard method for assessing sympathetic nervous system activity in humans.

    Commenting on the study, Dr Park said: ‘To protect patients against high blood pressure and heart disease, we need to first understand how their physiology malfunctions. We can then identify potential treatments.’

    ‘This study looked specifically at veterans with combat-related PTSD, so the findings do not necessarily apply to non-veterans with PTSD, nor to patients with non-combat-related PTSD,’ she added.


  2. Study suggests exercise can help with boosting mood

    May 23, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Connecticut press release:

    You don’t have to spend hours at the gym or work up a dripping sweat to improve your mood and feel better about yourself, researchers at the University of Connecticut say in a new study.

    If you lead a sedentary lifestyle — spending large parts of your day sitting at home or at work — simply getting out of your chair and moving around can reduce depression and lift your spirits.

    “We hope this research helps people realize the important public health message that simply going from doing no physical activity to performing some physical activity can improve their subjective well-being,” says Gregory Panza, a graduate student in UConn’s Department of Kinesiology and the study’s lead author.

    “What is even more promising for the physically inactive person is that they do not need to exercise vigorously to see these improvements,” Panza continues. “Instead, our results indicate you will get the best ‘bang for your buck’ with light or moderate intensity physical activity.”

    For those keeping score, light physical activity is the equivalent of taking a leisurely walk around the mall with no noticeable increase in breathing, heart rate, or sweating, says Distinguished Kinesiology Professor Linda Pescatello, senior researcher on the project. Moderate intensity activity is equivalent to walking a 15-20-minute mile with an increase in breathing, heart rate, and sweating, yet still being able to carry on a conversation. Vigorous activity is equivalent to a very brisk walk or jogging a 13-minute mile with a very noticeable increase in breathing, heart rate, and sweating to the point of being unable to maintain a conversation.

    The study looked at 419 generally healthy middle-aged adults who wore accelerometers on their hips to track physical activity over four days. Participants also completed a series of questionnaires asking them to describe their daily exercise habits, psychological well-being, depression level, pain severity, and extent to which pain interfered with their daily activities.

    Here’s what the researchers learned:

    • People who reported higher levels of sedentary behavior also reported lower levels of subjective well-being, meaning those who sat around a lot were the least happiest. Subjective well-being is defined as the positive and negative evaluations that people make of their own lives. These results confirmed previous studies.
    • In general, physical activity improved people’s sense of well-being. Yet, different intensities of physical activity were more beneficial to some people than others. For instance, people who participated in light-intensity physical activity reported higher levels of psychological well-being and lower levels of depression. People who participated in moderate-intensity physical activity reported higher levels of psychological well-being and lower levels of pain severity.
    • People who led sedentary lives and engaged in light or moderate physical activity showed the greatest improvement in overall sense of well-being. “The ‘more is better’ mindset may not be true when it comes to physical activity intensity and subjective well-being,” says Panza. “In fact, an ‘anything is better’ attitude may be more appropriate if your goal is a higher level of subjective well-being.”
    • While light and moderate physical activity clearly made some people feel better about themselves, when it came to vigorous activity, the results were neutral. There was no positive or negative association found between high intensity physical activity and subjective well-being.

    The last finding is actually good news for folks who enjoy hard, calorie-burning workouts, as it doesn’t support a widely reported recent study that found high intensity workouts significantly lowered some people’s sense of well-being.

    “Recent studies had suggested a slightly unsettling link between vigorous activity and subjective well-being,” says Beth Taylor, associate professor of kinesiology and another member of the research team. “We did not find this in the current study, which is reassuring to individuals who enjoy vigorous activity and may be worried about negative effects.”

    Many previous studies have attempted to identify the best exercise regimen to improve people’s sense of well-being. Yet no clear consensus has emerged. Some studies say moderate or vigorous activity is best. Others say low intensity exercise is better. The differences, the UConn researchers say, may be due to the way the studies were designed and possible limitations in how people’s well-being and levels of physical activity were measured.

    The UConn study is believed to be the first of its kind to use both objective (accelerometers) and subjective (questionnaires) measurements within a single group to examine the relationship between physical activity intensity and well-being.

    Yet the UConn research also has its limits, Panza says.

    All of the individuals who participated in the UConn study had a generally positive sense of well-being going into the project and were generally physically active. So their answers in the questionnaires need to be framed in that context. Whether the same results would hold true for people with lower subjective well-being or lower levels of physical activity is unknown, Panza says.

    Also, the conclusions formed in the UConn study are based on information gathered at a single point in time. A longitudinal study that tracks people’s feelings and physical activity over time would go a long way toward helping determine what exercise regimen might be best for different populations, Panza said.

    “If it doesn’t make us feel good, we don’t want to do it,” says Taylor. “Establishing the link between different types, doses, and intensities of physical activity on well-being is a very important step in encouraging more people to exercise.”

    The study was published in the Journal of Health Psychology in February.


  3. Severe mental illness linked to much higher risk for cardiovascular disease

    by Ashley

    From the King’s College London press release:

    An international study of more than 3.2 million people with severe mental illness reveals a substantially increased risk for developing cardiovascular disease compared to the general population.

    Led by King’s College London, the research shows that people with severe mental illness (SMI), including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, have a 53 per cent higher risk for having cardiovascular disease than healthy controls, with a 78 per cent higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease over the longer term. Their risk of dying from the disease was also 85 per cent higher than people of a similar age in the general population.

    Published online in World Psychiatry, these findings highlight the importance of regularly screening SMI patients for cardiovascular risk and also point towards a number of potentially modifiable risk factors.

    It is well documented that people with SMI die 10 to 15 years earlier than the general population, largely due to cardiovascular disease, including heart disease, heart attack and stroke.

    This new study is the largest ever meta-analysis of SMI and cardiovascular disease, including over 3.2 million patients and more than 113 million people from the general population. The researchers examined 92 studies across four continents and 16 different countries, including the US, UK, France, Australia and Sweden.10 per cent of people with SMI had cardiovascular disease, with rates slightly higher in schizophrenia (11.8 per cent) and depression (11.7 per cent) than bipolar disorder (8.4 per cent), with a substantially increased risk for developing cardiovascular disease over time.

    The researchers identified some important factors which increase risk for cardiovascular disease, including antipsychotic use and higher body mass index. Based on these results, it is crucial that clinicians where possible choose antipsychotics with lower side effects related to weight gain, high blood pressure and glucose abnormalities.

    Clinicians should also screen for emerging and existing cardiovascular diseases, as well as proactively managing risk factors such as weight and body mass index, according to the study authors.

    Dr Brendon Stubbs from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London, said: ‘These findings are a stark reminder that people with SMI are being left behind, at a time when the health of the general population as a whole appears to be benefitting from public health initiatives to reduce the burden of cardiovascular disease. We found that the prevalence of cardiovascular disease in people with severe mental illness (SMI) was higher in more recent studies, which suggests that our efforts so far have been unsuccessful in reducing the health gap between people with SMI and the general population.

    ‘People with SMI die much earlier than those without these disorders, yet the majority of these premature deaths may be preventable with care that prioritises lifestyle changes, such as exercise, better nutrition and stopping smoking, along with cautious prescribing of antipsychotics.’


  4. Study examines extent of neuronal loss in the brain during MS

    May 22, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Queen Mary University of London press release:

    A study by researchers from Queen Mary University of London establishes for the first time the extent of neuronal loss in the brain of a person with MS over their life, and finds that demyelination may not be as good an indicator of disease progression as previously thought.

    By dissecting and analysing brains from nine people with MS and seven healthy controls using gold standard techniques, they found that the mean number of neurons was 14.9 billion in MS versus 24.4 billion in controls — a 39% difference.

    The density of neurons in MS was smaller by 28%, and cortical volume by 26%, and they found that the whole brain was affected equally.

    Importantly, the number of neurons was strongly associated with the thickness of the cortex, which is something that can be measured by MRI. The decline in volume of the cortex could therefore be detected in vivo and be used to predict neuronal loss in patients or measure neurodegeneration during clinical trials.

    Lead researcher Klaus Schmierer said: “Given that we found no association between neuronal loss and demyelination, trying to detect demyelinating lesions in the cortex — an area of research strongly driven by the availability of high field MRI systems — may be of lesser importance than measuring cortical volume and getting on with early active treatment.”

    As cortical neuronal loss is responsible for cognitive and other functions, which occur early in MS, the researchers say that to avoid neurodegeneration, early treatment is key.


  5. Study examines routes to empathy

    May 21, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University at Buffalo press release:

    When it comes to empathy, the idiom that suggests “walking a mile in their shoes” turns out to be problematic advice, according to new research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

    “That’s because there are two routes to empathy and one of them is more personally distressing and upsetting than the other,” says Michael Poulin, an associate professor in the University at Buffalo Department of Psychology and co-author of the study led by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Anneke E.K. Buffone, who was a PhD student at UB when the research was conducted.

    The findings, based on stress physiology measures, add a new and previously unexplored dimension to understanding how choosing a path to empathy can affect a helper’s health and well-being. The study’s conclusions provide important insights into areas ranging from training doctors to raising children.

    The routes to empathy Poulin mentions diverge at the point of the helper’s perspective. The two may sound similar, but actually turn out to be quite different in terms of how they affect the person who is trying to help another.

    One approach observes and infers how someone feels. This is imagine-other perspective-taking (IOPT). The other way to empathize is for helpers to put themselves into someone else’s situation, the imagined “walking a mile” scenario. This is imagine-self perspective-taking (ISPT).

    “You can think about another person’s feelings without taking those feelings upon yourself (IOPT),” says Poulin. “But I begin to feel sad once I go down the mental pathway of putting myself into the place of someone who is feeling sad (ISPT).

    “I think sometimes we all avoid engaging in empathy for others who are suffering partially because taking on someone else’s burdens (ISPT) could be unpleasant. On the other hand, it seems a much better way to proceed is if it’s possible to show empathy simply by acknowledging another person’s feelings without it being aversive (IOPT).”

    Some previous research has tried to get at the question of stress relative to IOPT and ISPT by asking people to report how they felt after a helping behavior. But the current study breaks new ground by examining the effects of perspective taking while someone is engaged in helping behavior.

    “I have some degree of uncertainty about how well people are parsing out the distinction when reporting how much they were feeling for themselves versus the other person,” says Poulin.

    That uncertainty motivated the current study’s design, which measured a cardiovascular response that reliably indicates the difference between feeling personally anxious or not.

    “When we are feeling threatened or anxious, some peripheral blood vessels constrict making it harder for the heart to pump blood through the body,” says Poulin. “We can detect this in the lab and what we found is that people who engaged in ISPT had greater levels of this threat response compared to people who engaged in IOPT.”

    This conclusion could be especially useful in the context of medical professions, like doctors and nurses, especially in areas with high rates of burnout, according to Poulin.

    “Many of these professionals see so much pain and suffering that it eventually affects their careers,” he says. “That might be the result of habitually engaging in ISPT. They put themselves in their patients’ shoes. “Maybe we can train doctors and nurses to engage in IOPT so they can continue to be empathetic toward their patients without that empathy creating a burden.”

    says this applies as well to teachers and students, social workers and clients. “In fact, now that we’re transitioning to such a service economy, it’s nearly everybody: technical support, complaint hotline operators, restaurant servers.”

    Parents might even consider the study’s finding when thinking about how they speaking to their children in certain circumstances. “Rather than saying to a child, ‘How would you feel if that were done to you?’ maybe we should be saying, ‘Think about how that person is feeling.'”


  6. Study links flower pesticides to neurobehavioral effects in children

    by Ashley

    From the University of California – San Diego press release:

    Ecuador is the third largest producer of cut flowers in the world, primarily roses, many of which are destined to be sold for Mother’s Day. The industry employs more than 103,000 people, and relies heavily on agricultural pesticides.

    In a paper published in the May 2017 issue of the journal NeuroToxicology, researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Ecuador and Minnesota, have found altered short-term neurological behaviors in children associated with a peak pesticide spraying season linked to the Mother’s Day flower harvest. This study examined children who did not work in agriculture but who lived in agricultural communities in Ecuador.

    “Our findings are among the first in non-worker children to suggest that a peak pesticide use period (the Mother’s Day flower production) may transiently affect neurobehavioral performance,” said first author Jose R. Suarez-Lopez, MD, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

    “Children examined sooner after the flower harvest displayed lower performance on most measures, such as attention, self-control, visuospatial processing (the ability to perceive and interact with our visual world) and sensorimotor (eye-hand coordination) compared to children examined later in a time of lower flower production and pesticide use.”

    “This discovery is novel because it shows that pesticide spray seasons can produce short-term alterations in neurobehavioral performance in addition to the long-term alterations that have been previously described. This is troublesome because the altered mental functions observed are essential for children’s learning, and in May-July, students typically take their end-of-year exams. If their learning and performance abilities are affected in this period, they may graduate from high school with lower scores which may hinder their ability to access higher education or obtain a job.”

    Early exposure to commonly applied agricultural pesticides is associated with neurobehavioral delays in children, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Pesticide exposure has been linked to altered development of reflexes and psychomotor and mental function in newborns. Boys appear more susceptible than girls.

    Suarez-Lopez, who is principal investigator of the ESPINA study, an on-going, long-term study of environmental pollutants and child development in Ecuador, said past animal research had suggested that fluctuating levels of pesticide exposure might also produce corresponding, short-term neurobehavioral effects.

    He and colleagues tested 308 children, ages four to nine, living in floricultural communities in Ecuador (but who did not actually work in agriculture themselves) prior to peak Mother’s Day flower production and within 100 days after harvest. Behavior and blood tests were conducted.

    Organophosphate-based insecticides, commonly used to treat flowers for pests before export, inhibit an enzyme called acetylcholinesterase (AChE) that regulates acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter vital to promoting communications between nerve cells in the brain and body. The insecticides are also directly toxic to neurons and supporting cells called glia. In previous research, Suarez-Lopez and colleagues had shown that lower AChE activity is associated with lower attention, inhibitory control and memory scores, again affecting boys more than girls.

    The authors note that the study was cross-sectional, collecting and analyzing observational data on a representative population for a specific point in time. “Our findings need to be replicated in studies of children with assessments conducted before, during and after peak exposure periods,” said Suarez-Lopez. “But given the evidence thus far, and the potential for pesticide exposure to alter both short- and long-term learning abilities, cognition, social interactions and overall well-being, taking additional precautions to shield children from exposure is certainly advised.”

    Co-authors include: Harvey Checkoway, Wael K. Al-Delaimy, Sheila Gahagan, UC San Diego; and David R. Jacobs, Jr., University of Minnesota.


  7. Researchers implicate genetic locus on chromosome 12 in anorexia nervosa

    by Ashley

    From the University of North Carolina Health Care press release:

    A landmark study led by UNC School of Medicine researchers has identified the first genetic locus for anorexia nervosa and has revealed that there may also be metabolic underpinnings to this potentially deadly illness.

    The study, which is the most powerful genetic study of anorexia nervosa conducted to date, included genome-wide analysis of DNA from 3,495 individuals with anorexia nervosa and 10,982 unaffected individuals.

    If particular genetic variations are significantly more frequent in people with a disorder compared to unaffected people, the variations are said to be “associated” with the disorder. Associated genetic variations can serve as powerful pointers to regions of the human genome where disorder-causing problems reside, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute.

    “We identified one genome-wide significant locus for anorexia nervosa on chromosome 12, in a region previously shown to be associated with type 1 diabetes and autoimmune disorders,” said lead investigator, Cynthia Bulik, PhD, FAED, founding director of the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders and a professor at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden.

    “We also calculated genetic correlations — the extent to which various traits and disorders are caused by the same genes,” said Bulik.

    Anorexia nervosa was significantly genetically correlated with neuroticism and schizophrenia, supporting the idea that anorexia is indeed a psychiatric illness.”

    “But, unexpectedly, we also found strong genetic correlations with various metabolic features including body composition (BMI) and insulin-glucose metabolism. This finding encourages us to look more deeply at how metabolic factors increase the risk for anorexia nervosa,” Bulik said.

    This study was conducted by the Psychiatric Genetics Consortium Eating Disorders Working Group — an international collaboration of researchers at multiple institutions worldwide.

    “In the era of team science, we brought over 220 scientists and clinicians together to achieve this large sample size. Without this collaboration we would never have been able to discover that anorexia has both psychiatric and metabolic roots,” said Gerome Breen, PhD, of King’s College London.

    “Working with large data sets allows us to make discoveries that would never be possible in smaller studies,” said Laramie Duncan, PhD, of Stanford University, who served as lead analyst on the project.

    The researchers are continuing to increase sample sizes and see this as the beginning of genomic discovery in anorexia nervosa. Viewing anorexia nervosa as both a psychiatric and metabolic condition could ignite interest in developing or repurposing medications for its treatment where currently none exist.


  8. Study links abnormal startle-reflex responses to higher risk of alcohol problems

    May 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Research Society on Alcoholism press release:

    The startle response, often recorded as an eye-blink reflex, is a defensive measure believed to reflect emotional processing. Patients with alcohol use disorders (AUDs) show abnormal startle-reflex responses to alcohol-related stimuli. This study examined startle-reflex responses to various visual stimuli among heavy drinkers, and assessed whether certain patterns predict the development of AUDs four years later.

    Researchers measured the startle-reflex responses of 287 men recruited from public health-care centers in Spain: 239 non-dependent, heavy-drinking men and 48 healthy men who comprised the control group. All participants were exposed to four types of pictures: alcohol-related, aversive, appetitive, and neutral. The participants were subsequently examined four years later to determine the predictive value of their startle response on drinking status.

    The researchers found that a reduced startle-reflex response to alcohol-related and aversive pictures predicted AUD status in previously heavy drinkers. At follow-up, among the participants who were heavy drinkers initially, 46% met DSM-IV criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence. The authors suggested that a diminished startle-reflex response to alcohol-related and aversive stimuli may reflect a greater reward motivation among vulnerable drinkers and can serve as a clinical marker to predict the future development of AUDs.


  9. To sell more healthy food, keep it simple

    May 17, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Journal of Retailing at New York University press release:

    Despite extensive research on how to persuade consumers to improve their diets, academicians have largely failed to present food retailers with easy-to-use suggestions. Brian Wansink, director of Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab and a leading expert in changing eating behavior, seeks to change this by providing an organizing framework that integrates insights from marketing, nutrition, psychology, public health, and behavioral economics research to suggest dozens of small, low-cost, in-store changes that retailers can use to boost sales of fish versus hamburger and apples instead of candy bars.

    In “Healthy Profits: An Interdisciplinary Retail Framework that Increases the Sales of Healthy Foods,” to be published in the June 2017 issue of the Journal of Retailing, Wansink sketches out a health predisposition pyramid – in essence, a hierarchy that places health-vigilant shoppers at the top and health-disinterested shoppers at the base, with so-called health-predisposed shoppers in the middle. He points out that different marketing interventions are more or less successful with each of these groups. For instance, research has shown that shoppers who are most interested in healthy eating are more interested than health-disinterested shoppers in recipe kiosks that might suggest ways to cook fish, whereas candy-free checkout aisles and front-of-store fruit displays attract all categories of shoppers.

    Where, how, and when retailers can best influence shoppers are all areas that call for more research, Wansink points out, and at the same time, the studies that have been done, while providing valuable insights, form no cohesive, actionable plan for retailers. Wansink advocates a comprehensive approach that focuses on making the selection of healthy foods convenient, attractive, and normal (CAN) and provides a retail intervention matrix that organizes key research findings into a sensible pattern that is easy to understand and practical to implement.

    The intervention matrix was put to work in Norway by a large grocery chain seeking to reposition itself around environmentally sustainable fish. All 457 stores in the chain used the traditional marketing mix of altering the variety, packaging, advertising, and price promotions of fish. Over a two-year period, these efforts consistently increased sales by 9 percent. Subsequently, 239 stores added strategies from the intervention matrix; the average increase was 28 percent more fish per transaction than in the first group of stores. “This example shows one way research findings can be extrapolated, organized, and presented in a way that is compelling for managers who have little time or tolerance for ambiguity and nuance,” says Wansink.


  10. Research evaluates effectiveness of yoga in treating major depression

    May 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Care New England press release:

    When treating depression, the goal is to help individuals achieve full recovery and normal functioning. While traditional treatment such as medication or psychotherapy is effective for many patients, some may not fully recover even with these treatments. Researchers sought to determine if the addition of hatha yoga would improve treatment outcomes for these patients. They found that the benefits of yoga were less pronounced early in treatment, but may accumulate over time.

    The research, entitled “Adjunctive yoga v. health education for persistent major depression: a randomized controlled trial,” has been published in Psychological Medicine. The research was led by Lisa Uebelacker, PhD, a research psychologist in the Psychosocial Research Department at Butler Hospital, a Care New England hospital, and an associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. The team also included Gary Epstein-Lubow, MD; Ana M. Abrantes, PhD; Audrey Tyrka, MD, PhD; Brandon A. Gaudiano, PhD; and Ivan W. Miller III, PhD, of Butler Hospital and the Warren Alpert Medical School; Geoffrey Tremont, PhD and Tanya Tran of Rhode Island Hospital and the Warren Alpert Medical School; Tom Gillette of Eyes of the World Yoga; and David Strong of the University of California, San Diego.

    “The purpose of this study was to examine whether hatha yoga is effective for treating depression when used in addition to antidepressant medication,” explained Dr. Uebelacker. “We did not see statistically significant differences between hatha yoga and a control group (health education) at 10 weeks, however, when we examined outcomes over a period of time including the three and six months after yoga classes ended, we found yoga was superior to health education in alleviating depression symptoms.”

    According to Dr. Uebelacker, this is the largest study of yoga for depression to date. The team enrolled individuals with current or recent major depression who were receiving antidepressant medication and continued to have clinically significant depression symptoms. Participants were randomized into two groups – those who participated in a hatha yoga class and a control group who took part in a health education class. The intervention phase lasted 10 weeks and participants were followed for six months afterward.

    “We hypothesized that yoga participants would show lower depression severity over time as assessed by the Quick Inventory of Depression Symptomatology (QIDS), as well as better social and role functioning, better general health perceptions and physical functioning, and less physical pain relative to the control group,” said Dr. Uebelacker. “We found that yoga did indeed have an impact on depression symptoms.”