1. 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.


  2. Study suggests reading may make us kinder

    June 4, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Kingston University press release:

    A Kingston University London postgraduate research student has produced a study that examines the effects of reading and watching television on social behaviour — concluding that literature lovers have the edge over their remote control-loving counterparts when it comes to being nicer people.

    Rose Turner’s study featured 123 adults of various ages participating in an anonymous online survey. They were asked to select their preferences for books, television and plays, alongside being tested on their interpersonal skills, which included how much they considered others’ feelings and their desire to help those around them. The results revealed that readers had greater awareness and empathy for other people’s feelings, while those who preferred watching television came across as less friendly and less understanding of others’ views.

    Following a presentation at The British Psychological Society summarising her study, Rose’s research has hit the headlines around the globe, with people fascinated by the psychological dimensions of reading.

    “The interest in the study has been a very pleasant surprise and it has been great to see that it has generated such a buzz,” she said. “Reading is a universal pastime and we regularly hear about parents being encouraged to read to their children from a young age to help introduce them to language and develop their vocabulary. This study demonstrates that the different ways that people engage with fiction can impact their emotional intelligence and empathic behaviours,” she explained.

    When quizzed over why readers are more likely to develop better social skills than those who consume other forms of fictional media such as television or films, Rose explained that reading is an individual experience that makes people think deeper about characters. “When we read we go by what is simply written on the page and we have to fill in the gaps as we go along, giving us a chance to develop empathic skills as we try to understand what a character is going through. Whereas when we watch something, we are provided with a lot of that information already,” she said.

    Along with completing her PhD in psychology at Kingston University London, Rose is an actress with a number of theatre credits to her name and also works in the field of occupational psychology. “I run group exercises in social care settings, schools and prisons that involve people using role-play techniques to develop their skills. I have seen first-hand how stories and the notion of becoming another character can have a positive impact on a person’s wellbeing. It’s not just a source of escapism but also a chance to imagine how somebody else sees the world,” she said.

    Rose’s decision to incorporate her work experience into her academic research has been praised by her PhD supervisor, Professor Frédéric Vallée-Tourangeau from the School of Social and Behavioural Sciences. “Rose’s background in drama and acting, as well as her experience in occupational settings provide her with a unique set of skills and insights that help her formulate original research questions that make her PhD work so innovative,” he said. “When the science of psychology helps ordinary people beyond the scientific community better understand their lives, the contributions are that much more important,” he emphasised.

    While her research is yet to be peer reviewed and fully published, the early interest in the study continues, with Rose set to present her work at the American Psychological Society later this summer. She will also be showcasing her academic expertise by taking part in an online competition to explain the psychological science of relationships to schoolchildren.

    “My role as an academic is to share my findings in an interesting way that members of the public can relate to. To have gathered this much interest in my thesis already is really encouraging and I look forward to exploring more aspects of the relationship between fictional worlds and our real-world psychological processes in the future,” she added.


  3. Study suggests people walking to work or an errand more likely to stroll into dangerous areas

    June 3, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Drexel University press release:

    People taking leisurely strolls tend to choose safer walking routes than those heading to work or on an errand, a new study found.

    Led by D. Alex Quistberg, Ph.D., an assistant research professor in the Dornsife School of Public Health at Drexel University, the study used GPS, accelerometers and travel logs from a 2008-2009 survey in King County, Washington — which includes Seattle — to measure the path and purpose of 537 pedestrians. That data was then compared to maps on the probability of pedestrian collision risk, and the study was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

    Quistberg and his team found that pedestrians on recreational walks were 8 percent less likely to be in areas where car collision risks were higher than those on utilitarian walks (walking somewhere with a purpose).

    “There’s likely a mix of things happening here,” Quistberg said. “On recreational walks, people likely want a more relaxing path than someone on a utilitarian walk.”

    The study also found that people who took longer walks, both in distance and time, were less likely to stray into dangerous areas (where car-collision risk is high). That, too, was likely tied to recreational walks vs. walks with a purpose. The study also took demographic data into account. This yielded the finding that people who lived in single-family homes, owned homes and/or owned a car all were less likely to walk in more dangerous areas.

    People who participated in the survey who had children were slightly less likely — around 2 percent — to walk in areas with high collision risk.

    “This could be due to people with children living in single-family homes, which are usually in neighborhoods that have a low risk of pedestrians collisions because of low traffic and slow speeds,” Quistberg explained. “It is also possible that people with children at home are walking more cautiously, perhaps with their children.”

    Recently, Dornsife School of Public Health Dean Ana Diez Roux, M.D., Ph.D., signed on to a letter supported by former president Jimmy Carter that appealed for protection of the walking paths of children, especially those headed to school. And although results from Quistberg’s study analyze adult pedestrians in Washington state, he believes they reveal information that could serve to improve walkability universally.

    “Improving road safety for pedestrians will support interest in walking for recreation as well as those who integrate a healthy walk into their commute,” Quistberg said.


  4. Mindfulness takes practice

    June 2, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Aarhus University press release:

    The typical student on a standard mindfulness course says they practice for 30 minutes at home every day, and it actually makes a difference, a new study from Aarhus University in Denmark, finds. This is the case, even though teachers ask for more. But can we rely on what people say?

    Mindfulness meditation practice is set at 45 minutes a day at home, as well as weekly group sessions with the teacher. And the 45 minutes is every day, six days a week for the eight weeks that the course lasts.

    These are the guidelines for students taking part in the standard Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) courses. Not all students practice for 45 minutes a day. An average course student practices 30 minutes daily at home, but the good news is that nevertheless, this practice is related to positive benefit. This can be measured as reduced stress, pain, better well-being and so on.

    These are the main findings of the study “Home practice in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: a systematic review and meta-analysis of participants’ mindfulness practice and its associations with outcomes,” an international collaboration between the Universities of Aarhus, Oxford and Bristol. The study has recently been published in the journal Behavior Research and Therapy, and according to associate professor Christine Parsons from the Interacting Mind Center at the Department of Clinical Medicine at Aarhus University, it is new and important knowledge:

    “This is the clearest evidence we have that mindfulness-home practice can make a difference. This is a big source of debate because there are many components at play in a MBSR or MBCT course. The support of a teacher might bring about benefit, practicing mindfulness on the actual course, or being in a group with similar other people,” Christine Parsons says.

    According to the study, the effect of doing home practice is small, but statistically significant in the 28 scientific studies included in the analysis. In all studies, the MBCT or MBSR courses were eight weeks long, and the participants kept diaries of their practice at home. The diaries were used by researchers to examine the benefits of practice. Unfortunately, there is always uncertainty linked to a self-report diary, which Christine Parsons is trying to minimize.

    Can we rely on students to tell their own teacher about their home practice? Do student fill in their diaries faithfully? We know that people have difficulty reporting on their food or alcohol consumption or even physical activity. Should mindfulness practice be any different?

    Similarly, Christine Parsons is concerned about the difference between quantity of mindfulness practice and the of practice. Anyone who has tried to meditate knows that practice can be difficult. For example, it is easy to spend time thinking about a conflict at work or writing a long mental shopping list. Mindfulness practice is about cultivating awareness of the present moment, without judging or evaluating, not just spending time on a yoga mat.

    “We need to understand how people truly engage with their home practice. There are many problems with self-report as our only assessment method. I have therefore received money from Trygfonden to develop and test a number of other measurement methods that will clarify how mindfulness students behave outside the classroom. How they practice and what works — and how it works,” Christine Parsons says.

    She worked at Oxford University for the past six years, but she has moved her research to the Interacting Minds Center at Aarhus, where she will remain as long as the grant of 2.3 millioner kroner pays for her stay.

    Christine Parsons in collaboration with engineers from Aarhus University, led by associate professor Kasper Løvborg Jensen and the Danish Center for Mindfulness, is developing an app that records how long participants listen to the guided meditations, which are part of the home practice in MBCT or MBSR.

    The information will be sent via the mobile phone app to a server that registers and compares the incoming data with information from a ‘fitness’ wristband. This enables the research team to see what happens to, for example, the student’s heartbeat when he or she is practicing mindfulness.

    “It’s all little pieces of the big jigsaw puzzle — how students actually behave outside the classroom. How they practice, what it means, and what actually works,” says Christine Parsons, without wanting to undermine the importance of the recently published result.

    “This study forms the basis of our new work, and now we know, that practicing at home has an impact. The question is whether we can use new technology to measure and support participants doing their home practice. And can we support behavior changes in the long run? For example, if you receive a smartphone reminder to practice,” Christine Parsons says before she — again — praises the unique opportunities for interdisciplinary research at the Interacting Minds Center.

    “It’s invaluable to sit down with an engineer who poses completely different questions than I can imagine with my psychology background. It opens for a lot of new opportunities. Bringing together mindfulness teachers, engineers and designers allows us to really think about what we can do to best support our students,” says Christine Parsons.


  5. How listening to music in a group influences depression

    by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    Listening to music together with others has many social benefits, including creating and strengthening interpersonal bonds. It has previously been shown that enjoying music in a group setting has an impact on social relationships, and that synchronizing with other group members to a beat influences how people behave to individuals both within and outside of the group. Similarly, the sharing of emotions has many social benefits as well: it helps us create and sustain relationships with others and to cement social bonds within a group, and it intensifies the potential for emotional responses. A question that still remains is whether sharing emotional and musical experiences with others might be a particularly powerful form of social bonding, and what the outcome of such an interaction might be.

    In this study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, the researchers wanted to investigate the self-reported effects on mood that comes with listening to sad music in group settings, and how mood is influenced by rumination (a maladaptive focus on negative thoughts), depression, and coping style. To do so, they recruited 697 participants who completed an online survey about “their ways of using music, types of musical engagement and the effect of music listening.” The participants also completed a number of additional questionnaires, which helped the researchers determine factors such as: the presence of symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress; general tendencies towards depression; coping styles, i.e. tendencies towards rumination or reflection (i.e. healthier tendencies to self-reflection); musical engagement as a measurement of wellbeing; as well as questionnaires addressing a variety of aspects of music listening, both alone and in a group. The results reveal two distinct behavioral patterns related to group music listening:

    1. Listening to sad music and talking about sad things tended to make people feel more depressed after listening to music. This kind of group rumination was more common in younger people, and likely reflects relative importance of both music and social relationships to younger people.

    2. Listening to inspiring music in a group and engaging in discussions about music and life is a more positive interaction that makes people feel good.

    These results provide some clues as to how people with depression use music, and why. “Behaviors relating to music use fall into distinct patterns, reflecting either healthy or unhealthy thought processes,” says Dr Sandra Garrido (corresponding author). “These results reveal important information about how people with depression use music.” The results shine a light on how music can facilitate the sharing of negative emotions, and show that the outcome is related to the coping styles and thinking patterns used in each setting, meaning that people with generally maladaptive coping styles are more likely to experience negative outcomes from group rumination of music.

    The results also show that young people may be especially vulnerable to the impacts of group rumination with music. “While young people with tendencies to depression who are a part of social groups may be perceived as receiving valuable social support, our results here suggest that the positive impacts of such group interactions depend on the types of processes that are taking place in the group,” explains Dr Garrido. “Susceptible individuals with a predilection for rumination may be most likely to suffer negative outcomes from group rumination, with social feedback deepening and exacerbating negative thoughts and feelings. However, group interactions that provide social support or opportunities for processing of emotions in a constructive way have a much higher likelihood of being positive.”

    These findings partially help clarifying under what conditions social interaction around music provide social benefits, and when it might instead amplify negative emotions. This opens up for further research to create a more detailed picture of how group interaction dynamics influence the outcome.


  6. Study looks at motivations behind participation in extreme sports

    May 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Queensland University of Technology press release:

    Researchers have debunked the myth that extreme sportsmen and women are adrenalin junkies with a death wish, according to a new study.

    The research has been published in the latest edition of Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research and Practice by QUT Adjunct Professor Eric Brymer, who is currently based at Leeds Beckett University in the UK, and QUT Professor Robert Schweitzer.

    Professors Brymer and Schweitzer said extreme sports were leisure activities in which a mismanaged mistake or accident could result in death, such as BASE jumping, big wave surfing and solo rope free climbing.

    “Extreme sports have developed into a worldwide phenomenon and we are witnessing an unprecedented interest in and engagement with these activities,” Professor Brymer said.

    “While participant numbers in many traditional team and individual sports such as golf, basketball and racket sports seem to have declined over the past decade, participant numbers in extreme sports have surged, making it a multi-million dollar industry.”

    Professor Brymer said until now there had been a gross misunderstanding of what motivates people to take part in extreme sports, with many writing it off as an activity for adrenalin junkies.

    “Our research has shown people who engage in extreme sports are anything but irresponsible risk-takers with a death wish. They are highly trained individuals with a deep knowledge of themselves, the activity and the environment who do it to have an experience that is life enhancing and life changing,” he said.

    “The experience is very hard to describe in the same way that love is hard to describe. It makes the participant feel very alive where all senses seem to be working better than in everyday life, as if the participant is transcending everyday ways of being and glimpsing their own potential.

    “For example, BASE jumpers talk about being able to see all the colours and nooks and crannies of the rock as they zoom past at 300km/h, or extreme climbers feel like they are floating and dancing with the rock. People talk about time slowing down and merging with nature.”

    Professor Schweitzer said understanding motivations for extreme sports were important to understanding humans.

    “Far from the traditional risk-focused assumptions, extreme sports participation facilitates more positive psychological experiences and express human values such as humility, harmony, creativity, spirituality and a vital sense of self that enriches everyday life,” Professor Schweitzer said.

    He said because extreme sports participants found it hard to put their experiences into words, the research project had taken a new approach to understanding the data.

    “So rather than a theory based approach which may make judgements that don’t reflect the lived experience of extreme sports participants, we took a phenomenological approach to ensure we went in with an open mind,” he said.

    “This allowed us to focus on the lived-experience of extreme sport with the goal of explaining themes that are consistent with participants’ experience.

    “By doing this we were able to, for the first time, conceptualise such experiences as potentially representing endeavours at the extreme end of human agency, that is making choices to engage in activity which may in certain circumstances lead to death.

    “However, such experiences have been shown to be affirmative of life and the potential for transformation.

    “Extreme sport has the potential to induce non-ordinary states of consciousness that are at once powerful and meaningful.

    “These experiences enrich the lives of participants and provide a further glimpse into what it means to be human.”


  7. 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.”


  8. Study finds link between kids’ routines, ability to regulate emotions, and weight

    May 9, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Ohio State University press release:

    Family structure including regular bedtimes, mealtimes and limited screen time appear to be linked to better emotional health in preschoolers, and that might lower the chances of obesity later, a new study suggests.

    “This study provides more evidence that routines for preschool-aged children are associated with their healthy development and could reduce the likelihood that these children will be obese,” said lead author Sarah Anderson of The Ohio State University.

    The study — the first to look at the connections between early childhood routines and self-regulation and their potential association with weight problems in the pre-teen years — appears in the International Journal of Obesity.

    Researchers evaluated three household routines when children were 3 years old: regular bedtime, regular mealtime and whether or not parents limited television and video watching to an hour or less daily. Then they compared those to parents’ reports of two aspects of children’s self-regulation at that same age.

    Lastly, they investigated how the routines and self-regulation worked together to impact obesity at age 11, defined based on international criteria. (The U.S. criteria for childhood obesity is set lower and would have included more children.)

    The research included 10,955 children who are part of the Millennium Cohort Study, a long-term study of a diverse population of children born in the United Kingdom from September of 2000 to January of 2002. At age 3, 41 percent of children always had a regular bedtime, 47 percent always had a regular mealtime and 23 percent were limited to an hour or less daily of TV and videos. At age 11, about 6 percent were obese.

    All three household routines were associated with better emotional self-regulation — a measure based on parents’ responses to questions such as how easily the child becomes frustrated or over-excited. Those children with greater emotional dysregulation were more likely to be obese later.

    “We saw that children who had the most difficulties with emotion regulation at age 3 also were more likely to be obese at age 11,” said Anderson, an associate professor in Ohio State’s College of Public Health.

    Anderson and her colleagues also found that the absence of a regular preschool bedtime was an independent predictor of obesity at 11. Obesity risk increased even when children “usually” had a regular bedtime, as opposed to “always.” The risk was greatest for those who had the least amount of consistency in their bedtimes.

    How persistent and independent children were at age 3 — another aspect of self-regulation — was not related to obesity risk, nor were routines associated with these aspects of self-regulation.

    The new findings build on previous research by Anderson and her colleagues showing an association between earlier preschool bedtimes and decreased odds of obesity later. Previous work published in 2010 showed in a US national sample that obesity prevalence was lowest for children who got enough sleep, had limits on screen time and ate meals with their families.

    “This research allows us to better understand how young children’s routines around sleep, meals, and screen time relate to their regulation of emotion and behavior,” Anderson said. “The large, population-based, UK Millennium Cohort Study afforded the opportunity to examine these aspects of children’s lives and how they impact future risk for obesity.”

    This research should prompt future work looking at the role of emotional self-regulation in weight gain in children and how bedtime routines can support healthy development, Anderson said.

    “Sleep is so important and it’s important for children in particular. Although there is much that remains unknown about how sleep impacts metabolism, research is increasingly finding connections between obesity and poor sleep,” she said.

    While it’s impossible from this work to prove that routines will prevent obesity, “Recommending regular bedtime routines is unlikely to cause harm, and may help children in other ways, such as through emotion regulation,” Anderson said.

    But competing family pressures including parents’ work schedules don’t always allow for consistency, Anderson pointed out.

    “As a society, we should consider what we can do to make it easier for parents to interact with their children in ways that support their own and their children’s health.”


  9. Brain tissue structure could explain link between fitness and memory

    May 7, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign press release:

    Studies have suggested a link between fitness and memory, but researchers have struggled to find the mechanism that links them. A new study by University of Illinois researchers found that the key may lie in the microstructure of the hippocampus, a region in the middle of the brain involved in memory processes.

    Aron Barbey, a professor of psychology, led a group of researchers at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at Illinois that used a specialized MRI technique to measure the structural integrity of the hippocampus in healthy young adults and correlated it with their performances on fitness and memory tests. They found that viscoelasticity, a measure of structural integrity in brain tissue, was correlated with fitness and memory performance — much more so than simply looking at the size of the hippocampus.

    “Using a new tool to examine the integrity of the hippocampus in healthy young adults could tell us more about how this region functions and how to predict decline for early intervention,” Barbey said. “By the time we look at diseased states, it’s often too late.”

    Prior research led by Illinois psychology professor Neal Cohen, who is also a co-author on the new paper, demonstrated that the hippocampus is critical for relational memory and that the integrity of this region predicts a host of neurodegenerative diseases. To date, much research on the hippocampus’ structure has focused on its size.

    Studies in developing children and declining older adults have found strong correlations between hippocampal size and memory. However, size does not seem to matter as much in healthy young adults, said postdoctoral researcher Hillary Schwarb. The Illinois group looked instead at the microstructure of the tissue, using an emerging neuroimaging tool called magnetic resonance elastography. The method involves an MRI scan, but with a pillow under the subject’s head vibrating at a very low amplitude — as gentle as driving on the interstate, Schwarb said. The vibration is the key to measuring the structural integrity of the hippocampus.

    “It’s a lot like sending ripples through a still pond — if there’s some large thing like a boulder under the surface, the ripples are going to displace around it,” Schwarb said. “We are sending waves through the brain and reconstructing the displacements into a map we can look at and measure.”

    The study, published in the journal NeuroImage, found that those who performed better on the fitness test tended to also perform better on the memory task, confirming a correlation the group had noticed before. But by adding the information on the structure of the hippocampus, the researchers were able to find a possible pathway for the link. They found that the subjects with higher fitness levels also had more elastic tissue in the hippocampus. The tissue structure, in turn, was associated with memory.

    “We found that when the hippocampus is more elastic, memory is better. An elastic hippocampus is like a firm foam mattress pad that pops right back up after you get up,” said study co-author Curtis Johnson, a former graduate researcher at the Beckman Institute who is now a professor at the University of Delaware. “When the hippocampus is more viscous, memory is worse. A viscous hippocampus is like a memory-foam mattress that holds its shape even after you get up.”

    The results suggest that the viscoelasticity of the hippocampus may be the mediating factor in the relationship between fitness and memory in healthy young adults.

    “It also shows us that magnetic resonance elastography is a useful tool for understanding tissue microstructure, and that microstructure is important to cognition,” Schwarb said. “This provides us a new level of analysis for studying the human brain.”


  10. Study from past may point to what makes people happy

    May 6, 2017 by Ashley

    From the British Psychological Society (BPS) press release:

    A study from the 1930s into what made people happy may have lessons for policymakers today.

    That is the conclusion of research being presented today, Wednesday 3 May 2017, to the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society in Brighton by Sandie McHugh from the University of Bolton.

    In 1938 the Bolton Evening News ran a competition for two guineas for the best letter on “What does happiness mean for you and yours?” The resulting 226 handwritten letters were transcribed by Sandie McHugh and her fellow researchers Julie Prescott, Jerome Carson and Charlotte Mackey to give an insight.

    When they analysed the accounts they found the top three themes to emerge as being connected with happiness were contentment/peace of mind, family and home and other people.

    * “Contentment” and “peace of mind” meant having “enough” rather than seeking wealth.

    * “Family and home” was seen as happy marriages, healthy children and a place for repose.

    * “Other people” meant giving to and helping others less fortunate than themselves.

    Sandie McHugh says, “These shared values helped the community get by before the NHS and the welfare state. Their pleasure time, what we would call leisure, was in the town and in the Lancashire seaside resorts, principally Blackpool. Leisure was often centred in their workplace or the local pub. The people of Bolton were agents and actors in their own leisure activities.”

    “In today’s age of information our lives and leisure are more individualistic and some commentators have suggested that companionship from social media is an illusion and of a more solitary nature. People could ask themselves whether too much of their leisure time is spent on the internet rather than with other people, and is of a passive, rather than an active nature. They should ask what they would most enjoy.”

    “Scientific research shows that enjoyment is important for happiness and wellbeing, keeping active is good for health and helping other people can be beneficial to the giver.”

    The researchers suggest that the lessons from 1938 should be learned by present-day initiatives to enhance wellbeing in towns like Bolton.

    Among the policies they favour are:

    * Wider use of public facilities such as libraries, leisure centres and schools.

    * Expansion of the voluntary sector and higher levels of participation by people as volunteers.

    * More facilities for active leisure.

    Sandie McHugh concluded, “We welcome the move of the Office for National Statistics to measure people’s wellbeing and not just look at economic measures. This helps raise awareness and can be a prompt to action. As the 2017 World Happiness Report suggests, happiness can be considered as a measure of social progress and a goal of public policy.”