1. Early stress confers lifelong vulnerability causing alterations in a specific brain region

    June 28, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Mount Sinai Hospital / Mount Sinai School of Medicine:

    Early life stress encodes lifelong susceptibility to stress through long-lasting transcriptional programming in a brain reward region implicated in mood and depression, according to a study conducted at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and published June 15 in the journal Science.

    The Mount Sinai study focuses on epigenetics, the study of changes in the action of genes caused not by changes in DNA code we inherit from our parents, but instead by molecules that regulate when, where, and to what degree our genetic material is activated. Such regulation derives, in part, from the function of transcription factors — specialized proteins that bind to specific DNA sequences in our genes and either encourage or shut down the expression of a given gene.

    Previous studies in humans and animals have suggested that early life stress increases the risk for depression and other psychiatric syndromes, but the neurobiology linking the two has remained elusive until now.

    “Our work identifies a molecular basis for stress during a sensitive developmental window that programs a mouse’s response to stress in adulthood,” says Catherine Peña, PhD, lead investigator of the study. “We discovered that disrupting maternal care of mice produces changes in levels of hundreds of genes in the VTA that primes this brain region to be in a depression-like state, even before we detect behavioral changes. Essentially, this brain region encodes a lifelong, latent susceptibility to depression that is revealed only after encountering additional stress.”

    Specifically, Mount Sinai investigators identified a role for the developmental transcription factor orthodenticle homeobox 2 (Otx2) as a master regulator of these enduring gene changes. The research team showed that baby mice that were stressed in a sensitive period (from postnatal day 10-20) had suppressed Otx2 in the VTA. While Otx2 levels ultimately recovered by adulthood, the suppression had already set in motion gene alterations that lasted into adulthood, indicating that early life stress disrupts age-specific developmental programming orchestrated by Otx2.

    Furthermore, the mice stressed during the early-life sensitive time period were more likely to succumb to depression-like behavior in adulthood, but only after additional adult stress. All mice acted normally before additional adult social stress, but a “second hit” of stress was more likely to trigger depression-like behavior for mice stressed during the sensitive time period.

    To test the prediction that Otx2 was actually responsible for the stress sensitivity, the research team developed viral tools that were used to either increase or decrease Otx2 levels. They found that suppression of Otx2 early in life was both necessary and sufficient for increased susceptibility to adult stress.

    “We anticipated that we would only be able to ameliorate or mimic the effects of early life stress by changing Otx2 levels during the early sensitive period.” says Dr. Peña. “This was true for long-lasting effects on depression-like behavior, but somewhat to our surprise we could also change stress sensitivity for short amounts of time by manipulating Otx2 in adulthood.”

    While early-life critical periods have been understood for processes such as language learning, little is known about whether there are sensitive periods in childhood when stress and adversity most impacts brain development and particularly emotion-regulation systems. This study is the first to use genome-wide tools to understand how early life stress alters development of the VTA, providing new evidence for sensitive windows in emotion development.

    “This mouse paradigm will be useful for understanding the molecular correlates of increased risk of depression resulting from early life stress and could pave the way to look for such sensitive windows in human studies,” says Eric J. Nestler, MD, PhD, Nash Family Professor of Neuroscience and Director of the Friedman Brain Institute at Mount Sinai and senior investigator of the study. “The ultimate translational goal of this research is to aid treatment discoveries relevant to individuals who experienced childhood stress and trauma.”


  2. Amygdala activity predicts posttraumatic stress disorder

    June 22, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Elsevier press release:

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

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

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

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

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

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


  3. Study looks at connection between altruism and prosocial behaviour

    June 18, 2017 by Ashley

    From the National Research University Higher School of Economics press release:

    Altruism based on individual values is changing Western society. People in Western countries have seen a rise in individualism for quite some time, and this in turn helps to create generations of people with altruistic mindsets. Christian Welzel, Chief Research Fellow in the Laboratory for Comparative Social Research (HSE and Leuphana University of Lüneburg), teamed up with researchers from the University of Lausanne to conduct a study showing the connection between emancipative values and prosocial behaviour. The results of the study were published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology.

    According to Ronald Inglehart’s theory of modernization, increased wealth and security in Western countries is leading to a shift in values from collectivism to individualism. People start valuing power and authoritarianism less, while freedom and the opportunity for self-expression become more important. In his book Freedom Rising, which was has recently been translated into Russian, Christian Welzel stresses the idea that growing individualism ultimately leads to prosocial behaviour. An emancipative attitude towards freedom, he says, is not egotistical — it stems from a priority for opportunity equality.

    That is, tolerance towards various kinds of individuality is growing, while intolerance towards discrimination and human rights violations is also on the rise. New generations of altruists are ready to disinterestedly defend the rights of others, participate in charity work, volunteer, etc. This was confirmed by data from the World Value Survey (WVS).

    But researchers go by the information that people give about themselves during interviews. Christian Welzel and his colleagues decided to conduct an additional test on their hypothesis with the help of practical experiments in which respondents from the sixth wave of WVS took part. The focus of attention was the relationship between prosocial behaviour and emancipative and secular values. It is with increased wealth and security that emancipative and secular values gain particular importance

    Christian Welzel’s concept of emancipative values includes components such as equality, freedom, autonomy, and self-expression (e.g., public expression of opinion). They reflect society’s level of liberalisation — some people prefer political, civil, and sexual rights to obedience or patriarchy. Secular values are the opposite of traditional ones. In societies where these values prevail, people generally ascribe less importance to religion, authority, and traditional family values. At the same time, things like divorce, abortion, euthanasia, etc. become relatively acceptable and/or available.

    Respondents from the WVS’s German sample took part in the experiment. According to the authors, Germany is an ideal research subject, as it houses a large proportion of the European population, has the largest economy, and has successfully made technological progress. At the same time, the socialist past is fresh in the country’s memory (Eastern Germany), which impacts systems of values.

    During the study, which took place online, economic experiments were carried out in which respondents were given several choices in different situations that required a contribution to be made towards a common cause or that required volunteer work. In one of the experiments, participants also had to show how they would act in relation to different resources at hand. Respondents were given the choice of effectively using and multiplying production at a virtual farm, simply maintaining production, and also taking (stealing) from others.

    It was confirmed that those with emancipative values are inclined to make a more serious contribution to charity and social development. One’s preparedness to make a donation is a clear indicator of altruism, the researchers noted. And in the current situation, altruism demonstrates a connection to emancipative values.

    As for secular values, there is no clear connection here with altruism, though there is a connection with multiplying and preserving resources at a virtual farm, which involves certain risks. Those with secular values, however, rely on the idea that others will not conduct themselves asocially by, for instance, stealing resources.

    Overall, Mr Welzel’s hypothesis on so-called positive individualism was confirmed. The conclusions refute the idea that individual values foster egoistical behaviour. At a certain stage in the transition from collectivism to individualism, those with individualistic values arise, and these values focus exclusively on personal gains such as material wealth, career advancement, etc. But as for increased economic wealth, individual value systems are changing and moving towards human rights defence, freedom for self-determination, environmental protection, helping others, etc.


  4. Study examines effect of THC on stress

    June 12, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Illinois at Chicago press release:

    Cannabis smokers often report that they use the drug to relax or relieve stress, but few studies provide clinical evidence of these effects.

    Now, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Chicago report that low levels tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana, does reduce stress, but in a highly dose-dependent manner: very low doses lessened the jitters of a public-speaking task, while slightly higher doses — enough to produce a mild “high” — actually increased anxiety.

    Cannabis is a highly regulated category 1 substance, and permits to study the drug are difficult to obtain. While it is common knowledge that many people use cannabis for its stress-relieving effects, “very few published studies have looked into the effects of THC on stress, or at the effects of different levels of THC on stress,” says Emma Childs, associate professor of psychiatry in the UIC College of Medicine and corresponding author on the study, published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

    “We found that THC at low doses reduced stress, while higher doses had the opposite effect, underscoring the importance of dose when it comes to THC and its effects.”

    Childs and her colleagues recruited 42 healthy volunteers 18 to 40 years old who had some experience with cannabis use but who were not daily users.

    Participants were randomly divided into three groups: The low-dose group received a capsule containing 7.5 milligrams of THC; the moderate-dose group received a capsule containing 12.5 milligrams of THC; and a placebo group received a capsule containing none. Neither the participants nor the researchers knew who was in each group.

    “The doses used in the study produce effects that are equivalent to only a few puffs of a cannabis cigarette,” said Childs, noting that it is difficult to compare doses of smoked cannabis to doses of ingested THC. “We didn’t want to include a much larger dose, because we wanted to avoid potential adverse effects or cardiovascular effects that can result from higher doses of THC.”

    Participants attended two four-hour sessions at the University of Chicago, five days apart. At each session, they took their capsule and then relaxed for two hours to allow the THC to be absorbed into the bloodstream.

    During one session, participants were asked to spend 10 minutes preparing for a mock job interview. They were then subjected to a five-minute interview with lab assistants who did not offer any feedback, verbally or through body language, although video display was visible to the participant, showing their performance. Participants were then instructed to count backwards from a five-digit number by subtracting 13, for five minutes — a task that is “very reliably stress-inducing,” Childs said.

    In their second visit, participants were asked to talk to lab assistants about a favorite book or movie for five minutes and then play solitaire for another five minutes.

    Before, during and after each of the two activities, participants rated their stress levels and feelings about the tasks. Blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol, a key stress hormone, were measured at intervals.

    The participants who received 7.5 milligrams of THC reported less stress after the psychosocial test than those given a placebo, and their stress levels dissipated faster after the test.

    Participants who received 12.5 milligrams of THC before the two tasks reported greater negative mood before and throughout the task, and were more likely to rate the psychosocial task as “challenging” and “threatening” beforehand. Participants who received this dose also had more pauses during the mock interview compared to those in the placebo group.

    There were no significant differences in participants’ blood pressure, heart rate or cortisol levels — before, during or after the doses or the tasks.

    “Our findings provide some support for the common claim that cannabis is used to reduce stress and relieve tension and anxiety,” Childs said. “At the same time, our finding that participants in the higher THC group reported small but significant increases in anxiety and negative mood throughout the test supports the idea that THC can also produce the opposite effect.”

    “Studies like these — examining the effects of cannabis and its pharmacological constituents under controlled conditions — are extremely important, considering the widespread use of cannabis for both medical and non-medical purposes,” she said. “Unfortunately, significant regulatory obstacles make it extremely difficult to conduct this type of research — with the result that cannabis is now widely available for medical purposes with minimal scientific foundation.”


  5. Study examines impact of deployment stress on well-being of vets

    June 11, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Boston University Medical Center press release:

    Experiencing stress-related mental health issues following deployment exposures increases risk of reduced well-being in other life domains in the years following military service for veterans. Gender plays an important role in these associations.

    The findings, which appear in Clinical Psychological Science, have implications for better understanding the challenges female and male veterans face upon returning from service and may lead to ways care can be optimized with consideration of the role gender may play.

    According to the researchers, previous studies have shown a relationship between the development of mental health issues, particularly PTSD, and decreased functioning and satisfaction with family and work for veterans. However, gender often has been overlooked as a variable, and the role of particular deployment stressors have not been extensively examined. “Our study illustrates the complex interplay between specific military exposures, mental health, and subsequent post deployment well-being between the genders,” explained lead author Brian Smith, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine and research psychologist in the Women’s Health Sciences Division, National Center for PTSD at VA Boston Healthcare System.

    In this study, which was completed at the VA Boston Healthcare System, 522 male and female Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans completed two surveys. The first was completed within two years of separation from military service, and included questions about veterans’ military experiences as well as their current mental health. The second survey was completed approximately three and a half years later and included questions about functioning and satisfaction in the domains of work, romantic relationships and parenting.

    The researchers concluded that each of the deployment stressors examined — warfare exposure, military sexual harassment and family stressors — had implications for veterans’ subsequent functioning and satisfaction in the areas of work and family. In addition, these exposures were often indirectly linked to functioning and satisfaction via mental health. Interestingly, the links differed between men and women. While PTSD symptoms played an important role for both genders, depression played a role as well, especially for female veterans. For example, PTSD linked all three deployment exposures and subsequent functioning and satisfaction in romantic relationships for men, while both PTSD and depression played significant roles for women. However, it is important to note that there were some similarities in risk as well. In the context of parenting, PTSD linked deployment exposures with reduced functioning for male and female veterans alike, and depression was the most important link in predicting lower satisfaction.

    In addition, there was evidence for direct effects of military exposures on work and family quality of life. Again, some differences between males and females were found. For example, family stressors during deployment were directly associated with increased risk for parental impairment for female veterans, whereas for men the effect was only indirect through PTSD. These findings support the position that men and women may experience different military exposures and react in different ways. “This understanding of risk for reduced well-being, including the role of gender differences, may provide further important insight as to how to best cater post-military services to veterans’ unique needs following military service,” added Smith. “From a clinical perspective, these findings suggest that services aimed at addressing returning veterans’ reintegration into work and family life might pay particular attention to male and female veterans’ experiences while deployed, as well as their current mental health.”


  6. Wearing a ‘heart’ on your sleeve can reduce stress

    June 9, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Royal Holloway London press release:

    New research published in Scientific Reports shows that a heartbeat-like vibration delivered onto the inside of the wrist can make the wearer feel significantly less stressed.

    Researchers from the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London assessed the calming effects of a new wearable device called doppel — a wristband designed to actively reduce stress by using the intuitive responses that we all have to rhythm, and especially to heartbeats.

    Inate rhythm

    Humans naturally respond to rhythm. For example, the tempo of a song can naturally alter our breathing and heart rates. Slower tempos result in lower arousal and positive or calm emotional states, while we associate fast rhythms with arousing emotional states such as joy, excitement, surprise, fear or anger. Beyond music, several studies report similar effects in responses to biological rhythms, and the heartbeat is perhaps the most ubiquitous biological rhythm in nature.

    High arousal is correlated with increased heart rate, whereas calmness is physiologically correlated with lower heart rate,” said Professor Manos Tsakiris from the Department of Psychology. “We also intuitively associate higher and lower heart rate with anxiety or high arousal, and calmness. The design of doppel, the device that we used in our study, was inspired by these insights.”

    The art of public speaking

    To test the efficacy of doppel, the researchers exposed volunteers to a socially stressful situation and measured their physiological arousal and their reported anxiety levels.

    In a controlled, single-blind study, two groups of participants were asked to prepare a public speech — a widely used psychological task that consistently increases stress. All participants wore the device on their wrist and a cover story was used to suggest to participants that the device was measuring blood pressure during the anticipation of the task. Importantly, for only one of the two groups of participants, the device was turned on and delivered a heartbeat-like vibration at a slower frequency than the participants’ resting heart rate, while they were preparing their speech.

    The researchers measured both physiological arousal and subjective reports of anxiety. The use of doppel had a tangible and measurable calming effect across both physiological and psychological levels. Only the participants who felt the heartbeat-like vibration displayed lower increases in skin conductance responses and lower anxiety levels.

    “Wearable devices are becoming ubiquitous in everyday life, but across the board their primary aim is to quantify our activity. The results we got suggest that, rather than measuring ourselves, we can instead harvest our natural responses to heartbeat like rhythms in ways that can assist people in their everyday life.” said Professor Tsakiris.

    Find out more about the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway, and read more about Professor Tsakiris’ research into the heartbeat.


  7. Depression risk following natural disaster can be predicted via pupil dilation

    June 7, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Binghamton University, State University of New York press release:

    Pupil dilation could identify which individuals are at greatest risk for depression following disaster-related stress, and help lead to targeted interventions, according to new research from Binghamton University, State University of New York.

    Researchers at Binghamton University recruited 51 women who were living in the greater Binghamton, N.Y., area at the time of a catastrophic 2011 flood and who reported a life event indicating that they or their child had been impacted by the flood to some extent. To participate in the study, women were either required to have a lifetime history of major depressive disorder or no lifetime diagnosis of any DSM-IV mood disorders. The researchers’ findings indicated that decreased pupil dilation to emotional facial expressions predicted a significant increase in post-flood depressive symptoms, but only among women who experienced higher levels of flood-related stress.

    “One of the theories of depression is that there’s a lot of vulnerabilities for depression that lay latent until stress activates them,” said Mary Woody, Binghamton graduate student and lead author of the study. “Our idea with the flood is. Here’s this big objective experiment where there’s a disaster outside of everyone’s control, and it’s happening to the community and there’s kind of varying levels of stress that are happening at each of these family dyads. Our idea was to look at a vulnerability factor/risk factor pupil response and see if we could predict which families have the most depression following the flood if they had more of this particular risk factor.”

    The findings suggest that interventions designed to target deficits in cognitive-affective responding may be effective for prevention and intervention programs for depression following natural disasters.

    “In light of the current findings, it is certainly plausible that individuals displaying decreased pupillary response to emotional stimuli and relatively higher levels of disaster-related stress may be good candidates for cognitive therapy to alleviate their depression,” said Brandon Gibb, professor of psychology at Binghamton University, director of the Mood Disorders Institute and Center for Affective Science, and co-author of the study.

    The study is the first to examine how pupillary response to emotional stimuli may interact with life stress to predict prospective depression. If replicated and extended, the current findings may further our understanding of how cognitive-affective response plays a role in stress and depression and also aid clinicians in identifying those most at risk following a natural disaster, wrote the researchers.

    “After natural disasters only about 20-25 percent of people are going to go on to develop depression. Because there’s limited resources following a natural disaster, it will be way too expensive for us to be able to give them the psychiatric care,” said Woody. “One of the implications in this project is to be able to identify whom might be at greatest risk for depression following a natural disaster, so we may be able to design some sort of intervention that targets those individuals, and it is more cost effective in that way.”

    The paper, “Pupillary response to emotional stimuli as a risk factor for depressive symptoms following a natural disaster: The 2011 Binghamton flood,” will be published in Clinical Psychological Science.


  8. Too much stress for the mother affects the baby through amniotic fluid

    June 6, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Zürich press release:

    If the mother is stressed over a longer period of time during pregnancy, the concentration of stress hormones in amniotic fluid rises, as proven by an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Zurich. Short-term stress situations, however, do not seem to have an unfavorable effect on the development of the fetus.

    The feeling of constantly being on edge, always having to take care of everything, not being able to find a balance: If an expectant mother is strongly stressed over a longer period of time, the risk of the unborn child developing a mental or physical illness later in life — such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or cardiovascular disease — increases. The precise mechanism of how stress affects the baby in the womb is not yet been completely clarified. In cooperation with the University Hospital Zurich and the Max Planck Institute Munich, researchers of the University of Zurich have discovered that physical stress to the mother can change the metabolism in the placenta and influence the growth of the unborn child.

    Stress hormone affects the growth of the fetus

    When stressed, the human body releases hormones to handle the higher stress, such as the so-called corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which results in an increase in stress hormone cortisol. This mechanism also persists during pregnancy, and the placenta, which supplies the fetus with nutrients, can also emit stress hormone CRH. As a result, a small amount of this hormone enters the amniotic fluid and fetal metabolism. Animal studies have shown that this hormone can boost the development of the unborn child: Unfavorable growth conditions in the woman lead to an increased release of the hormone, thereby improving the chances of survival in case of a premature birth. Under certain circumstances, however, this increase can also have negative consequences: “An excessive acceleration of growth may occur at the expense of the proper maturation of the organs,” says Ulrike Ehlert, psychologist and program coordinator.

    Short-term stress — no effect

    How does mental stress to the mother affect the release of stress hormones in the placenta? The research team tested 34 healthy pregnant women, who took part in amniocentesis within the scope of prenatal diagnostics. Such a test constitutes a stress situation for the expectant mother as her body secretes cortisol in the short term. To determine whether the placenta also releases stress hormones, the researchers compared the cortisol level in the mother’s saliva with the CRH level in the amniotic fluid — and determined that there was no connection: “The baby obviously remains protected against negative effects in case of acute, short-term stress to the mother,” Ehlert concludes.

    Longer-term stress can be measured in amniotic fluid

    The situation of the results regarding prolonged stress is completely different, as was determined using questionnaires for diagnosing chronic social overload: “If the mother is stressed for a longer period of time, the CRH level in the amniotic fluid increases,” says Pearl La Marca-Ghaemmaghami, psychologist and program researcher. This higher concentration of stress hormone in turn accelerates the growth of the fetus. As a result, the effect of the hormone on growth is confirmed, as has been observed in animals such as tadpoles: If their pond is on the verge of drying out, CRH is released in tadpoles, thereby driving their metamorphosis. “The corticotropin-releasing hormone CRH obviously plays a complex and dynamic role in the development of the human fetus, which needs to be better understood,” La Marca-Ghaemmaghami summarizes.

    Strengthening mental resources with specialized help

    The psychologists advise pregnant women who are exposed to longer-term stress situations to “seek support from a therapist to handle the stress better.” Stress during pregnancy cannot always be avoided, however. “A secure bond between the mother and child after the birth can neutralize negative effects of stress during pregnancy,” La Marca-Ghaemmaghami says.


  9. Study looks at wearable technology for monitoring brain

    June 4, 2017 by Ashley

    From the American Pain Society press release:

    What can we learn about emotions, the brain and behavior from a wristband? Plenty, according to a prominent MIT engineer and researcher in her plenary session address at the American Pain Society Annual Scientific Meeting.

    Rosalind Picard, ScD, FIEEE and her team at MIT pioneered the use of wearable technology to recognize changes in human emotion. They have made several new discoveries, including that autonomic activity measured through a sweat response is not as general as previously thought, and carries more specific information related to different kinds of brain activity.

    “The skin is purely innervated by the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system,” said Picard. “We can observe increases in sympathetic brain activation by monitoring subtle electrical changes across the surface of the skin.”

    Sympathetic activation occurs when experiencing excitement or stress, whether physical, emotional or cognitive. In some medical conditions, such as epilepsy, it shows significant increases related to certain areas of the brain being activated.

    Wristwatch-like devices can employ sensors for continuous, real-time data gathering. Picard explained that changes in electrodermal activity occur as the result of atypical activation in deep regions of the brain. This discovery already has been commercialized for use in seizure monitoring.

    Seizures occur when there are abnormal, excessive or synchronous neuronal activity, and can cause convulsions evidenced by violent shaking and loss of control and consciousness.

    When someone has recurring seizures, the diagnosis usually is epilepsy. When some regions of the brain, such as those involved with anxiety, pain, stress and memory are activated during a seizure, they can elicit patterns of electrical changes in the skin.

    Picard reported her group has built an automated machine learning method that can detect compulsive seizures by combining measures of electrodermal activity on the wrist with measures of motion. The wrist-worn detector is now more than 96 percent accurate for detecting convulsive seizures.

    While they have not demonstrated detection of non-convulsive seizures, 42 percent to 86 percent of non-convulsive, complex partial seizures also have significant electrodermal responses.

    Picard said other clinical applications for wristband electrodermal monitoring include anxiety, mood and stress monitoring and measuring analgesic responses. “We know that pain exacerbates anxiety and stress and we are doing more studies to determine how reductions in anxiety and stress could indicate an analgesic response activated by a pain management therapy, said Picard.


  10. Study looks at why childhood trauma can lead to increased risk for psychosis

    June 3, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    Childhood trauma is the experience of a highly distressing event or situation during one’s youth, which is beyond a minor’s capacity for coping or control. Trauma encompasses many possible events, from enduring sexual or physical violence to facing the death of a parent. While such events would be painful for anyone, some children who experience trauma become particularly susceptible to psychosis. That is, they may become more prone to experiencing unusual thoughts, beliefs, and experiences that might make it hard to distinguish things as either real or imagined. Before most people experience full-blown psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, they are often diagnosed as being at clinical high risk (CHR) for psychosis.

    A small but growing number of studies on the CHR population have begun to focus on identifying possible factors that predict the conversion to psychotic disorders, such as the role of childhood trauma.

    Although the majority of children who experience trauma do not exhibit signs of psychosis later, a sizeable share (by some estimates as much as 35%) of children go on to experience psychotic episodes. These can occur in later childhood or young adulthood. At worst, these events require psychiatric hospitalization, which can become yet another form of trauma. Ideally, health care professionals would be able to spot the warning signs of psychosis early. Based on what we know so far, we can draw provisional conclusions about particular types of childhood trauma that are linked to increased risk for psychosis: bullying, sexual abuse, and emotional neglect.

    While various models have been proposed to explain why certain children who experienced trauma become susceptible to psychosis, physicians still do not have a clear understanding of this process. A recent comprehensive literature review, published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, by Dr. Danessa Mayo and colleagues offers a model of the trauma-psychosis risk cycle that results from experiencing childhood trauma. According to the model, early childhood trauma interacts with a child’s genetic vulnerability and propels them towards greater likelihood of an altered developmental trajectory. Factors such as poor emotional control, limited coping skills, poor social functioning, and increased stress sensitivity increase a child’s risk of experiencing psychotic-like symptoms (e.g., unusual thoughts, suspiciousness, perceptual disturbances). The experience of having psychotic-like symptoms and a trauma history creates increased vulnerability for future trauma, creating a vicious circle.

    Early psychosis programs serve the vital function of preventing and reducing the severity of psychosis. In their review Dr. Mayo and colleagues unearth a benefit to such CHR screenings for trauma history. By closely analyzing the findings in a large sample of CHR screenings, physicians can effectively deduce early childhood predictors of conversion to psychosis. This work is ongoing, and a more consistent and specific definition of what is considered “trauma” should be determined. It will also be necessary to pay particular attention to the experience of members of different ethnic groups and races, as well as gender. It is possible that these variables impact the types of childhood traumas that later cause psychosis.

    Dr. Mayo and colleagues recommend that physicians on the front lines of dealing with CHR youth avail themselves of targeted training for assessing and treating individuals with both trauma and psychosis. In addition, physicians should develop and adhere to standard protocols for assessing a history of childhood trauma. Finally, physicians should document any connections they uncover between childhood trauma and other health concerns. As Dr. Mayo notes, undertaking this work is vital: “We can promote resilience and mitigate the vulnerability of CHR individuals to developing a psychotic disorder and improve their chances of recovery.”