1. Facial models suggest less may be more for a successful smile

    July 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the PLOS press release:

    Research using computer-animated 3D faces suggests that less is more for a successful smile, according to a study published June 28, 2017 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Nathaniel Helwig from the University of Minnesota, US, and colleagues.

    Facial cues are an important form of nonverbal communication in social interactions, and previous studies indicate that computer-generated facial models can be useful for systematically studying how changes in expression over space and time affect how people read faces. The authors of the present study presented a series of 3D computer-animated facial models to 802 participants. Each model’s expression was altered by varying the mouth angle, extent of smile and the degree to which teeth were on show, as well as how symmetrically the smile developed, and participants were asked to rate smiles based on effectiveness, genuineness, pleasantness and perceived emotional intent.

    The researchers found that a successful smile — one that is rated effective, genuine and pleasant — may contradict the “more is always better” principle, as a bigger smile which shows more teeth may in fact be perceived less well. Successful smiles therefore have an optimal balance of teeth, mouth angle and smile extent to hit a smile ‘sweet spot’. Smiles were also rated as more successful if they developed quite symmetrically, with the left and right side of the faces being synced to within 125 milliseconds.

    According to the authors, using 3D computer amination may help to develop a more complete spatiotemporal understanding of our emotional perceptions of facial expression. Since some people have medical conditions such as stroke which hinder facial expressions, with possible psychological and social consequences, these results could also inform current medical practices for facial reanimation surgery and rehabilitation.


  2. Persistent mental distress linked to higher mortality risk in heart patients

    by Ashley

    From the BMJ press release:

    Persistent moderate to severe mental distress is linked to a significantly heightened risk of death among patients with stable coronary heart disease, finds research published online in the journal Heart.

    But no such association was found for those experiencing persistent mild or occasional distress over the long term, the findings show.

    Many studies have linked anxiety/depression with an increased risk of heart attack/stroke, but these have mostly been done fairly soon after the event, and been based on a single assessment, say the researchers. And the definitions of chronic/persistent stress in other longer term studies have varied widely.

    In a bid to get round some of these issues the researchers looked at the association between occasional or persistent mental distress and the risk of death in 950 people with stable coronary heart disease who were between 31 and 74 years old.

    All the participants were part of the Long Term Intervention with Pravastatin in Ischaemic Disease Trial and had had a heart attack or been admitted to hospital for unstable angina in the preceding three to 36 months.

    They filled in a validated general health questionnaire (GHQ30) at six months, 1, 2, and 4 years after the event to gauge their levels of mental distress.

    This was graded according to severity and the length of time it lasted at each of the assessments: never distressed; occasional (of any severity); persistent mild distress on three or more occasions; and persistent moderate distress on three or more occasions. The participants’ health and survival were then tracked for an average of 12 years.

    During the monitoring period, 398 people died from all causes and 199 died from cardiovascular disease.

    The questionnaire responses showed that 587 (62%) of participants said they had not been distressed at any of the assessments, while around one in four (27%) said they had experienced occasional distress of any severity.

    Around one in 10 (8%) said they had experienced persistent mild distress, and 35 people (3.7%) complained of persistent moderate distress.

    People in this last group were nearly four times as likely to have died of cardiovascular disease and nearly three times as likely to have died from any cause as those who said they had not been distressed at any of the assessments.

    No such associations were observed for those who said they had experienced persistent mild distress or those who said they had only experienced it occasionally.

    The findings held true even after taking account of other potentially influential risk factors.

    This is an observational study, so no firm conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect, added to which confining the assessments to a period of four years might have underestimated the true impact of persistent distress, caution the researchers.

    Nevertheless, they conclude that the increase in risk of death was “substantial.” And they go on to say: “These findings suggest that in patients with stable [coronary heart disease], long term mortality risk is related to the cumulative burden of psychological distress.”

    In a linked editorial, Dr Gjin Ndrepepa of the Technical University, Munich, Germany, describes the research as an “important and elaborative study which helps to uncover the intricate relationship between psychological distress and cardiovascular disease.”

    But he points out that although the GHQ-30 is very reliable, it cannot pinpoint the specific nature of stress and is no longer widely used for assessing it. “The possibility is real that [coronary heart disease] itself is the source of distress and a determinant of poor outcome,” he writes. And the researchers didn’t account for the impact of traumatic life events or socioeconomic factors, he highlights.

    Nevertheless, mental distress activates the sympathetic nervous system and boosts stress hormone levels, which, if persistent, can produce potentially harmful physiological changes, some of which may be permanent, he says. And distress can also prompt unhealthy behaviours.

    Health professionals should routinely include screening for mental distress in the care provided to patients with coronary heart disease, he suggests.


  3. Controlling a single brain chemical may help expand window for learning language and music

    July 19, 2017 by Ashley

    From the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital press release:

    Learning language or music is usually a breeze for children, but as even young adults know, that capacity declines dramatically with age. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital scientists have evidence from mice that restricting a key chemical messenger in the brain helps extend efficient auditory learning much later in life.

    Researchers showed that limiting the supply or the function of the neuromodulator adenosine in a brain structure called the auditory thalamus preserved the ability of adult mice to learn from passive exposure to sound much as young children learn from the soundscape of their world. The study appears June 30 in the journal Science.

    “By disrupting adenosine signaling in the auditory thalamus, we have extended the window for auditory learning for the longest period yet reported, well into adulthood and far beyond the usual critical period in mice,” said corresponding author Stanislav Zakharenko, M.D., Ph.D., a member of the St. Jude Department of Developmental Neurobiology. “These results offer a promising strategy to extend the same window in humans to acquire language or musical ability by restoring plasticity in critical regions of the brain, possibly by developing drugs that selectively block adenosine activity.”

    The auditory thalamus is the brain’s relay station where sound is collected and sent to the auditory cortex for processing. The auditory thalamus and cortex rely on the neurotransmitter glutamate to communicate. Adenosine was known to reduce glutamate levels by inhibiting this neurotransmitter’s release. This study also linked adenosine inhibition to reduced brain plasticity and the end of efficient auditory learning.

    Researchers used a variety of methods to demonstrate that reducing adenosine or blocking the A1 adenosine receptor that is essential to the chemical messenger’s function changed how adult mice responded to sound.

    Much as young children pick up language simply by hearing it spoken, researchers showed that when adenosine was reduced or the A1 receptor blocked in the auditory thalamus, adult mice passively exposed to a tone responded to the same tone stronger when it was played weeks or months later. These adult mice also gained an ability to distinguish between very close tones (or tones with similar frequencies). Mice usually lack this “perfect pitch” ability.

    Researchers also showed that the experimental mice retained the improved tone discrimination for weeks.

    “Taken together, the results demonstrated that the window for effective auditory learning re-opened in the mice and that they retained the information,” Zakharenko said.

    Among the strategies researchers used to inhibit adenosine activity was the experimental compound FR194921, which selectively blocks the A1 receptor. If paired with sound exposure, the compound rejuvenated auditory learning in adult mice. “That suggests it might be possible to extend the window in humans by targeting the A1 receptor for drug development,” Zakharenko said.

    Zakharenko and his colleagues also linked the age-related decline in ease of auditory learning to an age-related increase in an enzyme (ecto-5′-nucleotidase) involved in adenosine production in the auditory thalamus. Researchers reported that mature mice had higher levels than newborn mice of the enzyme and adenosine in the auditory thalamus. Deletion of this enzyme returned the adenosine level in adult mice to the level of newborn mice. Therefore, researchers are currently looking for compounds that target ecto-5′-nucleotidase as an alternative approach for extending the window of auditory learning.


  4. Study suggests hippocampus underlies the link between slowed walking and mental decline

    by Ashley

    From the Health Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh press release:

    The connection between slowed walking speed and declining mental acuity appears to arise in the right hippocampus, a finger-shaped region buried deep in the brain at ear-level, according to a 14-year study conducted by scientists at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

    The finding, published today in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, indicates that older patients may benefit if their doctors regularly measure their walking speed and watch for changes over time, which could be early signs of cognitive decline and warrant referral to a specialist for diagnostic testing.

    “Prevention and early treatment may hold the key to reducing the global burden of dementia, but the current screening approaches are too invasive and costly to be widely used,” said lead author Andrea Rosso, Ph.D., M.P.H., assistant professor in Pitt Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology. “Our study required only a stopwatch, tape and an 18-foot-long hallway, along with about five minutes of time once every year or so.”

    Rosso and her colleagues assessed 175 older adults ages 70 to 79 when they enrolled in the Health, Aging and Body Composition (Health ABC) study in Pittsburgh or Memphis, Tennessee. At the beginning of the study, the participants were all in good mental health and had normal brain scans. Multiple times over 14 years, the participants walked an 18-foot stretch of hallway at what they deemed a normal walking pace while a research assistant timed them. At the conclusion of the study, the participants were tested again for their mental acuity and received brain scans.

    As previous studies have shown, slowing in the participants’ gait, or walking speed, was associated with cognitive impairment. However, Rosso’s research determined that participants with a slowing gait and cognitive decline also experienced shrinkage of their right hippocampus, an area of the brain important to both memory and spatial orientation. It was the only area of the brain where the researchers found a shrinking volume to be related to both gait slowing and cognitive impairment.

    Rosso’s study also found gait slowing over an extended period of time to be a stronger predictor of cognitive decline than simply slowing at a single time point, which is what other, similar research evaluated. All the participants slowed over time, but those who slowed by 0.1 seconds more per year than their peers were 47 percent more likely to develop cognitive impairment. The finding held even when the researchers took into account slowing due to muscle weakness, knee pain and diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.

    “A fraction of a second is subtle, but over 14 years, or even less, you would notice,” said Rosso, also an assistant professor in Pitt’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute. “People should not just write off these changes in walking speed. It may not just be that grandma’s getting slow — it could be an early indicator of something more serious.”

    While the team noted that slowing gait speed is not a sensitive enough measure to diagnose a cognitive issue, they argue that it should be included in regular geriatric evaluations to determine if there’s a need for further testing. If cognitive decline can be detected early, there are therapies that can delay its onset, and the extra time could allow patients and families to plan for the eventual need for assisted care.

    “Typically when physicians notice a slowing gait in their patients, they’ll consider it a mechanical issue and refer the patient to physical therapy,” said Rosso. “What we’re finding is that physicians also should consider that there may be a brain pathology driving the slowing gait and refer the patient for a cognitive evaluation.”


  5. Study analyzes secrets of success of tourism entrepreneurs

    by Ashley

    From the University of Surrey press release:

    University of Surrey research into innovative entrepreneurs starting to work in tourism has found, in some of the first analysis undertaken, how they have to use initiative and hard work – and often work for nothing – to overcome the barriers in setting up their innovation.

    The researchers, who included University of Surrey’s Dr Isabel Rodriguez and Professor Allan Williams, described the research as vital because the innovation by entrepreneurs who are “new to tourism” is poorly understood.

    Dr Rodriguez said: “We were really interested in this essential area of research as we wanted to show that the innovation process in services, especially by new to tourism entrepreneurs, is a complex and experimental one.

    “The tourism entrepreneurs face many challenges and successfully overcame them by being highly dynamic and market-driven. We wanted to highlight how they succeeded doing this in an uncertain process.”

    Entrepreneurs use creative strategies to overcome these challenges and succeed despite their lack of financial and human resources. To keep afloat they can save money by running the business from home, “share” employees with other companies, offer a share of the business in return for specialist advice, as business owners work for less than market rates.

    Another of entrepreneurs’ key strategies to overcome the lack of resources was building ties and networks with different stakeholders, to ensure that the innovations are successfully developed and implemented.

    The research revealed some of the obstacles the entrepreneurs had to overcome. These included some areas of the tourism industry being behind the times when it came to using technology, which empowered the entrepreneur to apply technological knowledge to attract customers.

    Another issue for the entrepreneurs, who often had little or no relevant background in tourism, included getting the customer to adopt new technology that the industry was not familiar with, and ensuring acceptance of the innovation, for example by offering free trials. This often overcame the consumer resistance.

    This might include using apps to order food in a restaurant, to decide at a ski resort whether or not to ski that day, or to obtain unused hotel parking spaces when commuting.

    The entrepreneurs’ other successful techniques included ensuring that the customer was an integral part of the design of the product from the early days of the innovation process, and being flexible to the customers’ needs.

    The University of Surrey research showed that entrepreneurs needed particular characteristics and approaches to succeed, including using experimenting with their approach early in the process, and working with a functionally diverse team to utilise plenty of different skills. Another successful approach included carrying out many development activities concurrently rather than in a set sequence, to overcome problems as soon as they were encountered.

    Dr Rodriguez said: “This research sheds more light on how entrepreneurs are successfully using technology to transform the tourism sector despite any potential consumer resistance.

    “It highlights that entrepreneurs have to work hard to get their ideas to the market – but with perseverance and hard work they will successfully introduce innovations that make an impact in the tourism sector.”


  6. Children play key role in making early education successful

    by Ashley

    From the Northwestern University press release:

    The way children engage with their teachers, peers and tasks is vital to the success of early-childhood education but greatly underestimated, according to new Northwestern University research.

    Contrary to conventional wisdom, emotionally supportive, well-organized and stimulating pre-kindergarten classrooms may not be enough — especially for low-income children, according to the study.

    “Children bring a lot to the table,” said Terri Sabol, an assistant professor of human development and social policy in the School of Education and Social Policy, who led the research. “It’s important to look beyond overall classroom quality and capture children’s individual experiences in classroom settings.”

    Children’s individual engagement was related to their developmental gains, even after accounting for emotional support, classroom organization and instructional support at the classroom level.

    Positive engagement with teachers was related to improved literacy skills, and positive engagement with peers was related to improved language and self-regulatory skills. In addition, positive engagement with tasks was related to closer relationships with teachers.

    Children who were negatively engaged in the classroom — those who got into conflicts with teachers or peers — were at a comparative disadvantage in terms of their school readiness, the study found. Children with higher levels of negative engagement performed at lower levels across nearly all of the academic, language, and social outcomes measured, including lower language, literacy and self-regulatory skills.

    High-quality early childhood education has long been hailed as a promising approach to narrowing the achievement gap. But assessment of early-childhood education programs has emphasized teachers, often missing the central role that children play in their own development, according to the study of low-income, ethnically diverse students.

    Conducted by researchers at Northwestern, Montana State University Billings and the University of Virginia, the study was published in the journal Child Development.

    The study looked at 211 low-income, racially and ethnically diverse 4-year-olds in 49 classrooms in state and federally funded preschool programs. Researchers measured the children’s engagement in the classroom by observing their positive and negative interactions with teachers, peers and tasks.

    “We have to think about children as active participants in their own education when we are devising interventions,” said Sabol, who also is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern and leads the University’s Development, Early Education and Policy Lab.

    The lab produces innovative and functional scholarship aimed at improving the lives of low-income children.

    A former first grade teacher, Sabol personally observed these patterns in her classroom at Lavizzo Elementary School on Chicago’s South Side, where she taught first graders with Teach For America before enrolling in graduate school.

    The student body at Lavizzo is 96 percent low income, according to the 2015-16 Illinois Report Card.

    “After teaching 35 low-income first graders, I took a step back and tried to understand why is it that by the time the kids are in first grade, they’re already behind before they even started,” Sabol said. “This study takes some of the emphasis off of teachers and really unpacks the positive and negative effects of children’s engagement on their own learning.”


  7. Study suggests association between gut bacteria and emotion

    by Ashley

    From the University of California – Los Angeles Health Sciences press release:

    Researchers have identified gut microbiota that interact with brain regions associated with mood and behavior. This may be the first time that behavioral and neurobiological differences associated with microbial composition in healthy humans have been identified.

    Brain-gut-microbiota interactions may play an important role in human health and behavior. Previous research suggests that microbiota, a community of microorganisms in the gut, can influence behavior and emotion. Rodent models have demonstrated the effects of gut microbiota on emotional and social behaviors, such as anxiety and depression. There is, however, little evidence of this in humans.

    For this study the researchers sought to identify brain and behavioral characteristics of healthy women clustered by gut microbiota profiles.

    Forty women supplied fecal samples for profiling, and magnetic resonance images were taken of their brains as they viewed images of individuals, activities or things that evoked emotional responses. The women were divided by their gut bacteria composition into two groups: 33 had more of a bacterium called Bacteroides; the remaining seven had more of the Prevotella bacteria. The Bacteroides group showed greater thickness of the gray matter in the frontal cortex and insula, brain regions involved with complex processing of information. They also had larger volumes of the hippocampus, a region involved in memory processing. The Prevotella group, by contrast, showed more connections between emotional, attentional and sensory brain regions and lower brain volumes in several regions, such as the hippocampus. This group’s hippocampus was less active while the women were viewing negative images. They also rated higher levels of negative feelings such as anxiety, distress and irritability after looking at photos with negative images than did the Bacteroides group.

    These results support the concept of brain-gut-microbiota interactions in healthy humans. Researchers do not yet know whether bacteria in the gut influence the development of the brain and its activity when unpleasant emotional content is encountered, or if existing differences in the brain influence the type of bacteria that reside in the gut. Both possibilities, however, could lead to important changes in how one thinks about human emotions.


  8. A new way out of the cycle of rejection

    by Ashley

    From the Society for Consumer Psychology press release:

    Have you ever hosted a party, but as the day approaches, your closest friends say they won’t be able to attend? Or maybe you sent a friend request to someone on Facebook who never responded, or weren’t invited to an event that most of your friends are attending.

    People in these situations usually feel socially excluded, which often leads to antisocial and self-defeating responses. What would it take to persuade people to counteract this spiral toward isolation and instead re-engage in healthy relationships?

    Jayati Sinha, PhD, a professor of marketing at Florida International University, suspected that messages that appeal to emotion — rather than rationality — would be more successful in motivating people in these situations to pursue social activities again.

    When people feel excluded, they keep thinking about that negative experience, and this depletes mental resources,” Sinha says. “This makes it harder to process rational details, so an emotional message is more appealing.”

    To test this hypothesis, Sinha’s team asked participants in one group to write about details of an experience when they felt excluded, and another group to write about an event when they felt included. The third group wrote about a neutral event (the experience of waking up the previous day). Then they showed groups different types of blood donation advertisements. The emotional ad emphasized that blood donation was the gift of life, while the other ad emphasized the number of lives saved.

    The group that had written about feeling socially excluded was much more likely to prefer the emotional ad, while the other groups preferred the rational ad.

    To test whether the messages would translate into action, the researchers conducted another experiment in which the participants viewed different messages about recycling. The emotional ad stated that “The plastic bottles you recycle today will become a new carpet in the future,” while the rational ad presented facts about the number of recycled bottled needed to make a carpet. The participants who were primed to feel socially excluded were much more likely to recycle the plastic juice bottles they received during the experiment if they had seen the emotional message, but the rational ad was more effective for the other groups.

    These findings offer hope to groups that are at risk of feeling isolated, such as the elderly, disabled, widowed, divorced or people living alone, Sinha says. Policy makers and businesses might have more success helping these groups participate in positive activities if messages focus on visual images and words that arouse emotions, rather than highlighting product benefits, deals and convincing arguments.

    “People who feel excluded may be struggling to take care of themselves, so the goal is to communicate to them in ways that persuade them to make changes that improve their quality of life,” Sinha says.


  9. Training changes the way the brain pays attention

    July 18, 2017 by Ashley

    From the PLOS press release:

    Behavioral training changes the way attention facilitates information processing in the human brain, a study publishing on June 27 in the open access journal PLOS Biology led by Sirawaj Itthipuripat, at University of California San Diego, has found.

    After moving to a new city, driving to work on the second or third day may feel very different than it felt on the first day. Over time, drivers will feel more at ease on the road, not only because they can better remember which road signs to attend to or where to turn, but also because they will have an actual experience of doing so. This type of cognitive phenomenon applies not only for everyday-life activities like driving, but also for career-related skills that require training and expertise such as reading x-rays and excelling in sporting activities.

    The scientists monitored behavioral performance and brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG) for over 1 month in human participants performing a computer task that required them to direct their attention to a visual stimulus.

    They discovered that early in the task, attention enhanced the magnitude of sensory-evoked responses in the visual cortex. Using computational modeling, they also found that this attentional gain predicted the benefit of training observed in behavioral performance. Surprisingly, after extended training, this attentional gain disappeared, even though behavioral performance was still improved compared to before training. Their modelling experiments indicated that after extended training noise-reduction in brain activity predicted the benefit of training in behavioral performance.

    Interestingly, these findings also help reconcile contradictory results observed across studies conducted in different species. Specifically, in monkeys, previous research has demonstrated that changes in neural noise play a more dominant role than attentional gain in supporting attention-related benefits in behavioral performance. The current findings in humans suggest that this particular result from monkey studies could be due to non-human primates being highly-trained.

    According to Itthipuripat, “Most primate studies have to train subjects over many months to perform behavioral tasks that humans can conceptualize and perform well within 2-3 minutes. So, it is not surprising that many times, results obtained from humans and monkeys diverge from one another. Here we had to train human participants across many days to observe converging results across the two species. Our research, which demonstrates that attentional mechanisms could change with training, teaches us that we can’t fully understand how attention operates at the neural level without understanding how attentional mechanisms may change through a course of training. Thus, our research has important implications for understanding attentional mechanisms, as well as for generalizing results from studies using different species that often require substantially different amounts of training.”


  10. Study suggests social status of listener alters our voice

    by Ashley

    From the University of Stirling press release:

    People tend to change the pitch of their voice depending on who they are talking to, and how dominant they feel, a study by the University of Stirling has found.

    The psychology research, published in PLOS ONE, put participants through a simulated job interview task and discovered that individuals’ vocal characteristics — particularly pitch — are altered in response to people of different social status.

    Regardless of self-perceived social status, people tend to talk to high status individuals using a higher pitch.

    Dr Viktoria Mileva, a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Stirling, said: “A deep, masculine voice sounds dominant, especially in men, while the opposite is true of a higher pitched voice. So, if someone perceives their interviewer to be more dominant than them, they raise their pitch. This may be a signal of submissiveness, to show the listener that you are not a threat, and to avoid possible confrontations.

    “These changes in our speech may be conscious or unconscious but voice characteristics appear to be an important way to communicate social status. We found both men and women alter their pitch in response to people they think are dominant and prestigious.”

    The researchers also found that participants who think they are dominant — who use methods like manipulation, coercion, and intimidation to acquire social status — are less likely to vary their pitch and will speak in a lower tone when talking to someone of a high social status.

    Individuals who rate themselves as high in prestige — they believe people look up to them and value their opinions, thereby granting them social status — do not change how loud they are speaking, no matter who they are speaking to. This may signal that they are more calm and in control of a situation.

    The participants responded to introductory, personal, and interpersonal interview questions. They lowered the pitch of their voice most in response to the more complex, interpersonal questions, for example when explaining a conflict situation to an employer.

    Dr Mileva added: “Signals and perceptions of human social status have an effect on virtually every human interaction, ranging from morphological characteristics — such as face shape — to body posture, specific language use, facial expressions and voices.

    “Understanding what these signals are, and what their effects are, will help us comprehend an essential part of human behaviour.”

    Experts believe the vocal changes identified in this study could be true for other situations where there are perceived social status differences between two people talking. This includes talking with a rival on the football pitch or interacting with a colleague.