1. What are memories made of?

    February 12, 2018 by Ashley

    From the University of Colorado at Boulder press release:

    Ask a nonscientist what memories are made of and you’ll likely conjure images of childhood birthday parties or wedding days. Charles Hoeffer thinks about proteins.

    For five years, the assistant professor of integrative physiology at CU Boulder has been working to better understand a protein called AKT, which is ubiquitous in brain tissue and instrumental in enabling the brain to adapt to new experiences and lay down new memories.

    Until now, scientists have known very little about what it does in the brain.

    But in a new paper funded by the National Institutes of Health, Hoeffer and his co-authors spell it out for the first time, showing that AKT comes in three distinct varieties residing in different kinds of brain cells and affecting brain health in very distinct ways.

    The discovery could lead to new, more targeted treatments for everything from glioblastoma — the brain cancer Sen. John McCain has — to Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia.

    “AKT is a central protein that has been implicated in a bevy of neurological diseases yet we know amazingly little about it,” Hoeffer said. “Our paper is the first to comprehensively examine what its different forms are doing in the brain and where.”

    Discovered in the 1970s and known best as an “oncogene” (one that, when mutated, can promote cancer), AKT has more recently been identified as a key player in promoting “synaptic plasticity,” the brain’s ability to strengthen cellular connections in response to experience.

    “Let’s say you see a great white shark and you are scared and your brain wants to form a memory of what’s going on. You have to make new proteins to encode that memory,” he said. AKT is one of the first proteins to come online, a central switch that turns on the memory factory.

    But not all AKTs are created equal.

    For the study, Hoeffer’s team silenced the three different isoforms, or varieties, of AKT in mice and observed their brain activity.

    They made a number of key discoveries:

    AKT2 is found exclusively in astroglia, the supportive, star-shaped cells in the brain and spinal cord that are often impacted in brain cancer and brain injury.

    “That is a really important finding,” said co-author Josien Levenga, who worked on the project as a postdoctoral researcher at CU Boulder. “If you could develop a drug that targeted only AKT2 without impacting other forms, it might be more effective in treating certain issues with fewer side-effects.”

    The researchers also found that AKT1 is ubiquitous in neurons and appears to be the most important form in promoting the strengthening of synapses in response to experience, aka memory formation. (This finding is in line with previous research showing that mutations in AKT1 boost risk of schizophrenia and other brain disorders associated with a flaw in the way a patient perceives or remembers experiences.)

    AKT3 appears to play a key role in brain growth, with mice whose AKT3 gene is silenced showing smaller brain size.

    “Before this, there was an assumption that they all did basically the same thing in the same cells in the same way. Now we know better,” Hoeffer said.

    He notes that pan-AKT inhibitors have already been developed for cancer treatment, but he envisions a day when drugs could be developed to target more specific versions of the protein (AKT1 enhancers for Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia, AKT2 inhibitors for cancer), leaving the others forms untouched, preventing side-effects.

    More animal research is underway to determine what happens to behavior when different forms of the protein go awry.

    “Isoform specific treatments hold great promise for the design of targeted therapies to treat neurological diseases with much greater efficacy and accuracy than those utilizing a one-size-fits-all approach,” the authors conclude. “This study is an important step in that direction.”


  2. Study looks at what makes children with autism less social than their peers

    by Ashley

    From the University of California – Riverside press release:

    Pick a hand, any hand. That familiar refrain, repeated in schoolyards the world over, is the basis of a simple guessing game that was recently adapted to study how and why kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) interact with the people around them.

    The game is the brainchild of Katherine Stavropoulos, an assistant professor of special education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside. As a licensed clinical psychologist with a background in neuroscience, Stavropoulos looks closely at electrical activity in the brains of children with ASD and typical development, or TD, to discern differences in the respective groups’ reward systems.

    Historically, clinicians and scientists have proposed a variety of theories to explain why kids with ASD tend to be less socially communicative than their TD peers. One popular theory, the social motivation hypothesis, suggests that kids with ASD aren’t intrinsically motivated to interact with other people because they aren’t neurologically “rewarded” by social interactions the same way TD kids are.

    “Most of us get a hit of dopamine when we interact with other people, whether it’s through making eye contact or sharing something good that’s happened to us — it feels good to be social,” Stavropoulos said. “The social motivation hypothesis says kids with autism don’t get that same reward from social interaction, so they don’t go out of their way to engage with people because it’s not rewarding for them.”

    A second theory, sensory over-responsivity — also known as the overly intense world hypothesis — posits that because kids with ASD interpret sensory cues more intensely than their TD peers, those with ASD tend to shy away from interactions they perceive as overwhelming or aversive.

    “Kids with autism often find noises too loud or lights too bright, or they find them not intense enough,” Stavropoulos said. “Most of us wouldn’t want to talk to someone whom we perceive as screaming, especially in a room that was already too bright, with ambient noise that was already too loud.” Instead, sensory over-responsivity argues, such interactions compel many individuals with ASD to withdraw from socialization as a self-soothing behavior.

    But according to Stavropoulos, who also serves as assistant director of UCR’s SEARCH Family Autism Resource Center, it may be possible for these seemingly competing theories to exist in tandem.

    Stavropoulos and UC San Diego’s Leslie Carver, her research colleague and former graduate advisor, used electrophysiology to study the neural activity of 43 children between the ages of 7 and 10 — 23 of whom were TD and 20 of whom had ASD — during a guessing game-style simulation that provided participants with both social and nonsocial rewards. Their results, published this week in the journal Molecular Autism, provide a glimpse at the brain mechanisms behind autism.

    Wearing a cap outfitted with 33 electrodes, each child sat before a computer screen showing pairs of boxes containing question marks. Much like the format of the “pick a hand” guessing game, the child then chose the box he or she thought was the “right” one (in reality, the answers were randomized).

    Stavropoulos said it was crucial to design a simulation that would allow the researchers to study participants’ neural reactions to social and nonsocial rewards during two stages: reward anticipation, or the period before the child knew whether he or she had chosen the correct answer, and reward processing, or the period immediately after.

    “We structured the game so that the kids would pick an answer, and then there would be a brief pause,” Stavropoulos said. “It was during that pause that the kids would begin to wonder, ‘Did I get it?’ and we could observe them getting excited; the more rewarding something is to a person, the more that anticipation builds.”

    Each participant played the game in two blocks. During the social block, kids who chose the right box saw a smiling face and kids who chose the wrong box saw a sad, frowning face. During the nonsocial block, meanwhile, the faces were scrambled and reformed in the shapes of arrows pointing up to denote correct answers and down to denote incorrect ones.

    “After the kids saw whether they were right or wrong, we were then able to observe the post-stimulus reward-related activity,” Stavropoulos said of the process, which involved comparing participants’ neural oscillation patterns. The researchers gleaned several key findings from the simulation:

    • TD kids anticipated social awards — in this case, the pictures of faces — more strongly than kids with ASD.
    • Not only did children with ASD anticipate social rewards less than their TD peers, but within the ASD group, the researchers found that kids with more severe ASD were anticipating the nonsocial rewards, or the arrows, the most.
    • During reward processing, or the period after participants learned whether they had chosen the right or wrong box, the researchers observed more reward-related brain activity in TD children but more attention-related brain activity among children with ASD, which Stavropoulos said may be related to feelings of sensory overload in kids with ASD.
    • Among the autism group, meanwhile, kids with more severe ASD also showed heightened responsiveness to positive social feedback, which Stavropoulos said may indicate hyperactivity, or the state of being overwhelmed by “correct” social feedback that is commonly associated with sensory over-responsivity.

    Stavropoulos said the duo’s results provide support for both the social motivation hypothesis and the overly intense world hypothesis.

    Kids with autism might not be as rewarded by social interactions as typically developing kids are, but that doesn’t mean their reward systems are entirely broken,” she added. “This research makes the case for developing clinical interventions that help children with autism better understand the reward value of other people — to slowly teach these kids that interacting with others can be rewarding.

    “But, it is critical to do this while being sensitive to these kids’ sensory experiences,” she continued. “We don’t want to overwhelm them, or make them feel sensory overload. It’s a delicate balance between making social interactions rewarding while being aware of how loudly we speak, how excited our voices sound, and how bright the lights are.”


  3. Study suggests learning to make healthy choices can counter the effects of large portions

    February 11, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Penn State press release:

    People are often told that eating everything in moderation can help them lose weight, but it is better to choose healthier foods than to try to eat less, according to Penn State researchers.

    In a recent study, researchers measured how much participants ate when given meals that varied in portion size. Despite about one-third of participants having been trained in different strategies to manage food portions during a previous year-long weight loss trial, all participants ate more as portion sizes grew. Although the trained participants ate the same amount as the others, they tended to choose healthier foods and ended up consuming fewer calories overall.

    “The results show that choosing healthy, lower-calorie-dense foods was more effective and more sustainable than just trying to resist large portions of higher calorie options,” said Faris Zuraikat, graduate student. “If you choose high-calorie-dense foods but restrict the amount that you’re eating, portions will be too small, and you’re likely to get hungry.”

    Previous research has shown the power of the “portion size effect,” which is the tendency for people to eat more when larger portions are served and can result in people consuming more calories than they intended.

    The researchers designed an intervention to help people counteract this effect, in which participants were taught strategies to control food portions and eat healthier. Zuraikat said he and the other researchers wanted to see if this training was effective in helping people control portions.

    “We gathered a group of subjects who had extensive training on portion-control strategies to see if their response to increasing portion size of foods served at a meal differed from untrained individuals,” Zuraikat said. “We were also interested in whether those untrained individuals with overweight and obesity or normal weight differed in their response.”

    The researchers recruited three groups of women to participate in the study: 34 controls with overweight, 29 controls with normal weight, and 39 who had previously completed a one-year weight loss trial emphasizing portion-control strategies. All participants visited the lab once a week for four weeks. During each visit, the researchers provided the same foods but increased the portion size of the foods in a randomized order across weeks.

    Each meal consisted of foods with higher calorie density, like garlic bread, and lower calorie density, like salad. Foods were weighed before and after the meal to determine how much was eaten, and calorie intake was determined from these measures.

    The researchers found that when they were given larger portions, participants in all three groups ate more. For example, when the portion size was increased 75 percent, the average amount consumed went up 27 percent.

    However, the participants who received training consumed fewer calories overall than those who did not. Even though the participants in all three groups ate similar amounts of food, the participants who received training chose foods lower in calorie density.

    “All the groups were served the same meals, but their food choices differed. The participants who went through the training consumed more of the lower calorie-dense foods and less of the higher calorie-dense foods than the untrained controls,” Zuraikat said. “Consequently, trained participants’ calorie intake was less than that of the control groups, whose intake didn’t differ by weight status.”

    The researchers say the study — published in the journal Appetite — illustrates the strength of the portion-size effect while also suggesting easier, more sustainable strategies for managing calorie intake.

    “The study supports the idea that eating less of the higher-calorie-dense foods and more of the nutritious, lower-calorie-dense foods can help to manage hunger while consuming fewer calories,” said Barbara Rolls, professor and the Helen A. Guthrie Chair of Nutritional Sciences, Penn State. “You still have a full plate, but you’re changing the proportions of the different types of foods.”

    Liane S. Roe and Christine E. Sanchez, both of Penn State, were co-investigators in this study.

    The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and the USDA supported this project.


  4. Study suggests motivational music increases risk-taking but does not improve sports performance

    by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    A new study finds that listening to motivational music during sport activities and exercise increases risk-taking behavior but does not improve overall performance. The effect was more noticeable among men and participants who selected their own playlist. The study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, also found that self-selected music had the power to enhance self-esteem among those who were already performing well, but not among participants who were performing poorly.

    Listening to motivational music has become a popular way of enhancing mood, motivation and positive self-evaluation during sports and exercise. There is an abundance of anecdotal evidence of music being used in this way, such as the famous Maori “Haka” performed by New Zealand’s national rugby team to get into the right mindset before games. However, the psychological processes and mechanisms that explain the motivational power of music are poorly understood.

    “While the role of music in evoking emotional responses and its use for mood regulation have been a subject of considerable scientific interest, the question of how listening to music relates to changes in self-evaluative cognitions has rarely been discussed,” says Dr. Paul Elvers of the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics and one of the study’s authors. “This is surprising, given that self-evaluative cognitions and attitudes such as self-esteem, self-confidence and self-efficacy are considered to be sensitive to external stimuli such as music.”

    The research team investigated whether listening to motivational music can boost performance in a ball game, enhance self-evaluative cognition and/or lead to riskier behavior. The study divided 150 participants into three groups that performed a ball-throwing task from fixed distances and filled in questionnaires while listening to either participant-selected music, experimenter-selected music or no music at all. To assess risk-taking behavior, the participants were also allowed to choose the distances to the basket themselves. The participants received monetarily incentivized points for each successful trial.

    The data show that listening to music did not have any positive or negative impact on overall performance or on self-evaluative cognitions, trait self-esteem or sport-related anxiety. However, it did increase the sense of self-esteem in participants who were performing well and also increased risk-taking behavior — particularly in male participants and participants who could choose their own motivational music. Moreover, the researchers also found that those who made riskier choices earned higher monetary rewards.

    “The results suggest that psychological processes linked to motivation and emotion play an important role for understanding the functions and effects of music in sports and exercise,” says Dr. Elvers. “The gender differences in risk-taking behavior that we found in our study align with what previous studies have documented.”

    However, more research is required to fully understand the impact of motivational music on the intricate phenomena of self-enhancement, performance and risky behavior during sports and exercise.

    “We gathered evidence of the ability of music to increase risk-taking behavior, but more research is needed to improve the robustness of this finding. Additional research is also needed to address the potential mechanisms that may account for the finding. We believe that music’s ability to induce pleasure as well as its function with respect to self-enhancement serve as promising candidates for future investigations,” Dr. Elvers concludes.


  5. Distinct brain rhythms, regions help us reason about categories

    February 10, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Picower Institute at MIT press release:

    We categorize pretty much everything we see, and remarkably, we often achieve that feat whether the items look patently similar — like Fuji and McIntosh apples — or they share a more abstract similarity — like a screwdriver and a drill. A new study at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory explains how.

    Categorization is a fundamental cognitive mechanism,” says Earl Miller, Picower Professor in MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. “It’s the way the brain learns to generalize. If your brain didn’t have this ability, you’d be overwhelmed by details of the sensory world. Every time you experienced something, if it was in different lighting or at a different angle, your brain would treat it as a brand new thing.”

    In the new paper in Neuron, Miller’s lab, led by postdoctoral associate Andreas Wutz and graduate student Roman Loonis, shows that the ability to categorize based on straightforward resemblance or on abstract similarity arises from the brain’s use of distinct rhythms, at distinct times, in distinct parts of the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Specifically when animals needed to match images that bore close resemblance, an increase in the power of high-frequency gamma rhythms in the ventral lateral PFC did the trick. When they had to match images based on a more abstract similarity, that depended on a later surge of lower frequency beta rhythms in the dorsal lateral PFC.

    Miller says those findings suggest a model of how the brain achieves category abstractions. It shows that meeting the challenge of abstraction is not merely a matter of thinking the same way but harder. Instead, a different mechanism in a different part of the brain takes over when simple, sensory comparison is not enough for us to judge whether two things belong to the same category.

    By precisely describing the frequencies, locations and the timing of rhythms that govern categorization, the findings, if replicated in humans, could prove helpful in research to understand an aspect of some autism spectrum disorders, Miller says. In ASD categorization can be challenging for patients, especially when objects or faces appear atypical. Potentially, clinicians could measure rhythms to determine whether patients who struggle to recognize abstract similarities are employing the mechanisms differently.

    Connecting the dots

    To conduct the study, Wutz, Loonis, Miller and co-authors measured brain rhythms in key areas of the PFC associated with categorization as animals played some on-screen games. In each round, animals would see a pattern of dots — a sample from one of two different categories of configurations. Then the sample would disappear and after a delay, two choices of dot designs would appear. The subject’s task was to fix its gaze on whichever one belonged to the same category as the sample. Sometimes the right answer was evident by sheer visual resemblance, but sometimes the similarity was based on a more abstract criterion the animal could infer over successive trials. The experimenters precisely quantified the degree of abstraction based on geometric calculations of the distortion of the dot pattern compared to a category archetype.

    “This study was very well defined” Wutz says. “It provided a mathematically correct way to distinguish something so vague as abstraction. It’s a judgement call very often, but not with the paradigm that we used.”

    Gamma in the ventral PFC always peaked in power when the sample appeared, as if the animals were making a “does this sample look like category A or not?” assessment as soon as they were shown it. Beta power in the dorsal PFC peaked during the subsequent delay period when abstraction was required, as if the animals realized that there wasn’t enough visual resemblance and deeper thought would be necessary to make the upcoming choice.

    Notably, the data was rich enough to reveal several nuances about what was going on. Category information and rhythm power were so closely associated, for example, that the researchers measured greater rhythm power in advance of correct category judgements than in advance of incorrect ones. They also found that the role of beta power was not based on the difficulty of choosing a category (i.e. how similar the choices were) but specifically on whether the correct answer had a more abstract or literal similarity to the sample.

    By analyzing the rhythm measurements, the researchers could even determine how the animals were approaching the categorization task. They weren’t judging whether a sample belonged to one category or the other, Wutz says. Instead they were judging whether they belonged to a preferred category or not.

    “That preference was reflected in the brain rhythms,” Wutz says. “We saw the strongest effects for each animal’s preferred category.”

    The National institute of Mental Health funded the study, which was co-authored by graduate student Jacob Donoghue and research scientist Jefferson Roy.


  6. Study suggests imagining a successful future can help students overcome everyday difficulties

    by Ashley

    From the Springer press release:

    Having a clear picture in mind of what their future will look like can motivate students to keep going despite the challenges of college life. This strategy seems to be particularly effective for female students from relatively low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds says Mesmin Destin of Northwestern University in the US. He is the lead author of a study in Springer’s journal Motivation and Emotion that looked at the role of identity-based motivation in people’s college experiences. College is a time of great opportunity for some, but can be stressful for others. It is often the first time that many students are away from the consistent and familiar support of their family and friends. Vulnerable students from lower SES backgrounds often encounter greater financial and psychological challenges than others, and this can lead to hesitation and even withdrawal from difficult situations, such as when interacting with their lecturers or taking tests and exams.

    Destin and his colleagues wanted to understand if students’ responses to academic challenges improves when they look forward to the future. This idea is built around the theory of identity-based motivation. It holds that people can take positive action during times of adversity when they imagine a successful future for themselves.

    “The theory of identity-based motivation proposes that activating a focus on a successful future identity may be especially powerful in motivating students who are vulnerable during challenging academic situations to develop a sense of action readiness,” explains Destin. “This involves feeling ready and able to take appropriate action when confronting difficulty.

    In two almost identical laboratory experiments — one involving 93 female students, the other 185 students (including 101 women) — participants were first asked either to write about their past or their future success. After their contemplations, the participants were filmed during a mock interview with a so-called lecturer, and then had to complete a difficult academic test. The research team noted whether participants’ body language was bold and confident, and measured the amount of effort participants’ put into the academic test.

    The results were consistent with the theory of identity-based motivation. Destin and his team found that having a successful future identity can prevent especially female students from lower SES backgrounds from withdrawing during challenging academic situations. Specifically, lower SES women who wrote about their future identities displayed greater action readiness compared to those who contemplated their past. They showed more confident body language. It helped them to put more effort into tackling the test, and had an indirect effect on their performance.

    “Activating imagined successful future identities appears to provide a potential pathway to enable vulnerable students to effectively navigate everyday stressors,” says Destin. “The findings therefore suggest that certain students may benefit from strategies that remind them to visualize their successful futures prior to any difficult and important task that they might otherwise be likely to avoid.”


  7. Study suggests positive attitude toward math predicts math achievement in kids

    February 9, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Stanford University Medical Center press release:

    For the first time, scientists have identified the brain pathway that links a positive attitude toward math to achievement in the subject.

    In a study of elementary school students, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine found that having a positive attitude about math was connected to better function of the hippocampus, an important memory center in the brain, during performance of arithmetic problems.

    The findings will be published online Jan. 24 in Psychological Science.

    Educators have long observed higher math scores in children who show more interest in math and perceive themselves as being better at it. But it has not been clear if this attitude simply reflects other capacities, such as higher intelligence.

    The new study found that, even once IQ and other confounding factors were accounted for, a positive attitude toward math still predicted which students had stronger math performance.

    ‘Attitude is really important’

    “Attitude is really important,” said Lang Chen, PhD, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral scholar in psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “Based on our data, the unique contribution of positive attitude to math achievement is as large as the contribution from IQ.”

    The scientists had not expected the contribution of attitude to be so large, Chen said. The mechanism underlying its link to cognitive performance was also unexpected.

    “It was really surprising to see that the link works through a very classical learning and memory system in the brain,” said the study’s senior author, Vinod Menon, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. Researchers had previously hypothesized that the brain’s reward centers might drive the link between attitude and achievement — perhaps children with better attitudes were better at math because they found it more rewarding or motivating. “Instead, we saw that if you have a strong interest and self-perceived ability in math, it results in enhanced memory and more efficient engagement of the brain’s problem-solving capacities,” Menon said.

    The researchers administered standard questionnaires to 240 children ages 7 to 10, assessing demographics, IQ, reading ability and working-memory capacity. The children’s level of math achievement was measured with tests of their knowledge of arithmetic facts and ability to solve math word problems. Parents or guardians answered surveys about the children’s behavioral and emotional characteristics, as well as their anxiety about math and general anxiety. Children also answered a survey that assessed their attitude toward math, including questions about interest in math and self-perceived math ability, as well as their attitude toward academics in general.

    Forty-seven children from the group also participated in MRI brain scans while performing arithmetic problems. Tests were conducted outside the MRI scanner to discern which problem-solving strategies they used. An independent group of 28 children also was given MRI scans and other assessments in an attempt to replicate the findings from the cohort previously given brain scans.

    Opening the door

    Math performance correlated with a positive attitude toward math even after statistically controlling for IQ, working memory, math anxiety, general anxiety and general attitude toward academics, the study found. Children with poor attitudes toward math rarely performed well in the subject, while those with strongly positive attitudes had a range of math achievement.

    A positive attitude opens the door for children to do well but does not guarantee that they will; that depends on other factors as well,” Chen said.

    From the brain-imaging results, the scientists found that, when a child was solving a math problem, his or her positive-attitude scores correlated with activation in the hippocampus, an important memory and learning center in the brain. Activity in the brain’s reward centers, including the amygdala and the ventral striatum, was not linked to a positive attitude toward math. Statistical modeling of the brain imaging results suggested that the hippocampus mediates the link between positive attitude and efficient retrieval of facts from memory, which in turn is associated with better problem solving abilities.

    Having a positive attitude acts directly on your memory and learning system,” Chen said. “I think that’s really important and interesting.”

    The study could not disentangle the extent to which a positive attitude came from a child’s prior success in math. “We think the relationship between positive attitude and math achievement is mutual, bi-directional,” Chen said. “We think it’s like bootstrapping: A good attitude opens the door to high achievement, which means you then have a better attitude, getting you into a good circle of learning. And it can probably go the other way and be a vicious circle, too.”

    The findings may provide a new avenue for improving academic performance and learning in children who are struggling, Menon said, cautioning that this idea still needs to be tested through active interventions.

    “Typically, we focus on skill learning in individual academic domains, but our new work suggests that looking at children’s beliefs about a subject and their self-perceived abilities might provide another inroad to maximizing learning,” Menon said. The findings also offer a potential explanation for how a particularly passionate teacher can nurture students’ interest and learning capacities for a subject, he added. Inspiring teachers may be instinctively sharing their own interest, as well as instilling students in the belief that they can be good at the subject, building a positive attitude even if the student did not have it before.


  8. Study suggests painting a realistic picture of difficulties of weight loss may actually be helpful

    by Ashley

    From the Drexel University press release:

    To reach your New Year’s fitness goals, a bit of reverse psychology might be in order. Telling people that weight loss is extremely challenging — rather than imparting a “You can do it!” mantra — motivated them to shed more weight, according to a new study by psychologists at Drexel University. However, the strategy did not compel participants to achieve the goal for which it was originally designed: to modify or replace many of the unhealthy foods in their homes.

    The study’s findings, published this week in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, have conflicting implications, says Michael Lowe, PhD, a professor at Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences.

    “On one hand, giving overweight people a realistic sense of the dilemma that they are in and the powerful forces they are up against — including a genetic predisposition toward obesity and an increased susceptibility to many food cues in the environment — may actually promote cognitive restraint over their eating in the short-term,” Lowe said. “But, on the other hand, this message did not motivate participants to make numerous changes to the foods they surround themselves with.”

    Lowe and a team of researchers originally set out to determine the effectiveness of three weight loss interventions: behavior therapy, behavior therapy plus meal replacements, or a condition focused on getting people to change foods in their home food environments. They enrolled 262 overweight and obese individuals and assigned them to one of the three methods, while tracking their weight over a three-year period.

    Behavior therapy — the current “gold standard” in weight loss treatment — involves group support, regular weigh-ins, exercise, explicit goal setting and monitoring food intake, while meal replacement treatment replaces breakfast and lunch with calorie-controlled shakes or nutrition bars.

    Behavior therapy is aimed at bolstering someone’s internal sense of self-regulation over food intake and exercise. But research has shown that increases in self-control are not sustainable, and lost weight is almost always regained. The powerful lure of foods high in fat, sugar and salt has been well-documented, and existing treatments do not do enough to ensure that foods kept in the home are permanently changed in ways that make self-control more feasible, according to Lowe.

    “You can’t just give advice,” he said. “You have to work with people to eliminate and substitute very specific foods, and teach them to prepare food differently.”

    That’s why his research team hypothesized that modifying the home food environment (or HFE) would be the most effective strategy for losing and maintaining weight loss. Participants in this group were given homework assignments to identify and make numerous changes to specific foods that were still satisfying but less calorically damaging.

    “Asking people to make healthy decisions, when there are thousands of food choices available, is both emotionally challenging and also complicated,” Lowe said. “HFE treatment is really about mechanically trying to ensure that these changes are made, so the level of chronic temptation generated by foods in their homes is reduced.”

    Most importantly, the research team repeatedly reminded the HFE group about the challenges associated with weight loss and maintenance. In doing this, the researchers aimed to acknowledge the participants’ vulnerability to overconsume favorite foods.

    “We said, ‘It’s impressive and encouraging that you are taking this step to improve your weight and health, but we need to help you understand the daunting challenges you’re facing.’ The reason we did this was not to discourage them, but to give them a more realistic sense of how crucial it is for them to make lasting changes in their parts of the food environment that they could control,” Lowe said.

    People struggling with their weight are likely to hold themselves responsible, even though a number of internal (heredity, for example) and external (fast food restaurants) forces are at play and beyond their control, Lowe said. The researchers suggested that by making multiple changes to their food environment, participants would be reducing the need to perpetually exercise self-control to maintain the weight they lost.

    In addition to measuring the participants’ weights during six assessment sessions over three years, the researchers also assessed conditions such as binge eating, quality of life, cognitive restraint and food cravings by using questionnaires and statistical analysis.

    At the end of the three-year study period, the researchers found that those in the HFE group lost more weight than those in the behavior therapy group. However, the differential in weight loss was modest, and all participants showed the familiar trend toward weight regain.

    “We failed to get them to translate our warnings into the kind of actions we were trying to get them to take,” Lowe said.

    The warnings did, however, have a positive — though unanticipated — effect. Cognitive restraint — defined by a participant’s ability to actively make healthy choices and measured with mediation analysis — showed the longest, most prolonged increase in the HFE participants, when compared to the other two treatment groups.

    This suggests that the researchers’ rhetoric about the difficulties of sustaining weight loss may have actually caused the participants in the HFE group to “push back” against this message and increase their vigilance over their eating, Lowe said.

    “That is, by questioning the usefulness of building self-control skills, the HFE treatment may have bolstered the very capacity it was meant to downplay — stronger self-control with regard to food,” the study authors write.

    Though surprising, these results have potentially clinically-useful implications. By emphasizing the many factors that make lasting weight loss so difficult, it may help motivate individuals to mentally and behaviorally cope with these factors, according to Lowe.

    “Rather than acting as cheerleaders giving facile encouragement, leaders of weight loss groups might serve their clients better by providing a more sobering description of the challenges participants face,” Lowe explained.

    However, since the participants in the HFE condition did not make greater changes to their home food environment, future studies should examine how to better improve and monitor this weight loss intervention, such as sending dieticians or other practitioners directly to clients’ homes for periodic visits.

    For Lowe, the study reinforces the challenging reality for those seeking to maintain weight loss — and makes a strong case for policies (such as Philadelphia’s beverage tax) that focus on preventing, rather than treating, the problem of obesity in the United States.

    “Once these conditions develop and you are continuing to live in the same obesogenic environment, it is unrealistic to expect that many people will be able to sustain a large weight loss,” he said. “Society ultimately needs to prevent these unhealthy weight gains before they occur.”


  9. Study suggests cognitive training helps regain a younger-working brain

    February 8, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Center for BrainHealth press release:

    Relentless cognitive decline as we age is worrisome, and it is widely thought to be an unavoidable negative aspect of normal aging. Researchers at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas, however, say their research could provide new hope for extending our brain function as we age.

    In a randomized clinical study involving adults age 56 to 71 that recently published in Neurobiology of Aging, researchers found that after cognitive training, participants’ brains were more energy efficient, meaning their brain did not have to work as hard to perform a task.

    Dr. Michael Motes, senior research scientist at the Center for BrainHealth and one of the lead authors of the study, said, “Finding a nonpharmacological intervention that can help the aging brain to perform like a younger brain is a welcome finding that potentially advances understanding of ways to enhance brain health and longevity. It is thrilling for me as a cognitive neuroscientist, who has previously studied age-related cognitive decline, to find that cognitive training has the potential to strengthen the aging brain to function more like a younger brain.”

    To investigate changes in brain efficiency, the research team studied neural activity while the participant performed a task. For the study, 57 cognitively normal older adults were randomly assigned to a cognitive training group, a wait-listed control group, or physical exercise control group. The cognitive training utilized the Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART) program developed at the Center for BrainHealth.

    Cognitive training strategies included how to focus on the most relevant information and filter out the less relevant; ways to continually synthesize information encountered in daily life to encourage deeper thinking; and how to inspire innovative thinking through generating diverse interpretations, solutions and perspectives. Because aerobic exercise has been shown to lead to improvements in processing speed and functional changes within the frontal and other brain regions, it was included as one of the study groups.

    The cognitive training was conducted over the course of 12 weeks. Participants in the active control physical exercise program exceeded physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes per week for the 12 weeks.

    Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), an imaging technique that measures brain activity, researchers examined all three groups at the beginning (baseline), middle, and end of the study while participants performed computer-based speed tasks in the scanner.

    The fMRI results provided evidence that cognitive training improved speed-related neural activity. While all groups showed faster reaction times across sessions, the cognitive training group showed a significant increase in the association between reaction time and frontal lobe activity. After training, faster reaction times were associated with lower frontal lobe activity, which is consistent with the more energy-efficient neural activity found in younger adults.

    In contrast to the cognitive training group, the wait-listed and physical exercise groups showed significant decreases across sessions in the association between reaction time and frontal lobe activation.

    “This discovery of neural efficiency profiles found in the SMART-trained older adults is promising,” said Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, one of the lead authors, Center for BrainHealth founder and chief director. “If replicated, this work paves the way for larger clinical trials to test the ability to harness the potential of the aging mind and its ability to excel — by working like a younger brain with all the rich knowledge and expertise accrued over time. To counteract the pattern of age-related losses and even enhance the brain’s inner workings by ‘thinking’ in smarter ways is an achievable and highly desirable goal.”


  10. Study suggests teenagers are sophisticated users of social media

    by Ashley

    From the Taylor & Francis Group press release:

    Teenagers are far more critical users of social media than we give them credit for, and need to be better supported in reaping the benefits social media can have.

    A new study published today in Sport, Education and Society sheds light upon teens’ online habits, finding that young people are not simply passive recipients of all the content available online, as commonly thought.

    Analyzing 1,300 responses from teenagers aged 13 to 18 from ten UK schools, researchers set out to discover how young people engaged with health-related social media, and understand the influence this had on their behaviors and knowledge about health.

    They discovered that most teenagers would ‘swipe past’ health-related content that was not relevant to them, such as ‘suggested’ or ‘recommended’ content, deeming it inappropriate for their age group.

    Many were also highly critical of celebrity-endorsed content, with one participant referring to the celebrity lifestyle as ‘a certain lifestyle that we are not living’, because they were more likely to be ‘having surgery’ than working out in the gym.

    However, many participants still found it difficult to distinguish between celebrity-endorsed content and that posted by sportsmen and women, leaving them vulnerable to celebrity influence.

    The pressure of peers’ ‘selfies’, which often strived for perfection, and the complex social implications of ‘liking’ each other’s posts, were recurring themes in the young people’s responses. Both of these activities had the potential to alter teenagers’ health-related behaviors.

    Lead author Dr Victoria Goodyear, of the University of Birmingham, emphasized the need to be more aware of both the positive and negative impacts social media can have upon young people. She said: “We know that many schools, teachers and parents/guardians are concerned about the health-related risks of social media on young people.

    “But, contrary to popular opinion, the data from our study show that not all young people are at risk from harmful health-related impacts. Many young people are critical of the potentially damaging information that is available.”

    Despite teenagers’ ability to assess content, the study emphasizes that adults still have a crucial role to play in supporting young people, and helping them to understand how harmful health-related information might reach them.

    Professor Kathleen Armour, the University of Birmingham’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, adds: “It is important to be aware that teenagers can tip quickly from being able to deal competently with the pressures of social media to being overwhelmed.

    “If they are vulnerable for any reason, the sheer scale and intensity of social media can exacerbate the ‘normal’ challenges of adolescence. Adult vigilance and understanding are, therefore, vital.”

    Dr Goodyear suggests that adults should not ban or prevent young people’s uses of social media, given that it provides significant learning opportunities. Instead, schools and parents/guardians should focus on young people’s experiences with social media, helping them to think critically about the relevance of what they encounter, and understand both the positive and harmful effects this information could have.

    Crucially, these discussions must be introduced into the classroom to help address the current gap which exists between the ways in which young people and adults understand social media.