1. How technology use affects at-risk adolescents

    May 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Duke University press release:

    More use of technology is linked to later increases in attention, behavior and self-regulation problems for adolescents already at risk for mental health issues, a new study from Duke University finds.

    “Also, on days at-risk adolescents use technology more, they experience more conduct problems and higher ADHD symptoms compared to days they use technology less,” said Madeleine J. George, a Duke Ph.D. candidate and the lead author of the study.

    However, the study also found that using technology was linked to some positive outcomes: On days when adolescents spent more time using digital technologies they were less likely to report symptoms of depression and anxiety.

    The research, published May 3 in a special issue of Child Development, looks at associations between adolescents’ mental health symptoms and how much time they spent each day texting, using social media and using the Internet.

    For the study, 151 young adolescents completed surveys on smartphones about their daily digital technology use. They were surveyed three times a day for a month and were assessed for mental health symptoms 18 months later. The youth participating were between 11 and 15 years old, were of a lower socioeconomic status and were at a heightened risk for mental health problems.

    The adolescents spent an average of 2.3 hours a day using digital technologies. More than an hour of that time was spent texting, with the adolescents sending an average of 41 texts a day.

    The researchers found that on days when adolescents used their devices more — both when they exceeded their own normal use and when they exceeded average use by their peers — they were more likely to experience conduct problems such as lying, fighting and other behavioral problems.

    In addition, on days when adolescents used digital devices more, they had difficulty paying attention and exhibited attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder symptoms.

    The study also found that young adolescents who spent more time online experienced increases in conduct problems and problems with self-regulation — the ability to control one’s behavior and emotions — 18 months later.

    It’s unclear whether high levels of technology use were simply a marker of elevated same-day mental health symptoms or if the use of technology exacerbated existing symptoms, said Candice Odgers, the senior author of the study and a professor in Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

    On the positive side, the researchers found evidence that digital technology use may be helpful to adolescents experiencing depression and anxiety. More time spent texting was associated with fewer same-day symptoms of depression and anxiety.

    “This finding makes sense when you think about how kids are commonly using devices to connect with their peers and social networks,” said Odgers, a faculty fellow at the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy.

    The findings suggest contemporary youth may be using digital technology to connect in positive ways versus isolating themselves, the authors said. In the past, some research found that teenagers using digital technology were socially isolated. But at that time, only a small minority of youth were frequently online.

    Odgers noted that the adolescents in the study were already at an increased risk for mental health problems regardless of digital device use. It’s therefore unclear if the findings would apply to all adolescents. Because this was a correlational study, it is possible factors other than technology use could have caused the increase in mental health problems.

    As rates of adolescent technology use continue to climb, more work is needed to investigate its effects, the researchers say. Odgers and George are now conducting a large study of more than 2,000 N.C. adolescents to determine how and why high digital device use predicts future problems among some adolescents. The study also looks at whether being constantly connected during adolescence could provide opportunities to improve mental health.


  2. Exposure to racism harms children’s health

    May 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the American Academy of Pediatrics press release:

    New research to be presented at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies 2017 Meeting illustrates the unhealthy effects racism can have on children, with reported exposure to discrimination tied to higher rates of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), anxiety and depression, as well as decreased general health.

    Authors of the study abstract, “The Detrimental Influence of Racial Discrimination in the United States,” will present their findings on Sunday, May 7, in the Moscone Covention Center West in San Francisco. For the study, they looked at data from 95,677 participants in the 2011-12 National Survey on Children’s Health. In addition to providing physical and mental health data, caregivers of children in the survey were asked whether the child had experienced being “judged or treated unfairly” because of his or her race or ethnicity.

    After adjusting for socioeconomic status, family structure, primary language and other factors, the researchers found a significant link between exposure to racism and health. The average proportion of children reported by parents to be in “excellent health” decreased by 5.4 percent among those exposed to perceived discrimination, for example. Exposure to racism also appeared to boost the odds of ADHD by 3.2 percent.

    The biggest reduction in general health appeared among low-income, minority children, particularly Hispanic participants, said Ashaunta Anderson, MD, MPH, lead author of the study abstract and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of California, Riverside.

    Some children exposed to discrimination who were from high-income households, however, also experienced negative health effects.

    “White children with high income who experienced racial or ethnic discrimination had larger decreases in general health,” Dr. Anderson said, “while black children experiencing that combination of factors had increased rates of ADHD.”

    The study also found that children who experienced racial discrimination had twice the odds of anxiety and depression compared to children who did not experience discrimination. In turn, children with anxiety or depression had roughly half the odd of excellent general health, and four times the odds of ADHD.

    “Our findings suggest that racial discrimination contributes to race-based disparities in child health, independent of socioeconomic factors,” Dr. Anderson said, adding that coordinated efforts are needed to support children affected by discrimination with developmentally appropriate coping strategies and systems of care. In particular, she said, programs that provide positive parenting practices training and promote positive peer and role model relationships can help buffer children from the negative health effects of discrimination.


  3. Living in a poor area increases the risk of anxiety in women, but not in men

    May 13, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Cambridge press release:

    Women living in the most deprived areas are over 60% more likely to have anxiety as women living in richer areas. However, whether men lived in poorer or richer areas made very little difference to their anxiety levels, according to new research from the University of Cambridge.

    Anxiety disorders, which often manifest as excessive worry, fear and a tendency to avoid potentially stressful situations including social gatherings, are some of the most common mental health problems in the Western world. The annual cost related to the disorders in the United States is estimated to be $42.3 million. In the European Union, over 60 million people are affected by anxiety disorders in a given year.

    There have been few studies to date that assess the factors or characteristics that are linked to anxiety disorders, and even fewer looking at the impact of places where people live in relation to anxiety. However, previous studies have linked living in areas of high deprivation or poverty with significantly increased risks for serious medical conditions and a shorter life expectancy.

    To examine whether living in poor areas is related to anxiety disorders, researchers from the Cambridge Institute of Public Health studied health and lifestyle questionnaires completed by some 21,000 people in and around Norwich, east England, between 1993-2000. The participants had been recruited as part of the EPIC-Norfolk study, set up to look at the connection between diet, lifestyle factors and cancer.

    The results of the study are published today in the journal BMJ Open.

    One in 40 women (2.5%) and one in 55 men (1.8%) were found to have generalised anxiety disorder. Women living in the most deprived areas were over 60% more likely to have anxiety than those living in areas that were not deprived. This association between deprivation and generalised anxiety disorder was not apparent in men.

    Although the researchers acknowledge that it is difficult to confirm that living in deprivation causes an increased risk of anxiety in women, they believe this is what their analysis points towards.

    “Anxiety disorders can be very disabling, affecting people’s life, work and relationships, and increasing the risk of depression, substance misuse and serious medical conditions,” says first author Olivia Remes, PhD candidate at the Department of Public Health and Primary Care. “We see from our study that women who live in deprived areas not only have to cope with the effects of living in poverty, but are also much more susceptible to anxiety than their peers. In real terms, given the number of people living in poverty worldwide, this puts many millions of women at increased risk of anxiety.”

    The team speculate why this may be the case. Women are more embedded in their communities than men – tending to stay at home more and do more of the domestic duties — and so the stress and strain of living in impoverished communities seems to affect them more, they argue. Also, women are increasingly taking on multiple roles in society today: income-earner, child-bearer, care-taker — all of which adds to their burden. However, while men may be less susceptible to anxiety, their stress can lead to other negative coping behaviours such as alcohol and substance abuse.

    Professor Carol Brayne from the Cambridge Institute of Public Health, explains: “Anxiety disorders affect a substantial number of people and can lead to poor health outcomes and risk of suicide. Now we know that women are particularly affected by deprivation, while men less so. This is intriguing and further research is needed on this, particularly in the most deprived regions.”

    “Our findings show that mental health policy needs to take communities or the places where people live into account: investing in a local area will not benefit all parts of its population in the same way,” says Dr Louise Lafortune, Senior Research Associate at the Cambridge Institute of Public Health. “It’s evident from our study that we need to take into account gender when determining what action to take. This is particularly important at a time of scarce economic and health-related resources.”


  4. Study suggests 10 minutes of meditation may help anxious people focus

    May 5, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Waterloo press release:

    Just 10 minutes of daily mindful mediation can help prevent your mind from wandering and is particularly effective if you tend to have repetitive, anxious thoughts, according to a study from the University of Waterloo.

    The study, which assessed the impact of meditation with 82 participants who experience anxiety, found that developing an awareness of the present moment reduced incidents of repetitive, off-task thinking, a hallmark of anxiety.

    “Our results indicate that mindfulness training may have protective effects on mind wandering for anxious individuals,” said Mengran Xu, a researcher and PhD candidate at Waterloo. “We also found that meditation practice appears to help anxious people to shift their attention from their own internal worries to the present-moment external world, which enables better focus on a task at hand.”

    The term mindfulness is commonly defined as paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgement.

    As part of the study, participants were asked to perform a task on a computer while experiencing interruptions to gauge their ability to stay focused on the task. Researchers then put the participants into two groups at random, with the control group given an audio story to listen to and the other group asked to engage in a short meditation exercise prior to being reassessed.

    “Mind wandering accounts for nearly half of any person’s daily stream of consciousness,” said Xu. “For people with anxiety, repetitive off-task thoughts can negatively affect their ability to learn, to complete tasks, or even function safely.

    “It would be interesting to see what the impacts would be if mindful meditation was practiced by anxious populations more widely.”


  5. Study suggests food insecurity can affect mental health

    May 1, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Elsevier Health Sciences press release:

    Food insecurity (FI) affects nearly 795 million people worldwide. Although a complex phenomenon encompassing food availability, affordability, utilization, and even the social norms that define acceptable ways to acquire food, FI can affect people’s health beyond its impact on nutrition. A new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine determined that FI was associated with poorer mental health and specific psychosocial stressors across global regions (149 countries), independent of individuals’ socioeconomic status.

    Nearly one in three individuals (29.2%) globally experience a common mental disorder during their lifetime, such as depression, anxiety, and somatic symptom disorders. FI may be a key contributor to common mental disorders through several different mechanisms. First, by generating uncertainty over the ability to maintain food supplies or to acquire sufficient food in the future, FI can provoke a stress response that may contribute to anxiety and depression. Furthermore, acquiring foods in socially unacceptable ways can induce feelings of alienation, powerlessness, shame, and guilt that are associated with depression. FI may also magnify socioeconomic disparities within households and communities that could increase cultural sensitivities and influence overall mental well-being.

    Andrew D. Jones, PhD, of the Department of Nutritional Sciences, School of Public Health, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA, conducted this research using data from the 2014 Gallup World Poll (GWP). The GWP is a series of nationally representative surveys of individuals 15 years and older that uses probability sampling covering both urban and rural areas. FI data were available for 147,826 individuals across 11 world regions encompassing 149 countries. The extent of FI ranged from 18.3% in East Asia to 76.1% in Sub-Saharan Africa.

    Mental health status was determined using the Negative Experience Index (NEI) and the Positive Experience Index (PEI), two five-question surveys that examine topics such as pain, sadness, enjoyment, feelings of respect, and other factors. Data for the mental health indices were available for 152,696 individuals. The PEI was highest in Latin America and the Caribbean region (79.4) and lowest in Russia and the Caucasus (59.2), while the NEI was lowest in Central Asia (17.4) and highest in the Middle East and North Africa region (34.9).

    Dr. Jones found that FI was associated with poorer mental health status in a dose-response fashion, comparing NEI vs. FI for multiple age ranges. An inverse effect was found for PEI vs. FI data.

    The consistent dose-response trend suggests a causal association between FI and mental health status. According to Dr. Jones, “This trend suggests that the psychosocial stressors that underlie the mental health indices examined may be amplified with increasing FI. For example, anxiety related to one’s ability to acquire sufficient food in the future may be provoked even under conditions of mild FI, and is likely to increase with moderate and severe FI. Alternatively, multiple pathways from FI to poorer mental health may be invoked with increasing severity of FI. Under conditions of more severe FI, for example, individuals may resort to acquiring food in socially unacceptable ways as a coping strategy. The feelings of shame and guilt associated with this behavior could compound pre-existing anxiety precipitated by mild FI to yield even poorer mental health conditions.”

    Dr. Jones acknowledges the possibility that the direction of the association between FI and mental health status could be the reverse — that poor mental health could drive FI. However, this is the first study to carry out a global analysis of this association and it should inspire further research. Dr. Jones explained, “Developing robust monitoring systems and strengthening the measurement of both FI and mental health to more comprehensively understand their relation across contexts may help to inform interventions that can effectively address the mental health consequences of FI.”


  6. Staking self-worth on the pursuit of money has negative psychological consequences

    April 30, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University at Buffalo press release:

    Although people living in consumer-based cultures such as the U.S. often believe that they will be happier if they acquire more money, the findings of a newly published paper by a University at Buffalo research team suggest that there may be downsides to this pursuit.

    The pursuit of money in and of itself is not bad, but there are risks to consider when it is fueled by a desire to boost self-esteem. When people tie their self-worth to the pursuit of financial success, they are more vulnerable to negative psychological consequences, according to Lora Park, an associate professor of psychology at UB and the study’s lead author.

    Specifically, basing self-esteem on financial success predicted making more financially-based social comparisons with others, feeling less autonomy and control over one’s life, and experiencing more financial hassles, stress and anxiety. These findings were evident even after accounting for other variables, such as financial status, materialistic values and importance of financial goals.

    “People don’t often think of the possible down sides of wrapping their identity and self-worth around financial pursuits, because our society values wealth as a model of how one should be in the world,” says Park. “It’s important to realize these costs because people are gravitating toward this domain as a source of self-esteem without realizing that it has these unintended consequences.”

    Park’s paper, with UB graduate student Deborah Ward and UB assistant professor of psychology Kristin Naragon-Gainey, appears in the latest issue of the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

    Working with samples of 349 college students and a nationally representative group of 389 participants, the researchers first developed a scale to measure Financial Contingency of Self-Worth (CSW), or the degree to which people base their self-esteem on financial success, and then conducted a series of experiments to examine the effects of threatening people’s sense of financial security.

    When we asked people to write about a financial stressor, they experienced a drop in their feelings of autonomy,” says Park. “They also showed more disengagement from their financial problems — they gave up searching for solutions. We didn’t find this in people who didn’t tie their self-esteem to financial success or among those who were asked to write about an academic stressor.”

    In those essays, the researchers also coded the type of language participants used to describe their financial problems.

    “We found that people who highly based their self-worth on financial success used more negative emotion-related words, like sadness and anger,” says Park. “This demonstrates that just thinking about a financial problem generates a lot of stress and negative emotions for these individuals.”

    But Park says this effect is eliminated if you get people to self-affirm by giving them an opportunity to think about their personal strengths.

    “This suggests that self-esteem concerns emerge when people are thinking about financial problems, but if you can repair their self-esteem by having them think about their strengths, then there is no reduction in feelings of autonomy.”

    A final study found that people who based their self-esteem on financial success — and were led to believe that they would experience financial instability in their future — became more cautious when it came to extravagant spending decisions. This could be interpreted as a desire of these individuals to protect their self-esteem following this financial threat, suggests Park.

    This research also has implications beyond finances and self-esteem and has many possible future directions, such as the effects of financially contingent self-worth on close relationships, group dynamics and organizational settings.


  7. A little support from their online friends calms test-anxious students

    April 28, 2017 by Ashley

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

    Reading supportive comments, “likes” and private messages from social media friends prior to taking a test may help college students who have high levels of test-anxiety significantly reduce their nervousness and improve their scores, a new study suggests.

    Undergraduate students with high levels of test anxiety who sought social support from their online friends and read the messages prior to a simulated exam reduced their anxiety levels by 21 percent, researchers at the University of Illinois found.

    These students, and peers who performed a seven-minute expressive-writing exercise, were able to perform as well on a set of computer programming exercises as students who had low levels of test anxiety, said lead author Robert Deloatch, a graduate student in computer science at the university.

    Up to 41 percent of students are estimated to suffer from test anxiety, which is a combination of physiological and emotional responses that occur while preparing for and taking tests.

    Test anxiety is associated with lower test scores and grade-point averages, as well as poorer performance on memory and problem-solving tasks. Test anxiety can be particularly acute when students face exams involving open-ended problems, such as those commonly used on computer science exams that require students to write and run code, the researchers wrote.

    When students’ test anxiety is reduced, their test scores, GPAs and task performance improve accordingly, researchers have found.

    Students with high test anxiety strongly fear negative evaluation, have lower self-esteem and tend to experience increased numbers of distracting and irrelevant thoughts in testing situations, according to the study.

    For the simulated exam in the current study, students had to solve two programming problems by writing and running code. Most of the participants were computer science majors or computer engineering students who passed a pretest that ensured they had basic programming knowledge.

    The researchers measured participants’ levels of test anxiety using the Cognitive Test Anxiety scale, which assesses the cognitive problems associated with test-taking such as task-irrelevant thinking and attention lapses.

    Participants also completed two other questionnaires that measured their levels of state anxiety — or “state-of-the-moment” unease — and their trait anxiety, which is anxiety that is considered to be a longstanding characteristic or personality trait.

    The day before the experiment, students in the social support group posted messages on their personal social media pages requesting encouragement — in the form of likes, comments or private messages — about an upcoming computer programming challenge they planned to participate in.

    For seven minutes immediately prior to taking the simulated test, students in the social support group read the responses associated with their online request, while students in the expressive-writing group wrote about their thoughts and feelings, and students in the control group crammed for the exam by reading information on computer programming data structures and answering questions about the text.

    Prior to taking the exam, participants completed a questionnaire to assess their levels of state anxiety. Students were then given 40 minutes to solve two programming problems that had many viable solutions.

    “We found that only the students who received supportive messages from their Facebook network showed a significant decrease in anxiety and an increase in their performance on our simulated exam,” Deloatch said.

    While prior researchers have found expressive writing to be helpful to some students with test anxiety, Deloatch and his co-authors were surprised to find that the expressive-writing exercise increased the pretest jitters of low test-anxious students by 61 percent, instead.

    “We hypothesized that might have occurred because focusing on their anxiety as they wrote caused their apprehensiveness to increase rather than decrease,” Deloatch said.

    Using social support to alleviate state-of-the-moment anxiety may have implications beyond education, such as helping job applicants quell their nervousness prior to interviews with potential employers, Deloatch said.

    While the students who sought social support online felt that reading the supportive messages was helpful, “all of them were uncomfortable with soliciting support from their online friends, perceiving such posts as ‘attention seeking’ and ‘out of place,'” Deloatch said. “As the majority of the participants in our study were computer science students, the competitive environment of the curriculum may have led to concerns about how others would perceive them. They may have felt that such statuses could harm their relations in group project settings.”

    The study is being published in the Proceedings of CHI 2017, the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, held May 6-11 in Denver.


  8. Brain structure, anxiety and negative bias linked in healthy adults

    April 23, 2017 by Ashley

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

    Healthy college students who have a relatively small inferior frontal cortex — a brain region behind the temples that helps regulate thoughts and emotions — are more likely than others to suffer from anxiety, a new study finds. They also tend to view neutral or even positive events in a negative light, researchers report.

    The researchers evaluated 62 students, collecting brain structural data from neuroimaging scans and using standard questionnaires to determine their level of anxiety and predilection for negative bias.

    Previous studies of people diagnosed with anxiety have found similar correlations between the size of the IFC and anxiety and negative bias, said U. of I. psychology postdoctoral researcher Sanda Dolcos, who led the study with graduate student Yifan Hu. But the new findings, reported in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, are the first to see these same dynamics in healthy adults, the researchers said.

    “You would expect these brain changes more in clinical populations where anxiety is very serious, but we are seeing differences even in the brains of healthy young adults,” Dolcos said.

    The study also found that the relationship between the size of the IFC and a student’s negative bias was mediated by their level of anxiety.

    “People who have smaller volumes have higher levels of anxiety; people who have larger IFCs tend to have lower levels of anxiety,” Dolcos said. And higher anxiety is associated with more negative bias, she said. “How we see this is that the higher volume of the IFC confers resilience.”

    “We found that larger IFC volume is protecting against negative bias through lower levels of trait anxiety,” Hu said.

    According to the American College Health Association, anxiety is rampant on college campuses, where nearly 60 percent of students report at least one troubling bout of anxious worry every year.

    “There is a very high level of anxiety in the student population, and this is affecting their life, their academic performance, everything,” Dolcos said. “We are interested in identifying what is going on and preventing them from moving to the next level and developing clinical anxiety.”

    Anxiety can interfere with many dimensions of life, causing a person to be on high alert for potential problems even under the best of circumstances, Hu said. Negative bias also can interfere with a person’s commitment to activities that might further their life goals, she said.

    Understanding the interrelatedness of brain structure, function and personality traits such as anxiety and their behavioral effects such as negative bias will help scientists develop interventions to target specific brain regions in healthy populations, Hu said.

    “We hope to be able to train the brain to function better,” she said. “That way, we might prevent these at-risk people from moving on to more severe anxiety.”

    The Brain and Behavior Research Foundation and Health Minds Canada supported this research.


  9. Poor sleep due to anxiety or depression may make it harder to think positive

    April 22, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Illinois at Chicago press release:

    A lack of sleep makes everything harder. Focusing, finishing assignments, and coping with everyday stress can become monumental tasks.

    People with anxiety and depression often have sleep problems. But little has been known about whether or how their poor sleep affects a specific region of the brain known to be involved in regulating negative emotional responses.

    Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine have found that this area of the brain, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, may have to work harder to modify negative emotional responses in people with poor sleep who have depression or anxiety. The finding is reported in the journal Depression and Anxiety.

    The research team, led by Heide Klumpp, assistant professor of psychiatry at UIC, used functional MRI to measure the activity in different regions of the brain as subjects were challenged with an emotion-regulation task. Participants were shown disturbing images of violence — from war or accidents — and were asked to simply look at the images and not to try to control their reaction or to “reappraise” what they saw in a more positive light.

    An example of reappraisal would be to see an image of a woman with a badly bruised face and imagine her as an actress in makeup for a role, rather than as a survivor of violence, Klumpp said.

    Reappraisal is something that requires significant mental energy,” she said. “In people with depression or anxiety, reappraisal can be even more difficult, because these disorders are characterized by chronic negativity or negative rumination, which makes seeing the good in things difficult.”

    The participants — 78 patients, 18 to 65 years of age, who had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, a major depressive disorder, or both — also completed a questionnaire to assess their sleep over the previous month. A motion-sensing device called an actigraph measured their awake time in bed, or “sleep efficiency,” over a six-day period. The questionnaire results indicated that three out of four participants met criteria for significant sleep disturbance, and the actigraph results suggested the majority had insomnia.

    Participants who reported poorer sleep on the questionnaire were seen to have less brain activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex during the reappraisal task, while those with lower sleep efficiency based on the actigraph data had higher activity in the DACC.

    “Because the questionnaire and actigraph measure different aspects of the sleep experience, it is not surprising that brain activity also differed between these measures,” said Klumpp. “The questionnaire asks about sleep over the previous month, and answers can be impacted by current mood. Plus, respondents may not be able to accurately remember how they slept a month ago. The actigraph objectively measures current sleep, so the results from both measurements may not match.”

    “Higher DACC activity in participants with lower levels of sleep efficiency could mean the DACC is working harder to carry out the demanding work of reappraisal,” Klumpp said.

    “Our research indicates sleep might play an important role in the ability to regulate negative emotions in people who suffer from anxiety or depression.”


  10. Brains of gambling addicts: High stakes, high risk, and a bad bet

    by Ashley

    From the Kyoto University press release:

    You’ve been losing all night, and now another bad hand. So why raise?

    Gambling addiction is a mental disorder characterized by excessive risk-taking despite negative results. Scientific studies using functional MRI — fMRI, a method of looking at active areas of the brain — have previously shown that addicts have altered activity in brain regions related to risk and reward, making them prone to prefer risky choices.

    New fMRI research conducted at Kyoto University has now found another explanation for the unhealthy bent: addicts have a poor ability to assess and adapt to high risk situations. The study appeared recently in Translational Psychiatry.

    “We noticed that gambling addicts also have higher levels of mood and anxiety disorders,” says lead author Hidehiko Takahashi. “Hence pleasure may not be the main goal, but rather an inability to properly recognize risk and adapt accordingly.”

    We all make action decisions by evaluating the likelihood of success based on the level of tolerable risk. We then make adjustments based on prevailing circumstances.

    “For example, if you are losing in the first half of a soccer match, you will likely prefer a strong defense while pushing your attackers forward,” continues Takahashi, “However, if you are losing at the end of the second half, you may choose to forgo defense in favor of an all-out attack, because you would lose otherwise.”

    Addicts, on the other hand, are inclined toward unnecessarily risky action, demonstrating a defect in risk assessment and adaptation.

    Flexibility in risk-taking between addicts and non-addicts was determined through a series of gambling tasks, requiring participants to earn a certain amount of credits. Addicts were found to go with a risky strategy even if that choice was sub-optimal.

    “We observed diminished activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain involved in cognitive flexibility,” concludes Takahashi. “This indicates that these subjects lack an ability to adapt their behavior to the risk level of the situation.”

    The team hopes that their findings will contribute to a better understanding of the nature of gambling addiction, and eventually to the development of new methods of treatment.