1. Sound waves boost older adults’ memory, deep sleep

    March 23, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Northwestern University press release:

    IF

    Gentle sound stimulation — such as the rush of a waterfall — synchronized to the rhythm of brain waves significantly enhanced deep sleep in older adults and improved their ability to recall words, reports a new Northwestern Medicine study.

    Deep sleep is critical for memory consolidation. But beginning in middle age, deep sleep decreases substantially, which scientists believe contributes to memory loss in aging.

    The sound stimulation significantly enhanced deep sleep in participants and their scores on a memory test.

    “This is an innovative, simple and safe non-medication approach that may help improve brain health,” said senior author Dr. Phyllis Zee, professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a Northwestern Medicine sleep specialist. “This is a potential tool for enhancing memory in older populations and attenuating normal age-related memory decline.”

    The study will be published March 8 in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

    In the study, 13 participants 60 and older received one night of acoustic stimulation and one night of sham stimulation. The sham stimulation procedure was identical to the acoustic one, but participants did not hear any noise during sleep. For both the sham and acoustic stimulation sessions, the individuals took a memory test at night and again the next morning. Recall ability after the sham stimulation generally improved on the morning test by a few percent. However, the average improvement was three times larger after pink-noise stimulation.

    The older adults were recruited from the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern.

    The degree of slow wave sleep enhancement was related to the degree of memory improvement, suggesting slow wave sleep remains important for memory, even in old age.

    Although the Northwestern scientists have not yet studied the effect of repeated nights of stimulation, this method could be a viable intervention for longer-term use in the home, Zee said.

    Previous research showed acoustic simulation played during deep sleep could improve memory consolidation in young people. But it has not been tested in older adults.

    The new study targeted older individuals — who have much more to gain memory-wise from enhanced deep sleep — and used a novel sound system that increased the effectiveness of the sound stimulation in older populations.

    The study used a new approach, which reads an individual’s brain waves in real time and locks in the gentle sound stimulation during a precise moment of neuron communication during deep sleep, which varies for each person.

    During deep sleep, each brain wave or oscillation slows to about one per second compared to 10 oscillations per second during wakefulness.

    Giovanni Santostasi, a study coauthor, developed an algorithm that delivers the sound during the rising portion of slow wave oscillations. This stimulation enhances synchronization of the neurons’ activity.

    After the sound stimulation, the older participants’ slow waves increased during sleep.

    Larger studies are needed to confirm the efficacy of this method and then “the idea is to be able to offer this for people to use at home,” said first author Nelly Papalambros, a Ph.D. student in neuroscience working in Zee’s lab. “We want to move this to long-term, at-home studies.”

    Northwestern scientists, under the direction of Dr. Roneil Malkani, assistant professor of neurology at Feinberg and a Northwestern Medicine sleep specialist, are currently testing the acoustic stimulation in overnight sleep studies in patients with memory complaints. The goal is to determine whether acoustic stimulation can enhance memory in adults with mild cognitive impairment.

    Previous studies conducted in individuals with mild cognitive impairment in collaboration with Ken Paller, professor of psychology at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern, have demonstrated a possible link between their sleep and their memory impairments.


  2. Blueberry concentrate improves brain function in older people

    March 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Exeter press release:

    Blueberries

    Drinking concentrated blueberry juice improves brain function in older people, according to research by the University of Exeter.

    In the study, healthy people aged 65-77 who drank concentrated blueberry juice every day showed improvements in cognitive function, blood flow to the brain and activation of the brain while carrying out cognitive tests.

    There was also evidence suggesting improvement in working memory.

    Blueberries are rich in flavonoids, which possess antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

    Dr Joanna Bowtell, head of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Exeter, said: “Our cognitive function tends to decline as we get older, but previous research has shown that cognitive function is better preserved in healthy older adults with a diet rich in plant-based foods.

    “In this study we have shown that with just 12 weeks of consuming 30ml of concentrated blueberry juice every day, brain blood flow, brain activation and some aspects of working memory were improved in this group of healthy older adults.”

    Of the 26 healthy adults in the study, 12 were given concentrated blueberry juice — providing the equivalent of 230g of blueberries — once a day, while 14 received a placebo.

    Before and after the 12-week period, participants took a range of cognitive tests while an MRI scanner monitored their brain function and resting brain blood flow was measured.

    Compared to the placebo group, those who took the blueberry supplement showed significant increases in brain activity in brain areas related to the tests.

    The study excluded anyone who said they consumed more than five portions of fruit and vegetables per day, and all participants were told to stick to their normal diet throughout.

    Previous research has shown that risk of dementia is reduced by higher fruit and vegetable intake, and cognitive function is better preserved in healthy older adults with a diet rich in plant-based foods.

    Flavonoids, which are abundant in plants, are likely to be an important component in causing these effects.


  3. Sensory links between autism and synesthesia pinpointed

    by Ashley

    From the University of Sussex press release:

    Concrete links between the symptoms of autism and synaesthesia have been discovered and clarified for the first time, according to new research by psychologists at the University of Sussex.

    The study, conducted by world-leading experts in both conditions at Sussex and the University of Cambridge and published in the journal Scientific Reports, found that both groups experience remarkably similar heightened sensory sensitivity, despite clear differences in communicative ability and social skills.

    Two previous studies had found an increased prevalence of synaesthesia in autistic subjects, suggesting that although they are not always found in conjunction, the two conditions occur together more often than would be expected by chance alone. However, this is the first study that has attempted to draw a definitive symptomatic link between the two.

    Synaesthesia and autism seem on the surface to be rather different things, with synaesthesia defined as a ‘joining of the senses’ in which music may trigger colours or words may trigger tastes, and autism defined by impaired social understanding and communication.

    The new research shows that both groups report heightened sensory sensitivity, such as an aversion to certain sounds and lights, as well as reporting differences in their tendency to attend to detail. However, the synaesthetes tended not to report difficulties on the traditional communicative symptoms that usually define autism. While the research shows that there are certainly links between the two conditions, these appear to be sensory rather than social.

    The study was led by Professor Jamie Ward, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and Co-Director Sussex Neuroscience group, alongside Sussex Psychology colleague, Professor Julia Simner; and Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge and Director of the Autism Research Centre.

    Commenting on the research, Prof Ward said: “Synaesthesia has traditionally been considered more of a gift than an impairment, whereas the opposite could often be said of autism. Our research suggests that the two have much more in common than was previously thought, and that many of the sensory traits that autistic people possess are also found in those who experience synaesthesia.

    “Though further research is required, our understanding of autism in the context of synaesthetic abilities may help us unlock the secrets of some of the more positive aspects of autism, such as savantism, while also uncovering further neurological links between the two conditions.”

    Another research paper by the group of researchers, looking more closely at the question of savantism in people with autism, is also due to be published soon.

    Reinforcing their initial research, it shows that synaesthesia tends to be particularly prevalent in people with autism who also have unexpected ‘savant’ abilities, such as superior abilities in arithmetic, memory and art.

    Prof Ward added: “Though some theories propose a causal link between increased sensory sensitivity and impaired social functioning in people with autism, our research so far demonstrates the value of considering synaesthesia on the same spectrum as autism from a sensory point of view.

    We hope in future to be able to continue to explore the relationship between perceptual, cognitive and social symptoms and abilities in autistic and synaesthetic people.”


  4. Skilled workers more prone to mistakes when interrupted

    by Ashley

    From the Michigan State University press release:

    Expertise is clearly beneficial in the workplace, yet highly trained workers in some occupations could actually be at risk for making errors when interrupted, indicates a new study by two Michigan State University psychology researchers.

    The reason: Experienced workers are generally faster at performing procedural tasks, meaning their actions are more closely spaced in time and thus more confusable when they attempt to recall where to resume a task after being interrupted.

    “Suppose a nurse is interrupted while preparing to give a dose of medication and then must remember whether he or she administered the dose,” said Erik Altmann, lead investigator on the project. “The more experienced nurse will remember less accurately than a less-practiced nurse, other things being equal, if the more experienced nurse performs the steps involved in administering medication more quickly.”

    That’s not to say skilled nurses should avoid giving medication, but only that high skill levels could be a risk factor for increased errors after interruptions and that experts who perform a task quickly and accurately have probably figured out strategies for keeping their place in a task, said Altmann, who collaborated with fellow professor Zach Hambrick.

    Their study, funded by the Office of Naval Research, is published online in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

    For the experiment, 224 people performed two sessions of a computer-based procedural task on separate days. Participants were interrupted randomly by a simple typing task, after which they had to remember the last step they performed to select the correct step to perform next.

    In the second session, people became faster, and on most measures, more accurate, Altmann said. After interruptions, however, they became less accurate, making more errors by resuming the task at the wrong spot.

    “The faster things happen, the worse we remember them,” Altmann said, adding that when workers are interrupted in the middle of critical procedures, as in emergency rooms or intensive care units, they may benefit from training and equipment design that helps them remember where they left off.


  5. Couples may miss cues that partner is hiding emotions, study suggests

    by Ashley

    From theĀ Washington University in St. Louis press release:

    Even the most blissful of couples in long-running, exclusive relationships may be fairly clueless when it comes to spotting the ploys their partner uses to avoid dealing with emotional issues, suggests new research from psychologists at Washington University in St. Louis.

    Happier couples see their partners in a more positive light than do less happy couples,” said Lameese Eldesouky, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in Psychological and Brain Sciences at Washington University. “They tend to underestimate how often a partner is suppressing emotions and to overestimate a partner’s ability to see the bright side of an issue that might otherwise spark negative emotions.”

    Titled “Love is Blind, but Not Completely: Emotion Regulation Trait Judgments in Romantic Relationships,” Eldesouky’s presentation of the study was offered Jan. 20 at the 2017 meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

    Published in the Journal of Personality, the study examines how accurate and biased dating couples are in judging personality characteristics that reflect ways of managing one’s emotions.

    It focuses on two coping mechanisms that can be difficult to spot due to the lack of related visual cues: expressive suppression (stoically hiding one’s emotions behind a calm and quiet poker face) and cognitive reappraisal (changing one’s perspective to see the silver lining behind a bad situation).

    Other findings include:

    • Couples generally are able to judge their partners’ emotion regulation patterns with some degree of accuracy, but are somewhat less accurate in judging reappraisal than suppression.
    • Women see their partners in a more positive light than do men, overestimating their partners’ ability to look on the bright side.
    • If someone is generally more emotional, their romantic partner thinks they are less likely to hide emotions.
    • If someone frequently expresses positive emotions, such as happiness, their romantic partner thinks they use reappraisal more than they actually do.

    Co-authored by Tammy English, assistant professor of psychology at Washington University, and James Gross, professor of psychology at Stanford University, the study is based on completed questionnaires and interviews with 120 heterosexual couples attending colleges in Northern California.

    Participants, ranging in age from 18 to 25 years, were recruited as part of a larger study on emotion in close relationships. Each couple had been dating on an exclusive basis for more than six months, with some together as long as four years.

    In a previous study, English and Gross found that men are more likely than women to use suppression with their partners, and that the ongoing use of emotional suppression can be damaging to the long-term quality of a relationship.

    “Suppression is often considered a negative trait while reappraisal is considered a positive trait because of the differential impact these strategies have on emotional well-being and social relationships,” English said.

    “How well you are able to judge someone else’s personality depends on your personal skills, your relationship with the person you are judging and the particular trait you are trying to judge,” English added. “This study suggests that suppression might be easier to judge than reappraisal because suppression provides more external cues, such as appearing stoic.”


  6. Musical scales may have developed to accommodate vocal limitations

    March 19, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University at Buffalo press release:

    For singers and their audiences, being “in tune” might not be as important as we think. The fact that singers fail to consistently hit the right notes may have implications for the development of musical scales as well.

    At issue is not whether singers hit the right or wrong note, but how close are they to any note. It’s what researchers call microtuning, according to Peter Pfordresher, a UB psychologist and the paper’s lead author of a new paper with Steven Brown of McMaster University published in the Journal of Cognitive Psychology.

    The findings not only suggest a different approach to the aesthetics of singing but could have a role in understanding the evolutionary development of the scales, as well as applications to childhood singing development and speech production for tone languages.

    There is a long-standing belief that musical scales arose from simple harmonic ratios. The Greek mathematician Pythagoras found that plucking a string at certain points produced pleasing steps similar to the progression heard in musical scales — Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do. Scales came about as a way of getting as close as possible to Pythagoras’ pure tuning.

    Or maybe not.

    Pfordresher says there are at least three problems with trying to match Pythagoras’ pure tuning. First, scales are not purely tuned, which has been known for a long time. It’s also not clear to what extent all of the world’s musical scales tie into the kinds of principles Pythagoras pioneered. Pfordresher cites Indonesian musical scales as an example that does not align itself with Pythagorean pure tones.

    The third problems rests with Pythagoras basing his theory on instruments, first strings and later pipes.

    “This is where Steve and I came up with our evolutionary idea,” says Pfordresher. “Probably the best starting point to think about what we call music is to look at singing, not instruments.”

    The researchers studied three groups of singers of varying abilities: professionals, untrained singers who tend sing in tune and the untrained who tend not to sing in tune. They weren’t listening for whether the singers were hitting the right notes, but rather how close they were to any note.

    Pfordresher and Brown found that the groups did not differ in terms of microtuning, although they were very different aesthetically.

    “Our proposal is, maybe scales were designed as a way to accommodate how out of tune, how variable singers are,” says Pfordresher. “We suggest that the starting point for scales and tuning for scales was probably not the tuning of musical instruments, but the mistuning of the human voice.”

    To set up a kind of musical grammar requires rules that allow for songs to be understood, remembered and reproduced. To accomplish these goals, that system needs pitches spaced widely enough to accommodate inconsistencies from person to person.

    The space between Do and Re, for instance, is heard by playing two adjacent white keys on a piano keyboard and provides that kind of liberal spacing.

    “When you look around the world, you find there are a couple of properties for scales,” says Pfordresher. “There’s a tendency to have notes that are spaced somewhat broadly, much more broadly than the fine gradations in pitch that our ears can pick up.”

    This broad spacing helps all kinds of singers, including the nightingale wren, a bird whose virtuosity has been the province of poets since antiquity. Pfordresher says earlier research by Marcelo Araya-Salas found that flexibly tuned instruments like violins and trombones were more in tune that the wren’s song.

    And though not part of the published study, Pfordresher also analyzed an excerpt of a studio version of Frank Sinatra singing “The Best is Yet to Come.”

    “It’s a wonderful recording and a challenging song to sing, but when acoustically analyzed using several measurements, the pitches are not purely tuned,” says Pfordresher. “Although he’s close enough for our ears.”


  7. Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) detected with brain training game

    March 17, 2017 by Ashley

    From the IOS Press press release:

    Greek researchers demonstrated the potential of a self-administered virtual supermarket cognitive training game for remotely detecting mild cognitive impairment (MCI), without the need for an examiner, among a sample of older adults. MCI patients suffer from cognitive problems and often encounter difficulties in performing complex activities such as financial planning. They are at a high risk for progressing to dementia however early detection of MCI and suitable interventions can stabilize the patients’ condition and prevent further decline.

    It has been shown that virtual reality game-based applications and especially virtual supermarkets can detect MCI. Past studies have utilized user performance in such applications along with data from standardized neuropsychological tests in order to detect MCI. The team that conducted this study was the first scientific team to achieve reliable MCI detection using a virtual reality game-based application on its own. In that previous study , administration of the virtual super market (VSM) exercise was conducted by an examiner. The present study eliminated the need for an examiner by calculating the average performance of older adults using a special version of the VSM application, the VSM Remote Assessment Routine (VSM-RAR), at home on their own, for a period of one month. It is the first instance where a self-administered virtual reality application was used to detect MCI with a high degree of reliability.

    The research team included scientists from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (AUTH), the Centre for Research and Technology Hellas/Information Technologies Institute (CERTH/ITI), the Greek Association of Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders (GAADRD) and the Network Aging Research (NAR) of the University of Heidelberg.

    In an article published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, the researchers have indicated that the virtual supermarket remote assessment routine (VSM-RAR) application displayed a correct classification rate (CCR) of 91.8% improving VSM’s CCR as assessed in the previous VSM study while achieving a level of diagnostic accuracy similar to the most accurate standardized neuropsychological tests, which are considered the gold standard for MCI detection.

    Self-administered computerized cognitive training exercises/games are gaining popularity among older adults as an easy and enjoyable means of maintaining cognitive health. Such applications are especially popular among older adults who consider themselves healthy and are not inclined to visit specialized memory clinics for cognitive assessment. If self-administered games and exercises could also detect cognitive disorders, initial cognitive screening could be conducted remotely. The wide implementation of this method of remote screening would facilitate the detection of cognitive impairment at the MCI stage thus allowing for more efficient therapeutic interventions.

    This preliminary study indicates that automated, remote MCI screening is feasible. This method could be utilized to screen the majority of the older adult population, as it dramatically lowers examination-related costs. The social and economic benefits, especially caregiver and healthcare service burden, of the early detection of cognitive disorders could be enormous. At the same time, as older adults are becoming increasingly computer savvy, it is important to create software that meets their needs and allows them to remain healthy and active. Out team continues its research on the VSM with the aim of improving its usability, shortening its administration time and supplementing the science behind VSM with additional data.


  8. Study notes how musical cues trigger different autobiographical memories

    March 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Springer press release:

    Happy memories spring to mind much faster than sad, scary or peaceful ones. Moreover, if you listen to happy or peaceful music, you recall positive memories, whereas if you listen to emotionally scary or sad music, you recall largely negative memories from your past. Those are two of the findings from an experiment in which study participants accessed autobiographical memories after listening to unknown pieces of music varying in intensity or emotional content. It was conducted by Signy Sheldon and Julia Donahue of McGill University in Canada, and is reported in the journal Memory & Cognition, published by Springer.

    The experiment tested how musical retrieval cues that differ on two dimensions of emotion — valence (positive and negative) and arousal (high and low) — influence the way that people recall autobiographical memories. A total of 48 participants had 30 seconds to listen to 32 newly composed piano pieces not known to them. The pieces were grouped into four retrieval cues of music: happy (positive, high arousal), peaceful (positive, low arousal), scary (negative, high arousal) and sad (negative, low arousal).

    Participants had to recall events in which they were personally involved, that were specific in place and time, and that lasted less than a day. As soon as a memory came to mind, participants pressed a computer key and typed in their accessed memory. The researchers noted how long it took participants to access a memory, how vivid it was, and the emotions associated with it. The type of event coming to mind was also considered, and whether for instance it was quite unique or connected with an energetic or social setting.

    Memories were found to be accessed most quickly based on musical cues that were highly arousing and positive in emotion, and could therefore be classified as happy. A relationship between the type of musical cue and whether it triggered the remembrance of a positive or a negative memory was also noted. The nature of the event recalled was influenced by whether the cue was positive or negative and whether it was high or low in arousal.

    “High cue arousal led to lower memory vividness and uniqueness ratings, but both high arousal and positive cues were associated with memories rated as more social and energetic,” explains Sheldon.

    During the experiment, the piano pieces were played to one half of the participants in no particular order, while for the rest the music was grouped together based on whether these were peaceful, happy, sad or scary pieces. This led to the finding that the way in which cues are presented influences how quickly and specifically memories are accessed. Cue valence also affects the vividness of a memory.

    More specifically, the researchers found that a greater proportion of clear memories were recalled when highly arousing positive cues were played in a blocked fashion. Positive cues also elicited more vivid memories than negative cues. In the randomized condition, negative cues were associated more vividly than positive cues.

    “It is possible that when cues were presented in a random fashion, the emotional content of the cue directed retrieval to a similar memory via shared emotional information,” notes Donahue.


  9. Media multitasking linked to distractibility among youth

    March 15, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Helsinki press release:

    The aim of Mona Moisala’s doctoral dissertation was to study patterns of activity in cortical networks related to attention and working memory, as well as to investigate associations between performance in working memory and attention tasks and the extent of daily technology-mediated activities in 13-24-year-old subjects from Finland.

    The results reveal that the youth that reported a greater tendency to use several media simultaneously during their free time, struggled with the attention-related tasks in a laboratory setting.

    “They had a harder time filtering out distractive stimuli. This was also seen as higher activity in regions of the frontal lobe, which can be a sign of excessive strain,” Moisala points out.

    However, it is unclear whether the distractibility is caused by media-multitasking or vice versa.

    Moisala used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record brain activity during task performance. Using this method, she also investigated why multitasking is difficult.

    “The results demonstrated that during division of attention between listening and reading, competition for neural resources in regions shared by these tasks was a major factor limiting the performance,” Moisala says.

    The studied youth who reported more daily computer gaming activity showed enhanced working memory functioning and better reaction times in the laboratory tasks. It was also easier for them to switch between visual and auditory attention.

    The cognitive benefits of computer gaming have also been reported in previous studies.

    “Taken together, the results from these studies are of great importance, since it is vital to understand how the increasing amount of on-screen time might affect or interact with the cognitive and brain functioning of the current youth,” Moisala says.

    She repeated the laboratory tasks two years later to gather data for the follow-up research for which she now seeks funding.

    “This data is exceptionally extensive and provides us with the possibility to investigate the effects of technology use on the developing brain,” Moisala says.


  10. Rapid blood pressure drops in middle age linked to dementia in old age

    March 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health media release:

    Middle-aged people who experience temporary blood pressure drops that often cause dizziness upon standing up may be at an increased risk of developing cognitive decline and dementia 20 years later, new Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health research suggests.

    The findings, being presented March 10 at the American Heart Association’s EPI|LIFESTYLE 2017 Scientific Sessions in Portland, Ore., suggest that these temporary episodes — known as orthostatic hypotension — may cause lasting damage, possibly because they reduce needed blood flow to the brain. Previous research has suggested a connection between orthostatic hypotension and cognitive decline in older people, but this appears to be the first to look at long-term associations.

    “Even though these episodes are fleeting, they may have impacts that are long lasting,” says study leader Andreea Rawlings, PhD, MS, a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Epidemiology at the Bloomberg School. “We found that those people who suffered from orthostatic hypotension in middle age were 40 percent more likely to develop dementia than those who did not. It’s a significant finding and we need to better understand just what is happening.”

    An estimated four million to five million Americans currently have dementia and, as the population ages, that number is only expected to grow. There currently is no treatment and no cure for the condition.

    For the study, the researchers analyzed data from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) cohort, a study of 15,792 residents in four communities in the United States, who were between the ages of 45 and 64 when the study began in 1987. For this study, they focused on the 11,503 participants at visit one who had no history of coronary heart disease or stroke. After 20 minutes lying down, researchers took the participants’ blood pressure upon standing. Orthostatic hypotension was defined as a drop of 20 mmHg or more in systolic blood pressure or 10 mmHg or more in diastolic blood pressure. Roughly six percent of participants, or 703 people, met the definition.

    These participants, who were on average 54 years old upon enrolling in the study, continued to be followed over the next 20 or more years. People with orthostatic hypotension at the first visit were 40 percent more likely to develop dementia than those who did not have it. They had 15 percent more cognitive decline.

    Rawlings says it is not possible to tease out for certain whether the orthostatic hypotension was an indicator of some other underlying disease or whether the drop in blood pressure itself is the cause, though it is likely that the reduction in blood flow to the brain, however temporary, could have lasting consequences.

    It also wasn’t clear, she says, whether these participants had repeated problems with orthostatic hypotension over many years or whether they had just a brief episode of orthostatic hypotension at the original enrollment visit, as patients were not retested over time.

    “Identifying risk factors for cognitive decline and dementia is important for understanding disease progression, and being able to identify those most at risk gives us possible strategies for prevention and intervention,” Rawlings says. “This is one of those factors worth more investigation.”