1. Study suggests brain activity buffers against worsening anxiety

    November 21, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Duke University press release:

    Boosting activity in brain areas related to thinking and problem-solving may also buffer against worsening anxiety, suggests a new study by Duke University researchers.

    Using non-invasive brain imaging, the researchers found that people at-risk for anxiety were less likely to develop the disorder if they had higher activity in a region of the brain responsible for complex mental operations. The results may be a step towards tailoring psychological therapies to the specific brain functioning of individual patients.

    “These findings help reinforce a strategy whereby individuals may be able to improve their emotional functioning — their mood, their anxiety, their experience of depression — not only by directly addressing those phenomena, but also by indirectly improving their general cognitive functioning,” said Ahmad Hariri, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke. The results are published Nov. 17 in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

    Previous findings from Hariri’s group show that people whose brains exhibit a high response to threat and a low response to reward are more at risk of developing symptoms of anxiety and depression over time.

    In the current work, Hariri and Matthew Scult, a clinical psychology graduate student in the department of psychology and neuroscience at Duke, wanted to investigate whether higher activity in a region of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex could help shield these at-risk individuals from future mental illness.

    “We wanted to address an area of understanding mental illness that has been neglected, and that is the flip side of risk,” Hariri said. “We are looking for variables that actually confer resiliency and protect individuals from developing problems.”

    The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is our brain’s “executive control” center, helping us focus our attention and plan complex actions. It also plays a role in emotion regulation, and well-established types of psychotherapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy, engage this region of the brain by equipping patients with strategies to reframe or re-evaluate their emotions.

    The team drew on data from 120 undergraduate students who participated in the Duke Neurogenetics Study. Each participant completed a series of mental health questionnaires and underwent a type of non-invasive brain scan called functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) while engaged in tasks meant to activate specific regions of the brain.

    The researchers asked each participant to answer simple memory-based math problems to stimulate the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Participants also viewed angry or scared faces to activate a region of the brain called the amygdala, and played a reward-based guessing game to stimulate activity in the brain’s ventral striatum.

    Scult was particularly interested in “at-risk” individuals with the combination of high threat-related activity in the amygdala and low reward-related activity in the ventral striatum. By comparing participants’ mental health assessments at the time of the brain scans, and in a follow-up occurring on average seven months later, he found that these at-risk individuals were less likely to develop anxiety if they also had high activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

    “We found that if you have a higher functioning dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the imbalance in these deeper brain structures is not expressed as changes in mood or anxiety,” Hariri said.

    The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is especially skilled at adapting to new situations, the researchers say. Individuals whose brains exhibit the at-risk signatures may be more likely to benefit from strategies that boost the brain’s dorsolateral prefrontal activity, including cognitive behavioral therapy, working memory training, or transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

    But, the researchers warn, the jury is still out on whether many brain-training exercises improve the overall functioning of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or only hone its ability to complete the specific task being trained. Additional studies on more diverse populations are also needed to confirm their findings.

    “We are hoping to help improve current mental health treatments by first predicting who is most at-risk so that we can intervene earlier, and second, by using these types of approaches to determine who might benefit from a given therapy,” Scult said.


  2. Researchers teach computer to recognize emotions in speech

    November 18, 2017 by Ashley

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

    Experts of the Faculty of Informatics, Mathematics, and Computer Science at the Higher School of Economics have created an automatic system capable of identifying emotions in the sound of a voice. Their report was presented at a major international conference – Neuroinformatics-2017. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-66604-4_18

    For a long time, computers have successfully converted speech into text. However, the emotional component, which is important for conveying meaning, has been neglected. For example, for the same question ‘Is everything okay?’, people can answer ‘Of course it is!’ with different intonations: calm, provoking, cheerful, etc. And the reactions will be completely different.

    Neural networks are processors connected with each other and capable of learning, analysis and synthesis. This smart system surpasses traditional algorithms in that the interaction between a person and computer becomes more interactive.

    HSE researchers Anastasia Popova, Alexander Rassadin and Alexander Ponomarenko have trained a neural network to recognize eight different emotions: neutral, calm, happy, sad, angry, scared, disgusted, and surprised. In 70% of cases the computer identified the emotion correctly, say the researchers.

    The researchers have transformed the sound into images – spectrograms – which allowed them to work with sound using the methods applied for image recognition. A deep learning convolutional neural network with VGG-16 architecture was used in the research.

    The researchers note that the programme successfully distinguishes neutral and calm tones, while happiness and surprise are not always recognized well. Happiness is often perceived as fear and sadness, and surprise is interpreted as disgust.


  3. Study suggests exercise may be beneficial to mental health regimen

    November 17, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Michigan State University press release:

    More mental health providers may want to take a closer look at including exercise in their patients’ treatment plans, a new study suggests.

    Michigan State University and University of Michigan researchers asked 295 patients receiving treatment at a mental health clinic whether they wanted to be more physically active and if exercise helped improve their mood and anxiety. They also asked if patients wanted their therapist to help them become more active.

    Eighty-five percent said they wanted to exercise more and over 80 percent believed exercise helped improve their moods and anxiety much of the time. Almost half expressed interest in a one-time discussion, with many participants also wanting ongoing advice about physical activity with their mental health provider.

    The study is now published in the journal General Hospital Psychiatry.

    Physical activity has been shown to be effective in alleviating mild to moderate depression and anxiety,” said Carol Janney, lead author of the study and an MSU assistant professor of epidemiology. “Current physical activity guidelines advise at least 30 minutes, five days a week to promote mental and physical health, yet many of those surveyed weren’t meeting these recommendations.”

    More than half of the participants said their mood limited their ability to exercise, which Janney said provides an opportunity for physicians and therapists in clinics to offer additional support.

    “Offering physical activity programs inside the mental health clinics may be one of many patient-centered approaches that can improve the mental and physical health of patients,” Janney said.

    Marcia Valenstein, senior author and professor emeritus in psychiatry at U-M, agreed.

    “Mental health treatment programs need to partner with fitness programs to support their patients’ willingness to exercise more,” she said. “This support might come from integrating personal trainers into mental health clinics or having strong partnerships with the YMCA or other community recreational facilities.”

    Both Valenstein and Janney said that psychiatrists and other providers might discuss with patients the general need to exercise, but few actually sit down with patients and create a comprehensive exercise plan for them or regularly make sure they are adhering to a specific goal.

    “Mental health providers such as psychiatrists and therapists may not have the necessary training to prescribe physical activity as part of their mental health practice,” Janney said. “But by teaming up with certified personal trainers or other exercise programs, it may help them prescribe or offer more recommendations for physical activity in the clinic setting.”

    Results also showed that over half of the patients surveyed showed interest in getting help from a personal trainer and were willing to pay a bit extra, but that the topic of physical activity was rarely discussed by their physician.

    “This is a missed opportunity,” Valenstein said. “If we can make it easier for both therapists and their patients to have easier access to physical activity services, then we are likely to help more patients reduce their depression and anxiety.”

    Once the effectiveness of this approach is proven, she added, health insurers might consider moving in the direction of covering services that help people exercise.

    “Several insurers already do this for diabetes prevention, so it’s not out of the question.”


  4. Study suggests optimists and happy people are healthier overall

    November 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Michigan press release:

    Research shows that optimists and happy people are healthier overall, enjoying lower blood pressure and less depression and anxiety, among other measures.

    However, data on the effect of weight and Body Mass Index on physical and mental health are rare — especially among college students, who suffer high rates of anxiety and depression and often neglect physical self-care and exercise.

    To that end, researchers from the University of Michigan and Fudan University in China set out to learn the extent to which BMI and positive outlook affect the physical and mental health of college students in China’s Fudan University.

    They found that a positive outlook and BMI both contributed significantly to good health, said Weiyun Chen, associate professor of health and fitness at the U-M School of Kinesiology.

    Researchers asked 925 students to rate four indicators of psychological well-being: hope, gratitude, life satisfaction and subjective happiness. They also calculated students’ BMI based on self-reported body weight and height. To assess physical and mental health, researchers asked students various questions about their sleep quality and how often they felt healthy, energized, worthless, fidgety, anxious or depressed.

    Chen said that taken together, the four psychological variables and BMI accounted for 41 percent of the total variance in health. Individually, subjective happiness had the most significant impact, followed by hope, and then BMI.

    By themselves, gratitude and life satisfaction didn’t influence overall health. Also, interestingly, BMI was correlated with physical and overall health, but not with hope, gratitude, life satisfaction or mental health.

    In light of the intense academic pressure Chinese college students face, especially at elite institutions like Fudan, Chen said she was surprised by how many students rated themselves happy and healthy. This could point to China’s emphasis on well-being in schools.

    “They have structured, organized physical educations classes,” Chen said. “It’s not just fitness, it’s a variety of things so you can meet different people’s needs. They realized that emphasizing only academics isn’t good for overall health, and that they needed to emphasize the wellness part.”

    These numbers might look different for college students in the U.S., where two of three adults are overweight or obese, and 17 percent of youth ages 2-19 are considered obese, according to the CDC.

    By contrast, 714 Fudan students, or 77.2 percent, were classified as normal body weight, while only 83 students were overweight, and just 5 students were obese, with 123 students considered underweight.

    “Over the past 20 years, the United States has shrunk physical education in elementary school and in college,” Chen said. “In China, especially in the past decade, they have started to emphasize physical education, and they are taking a holistic, whole person approach.”

    Chen said the findings suggest that universities should creatively design wellness programs and centers that dynamically integrate body, mind and spirit into a seamless unit.

    The study has several limitations: all students were recruited from one university, and the results cannot be generalized; the research design prevented establishing causal effects; and the study did not account for gender differences.


  5. UK study suggests sports psychologists working with elite footballers may suffer fear and uncertainty

    by Ashley

    From the University of Exeter press release:

    Sports psychologists have to cope with “fear and uncertainty”, job insecurity and long working hours when working with elite footballers, research shows.

    The experts are being increasingly used to give teams a competitive edge, but they have to face the pressure of losing their job when the football managers they work with are sacked or move, as well as long working hours and the constant need to prove themselves and to please others.

    The study, carried out with a psychologist who worked with a Premier League team, also suggests clubs are using sports psychologists who are untrained and unqualified and this could be dangerous for players. It warns there are few job opportunities for sports psychology and no structured career path.

    The profession is relatively new, but sport and exercise psychologists are now regulated by the Health and Care Professions Council in the UK. The role of a sports psychologist is diverse, but it typically includes working with athletes, coaches, and teams to enhance performance or support athletes who are injured, stressed or having difficulties managing their emotions. They also help sportsmen and women to better communicate, develop leadership skills, build confidence and find motivation and make the transition to a different career. Psychologists can be based in universities or with directly with teams or players.

    The research gives a rare glimpse into the working life of a sports psychologist in the English Premier League. “John”, who co-authored with study with academics from the University of Exeter and University of Portsmouth, is in his mid-30s and had worked for over a decade as a sports psychologist within the English Premier League (EPL) and the higher echelons of English County Cricket.

    John described how the role of a sports medic or psychologist can be incredibly rewarding when the team wins. But it is also precarious, and they often don’t benefit from job security or statutory entitlements because of their links with managers and coaches, who themselves often dismissed with no notice. Managers and coaches usually bring their own, trusted, staff with them when they move from role to role, as well as their own practices and regime. This means there can be a high turnover of medics and psychologists in clubs, and the job is highly competitive.

    John described how the changeover in managers could be “very volatile and unpleasant”. He had seen five managers come and go in five years.

    “This brings fear and uncertainty because any time there’s change you don’t know whether your face is going to fit. A lot of people will not believe that psychology has a place and that’s not a reflection on you or your capabilities, it’s just that they don’t want it in their team, or say they do and just sideline you. Or they have their own people, or a friend or a psych who they’ve used before, so you’re always at the mercy of one person’s attitude or perception, their team and their networks. All of this adds to the precarious nature of the work. You do the best you can to survive and hopefully thrive as well.”

    John described sometimes having to “hide” what he did. He worked with two coaches who didn’t believe in sports psychology. They wouldn’t let him speak to any of their players but he was able to work with players as part of a programme designed to support them off-field. Once the coaches saw this was successful they allowed him to carry out more sports psychology work.

    John helped professional sportspeople to improve their performance, develop and secure a place in the first team and helping them with issues or crises. He used different techniques, including one-to-one sessions with players to help them regulate their emotions and concentrate and set goals. He has now left club football for a more secure career in performance research and consultancy.

    John said: “It’s a life decision that you make to be fully involved in a team. You live and breathe what happens to them. You do whatever it takes. Everything must be done now, it’s a very instant culture and if you can do something to help the team win the next game then you need to do it. Ultimately it consumes your whole life and makes you vulnerable to change because you’re invested in it.”


  6. Significant financial stress associated with 13-fold higher odds of having a heart attack

    November 13, 2017 by Ashley

    From the European Society of Cardiology press release:

    Significant financial stress is associated with a 13-fold higher odds of having a heart attack, according to research presented at the 18th Annual Congress of the South African Heart Association.

    The SA Heart Congress 2017 is being held from 9 to 12 November in Johannesburg.

    “The role of psychosocial factors in causing disease is a neglected area of study in South Africa, perhaps because there are so many other pressing health challenges such as tuberculosis and HIV,” said lead author Dr Denishan Govender, associate lecturer, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

    “The INTERHEART study showed that psychosocial factors are independently associated with acute myocardial infarction (heart attack) in Africa but as far as we are aware there are no other published local data,” said last author Professor Pravin Manga, professor of cardiology, University of the Witwatersrand.

    This study included 106 patients with acute myocardial infarction who presented to a large public hospital in Johannesburg. A control group of 106 patients without cardiac disease was matched for age, sex and race. All participants completed a questionnaire about depression, anxiety, stress, work stress, and financial stress in the previous month. The Likert scale was used to grade the experience of each condition.

    Regarding financial stress, patients were graded with no financial stress if they were coping financially; mild financial stress if they were coping financially but needed added support; moderate financial stress if they had an income but were in financial distress; and significant financial stress if they had no income and at times struggled to meet basic needs.

    Levels of psychosocial conditions were compared between groups and used to calculate associations with having a heart attack.

    Self-reported stress levels were common, with 96% of heart attack patients reporting any level of stress, and 40% reporting severe stress levels. There was a three-fold increased risk of myocardial infarction if a patient had experienced any level of depression (from mild to extremely severe) in the previous month compared to those with no depression.

    Both work stress and financial stress were associated with a higher risk of acute myocardial infarction. The odds of myocardial infarction was 5.6 times higher in patients with moderate or severe work stress compared to those with minimal or no stress. Patients with significant financial stress had a 13-fold higher odds of having a myocardial infarction.

    Dr Govender said: “Our study suggests that psychosocial aspects are important risk factors for acute myocardial infarction. Often patients are counselled about stress after a heart attack but there needs to be more emphasis prior to an event. Few doctors ask about stress, depression or anxiety during a general physical and this should become routine practice, like asking about smoking. Just as we provide advice on how to quit smoking, patients need information on how to fight stress.”

    Professor Manga said: “There is growing recognition that many developing countries are experiencing an increasing prevalence of chronic diseases of lifestyle such as myocardial infarction, and South Africa is no exception. Our study shows that psychosocial aspects are an area of cardiovascular prevention that deserves more attention.”

    Dr David Jankelow, Chairman of the SA Heart 2017 Congress, commented: “We know that the depressed cardiac patient is at greater risk. We as clinicians need to identify them much earlier, so that they can be referred for appropriate intervention. Cardiac rehabilitation together with counselling and reassurance will play an important role as well.”

    Professor Fausto Pinto, ESC immediate past president and course director of the ESC programme in South Africa, said: “Psychosocial factors including stress at work, depression and anxiety contribute to the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and having a worse prognosis. European prevention guidelines say that psychosocial risk factor assessment should be considered in people with, or at high risk of, cardiovascular disease to identify possible barriers to lifestyle change or adherence to medication.”


  7. Study suggests short nature intervention can bring out the best in people

    November 12, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of British Columbia Okanagan campus press release:

    Is it any wonder that most happiness idioms are associated with nature? Happy as a pig in muck, happy as a clam, happy camper.

    A UBC researcher says there’s truth to the idea that spending time outdoors is a direct line to happiness. In fact, Holli-Anne Passmore says if people simply take time to notice the nature around them, it will increase their general happiness and well-being.

    Passmore, a PhD psychology student at UBC’s Okanagan campus, recently published research examining the connection between taking a moment to look at something from the natural environment and personal well-being. A recent study involved a two-week ‘intervention’ where participants were asked to document how nature they encountered in their daily routine made them feel. They took a photo of the item that caught their attention and jotted down a short note about their feelings in response to it.

    Other participants tracked their reactions to human-made objects, took a photo and jotted down their feelings, while a third group did neither. Passmore explains that examples of nature could be anything not human built: a house plant, a dandelion growing in a crack in a sidewalk, birds, or sun through a window.

    “This wasn’t about spending hours outdoors or going for long walks in the wilderness,” Passmore says. “This is about the tree at a bus stop in the middle of a city and the positive effect that one tree can have on people.”

    Passmore, who studies wellness, says she was ‘overwhelmed’ not only by the response of her 395 study participants — more than 2,500 photos and descriptions of emotions were submitted — but also by the impact that simply noticing emotional responses to nearby nature had on personal well-being. And their prosocial orientation — a willingness to share resources and the value they placed on community.

    There is scientific documentation that people who live in greenspaces generally seem to be happier, and may live longer than those who don’t. Passmore is taking that research further. This study is one of a series by a research team in UBC Okanagan’s psychology department known as the “Happy Team” which is providing evidence that nature can increase happiness.

    “The difference in participants’ well-being their happiness, sense of elevation, and their level of connectedness to other people, not just nature — was significantly higher than participants in the group noticing how human-built objects made them feel and the control group.”


  8. Study suggests the nose reveals our relationship with our emotions

    October 29, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati press release:

    Do you express your emotions? Are you able to name them, talk about them, relate to your feelings? If your answer is not an unqualified yes, you might be among the 10 percent of the healthy population who has difficulty processing the emotions they experience: a psychological condition known as alexithymia.

    An alexithymic individual has difficulty, to a greater or lesser degree, in relating to the sensations — ranging from joy to fear, from disgust to anger — which make up our experience. New research conducted at SISSA in Trieste and published in the scientific journal Scientific Reports seeks to shed light on new aspects of the condition, using a hitherto completely untested approach. Specifically, given the close link which exists between the perception of smells and emotions, the scientists Cinzia Cecchetto, Raffaella Rumiati and Marilena Aiello used olfactory tests: “There is a partial overlap between the areas in our brains which deal with olfactory perception and those which process emotions. A test such as this may, therefore, be particularly suitable for studying this specific psychological condition,” explains Aiello, who coordinated the research.

    62 individuals divided into three groups according to the severity of alexithymia (high, medium and low) underwent a series of olfactory tests in order to investigate their reaction to different types of stimulation. The scientists found that alexithymic individuals differ from others in their reaction to smells. What specifically distinguishes them are their physiological parameters, such as their heart rate or the electrical conductivity of their skin, which resulted accelerated. The tests also showed that there are differences in reactions between subjects characterised by affective alexithymia, in which the sphere of sensations, imagination and creativity is restricted, and those with cognitive alexithymia, which compromises the ability to identify, express and distinguish emotions.

    “The results obtained,” explain Cinzia Cecchetto and Marilena Aiello, “show that one of the characteristics of alexithymia is the altered physiological response to olfactory stimuli.” They also point to another interesting fact: “Contrary to what one might expect, this study shows how the physiological reactions of alexithymic individuals to emotions induced by smells are not less but rather more intense. It is as if these subjects find themselves in a situation of perpetual, extreme activation in relation to their emotions which appears to make them insensitive to changes in them, to differences, to the colour shades that enrich our daily lives. It is a counterintuitive yet particularly significant scientific observation.”


  9. Study suggests sharing experiences improves wellbeing of healthcare staff

    October 28, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Surrey press release:

    Healthcare staff who regularly share the emotional, social or ethical challenges they face in the workplace experience less psychological distress, improved teamwork and increased empathy and compassion for patients and colleagues, a new study commissioned by the National Institute for Health Research reports.

    In the first in-depth study in the UK, researchers from the University of Surrey, Kings College London, the University of Sheffield and The King’s Fund examined the impact of Schwartz Center Rounds® (Rounds), on both clinical and non-clinical staff. Rounds are monthly forums that offer a safe space for staff to share experiences with colleagues and to discuss the challenges they face in their work and its impact on them.

    The psychological wellbeing of 500 staff members who attended Rounds regularly, irregularly or not all, was measured over an eight-month period, using the clinically validated GHQ-12questionnaire.

    Researchers found that the wellbeing of staff who attended Rounds regularly significantly improved, with the proportion of those with psychological distress halving- down from 25 per cent to 12 per cent. There was little change in the psychological wellbeing of staff that did not attend Rounds over this period.

    When asked of the benefits of Rounds, participants noted that attending led to greater understanding, empathy and tolerance towards colleagues and patients and positive changes in practice.

    Following the publication of the Francis report which highlighted Schwartz Rounds as being a way of fostering good teamwork and improving morale amongst staff, the implementation of Rounds in the UK rapidly increased. The research found that Rounds were implemented variably and challenges to implementation and sustainability included ward staff attendance, and the workload and resources required for planning and running Rounds.

    Jill Maben, Professor of Nursing at the University of Surrey and formerly of Kings College London, said: “Delivering care to patients at some of the most challenging times in their lives has an emotional impact on staff, which undoubtedly impacts on their own wellbeing and on their work.

    “Our study is the first in the UK to demonstrate that those who regularly attend Rounds see significant benefits; their symptoms of anxiety and depression are reduced, they are better able to cope with the issues they face and have more empathy towards patients and colleagues, which undeniably has a positive impact on those in their care.

    “Given these impacts it is good to see Rounds running in over 160 organisations in the UK, particularly in light of the Francis report, which called for more compassionate patient care. The challenge is for organisations to continue to invest in Rounds in resource-constrained environments.”

    Dr Cath Taylor, Reader at the University of Surrey and formerly of King College London, said: “NHS and hospice staff are the unsung heroes of our society, but the physical and emotional demands placed on them often go unnoticed, leading to high rates of burn out and people often leaving the profession. Rounds are a unique organisational wide intervention that we found benefitted many attendees.”

    Professor Jo Rycroft-Malone, Director of the NIHR’s Health Services and Delivery Research (HS&DR) Programme, said: “The NIHR is proud to have funded an important piece of research which is the first in depth study of its kind to evaluate the impacts of Schwartz Center Rounds. We feel this was an important area to research following the Francis Report highlighting the importance of Rounds.

    “Hospital and hospice staff work incredibly hard to care for patients and it is crucial that they can ease the physical and emotional demands they face while also helping to boost colleagues’ teamwork and morale and improve care, compassion and empathy for patients.”

    Professor Jeremy Dawson, Professor of Health Management at the University of Sheffield, said: “Schwartz Center Rounds offer a valuable support system to healthcare staff, that can help to improve wellbeing, and that enable a focus on compassion and empathy towards colleagues and patients that is difficult to achieve in their otherwise hectic working lives.”

    Jocelyn Cornwell, Chief Executive of The Point of Care Foundation (which holds the licence to promote and support Schwartz Rounds in the UK and Ireland) said:

    “We are delighted that this research shows that Schwartz Rounds have significant positive impacts on the well-being and experience of the staff who take part in them. The Rounds offer a unique space for all staff in organisations to come together as equals, to share experience and listen to one another.

    “In environments in which staff are under tremendous pressure, the Rounds offer a much-needed space for reflection and renewal. We hope that organisations that are not doing Rounds will pay attention to the research findings, and organisations that are doing them, will re-double their efforts to sustain them.”


  10. Study suggests rapid eye movement sleep may dampen sensitivity to fearful stimuli

    October 27, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Society for Neuroscience press release:

    Higher quality sleep patterns are associated with reduced activity in brain regions involved in fear learning, according to a study of young adults published in JNeurosci. The results suggest that baseline sleep quality may be a useful predictor of susceptibility to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

    Sleep disturbances are a common feature of PTSD. While previous research has focused on understanding how single nights of sleep influence the maintenance of already-established fear memories, few studies have investigated whether an individual’s regular sleeping habits prior to trauma contributes to the acquisition of these fear memories.

    Itamar Lerner, Shira Lupkin and their colleagues at Rutgers University had students monitor their sleep at home for one week using unobtrusive sleep monitoring tools, including a headband that measures brain waves, a bracelet that measures arm movements, and a sleep log. The students then participated in a neuroimaging experiment during which they learned to associate a neutral image with a mild electric shock. Students who spent more time in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep — the phase when dreaming occurs — exhibited weaker modulation of activity in, and connectivity between, their amygdala, hippocampus and ventromedial prefrontal cortex during fear learning.

    The authors replicated these results in a second study using traditional polysomnographic monitoring of sleep during the night just prior to fear learning. Taken together, the findings are consistent with the idea that REM sleep reduces levels of norepinephrine in the brain, which may dampen an individual’s sensitivity to fearful stimuli.