1. Study examines routes to empathy

    May 21, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University at Buffalo press release:

    When it comes to empathy, the idiom that suggests “walking a mile in their shoes” turns out to be problematic advice, according to new research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

    “That’s because there are two routes to empathy and one of them is more personally distressing and upsetting than the other,” says Michael Poulin, an associate professor in the University at Buffalo Department of Psychology and co-author of the study led by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Anneke E.K. Buffone, who was a PhD student at UB when the research was conducted.

    The findings, based on stress physiology measures, add a new and previously unexplored dimension to understanding how choosing a path to empathy can affect a helper’s health and well-being. The study’s conclusions provide important insights into areas ranging from training doctors to raising children.

    The routes to empathy Poulin mentions diverge at the point of the helper’s perspective. The two may sound similar, but actually turn out to be quite different in terms of how they affect the person who is trying to help another.

    One approach observes and infers how someone feels. This is imagine-other perspective-taking (IOPT). The other way to empathize is for helpers to put themselves into someone else’s situation, the imagined “walking a mile” scenario. This is imagine-self perspective-taking (ISPT).

    “You can think about another person’s feelings without taking those feelings upon yourself (IOPT),” says Poulin. “But I begin to feel sad once I go down the mental pathway of putting myself into the place of someone who is feeling sad (ISPT).

    “I think sometimes we all avoid engaging in empathy for others who are suffering partially because taking on someone else’s burdens (ISPT) could be unpleasant. On the other hand, it seems a much better way to proceed is if it’s possible to show empathy simply by acknowledging another person’s feelings without it being aversive (IOPT).”

    Some previous research has tried to get at the question of stress relative to IOPT and ISPT by asking people to report how they felt after a helping behavior. But the current study breaks new ground by examining the effects of perspective taking while someone is engaged in helping behavior.

    “I have some degree of uncertainty about how well people are parsing out the distinction when reporting how much they were feeling for themselves versus the other person,” says Poulin.

    That uncertainty motivated the current study’s design, which measured a cardiovascular response that reliably indicates the difference between feeling personally anxious or not.

    “When we are feeling threatened or anxious, some peripheral blood vessels constrict making it harder for the heart to pump blood through the body,” says Poulin. “We can detect this in the lab and what we found is that people who engaged in ISPT had greater levels of this threat response compared to people who engaged in IOPT.”

    This conclusion could be especially useful in the context of medical professions, like doctors and nurses, especially in areas with high rates of burnout, according to Poulin.

    “Many of these professionals see so much pain and suffering that it eventually affects their careers,” he says. “That might be the result of habitually engaging in ISPT. They put themselves in their patients’ shoes. “Maybe we can train doctors and nurses to engage in IOPT so they can continue to be empathetic toward their patients without that empathy creating a burden.”

    says this applies as well to teachers and students, social workers and clients. “In fact, now that we’re transitioning to such a service economy, it’s nearly everybody: technical support, complaint hotline operators, restaurant servers.”

    Parents might even consider the study’s finding when thinking about how they speaking to their children in certain circumstances. “Rather than saying to a child, ‘How would you feel if that were done to you?’ maybe we should be saying, ‘Think about how that person is feeling.'”


  2. Study links childhood abuse to higher incidence of self-injury in teens

    May 12, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Toronto press release:

    Adolescents who were physically abused or sexually abused were more likely to engage in non-suicidal self-injury than their non-abused counterparts, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Toronto and Western University. The study appears online in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect.

    “We found that about one in three adolescents with mental health problems in Ontario engaged in non-suicidal self-injury. We were surprised to find that only the experience of adversities directed towards the child (physical and sexual abuse) predicted non-suicidal self-injury and not adversities indicative of parental risk such as parental mental health issues or exposure to domestic violence” says lead author Philip Baiden, a PhD Candidate at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto. Controlling for other factors, the authors also found that adolescents who are females, had symptoms of depression, diagnosis of ADHD, and mood disorders were more likely to engage in non-suicidal self-injury. However, adolescents who have someone that they could turn to for emotional support when in crises were less likely to engage in non-suicidal self-injury.

    The researchers utilized data from a representative sample of 2,038 children and adolescents aged 8-18 years referred to community and inpatient mental health settings in Ontario. The data was collected using the interRAI Child and Youth Mental Health assessment instrument.

    “Depression is one indication that an individual is having difficulty coping with his/her life situation and being depressed can severely impact one’s ability to regulate emotions and focus almost exclusively on the negative aspect of life. Among survivors of sexual abuse, depression can also manifest itself as emotional pain, for which non-suicidal self-injury becomes an outlet” says co-author Shannon Stewart, an interRAI Fellow and Director of Clinical Training, School and Applied Child Psychology at Western University.

    Co-author Barbara Fallon, an associate professor at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at University of Toronto and Canada Research Chair in Child Welfare, also notes that “understanding the mechanism through which non-suicidal self-injury may occur can inform clinicians and social workers working with formerly abused children in preventing future non-suicidal self-injurious behaviours.”


  3. Study finds link between kids’ routines, ability to regulate emotions, and weight

    May 9, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Ohio State University press release:

    Family structure including regular bedtimes, mealtimes and limited screen time appear to be linked to better emotional health in preschoolers, and that might lower the chances of obesity later, a new study suggests.

    “This study provides more evidence that routines for preschool-aged children are associated with their healthy development and could reduce the likelihood that these children will be obese,” said lead author Sarah Anderson of The Ohio State University.

    The study — the first to look at the connections between early childhood routines and self-regulation and their potential association with weight problems in the pre-teen years — appears in the International Journal of Obesity.

    Researchers evaluated three household routines when children were 3 years old: regular bedtime, regular mealtime and whether or not parents limited television and video watching to an hour or less daily. Then they compared those to parents’ reports of two aspects of children’s self-regulation at that same age.

    Lastly, they investigated how the routines and self-regulation worked together to impact obesity at age 11, defined based on international criteria. (The U.S. criteria for childhood obesity is set lower and would have included more children.)

    The research included 10,955 children who are part of the Millennium Cohort Study, a long-term study of a diverse population of children born in the United Kingdom from September of 2000 to January of 2002. At age 3, 41 percent of children always had a regular bedtime, 47 percent always had a regular mealtime and 23 percent were limited to an hour or less daily of TV and videos. At age 11, about 6 percent were obese.

    All three household routines were associated with better emotional self-regulation — a measure based on parents’ responses to questions such as how easily the child becomes frustrated or over-excited. Those children with greater emotional dysregulation were more likely to be obese later.

    “We saw that children who had the most difficulties with emotion regulation at age 3 also were more likely to be obese at age 11,” said Anderson, an associate professor in Ohio State’s College of Public Health.

    Anderson and her colleagues also found that the absence of a regular preschool bedtime was an independent predictor of obesity at 11. Obesity risk increased even when children “usually” had a regular bedtime, as opposed to “always.” The risk was greatest for those who had the least amount of consistency in their bedtimes.

    How persistent and independent children were at age 3 — another aspect of self-regulation — was not related to obesity risk, nor were routines associated with these aspects of self-regulation.

    The new findings build on previous research by Anderson and her colleagues showing an association between earlier preschool bedtimes and decreased odds of obesity later. Previous work published in 2010 showed in a US national sample that obesity prevalence was lowest for children who got enough sleep, had limits on screen time and ate meals with their families.

    “This research allows us to better understand how young children’s routines around sleep, meals, and screen time relate to their regulation of emotion and behavior,” Anderson said. “The large, population-based, UK Millennium Cohort Study afforded the opportunity to examine these aspects of children’s lives and how they impact future risk for obesity.”

    This research should prompt future work looking at the role of emotional self-regulation in weight gain in children and how bedtime routines can support healthy development, Anderson said.

    “Sleep is so important and it’s important for children in particular. Although there is much that remains unknown about how sleep impacts metabolism, research is increasingly finding connections between obesity and poor sleep,” she said.

    While it’s impossible from this work to prove that routines will prevent obesity, “Recommending regular bedtime routines is unlikely to cause harm, and may help children in other ways, such as through emotion regulation,” Anderson said.

    But competing family pressures including parents’ work schedules don’t always allow for consistency, Anderson pointed out.

    “As a society, we should consider what we can do to make it easier for parents to interact with their children in ways that support their own and their children’s health.”


  4. Facial expressions: How brains process emotion

    May 6, 2017 by Ashley

    From the California Institute of Technology press release:

    Have you ever thought someone was angry at you, but it turned out you were just misreading their facial expression? Caltech researchers have now discovered that one specific region of the brain, called the amygdala, is involved in making these (sometimes inaccurate) judgments about ambiguous or intense emotions. Identifying the amygdala’s role in social cognition suggests insights into the neurological mechanisms behind autism and anxiety.

    The research was done in the laboratories of Ralph Adolphs, Bren Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and professor of biology, and collaborator Ueli Rutishauser (PhD ’08) of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and a visiting associate in biology and biological engineering at Caltech. It appears in the April 21 issue of Nature Communications.

    “We have long known that the amygdala is important in processing emotion from faces,” says Adolphs. “But now we are starting to understand that it incorporates a lot of complex information to make fairly sophisticated decisions that culminate in our judgments.”

    When looking at a face, brain cells in the amygdala fire electrical impulses or “spikes” in response. However, the role of such face cells in social cognition remains unclear. Adolphs and his group measured the activity of these cells, or neurons, in patients while they were shown images of faces expressing different degrees of happiness or fear. The subjects were also shown images of faces with more ambiguous or neutral emotions, such as moderate displeasure or muted happiness. For each type of image, subjects were asked to decide whether the face looked fearful or happy. The researchers then investigated how neurons reacted to different aspects of emotions, and how the activity of the face cells related to the decision made by the subjects.

    The researchers found that there are two groups of neurons in the amygdala that respond to facial emotions.

    One group, the emotion-tracking neurons, detects the intensity of a single specific emotion, such as happiness or fear. For example, a happiness-signaling neuron would fire more spikes if the emotion was extreme happiness, and fewer spikes if the emotion was mild happiness. Separate groups of neurons within the emotion-tracking neurons code specifically for fear or for happiness.

    The other group, the ambiguity-coding neurons, indicates the ambiguity of the perceived emotion, irrespective of the nature of that emotion.

    Showing patients images of emotionally ambiguous faces was the key to understanding how the specialized neurons in the amygdala contribute to decision making, the researchers say. The faces were so ambiguous that a patient would sometimes judge the same image to be fearful at times and happy at other times. The emotion-coding neurons indicated the subjective decision the patient made about the face.

    “Most people are familiar with feeling that a face just looks too ambiguous to really decide what emotion the person is having,” says first author and visitor in neuroscience Shuo Wang (PhD ’14). “The fact that amygdala neurons signal a decision made about a face, such as which emotion it shows, gives us important insight because it shows that the amygdala is involved in making decisions rather than simply representing sensory input.”

    In addition to recording single cells from the amygdala, the researchers also carried out a neuroimaging study using fMRI (in a separate group of participants), and additionally studied the emotion judgments of three rare subjects with lesions of the amygdala. The lesion subjects showed an abnormally low threshold for deciding when a face was fearful, and the fMRI study also showed the specific effect of emotion intensity and ambiguity in the amygdala. The study is the first to combine so many different sources of data.

    These findings also suggest a mechanistic basis for potential treatments involving the painless electrical stimulation of the amygdala, which are currently being studied in ongoing clinical trials. “Researchers at multiple institutions are currently evaluating whether deep-brain stimulation of the amygdala is effective in treating severe cases of autism or post-traumatic stress disorder,” says Rutishauser. “Patients with severe PTSD are thought to have a hyperactive amygdala, which electrical stimulation might be able to inhibit. Our findings that amygdala neurons carry signals about the subjective percept of emotions indicates a more specific reason for why such electrical stimulation might be beneficial.”


  5. Parents’ use of emotional feeding increases emotional eating in school-age children

    by Ashley

    From the Society for Research in Child Development press release:

    Emotional eating — eating when you feel sad or upset or in response to another negative mood — is not uncommon in children and adolescents, but why youth eat emotionally has been unclear. Now a new longitudinal study from Norway has found that school-age children whose parents fed them more to soothe their negative feelings were more likely to eat emotionally later on. The reverse was also found to be the case, with parents of children who were more easily soothed by food being more likely to feed them for emotional reasons.

    The findings come from researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, King’s College London, University College London, and the University of Leeds. They appear in the journal Child Development.

    Understanding where emotional eating comes from is important because such behavior can increase the risk for being overweight and developing eating disorders,” according to the study’s lead author, Silje Steinsbekk, associate professor of psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. “If we can find out what influences the development of emotional eating in young children, parents can be given helpful advice about how to prevent it.”

    When children eat to soothe their negative feelings, their food tends to be high in calories (e.g., sweets) so they consume more calories. If they emotionally overeat often, they are also more likely to be overweight. Emotional eating is also tied to the development of later eating disorders (e.g., bulimia and binge eating). This study sought to determine why children eat emotionally and is the first research to consider the issue in school-age children.

    Researchers examined emotional feeding and eating in a representative group of 801 Norwegian 4-year-olds, looking at these issues again at ages 6, 8, and 10. They sought to determine whether parents involved in the study (mostly mothers) shaped their children’s later behavior by offering food to make them feel better when they were upset (emotional feeding), and whether parents whose children were easily soothed by food (those who calmed when given food) were more likely to offer them more food for comfort at a subsequent time. Parents were asked to complete questionnaires describing their children’s emotional eating and temperament (how easily they became upset, how well they could control their emotions), as well as their own emotional feeding. Approximately 65% of the children displayed some emotional eating.

    The study found that young children whose parents offered them food for comfort at ages 4 and 6 had more emotional eating at ages 8 and 10. But the reverse was also true: Parents whose children were more easily comforted with food were more likely to offer them food to soothe them (i.e., to engage in emotional feeding). Thus, emotional feeding increased emotional eating, and emotional eating increased emotional feeding. The findings held even after accounting for children’s body-mass index and initial levels of feeding and eating.

    Moreover, higher levels of negative affectivity (i.e., becoming angry or upset more easily) at age 4 increased children’s risk for emotional eating and feeding at age 6. And this contributed to the bidirectional relation between emotional feeding and emotional eating.

    “We know that children who are more easily upset and have more difficulty controlling their emotions are more likely to eat emotionally than calmer children, perhaps because they experience more negative emotions and eating helps them calm down,” notes Lars Wichstrøm, professor of psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, who coauthored the study. “Our research adds to this knowledge by showing that children who are more easily upset are at highest risk for becoming emotional eaters.”

    The authors suggest that instead of offering children food to soothe them when they are sad or upset, parents and other caregivers try to calm youngsters by talking, offering a hug, or soothing in ways that don’t involve food. “Food may work to calm a child, but the downside is teaching children to rely on food to deal with negative emotions, which can have negative consequences in the long run,” adds Steinsbekk.

    The authors caution that because the study was conducted in Norway, which has a relatively homogenous and well-educated population, the findings should not be generalized to more diverse populations or to cultures with other feeding and eating practices without further study.


  6. 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.”


  7. Eye expressions offer a glimpse into the evolution of emotion

    April 21, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Cornell University press release:

    New research by Adam Anderson, professor of human development at Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology, reveals why the eyes offer a window into the soul.

    According to the recent study, published in Psychological Science, we interpret a person’s emotions by analyzing the expression in their eyes – a process that began as a universal reaction to environmental stimuli and evolved to communicate our deepest emotions.

    For example, people in the study consistently associated narrowed eyes – which enhance our visual discrimination by blocking light and sharpening focus – with emotions related to discrimination, such as disgust and suspicion. In contrast, people linked open eyes – which expand our field of vision – with emotions related to sensitivity, like fear and awe.

    “When looking at the face, the eyes dominate emotional communication,” Anderson said. “The eyes are windows to the soul likely because they are first conduits for sight. Emotional expressive changes around the eye influence how we see, and in turn, this communicates to others how we think and feel.”

    This work builds on Anderson’s research from 2013, which demonstrated that human facial expressions, such as raising one’s eyebrows, arose from universal, adaptive reactions to one’s environment and did not originally signal social communication.

    Both studies support Charles Darwin’s 19th-century theories on the evolution of emotion, which hypothesized that our expressions originated for sensory function rather than social communication.

    “What our work is beginning to unravel,” said Anderson, “are the details of what Darwin theorized: why certain expressions look the way they do, how that helps the person perceive the world, and how others use those expressions to read our innermost emotions and intentions.”

    Anderson and his co-author, Daniel H. Lee, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Boulder, created models of six expressions – sadness, disgust, anger, joy, fear and surprise – using photos of faces in widely used databases. Study participants were shown a pair of eyes demonstrating one of the six expressions and one of 50 words describing a specific mental state, such as discriminating, curious, bored, etc. Participants then rated the extent to which the word described the eye expression. Each participant completed 600 trials.

    Participants consistently matched the eye expressions with the corresponding basic emotion, accurately discerning all six basic emotions from the eyes alone.

    Anderson then analyzed how these perceptions of mental states related to specific eye features. Those features included the openness of the eye, the distance from the eyebrow to the eye, the slope and curve of the eyebrow, and wrinkles around the nose, the temple and below the eye.

    The study found that the openness of the eye was most closely related to our ability to read others’ mental states based on their eye expressions. Narrow-eyed expressions reflected mental states related to enhanced visual discrimination, such as suspicion and disapproval, while open-eyed expressions related to visual sensitivity, such as curiosity. Other features around the eye also communicated whether a mental state is positive or negative.

    Further, he ran more studies comparing how well study participants could read emotions from the eye region to how well they could read emotions in other areas of the face, such as the nose or mouth. Those studies found the eyes offered more robust indications of emotions.

    This study, said Anderson, was the next step in Darwin’s theory, asking how expressions for sensory function ended up being used for communication function of complex mental states.

    “The eyes evolved over 500 million years ago for the purposes of sight but now are essential for interpersonal insight,” Anderson said.


  8. Can dealing with emotional exhaustion enhance happiness?

    April 19, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of East Anglia press release:

    The study examined when and how dealing with emotional exhaustion can enhance happiness in a work environment. The research was focused on the role of perceived supervisor support (PSS) — the workers’ view of their manager’s level of supportiveness, caring and appreciation for their efforts — in stimulating ways to cope with exhaustion.

    The research was conducted by Carlos Ferreira Peralta of UEA’s Norwich Business School and Maria Francisca Saldanha of Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada. They found that perceiving low supervisor support stimulates the employee’s engagement in developing an action plan which, when paired with what the researchers call instrumental social support — the activity of searching for advice, support or information from others — boosts happiness.

    Low PSS enhanced the relationship between emotional exhaustion and planning activities; whereas searching for instrumental social support enhanced the relationship between planning and happiness.

    This new study is thought to be one of the first to investigate how the negative relationship between emotional exhaustion and happiness can be reversed. Previous studies have highlighted the harmful consequences of emotional exhaustion, such as poorer performance and depression, and that PSS can prevent the emergence of emotional exhaustion.

    However, little was known about how people could overcome emotional exhaustion and experience positive outcomes in its aftermath, and about the role of PSS once employees experience emotional exhaustion. The findings are published in the journal Work & Stress.

    Dr Peralta, a lecturer in organisational behaviour, said: “Perceived supervisor support appears to be a double-edge sword, on the one hand preventing the emergence of emotional exhaustion but on the other hand diminishing the likelihood that employees will engage in planning to deal with the emotional exhaustion they are experiencing.

    “It is important to note that it is not emotional exhaustion per se, but rather how people cope with it, that is beneficial for individuals. Our findings suggest that the activities people engage in have a key role in building happiness from an internally stressful experience and that emotional exhaustion can have a silver lining.”

    Dr Peralta added: “This research contributes to a greater understanding of whether benefits can be gained by individuals as they cope with emotional exhaustion. The findings help clarify the role of social support in dealing with and becoming happy after emotional exhaustion.”

    The researchers suggest that managers would probably help their employees by being attentive to their experiences and could benefit from training that differentiates between the actions that can prevent employees’ emotional exhaustion and those that can support employees’ efforts to cope with emotional exhaustion.

    “Providing support may prevent the emergence of emotional exhaustion in employees,” said Dr Peralta. “However, when an employee is experiencing emotional exhaustion it might be useful to just provide support when and if requested. Otherwise, the employee may not engage or delay the engagement in coping activities that can enhance their happiness. This is particularly relevant as caring supervisors might be tempted to increase the support they provide when an employee is showing signals of emotional exhaustion.”

    The findings suggest that emotionally exhausted employees may benefit from an individually developed action plan enriched with instrumental social support, such as a focused and directed search for potentially useful information, in order to increase happiness after emotional exhaustion.

    The researchers conducted three complementary studies involving a total of 500 employees in Portugal and the United States. They worked in multiple occupations including management, architecture and engineering, computer and mathematical, business and financial operations, as well as office and administration support, sales, education and healthcare. The studies used different measures of emotional exhaustion, happiness and PSS and the participants were asked to complete questionnaires.


  9. Turning down the brain to erase fearful memories

    by Ashley

    From the Weizmann Institute of Science press release:

    Erasing unwanted memories is still the stuff of science fiction, but Weizmann Institute scientists have now managed to erase one type of memory in mice. In a study reported in Nature Neuroscience, they succeeded in shutting down a neuronal mechanism by which memories of fear are formed in the mouse brain. After the procedure, the mice resumed their earlier fearless behavior, “forgetting” they had previously been frightened.

    This research may one day help extinguish traumatic memories in humans — for example, in people with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. “The brain is good at creating new memories when these are associated with strong emotional experiences, such as intense pleasure or fear,” says team leader Dr. Ofer Yizhar. “That’s why it’s easier to remember things you care about, be they good or bad; but it’s also the reason that memories of traumatic experiences are often extremely long-lasting, predisposing people to PTSD.”

    In the study, postdoctoral fellows Dr. Oded Klavir (now an investigator at the University of Haifa) and Dr. Matthias Prigge, both from Yizhar’s lab in the Neurobiology Department, together with departmental colleague Prof. Rony Paz and graduate student Ayelet Sarel, examined the communication between two brain regions: the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala plays a central role in controlling emotions, whereas the prefrontal cortex is mostly responsible for cognitive functions and storing long-term memories. Previous studies had suggested that the interactions between these two brain regions contribute to the formation and storage of aversive memories, and that these interactions are compromised in PTSD; but the exact mechanisms behind these processes were unknown.

    In the new study, the researchers first used a genetically-engineered virus to mark those amygdala neurons that communicate with the prefrontal cortex. Next, using another virus, they inserted a gene encoding a light-sensitive protein into these neurons. When they shone a light on the brain, only the neurons containing the light-sensitive proteins became activated. These manipulations, belonging to optogenetics — a technique extensively studied in Yizhar’s lab — enabled the researchers to activate only those amygdala neurons that interact with the cortex, and then to map out the cortical neurons that receive input from these light-sensitive neurons.

    Once they had achieved this precise control over the cellular interactions in the brain, they turned to exploring behavior: Mice that are less fearful are more likely to venture farther than others. They found that when the mice were exposed to fear-inducing stimuli, a powerful line of communication was activated between the amygdala and the cortex. The mice whose brains displayed such communication were more likely to retain a memory of the fear, acting frightened every time they heard the sound that had previously been accompanied by the fear-inducing stimuli. Finally, to clarify how this line of communication contributes to the formation and stability of memory, the scientists developed an innovative optogenetic technique for weakening the connection between the amygdala and the cortex, using a series of repeated light pulses. Indeed, once the connection was weakened, the mice no longer displayed fear upon hearing the sound. Evidently, “tuning down” the input from the amygdala to the cortex had destabilized or perhaps even destroyed their memory of fear.

    Says Yizhar: “Our research has focused on a fundamental question in neuroscience: How does the brain integrate emotion into memory? But one day our findings may help develop better therapies targeting the connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, in order to alleviate the symptoms of fear and anxiety disorders.”


  10. Sleep deprivation impairs ability to interpret facial expressions

    March 29, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Arizona press release:

    After a rough night’s sleep, your ability to recognize whether those around you are happy or sad could suffer, according to a study led by a University of Arizona psychologist.

    The research, published in the journal Neurobiology of Sleep and Circadian Rhythms, found that study participants had a harder time identifying facial expressions of happiness or sadness when they were sleep deprived versus well-rested.

    The sleepy participants’ ability to interpret facial expressions of other emotions — anger, fear, surprise and disgust — was not impaired, however. That’s likely because we’re wired to recognize those more primitive emotions in order to survive acute dangers, said lead researcher William D.S. Killgore, a UA professor of psychiatry, psychology and medical imaging.

    While emotions such as fear and anger could indicate a threat, social emotions such as happiness and sadness are less necessary for us to recognize for immediate survival. When we’re tired, it seems we’re more likely to dedicate our resources to recognizing those emotions that could impact our short-term safety and well-being, Killgore said.

    “If someone is going to hurt you, even when you’re sleep deprived you should still be able to pick up on that,” Killgore said. “Reading whether somebody is sad or not is really not that important in that acute danger situation, so if anything is going to start to degrade with lack of sleep it might be the ability to recognize those social emotions.”

    The data used in the study was part of a larger research effort on sleep deprivation’s effects on social, emotional and moral judgment. Killgore began the project while working as a research psychologist for the U.S. Army.

    The current study is based on data from 54 participants, who were shown photographs of the same male face expressing varying degrees of fear, happiness, sadness, anger, surprise and disgust. Participants were asked to indicate which of those six emotions they thought was being expressed the most by each face.

    In order to assess participants’ ability to interpret more subtle emotional expressions, the images presented were composite photos of commonly confused facial expressions morphed together by a computer program. For example, a face might show 70 percent sadness and 30 percent disgust or vice versa. Participants saw a total of 180 blended facial expressions at each testing session.

    Participants’ baseline responses to the images were compared to their responses after they were deprived of sleep for one night.

    Researchers found that blatant facial expressions — such as an obvious grin or frown (90 percent happy or 90 percent sad) — were easily identifiable regardless of how much sleep a participant got. Sleep deprived participants had a harder time, however, correctly identifying more subtle expressions of happiness and sadness, although their performance on the other emotions was unchanged.

    When participants were tested again after one night of recovery sleep, their performance on happiness and sadness improved, returning to its baseline level.

    While the difference in performance was not overwhelming, it’s enough that it could have a significant impact in critical social interactions, Killgore said.

    “As a society, we don’t get the full seven to eight hours of sleep that people probably need to be getting. The average American is getting a little less than six hours of sleep on average, and it could affect how you’re reading people in everyday interactions,” Killgore said. “You may be responding inappropriately to somebody that you just don’t read correctly, especially those social emotions that make us human. Or you may not be as empathic. Your spouse or significant other may need something from you and you’re less able to read that. It’s possible that this could lead to problems in your relationships or problems at work. To me, that is one of the biggest problems — how this affects our relationships.”

    Killgore’s research builds on existing work on the effects of sleep deprivation on the brain’s ventromedial prefrontal cortex — an area that helps people make judgments and decisions using their emotions.

    A prior study, published by Harvard’s Seung-Schik Yoo and colleagues, showed that when people are sleep deprived, a disconnect occurs between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala — one of the key emotionally responsive areas of the brain.

    “So, in simplistic terms, the part of the brain that controls your emotions and the part that sees faces and responds to the emotional content basically start to lose their ability to communicate,” Killgore said. “We wanted to test that out and see if it plays out in terms of how people read facial expressions — and, in fact, it looks like it does.”