1. What makes alcoholics drink? Research shows it’s more complex than supposed

    September 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology press release:

    What makes alcoholics drink? New research has found that in both men and women with alcohol dependence, the major factor predicting the amount of drinking seems to be a question of immediate mood. They found that suffering from long-term mental health problems did not affect alcohol consumption, with one important exception: men with a history of depression had a different drinking pattern than men without a history of depression; surprisingly those men were drinking less often than men who were not depressed.

    “This work once again shows that alcoholism is not a one-size-fits-all condition,” said lead researcher, Victor Karpyak (Mayo Clinic, MN, USA). “So the answer to the question of why alcoholics drink is probably that there is no single answer; this will probably have implications for how we diagnose and treat alcoholism.”

    The work, presented at the ECNP congress by researchers from the Mayo Clinic*, determined the alcohol consumption of 287 males and 156 females with alcohol dependence over the previous 90 days, using the accepted Time Line Follow Back method and standardized diagnostic assessment for life time presence of psychiatric disorders (PRISM); they were then able to associate this with whether the drinking coincided with a positive or negative emotional state (feeling “up” or “down”), and whether the individual had a history of anxiety, depression (MDD) or substance abuse.

    The results showed that alcohol dependent men tended to drink more alcohol per day than alcohol dependent women. As expected, alcohol consumption in both men and women was associated with feeling either up or down on a particular day, with no significant association with anxiety or substance use disorders. However, men with a history of major depressive disorder had fewer drinking days (p=0.0084), and fewer heavy drinking days (p=0.0214) than men who never a major depressive disorder.

    Victor Karpyak continued: “Research indicates that many people drink to enhance pleasant feelings, while other people drink to suppress negative moods, such as depression or anxiety. However, previous studies did not differentiate between state-dependent mood changes and the presence of clinically diagnosed anxiety or depressive disorders. The lack of such differentiation was likely among the reasons for controversial findings about the usefulness of antidepressants in treatment of alcoholics with comorbid depression.

    This work will need to be replicated and confirmed, but from what we see here, it means that the reasons why alcoholics drink depend on their background as well as the immediate circumstances. There is no single reason. And this means that there is probably no single treatment, so we will have to refine our diagnostic methods and tailor treatment to the individual. It also means that our treatment approach may differ depending on targeting different aspects of alcoholism (craving or consumption) and the alcoholic patient (i.e. man or a woman) with or without depression or anxiety history to allow really effective treatment.”

    Commenting, Professor Wim van den Brink (Professor of Psychiatry and Addiction at the Academic Medical Centre, University of Amsterdam) said:

    “This is indeed a very important issue. Patients with an alcohol use disorder often show a history of other disorders, including mood and anxiety disorders, they also often present with alcohol induced anxiety and mood disorders and finally the may report mood symptoms that do not meet criteria for a mood or anxiety disorder (due to a failure to meet the minimal number of criteria or a duration of less than two weeks). All these different conditions may influence current levels or patterns of drinking.

    The current study seems to show that the current presence of mood/anxiety symptoms is associated with more drinking in both male and female alcoholics, whereas a clinical history of major depression in male alcoholics is associated with lower current dinking levels. Although, the study does not provide a clear reason for this difference, it may have consequences for treatment. For example, antidepressant treatment of males with a history major depression may have no effect on drinking levels. However, these findings may also result from residual confounding, e.g. patients with a history of major depression might also be patients with a late age of onset of their alcohol use disorder and this type of alcohol use disorder is associated with a different pattern of drinking with more daily drinking and less heavy drinking days and less binging. More prospective studies are needed to resolve this important but complex clinical issue.”


  2. Heavy alcohol use alters brain functioning differently in young men and women

    September 17, 2017 by Ashley

    From the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology press release:

    Scientists have found that brain functions in young men and women are changed by long-term alcohol use, but that these changes are significantly different in men and women. This indicates not only that young people might be at increased risk of long-term harm from alcohol use, but also that the risks are probably different in men and in women, with men possibly more at risk. This work is presented today at the ECNP meeting in Paris.

    A Finnish research group worked with 11 young men and 16 young women who had a heavy 10-year alcohol use, and compared them with 12 young men and 13 young women who had little or no alcohol use. All were between 23 to 28 years old at the time the measurements were taken. The researchers examined the responses of the brain to being stimulated by magnetic pulses — known as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), which activates brain neurons. The brain activity was measured using EEG (electroencephalogram).

    Previously, the researchers had found that heavy alcohol users showed a greater electrical response in the cortex of the brain than non-alcohol users, which indicates that there had been long-term changes to how the brain responds. This time, they found that young men and young women responded differently, with males showing a greater increase in electrical activity in the brain in response to a TMS pulse. As researcher Dr Outi Kaarre (University of Eastern Finland and Kuopio University Hospital, Finland) said:

    “We found more changes in brain electrical activity in male subjects, than in females, which was a surprise, as we expected it would be the other way around. This means that male brain electrical functioning is changed more than female brains by long-term alcohol use.”

    The EEGs also allowed the researchers to show that male brains have greater electrical activity associated with the GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid) neurotransmission than do female brains.

    Dr Kaarre continued, “Generally, our work showed that alcohol causes more pronounced changes in both electrical and chemical neurotransmission in men than women. There are two types of GABA receptors, A and B. Long-term alcohol use affects neurotransmission through both types in males, but only one type, GABA-A, is affected in females.

    We’re still trying to figure out what this means, but GABA is a pretty fundamental neurotransmitter in the inhibition of many brain and central nervous systems functions. It’s involved in many neurological systems, and is important in anxiety and depression. Generally it seems to calm down brain activity.

    We know from animal studies that GABA-A receptor activity seems to affect drinking patterns, whereas GABA-B receptors seem to be involved in overall desire for alcohol. It has been suggested that women and men may respond differently to alcohol. Our work offers a possible mechanism to these differences.”

    We know that long-term alcohol use can be risky for young people. What this work means is that long-term alcohol use affects young men and women very differently, and we need to find out how these differences manifest themselves. It may be that we need to look at tightening regulations on youth drinking, since none of our study participants met the diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorders and still these significant changes in brain functioning were found. It may also mean that gender differences should be taken into account when planning pharmacological treatment for alcoholism.”

    Commenting, Professor Wim van den Brink (Professor of Psychiatry and Addiction at the Academic Medical Centre, University of Amsterdam, and ex Chair of the ECNP Scientific Programme Committee):

    “These are very interesting findings, especially since young women are catching up with young men when it comes to drinking and heavy drinking in Europe. This may also mean that a different group of women is getting involved in early heavy alcohol use than used to be the case; in other words, when heavy drinking occurs more frequently and tends to become the norm, women do not need to have some aberrant personal characteristic to become an early heavy user of alcohol.

    The finding of a different EEG-pattern in male and female early heavy drinkers may indeed have important consequences for the treatment of male and female patients with an alcohol use disorder. One of the most recent new medications for the treatment of alcohol dependence is the GABA-B agonist Baclofen, which has shown mixed results which may be explained by this work.

    A limitation of the study is that it says nothing about possible pre-existing neurobiological differences between the groups, an explanation for the observed differences that is equally valid.”


  3. So-called ‘bright girl effect’ does not last into adulthood, study finds

    September 7, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Case Western Reserve University press release:

    The notion that young females limit their own progress based on what they believe about their intelligence — called the “bright girl effect” — does not persist into adulthood, according to new research from Case Western Reserve University.

    The study also found almost no relationship between gender and intelligence “mindset,” which refers to a person’s beliefs about his or her own intellectual potential.

    According to mindset theory — developed by Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University — some people have “growth” mindsets while others have “fixed” mindsets.

    A growth mindset, considered a positive trait, is more likely to lead a person to try to overcome challenges, believing intelligence can improve with effort.

    Fixed mindsets, often seen as a negative, are more likely to lead people to avoid difficult tasks and assume failure is due to intelligence levels that cannot be changed.

    Because girls are thought to mature earlier than boys, according to mindset theory, they are often praised for their attributes — how they “are.” More of this type of praise is given to “bright” girls, which leads them to believe their cognitive abilities are more or less set in stone.

    Published in the journal Intelligence, the new research found little indication such a phenomenon exists in adult women.

    “Overall, we saw no reliable evidence for a relationship between women’s intelligence and their mindsets,” said Brooke Macnamara, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at Case Western Reserve and co-author of the study. “Our results do not support the idea that men and women differ in their beliefs about intelligence.”

    The findings run contrary to some cornerstones of the mindset field: that females, especially smarter females, tend to believe their intelligence levels are static, and that differences in childhood praise given to boys and girls can heavily influence a person’s later beliefs about their own intelligence.

    The study

    In three studies, nearly 400 total participants were given an intelligence test and a measure developed by Dweck that discerns a person’s attitudes toward the plasticity of their own intelligence and talent.

    They were asked, for example, how much they agreed with such statements as, You can always substantially change how intelligent you are, and No matter who you are, you can significantly change your level of intelligence.

    The studies are among the first to investigate three factors among adults: measured intelligence, intelligence mindset, and gender.

    Evidence for the bright girl effect is mostly based on three academic studies conducted with children and adolescents from the 1980’s.

    “These studies help fill in gaps in the mindset research,” said Macnamara. “Some past research has suggested a ‘bright girl effect’ — gender differences among children. However, a ‘bright woman effect’ — gender differences among adults — seemed to be an untested assumption. Across our studies, there were no consistent relationships among intelligence, mindset and gender. Our research did not support the idea of a ‘bright woman effect.'”


  4. Links between parents’ earnings, gender roles, mental health

    August 27, 2017 by Ashley

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

    The sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s suggested that women and men would have equal shots at happiness — whether they were their families’ primary breadwinners or stay-at-home parents.

    However, the reality has been far more nuanced for many families in the U.S. And new research out of the University of Illinois suggests that some mothers’ and fathers’ psychological well-being may suffer when their work and family identities — and the amount of financial support they provide — conflict with conventional gender roles.

    Researchers Karen Kramer and Sunjin Pak found that when women’s paychecks increased to compose the majority of their families’ income, these women reported more symptoms of depression.

    However, Kramer and Pak found the opposite effect in men: Dads’ psychological well-being improved over time when they became the primary wage-earners for their families.

    The data sample comprised more than 1,463 men and 1,769 women who participated in the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth. A majority of the individuals in the study, all born between 1957 and 1965, were members of the baby-boom generation. Participants’ psychological well-being was measured in 1991 and 1994 using a seven-item scale that assessed their levels of depressive symptoms.

    Kramer and Pak found that although women’s psychological well-being was not affected by exiting the workforce to become stay-at-home moms, men’s mental health declined when they stayed home to care for the kids.

    “We observed a statistically significant and substantial difference in depressive symptoms between men and women in our study,” said Kramer, who is a professor of human development and family studies.

    “The results supported the overarching hypothesis: Well-being was lower for mothers and fathers who violated gendered expectations about the division of paid labor, and higher for parents who conformed to these expectations.”

    While women’s educational and career opportunities have multiplied in recent decades, societal norms and expectations about gendered divisions of labor in the workplace and the home have been slower to evolve, according to the researchers.

    Mothers and fathers who deviate from conventional gender roles — such as dads who leave the workforce to care for their children full time — may be perceived negatively, potentially impacting their mental health, Kramer and Pak wrote.

    The researchers also explored whether parents who held more egalitarian ideas about men’s and women’s responsibilities as wage earners and caretakers for their families fared better — and Kramer and Pak found gender differences there as well.

    Women in the study who viewed themselves and their spouses as equally responsible for financially supporting their families and caring for their homes and offspring experienced better mental health when their wages and share of the family’s income increased.

    However, regardless of their beliefs, men’s mental health took a hit when their earnings as a proportion of the family income shrank — suggesting perhaps that “work identity and (the) traditional role of primary earner are still critical for men, even when they have more egalitarian gender ideology,” the researchers wrote.

    Kramer is to present the paper at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, August 12-15 in Montreal.

    Pak is a doctoral student at Illinois.


  5. Study suggests strong friendships among women in the workplace reduce conflict

    August 2, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences press release:

    According to a new study in the INFORMS journal Organization Science, when employers foster an office environment that supports positive, social relationships between women coworkers, especially in primarily male dominated organizations, they are less likely to experience conflict among women employees.

    The study, “Gender and Negative Work Ties: Exploring Difficult Work Relationships Within and Across Gender at Two Firms” was conducted by Jenifer Merluzzi of George Washington University.

    Merluzzi surveyed 145 management-level employees regarding workplace dynamics at two large U.S. firms that were primarily male-dominated environments, with women representing less than one-third of the workforce and under 15 percent of the senior management.

    The study author found that, while men and women are equally likely to cite having a difficult co-worker, compared to men, women are more likely to cite another woman as a difficult coworker than they are to cite a man, or not cite anyone. However, this tendency is reduced among women who cite having more women coworkers for social support and friendship at work. Knowing that unique gendered network characteristics such as the gender compositions of an employee’s social support at work were associated with negative ties can help organizational leaders anticipate potential trouble spots within their firms where gendered conflict may erupt.

    “While gender diversity and inequality are well document topics in management, sociology and labor economics, few have looked closely at the gendered negative relationships within the workplace from a social relationship perspective,” said Merluzzi. “Understanding the relational side of conflict also bears practical importance as companies increasingly organize using diverse teams, heightening the reliance on informal ties between and within gender to get work accomplished.”


  6. Study looks at gender differences in neurological effect of depression

    July 28, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    When researchers in the UK exposed depressed adolescents to happy or sad words and imaged their brains, they found that depression has different effects on the brain activity of male and female patients in certain brain regions. The findings suggest that adolescent girls and boys might experience depression differently and that sex-specific treatments could be beneficial for adolescents.

    Men and women appear to suffer from depression differently, and this is particularly striking in adolescents. By 15 years of age, girls are twice as likely to suffer from depression as boys. There are various possible reasons for this, including body image issues, hormonal fluctuations and genetic factors, where girls are more at risk of inheriting depression. However, differences between the sexes don’t just involve the risk of experiencing depression, but also how the disorder manifests and its consequences.

    “Men are more liable to suffer from persistent depression, whereas in women depression tends to be more episodic,” explains Jie-Yu Chuang, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, and an author on the study, which was recently published in Frontiers in Psychiatry. “Compared with women, depressed men are also more likely to suffer serious consequences from their depression, such as substance abuse and suicide.” Despite this, so far, most researchers have focused on depression in women, likely because it is more common.

    This motivated Chuang and her colleagues to carry out this latest study to find differences between depressed men and women. They recruited adolescent volunteers for the study, who were aged between 11 and 18 years. This included 82 female and 24 male patients who suffered from depression, and 24 female and 10 male healthy volunteers. The researchers imaged the adolescents’ brains using magnetic resonance imaging, while flashing happy, sad or neutral words on a screen in a specific order.

    The volunteers pressed a button when certain types of words appeared and did not press the button when others appeared, and the researchers measured their brain activity throughout the experiment. When the researchers flashed certain combinations of words on the screen, they noticed that depression affects brain activity differently between boys and girls in brain regions such as the supramarginal gyrus and posterior cingulate.

    So, what do these results mean? “Our finding suggests that early in adolescence, depression might affect the brain differently between boys and girls,” explains Chuang. “Sex-specific treatment and prevention strategies for depression should be considered early in adolescence. Hopefully, these early interventions could alter the disease trajectory before things get worse.”

    The brain regions highlighted in the study have been previously linked to depression, but further work is needed to understand why they are affected differently in depressed boys, and if this is related to how boys experience and handle depression.

    Because depression is more common in girls, the researchers were not able to recruit as many boys in this study, and future experiments should compare similar numbers of girls and boys for more representative results. Chuang and her colleagues would like to explore this phenomenon further. “I think it would be great to conduct a large longitudinal study addressing sex differences in depression from adolescence to adulthood.”


  7. Study suggests how a girl is raised can influence her adult sporting success

    July 10, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    The ability to produce peak performance plays a decisive role in the success of athletes in competitive sport. A desire to be the best is one of the most important traits in a top athlete, but where does this desire come from — are we born with it or is it a learned characteristic?

    Traditionally, research on female sporting success has focused on biological and genetic differences. A new study, published in the open-access journal, Frontiers in Psychology, instead looks at the motivation level of successful female footballers and whether their upbringing influences this desire to succeed.

    “We find that at higher competition levels, the more likely it is for female athletes to savour the more aggressive elements of a sporting contest,” says Danie Meyer-Parlapanis, who conducted this research as part of her PhD thesis at the University of Konstanz, Germany. “This is particularly the case when they have been raised in less traditional families and have greater engagement with more masculine interests and role models.”

    Meyer-Parlapanis and her co-authors asked ninety female football players, from the German premier and regional leagues, to fill in a questionnaire based on aggressive behaviour research in military troops. That research found that long-term combat produced a fascination and enthusiasm for direct confrontation, which can override self-control and inhibition. The desire to beat an opponent, whether that be in military combat or on the playing field is similar and can lead to a single-minded approach where victory becomes paramount.

    The answers to the questionnaires revealed that players from the premier league, deemed as the more successful athletes, exhibited greater fighting spirit and more pleasure in the game of football itself. When this result was compared to similar findings in the combative field, it suggested these players are less susceptible to distraction, fear and stress during the game.

    “But rather than focusing solely on the player’s appetite for success,” explains Meyer-Parlapanis, “we also examined how their upbringing and exposure to gender stereotypes influenced this feeling.”

    She continues, “How a child is raised, what toys and games are accessible, and what role models they see — both in and out of the home — all play direct roles in how they view themselves and experience the world around them. Non-traditional socialization can yield non-traditional outcomes. In this case, female athletes breaking with tradition to perform in a sport that, until 1970, was exclusively reserved for males. Additionally, moving further away from female stereotypes, many of these female athletes do more than simply play the game, they savour the battle on the pitch.”

    The authors of this study hope that their research will be used as a basis for examining how those with a minority status deal with and succeed in areas where they have not traditionally been expected to do well.

    Meyer-Parlapanis concludes, “In sport, there is a long road ahead for male and female equality in pay, status and media attention. Further research will serve to reduce stigma and raise more awareness to the challenges facing female athletes around the world.”


  8. Stereotypes still affect women’s career aspirations in STEM topics

    by Ashley

    From the Frontiers press release:

    Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, the so-called STEM subjects, are traditionally male dominated and it is well established that females remain underrepresented in such programmes to this day. This gender discrepancy has been a hot topic among researchers and advocates who seek to understand this phenomenon to ultimately close or at least reduce the gap. For the few females who successfully end up in STEM programmes, one would assume they overcame the barriers and are less prone to stereotype views. But is this so?

    Professor Bernhard Ertl from the Universität der Bundeswehr München, in Germany et.al. took a closer look at this topic in their recent study “The Impact of Gender Stereotypes on the Self-Concept of Female Students in STEM Subjects with an Under-Representation of Females” published in Frontiers for Psychology.

    The study involved 296 women from different German universities who are all enrolled in a STEM programme with less than 30% females. It aimed at investigating the impact of stereotypes and the role of family, school and society on the self-concept of females already studying these scientific subjects. Stereotypes impact a person’s self-assessment and lower their sense of competence, ability and self-confidence, i.e. the self-concept.

    “We were astonished that stereotypes about STEM still corrupt the self-concept of female students who already crossed several barriers and found their way into a STEM subject with a quite low proportion of females.” states Professor Ertl.

    Even though the students participating in the study presumably had good grades in STEM, stereotypes still corrupted their self-concept. The STEM career path is considered untypical by many of the students’ social environments and in some instances, was met with surprise or even scepticism. One of the reasons for this might lie in stereotypes that attribute girls’ achievements to diligence instead of talent.

    Professor Ertl expands “Stereotypes are grounded in society and therefore it is important for us to know the effect of our stereotypes on individuals’ self-concepts, achievements and career decisions.” The study points to the fact that family can have a negative impact on female students’ self-concept and initiatives that directly seek to support the students may actually backfire and reinforce the stereotypical views instead.

    Indirect support has proven to be more effective. This involves for instance giving children the opportunity to have positive experiences in science related subjects or by giving them the chance to meet role models that are enthusiastic about their STEM professions. Such measures may boost the self-concept of female students in STEM programmes, more so than direct encouragement.

    To conclude, study co-author Professor Manuela Paechter highlights the key learnings from the study for education “We should realise that supporting students may have ambiguous effects. Consider this paradox: If we perceive a student as not sufficiently gifted by the standards of our implicit stereotypes, we may communicate this opinion subconsciously whilst at the same time giving them support. Even if well intentioned, such behaviour will foil the hoped-for effects. Instead, teaching subjects like physics while linking them to how they explain daily life phenomena could attract more girls (and also more boys). ”


  9. Study looks at how signs of problem gambling differ in men and women

    June 10, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Springer press release:

    Men and women experiencing problems with gaming machines (slot machines) display the same signs that their habit is out of control. However, the two sexes differ in how they handle the distress that accompanies their addiction. Women tend to be more emotional and more likely to cry or to look depressed when losing. Men may angrily channel their distress into striking or even kicking their gaming machine. These are the findings of researchers at the University of Adelaide, the Australian Gambling Research Centre (AGRC) and Swinburne University of Technology in Australia. The study is published in Springer’s Journal of Gambling Studies.

    The data used in the paper were obtained from two recent large studies conducted in Australia of regular gamblers. Together the two surveys yielded a total sample of 1185 (580 men and 605 women). Of these, 338 were classified as problem gamblers.

    Men and women were found to show the same problem gambling symptoms, but some “red flags” of distress were more prevalent among the sexes. Males were more likely than females to report anger and frustration when losing. They more readily displayed aggression in their play, kicking and striking their gaming machines or playing them roughly. They often engaged in territorial stand-over tactics to scare customers away from machines that they claimed as theirs, and could be impolite towards venue staff. Women were much more likely to display visible signs of distress such as crying, or other visible signs of sadness and depression.

    “Signs of distress are likely to be more commonly seen indicators for female patrons while signs of anger or aggression may be more likely to be observed for males,” says Anna Thomas, Manager of the AGRC.

    Thomas advises gambling venue staff to view any unusual behaviours such as aggression towards machines, attempts to borrow money or ask for credit, or a decline in grooming in female patrons as definite “red flags”.

    “Behaviours that are most clearly distinctive of gambling problems in male patrons included clear and visible signs of distress, asking for loans from a venue and attempts to conceal their presence in venues from family and friends. For female patrons, asking a venue for a loan or a noticeable decline in personal grooming are particular indicators of which staff should take note,” Thomas adds.

    The results more broadly show that the behaviour of female problem gamblers is generally more differentiated from other lower risk gamblers. “This suggests that it may be easier to detect variations in behaviour for female gamblers than for males,” says Thomas. “It also means that staff may need to spend more time watching potential male problem gamblers before they can be confident that they are displaying behaviour that is different from other male gamblers.”

    The researchers advise that staff be trained to better identify behavioural indicators, to interpret these as a whole within the greater context, and on how to confidently use such information in their interaction with patrons. Some of this training might include a focus on gender differences and diversity in gamblers.


  10. Study suggests body- and sex related problems are separate from other forms of psychological problems

    June 8, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Suomen Akatemia (Academy of Finland) press release:

    Body- and sex related problems constitute a distinct group of psychological ailments that is most common in middle aged women, according to scientific research. The project was financed by the Academy of Finland.

    A recent study shows that psychological problems relating to one’s body and sexuality, such as body dissatisfaction, disordered eating, or sexual distress, are linked to each other but not strongly linked to externalizing — such as aggression or substance abuse — or internalizing — such as anxiety or depressive symptoms. Women reported more psychological problems related to their body and sexuality than men.

    Using data from 13,000 adult women and men in Finland, researchers at the Department of Psychology at Åbo Akademi University have discovered that body- and sex related symptoms are not expressions of internalizing or externalizing disorders, as was earlier believed. Comparing the levels of symptoms across gender and age groups, middle age women reported higher levels of body- and sex related problems.

    The result of the study, published online in PLoS One, can inform further research on diagnostics and treatment of psychological disorders.