1. Study suggests brief exposure to charismatic career women inspires female students to pursue same field

    January 31, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Southern Methodist University press release:

    A low-budget field experiment to tackle the lack of women in the male-dominated field of economics has been surprisingly effective, says the study’s author, an economist at Southern Methodist University, Dallas.

    Top female college students were inspired to pursue a major in economics when exposed very briefly to charismatic, successful women in the field, according to SMU economist Danila Serra.

    The results suggest that exposing young women to an inspiring female role model is successful as a result of the mix of both information and pure inspiration, Serra said.

    “The specific women who came and talked to the students were key to the success of the intervention,” she said. “It was a factor of how charismatic and enthusiastic they were about their careers and of how interesting their jobs looked to young women.”

    Given the simplicity and low-cost of the intervention, similar experiments could be easily conducted in other male-dominated or female-dominated fields of study to enhance gender diversity.

    Serra’s results showed that among female students exposed to the enthusiastic mentors there was a 12-percentage point increase in the percentage of female students enrolling in the upper-level Intermediate Microeconomics course the following year — a 100% increase, or doubling, for that demographic.

    Not surprisingly, given that the intervention was targeted to female students, Serra found that the role model visits had no impact on male students.

    But astonishingly it had the greatest impact on high-achieving female students.

    “If we restrict the analysis to the top female students, the students with a GPA of 3.7 or higher, the impact is remarkable — it is a 26 percentage points increase,” Serra said. “So this intervention was especially impactful on the top female students who perhaps were not thinking about majoring in economics.”

    The results were very surprising to Serra, an assistant professor in the SMU Department of Economics in Dedman College who teaches the upper-level class Behavioral and Experimental Economics. Serra’s research relies on laboratory and field experiments, a relatively new methodology in the field of economics. She launched and is co-leader of the Laboratory for Research in Experimental Economics at SMU.

    “I didn’t think such limited exposure would have such a large impact,” Serra said. “So this is telling me that one of the reasons we see so few women in certain fields is that these fields have been male-dominated for so long. This implies that it is very difficult for a young woman to come into contact with a woman in the field who has an interesting job in the eyes of young women and is enthusiastic about her major and her work. Young men, on the other hand, have these interactions all the time because there are so many male economics majors out there.”

    Co-author on the research is Catherine Porter, associate professor of economics at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, Scotland, and Serra’s former Ph.D. classmate at the University of Oxford.

    “The gender imbalance in economics has been in the news a lot lately, and much of the discussion has been very negative,” said Porter. “This study offers something positive: a cheap way of improving the gender balance. The results can hopefully be used by other schools in order to redress the low numbers of women that major in economics — women have a lot to offer and should consider economics as a subject that is interesting and varied for a career.”

    Serra reported the findings, “Gender differences in the choice of major: The importance of female role models,” on Jan. 6 in Philadelphia at the 2018 annual meeting of the Allied Social Sciences Association. Hers is one of many findings on gender and gender differences in economics presented at a session organized by the Committee for the Status of Women in the Economics Profession.

    Inspiring the individual is the best tool to recruit and retain

    Serra launched the study after SMU was one of 20 U.S. universities randomly chosen by Harvard economics professor Claudia Goldin for the Undergraduate Women in Economics Challenge. The project awarded each university a $12,500 grant to develop a program freely chosen by the universities to test the effectiveness of a deliberate intervention strategy to recruit and retain female majors.

    Nationally, there’s only about one woman for every three men majoring in economics. SMU has a large number of economics majors for a school of its size, with 160 a year. The gender imbalance, however, is greater at SMU than the national average, with only one woman to every four men.

    Serra developed her intervention based on her own experience as a Ph.D. student at the University of Oxford several years ago.

    “I started thinking about role models from my personal experience,” Serra said. “As a student, I had met many female professors in the past, but my own experience taught me that inspiration is not about meeting any female professor — it’s about meeting that one person that has a huge charisma and who is highly inspiring and speaks to you specifically.”

    Serra said that’s what she experienced as a graduate researcher when she first met Professor Abigail Barr, who later became her Ph.D. advisor.

    “I know for a fact that that is why I decided to do a Ph.D. in economics, because I was greatly inspired by this person, her experiences and her research,” she said. “So I thought it would be interesting to see whether the same could work for a general student population.”

    Two inspiring women role models, 15 minutes, four classrooms

    Serra asked two of her department’s top undergraduate female economics students to take the lead in choosing the role models.

    The students, Tracy Nelson and Emily Towler, sorted through rosters of SMU economics alums and shortlisted 18 men and women that they thought were working in interesting fields — which purposely excluded stereotypical jobs in banking and finance — and then carried out scripted interviews with a subset of who agreed to be interviewed via Skype to get additional information about their career path and to assess their charisma.

    The students ultimately found two alumnae, July Lutz and Courtney Thompson, to be the most inspiring. Julie Lutz, a 2008 graduate, started her career in management consulting but, shortly after, decided to completely change her career path by going to work for an international NGO in Nicaragua, and then as a director of operations at a toy company based in Honduras. Lutz now works in Operations at a fast-growing candy retail company. Courtney Thompson, class of 1991, has had a stellar career in marketing, becoming the senior director of North American Marketing and Information Technology at a large international communications company, with the unique claim of being not only a female econ major at a time when that was exceedingly rare, but also African American in a white dominated field.

    Serra invited each woman to speak during the Spring 2016 semester for 10 to 15 minutes to four Principals of Economics classes that she had randomly selected from a set of 10. The Principles classes are very popular, with about 700 students total from a variety of desired majors, and are typically gender balanced. The imbalance, said Serra, starts the following year with Intermediate Microeconomics, which is a requirement for upper-level economics courses and so is a good indicator of a desire to major in economics.

    Serra offered each role model an honorarium for speaking, but each woman declined and indicated they were happy to be back on campus sharing with students. Serra told the speakers nothing of the purpose of the research project, but encouraged each one to explain to the class why they majored in economics and to be very engaging. She directed them to approach the students with the following question in mind: “If you had to convince a student to major in economics, what would you say?”

    Thompson, Serra said, during her college days played SMU’s costumed Peruna mascot, and today retains a “bubbly, big personality, that makes her extremely engaging.” In her classroom visits, Thompson described her experience working and being extremely successful in marketing with an economics degree, while being surrounded by business majors. Lutz, being still in her 20s, was very easy for the young women in the classrooms to identify with, and her experience working in the non-profit and in developing countries may have been especially appealing to them.

    Young women judge best who will inspire them

    Serra believes that a key to the success of the intervention was the fact her two female economics students actively participated in the selection of the role models.

    “The most important thing about the project was that I realized I needed current female students to choose the role models,” Serra said. “I’m not that young anymore, so I’m probably not the best person to recognize what is inspiring to young women. I think young female students are in the best position to tell us what is most inspiring to them.”

    Serra is the inaugural recipient of the $50,000 Vernon L. Smith Ascending Scholar Prize for her highly cited corruption research.

    She uses lab experiments to study bribery, governance and accountability, questioning long-standing assumptions. Some of her findings are that corruption declines as perpetrators take into account social costs of their illegal activities, and as victims share information about specific bribery exchanges through online reporting. Serra’s current research agenda also includes experimental work on gender differences in preferences, behaviors and outcomes.


  2. Study suggests girls’ social camouflage skills may delay or prevent autism diagnosis

    January 17, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Children’s National Health System press release:

    On parent-reporting measures, girls with autism seem to struggle more than boys with performing routine tasks like getting up and dressed or making small talk, even when the study group is normalized to meet similar basic clinical diagnostic criteria across sexes. The findings add to the growing evidence that girls with autism may show symptoms differently than boys, and that some of the social difficulties experienced by females with autism may be masked during clinical assessments.

    The new study, led by researchers from the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children’s National Health System, was published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

    “Based on our research criteria, parents report that the girls in our study with autism seem to have a more difficult time with day-to-day skills than the boys,” says Allison Ratto, Ph.D., lead author of the study and a clinical psychologist within the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children’s National. “This could mean that girls who meet the same clinical criteria as boys actually are more severely affected by ongoing social and adaptive skill deficits that we don’t capture in current clinical measures, and that autistic girls, in general, may be camouflaging these types of autism deficits during direct assessments.”

    The study used an age-and IQ-matched sample of school-aged youth diagnosed with ASD to assess sex differences according to the standard clinical tests including the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) and the Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R), as well as parent reported autistic traits and adaptive skills.

    “This study is one of the first to eliminate many of the variables that obscure how sex impacts presentation of autism traits and symptoms. Though today’s clinical tools do a really good job capturing boys at a young age, with a wide range of symptom severity, they do it less effectively for girls,” adds Lauren Kenworthy, Ph.D., director of the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders, and another study contributor. “This is a crucial issue considering how much we know about the success of early interventions on long-term outcomes. We have to find better ways to identify girls with autism so we can ensure the best approaches reach all who need them as early as possible.”

    Specific evidence of women more effectively masking or camouflaging social and communication deficits is limited, but autistic self-advocates theorize that the unique social pressures and demands on girls at a young age may teach them to “blend in” and “get by,” including maintaining successful, brief social interactions.

    As a research partner of an $11.7 million Autism Center of Excellence (ACE) grant from the National Institutes of Health to the George Washington University Autism and Neurodevelopment Disorders Institute, the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders at Children’s National will continue investigations into sex differences, and aims to develop self-reporting measures for adolescents and adults that better capture additional populations — including females and non-cisgender males.

    “We hope the ACE studies will help us better understand the diversity of the autism spectrum by allowing us to focus on the ways in which differences in sex and gender identity might influence the expression of autistic traits, thereby enabling us to make more accurate diagnoses,” Dr. Ratto concludes.


  3. Study suggests children’s perception of gender appropriate colors is affected by gender labels

    January 14, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Springer press release:

    Two researchers from the University of Hong Kong suggest that toymakers and parents avoid gender-labelling toys, remove colour divides, and manufacture toys for both boys and girls in a wide range of colours. Sui Ping Yeung and Wang Ivy Wong’s study is published in Springer’s journal Sex Roles, and shows how easily preschoolers’ ideas about what is appropriate for their gender is manipulated. Their study is also the first to show that a boy’s preference for blue and a girl’s liking of pink is not just a Western construct, but is also a phenomenon in urban Asian societies.

    The researchers recruited 129 preschool Chinese children aged between five and seven from two kindergartens in Hong Kong. First the researchers assessed the children’s preference for pink versus blue by showing them cards and toys in these colours. Then the children were presented with yellow and green cards and toys. They were randomly divided into so-called label and no-label groups.

    Children in the no-label group were presented with coloured cards and toys which had no reference to a specific gender and these children consequently expressed no preference for a specific colour. However, preschoolers in the label group were told that yellow was a girl’s colour and green a boys’ colour, and corresponding gender differences emerged in the choices they made.

    Apart from randomly assigning children to these two groups, the children’s pre-existing preferences for yellow and green were statistically controlled, so the resulting difference between the groups speaks strongly to a causal effect of the gender labels.

    According to the researchers, the gender differences between preferred colours in children is noteworthy because it is so much more prominent than most other psychological differences between the sexes.

    “Our findings support the notion that gender-typed liking for pink versus blue is a particularly salient gender difference,” explains Yeung. “Moreover, our findings reveal that gender differences could be created merely by applying gender labels.”

    “By applying gender labels, not only concrete materials such as toys could become gender-typed, but also abstract qualities such as colours, with children increasing or decreasing their likings for particular colours based on the gender labels available in their social environment,” Wong says.

    The findings support previous research that highlighted the strong influence that gender labels such as “for boys” or “for girls” might have. Further, the observations are in line with gender schema theory that says that once children have learnt a specific gender identity, their behaviour will be guided by the standards set as being appropriate for their specific sex. These will guide them later in life on how they interact and adapt to their surroundings, for instance, when taking on chores around the house, such as cooking, cleaning or repairing things.

    Wong also commented on the cultural angle of this study: “Many gender differences and stereotypes in developed Asian regions resemble those in the West, which is not surprising given the high degree of Westernization and the prevalence of gender colour-coding typical of Western cultures in Hong Kong.”

    The study also goes beyond investigating why boys and girls prefer different colours. The researchers also tested whether using gender-coded colours in toys affects how well children play. The children were given yellow and green puzzles to play with. Whether the puzzles were in the gender appropriate or gender inappropriate colour did not make a difference in the children’s puzzle performance.

    However, the researchers caution against using this finding to support the use of gender-coded colours to increase sales. The results showed that boys and girls performed equally well but if they had been exposed to gender labels, regardless of whether they received the gender appropriate or gender inappropriate coloured puzzles, a gender difference emerged, with boys outperforming girls.


  4. Study suggests women just as willing to take risks as men

    October 11, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Exeter press release:

    Women can be just as risk-taking as men — or even more so — when the conventional macho measures of daring — such as betting vast sums on a football game — are replaced by less stereotypical criteria, according to new research led by the University of Exeter.

    Traditional barometers of high risk behaviour — such as betting a day’s wages at a high stakes poker game or riding a motorcycle without a helmet — are often stereotypically masculine. A team of psychologists — Dr Thekla Morgenroth and Professor Michelle Ryan from the University of Exeter and Professor Cordelia Fine and Anna Genat from the University of Melbourne -devised a new measure of risk-taking including activities that women might more typically pursue such as going horseback riding or making risky purchases online.

    They found that research and surveys about risk behaviour has reinforced cultural assumptions about who takes risks. Assessments of heroism, daring or audacity often focus on traditionally masculine behaviour such as gambling or skydiving. When this bias is addressed, women and men rate themselves as equally likely to take risks.

    The findings of the study, published in the journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science, raises fresh questions about whether risk-taking is overwhelmingly a masculine personality trait, and whether women are as risk averse as previously suggested.

    Dr Thekla Morgenroth, post-doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, and lead author of the paper said: “When people imagine a risk-taker, they might picture someone risking their fortune at a high-stakes poker game, an ambitious CEO, or someone crossing the Grand Canyon on a tightrope — but chances are that the person they picture will be a man. In other words, in our culture, risk is strongly associated with masculinity — and our research shows that this also biases how scientists measure risk.”

    Dr Morgenroth went on to say:

    “Traditional measures of risk-taking tend to overlook the fact that women take many risks all the time — they go horseback riding, they challenge sexism, they are more likely to donate their kidneys to family members. In our research, we show that when you ask men and women how likely they are to take more feminine risks, the gender difference in risk-taking suddenly disappears or even reverses with women reporting slightly higher levels of risk-taking. We’ve been overlooking female risk-taking because our measures have been biased.”

    Co-author Professor Cordelia Fine, whose book Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the myths of our gendered minds, was this week awarded the Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize 2017, added:

    “Even when we matched the level of physical or financial risk, we found that the choice of risky activity — masculine, or more neutral or feminine — makes a difference to the conclusion about which gender is more risk-taking.”

    The academics surveyed a total of 238 people in two studies using traditional measures of risk and new questions which included more activities which were rated as feminine by a group of 99 men and women.

    When stereotypically masculine criteria such as gambling at a casino or going white-water rafting were used, men rated themselves as more likely to engage in risk-taking. However, when new behaviour was included, such as taking a cheerleading class or cooking an impressive but difficult meal for a dinner party, women rated themselves as equally or more likely to take risks.

    Co-author Prof Michelle Ryan noted: “Understanding the nature of gender differences in risk taking is particularly important as the assumption that women are risk averse is often used to justify ongoing gender inequality — such as the gender pay gap and women’s under-representation in politics and leadership.”


  5. Study looks at gender differences in reactions to prosocial behaviour

    October 9, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Zurich press release:

    Behavioral experiments have shown that women share a sum of money more generously than men. To gain a more in-depth understanding of this behavior, neuroscientists from the Department of Economics looked at the areas of the brain that are active when decisions of this kind are made. They are the first to demonstrate that the brains of men and women respond differently to prosocial and selfish behavior.

    Selfish behavior activates reward system more strongly in men

    The striatum, located in the middle of the brain, is responsible for the assessment of reward and is active whenever a decision is made. The findings show: The striatum was more strongly activated in female brains during prosocial decisions than during selfish decisions. By contrast, selfish decisions led to a stronger activation of the reward system in male brains.

    Disrupted reward system leads to more selfish behavior in women

    In the second experiment, the reward system was disrupted by administering medication to the participants. Under these conditions, women behaved more selfishly, while men became more prosocial. The latter result surprised the researchers. As Soutschek explains, “these results demonstrate that the brains of women and men also process generosity differently at the pharmacological level.” The results also have consequences for further brain research, with Soutschek stating that “future studies need to take into account gender differences more seriously.”

    Culturally conditioned behavior patterns are decisive

    Even if these differences are evident at the biological level, Soutschek warns against assuming that they must be innate or of evolutionary origin. “The reward and learning systems in our brains work in close cooperation. Empirical studies show that girls are rewarded with praise for prosocial behavior, implying that their reward systems learn to expect a reward for helping behavior instead of selfish behavior. With this in mind, the gender differences that we observed in our studies could best be attributed to the different cultural expectations placed on men and women.” This learning account is also supported by findings that indicate significant differences in the sensitivity of the reward system to prosocial and selfish behavior across cultures.


  6. Study suggests gender differences in financial risk tolerance linked to different response to income uncertainty

    September 30, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Missouri-Columbia press release:

    Prior research has long shown that women are, on average, less risk tolerant in their financial decisions than men. This is a concern as investors with low levels of risk tolerance might have greater difficulty reaching their financial goals and building adequate retirement wealth because they are unlikely to invest in stocks. Now, a researcher from the University of Missouri has found that men and women do not think about investment risks differently. Instead, income uncertainty affects men and women differently, which leads to differences in risk tolerance.

    “Risk tolerance is one of the most important factors that contributes to wealth accumulation and retirement,” said Rui Yao, an associate professor of personal financial planning in the MU College of Health and Environmental Sciences. “It is important to understand what causes women to be less risk tolerant so that financial planners can better serve their needs as women, on average, live longer than men and often need more retirement savings.”

    For her study, Yao examined data from the Survey of Consumer Finances. The survey is conducted every three years and supported by the Federal Reserve and U.S. Department of the Treasury. By analyzing data from nearly 2,250 unmarried American individuals, Yao found that women are more likely to have uncertain incomes from year to year. Life events such as child birth, child care and care-giving often contribute to women’s income uncertainty.

    Yao also found that, on average, women had lower net worth than men. This may have resulted, in part, from women keeping funds in accounts with low returns to buffer the risk of negative income shocks.

    One-quarter of women and one-fifth of men in the sample reported using a financial planner for saving and investment decisions, but the advice given to women may not be in their best interest. Yao suggests that financial planners need to understand the differences in income uncertainty and net worth between men and women and the way in which these differences relate to risk tolerance.

    “Simply telling women to be more risk tolerant is ineffective,” Yao said. “In fact, it might encourage women to take more financial risks than they can tolerate, which could lead to more problems in the future. The difference in investment advice received by men and women requires further investigation, particularly given the new fiduciary standards for financial advisors.”

    Yao’s advice to women is to plan for income uncertainty by creating a financial strategy that fits their needs. For example, when anticipating child-rearing or care-giving periods in the near future, women can and should be more conservative in their investing. When those periods are coming to an end, women should work with their financial planners to make riskier investments.


  7. Mouse study suggests brain structures controlling sexual and aggressive behavior are wired differently in the sexes

    September 27, 2017 by Ashley

    From the NYU Langone Health / NYU School of Medicine press release:

    Brain structures that control sexual and aggressive behavior in mice are wired differently in females than in males. This the finding of a study led by scientists at NYU School of Medicine and published online Sept. 18 in Nature Neuroscience.

    Specifically, researchers found that, while control of aggressive behavior resides in same brain region in female and male mice, certain groups of brain cells in that region are organized differently. Two separate groups of cells were found to control sex and aggression in females, whereas circuits that encourage sex and aggression in males overlapped, say the study authors.

    Knowing how aggressive behaviors are regulated is important because they are essential to survival in mice, as well as in humans, which have evolved to compete for food, mates, and territory, researchers say.

    “Our study furthers our understanding of how these behaviors are organized differently in female and male mice brains,” says study senior investigator Dayu Lin, PhD, an assistant professor at the Neuroscience Institute at NYU Langone Health.

    Having a detailed breakdown of brain functions by gender, Lin adds, is a “fundamental step” toward any future attempt to develop drugs that suppress extreme aggression in humans. She says research on female aggressive behavior has lagged because, in most animals, males are the more aggressive gender.

    Original research by Lin and her team, published in Nature in 2011, was among the first to trace the origins of male aggression in mice to a distinct part of the hypothalamus, the brain region that controls body temperature, hunger, sleep, and levels of many hormones. This key part, the ventrolateral part of the ventromedial hypothalamus, or VMHvl, is located on the underside of the hypothalamus in mice and humans.

    Other, recent studies that had blocked the action VMHvl cells in female mouse brains failed to trace the source of aggression control to the VMHvl. This blockade did stop all male and female attempts to mate, but did not reduce fighting among females, says Lin.

    She says these other studies — having used a mouse type known for timidity — did not accurately replicate natural conditions. The current study was made more realistic by including a naturally aggressive mouse strain, as well as female virgin mice eager to fight off competitors for food, and new mothers anxious to protect their pups, say the authors.

    The current study monitored the brain activity of the virgin and mother mice during fights with any female or male mouse that had entered their boxed space. The brains of all study mice were tested with electrical, genetic, or chemical probes that measured which nerve cells were turned on or off, and how this affected their fighting behavior. Researchers found that, under these more realistic conditions, turning VMHvl cells on or off did control whether female mice would fight. Researchers also monitored in males and females the activity of individual cells in the VMHvl with proteins that enable them to interact with the sex hormones (e.g. estrogen receptor alpha). Such cells had previously been linked to fighting behaviors in male mice.

    Experiments showed that VMHvl cells actively transmitting signals, or “firing,” while females were mating were not the same cells firing when they were fighting. But in male mice, many of the same cells were firing during both activities. Further analysis showed that males had a mixed spatial distribution of the VMHvl cells involved in either behavior. In females, the cells involved in fighting were arranged along the center of the VMHvl, while those involved in mating were distributed along its borders.

    Lin says her laboratory next plans to fine-tune tools for experimenting separately on the female mating and fighting VMHvl cells. She says her team also has plans to investigate the biological origins of these cells to determine how the female nerve circuity develops in contrast to the circuitry in males.


  8. 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.”


  9. 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.”


  10. 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.'”