1. Researchers develop way to stimulate formation of new neural connections in adult brain

    November 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Idaho press release:

    A team led by University of Idaho scientists has found a way to stimulate formation of new neural connections in the adult brain in a study that could eventually help humans fend off memory loss, brain trauma and other ailments in the central nervous system.

    Peter G. Fuerst, an associate professor in the College of Science’s Department of Biological Sciences and WWAMI Medical Education Program, and a team that included lead author doctoral student Aaron Simmons, were able to stimulate growth of new neural connections in mice that are needed to connect the cells into neural circuits. Their study, which included scientists from the University of Louisville and University of Puerto Rico-Humacao, is titled “DSCAM-Mediated Control of Dendritic and Axonal Arbor Outgrowth Enforces Tiling and Inhibits Synaptic Plasticity.” It was published today in the Journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    “The paper is a study into factors that prevent adult neurons from making new connections,” Fuerst said. “Regulation of this process is important to prevent several disorders, such as autism, but is also related to the inability of the adult nervous system to readily recover from damage.”

    Researchers studied a cell population that has the unusual ability to make new connections into adulthood, but under normal conditions does not grow the needed axons or dendrites. The team was able to genetically manipulate the cell population in the mice to induce axon and dendrite outgrowth. They found this induced the formation of stable, functional connections with new cells.

    “The idea is that one could stimulate the nervous system to make new connections if there was some kind of trauma,” Fuerst said. “Maybe this is the way to reactivate the cell to build those new connections that we can take advantage of clinically.”

    Their efforts included research through the regional WWAMI Medical Education Program at the University of Washington and could have wide ramifications for other adult neurological conditions that prevent human brains from making those needed connections as an adult.

    “In children in early development it’s very easy to make new connections, but adults lose that ability, and we want to see why that is,” he said.

    The genetic manipulation used in mice as part of the study wouldn’t work in humans. Instead, Fuerst and his team would next like to test small-molecule drugs that regulate these central nervous system processes — currently used to combat cancer in humans — to see if they can help the nervous system make new connections in mice.

    “These contributions by Peter and his team right here at the University of Idaho are helping advance global neurological research,” said Janet Nelson, vice president for research and economic development. “I’m excited by the potential impact of this research on the understanding of the brain and in advancing human health.”


  2. Study suggests optimists and happy people are healthier overall

    November 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Michigan press release:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

    November 13, 2017 by Ashley

    From the European Society of Cardiology press release:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  4. Study discovers why brain is more sensitive to oxygen deprivation

    November 7, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Maastricht University Medical Center press release:

    Researchers at Maastricht University Medical Center and Maastricht University have discovered why the brain is more sensitive to oxygen deprivation, or hypoxia, than other organs. Hypoxia caused by a stroke, for example, activates a specific mechanism that is protective in other organs but can be detrimental to the brain. ‘This discovery solves a long-standing mystery of the unique sensitivity of the brain to hypoxia,’ says head researcher and professor Harald Schmidt. The research results were published today in the leading scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

    In most cases, a stroke is caused by a blocked artery in the brain, which deprives the brain of oxygen. To prevent brain death, the blood clot must be dissolved with an anticoagulant or removed via a catheter. Stroke victims that survive are left with detrimental symptoms, regardless of how quickly they were treated. These symptoms may include severe paralysis and speech disorders.

    Self-destruction

    An enzyme was found to play a crucial and specific role during a stroke. Following oxygen deprivation, this enzyme, known as NOX4, is produced by several organs and muscles. In all investigated cases, however, NOX4 is harmless, with one notable exception: the production of NOX4 in the brain is disastrous. How this happens is now clear down to the cellular level. First, the enzyme triggers the breakdown of cells of the blood-brain barrier, which protects the brain against blood and other components. Second, NOX4 also triggers a self-destruction mechanism in neurons. This combined effect results in physical and mental problems. When the NOX4 gene is deleted or the NOX4 enzyme inhibited with drugs, the blood-brain barrier and neurons remain intact and brain damage is prevented.

    Therapy

    This important finding opens news doors for treating post-stroke brain damage. “We’ve known for some time that oxygen deprivation leads to brain damage, we just never knew why. The crucial role the NOX4 enzyme plays will help us develop new treatment options to protect the brain after a stroke.’ With the help of a proof-of-concept grant provided by the European Research Council the Maastricht researchers are already one step further by developing drugs that are capable of inhibiting the disastrous effects of this enzyme as soon as possible for patient therapy.

    The study was carried out by Maastricht University Medical Center and Maastricht University, in collaboration with several universities and academic hospitals in Germany (Würzburg, Essen and Münster) and Spain (Madrid). The study was made possible by an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council.


  5. Study looks at how gut and gender may affect ease of quitting smoking

    November 6, 2017 by Ashley

    From the American Chemical Society:

    Many people who smoke or chew tobacco can’t seem to escape nicotine’s addictive properties. Studies show that women in particular seem to have a harder time quitting, even with assistance, when compared to men. Now, scientists report in a mouse study published in ACS’ journal Chemical Research in Toxicology that the difference in gender smoking patterns and smoking’s effects could be due to how nicotine impacts the brain-gut relationship.

    Cigarette smoking has long been a major public health issue. It’s related to one out of every five deaths in the U.S., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When a person smokes tobacco, nicotine is delivered mainly to the lungs. But with skin patches and chewing tobacco, nicotine crosses the skin and into the gastrointestinal tract, respectively. Previous research has shown that nicotine and the nervous system interact, producing a number of effects including the release of the “feel-good” chemical dopamine. Studies have also shown that the effects of nicotine are gender-dependent. To more fully understand why this is, Kun Lu and colleagues wanted to explore how nicotine affects male and female gut microbiomes.

    The researchers set up a 13-week experiment during which they administered nicotine-infused water to mice. An analysis of the animals’ fecal samples showed major differences in the composition of the microbiomes in male and female mice. Levels of compounds and bacterial genes associated with the nervous system and body weight were altered in different ways in male and female mice. For example, the mice exposed to nicotine, especially the males, had lower concentrations of glycine, serine, and aspartic acid, which could weaken the addictive effect of nicotine. In addition, nicotine-treated female mice had reduced amounts of Christensenellaceae bacteria, while the treated male mice had increased levels, which are associated with a lower body mass index. The team says future efforts will focus on exploring the relationship of the nicotine-gut-brain interactions on a molecular level to further understand the communication paths involved.


  6. Study suggests poor social skills may be harmful to health

    by Ashley

    From the University of Arizona press release:

    Those who struggle in social situations may be at greater risk for mental and physical health problems, according to a new study from the University of Arizona.

    That’s because people with poor social skills tend to experience more stress and loneliness, both of which can negatively impact health, said study author Chris Segrin, head of the UA Department of Communication.

    The study, published in the journal Health Communication, is among the first to link social skills to physical, not just mental, health.

    “We’ve known for a long time that social skills are associated with mental health problems like depression and anxiety,” Segrin said. “But we’ve not known definitively that social skills were also predictive of poorer physical health. Two variables — loneliness and stress — appear to be the glue that bind poor social skills to health. People with poor social skills have high levels of stress and loneliness in their lives.”

    The study is based on a survey of a nationally representative sample of 775 people, age 18 to 91, who were asked to respond online to questions designed to measure social skills, stress, loneliness, and mental and physical health.

    Social skills refer to the communication skills that allow people to interact effectively and appropriately with others. Segrin focused on four specific indicators of social skills: the ability to provide emotional support to others; self-disclosure, or the ability to share personal information with others; negative assertion skills, or the ability to stand up to unreasonable requests from others; and relationship initiation skills, or the ability to introduce yourself to others and get to know them.

    Study participants who had deficits in those skills reported more stress, more loneliness, and poorer overall mental and physical health, Segrin said.

    While the negative effects of stress on the body have been known for a long time, loneliness is a more recently recognized health risk factor.

    “We started realizing about 15 years ago that loneliness is actually a pretty serious risk for health problems. It’s as serious of a risk as smoking, obesity or eating a high-fat diet with lack of exercise,” Segrin said.

    Segrin likens the experience of loneliness to the way people feel when they’re in a hurry to get out the door and can’t find their keys — except the feeling never truly goes away.

    “When we lose our keys, 99 percent of the time we find them, the stress goes away, we get in the car and it’s over,” he said. “Lonely people experience that same sort of frantic search — in this case, not for car keys but for meaningful relationships — and they don’t have the ability to escape from that stress. They’re not finding what they’re looking for, and that stress of frantically searching takes a toll on them.”

    The good news, Segrin says, is that social skills have proved to be amenable to intervention.

    “For people who really want to improve their social skills and work on them, there’s therapy, there’s counseling and there is social skills training,” he said.

    Unfortunately, however, many people who have poor social skills don’t realize it, Segrin said.

    “One of the problems with possessing poor social skills is lack of social awareness, so even if they’re not getting the date, they’re not getting the job, they’re getting in arguments with co-workers or their spouse, they don’t see themselves as a problem,” Segrin said. “They’re walking around with this health risk factor and they’re not even aware of it.”

    Where Do Social Skills Come From?

    Social skills are mostly learned over time, beginning in your family of origin and continuing throughout life. Yet, some scientific evidence suggests that certain traits, such as sociability or social anxiousness, may be at least partly hereditary, said Segrin, who has studied social skills for 31 years.

    While Segrin doesn’t address it in his current study, he says that technology, for all its benefits, may be taking a serious toll on social skills, especially in young people.

    “The use of technology — texting, in particular — is probably one of the biggest impediments for developing social skills in young people today,” he said. “Everything is so condensed and parsed out in sound bites, and that’s not the way that human beings for thousands of years have communicated. It makes young people more timid when they’re face-to-face with others, and they’re not sure what to say what to do. There’s no social interaction, and I fear that’s really hurting young people.”

    Parents can help with their children’s social skills — and, in turn, their health — not only by limiting screen time but also by making sure children are regularly exposed to situations that require in-person social interaction, Segrin said.

    “It could be a summer camp, a sporting program, a church group — something where they can hang out with peers and just talk and do things together,” he said.

    Future research, Segrin said, should explore how other aspects of social skills might impact health. He also is interested in looking at how social skills impact those struggling with chronic illness.

    “I want to get the word out about how valuable good communication skills are,” Segrin said. “They will not just benefit you in your social life but they’ll benefit your physical health.”


  7. Study looks at how family and friends affect drinking behaviour in young people

    by Ashley

    From the Research Society on Alcoholism press release:

    The etiology (i.e., underlying causes) of a behavior, such as alcohol drinking, can change during adolescence and young adulthood. Prior alcohol research has shown that, in general: shared/common environment influences are strongest in early adolescence, declining in strength until young adulthood; unique environmental influences are moderate, but stable, during adolescence and young adulthood; and genetic influences are weakest during early adolescence, steadily increasing in strength until young adulthood. This study examined the relations between genetic and environmental etiologies of alcohol use and the influence of peer use, parental autonomy granting, and maternal closeness on this behavior.

    Researchers analyzed the first three waves of data collected during the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health for 2,447 twin and sibling pairs (30% male pairs, 32% female pairs, 38% opposite sex pairs) ranging in age from 13 to 27 years. Wave 1 was collected from 1994 to 1995, Wave 2 from 1995 to 1996, and Wave 3 from 2001 to 2002.

    Results supported previous findings showing that genetic and environmental influences on alcohol use change during adolescence and young adulthood. In addition to genetic and environmental influences that were common to these age groups, there were genetic and environmental influences that were important only during adolescence. Friends’ drinking behavior was a more pervasive influence on adolescents’ drinking than parenting practices. The authors suggested that interventions and prevention programs geared toward reducing alcohol use in younger populations could benefit from a focus on peer influence.


  8. Inflammation in middle age may be tied to brain shrinkage decades later

    November 5, 2017 by Ashley

    From the American Academy of Neurology press release:

    People who have biomarkers tied to inflammation in their blood in their 40s and 50s may have more brain shrinkage decades later than people without the biomarkers, according to a study published in the November 1, 2017, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. The brain cell loss was found especially in areas of the brain that are affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

    “These results suggest that inflammation in mid-life may be an early contributor to the brain changes that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia,” said study author Keenan Walker, PhD, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Md. “Because the processes that lead to brain cell loss begin decades before people start showing any symptoms, it is vital that we figure out how these processes that happen in middle age affect people many years later.”

    People with the inflammation markers and brain shrinkage also had lower scores on average on a memory test.

    For the study, researchers tested the levels of five markers of inflammation in the blood, including the white blood cell count, in 1,633 people with an average age of 53. An average of 24 years later, the participants took a memory test and had brain scans to measure the volume of several areas of the brain.

    The participants were divided into three groups based on how many elevated levels of inflammation they had among the five biomarkers.

    Compared to the people with no elevated levels, people with elevated levels on three or more biomarkers had on average 5 percent lower volume in the hippocampus and other areas of the brain associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

    Walker said that the effect of one standard deviation increase in the overall inflammation score in mid-life on brain volume decades later was similar to the effect associated with having one copy of the apolipoprotein E (APOE) e4 gene that increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

    Every standard deviation increase in the inflammation score was also associated with a hippocampus volume that was 110 cubic millimeters smaller and the volume of other areas affected by Alzheimer’s disease was 532 cubic millimeters smaller.

    On the memory test, where people were asked to remember a list of 10 words, the people with no elevated markers remembered an average of about 5.5 words, while those with three or more elevated markers remembered an average of about five words.

    Limitations of the study include that the biomarkers were measured only once. Walker said it’s not clear whether a single measurement can adequately determine that people have chronic inflammation.


  9. Study suggests antidepressants don’t always work when chronic disease is involved

    November 3, 2017 by Ashley

    From the UT Southwestern Medical Center press release:

    Scientists are finding more evidence that commonly prescribed antidepressants aren’t effective in people battling both depression and a chronic medical disease, raising a critical question of whether doctors should enact widespread changes in how they treat millions of depressed Americans.

    A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found depressed patients with chronic kidney disease did not benefit from a common antidepressant. The finding follows other research that indicates traditional antidepressants are also ineffective in depressed people with chronic conditions such as asthma and congestive heart failure.

    Experts with the O’Donnell Brain Institute say enough evidence now exists to prompt immediate change in how doctors approach depression cases in conjunction with chronic medical diseases.

    “There is little justification in prescribing an antidepressant that will not work and will only cause side effects,” says Dr. Madhukar Trivedi, senior author of the JAMA study and director of the Center for Depression Research and Clinical Care, part of the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute at UT Southwestern Medical Center. “We should go back to the drawing board to understand the brain changes involved in these subtypes of depression.”

    Nearly half of Americans live with a chronic medical condition, ranging from cancer and dementia to arthritis and asthma, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many of these people also have major depression, including more than half of Parkinson’s patients, 41 percent of cancer patients, and more than a quarter of those with diabetes.

    Doctors and patients should take these statistics into account when treating cases of major depression, says Dr. Trivedi, Professor of Psychiatry and holder of the Betty Jo Hay Distinguished Chair in Mental Health and the Julie K. Hersh Chair for Depression Research and Clinical Care.

    He says both sides should understand that standard antidepressants may not work and be prepared to try alternatives if routine monitoring of symptoms and side effects show another strategy is needed.

    Dr. Trivedi, who led the Star*D studies that established widely accepted treatment guidelines for depressed patients, has recently made progress on developing a blood test to determine in advance which antidepressants are more likely to work for important subgroups of patients. He also notes a range of other therapies that have proven effective for patients who don’t respond to initial treatments. These include ketamine, electroconvulsive therapy, neuromodulation with magnetic stimulation, psychotherapy, and exercise.


  10. Discovery challenges belief about brain’s cellular makeup

    November 2, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Northwell Health press release:

    A discovery made by Junhwan Kim, PhD, assistant professor at The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, is challenging science’s longstanding beliefs regarding the cellular makeup of the brain. This breakthrough was outlined in a study recently published in the journal Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry. Having a full understanding of the brain can help identify new therapies as well as develop guidelines to maintain brain health.

    It has long been a belief in the scientific field that the building blocks of brain cells, phospholipids, are enriched by polyunsaturated fatty acids. When trying to prove that the brain, like other major organs, are made of polyunsaturated fatty acids, Dr. Kim and his team were surprised by the results.

    “We found the opposite of what science has widely believed — phospholipids containing polyunsaturated fatty acids in the brain are lower than other major organs,” said Dr. Kim. “Knowing that there are lower amounts of polyunsaturated fatty acids in the brain, we may need to rethink how this acid impacts brain health and conditions like oxygen deprivation.”

    Dr. Kim and his team analyzed brain, heart, liver and kidney tissue from animals and found that only 60 percent of the brain’s phospholipids were made up of polyunsaturated fatty acids. That’s compared to other organs, where the polyunsaturated fatty acid content is about 90 percent. It has also been previously presumed that high polyunsaturated fatty acids levels in the brain were what made it susceptible to oxygen deprivation or brain injury. Further research is required to find out the reasoning for the difference in acid levels, but it could also challenge beliefs about polyunsaturated fatty acids’ impact on these conditions.

    “Dr. Kim’s findings challenge basic assumptions about the brain,” said Kevin J. Tracey, MD, president and CEO of the Feinstein Institute. “This paper is an important step to defining a new research path.”