1. Study suggests that expressive writing can help worriers perform a stressful task more efficiently

    September 21, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Michigan State University press release:

    Chronic worriers, take note: Simply writing about your feelings may help you perform an upcoming stressful task more efficiently, finds a Michigan State University study that measured participants’ brain activity.

    The research, funded by the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, provides the first neural evidence for the benefits of expressive writing, said lead author Hans Schroder, an MSU doctoral student in psychology and a clinical intern at Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital.

    Worrying takes up cognitive resources; it’s kind of like people who struggle with worry are constantly multitasking — they are doing one task and trying to monitor and suppress their worries at the same time,” Schroder said. “Our findings show that if you get these worries out of your head through expressive writing, those cognitive resources are freed up to work toward the task you’re completing and you become more efficient.”

    Schroder conducted the study at Michigan State with Jason Moser, associate professor of psychology and director of MSU’s Clinical Psychophysiology Lab, and Tim Moran, a Spartan graduate who’s now a research scientist at Emory University. The findings are published online in the journal Psychophysiology.

    For the study, college students identified as chronically anxious through a validated screening measure completed a computer-based “flanker task” that measured their response accuracy and reaction times. Before the task, about half of the participants wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings about the upcoming task for eight minutes; the other half, in the control condition, wrote about what they did the day before.

    While the two groups performed at about the same level for speed and accuracy, the expressive-writing group performed the flanker task more efficiently, meaning they used fewer brain resources, measured with electroencephalography, or EEG, in the process.

    Moser uses a car analogy to describe the effect. “Here, worried college students who wrote about their worries were able to offload these worries and run more like a brand new Prius,” he said, “whereas the worried students who didn’t offload their worries ran more like a ’74 Impala – guzzling more brain gas to achieve the same outcomes on the task.”

    While much previous research has shown that expressive writing can help individuals process past traumas or stressful events, the current study suggests the same technique can help people — especially worriers — prepare for stressful tasks in the future.

    Expressive writing makes the mind work less hard on upcoming stressful tasks, which is what worriers often get “burned out” over, their worried minds working harder and hotter,” Moser said. “This technique takes the edge off their brains so they can perform the task with a ‘cooler head.'”


  2. Study suggests coping skills affect women’s anxiety levels

    September 18, 2017 by Ashley

    From the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP) press release:

    Research shows that having a strong sense of coherence and good coping skills can help women facing adversity to overcome anxiety. The work found that women encountering difficult circumstances, such as living in a deprived community, who reported good coping skills did not have anxiety. However, women living in deprived communities but without these coping skills were at high risk of suffering from anxiety. This work, presented at the ECNP Conference, is the largest study ever conducted on coping and the anxiety that arises from facing adverse circumstances, such as living in deprivation. This study opens the possibility that teaching women coping strategies may be a way of overcoming the anxiety that stems from facing adverse circumstances, such as living in deprivation.

    Lead researcher, Olivia Remes (University of Cambridge), explained, “Individuals with this sense of coherence, with good coping skills, view life as comprehensible and meaningful. In other words, they feel they can manage their life, and that they are in control of their life, they believe challenges encountered in life are worthy of investment and effort; and they believe that life has meaning and purpose. These are skills which can be taught.”

    The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, surveyed 10,000 women over the age of 40 who were taking part in a major cancer study in Norfolk, UK. They used health and lifestyle questionnaires to record information on living conditions, history of physical health and mental health problems, and linked that to 1991 census data to determine if the women were living in a deprived community. They also checked on each person’s sense of coherence using a questionnaire developed from Aaron Antonovsky’s groundbreaking work on how people find meaning and purpose in life. They found that 261 (2.6%) of the 10,000 women had Generalised Anxiety Disorder. Among women without coping skills, those living in a deprived area were about twice (98%) more likely to have anxiety than those living in more affluent communities. On the other hand, living in a deprived or affluent community made very little difference to the levels of anxiety experienced by women if they had good coping skills.

    Olivia Remes commented, “In general, people with good coping skills tend to have a higher quality of life and lower mortality rates than people without such coping skills. Good coping can be an important life resource for preserving health. For the first time, we show that good coping skills can buffer the negative impact of deprivation on mental health, such as having generalized anxiety disorder. And importantly, these skills, such as feeling like you’re in control of your life and finding purpose in life, can be taught.

    There is a huge number of people living in deprivation, and significant numbers have Generalised Anxiety Disorder. For the first time, we have been able to show that how you cope in life can impact the level of anxiety you are experiencing. Of course, more work needs to be done on this, but this points us in an important direction.

    Many people with anxiety are prescribed medication-and while it is useful in the short-term-it is less effective in the long run, is costly and can come with side effects. Researchers are therefore now turning to coping mechanisms as a way to lower anxiety. This is particularly important for those people who do not experience any improvement in their anxiety symptoms following commonly-prescribed therapies.”

    Commenting, Professor David Nutt (Ex-Chair of the ECNP, Imperial College, London) said, “These data suggest a trial of training in coping skills could be valuable for women lacking in them — such training needs to developed and then a study of its efficacy needs to be carried out.”


  3. Study suggests exclusion from school can trigger long-term psychiatric illness

    September 13, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Exeter press release:

    Excluding children from school may lead to long- term psychiatric problems and psychological distress, a study of thousands of children has shown.

    Research by the University of Exeter, published in the journal Psychological Medicine found that a new onset mental disorder may be a consequence of exclusion from school.

    The study, also found that — separately — poor mental health can lead to exclusion from school.

    Professor Tamsin Ford, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Exeter’s Medical School, warned that excluded children can develop a range of mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety as well as behavioural disturbance. The impact of excluding a child from school on their education and progress is often long term, and this work suggests that their mental health may also deteriorate.

    The study is the most rigorous study of the impact of exclusion from school among the general population so far and included a standardised assessment of children’s difficulties.

    Consistently poor behaviour in the classroom is the main reason for school exclusion, with many students, mainly of secondary school age, facing repeated dismissal from school. Relatively few pupils are expelled from school, but Professor Ford warned that even temporary exclusions can amplify psychological distress.

    Professor Ford, who practises as a child and adolescent psychiatrist as well as carrying out research, said identifying children who struggle in class could, if coupled with tailored support, prevent exclusion and improve their success at school, while exclusion might precipitate future mental disorder. These severe psychological difficulties are often persistent so could then require long-term clinical support by the NHS.

    Professor Ford said: “For children who really struggle at school, exclusion can be a relief as it removes then from an unbearable situation with the result that on their return to school they will behave even more badly to escape again. As such, it becomes an entirely counterproductive disciplinary tool as for these children it encourages the very behaviour that it intends to punish. By avoiding exclusion and finding other solutions to poor behaviour, schools can help children’s mental health in the future as well as their education.”

    Exclusion from school is commoner among boys, secondary school pupils, and those living in socio-economically deprived circumstances. Poor general health and learning disabilities, as well as having parents with mental illness, is also associated with exclusion.

    The analysis by a team led by Professor Ford of responses from over 5000 school-aged children, their parents and their teachers in the British Child and Adolescent Mental Health Surveys collected by the Office of National Statistics on behalf of the Department of Health found that children with learning difficulties and mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, ADHD and autism spectrum conditions were more likely to be excluded from the classroom.

    The research team found more children with mental disorder among those who had been excluded from school, when they followed up on their progress, than those who had not. The research team omitted children who had a previous mental disorder from this analysis.

    The researchers concluded there is a ‘bi-directional association’ between psychological distress and exclusion: children with psychological distress and mental-health problems are more likely to be excluded in the first place but exclusion predicted increased levels of psychological distress three years later.

    Claire Parker, a researcher at the University of Exeter Medical School, who carried out doctoral research on the project said:

    “Although an exclusion from school may only last for a day or two, the impact and repercussions for the child and parents are much wider. Exclusion often marks a turning point during an ongoing difficult time for the child, parent and those trying to support the child in school.”

    Most research into the impact of exclusion has so far involved the study of individuals’ experience and narratives from much smaller groups of people chosen because of their experience, which may not be so representative.

    This study included an analysis of detailed questionnaires filled in by children parents and teachers as well as an assessment of disorder by child psychiatrists, drawing on data from over 5000 children in two linked surveys to allow the researchers to compare their responses with students who had been excluded. This sample from the general population included over 200 children who had experienced at least one exclusion.

    The report concluded: “Support for children whose behaviour challenges school systems is important. Timely intervention may prevent exclusion from school as well as future psychopathology. A number of vulnerable children may face exclusion from school that might be avoided with suitable interventions.”

    Professor Ford added: “Given the established link between children’s behaviour, classroom climate and teachers’ mental health, burn out and self-efficacy, greater availability of timely support for children whose behaviour is challenging might also improve teachers’ productivity and school effectiveness”.


  4. Manipulating a single gene defines a new pathway to anxiety

    September 9, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Utah Health press release:

    Removing a single gene from the brains of mice and zebrafish causes these animals to become more anxious than normal. Researchers from University of Utah Health show that eliminating the gene encoding Lef1 disrupts the development of certain nerve cells in the hypothalamus that affect stress and anxiety. These results are the first implication that Lef1 functions in the hypothalamus to mediate behavior, knowledge that could prove useful for diagnosing and treating human brain disorders.

    “Anxiety is an essential behavior that is much more complex than we thought,” says first author Yuanyuan Xie, Ph.D., who led the research in collaboration with senior author Richard Dorsky, Ph.D., professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at U of U Health. Lef1 is a component of the Wnt signaling pathway, which has roles in animal development, physiology, and disease.

    “This work is making us think about how brain structures control behavior in a different way,” Xie says. The study appears in PLOS Biology on Aug. 24.

    Humans, mice, fish, and even flies exhibit anxiety, triggering behaviors that heighten awareness. Despite its reputation, the uneasy feeling can be a good thing: in the case of zebrafish causing them to freeze in their tracks so they can hide in plain sight from predators. But being anxious at inappropriate times is counterproductive and can be a sign of unnecessary stress, a characterization that holds true not only for fish but also for people.

    When Xie and Dorsky started their investigation, they had no reason to believe that Lef1 had a specific role in anxiety. Brains of fish missing the gene were relatively normal except there were cells missing from a region called the hypothalamus. This part of the brain controls many “hard-wired” behaviors such as sleep and feeding, as well as hormone release through the pituitary gland. “Before we did the experiments we had no idea that the neurons impacted by Lef1 would preferentially impact one type of behavior,” says Dorsky.

    Tallying the genes that were most perturbed by loss of Lef1 in this brain region revealed that over 20 were involved in mood disorders like depression and anxiety. The scientists then noticed that the fish had telltale signs consistent with these disorders. The animals were reluctant to explore their environment when placed into a new tank, preferred to remain immobile at the bottom. And they grew slowly, another condition often related to elevated stress.

    Different Paths to One Behavior

    Despite the fact that brain structure and complexity vary greatly from flies to humans, Lef1 appears to mediate anxiety across species. The new study shows that unexpectedly, the gene utilizes diverse mechanisms to get the job done.

    Similar to zebrafish, mice in which Lef1 had been removed from the hypothalamus showed signs of anxiety, including being smaller and a reluctance to explore. They also had fewer brain cells in the region where Lef1 is normally present. However, the missing cells make Pro-melanin concentrating hormone (Pmch), a brain signal that was not perturbed in zebrafish. By contrast, zebrafish and Drosophila fruit flies lacking their versions of Lef1 are missing cells that make Corticotropin releasing hormone binding protein (Crhbp), and these cells were unaffected in mice.

    These results suggested that Lef1 could regulate anxiety through two different nerve cell signals. Support for this scenario was unexpectedly found in humans, where expression of Crhbp and Pmch are extremely closely linked in the hypothalamus, indicating they may actually be present in the same cells and together act downstream of Lef1 to regulate behavior.

    “When you think about genes with a conserved function you think everything that gene does must be the same in all animals. But our study shows that that isn’t necessarily true,” says Dorsky.

    The observation could explain how a gene that specifies a particular behavior can adapt to accommodate changes in brain circuitry that happen over evolutionary time. “Our results suggest that during evolution, the brain can innovate different ways to get to the same outcome,” Dorsky explains.

    The findings highlight specific sets of genes and the brain cells they affect as being involved in regulating anxiety. Future work will focus on determining whether these pathways may define a subset of human behavioral and mood disorders.


  5. New light on link between gut bacteria and anxiety-like behaviours

    September 8, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Biomed Central press release:

    Research published in the open access journal Microbiome sheds new light on how gut bacteria may influence anxiety-like behaviors. Investigating the link between gut bacteria and biological molecules called microRNAs (miRNAs) in the brain; researchers at the APC Microbiome Institute at University College Cork, which is funded by Science Foundation Ireland, found that a significant number of miRNAs were changed in the brains of microbe-free mice. These mice are reared in a germ-free bubble and typically display abnormal anxiety, deficits in sociability and cognition, and increased depressive-like behaviors.

    Dr Gerard Clarke, the corresponding author said: “Gut microbes seem to influence miRNAs in the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. This is important because these miRNAs may affect physiological processes that are fundamental to the functioning of the central nervous system and in brain regions, such as the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, which are heavily implicated in anxiety and depression.”

    miRNAs are short sequences of nucleotides (the building blocks of DNA and RNA), which can act to control how genes are expressed. miRNA dysregulation or dysfunction is believed to be an underlying factor contributing to stress-related psychiatric disorders, neurodegenerative diseases and neurodevelopmental abnormalities. miRNA changes in the brain have been implicated in anxiety-like behaviors.

    Dr Clarke said: “It may be possible to modulate miRNAs in the brain for the treatment of psychiatric disorders but research in this area has faced several challenges, for example, finding safe and biologically stable compounds that are able to cross the blood-brain barrier and then act at the desired location in the brain. Our study suggests that some of the hurdles that stand in the way of exploiting the therapeutic potential of miRNAs could be cleared by instead targeting the gut microbiome.”

    The researchers found that levels of 103 miRNAs were different in the amygdala and 31 in the prefrontal cortex of mice reared without gut bacteria (GF mice) compared to conventional mice. Adding back the gut microbiome later in life normalized some of the changes to miRNAs in the brain.

    The findings suggest that a healthy microbiome is necessary for appropriate regulation of miRNAs in these brain regions. Previous research demonstrated that manipulation of the gut microbiome affects anxiety-like behaviors but this is the first time that the gut microbiome has been linked to miRNAs in both the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, according to the authors.

    The researchers used next-generation-sequencing (NGS) to find out which miRNAs were present in the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex of groups of 10-12 control mice with a normal gut microbiota, GF mice and ex-GF mice — which had been colonized with bacteria by housing them with the control mice — and adult rats whose normal microbiota had been depleted with antibiotics.

    They found that depleting the microbiota of adult rats with antibiotics impacted some miRNAs in the brain in a similar way to the GF mice. This suggests that even if a healthy microbiota is present in early life, subsequent changes in adulthood can impact miRNAs in the brain relevant to anxiety-like behaviors, according to the authors.

    The authors note that the exact mechanism by which the gut microbiota is able to influence the miRNAs in the brain remains unclear. Even though the study shows that effects of the microbiota on miRNAs are present in more than one species (mice and rats), further research into the possible connection between gut bacteria, miRNAs and anxiety-like behaviors is needed before the findings can be translated to a clinical setting.

    Dr Clarke said: “This is early stage research but the possibility of achieving the desired impact on miRNAs in specific brain regions by targeting the gut microbiota — for example by using psychobiotics — is an appealing prospect.”


  6. People with autism spectrum disorder show neural responses of anxiety on seeing social touch

    September 5, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Haifa press release:

    People with strong signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) show neural signs of anxiety when they see social touch and report unpleasant feelings about social touch by comparison to people with weak signs of ASD. This finding has emerged from a new study undertaken at the University of Haifa. “Until now, it was clear that many people with ASD dislike touch. This study enables us to understand that they actually experience touch in a similar way to anxiety,” explains Leehe Peled-Avron, a doctorate student in the Department of Psychology, who undertook the study.

    The autism spectrum is a developmental disorder characterized by difficulties in creating, understanding, and maintaining social relationships. Some 70-80 percent of people with ASD suffer from hypersensitivity or undersensitivity to neural stimulation through the various senses, including sight, touch, and taste. Some parents of children with ASD report that their children stiffen when touched, try to avoid touch, and prefer to be touched on their own terms. Until now, however, researchers did not understand exactly what causes this sensitivity, and above all — how people with ASD feel when they are exposed to touch.

    The present study, published in the journal Autism Research, was authored by Prof. Simone Shamay-Tsoory and doctorate student Leehe Peled-Avron from the Department of Psychology at the University of Haifa. The researchers sought to examine the differences in the neural response to social interaction, including human touch, between people with ASD and people without the disorder.

    Fifty-four participants were divided into two groups: one group of people with ASD who have a high level of social functioning, and one group without signs of ASD. The participants were shown 260 pictures in four categories: social touch between two people photographed in natural conditions, such as malls, parties, social events, and so forth; social interaction between the same people without touch; two everyday inanimate objects touching; and two inanimate objects not touching.

    The results of the study show that people with ASD reported unpleasant sensations when they watched social touch, compared to people without ASD. The examination of their brain waves showed that when they watched social interaction including touch, the neural signals in their brain were ones that we recognize as signals of someone in a state of anxiety. It was also found that these neural signals of anxiety increase the stronger the patterns of ASD. In other words, the higher a person is diagnosed on the autistic spectrum, the stronger their neural signals, possibly reflecting a greater level of anxiety at social touch. When the participants watched the same social interactions without touch, these signals were not present, showing that it was the element of touch that created the anxiety, and not the social interaction. “Similar neural signals to those we found have been reported in studies on phobias. If someone suffers from a specific trauma and we show them the traumatic object, the neural signals that result are identical to those we found in the study,” Peled-Avron explains.

    “The results of this study improve our understanding of people diagnosed with ASD. Social touch is an integral part of our lives, in both happy and sad events, and now we can understand why for some people on the autistic spectrum all these events arouse anxiety. As well as understanding them, this insight may be very helpful for therapists, who can offer therapy focusing on anxiety in a similar manner to therapy for phobias, whether by means of psychotherapy or medication,” the researchers concluded.


  7. Close friendships in high school predict improvements in mental health in young adulthood

    September 4, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Society for Research in Child Development press release:

    Adolescence is a time of social challenges and changing expectations. While relationships with peers may be important for youth at this time, do they also have implications over time? A new longitudinal study suggests that the types of peer relationships youth make in high school matter for mental health through young adulthood. The study, authored by researchers at the University of Virginia, is published in the journal Child Development.

    “Our research found that the quality of friendships during adolescence may directly predict aspects of long-term mental and emotional health,” according to Rachel K. Narr, PhD candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Virginia, who led the study. “High school students with higher-quality best friendships tended to improve in several aspects of mental health over time, while teens who were popular among their peers during high school may be more prone to social anxiety later in life.”

    The study looked at a community sample of 169 adolescents over 10 years, from the time they were age 15 to when they were 25. The youth were racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically diverse, with 58% Caucasian, 29% African American, and 8% of mixed race/ethnicity, and with median family income $40,000 to $59,999. Adolescents were assessed annually, answering questions about who their closest friends were, reporting on their friendships, and participating in interviews and assessments exploring such feelings as anxiety, social acceptance, self-worth, and symptoms of depression; teens’ close friends also reported on their friendships and were interviewed.

    High-quality friendships were defined as close friendships with a degree of attachment and support, and those that allow for intimate exchanges. Friendship quality was determined from reports by participants’ best friends at age 15. Popularity was defined as the number of peers in the teens’ grade who ranked them as someone they would like to spend time with, and was measured using nominations from all the teens.

    Researchers found that teens who prioritized close friendships at age 15 had lower social anxiety, an increased sense of self-worth, and fewer symptoms of depression by the time they reached age 25 than their peers. Conversely, teens who were broadly sought after in high school — that is, those who were popular among their peers — had higher levels of social anxiety as young adults.

    Neither having a strong best friendship nor being more popular predicted short-term changes in mental health, the researchers note. These differences only became apparent later and they appeared regardless of youth’s experiences in the interim.

    The study’s conclusion: Experiencing strong, intimate friendships during adolescence may help promote long-term mental health. The researchers suggest that this may be because positive experiences with friends help bolster positive feelings about oneself during a stage of life when personal identity is being developed. Also, close friendships may set adolescents on a trajectory to expect and therefore encourage supportive experiences in the future.

    The study also determined that there was a low relation between teens having high-quality friendships and being more sought after by their peers, suggesting that although some teens manage both popularity and close friendship well, and attract both due to similar characteristics, for the most part, these two types of social success are due to different personal attributes.

    “Our study affirms that forming strong close friendships is likely one of the most critical pieces of the teenage social experience,” explains Joseph Allen, Hugh P. Kelly Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia, who coauthored the study. “Being well-liked by a large group of people cannot take the place of forging deep, supportive friendships. And these experiences stay with us, over and above what happens later. As technology makes it increasingly easy to build a social network of superficial friends, focusing time and attention on cultivating close connections with a few individuals should be a priority.”


  8. Study examines eye patterns and anxiety in children

    September 1, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of California – Riverside press release:

    We spend a lot of time looking at the eyes of others for social cues — it helps us understand a person’s emotions, and make decisions about how to respond to them. We also know that adults avoid eye contact when anxious. But researchers have known far less about eye gazing patterns in children.

    According to new research by Kalina Michalska, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, we now know that anxious children tend to avoid making eye contact, and this has consequences for how they experience fear. The shorter and less frequently they look at the eyes of others, the more likely they are to be afraid of them, even when there may be no reason to be. Her study, “Anxiety Symptoms and Children’s Eye Gaze During Fear Learning,” was published in the journal The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

    “Looking at someone’s eyes helps us understand whether a person is feeling sad, angry, fearful, or surprised. As adults, we then make decisions about how to respond and what to do next. But, we know much less about eye patterns in children — so, understanding those patterns can help us learn more about the development of social learning,” Michalska said.

    Researchers addressed three main questions:

    1. Do children spend more time looking at the eyes of a face that’s paired with something threatening, but not expressing an emotion at that moment?

    2. Would children who were more anxious avoid looking at the eye region, similar to what has previously been observed in adults?

    3. Would avoiding eye contact affect how afraid children were of the face they saw?

    To examine these questions, Michalska and the team of researchers showed 82 children, 9 to 13 years old, images of two women’s faces on a computer screen. The computer was equipped with an eye tracking device that allowed them to measure where on the screen children were looking, and for how long. The participants were originally shown each of the two women a total of four times. Next, one of the images was paired with a loud scream and a fearful expression, and the other one was not. At the end, children saw both faces again without any sound or scream.

    “The question we were interested in was whether children would spend more time looking at the eyes of a face that was paired with a scream than the face that was not paired with a scream, during that second phase,” Michalska said.

    “We examined participants’ eye contact when the face was not expressing any emotions, to determine if children make more eye contact with someone who is associated with something bad or threatening, even when they are not expressing fear at that moment. We also looked at whether children’s anxiety scores were related to how long children made eye contact.”

    The following three conclusions can be drawn from the study:

    1. All children spent more time looking at the eyes of a face that was paired with the loud scream than the face that was not paired with the scream, suggesting they pay attention to potential threats even in the absence of outward cues.

    2. Children who were more anxious avoided eye contact during all three phases of the experiment, for both kinds of faces. This had consequences for how afraid they were of the faces.

    3. The more children avoided eye contact, the more afraid they were of the faces.

    The conclusions suggest that children spend more time looking at the eyes of a face when previously paired with something frightening suggesting they pay more attention to potentially threatening information as a way to learn more about the situation and plan what to do next.

    However, anxious children tend to avoid making eye contact, which leads to greater fear experience. Even though avoiding eye contact may reduce anxiety in the short term, the study finds that — over time — children may be missing out on important social information. This includes that a person may no longer be threatening or scary, and yet the child continues feeling fearful of that person.


  9. Adult brains produce new cells in previously undiscovered area

    August 31, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Queensland press release:

    A University of Queensland discovery may lead to new treatments for anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). UQ Queensland Brain Institute scientists have discovered that new brain cells are produced in the adult amygdala, a region of the brain important for processing emotional memories.

    Disrupted connections in the amygdala, an ancient part of the brain, are linked to anxiety disorders such as PTSD.

    Queensland Brain Institute director Professor Pankaj Sah said the research marked a major shift in understanding the brain’s ability to adapt and regenerate.

    “While it was previously known that new neurons are produced in the adult brain, excitingly this is the first time that new cells have been discovered in the amygdala,” Professor Sah said.

    “Our discovery has enormous implications for understanding the amygdala’s role in regulating fear and fearful memories.”

    Researcher Dr Dhanisha Jhaveri said the amygdala played a key role in fear learning — the process by which we associate a stimulus with a frightening event.

    “Fear learning leads to the classic flight or fight response — increased heart rate, dry mouth, sweaty palms — but the amygdala also plays a role in producing feelings of dread and despair, in the case of phobias or PTSD, for example,” Dr Jhaveri said.

    Finding ways of stimulating the production of new brain cells in the amygdala could give us new avenues for treating disorders of fear processing, which include anxiety, PTSD and depression.”

    Previously new brain cells in adults were only known to be produced in the hippocampus, a brain region important for spatial learning and memory.

    The discovery of that process, called neurogenesis, was made by Queensland Brain Institute founding director Professor Perry Bartlett, who was also involved in the latest research.

    “Professor Bartlett’s discovery overturned the belief at the time that the adult brain was fixed and unable to change,” Professor Sah said. “We have now found stem cells in the amygdala in adult mice, which suggests that neurogenesis occurs in both the hippocampus and the amygdala. “The discovery deepens our understanding of brain plasticity and provides the framework for understanding the functional contribution of new neurons in the amygdala,” Professor Sah said.

    The research, led by Professor Sah, Professor Bartlett and Dr Jhaveri, is published in Molecular Psychiatry.


  10. High-fat diet in pregnancy can cause mental health problems in offspring

    August 14, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Oregon Health & Science University press release:

    A high-fat diet not only creates health problems for expectant mothers, but new research in an animal model suggests it alters the development of the brain and endocrine system of their offspring and has a long-term impact on offspring behavior. The new study links an unhealthy diet during pregnancy to mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression in children.

    “Given the high level of dietary fat consumption and maternal obesity in developed nations, these findings have important implications for the mental health of future generations,” the researchers report.

    The research was published in the journal Frontiers in Endocrinology.

    The study, led by Elinor Sullivan, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Division of Neuroscience at Oregon National Primate Research Center at OHSU, tested the effect of a maternal high-fat diet on nonhuman primates, tightly controlling their diet in a way that would be impossible in a human population. The study revealed behavioral changes in the offspring associated with impaired development of the central serotonin system in the brain. Further, it showed that introducing a healthy diet to the offspring at an early age failed to reverse the effect.

    Previous observational studies in people correlated maternal obesity with a range of mental health and neurodevelopmental disorders in children. The new research demonstrates for the first time that a high-fat diet, increasingly common in the developed world, caused long-lasting mental health ramifications for the offspring of non-human primates.

    In the United States, 64 percent of women of reproductive age are overweight and 35 percent are obese. The new study suggests that the U.S. obesity epidemic may be imposing transgenerational effects.

    “It’s not about blaming the mother,” said Sullivan, senior author on the study. “It’s about educating pregnant women about the potential risks of a high-fat diet in pregnancy and empowering them and their families to make healthy choices by providing support. We also need to craft public policies that promote healthy lifestyles and diets.”

    Researchers grouped a total of 65 female Japanese macaques into two groups, one given a high-fat diet and one a control diet during pregnancy. They subsequently measured and compared anxiety-like behavior among 135 offspring and found that both males and females exposed to a high-fat diet during pregnancy exhibited greater incidence of anxiety compared with those in the control group. The scientists also examined physiological differences between the two groups, finding that exposure to a high-fat diet during gestation and early in development impaired the development of neurons containing serotonin, a neurotransmitter that’s critical in developing brains.

    The new findings suggest that diet is at least as important as genetic predisposition to neurodevelopmental disorders such as anxiety or depression, said an OHSU pediatric psychiatrist who was not involved in the research.

    “I think it’s quite dramatic,” said Joel Nigg, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, pediatrics, and behavioral neuroscience in the OHSU School of Medicine. “A lot of people are going to be astonished to see that the maternal diet has this big of an effect on the behavior of the offspring. We’ve always looked at the link between obesity and physical diseases like heart disease, but this is really the clearest demonstration that it’s also affecting the brain.”

    Sullivan and research assistant and first author Jacqueline Thompson said they believe the findings provide evidence that mobilizing public resources to provide healthy food and pre- and post-natal care to families of all socioeconomic classes could reduce mental health disorders in future generations.

    “My hope is that increased public awareness about the origins of neuropsychiatric disorders can improve our identification and management of these conditions, both at an individual and societal level,” Thompson said.