1. Study suggests another gene that may significantly influence development of dementia and Alzheimer’s

    September 21, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Southern California press release:

    The notorious genetic marker of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, ApoE4, may not be a lone wolf.

    Researchers from USC and the University of Manchester have found that another gene, TOMM40, complicates the picture. Although ApoE4 plays a greater role in some types of aging-related memory ability, TOMM40 may pose an even greater risk for other types.

    TOMM40 and APOE genes are neighbors, adjacent to each other on chromosome 19, and they are sometimes used as proxies for one another in genetic studies. At times, scientific research has focused chiefly on one APOE variant, ApoE4, as the No. 1 suspect behind Alzheimer’s and dementia-related memory decline. The literature also considers the more common variant of APOE, ApoE3, neutral in risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

    USC researchers believe their new findings raise a significant research question: Has TOMM40 been misunderstood as a sidekick to ApoE4 when it is really a mastermind, particularly when ApoE3 is present?

    “Typically, ApoE4 has been considered the strongest known genetic risk factor for cognitive decline, memory decline, Alzheimer’s disease or dementia-related onset,” said T. Em Arpawong, the study’s lead author and a post-doctoral fellow in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences Department of Psychology. “Although prior studies have found some variants of this other gene TOMM40 may heighten the risk for Alzheimer’s disease, our study found that a TOMM40 variant was actually more influential than ApoE4 on the decline in immediate memory – the ability to hold onto new information.”

    Studies have shown that the influence of genes associated with memory and cognitive decline intensifies with age. That is why the scientists chose to examine immediate and delayed verbal test results over time in conjunction with genetic markers.

    “An example of immediate recall is someone tells you a series of directions to get somewhere and you’re able to repeat them back,” explained Carol A. Prescott, the paper’s senior author who is a professor of psychology at USC Dornsife College and professor of gerontology at the USC Davis School of Gerontology. “Delayed recall is being able to remember those directions a few minutes later, as you’re on your way.”

    The study was published in the journal PLOS ONE on Aug. 11.

    Prescott and Arpawong are among the more than 70 researchers at USC who are dedicated to the prevention, treatment and potential cure of Alzheimer’s disease. The memory-erasing illness is one of the greatest health challenges of the century, affecting 1 in 3 seniors and costing $236 billion a year in health care services. USC researchers across a range of disciplines are examining the health, societal and political effects and implications of the disease.

    In the past decade, the National Institute on Aging has nearly doubled its investment in USC research. The investments include an Alzheimer Disease Research Center.

    Tracking memory loss

    For the study, the team of researchers from USC and The University of Manchester utilized data from two surveys: the U.S. Health and Retirement Study and the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Both data sets are nationally representative samples and include results of verbal memory testing and genetic testing.

    The research team used verbal test results from the U.S. Health and Retirement Survey, collected from 1996 to 2012, which interviewed participants via phone every two years. The researchers utilized the verbal memory test scores of 20,650 participants, aged 50 and older who were tested repeatedly to study how their memory changed over time.

    To test immediate recall, an interviewer read a list of 10 nouns and then asked the participant to repeat the words back immediately. For delayed recall, the interviewer waited five minutes and then asked the participant to recall the list. Test scores ranged from 0 to 10.

    The average score for immediate recall was 5.7 words out of 10, and the delayed recall scoring average was 4.5 words out of 10. A large gap between the two sets of scores can signal the development of Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia.

    “There is usually a drop-off in scores between the immediate and the delayed recall tests,” Prescott said. “In evaluating memory decline, it is important to look at both types of memory and the difference between them. You would be more worried about a person who has scores of 10 and 5 than a person with scores of 6 and 4.”

    The first person is worrisome because five minutes after reciting the 10 words perfectly, he or she can recall only half of them, Prescott said. The other person wasn’t perfect on the immediate recall test, but five minutes later, was able to remember a greater proportion of words.

    To prevent bias in the study’s results, the researchers excluded participants who reported that they had received a likely diagnosis of dementia or a dementia-like condition, such as Alzheimer’s. They also focused on participants identified as primarily European in heritage to minimize population bias. Results were adjusted for age and sex.

    The researchers compared the U.S. data to the results of an independent replication sample of participants, age 50 and up, in the English Longitudinal Study of Aging from 2002 to 2012. Interviews and tests were conducted every two years.

    Genetic markers of dementia

    To investigate whether genes associated with immediate and delayed recall abilities, researchers utilized genetic data from 7,486 participants in the U.S. Health and Retirement Study and 6,898 participants in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing.

    The researchers examined the association between the immediate and delayed recall results with 1.2 million gene variations across the human genome. Only one, TOMM40, had a strong link to declines in immediate recall and level of delayed recall. ApoE4 also was linked but not as strongly.

    “Our findings indicate that TOMM40 plays a larger role, specifically, in the decline of verbal learning after age 60,” the scientists wrote. “Further, our analyses showed that there are unique effects of TOMM40 beyond ApoE4 effects on both the level of delayed recall prior to age 60 and decline in immediate recall after 60.”

    Unlike ApoE4, the ApoE3 variant is generally thought to have no influence on Alzheimer’s disease or memory decline. However, the team of scientists found that adults who had ApoE3 and a risk variant of TOMM40, were more likely to have lower memory scores. The finding suggests that TOMM40 affects memory – even when ApoE4 is not a factor.

    The team suggested that scientists should further examine the association between ApoE3 and TOMM40 variants and their combined influence on decline in different types of learning and memory.

    “Other studies may not have detected the effects of TOMM40,” Prescott said. “The results from this study provide more evidence that the causes of memory decline are even more complicated than we thought before, and they raise the question of how many findings in other studies have been attributed to ApoE4 that may be due to TOMM40 or a combination of TOMM40 and ApoE4.”


  2. New findings on brain functional connectivity may lend insights into mental disorders

    September 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Wolters Kluwer Health: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins press release:

    Ongoing advances in understanding the functional connections within the brain are producing exciting insights into how the brain circuits function together to support human behavior — and may lead to new discoveries in the development and treatment of psychiatric disorders, according to a review and update in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry. The journal is published by Wolters Kluwer.

    Advanced neuroimaging techniques provide a new basis for studying circuit-level abnormalities in psychiatric disorders, according to the special perspectives article by Deanna M. Barch, PhD, of Washington University in St. Louis. She writes, “These advances have provided the basis for recent efforts to develop a more complex understanding of the function of brain circuits in health and of their relationship to behavior — providing, in turn, a foundation for our understanding of how disruptions in such circuits contribute to the development of psychiatric disorders.”

    Functional Connectivity Data Point to New Understanding of Psychopathology

    In recent years, large-scale research projects including the Human Connectome Project (HCP) have focused on defining and mapping the functional connections of the brain. The result is an extensive body of new evidence on functional connectivity and its relationship to human behavior.

    In her article, Dr. Barch focuses on a technique called resting-state functional connectivity MRI (rsfcMRI), which measures how spontaneous fluctuations in blood oxygen level-dependent signals are coordinated across the brain. Analysis of rsfcMRI and other data in large numbers of subjects from the HCP will provide new insights into a wide range of psychiatric disorders, such as depression and anxiety, substance use, and cognitive impairment.

    Recent studies have found that spontaneous activity from networks of regions across the brain are highly correlated even at rest (that is, when the person is not performing a specifically targeted task). This “resting state” activity may consume around 20 percent of the body’s total energy — even though the brain is only two percent of total body mass, according to Dr. Barch. “Ongoing resting-state activity may provide a critical and rich source of disease-relate variability.”

    One key question is what constitutes the “regions” that make up the neural circuits of the brain. Recent rsfcMRI mapping studies have identified between 180 and 356 different brain regions, including many common regions that can be mapped across individuals. Future studies will look at whether these regions differ in shape, size, or location in people with psychiatric disorders — and whether these differences contribute to changes in the formation and function of brain circuits.

    Some brain networks identified by rsfcMRI may play important roles in the functions and processes commonly impaired in psychiatric disorders. These include networks involved in cognitive (thinking) function, attention to internal emotional states, and the “salience” of events in the environment. Many questions remain as to how these brain networks are related to behavior in general, and to psychiatric disorders in particular.

    Some researchers are using HCP data to study behavioral factors relevant to psychiatric issues, including cognitive function, mood, emotions, and substance use/abuse. Other studies are looking for rsfcMRI patterns related to individual differences in depression or anxiety, and their connections to various brain networks.

    Dr. Barch’s research focuses on brain networks affecting the relationship between cognitive function and “psychotic-like” experiences. She notes that work on individual differences in functional connectivity in the HCP dataset is just getting started — the full HCP dataset was made publicly available in the spring of 2017.

    “The hope is that these analyses will shed new light on how behavior of many different forms is related to functional brain connectivity, ultimately providing a new window for understanding psychopathology,” Dr. Barch writes. Continued studies of the relationships between brain circuitry and behavior might eventually lead to new therapeutic targets and new approaches to treatment monitoring and selection for patients with psychiatric disorders.


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

    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.”


  4. Study links mental health to retirement savings

    September 13, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Medica Research Institute press release:

    The question of how mental health status affects decisions regarding retirement savings is becoming a pressing issue in the United States. Key factors contributing to this issue include the tenuous state of the Social Security system, greater use of defined-contribution pension plans by employers, longer lifespans, and the rise of depression and other mental health issues in older Americans.

    In the latest edition of the journal Health Economics, researchers Vicki Bogan of Cornell University and Angela Fertig, research investigator at Medica Research Institute, find that mental health problems have a large and significant negative effect on retirement savings.

    “A growing number of households are dealing with mental health issues like depression and anxiety,” says Fertig. “Our project studies the effect that mental health issues have on retirement savings because we need to understand how health problems may affect the economic security of this growing population.”

    The researchers found that psychological distress is associated with:

    • up to a 62 percent lower probability of holding retirement accounts
    • $15,000 less held in retirement savings accounts by single households and $42,000 less held by married couples
    • up to a 47 percent higher probability that married couples withdraw from their retirement accounts

    The results are generally consistent across single and married households. However, the study found some evidence to indicate that singles with psychological distress may divert funds away from retirement accounts, while married individuals with psychological distress may withdraw more from their retirement accounts. The study did not find evidence indicating that psychological distress affects retirement savings behavior through financial literacy or cognitive limitations.

    The effect sizes found are large, suggesting that more employer management and government regulation of defined-contribution pension plans, IRAs, and Keogh retirement accounts may be warranted.

    “The magnitude of these effects underscores the importance of employer management policy and government regulation of these accounts to help ensure households have adequate retirement savings,” says Fertig. “Better understanding the link between mental health and retirement savings decisions could inform policy interventions that may encourage households to save sufficient funds for retirement through defined contribution plans and shape national changes to the defined contribution plan withdrawal penalties.”


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

    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”.


  6. Brain changes linked to physical, mental health in functional neurological disorder

    by Ashley

    From the Massachusetts General Hospital press release:

    An imaging study by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) investigators has identified differences in key brain structures of individuals whose physical or mental health has been most seriously impaired by a common but poorly understood condition called functional neurological disorder (FND). In their report published online in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, the research team describes reductions in the size of a portion of the insula in FND patients with the most severe physical symptoms and relative volume increases in the amygdala among those most affected by mental health symptoms.

    “The brain regions implicated in this structural neuroimaging study are areas involved in the integration of emotion processing, sensory-motor and cognitive functions, which may help us understand why patients with functional neurological disorder exhibit such a mix of symptoms,” says David Perez, MD, MMSc, of the MGH Departments of Neurology and Psychiatry, lead and corresponding author of the report. “While this is a treatable condition, many patients remain symptomatic for years, and the prognosis varies from patient to patient. Advancing our understanding the pathophysiology of FND is the first step in beginning to develop better treatments.”

    One of the most common conditions bringing patients to neurologists, FND involves a constellation of neurologic symptoms — including weakness, tremors, walking difficulties, convulsions, pain and fatigue — not explained by traditional neurologic diagnoses. This condition has also been called conversion disorder, reflecting one theory that patients were converting emotional distress into physical symptoms, but Perez notes that this now appears to be an oversimplified view of a complex neuropsychiatric condition. The research team hopes that advancing the neurobiological understanding of FND will increase awareness and decrease the stigma — including skepticism about the reality of patients’ symptoms — often associated with this condition.

    Previous functional MRI studies have suggested that a group of brain structures forming part of what is called the salience network — which are involved in detecting important bodily and environmental stimuli, as well as integrating emotional, cognitive and sensory-motor experiences — showed increased activity in FND patients during a variety of behavioral and emotion-processing tasks. The current study is one of the first to examine structural relationships between components of the salience network and the physical and mental health of patients with FND.

    The researchers compared whole-brain structural MRI scans of 26 FND patients with those of 27 healthy control participants, looking for associations between the size of salience-network structures and participants’ reports of their physical health, mental health and symptoms of anxiety and depression. While there were no whole-brain structural differences between FND patients and healthy controls, patients reporting the greatest levels of physical impairment were found to have decreased volume in the left anterior insula, while those reporting the greatest mental health impairments and highest anxiety levels had increased volume within the amygdala.

    “The association among FND patients between the severity of impairments in physical functioning and reduced left anterior insular volume is intriguing, given that the anterior insula has been implicated in self- and emotional awareness,” says Perez, who is a dual trained neurologist-psychiatrist and an assistant professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School.

    He adds, “Little attention has been given to FND to date, which is striking given its prevalence and the health care expenses driven by patients suffering with FND. I hope that advancing the neurobiological understanding of FND will help decrease the stigma often associated with this condition and increase public awareness of the unmet needs of this patient population.”


  7. One in five women with postpartum mood disorders keep quiet

    September 8, 2017 by Ashley

    From the North Carolina State University press release:

    A recent study from North Carolina State University finds that 21 percent of recent mothers experiencing postpartum mood disorders (PPMDs), such as anxiety and depression, do not disclose their symptoms to healthcare providers.

    “Our study finds that many women who would benefit from treatment are not receiving it, because they don’t tell anyone that they’re dealing with any challenges,” says Betty-Shannon Prevatt, a practicing clinical psychologist and Ph.D. student at NC State who was lead author of a paper on the work.

    “We know that 10-20 percent of women experience significant mood disorders after childbirth, and those disorders can adversely affect the physical and emotional well-being of both mothers and children,” Prevatt says. “Our goal with this study was to see how many women are not disclosing these problems, since that’s a threshold issue for helping women access treatment.”

    To address this question, researchers conducted an anonymous survey of 211 women who had given birth within the previous three years. The survey asked women whether they’d experienced PPMD symptoms; whether they had disclosed PPMD symptoms to healthcare providers — from doulas and lactation consultants to nurses and doctors; and a range of questions related to their mental health and obstacles to seeking care.

    Survey responses showed that 51 percent of study participants met the criteria for a PPMD. However, just more than one in five of those who experienced PPMDs did not disclose their problems to healthcare providers.

    “To place this in context, there are national guidelines in place telling healthcare providers to ask women about PPMD symptoms after childbirth,” says Sarah Desmarais, an associate professor of psychology at NC State and co-author of the paper. “With so many women in our study not disclosing PPMDs to their providers, it strongly suggests that a significant percentage of these women did not disclose their symptoms even when asked.”

    The study found that women experiencing the highest levels of stress, and women with the strongest social support networks, were most likely to report their PPMD symptoms to healthcare providers.

    The study did not identify any specific barriers to disclosing PPMD symptoms. However, the study did find that women who were unemployed, had a history of mental health problems or were experiencing severe symptoms were more likely to report barriers to treatment — though the specific barriers to treatment varied significantly.

    “This work highlights the importance of support networks and the need to normalize the wide variety of reactions women have after childbirth,” Prevatt says. “We need to make it OK for women to talk about their mental health, so that they can have better access to care. Working with the people around new mothers may be key.”

    “We don’t just need to teach women how to develop a birth plan, we need to teach them how to develop a social support plan,” Desmarais says.

    The researchers are currently recruiting participants for a follow-up study aimed at addressing similar questions in Spanish-language communities.


  8. People who ‘hear voices’ can detect hidden speech in unusual sounds

    September 4, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Durham University press release:

    People who hear voices that other people can’t hear may use unusual skills when their brains process new sounds, according to research led by Durham University and University College London (UCL).

    The study, published in the academic journal Brain, found that voice-hearers could detect disguised speech-like sounds more quickly and easily than people who had never had a voice-hearing experience.

    The findings suggest that voice-hearers have an enhanced tendency to detect meaningful speech patterns in ambiguous sounds.

    The researchers say this insight into the brain mechanisms of voice-hearers tells us more about how these experiences occur in voice-hearers without a mental health problem, and could ultimately help scientists and clinicians find more effective ways to help people who find their voices disturbing.

    The study involved people who regularly hear voices, also known as auditory verbal hallucinations, but do not have a mental health problem.

    Participants listened to a set of disguised speech sounds known as sine-wave speech while they were having an MRI brain scan. Usually these sounds can only be understood once people are either told to listen out for speech, or have been trained to decode the disguised sounds.

    Sine-wave speech is often described as sounding a bit like birdsong or alien-like noises. However, after training people can understand the simple sentences hidden underneath (such as “The boy ran down the path” or “The clown had a funny face”).

    In the experiment, many of the voice-hearers recognised the hidden speech before being told it was there, and on average they tended to notice it earlier than other participants who had no history of hearing voices.

    The brains of the voice-hearers automatically responded to sounds that contained hidden speech compared to sounds that were meaningless, in the regions of the brain linked to attention and monitoring skills.

    The small-scale study was conducted with 12 voice-hearers and 17 non voice-hearers. Nine out of 12 (75 per cent) voice-hearers reported hearing the hidden speech compared to eight out of 17 (47 per cent) non voice-hearers.

    Lead author Dr Ben Alderson-Day, Research Fellow from Durham University’s Hearing the Voice project, said: “These findings are a demonstration of what we can learn from people who hear voices that are not distressing or problematic.

    “It suggests that the brains of people who hear voices are particularly tuned to meaning in sounds, and shows how unusual experiences might be influenced by people’s individual perceptual and cognitive processes.”

    People who hear voices often have a diagnosis of a mental health condition such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. However, not all voice-hearers have a mental health problem.

    Research suggests that between five and 15 per cent of the general population have had an occasional experience of hearing voices, with as many as one per cent having more complex and regular voice-hearing experiences in the absence of any need for psychiatric care.

    Co-author Dr Cesar Lima from UCL’s Speech Communication Lab commented: “We did not tell the participants that the ambiguous sounds could contain speech before they were scanned, or ask them to try to understand the sounds. Nonetheless, these participants showed distinct neural responses to sounds containing disguised speech, as compared to sounds that were meaningless.

    “This was interesting to us because it suggests that their brains can automatically detect meaning in sounds that people typically struggle to understand unless they are trained.”

    The research is part of a collaboration between Durham University’s Hearing the Voice project, a large interdisciplinary study of voice-hearing funded by the Wellcome Trust, and UCL’s Speech Communication lab.

    Durham’s Hearing the Voice project aims to develop a better understanding of the experience of hearing a voice when no one is speaking. The researchers want to increase understanding of voice-hearing by examining it from different academic perspectives, working with clinicians and other mental health professionals, and listening to people who have heard voices themselves.

    In the long term, it is hoped that the research will inform mental health policy and improve therapeutic practice in cases where people find their voices distressing and clinical help is sought.

    Professor Charles Fernyhough, Director of Hearing the Voice at Durham University, said: ‘This study brings the expertise of UCL’s Speech Communication lab together with Durham’s Hearing the Voice project to explore what is a frequently troubling and widely misunderstood experience.”

    Professor Sophie Scott from UCL Speech Communication Lab added: “This is a really exciting demonstration of the ways that unusual experiences with voices can be linked to — and may have their basis in — everyday perceptual processes.”

    The study involved researchers from Durham University, University College London, University of Porto (Portugal), University of Westminster and University of Oxford.


  9. Mechanism identified for resilience in people with high risk of bipolar disorder

    September 3, 2017 by Ashley

    From The Mount Sinai Hospital / Mount Sinai School of Medicine press release:

    Researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai have identified a brain mechanism in siblings of bipolar patients that makes them resilient to bipolar disorder. The results suggest that the brain is able to adapt to the biological risk for bipolar disorder and open new avenues in pursuing further research to enhance resilience in those at risk and currently affected.

    The study will be published online on August 18th in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

    Bipolar disorder, a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks, affects approximately 5.7 million Americans age 18 and older every year. The disease tends to run in families: siblings of patients with bipolar disorder are 10 times more likely to develop the illness, compared with the general population. However, most people with a family history of bipolar disorder will not develop the illness.

    To identify what makes people at risk for bipolar disorder resilient, investigators examined functional magnetic resonance imaging scans from 78 patients with bipolar disorder, 64 of their unaffected siblings, and a control group of 41 nonrelatives who did not have the disorder. While the siblings showed genetic evidence of abnormal connectivity in brain regions involved in sensation and movement which has been linked to bipolar disease in other studies, they compensated by having hyper-connectivity in the default mode network (DMN) of the brain. This hyper-connectivity was absent in the group with bipolar disorder. The DMN is a network of interacting brain regions known to have activity highly correlated with each other and distinct from other networks in the brain.

    “Most of the risk factors for bipolar disorder, including genetic risk, early childhood adversity, and trauma, are not modifiable,” said the study’s senior author Sophia Frangou, MD, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “By contrast, this research shows that the brain can modify its connectivity to overcome biological adversity. This gives hope that we can harness this natural brain potential to develop preventive interventions.”

    Based on these results, the researchers are conducting a series of follow-up experiments to test whether it is possible to rewire at-risk patients’ brains by simple computerized tasks that enhance brain connectivity. Initial results suggest that simple interventions may restore the functional architecture of the brain and reduce the severity of symptoms in patients.


  10. Depression overshadows the past as well as the present

    August 30, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Portsmouth press release:

    Depressed people have a peculiar view of the past — rather than glorifying the ‘good old days’, they project their generally bleak outlook on to past events, according to new research.

    It is known depression makes sufferers see the present and the future as sad, but this is the first time research has shown it also casts a long shadow over people’s memories of the past.

    Psychologists at Germany’s Heinrich Heine Universität Düsseldorf and at the UK’s University of Portsmouth published their research in Clinical Psychological Science.

    It establishes the first clear link between depression and hindsight bias, or a distorted view of the past.

    Dr Hartmut Blank, in the University of Portsmouth’s Department of Psychology, is one of the authors.

    He said: “Depression is not only associated with a negative view of the world, the self and the future, but we now know with a negative view of the past.”

    Hindsight bias includes three core elements: exaggerated perceptions of foreseeability — we think we knew all along how events would turn out; inevitability — something ‘had’ to happen; and memory bias — misremembering what we once thought when we know the outcome of something.

    Hindsight bias has been studied in various settings, including sports events, political elections, medical diagnoses or bankers’ investment strategies. Until now, it hasn’t been used to study depression.

    Dr Blank said: “Everyone is susceptible to hindsight bias, but it takes on a very specific form in depression. While non-depressed people tend to show hindsight bias for positive events but not negative events, people with depression show the reverse pattern.

    “Making things worse, depressed people also see negative event outcomes as both foreseeable and inevitable — a toxic combination, reinforcing feelings of helplessness and lack of control that already characterise the experience of people with depression.

    “Everyone experiences disappointment and regret from time to time and doing so helps us adapt and grow and to make better decisions. But people with depression struggle to control negative feelings and hindsight bias appears to set up a cycle of misery.

    “We have shown hindsight bias in people who are depressed is a further burden on their shoulders, ‘helping’ to sustain the condition in terms of learning the wrong lessons from the past.”

    The researchers tested over 100 university students, about half of whom suffered from mild to severe depression. They were asked to imagine themselves in a variety of everyday scenarios with positive or negative outcomes (from different domains of everyday life, e.g. work, performance, family, leisure, social, romantic). For each scenario, the researchers then collected measures of hindsight bias (foreseeability, inevitability and distorted memory for initial expectations).

    The results showed that with increasing severity of depression, a specific hindsight bias pattern emerged — exaggerated foreseeability and inevitability of negative (but not positive) event outcomes, as well as a tendency to misremember initial expectations in line with negative outcomes. Characteristically, this ‘depressive hindsight bias’ was strongly related to clinical measures of depressive thinking, suggesting that it is part of a general negative worldview in depression.

    Dr Blank said: “This is only a first study to explore the crucial role of hindsight bias in depression; more work needs to be done in different experimental and real-life settings, and also using clinical samples, to further examine and establish the link between hindsight bias and depression.”