Current News in Mental Health

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New Digital Research Game Helps Demonstrate the Value of Compassion Training

Researchers from Switzerland and Germany have developed a new paradigm for assessing pro-social attitudes and actions in an interesting way.  The scientists have created a computer-based game that helps avoid many of the confounds that are present in typical economic-based social problem research.  The game, creatively dubbed "The Zurich Prosocial Game", allowed researchers to demonstrate the positive impact of compassion training.  Research participants underwent the Buddhist-inspired training, which directed them to focus on gradually more diffuse feelings and thoughts of compassion and caring for others during a six-hour training.  Their gameplay was compared to that of subjects who underwent memory training instead.  Compassion-trained people showed higher levels of altruism and cooperation.  Several pieces of good news here:  people can learn to be more compassionate with relatively little difficulty, and video games can help solve serious social science research challenges.

Kids' Exposure to Media Predicts Aggressive Behavior, with a Suprise Finding.

Recent longitudinal studies of agression in pre-school children show some clear and at times surprising findings.  J. Ostrov and his colleagues observed and followed pre-school children for two years with particular attention being paid to three types of aggressive behavior: Verbal aggression, Relational Aggression and Physical Aggression.  Gender effects were clear even in these young children, with boys being more likely to show physical aggression than girls and girls showing higher rates of relational aggression (ostracizing, spreading rumors) than boys.  The shocking finding, however, is that while consistent with conventional wisdome, the level of exposure to media classified as "violent" (Power Rangers, Transformers) was strongly associated with increased physical aggression, "educational" programming was also strongly associated with increases in relational aggression.  The general interpretation from the researchers is that much of the educational programming emphasized describing relational conflicts, as by showing a bullying interaction, but spent little time demonstrating the pro-social behaviors that were presumably intended to be the moral of the story.  Kids being kids, the youngsters appear to have modeled the aggressive behaviors while failing to model the more briefly-presented prosocial skills.  The takeaway from the research is primarily that less exposure to media is better, particularly for younger children.

Schizotypal Disturbances in the Personal Sense of Time are Associated with Specific Brain Activity

Researchers have recently discovered that there are specific patterns of brain activation associated with changes in one's subjective sense of time passing and in one's ability to accurately imagine one's self along a personal timeline. Disturbances in these functions are likely to be related to problems observed in individuals suffering from psychotic conditions in which time blurs and memories and experiences from long ago are experienced as being vividly entwined in current experience.

The Fascinating Power of Placebo

Harvard and NIH researchers have done a nice study on the placebo effect in treatment of patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome(IBS). Research participants in the treatment condition were given a placebo medication and told specifically "placebo pills made of an inert substance, like sugar pills, that have been shown in clinical studies to produce significant improvement in IBS symptoms through mind-body self-healing processes”.  Even though they were told of the placebo content, they showed marked, clinically significant improvement on measures of symptoms severity and general functioning in comparison to the control group.  The wording of the intervention condition is interesting.  While the researchers interpret this finding as indicating that the participants were fully aware of the placebo nature of the treatment, it seems possible that the inclusion of "mind-body healing" in the descriptions may have over-ridden the information identifying the placebo.  Still, this is a remarkable finding in a robust study and suggests that we are just beginning to understand the impact of our thoughts and beliefs on physical functioning and disease process.

Will This Do Anything to Move Autism Research Forward?
As many within the health sciences have suspected for years, Wakefield's research has been finally, completely debunked. Unfortunately, autism/PDD research as a whole has suffered dramatically. Families and health-care providers around the world now must contend with the burden placed upon them by Wakefield's venal dishonesty. Please read the full article, along with the supporting notes, so that you can understand the issues and respond to those who have unfortunately been conned by Wakefield and his co-conspirators.

Vitamin B Supplementation May Slow Brain Atrophy in Elderly

A study of 271 individuals over 70 years old who demonstrated mild cognitive impairment demonstrates that supplementation with B vitamins slowed brain atrophy over a period of two years.  Individuals in the treatment condition supplementation with B6 and B12.  168 patients underwent MRI scans after treatment to evaluate changes in brain tissue.  The scans showed that the supplemented patients' had an average atrophy of .76% per year, compared to 1.08% in the untreated individuals.  The results suggest new avenues of research and possible improvements in treatment for mild cognitive impairment in the elderly.

New Approach Uses Internet Searches to Evaluate Seasonal Effects in Depression

Using a novel strategy, researchers in Taiwan have found support for the hypothesis that depressive states are related to seasonal changes.  The investigators used cumulative search patterns for keywords related to depression between 2004 and 2009.  Their findings indicate a clear increase in searches for depression-related content that correspond to moving into the winter season.  Findings were consistent when searches in the Northern and Southern hemispheres were compared, with the Winter season showing higher depression-related searches in each hemisphere.  As the researchers clearly indicate in their discussion, these findings are only associative.  However, the research strategy is promising, particularly for issues related to large-scale population health issues.

Video Games, Visual Memory Formation and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

An interesting experimental approach based on memory theory and the process of developing PTSD was examined by these researchers.  They postulate that it should be possible to interfere with the transfer of traumatic visual memories by intentionally providing additional visual stimulation following stressful experiences.  Using an analog of PTSD, the scientists had participants play Tetris after viewing distressing video clips.  Experimental subjects played Tetris on a computer, while controls sat quietly.  Results suggest that performing the complex visual/spatial task reduced the frequency of intrusive "flashback"-like experiences in the days and weeks following the experiment.  While the study is clearly just exploratory, it does raise interesting possibilities for intervention.  Given the pervasive use of videogames by our current generation of warriors, it seems it should be easy to construct a more valid examination of this theory.

Method of Attempted Suicide Can Predict Likelihood of Later Completed Suicide

In a longitudinal study of suicide attempts and completions in Sweden, the methods of suicide attempts showed some significant trends for prediction. Individuals who attempted but failed to complete suicide initially through self-strangulation or hanging, use of firearm, jumping from a height or drowning themselves were much more likely to later complete suicide than those who used other methods. According to the authors "Aftercare for people who have attempted suicide is often based on estimates of suicidal intent. Other reports have suggested that psychiatric disorder should be considered in the evaluation of risk. Our findings strongly indicate that such assessments should also be guided by the method used as people who attempt suicide by hanging, drowning, shooting by firearm, or jumping from a height are at substantially higher risk for completed suicide in the short and long term. Furthermore, people who attempt suicide by highly lethal methods are likely to choose the same means at the final suicidal act."

Strains of Raising a Child with Disabilities Continue to Impact Parents in MidLife.
A study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison examined long-term mental health variables among parents in middle age. Parents of children with mental health problems or developmental disabilities show modest but notable differences in terms of life-satisfaction, positive emotion and experienced stress. The authors found that parents who were older at the time of the birth of their disabled child tended to fair better overall, probably due to the protective aspect of increased life experience. Parents who were employed were also notably less-stressed and less-depressed than comparable parents who did not work. Opportunity to become involved in outside activities and the self-esteem benefits of employment may be the important elements here. The study's results indicate a need for additional support for parents of disabled children even as these children grow to adulthood.

It may be true--You really need a mother's love to protect you from the harsh world.
A new long-term study suggests that infants who experience a close, physically supportive relationship with their mothers in the earliest months tend to suffer less from anxiety and other dysphoric mood problem. This might best be filed under the "Well, duh." category of research, but still nice to know that common sense has grounding in empirical evidence. The lead author is scientist Joanna Maselko, Ph.D., at Duke University Medical School, in Durham, North Carolina.

Information Technology Really Does Make Us Happier!
A new well-researched report from the U.K. strongly suggests that IT access and use can contribute significantly to one's sense of well-being. The evidence suggests that women, particularly women in less-developed nations, experience more positive feelings according to degree of access to information technology, such as cell phones and internet access than do those without access. The authors state "Put simply, people with IT access are more satisfied with life even when taking account of income and a sense of freedom and being in control. In fact, information technology’s role might be greater than even the statistical analysis implies as it is a major factor in explaining a greater sense of freedom and control. A plausible model, therefore, is that access to and usage of IT helps to promote and enable empowerment and autonomy which then increases well-being in a manner that could be represented by the following model: IT INCREASES the Sense of Freedom/Control which IMPROVES Well-being. "

Striking Evidence for Structural Changes in Brain Resulting from Learning
Timothy Keller and Marcel Just at Carnegie University have demonstrated that there are a number of significant structural changes in childrens' brains following intensive remedial reading training.  The children in the study showed increased efficiency of signal transmission within the white matter of the brain following 100 hours of intensive reading training over a six month period.  Changes in white matter functioning were highly correlated with measured improvements in reading skills in the children studied.  Keller has previously conducted research that examined the involvement of white matter in autistic conditions.

Early Intervention Proven to Improve Outcomes in Children with Autism

A new carefully controlled study suggests that structured interventions with children under two years of age can significantly improve social functioning, language development and general adaptive behavior.  The study followed 48 children aged 18 to 30 months for approximately five years and compared children and families using the Early Start Denver Model to a control group receiving standard community-based services over the same time period.  At the end of the study, children in the Denver model condition showed an average gain of 18 IQ points as compared to a 4 point gain among controls.  The program emphasized professional training of parents using Applied Behavioral Analysis techniques in concert with relationship-building active play. 

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