Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Choosing a holiday. What were you thinking about?

Psychologists have great fun these days - and one hopes learn something - by attempting to link particular parts of the brain with certain thought processes. Psychologists at University College, London, looked into the links between decision-making and a part of the brain called the caudate nucleus, which is associated with rewards. They asked people to rate and choose between a variety of different holidays while their brains were being scanned. Even when two holidays were rated as being equally good people's preferred option - and the one they eventually chose - caused more activity in the caudate nucleus. A 1956 experiment (before women's lib presumably) which asked women to choose between different household appliances found that after chosing the women rated their preferred option higher and the rejected one lower. Similarly, in the modern experiment after a choice had been made the preferred option caused even more activity in the caudate nucleus and the rejected one less.

You can find out more about this research at


Risk factors for postnatal depression

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in the U.S. have been looking at the risk factors for postnatal depression using a nationally-representative sample of children born in 2001. The study found that 19% of mothers who had had multiple births had moderate-severe depression symptoms nine months after the birth compared to 16% of mothers who had had single births. Mothers with a history of hospitalization due to mental-health problems or a history of alcohol or drug abuse were at increased risk as were black women. Mothers who were currently married, Hispanic or who were better off were less likely to suffer from postnatal depression. Only 27% of the women who had experienced depressive symptoms had talked to a mental health specialist or a health-care provider.

You can find out more about this research at


The importance of outsiders

Far from having a disruptive effect the presence of outsiders or people who don't fit in with the rest of the group can actually have a beneficial effect on productivity. Researchers at Brigham Young University in the U.S. conducted a traditional group problem-solving exercise but added a newcomer to the group after they had been working for five minutes. When the newcomer was a social outsider the teams were more likely to solve the problem successfully. The newcomers in the experiment didn't necessarily ask tougher questions, have more up-to-date information or argue their point of view better but when existing group members sided with them the 'insiders' felt obliged to justify their decision and this improved the quality of the debate. Although the groups where the newcomer was more familiar felt they had performed better they actually performed worse than the groups where the newcomer was more socially distinct.

You can find out more about this research at


Working memory and trigger fingers

Police officers with the ability to juggle a number of different tasks at once may be less likely to shoot unarmed people, according to research by psychologists at Georgia State University. Police officers taking part in the study took a test of their working memory capacity and were then shown a video of a policeman being shot. During the video their stress levels were measured by monitoring their heart rate and how much they were sweating. The officers were then shown pictures, for a fraction of a second, of people holding a gun or a harmless object like a mobile phone. They were given a choice of pressing either a 'shoot' or don't shoot' button. Among those officers who felt more stress when they watched the video of a policeman getting shot lower levels of working memory capacity - what we use when we try and do a number of things at once - increased the likelihood of shooting unarmed people.

You can find out more about this research at


Anorexia in the long term

Researchers from Gothenburg University have been following the progress of 102 people over 18 years, between 1985 and 2003. The participants in the study were in their teens; half had anorexia while the other half were unaffected by mental-health problems. Three of the women with anorexia at the start of the study were still suffering from it eighteen years later. 25% of the anorexic group were on disability benefit or had been signed off sick for six months due to an eating disorder or other mental-health problem in 2003. 39% had at least one other mental-health problem, of which the most common was obsessive-compulsive disorder. But none of the anorexic women had died and they had had the same number of children as the other group, despite the fact that anorexia has been linked to infertility.

You can find out more about this research at


Mobile phones, video games and school performance

Researchers at Michigan State University have been looking into the effects of mobile phone use and video games on children's academic performance. They followed 12-year-olds for three years asking them questions about how often they used mobiles and played computer games. They also measured the children's grades and visual-spatial skills and tested their maths and reading skills. They found that girls were more likely to use mobile phones while the boys were more likely to play computer games. There were no detrimental effects of mobile phone usage. Video games were strongly linked to poorer grades but playing video games did not seem to affect maths skills and actually improved visual-spatial skills which can be useful for science, technology, engineering and maths.

You can find out more about this research at


Eye-tracking, autism and attention

Researchers at Yale University in the U.S. have been using eye-tracking technology to look at the way autistic children see the world. The researchers used an animation technique in which points of light recreated the movement of real people. The children who were developing normally saw the lights as human figures but the children with autism missed out on these social cues and only paid attention when there was a link between a movement and a sound. Previous studies by the same researchers have shown that toddlers with autism pay more attention to mouths than eyes when people are talking to them.

You can find out more about this research at


Report finds ageism in mental-health services

A study of six local services by the U.K.'s Healthcare Commission has found ageism in mental-health services with a lack of appropriate provision for people over 65 and limited national information on the quality of specialist services for older people. The Commission found that out-of-hours and crisis services did not take referrals for people over 65, or with dementia. Older people had difficulty using substance-abuse services with much of the provision being aimed at younger men in environments that made them feel uncomfortable. The provision of psychological therapies was also poor in most of the services. In one, out of 1,300 referrals, only 49 were for people over 65.


Review finds community services still not complying with guidelines

A review of community mental health services by the U.K.'s Healthcare Commission has found that not all services are meeting Government guidelines. The study of services in 2007-8 found that only 54.7% of users had an out-of-hours contact. Only 59% of users received a copy of their care plan, despite the fact that this is a requirement under the 1999 National Service Framework for Mental Health. Only 45.2% of people with schizophrenia had been offered psychological therapy. Compared to the last survey there were marginal improvements in the proportion of service users who said they had enough of a say in their care and treatment and in decisions about their medication. There was also a big improvement in the proportion of people with schizophrenia receiving an assessment of their work status.

You can download a copy of the Healthcare Commission's report at


Cannabis and psychosis

Regularly smoking cannabis can lead otherwise healthy people to develop psychosis, according to a study of 92 people by researchers at the University of Granada in Spain. The study's participants were all between 18 and 65 and had all suffered from their first episode of psychosis. 57% of the participants said they smoked cannabis daily, or nearly every day. Two-thirds of the cannabis smokers who went on to develop pychosis had no pre-existing signs of abnormal neurological development: they had no family history of psychosis, they were not socially isolated and they had good muscle coordination. While the regular cannabis smokers developed psychosis without having any risk factors the rest of the participants (43%) who already had risk factors such as a family history of psychosis and poor social and academic adjustment did not require an environmental trigger before they developed the condition.

You can find out more about this research at


Monday, March 30, 2009

Olanzapine, aripiprazole and weight gain

Olanzapine is a drug used to treat schizophrenia. It has been associated with weight gain, insulin resistance, high cholesterol and diabetes. A study of 15 people with schizophrenia who were already taking olanzapine experimented with another drug called aripiprazole. Half the participants were given aripiprazole and half a placebo. After four weeks of aripiprazole treatment there were significant declines in weight and certain types of cholesterol. There were few side effects to adding the aripiprazole.

Henderson, David C. ... [et al] - Aripiprazole added to overweight and obese olanzapine-treated schizophrenia patients Journal of Clinical Pharmacology April 2009, 29(2), 165-169

Lithium and psoriasis

Psoriasis is a chronic, inflammatory skin disease that is estimated to affect between 0.6% and 4.8% of the population. Lithium - which is used to treat bipolar disorder - is often linked to psoriasis and a study by researchers from Switzerland (using data from the U.K.) of 73,404 people found that long-term lithium use was associated with a small rise in the risk of psoriasis. The use of atypical antipsychotics, mainly olanzapine, was associated with a reduced risk of the skin condition.

Brauchli, Yolanda B. ... [et al] - Lithium, antipsychotics, and risk of psoriasis Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology April 2009, 29(2), 134-140

Psychological factors and eating disorders

A lot of recent research has looked into the psychological factors which make people more likely to develop an eating disorder. Generally speaking people with anorexia are more likely to be perfectionist and behave in an obsessive-compulsive way whereas people with bulimia are more likely to be impulsive and to have difficulty managing their emotions. Researchers in Israel compared 60 people with anorexia to 109 people with bulimia assessing their obsessive-compulsiveness, impulsiveness, depression, anxiety and the severity of their eating disorders. The people with bulimia had significantly higher levels of impulsiveness and negative body image. Bulimia and negative body image were the main factors predicting impulsiveness. The two groups did not differ in levels of depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behaviour. Depression and anxiety were found to 'obscure the link betweeen anorexia and obsessive-compulsive behaviour.' A high body-mass index (BMI) was found to intensify the association between anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behaviour. The study concluded that impulsiveness and obsessive-compulsiveness were not mutually exclusive and could often be found among anorexic and bulimic patients.

Finzi-Dottan, Ricky and Zubery, Eynat - The role of depression and anxiety in impulsive and obsessive-compulsive behaviors among anorexic and bulimic patients Eating Disorders March-April 2009, 17(2), 162-182

Inhibition and fear in criminals and psychopaths

Research has shown that psychopaths are worse at recognising fear in other people. However, not all psychopaths are criminals and not all criminals are psychopaths. Portuguese researchers compared 22 criminal psychopaths, 16 non-criminal psychopaths, 11 criminal non-psychopaths and 13 people who were neither criminals or psychopaths. Participants were shown a series of faces and asked to press a button whenever they saw one expressing fear. The study found that the psychopaths, regardless of whether they had a criminal record, were much worse at detecting fear and telling it apart from other emotions. Both the criminal groups were more impulsive and less inhibited than the other participants.

Iria, Catarina and Barbosa, Fernandon - Perception of facial expressions of fear: comparative research with criminal and non-criminal psychopaths Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology February 2009, 20(1), 66-73

Shame and anger

Shame is one of the most painful emotions in Western culture and research has found that it is frequently followed by anger. Anger is thought to reduce shame in some people by making them feel more powerful. Shame may also lead to anger by making it more difficult for people to manage their emotions and think clearly. Most research into the links between shame and anger have been on undergraduates and other relatively well-off groups. Researchers from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) and Royal Holloway University, London looked into the relationship between shame and anger in 56 male young offenders and 60 male undergraduates. Despite higher levels of anger and depression the young offenders displayed significantly lower levels of shame than the undergraduates and while shame and anger were linked in the undergraduates there was no link between shame and anger in the young offenders.

Farmer, Elly and Andrews, Bernice - Shameless yet angry: shame and its relationship to anger in male young offenders and undergraduate controls Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology February 2009, 20(1), 48-65

Guest post - Is technology detrimental to our mental health by Sarah Scrafford

Is Technology Detrimental to Mental Health?

It’s as necessary today as the air we breathe; we’re inundated with technology, so much so that there’s no place left for the technophobes or technologically-challenged. And although we owe so much to the advances and developments that have been made in this field, there are times when they’re detrimental to the development of the human brain and our mental wellbeing.

Let’s take a look at the recent phenomenon that’s called social networking and the immense popularity of sites like Facebook and MySpace that allow you to make “friends” and stay connected with people you know (and don’t know). While it’s a great way to stay in touch and share your life with other people, research has shown that it tends to turn kids into cyber bullies. They’re also likely to give out too much information without knowing where to draw the safety line.

This is explained through recent research in the field of adolescent brain development – the brain is fully mature only when we’re in our mid-twenties. During adolescence, the brain is in a stage of development where we don’t yet have our reasoning powers and the ability to think about the consequences of our actions. Instead, our emotions like happiness, sadness, anger, fear and others run high because the areas in the brain that control them are more developed than the ones that determine cognitive abilities when we’re in our teens. And this is why we’re usually immature and liable to get into trouble when we’re adolescents.

Another study showcases the effect of video games, particularly the more violent ones, on teens and youngsters. It goes on to prove that this habit could have negative repercussions similar to those associated with the usage of illegal drugs and alcoholism. It also tends to affect their social acceptance, feelings of self-worth and the way they interact with and relate to their friends and family.

And then we hear of people who are so addicted to the Internet and their gadgets that they feel withdrawal symptoms like those that are felt when you’re dependent on drugs, alcohol and tobacco. They need to be online all the time, checking their email and social networks, playing games, chatting, or sending text messages and calling people on their mobile phones.

Mental health is an extremely important aspect of our overall wellbeing, and when we let technology, or the lack of it, affect the way we think and feel, we’re in big trouble. We need to come to terms with technology and use it wisely so that we’re not in any danger because of the way we leverage it. We also need to understand the negative consequences it could have on our overall mental wellbeing, and take the necessary steps to prevent such happenings. Then, and only then, will be able to realize the true value of this invaluable invention.


This article is contributed by Sarah Scrafford, who regularly writes on the topic of schools for radiography. She invites your questions, comments and freelancing job inquiries at her email address: sarah.scrafford25@gmail.com.

The above post is a personal view by Sarah Scrafford

Friday, March 27, 2009

The risky business of dope-driving

People who smoke cannabis and drive may be more likely to take risks and be involved in accidents even when they are not 'under the influence.' Researchers at the University of Montreal in Canada studied 83 men between the ages of 17 and 49. 30 of them admitted to smoking cannabis, of whom 80% said they had driven under the influence in the past year. The participants also took personality tests and a driving test in a simulator. People who had driven after taking cannabis scored higher for sensation-seeking and impulsivity on the personality tests and were more likely to have engaged in risky driving and to have road rage. 'Drug drivers' drove more riskily and were more likely to be involved in crashes in the simulator tests and were more likely to have drunk-driven as well.

You can find out more about this research at


Parenting programmes and reducing aggression

Aggressive behaviour in childhood can often lead on to bad behaviour in adolescence and adulthood. For most people aggression is most common during early childhood. It increases rapidly from one to three and then declines after that. If people carry on being aggressive after three that is a strong indication that they will behave badly later. There are a number of programmes aimed at reducing aggression in young children and these have been shown to improve parenting practices and reduce, or prevent, bad behaviour. Researchers from New York University looked into the links between one such parenting programme, parenting practices and aggression. They studied 92 families where one child had already been in trouble with the law and studied the effect of the Incredible Years Series programme on their younger siblings who were aged between 2 3/4 and 5 1/4. Half the families took part in the programme while the other half formed a control group. The intervention was found to have a significant effect over time in reducing aggression which increased in the control group. Improved parenting practices were found to be responsible for 40% of the improvement caused by the parenting programme. Harsh parenting, which increased aggression, and responsive parenting, which decreased it, were found to be most closely linked to aggression. Stimulating parenting (which decreased aggression) was less-closely, but still significantly linked to a reduction in aggression.

Brotman, Laurie Miller ... [et al] - An experimental test of parenting practices as a mediator of early childhood physical aggression Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry March 2009, 50(3), 235-245

CBT for anxiety in autistic youngsters

Anxiety disorders are common in children with autism and are associated with more difficulties in getting on with other people. The characteristics of autism can make conventional treatments difficult but several studies have suggested that cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) might be helpful. A study by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, looked at the effectiveness of the Building Confidence* CBT programme, modified for use with children with autism. They studied 36 children between the ages of seven and eleven, half of whom were treated with CBT and half of whom went onto a waiting list. After 16 sessions of CBT both groups were assessed by independent experts none of whom knew whether the participants had used CBT or not. 78.5% of the children receiving CBT were judged to have improved compared to only 8.7% on the waiting list. Those parents whose children had had CBT were more likely to say they had improved although the children themselves felt no different. The improvements observed by the independent evaluators were still there three months after the treatment had finished.

Wood, Jeffrey J. ... [et al] - Cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety in children with autism spectrum disorders: a randomized, controlled trial Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry March 2009, 50(3), 224-234

*The lead author of the study was also the author of the Building Confidence programme

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Feeling and reading

The sense of touch could play an important part in learning how to read, according to a study of 30 adults by researchers at the University of Grenoble, in France. The researchers presented the participants with 15 visual stimuli - based on Japanese characters - which were randomly linked to 15 different sounds, as though the participants were learning a made up language. The participants used two learning methods, one based on the traditional links between sight and sound and the other incorporating touch. Both methods were found to give the participants a better-than-random chance to match the symbols and sounds but performances when using touch as well as sight were much better. The researchers thought that touch played a role in cementing the links between sight and sound although the exact brain mechanisms behind this are yet to be found.

You can find out more about this research at


Naltrexone helps with smoking and drinking

Naltrexone is a drug used to treat people with alcohol problems. Alcohol and nicotine stimulate the same reward pathways in the brain and a study of 78 people by researchers at the University of Chicago has found that it can also help heavy social drinkers who smoke give up tobacco and cut down on their drinking. The participants in the study had a range of drinking behaviour from total abstinence to heavy social drinking; half of them were given naltrexone and half were given a placebo. The study found that 50mg of naltrexone daily, together with a nicotine patch and counselling, significantly decreased heavy drinking rates and the participants who drank the most were most likely to quit smoking as well.

You can find out more about this research at


One in five mental-health staff attacked

The U.K. Healthcare Commission has conducted its annual survey of violence against healthcare staff. The survey found that one in five mental-health Trust staff had been attacked in the last year - about the same level as the year before.

You can download the full text of the NHS staff survey, which also covers lots of other issues at


A Missed Opportunity

Courts in the U.K. can include a Mental Health Treatment Requirement (MHTR) in people's sentences when they give people a community punishment. However, according to a new report by the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health - A Missed Opportunity - few people have been given them, despite the fact that two-fifths of people on community sentences have mental-health problems. The report found that the purpose of MHTRs and to whom they could be given were not clear to magistrates, probation officers or court officials. There were long delays in the production of court psychiatric reports and widespread confusion about the implementation of MHTRs. The report called on the Government to issue clear guidance on the use of the MHTR, and on the courts to take an active role in identifying people who could benefit from them. It also called for local health services to make services available to support people given the requirement.

You can download the full text of the report at


Loneliness, old age and ill health

There has been a lot of research recently into the links between people's levels of social support and their physical and mental health. A study of nearly 3,000 adults, aged between 57 and 85 by researchers at Cornell University in the U.S. has found that people's perceptions of their social support may be just as important as their actual ties with friends and family. The study found that people's actual social connections were linked to their physical health but that their perceptions of social isolation were related to both their physical and their mental health. Feelings of loneliness and isolation can cause stress, low self-esteem and contribute towards depression all of which can affect people's health either by leading them into unhealthy habits or by directly affecting the body.

You can find out more about this research at


American Psychiatric Association tightens rules on drug links

The American Psychiatric Association has voted to end medical education, seminars and meals sponsored by drug companies at its annual meetings. The group, which has 38,000 members, is among the first to do so. The group's 2002 code already bans more costly gifts like trips to resorts and calls for companies that pay for medical education at conferences to leave the content to outside experts.

You can find out more about this story at


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Bulimia - not just a rich white girls' disease

The stereotypical perception of eating disorders is that they are more likely to affect middle-class white girls. However, a ten-year survey of more than 2,300 girls in schools in California, Ohio and Washington D.C. has found that this might not be the case after all. The study found that black girls were 50% more likely than white girls to exhibit bulimic behaviour. About 2.6% of black girls were clinically bulimic compared to 1.7% of white girls. On the scale designed to assess bulimia symptoms black girls scored an average of 17 points higher. Girls from families in the lowest income bracket were significantly more likely to experience bulimia than girls from wealthier backgrounds. Bulimia affected 1.5% of girls in households where at least one parent had a college degree but 3.3% of girls whose parents had a high-school degree or less. The authors of the study thought that girls from less well-off backgrounds were less likely to have medical insurance and be diagnosed with bulimia, meaning they were under-represented by previous studies.

You can find out more about this research at


Paying attention to brain waves

Nearly everyone has experience of drifting off and making a mistake now and again. The consequences can range from annoying in a chess game to serious in a motor car and catastrophic in air traffic control. Researchers at the University of California, Davis used magnetoencephalography (MEG) to measure people's brain waves and try to work out what happens when people drift off and lose their attention. They scanned 14 students as they completed a very monotonous task, pressing buttons in response to numbers for an hour. Just before the students made a mistake the researchers noted an increase in alpha wave activity at the back of the head and an increase in mu wave activity in the sensorimotor cortex - rhythyms that occur when the brain is idling in neutral. Once a mistake had been made changes in brain waves at the front of the brain damped down activity at the back of the brain in order to boost attention. This new technique of brain-wave measurement could have the potential to measure attention in children with Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) - or air-traffic controllers.

You can find out more about this research at


New agency for mental health in England

The National Institute for Mental Health in England (NIMHE) is to be replaced next week by the National Mental Health Development Unit. The unit will have a £7.7m budget over the 2009/10 financial year and will develop and publicise good practice for commissioners and frontline workers with the specific objectives of widening access to talking therapies and promoting mental health for everyone.

You can find out more about the National Mental Health Development Unit at


New report on women inpatients - still room for improvement

The Mental Health Act Commission has produced a report into the experiences of women detained under mental-health legislation. The Commission visited more than 2,000 wards and surveyed 6,000 patients in 2007/8. The most significant issue raised by the report was women's feelings of being unsafe, relating to the continued use of mixed-sex accomodation. Some women were fearful of physical and sexual violence and complained of sexual harassment, verbal intimidation and the use of inappropriate language. The chief executive of the Mental Health Act Commission, Gemma Pearce, said "Many services are providing very good care which is sensitive to issues of privacy and dignity, and ensures and promotes the safety of women (and men) at a time of vulnerability. But we also found services which are not meeting the particular needs of women, including basic assurances of their rights to safety, privacy and dignity."

You can download the full Mental Health Act Commission report at


Varenicline and heavy drinking

Varenicline (brand name Chantix), a drug aimed at helping smokers to give up could also be effective in helping heavy drinkers to cut down. Researchers at Yale University studied 20 smokers who were also heavy drinkers. Ten of them were given varenicline and ten were given a placebo. Those who were taking varenicline reported less cravings for alcohol and less of a 'high' following an initial drink given as part of the study. When offered the chance to drink more those people taking varenicline drank an average of less than one drink compared to the placebo group who drank two to three. 80% of those taking varenicline chose not to drink at all, compared to only 30% of the placebo group. However, this was a very small-scale trial so much more research is needed and varenicline has been linked to suicidal thoughts and behaviour in some users.

You can find out more about this research at


Stressed teenagers could be storing up heart trouble

The link between stress and an increased risk of heart disease could begin as early as people's teens, according to a study of 69 high-school seniors by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles. The participants in the study kept daily records for a fortnight of conflict with their families, harassment by their peers and reprimands by their teachers. The researchers found that the more stressful episodes the youngsters recorded the higher their levels of a substance called C-reactive protein were. High levels of C-reactive protein have been linked to increased cardiovascular risk in adults.

You can find out more about this research at


New report reveals true cost of Alzheimer's

The Alzheimer's Association in the U.S. has outlined the huge and growing burden caused by the condition in its latest annual report. It estimates that 5.3m Americans have Alzheimer's and that each patient costs, on average, three times as much as people without the disease. The report claims that Alzheimer's and other dementias cost the U.S. economy $148bn each year. The number of deaths from Alzheimer's rose by more than 47% between 2000 and 2006. The report also forecasts that the problem will get worse as the population ages with half a million new cases each year by 2010 and a million by 2050.

You can find out more about this report at


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Toxoplasmosis and schizophrenia

Several research studies have shown a link between toxoplasmosis - a minor disease cause by a parasite called toxoplasma which is chiefly, though not solely, carried by cats - and schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is also thought to be linked to high levels of a neurotransmitter (chemical signaller) called dopamine in the brain. Researchers at Leeds University have found that the parasite's genetic make-up includes an enzyme that aids in the production of dopamine. The author of the study, Dr. Glenn A. McConkey, said that it was still too early to suggest changes to the way that schizophrenia is treated but that it would be a good idea to screen people for the condition as part of their initial assessment.

You can find out more about this research at


Drinking, social support and heart disease

A nine-year study of 19,356 middle-aged Japanese men has found that moderate alcohol drinking (up to 299g a week or up to 30 units) can reduce people's risk of stroke and heart disease and that this effect is more pronounced among men with high levels of social support. Heavy drinking was associated with an increased risk of stroke and heart disease regardless of people's level of social support.

You can find out more about this research at


FDA approves Lexapro

The U.S. Food and Drugs Administration has approved the anti-depressant Lexapro to treat depression in children between 12 and 17 and as a 'maintenance' therapy to maintain control of symptoms in this age group.

You can find out more about the background to the licensing of this drug at


Depression and brain structure

Researchers often use brain scans to look into the links between brain structure and mental-health problems. One problem with this is that it is hard to tell what brain changes or differences give rise to mental-health problems and what changes in brain structure are caused, either by psychological troubles or by the drug treatments for them. Researchers from Columbia University scanned 131 people between the ages of six and 54. Some people had had no family history of depression and were unaffected by the condition; some people had a family history of depression but had not developed it themselves and were deemed to be 'at risk,' and other people were suffering from it. Those participants who were at risk of developing depression had a 28% thinning in the right cortex compared to those not at risk of depression, and those participants with depression had a thinning on both left and right cortices. The thinning was on a par with that of people suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Dr Bradley Peterson, the author of the study, thought that having a thinner right cortex might lead to a greater risk of depression by disrupting people's ability to decode and remember social and emotional cues from other people. The researchers also carried out memory and attention tasks on the participants and found that the less brain material a person had in their right cortex the worse their memory and attention was.

You can find out more about this research at


Monday, March 23, 2009

Getting personal to cut back student drinking

Despite a lot of advice to the contrary many college students continue to drink heavily and in a high-risk manner; something that can lead to physical, emotional, legal, academic and sexual problems. Most students greatly overestimate how much their peers drink and a lot of health promotion efforts have gone into correcting this misperception so that students do not feel obliged to keep up with their peers. This approach is said to be based on interpersonal factors. Other approaches focus on the students' perceptions about their own drinking behaviour and are said to be based on intrapersonal factors. Researchers from Pennsylvania State University studied 303 students asking them to complete questionnaires about their own drinking behaviour, their perception of other students' attitudes towards drinking, their perceptions of other students' drinking levels and their attitudes and perceptions about their own alcohol consumption. The study found that in terms of other people's drinking only the level of their closest friend's drinking significantly predicted alcohol consumption. However, three intrapersonal factors were linked to the students' levels of drinking: whether they had a favourable attitude towards drinking, whether they wanted to drink in order to get drunk and whether they thought they could drink a large amount without getting drunk. The authors of the study concluded that concentrating on these intrapersonal factors might be a more productive method of health promotion in the future.

Mallett, Kimberly A., Bachrach, Rachel L. and Turrisi, Rob - Examining the unique influence of interpersonal and intrapersonal drinking perceptions on alcohol consumption among college students Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs March 2009, 70(2), 178-185

ADHD, conduct disorder and drink problems

Longitudinal studies follow the same group of people over a very long time. By doing this researchers can see which factors earlier in life are linked to problems later. Danish researchers managed to track 110 people from birth to the age of 40 and looked into the links between attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorder in childhood, and the later development of drink problems. They found that people who scored above average for both ADHD and conduct disorder were six times more likely to develop alcohol dependence by the age of 40. Both ADHD and conduct disorder independently increased the risk of developing a drink problem even if children only scored highly for one of these factors.

Knop, Joachim ... [et al] - Childhood ADHD and conduct disorder as independent predictors of male alcohol dependence at age 40 Journal of studies on alcohol and drugs March 2009, 70(2), 169-177

Locked doors in inpatient units: a review of the evidence

Many acute inpatient psychiatric wards in the U.K. are kept permanently locked, despite the fact that this is contrary to the current Mental Health Act Code of Practice. Researchers from City University, London, reviewed 11 papers on the subject of door locking. They found that both service users and staff reported advantages of the practice including preventing illegal substances from entering and preventing service users from absconding and harming themselves or others. The disadvantages included making service users feel depressed and confined, and creating extra work for staff. Locked wards were associated with increased patient aggression, poorer satisfaction with treatment and more severe symptoms.

Van der Merwe, M. ... [et al] - Locked doors in acute inpatient psychiatry: a literature review Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing April 2009, 16(3), 293-299

Mental health and teeth

People with long-term mental-health problems often have worse teeth than the rest of the population. They go to the dentist less often and have more missing teeth than other people. Researchers from the University of Malmo, in Sweden, studied the dental health of 113 people who were receiving outpatient care for mental-health problems. They found higher frequencies of missing teeth in people who had been prescribed more than two antipsychotics. Poor oral hygiene was found in 41% of the participants and dental treatment of some kind was needed by 70%. 69% of the sample experienced a dry mouth which is a common side effect of antipsychotic drugs. Oral hygiene was found to be more neglected among men, and in people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

Persson, K. ... [et al] - Monitoring oral health and dental attendance in an outpatient psychiatric population Journal of Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing April 2009, 16(3), 263-271

Friday, March 20, 2009

Mental health of mothers on welfare

In the 1990s welfare-reform legislation in the U.S. imposed limits on the financial support given to low-income families with young children who were limited to five years' worth of support over the course of their lifetimes. More and more single mothers and their children are reaching the end of this period now and there are concerns about untreated mental-health needs and substance abuse problems among these people. Researchers from the University of Chicago surveyed 333 women who were in the final two years of their eligibility for welfare and found the following information

a)Over their lifetime
b)In the last twelve months

Mental-Health Problems
Substance-Abuse Problems
Mental-Health Problems and Substance-Abuse Problems

Only 21.7% of the sample who had had mental-health problems in the last year had received treatment and only 41.4% of the sample who had had substance-abuse problems in the last year had received help.

Cook, Judith A. ... [et al] - Prevalence of psychiatric and substance use disorders among single mothers nearing lifetime welfare eligibility limits Archives of General Psychiatry March 2009, 66(3), 249-258

Paranoia, pessimism and psychosis

Paranoid delusions are the most common type of delusion found in psychotic patients. They are found not only in people with schizophrenia, but also in people with bipolar disorder and major depression. Milder forms of paranoid thinking are also found in people without mental-health problems. A study of 237 people in London and North-West England looked into the factors that could lead to paranoid thinking. Participants in the study included people with schizophrenia, psychosis and major depression and 64 people without mental-health problems who formed a control group. The study found that paranoid delusions were associated with a combination of pessimistic thinking style (low self-esteem, a pessimistic way of explaining events and negative emotion) and impaired cognitive performance such as poor decision making, a tendency to jump to conclusions and an inability to reason about the mental state of others. Both factors independently increased the risk of paranoid delusions even after the other one was taken into account.

Bentall, Richard P. ... [et al] - The cognitive and affective structure of paranoid delusions Archives of General Psychiatry March 2009, 66(3), 236-247

Anxiety disorders and age

Anxiety disorders are estimated to affect as many as 28.8% of people in the U.S. over their lifetime but there is still much about the long-term course of anxiety disorders that is unknown and little information about how people with anxiety disorders get on as they move from middle- to old-age. Researchers at Brown Medical School in the U.S. followed 453 people with panic disorder, social phobia and generalized anxiety disorder over fourteen years. They found that for all the disorders severity decreased over time but that the decline was more strongly associated with age in panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.

Ramsawh, H. J. ... [et al] - Anxiety in middle adulthood: effects of age and time on the 14-year course of panic disorder, social phobia and generalized anxiety disorder Psychological Medicine April 2009, 39(4), 615-624

Depression and cognition

People with depression often have impaired cognitive function as well. They can have disturbances in concentration, memory, attention and decision-making. There is substantial evidence that these cognitive problems persist even after people's depression has improved. A study of 66 people by researchers in Germany looked into the links between depression and cognition. It found that people suffering from acute depression had problems with information processing, attention, memory and decision-making and that these problems remained in a high proportion of participants even after their depression symptoms had improved. Only decision-making improved as people's depression did. There were hardly any links between the severity of people's depression and their cognitive problems. The researchers concluded that the cognitive problems could be inherent to the participants rather than being a by-product of their depression.

Reppermund, S. ... [et al] - Cognitive impairment in unipolar depression is persistent and non-specific: further evidence for the final common pathway disorder hypothesis Psychological Medicine April 2009, 39(4), 603-614

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Weight limits and disordered eating

Having a higher body mass index (BMI) and starting puberty early are known to be risk factors for developing eating disorders. However, little is known about the effects of young girls' subjective beliefs about their weight and puberty. A survey of 136 girls, with an average age of 12, by researchers at Friedrich-Schiller University in Germany looked into the links between weight limits (weights which the girls said they would feel uncomfortable going above), the girls' perceptions of whether they were late or early starters and the development of disordered eating. The study found that there were significant correlations between disordered eating and weight limits which 48% of the girls had set themselves. 22% of the girls had unhealthily-low weight limits. Girls who saw themselves starting puberty either earlier or later than normal were also more likely to have disordered eating.

Berger, Uwe, Weitkamp, Katharina and Strauss, Bernhard - Weight limits, estimations of future BMI, subjective pubertal timing and physical apperance comparisons among adolescent girls as precursors of disturbed eating behaviour in a community sample European Eating Disorders Review March-April 2009, 17(2), 128-136

Pain and anxiety

People with anxiety problems often report physical pain as well. People with an anxiety problem are two to three times more likely to have a painful condition than others without an anxiety problem and among people with chronic back or neck pain the odds of having an anxiety disorder are also two to three times higher than for those without chronic pain. A study of 191 people by researchers in Pittsburgh measured:

  • the severity of people's anxiety
  • how much pain interfered with their daily life
  • their quality of life
  • how much they used health services
  • their employment status

at the start of the study and 2,4,8 and 12 months after starting treatment. Those people who reported that pain was interfering with their daily lives to a greater extent than other participants at the start of the study had more severe anxiety and missed more days at work. After 12 months high pain interference was associated with a lower likelihood of responding to anxiety treatment and higher use of health services.

Teh, Carrie Farmer ... [et al] - Pain interference impacts response to treatment for anxiety disorders Depression and Anxiety March 2009, 26(3), 222-228

Atomoxetine, ADHD and anxiety

Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is estimated to affect 4.4% of adults in the U.S. Adults with ADHD have more problems with work, family relationships and social interaction, are more likely to smoke and use drugs, and have a significantly lower quality of life. One study found that 29.3% of adults with ADHD also have social anxiety disorder making it the most common anxiety disorder in people with ADHD. The treatment of ADHD often involves stimulants such as Ritalin, but it is unclear how this would affect people who also have social anxiety disorder. Atomoxetine has been found to be effective in adults with ADHD, adults with ADHD and alcohol problems, and children and adolescents with ADHD and anxiety disorders. A team of researchers in the U.S. studied the effectiveness of atomoxetine for adults with ADHD and social anxiety in a study of 442 people. They found that, compared to a placebo, atomoxetine effectively improved the symptoms of both ADHD and social anxiety and was well tolerated by the participants.

Adler, Lenard A. ... [et al] - Atomoxetine treatment in adults with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and comorbid social anxiety disorder Depression and anxiety March 2009, 26(3), 212-221

Unravelling the neuroscience of worry

Worry is one of the main features of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a condition which affects 5.7% of the English-speaking population in the U.S. and which can have dramatic effects on people's relationships, work and well-being. Little is known about what goes on in the brains of people with GAD. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin compared 14 people with GAD to 12 healthy controls who were chosen to be as good a match as possible to the worriers. They showed them unpleasant pictures, which were preceded by a minus sign, and neutral images which were preceded by a circle. The participants with GAD showed greater activity in a part of their brain called the bilateral dorsal amygdala before both the unpleasant and the neutral pictures. The participants with GAD were given 8 weeks of treatment with venlafaxine after the initial experiment and the researchers found that those who had more activity in a region of the brain called the anteriour cingulate cortex, which is believed to play a part in resolving emotional conflict, did better than those who had less activity in this region.

Nitschke, Jack B. ... [et al] - Anticipatory activation in the amygdala and anterior cingulate in generalized anxiety disorder and prediction of treatment response American Journal of Psychiatry March 2009, 166(3), 302-310


Traumatic experiences can cause significant pyschological problems for large numbers of people. Not everyone is affected but it is estimated that 13% of people involved in car crashes and 19% of people who are victims of violent crime go on to suffer from acute stress disorder. Rates of acute post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is defined as PTSD symptoms for less than three months, vary from 23% of those involved in car crashes to 47% in rape victims. A third of people who develop acute PTSD go on to develop chronic PTSD, suffering symptoms for 6 years or longer. People have tried to develop interventions to prevent the development of chronic PTSD. One such intervention was psychological debriefing but this began to be questioned in the 1990s, little evidence was found for its effectiveness and many experts now advise against it. A review of 25 studies by researchers at Cardiff University found that trauma-focused cognitive-behaviour therapy (CBT) was more effective than doing nothing or supportive counselling for acute stress disorder and acute PTSD.

Roberts, Neil P. ... [et al] - Systematic review and meta-analysis of multiple-session early interventions following traumatic events American Journal of Psychiatry March 2009, 166(3), 293-301

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Expressive writing and PTSD

Psychologists often suggest people use expressive writing to come to terms with traumatic events. Researchers from Spain's equivalent of the Open University compared the expressive writing of 325 people living in the U.S., who wrote about the 9/11 attacks with 333 people living in Spain who wrote about the Madrid train attacks. The victims who benefited most from the writing used more introspective and causal words, used a higher number of positive emotional ones and changed the use of pronouns and references to themselves. The feelings about the two events were similar although the U.S. sample were more likely to take an individualistic approach whereas the Spanish sample concentrated on the collective marches protesting against the bombings. Although the writing made things worse over the short term as people relived the events, over the medium term people felt better and made less visits to the doctor. People who had watched a lot of news coverage about the attacks felt worse than people who watched less television.

You can find out more about this research at


Epilepsy and depression

People with epilepsy are almost twice as likely to suffer from depression, according to a study by researchers from the University of Toronto who used data from the 2000/2001 Canadian Community Health Survey. The survey found that 13% of people with epilepsy suffered from depression compared to only 7% of people who did not have epilepsy. Once other factors had been taken into account it was found that people with epilepsy were 43% more likely to suffer from depression. Among people with epilepsy those from ethnic minorities were seven times more likely to have depression than White people. Women, older people and those struggling to buy food were all more likely than other people with epilepsy to become depressed. The study also found that 40% of depressed people with epilepsy were not using mental-health services.

You can find out more about this research at


A rewarding study on ADHD

Researchers at the University of Washington have been using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to look at how the brains of adolescent boys with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorder (bad behaviour) work. They compared 19 boys with one or both of the disorders to 11 ones who were unaffected. The boys were asked to press a button when a light flashed in order to earn money. In certain parts of the trial the payouts stopped although the boys were told that they would start again in a bit. Both groups of boys performed equally well and both groups showed equal activity in a region of the brain called the striatum, which is associated with reward. In the unaffected boys, when the rewards stopped a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate became active damping down the link between pressing the button and the reward in a process psychologists call extinction. However, in the boys with ADHD and conduct disorder the anterior cingulate failed to become active and the striatum maintained its activity even when the payouts had stopped. Put more simply the boys with ADHD and conduct disorder's brains still expected to get a reward when none was on offer, something that might shed light on the higher levels of impulsivity, risk-taking and pleasure-seeking found in children with these conditions.

You can find out more about this research at


Myelin in mind

Brain cells are a bit like tadpoles. The main body of the cell has a long tail called an axon which carries signals from one cell to another. Axons are lined with a fatty substance called myelin which helps to conduct nerve signals; the thicker the myelin the better the conduction and the more quickly people are able to process information. Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles used a new type of brain scanner to look into the links between people's genes and the quality of their myelin covering in their brain. They scanned 23 pairs of identical twins (whose genes are exactly the same) and 23 pairs of non-identical twins, who share about half their genes. This enabled the researchers to assess to what extent the genes affected the myelin covering. They found that myelin quality was determined genetically in many important parts of the brain including those responsible for spatial reasoning, visual processing and logic.

You can find out more about this research at


Vitamin D and depression

Recent studies have suggested that there might be a link between people's levels of vitamin D, and depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Researchers from Warwick University studied 3,262 people aged between fifty and seventy from Beijing and Shanghai. They tested their levels of vitamin D and used questionnaires to measure their levels of depression. The study found that there was no clear association between vitamin D levels and depression symptoms.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Physical health and Alzheimer's disease

A number of studies have shown links between people's physical health and their chances of developing Alzheimer's disease. Researchers from Columbia University in the U.S. have been following people for ten years as part of a study into cognitive aging and dementia. They used data about 156 people diagnosed with Alzheimer's and followed their progress over the next few years. Because the researchers had followed people over a number of years they were able to see which people went downhill quickest after their diagnosis. They found that a history of diabetes and high cholesterol was associated with faster cognitive decline. Heart disease and stroke were associated with faster cognitive decline only in carriers of the APOE4 gene which has been implicated in late-onset Alzheimer's disease. Researchers at Columbia University have previously demonstrated links between stroke, diabetes, smoking and high blood pressure and a greater risk of Alzheimer's.

You can find out more about this research at


Music and learning: piano lessons and reading skills

Being taught music could improve people's reading skills according to research by psychologists at Long Island University, in the U.S. The study of 103 children in two primary schools compared 46 in one school who had already been learning the piano for a year and 57 in another school who did not have formal music lessons. Both the schools taught formal literacy programmes, were in the same area and had pupils from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. Both groups had their reading levels assessed at the beginning and end of the school year. The results at the end of the year showed that the music-learning group had a significantly better vocabulary and verbal-sequencing scores than the other group. However, the children learning music had already had two years of lessons before the study started so why were their reading skills not better than the other group then? The authors of the study thought that this might be because:

the tests were first taken after the long summer break and after a summer without music lessons the benefits had worn off for the children in this group

the children in the 'music' group had had two years of tuition; maybe three years are needed before it has any effect on reading skills

the study took place around the age of 7 so maybe there are specific developments in children's brains around this age which are influenced by learning music

You can find out more about this research at


Asian Americans' mental health

There are known to be large differences in the way in which ethnic minorities access, and are treated by, mental-health services. This is just as true of the U.S. as of the U.K. and Asian Americans - a group that includes Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indian, Filipino and Micronesian people - are no exception. Only 17% of Asian Americans with a mental illness seek some form of care and less than 6% of these people seek out a mental-health service. This could be for a number of different reasons:

  • They have different views about mental illness
  • They feel a stigma about using mental-health services
  • They have little faith in psychotherapy
  • They fear being institutionalized
  • They have a limited awareness of services
  • Services are culturally insensitive

A survey of data from New York City (where Asians make up 10% of the population) found that Asian Americans were more likely to be admitted as emergencies and to be diagnosed with schizophrenia or affective psychoses. Asians were 70% less likely to use inpatient services but stayed longer than non-Asian people when they did.

Shin, Jinah K. - Inpatient stays of Asian patients with psychiatric diagnoses in New York City Issues in Mental Health Nursing 30(2), 112-121

Brain shrinkage and Alzheimer's

Dutch researchers gave MRI scans to 142 people in an attempt to investigate some of the changes in the structure of the brain associated with Alzheimer's disease. They scanned 64 people with Alzheimer's disease, 44 people with mild cognitive impairment and 34 people with no memory or thinking problems once at the start of the study and again around a year and a half later. They measured the volume of the whole brain and of an area called the hippocampus and calculated the rate of shrinkage of the brain over the course of the study. Those people who were unaffected at the start of the study but who had smaller hippocampi and higher rates of brain shrinkage were two-four times as likely to develop dementia a year and a half later.

You can find out more about this research at


Fish really is brain food

Fish is often thought to be good brain food and a Swedish study by researchers at Goteborg University has found that it could be linked to higher intelligence in teenage boys. 4,792 teenage boys filled out detailed questionnaires on diet and lifestyle when they were fifteen and took IQ tests when they were eighteen. On average those who ate fish more than once a week had higher IQs than those who ate fish less than once a week. The difference remained even when parents' education levels and the family's socioeconomic status was taken into account. Other studies have found that children whose mothers ate fish during their pregnancy tend to have higher intelligence scores and that older people who eat fish have a lower risk of cognitive impairment. But the fact that fish can help adolescent's brains is particularly significant as this is a crucial period in the brain's development and a time when exam results can determine children's futures.

You can find out more about this research at


Detecting Alzheimer's early

Detecting Alzheimer's disease early is important as it allows people to be treated in the early stages of the disease when the chances for improvement are greatest. Some tests ask people questions aimed at assessing their mental state while others look for biological symptoms of the condition. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania looked at the levels of proteins in the spinal fluid of 410 people who were part of a large Alzheimer's study. They looked at the levels of two proteins: tau and the amyloid beta 42 polypeptide. They found that people with high levels of tau were more likely to develop Alzheimer's as the substance is released when nerve cells die. People with low levels of amyloid beta 42 were more likely to develop Alzheimer's as the protein accumulates and forms plaque in the brains of people with Alzheimer's. The test was 87% accurate at predicting which people with early memory problems and other symptoms of cognitive impairment would develop Alzheimer's

You can find out more about this research at


Monday, March 16, 2009

Do you have a drink problem? That is the question.

There are a number of questionnaires designed to see whether people have an alcohol problem. However, they are often made up of a number of questions, often do not cover the whole range of unhealthy alcohol use and can be time-consuming to administer. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in the U.S. has recommended a single question to assess people's drinking habits: "How many times in the past year have you had five (or four for women) drinks in a day?" The question has been found to be fairly accurate in identifying unhealthy alcohol use in primary-care patients.

You can find out more about this research at


Anger, hostility and heart disease

Anger and hostility (the wilful refusal to accept reality and insistence that one's point of view is right regardless of the evidence) have often been linked to coronary heart disease (CHD). Researchers at University College London reviewed the literature on this subject including 25 studies of initially healthy people and 18 studies of people with heart disease. They found that anger and hostility increased the risk of CHD in healthy individuals by 19% and increased the risk of further CHD 'incidents' by 24% in people who already had the condition. The strength of the link was greater in men than women but once smoking, physical activity, weight and socioeconomic status were taken into account the link was no longer significant. So, there could still be a biological link between hostility and anger and CHD but the link could also be because anger and hostility are more likely to make people behave in unhealthy ways.

You can find out more about this research at


A policeman's lot is not always a happy one ...

Researchers at Columbia University in the U.S. have been looking into work stress among policemen. A large sample of officers filled in a 132-question survey which looked at what the policemen found stressful, how they perceived work stress, how they coped with stress and what the consequences of stress were. Lack of organizational fairness and job dissatisfaction were most strongly correlated with perceived work stress. Policemen who said they were depressed were nearly 10 times as likely to report stress, while those who were anxious were six times more likely. People who reported aggression or interpersonal conflicts were twice as likely to say they were stressed at work. The officers who used avoidance as a coping strategy (ignoring or avoiding the problem instead of dealing with it) were more than 14 times as likely to report anxiety and more than nine times as likely to report burnout.

You can find out more about this research at


Hyperbaric therapy for autism

There is a long, and slightly dubious, history of 'cures' for autism. Scientists in the U.S. have been experimenting with hyperbaric therapy - inhaling up to 100% oxygen at greater-than-atmospheric pressure in a pressurized chamber. A study of 62 children, aged between 2 and 7, gave them either 40 hours of hyperbaric treatment at 1.3 atmospheres (1.3 times normal atmospheric pressure) with 24% oxygen or, as a control group, slightly-pressurized room air at 1.03 atmospheres and 21% oxygen. Children with autism in the treatment group had significant improvements in overall functioning, receptive language, social interaction and eye contact compared to the children in the control group. However, there will need to be many more trials on many more children to be sure that this treatment is not just another false dawn for the parents of children with autism.

You can find out more about this research at


Poll shows problems with youngster's mental-health services

4,842 young people with mental-health problems had to wait over 13 weeks for treatment last year, according to Government figures, and a poll for the mental-health charity YoungMinds has found that three-quarters of them were offered no help while they waited. The poll also found that doctors had not explained the side effects of medication to half of those prescribed drugs and that three quarters of young people did not know what to do if they were unhappy with their treatment.

You can find out more about the work of YoungMinds at


The Human Givens Approach

The Human Givens Approach works with the idea that humans are born with a body of knowledge, developed through evolution, that has become so familiar that it is not recognised as knowledge and simply taken for granted. The knowledge is made up of physical and emotional needs and the abilities to meet them. The approach tries to get people to recognise these 'givens' and give them extra abilities, through therapy, where they are needed. Therapists place a high value on relaxation in order for clients to think their way through a process and use breathing exercises to achieve this. Clients are set individual goals including communication skills, how to be assertive and dealing with depression. The approach also believes that it is important for people to have a social life within their community.

You can find out more about the Human Givens Approach at


The credit crunch and mental health

Men could be more prone to mental-health problems as a result of the recession, according to a study by researchers at Cambridge University. The study found that although more women had actually lost their jobs men who thought they could be fired or made redundant were likely to become more stressed and depressed than women. Men had fewer ways of defining themselves outside the workplace and felt their masculinity would be under threat if they lost their jobs. The study also found that when unemployed men moved into insecure jobs they showed no improvement in their psychological health whereas women doing the same did. The decline in mental wellbeing can be worse for people under threat of losing their jobs than for those actually made redundant.

You can find out more about this research at


Older adults may have greater drink-driving risk

Older adults may be more affected by light social drinking than they think, according to a study of 68 people by researchers at the University of Florida. The study compared 42 older adults to 26 younger ones and tested their visual motor skills 25 and 75 minutes after consuming alcohol equivalent to 1 or 2 drinks. Overall the older drinkers performed worse than the younger ones both at 25 minutes and at 75 minutes. After 25 minutes the older adults thought they were less affected than the younger ones although this was reversed after 75 minutes. The research has implications for drink driving as it is people's visual motor skills that they rely on when driving.

You can find out more about this research at


Teenage substance abuse: study finds U.S. services patchy

It is estimated that 1.4 million teenagers in the U.S. need help for substance abuse but previous research has found that only about a tenth of them get treatment. A review of services by researchers at the University of Kentucky found that there were few programmes that offered high-quality treatment designed specifically for adolescents. The review looked at 700 treatment programmes and found that less than a third had specialized services for teenagers with some excluding underage programmes altogether and others integrating them with adult patients. Few of the programmes scored highly on all aspects of quality but the 30% of programmes that included intensive inpatient or residential treatment tended to be of higher quality.

You can find out more about this research at


Brief feedback for alcohol problems

Brief personalized feedback for problem drinkers usually involves asking people about their alcohol consumption, telling them how much their peers drink and offering information on the risks of problem drinking and self-help measures. The feedback has the advantage that it can be offered over the Internet and by email or post without a therapist's guidance. Researchers in the Netherlands reviewed 14 studies into the effectiveness of brief personalized feedback covering a total of 3,682 people. Nine of the studies involved students, four involved members of the general adult population and one took place in the workplace. The review found that for every eight people who received the feedback one cut back on their drinking, a result similar to that when doctors or nurses saw patients. The feedback also had the advantage of being seen as less obtrusive and stigmatising and more convenient.

You can find out more about this research at


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Depression and heart disease

There is an increasing amount of evidence for a link between depression and heart disease. A study of 63,469 women by researchers at Columbia University Medical Centre asked them whether they had any symptoms of depression or used antidepressants. None of the women had any symptoms of heart disease at the start of the study but they were followed between 1992 and 2004 to see if they developed any problems. The study found that the women with the worst depression and those who were taking antidepressants were at higher risk of 'sudden cardiac death' (SCD) and 'fatal heart disease' and women with clinical depression were more than twice as likely to experience SCD. A significant part of the heightened risk was due to the fact that risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol and smoking were more common among the women with depression.

You can find out more about this research at


Popularity and prosperity

When Homer Simpson advised Bart that 'there's nothing more important in life than being popular,' he could have been on to something. Popularity at school could lead to prosperity later in life, according to a new study by researchers at the Institute for Social and Economic Research. They analysed data from a long-term study of people in Wisconsin who were asked, as children, to name their three best friends in their class at school. 35 years later the participants were asked about their earnings. Those children who received the most nominations were more likely to earn more as an adult. Each extra friend nomination was associated with a 2% higher wage and there was a 10% earnings difference between the bottom fifth and the top fifth of the popularity range. Early family environment and the type and size of school played a significant part in shaping friendship networks.

You can find out more about this research at


Bipolar by inheritance

Many mental-health problems have a strong hereditary element and bipolar disorder is one of them. A study of 1,015 people by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh compared the children of people with bipolar disorder to those whose parents were unaffected. The children of parents with bipolar disorder were 13 times more likely to develop the problem themselves and 5 times more likely to develop another mood disorder. Children of two parents with bipolar disorder were 3.6 times more likely to have bipolar themselves than children with one parent with the condition.

You can find out more about this research at


Aluminium and Alzheimer's

There are a large number of potential risk factors for Alzheimer's disease and one environmental factor that has been linked with a greater risk of the condition is aluminium. French researchers have been following a group of older people over 15 years to investigate the links between aluminium and silica in drinking water and the risk of cognitive decline, dementia and Alzheimer's disease. An intake of 0.1 mg of aluminium or more per day was linked to a 2.26x greater risk of dementia. However, silica, which is thought to either stop aluminium being absorbed by the body in the first place or to encourage its excretion, reduced the risk of dementia. For every 10mg per day intake of silica the risk of developing dementia dropped by 11%.

You can find out more about this research at


Trouble and strife and heart disease

Marital strife could be a risk factor for heart disease; but only for women. Researchers at the University of Utah studied more than 300 middle-aged couples all of whom had been married for 20 years or more. The couples answered questions about their relationship and mental state and had their waist, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood-sugar measured. Those women who experienced a high level of conflict and discord within their marriage had higher levels of depression, larger waists and higher blood pressure, cholesterol and blood-sugar. Men did not seem to be affected in these ways by marital discord.

You can find out more about this research at


Overtime? Just say no!

Many people work longer hours than the traditional nine-to-five, but could they be damaging their brainpower? A Finnish study of 2,214 middle-aged civil servants in the UK asked them to complete five standard tests of cognitive function at the beginning of the study, and again five years later. It found that people who worked 55 or more hours a week scored lower on a vocabulary test at the beginning and end of the study, and showed a greater decline in their problem-solving ability. The study took into account the kind of jobs the workers did, their education, and medical conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease. The employees who worked longer hours tended to have higher stress levels, slept less and drank more than those who worked fewer hours but even this did not fully account for their quicker rate of cognitive decline.

You can find out more about this research at


PTSD and suicide risk

A study of 1,698 young adults (average age 21) by researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, found that while 75% of them had been exposed to a traumatic event only 8% went on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 10% of those who had developed PTSD had attempted suicide, compared to only 2% of those who had been exposed to trauma but had not developed PTSD, and 5% of those who had never been exposed to trauma. After taking into account factors such as depression, alcohol and drug abuse the young adults who had developed PTSD had a 2.7x greater risk of making a suicide attempt. The researchers concluded that it was the development of PTSD not the trauma itself that led to the increase in suicide risk.


Optimism and mortality

Some people have a more optimistic view of life than others. A study of 100,000 older (over 50) women in the U.S. which has been following their progress since 1994 has found that those who view the world through rose-tinted spectacles are also likely to live longer. The optimistic women were 14% less likely to die of any cause and 30% less likely to die of heart disease within eight years. The optimists were also less likely to have high blood pressure, diabetes or to smoke. The researchers - from the University of Pittsburgh - also looked at a group of women who were highly mistrustful of other people. These women were 16% more likely to die over the course of the study and 23% more likely to die from cancer.

You can find out more about this research at


Fathers' age and childhood IQ

People in Western countries are increasingly having children later in life. For women having children at an older age can increase the risk of them having Down's syndrome but a number of studies are now suggesting that older fatherhood could carry risks too. Recent studies have linked older fatherhood to autism and schizophrenia and a study of 33,437 children born between 1959 and 1965 has suggested that it could result in a lower IQ as well. The study - carried out by researchers in Australia but based on data from children in the U.S. - tested the children's sensory discrimination, hand-eye coordination, reading, spelling and arithmetic at 8 months (presumably this was only their sensory discrimination and hand-eye coordination!), four and seven. The study found that the older the father the more likely the child was to have lower scores on the test. There was no link between mother's age and children's IQ. The researchers thought that this might be because while the older women were more likely to be able to provide a supportive environment for their children there could be a decline in the quality of men's sperm as they get older.

You can find out more about this research at


Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Power really can go to people's heads

We often speak about power going to people's heads and a series of experiments carried out by researchers at Stanford University, the London Business School and Northwestern University in the U.S. has shown that this might actually be true. In the experiments some of the participants were asked to recall an experience of holding power or assumed a position of power in a role-playing exercise while others were alloted a subordinate role. In each experiment power led to a perceived control over outcomes that were actually beyond the control of the participants. In one experiment participants were rewarded for predicting the outcome of the roll of a dice. All the participants in the 'power' group rolled the dice themselves compared to only 70% of the participants in the subordinate roles. Despite the fact that it made absolutely no difference who rolled the dice the participants in the 'power,' group had the illusion that they were able to control it.

You can find out more about this research at


Hostility and weight gain

Hostility* is a psychological concept that is different to - but that overlaps to some extent with - the everyday use of the word. Previous studies have linked hostility to heart disease, high blood pressure and a greater overall risk of death and new research has suggested that it is also linked to weight gain as well. A study, carried out by French researchers, of 6,484 men and women in the U.K. measured the participants' hostility at the start of the study and tracked their weight over the following 19 years. At the start of the study both men and women with higher hostility levels weighed more. The participants' weight rose over the course of the study but while the relationship between weight and hostility remained constant in women hostility was found to accelerate weight gain in men. This could be because hostile people might be less likely to follow healthy-eating and exercise advice or because they are more likely to be depressed which, in itself, can lead to weight gain.


*for a definition of the psychological term hostility see


New research on treating dual diagnosis

People who are addicted to drugs often have other mental-health problems as well, including depression and anxiety; something psychologists call dual diagnosis. Integrated psychological treatment aims to treat both drug addiction and other mental-health problems at the same time on the basis that people's anxiety and depression may contribute towards their drug problem. Dr Morten Hesse of the University of Aarhus in Copenhagen carried out a review of the research into the effectiveness of this approach. He found that in people who were depressed integrated psychological treatment produced a higher percentage of drug-free days, less depression and more patients sticking with their treatment. However, there was little backing for the integrated treatment of drug abuse and anxiety with some studies showing that it produced worse outcomes. This could be because some treatments for anxiety involve a gradual exposure to the things that make people stressed; an exposure that could lead to people taking drugs again if they have not completely recovered from their addiction. Dr Hesse recommended that the anxiety treatment should be deferred until people were further recovered from their drug addiction.

You can find out more about this research at


Impulsiveness and gambling: from the kindergarten to the casino

Being impulsive as a child is associated with a number of problems later in life including delinquency and dropping out of school and mental-health and addiction problems in adulthood and now a Canadian study of 163 children has suggested that it could also be linked to problem gambling. The children's nursery teachers were interviewed about their inattentiveness, distractibility and hyperactivity and then the children were followed up six years later and asked whether they played cards, bought lottery tickets or gambled with friends. An increase of one point on the scale used to measure impulsiveness in the children at nursery was linked to a 25% increase in gambling involvement by year 6. People who start gambling in adolescence are more likely to have severe gambling problems as adults.

You can find out more about this research at


Alcohol and depression

Longitudinal studies are studies in which large groups of people are tracked over a long period of time. One such study in New Zealand followed 1,055 children over 25 years and looked into the links between heavy drinking and depression. By the time the children had got to 17-18 19.4% of them were either abusing or dependent on alcohol and 18.2% were diagnosed with depression. People who fulfilled the criteria for alcohol abuse or dependency were nearly twice as likely to have depression as well, a relationship that held true even when other risk factors such as the use of cannabis and other illegal drugs, falling in with a bad lot (or 'affiliation with deviant peers,' in psychology-speak), unemployment and having a criminal partner were taken into account. The researchers thought the link could either be because alcohol triggers off a genetic weakness for depression or because alcohol itself is a depressant.

You can find out more about this research at


Schizophrenia: the case of the 49 genes

Scientists at Imperial College London have been comparing samples of brain tissue donated by people with and without schizophrenia. They analysed 51 samples altogether, 28 of which were from people with schizophrenia. The study found 49 genes that worked differently in people with schizophrenia, many of them involved in the chemical signalling between brain cells. The research suggests that abnormalities in the way in which cells signal each other are involved in the development of the condition.

You can find out more about this research at


Nice research if you can get it ...

Taking part in scientific research doesn't always involve giving blood samples or filling out questionnaires. 80 lucky students at Radboud University in Holland got to spend time watching films, sitting on the sofa and drinking beer, wine or soft drinks. They were taking part in a study into how watching films and adverts featuring alcohol affects people's drinking. Some watched a film with drinking in and commercials featuring alcohol while others watched non-alcoholic films and commercials. The students who saw alcohol on screen drank, on average, 1.5 more bottles of beer than the other group.

You can find out more about this research at


Tuesday, March 03, 2009

What do heroin addicts want and fear? The same as everyone else

Many current theories about drug addiction suggest that addicts are motivated to take drugs by a desire to experience the pleasure they get by taking them and a fear of experiencing the unpleasant withdrawal symptoms of stopping taking them. Several studies have found that the use of alcohol and other addictive drugs is increased when access to other pleasures is reduced and, conversely, when the availability of other pleasures is increased drug use declines. Other theories look at why people start taking drugs in the first place. One theory is that people's views about the rewards of various activities and the costs associated with them come from their families in their childhood and their peers during their adolescence when people are vulnerable to falling in with a bad lot. According to this theory drug addicts should have a very different view of the rewards and costs of different activities than other people. Researchers from the South Essex Parnership NHS Trust and Cambridge University examined this theory by comparing 104 heroin addicts with 104 members of the general public. Both groups were asked to rate 21 pleasurable activities and 22 damaging and disruptive conditions in order of importance. The drug addicts reported that they got more pleasure from children, friends, sex and a good meal than heroin and they rated heroin addiction as the second most damaging and disruptive condition after lung cancer. The rankings of both groups were highly comparable and the researchers concluded that the values and priorities of the heroin addicts were very similar to those of the general population.

Luty, J. and Lawrence, A. - Preferred activities of opiate dependent people Journal of Substance Use February 2009, 14(1), 61-69

Aggression, alcohol and expectancy

Aggression linked to alcohol is a big problem. Its causes can include the physical environment, who people are with and how drunk people are. One factor in people's psychological make-up that makes them more likely to become violent when drunk is what psychologists call their "alcohol-aggression outcome expectancy." Put simply, if people expect to become violent when they get drunk they are more likely to end up being violent. A study of 122 students by researchers at Nottingham University looked into the links between heavy drinking, people's natural propensity to become aggressive and their propensity to become aggressive when drunk - a measure which included their alcohol-aggression outcome expectancy. The study found that higher levels of drinking and higher innate aggression both significantly predicted a tendency to become violent when drunk but that innate aggression was the stronger predictor.

McMurran, Mary - The relationships between alcohol use, trait aggression, and the alcohol-aggression outcome expectancy in male students Journal of Substance Use February 2009, 14(1), 1-9

Monday, March 02, 2009

Childhood temperament and adult sick leave

Mental-health problems and 'medically-unexplained,' musculoskeletal problems (which can themselves be a symptom of mental distress) are the main reasons people are off sick from work. People's perception of their work environment has been linked to a tendency to take time off sick but objective measurement of the workplace does not show this link. In other words it is what people think about their work, rather than the work itself that makes them more or less likely to take time off work. A study of 7,183 people in Aberdeen looked at the links between people's temperament as children and how likely they were to be signed off work sick as adults. They found that the children whose teachers said they 'often complains of aches and pains,' or 'often appears miserable or unhappy,' were much more likely to be permanently sick or disabled as adults.

Henderson, Max, Hotopf, Matthew and Leon, David A. - Childhood temperament and long-term sickness absence in adult life British Journal of Psychiatry March 2009, 194(3), 220-223