Thursday, July 30, 2009

Mothers' mental health - how does it affect their children?

Dr Belinda Lloyd from the University of Queensland has been looking into the links between mothers' mental health and their children's. She used data from the Mater-University Study of Pregnancy - a long-term study of more than 7,000 mothers and their children born at Brisbane's Mater Hospital between 1981 and 1983. Dr Lloyd found that children whose mothers experienced mental-health problems as their children went through adolescence were more likely to have behavioural and mental-health problems themselves. Children whose mothers had recurrent mental-health problems were also at greater risk of behavioural and psychological difficulties. However, the study found that antenatal and postnatal depression alone had no negative impact on children.

You can find out more about this research at

Learning and dopamine

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig and at University College London have been looking into the ways the brain 'rewards' itself for getting answers right. People who are rewarded for making correct decisions learn quickly. Previous research has shown that when a correct decision is made the brain's reward system is activated and a reward stimulus is sent back to the area of the brain responsible for making the decision. The researchers thought that the neurotransmitter dopamine played a part in this. In their experiment they attached electrodes to both index fingers of the participants. Two electric currents, each with a different frequency, were applied via the electrodes and the participants had to decide which current had the higher frequency. If they guessed right a monetary reward was flashed on a screen. The higher the reward that was displayed the more accurate the participants' guesses were. To look into the effects of dopamine on this process a third of the participants were given Levopoda (which increases dopamine), a third were given Haloperidol (which decreases it) and a third were given a placebo. The 'reward effect' was greatest in the group taking Levopoda and completely absent in the group taking Haloperidol. However, dopamine is implicated in psychosis and schizophrenia so for any dopamine-boosting learning drug the side effects might end up being worse than the original problem.

You can find out more about this research at

Teenage pregnancy and depression

Researchers from the Institute of Behavioural Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder looked into the psychology of teenage pregnancy. They used data from two large, long-term U.S. surveys that followed thousands of teenaged girls and women. The researchers measured psychological distress by asking the participants how often they found things bothersome that would not normally affect them; how easily they could shake off feeling down and whether they had trouble concentrating. They found that poverty and psychological distress were good predictors of teenage pregnancy i.e. they already existed before the girls became pregnant. Other studies have shown high levels of depression among teenage mothers but this is the first to show that they may be suffering psychologically before they become pregnant.

You can find out more about this research at

GPs not great at diagnosing depression

Researchers from the University of Leicester looked at how accurate GPs were at diagnosing depression. They combined the results of 41 studies in nine countries and found that GPs were only able to spot 50% of people with clinical depression. One in five people who did not have depression were told they had it. The researchers recommended that in cases where the diagnosis was not clear GPs make a second appointment for the patient.

You can find out more about this research at

Over-diagnosing bipolar disorder

A year ago researchers at Rhode Island Hospital and Brown University found that fewer than half of the patients previously diagnosed with bipolar disorder actually met the strict criteria for the condition. In a study of 700 patients 145 reported that they had previously been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. However, when they were assessed with the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-IV (SCID) it was found that only 43.4% could be diagnosed as bipolar. Over-diagnosing bipolar disorder can unnecessarily expose people to serious side effects affecting kidneys, hormones, livers, immune systems and metabolisms. A year later the researchers tried to give a more accurate diagnosis to the patients misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder. A quarter of them had borderline personality disorder while others had major depression, antisocial personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and eating and impulse disorders.

You can find out more about this research at

Antipsychotics, dementia and diabetes

An increasing number of older adults with dementia are being prescribed antipsychotic drugs to regulate their behaviour; something that has been linked with Parkinson's-like symptoms, stroke and diabetes. Researchers from the University of Toronto studied 13,817 people with diabetes who started treatment with antipsychotics between 2002 and 2006. 11% were hospitalized for hyperglycaemia (high blood sugar) over the course of the study. Those who were currently taking antipsychotics had a higher risk of hospitalization and the risk was highest among those who were just starting antipsychotic treatment. Some previous studies have suggested that the neurotransmitter dopamine has a role in regulating blood sugar so it could be the antipsychotic's effects on dopamine within the body that leads to the increased risk.

You can find out more about this research at

Alzheimer's: brains change before symptoms show

Researchers from Harvard Medical School have found that people's brains can start to go bad ways even before they have any symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. One of the main characteristics of Alzheimer's disease is the accumulation and deposition of clumps of damaging amyloid protein in the brain. Using brain scans the researchers found that a significant number of older people without dementia showed amyloid deposition and abnormal neural activity in important areas of the brain network thought to be involved in memory.

You can find out more about this research at

Confidence and comprehension

Teenagers who are overconfident about their reading abilities may actually have worse reading skills than those who are less sure of themselves. Researchers from the University of Buffalo in New York and the University of Alberta studied 160,000 children in 34 countries. They found that overconfident children were more likely to be below-average readers while underconfident ones were more likely to be above-average. This finding held true in all 34 countries and was particularly marked in more individualistic cultures such as the U.S. and Switzerland. The study found that the underconfident students were better able to accurately assess and evaluate their own reading levels; those who can accurately gauge their strengths and weaknesses are usually in a better position to identify realistic goals and to achieve them. In practice this might mean that an overconfident child choses a more difficult book and then abandons it while an underconfident one choses an easier one, finishes it and then moves on to the more difficult book later.

You can find out more about this research at

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Report finds murders up (but still rare) and suicides down

The latest annual report from the National Confidential Inquiry into Suicide and Homicide by people with mental illness has found that the number of murders by mentally-ill people rose between 1997 and 2005 but that less mentally-ill people killed themselves. The University of Manchester carries out the research for the report with funding from the National Patient Safety Agency. The study found that murders by mentally-ill people rose from 54 in 1997 to over 70 in 2004 and 2005. People with schizophrenia killed 25 people in 1997 and 46 in 2004. The risk of being killed by someone who has schizophrenia is still very small though - about 1 in 20,000. The number of inpatients killing themselves fell from 219 in 1997 to 141 in 2006, however, in the ten years up to 2006 there were 469 suicides by patients who had left a ward without permission. There was also an increase in the number of sudden unexplained deaths among inpatients - 338 in the eight years up to 2006.

Depressed people take a weight off their mind

New research has shown that losing weight might not only help depressed people become healthier it could also help improve their mood as well. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania compared people with and without depression as they followed a weight-loss programme including lifestyle modification and meal replacements. Both groups lost significant amounts of weight and improved their levels of blood sugar, insulin and cholesterol but the depressed participants also showed a significant improvement in their depressive symptoms.

You can find out more about this research at

Dreams, delusions and psychosis

Researchers at the European Science Foundation have been discussing the latest research on dreams. They looked into a phenomenon called lucid dreaming in which people are aware that they are dreaming. They found it creates distinct patterns of electrical activity in the brain similar to the patterns made by psychosis. In lucid dreaming the brain is said to be in a dissociated state having lost conscious control over mental processes such as logical thinking and emotional reaction - again something that also occurs in psychosis. People suffering from nightmares can sometimes be treated by training them to dream lucidly so that they can consciously wake up, something it is hoped could be applied to people with psychosis. Dreaming is thought to have emerged to enable early humans to rehearse responses to the many dangerous events they faced in real life and some researchers think that paranoid delusions might occur because of a replay of this "threat response rehearsal," during waking life. However, not all dreams are threatening and other scientists see them as part of a learning process consolidating information acquired during the day. This theory is supported by the fact that people often remember things better the day after they learnt them i.e. after a night's sleep, than shortly afterwards.

You can find out more about this research at

New blood test for Alzheimer's

Researchers from MP Biomedicals and the University of California, Los Angeles have moved a step closer to a blood test for Alzheimer's disease. Although there is no cure for the condition early diagnosis is considered crucial so that people can get drugs which slow the progress of the disease. The test relies on taking cells called monocytes from the bloodstream and measuring how well they are 'mopping up' a protein called amyloid beta that forms the plaques and tangles in the brain characteristic of Alzheimer's disease. The more amyloid beta the cells are mopping up the less chance people have of having Alzheimer's and vice versa. In a study including 18 Alzheimer's patients and 14 university professors the test proved 94% accurate in saying that the patients had the disease and 100% accurate in giving the professors a clean bill of health. The results were also found to give a positive diagnosis in 60% of a further group of participants with mild cognitive impairment which is often a precursor to full-blown Alzheimer's. The test was also accurate over time with the amyloid levels of the Alzheimer's patients declining as their condition worsened.

You can find out more about this research at

Darkness, depression and dimming brainpower

It is known that lack of sunlight can contribute to depression but new research suggests that it might also have an effect on brainpower - at least for people suffering from depression. Shia Kent from the University of Birmingham in Alabama used data from another study covering 14,474 people to look at the links between depression, cognitive power and sunlight. They found that among the participants with depression low exposure to sunlight was associated with a significantly higher probability of cognitive impairment as assessed by short-term recall and temporal orientation. As well as regulating the hormones serotonin and melatonin light has also been shown to affect the flow of blood to the brain, something that has been linked with cognitive functioning.

You can find out more about this research at

Foetal alcohol and behaviour problems

Foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) occur when children are exposed to large amounts of alcohol in the womb. The most severe type is fetal alcohol syndrome marked by stunted growth, facial deformity and serious nerve system and behavioural problems. Other children develop alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder where only nervous system and behavioural problems are present. Researchers at the University of Toronto studied 97 children. Some had FASD, others had ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and the rest formed an unaffected control group. The study found that the children with FASD had more trouble dealing with their own emotions as well as reading emotional and social cues from others; the children with ADHD had no problems in interpreting social cues. The findings go some way to explain the results of previous studies in which children with FASD were found to be more likely to cheat, lie and steal.

You can find out more about this research at

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Genetics and schizophrenia

Genetics is thought to account for around 80% of the risk for schizophrenia but a large number of genes are thought to be involved making it harder to build up a complete picture of the links between genes and the condition. Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine analyzed DNA data from three studies which included a total of 27,000 people, 8,000 of whom had schizophrenia. The study found that the largest genetic differences between people with and without schizophrenia were on chromosome number six - a chromosome that also contains a number of genes associated with the immune system.

You can find out more about this research at

Depression in pregnancy

Postnatal depression is a well-known mental-health problem but now research is highlighting the issue of depression in pregnancy. Researchers from the U.S. health company Kaiser Permanente and Duke University in North Carolina studied 791 pregnant women and found that 44% of them had some symptoms of depression, nearly half of which were severe. Those women with depressive symptoms had nearly twice the risk of a premature birth - something which is the number one cause of infant mortality. It is estimated that 500,000 pregnancies in the U.S. each year involve women who have psychiatric illnesses. Pregnant women are recommended to avoid paroxetine (Paxil) which may increase the risk of birth defects and SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) have also been linked to breathing and feeding problems.

You can find out more about this research at

Blood pressure, ACE inhibitors and Alzheimer's

High blood pressure is an important risk factor for Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia so it would make sense to think that medication for blood-pressure could also have a beneficial effect on dementia. Researchers at Wake Forest University School of Medicine looked into the effect of blood-pressure drugs called angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors (ACE inhibitors). Some are called centrally-acting because they can cross over from the bloodstream into the brain, where, it is thought, they reduce the inflammation that can contribute to the development of Alzheiemer's disease. The researchers studied 1,074 people who were free of dementia at the start of the study and who were being treated for hypertension. They found that the participants who took centrally-acting ACE inhibitors saw an average of 65% less cognitive decline per year of exposure compared to people taking other blood-pressure medication. However, non centrally-active ACE inhibitors were associated with an increased risk of dementia and people who took them were more likely to have difficulty perfoming daily activities. Participants who took these drugs for three years were at 73% greater risk of developing dementia.

Cancer and mental health

Long-term cancer survivors have nearly double the risk of developing a serious mental-health problem. Researchers from the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston compared 4,636 people who had had adult onset cancer at least five years earlier with 122,220 people who had never had cancer. 5.6% of the cancer survivors were suffering from serious psychological distress compared to only 3% of those who had never had cancer. After taking medical and social factors into account the researchers found that psychological distress was more likely in survivors who were younger, unmarried, less well-educated, poorer, had other diseases as well as cancer, and who had difficulty in coping with basic tasks such as dressing themselves. A quarter of people who were under 45 at diagnosis and who had other health problems had serious psychological distress.

You can find more about this research at

Autism and bowel problems - Part 2

Another medical study has found no link between autism and bowel problems. The study of 363 children by researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester found that those with autism were no more or less likely than other children to have gastrointestinal problems such as Crohn's disease. The autistic children did have higher rates of constipation (34% vs 18%) than the other children and were more likely to have feeding issues (25% vs 16%) although this could be due to autistic children wanting to stick to a familiar (and not necessarily fibre-filled) range of food, rather than for any biological reasons.

You can find out more about this research at

Men, women and mental-health in the community

Over the past 20 years people have become much more aware of the different ways in which men and women are affected by mental illness, how they respond to stress, the kind of symptoms they have, the course of their illness, how they respond to treatment and how they access and use mental-health services. Women are twice as likely to have a mood disorder and are more likely to suffer depressive episodes; men with schizophrenia are more likely to commit suicide and tend to stay in psychiatric hospitals longer and women are at greater risk for secondary health problems like sexually transmitted diseases. However, there is a limited amount of information about how mentally-ill men and women fare in the community. Researchers from the University of Western Ontario in Canada studied 887 service users over five years. They found that more women than men were housed and in a relationship. Men tended to have less social support and were more likely to be taking drugs.

Forchuk, Cheryl ... [et al] - Exploring differences between community-based women and men with a history of mental illness Issues in Mental Health Nursing 30(8), 495-502

Recovery and medication

Recovery from serious mental illness has been described not as a "cure," but as a way of living a satisfying, hopeful, contributing life despite ongoing psychiatric disability or symptoms. Medication is an important issue for people as they think about recovery yet the relationship between the two has not been discussed that much. Researchers from the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Montreal discussed this issue with 60 service users. For them recovery meant:

  • Finding a medication that works
  • Taking medication in combination with services and supports
  • Complying with medication
  • Having a say about medication
  • Living without medication

The service users wanted to be able to communicate their concerns around medication, be supported in developing self-management strategies and have more collaborative relationships with service providers.

Piat, Myra, Sabetti, Judith and Bloom, David - The importance of medication in consumer definitions of recovery from serious mental illness: a qualitative study Issues in Mental Health Nursing 30(8), 482-490

Monday, July 27, 2009

You don't have to be a celebrity to get your own brain cell

A whole range of different perceptions can remind us of the same concept. The smell of newly-cut grass, the sound of an ice-cream van and the sight of sunshine can, for instance, all remind us of summer. Researchers from the University of Leicester, the University of California, Los Angeles and the California Institute of Technology looked into the processing of visual and auditory stimuli relating to three well-known people - Oprah Winfrey, Luke Skywalker and the footballer Diego Maradona. They found that whatever the nature of the stimulus - pictures, the name being spoken out loud or the written name itself - the auditory and visual pathways used to process them all converged to fire the same, single neuron in a part of the brain called the hippocampus; a neuron, which, in effect, carried the brain's conception of the celebrity. One of the researchers carrying out the study even found his picture and name led to a single neuron despite the fact that the participants had only met him a few days previously. Which just goes to show, you don't have to be a celebrity to get your own brain cell.

Reading, values and brain waves

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen and from the universities of Amsterdam and Utrecht (all in the Netherlands) have been looking into the links between neuroscience and the way in which people's beliefs, and the process of reading, interact. In their experiment two groups of participants with very different belief systems read out statements such as "I find euthanasia an acceptable..." before stating whether they agreed or disagreed with it. As they read out the sentences their brains' responses were measured by EEG (electroencephalography). Even before they reached the part where they had to say whether they agreed with the sentence or not sentences that the participants strongly disagreed with produced two characteristic brain waves. The first, known as the LPP (late positive potential) effect signifies an emotional response and the second, known as the N400 effect is a well-known brain response to an unlikely or impossible meaning e.g. 'I carried the aircraft carrier.' No such brain waves were observed in people who agreed with the statement they were reading out. The responses to the statements were much quicker than the researchers were expecting, occuring within a fifth of a second.

You can find out more about this research at

Mastering multi-tasking

Multitasking is the useful ability to do more than one thing at once. Researchers at Vanderbilt University in Tennesee used functional magnetic resonance imaging (FRI) to look into what goes on in our brains while we multitask. They trained seven people daily for two weeks on two different tasks. In one task they had to respond with their fingers to different images and in another they had to say a syllable in response to sounds. The participants did the tasks, either seperately or together (the tasks not the participants), and were scanned while they were doing them. The study found that over the course of the two weeks, the participants became very efficient multitaskers, something due to information being processed more quickly and efficiently through the prefrontal cortex. The participants did not truly multitask; rather they became so quick at carrying out each individual task that it seemed as though they were doing both at once.

You can find out more about this research at

Tracking happiness in the blogosphere

Researchers from the University of Vermont have been analyzing people's blogs in an attempt to measure levels of happiness over time. They have developed a web site - - that combs through people's blogs analyzing sentences beginning with "I feel," or "I am feeling." Based on previous research words are assigned a score ranging from 1 to 9 with 9 being positive and 1 negative. Although the system is not accurate enough to measure individual's levels of happiness it can track changes over time and differences between age-groups and places. The election of Barack Obama led to a big increase in happiness, mostly based on the use of the word 'proud,' whereas there was a big downturn in the mood of the blogosphere after Michael Jackson's death. September 10th and 11th are also associated with a wave of negative mood each year as people remember the events of September 11th, 2001. Teenagers are the most unhappy bloggers with people generally getting happier as they get older until levels of happiness drop off slightly with old age.

You can find out more about this research at

Antidepressants for insomnia

It is estimated that between 50-70 million Americans suffer from either chronic sleep loss or a diagnosable sleep disorder with 10% of the population reporting not getting enough sleep to function effectively within any given month. Sleep hypnotics and benzodiazepines are the usual drugs for treating sleep problems but can have the potential to cause addiction and worse insomnia when they are withdrawn. Antidepressants can also be used to treat insomnia but not all antidepressants work in the same way and some can actually damage sleep quality. Joseph M. Holshoe from the University of Alabama reviewed the research into antidepressants and sleep. He found that the sedating tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline, nortriptyline, doxepine and clomipramine all improved sleep quality while the stimulating tricyclics trimipramine, desipramine and protriptyline made it worse. Of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) only escitalopram improved sleep quality; fluoxetine, paroxetine, citalopram, venlafaxine and duloxetine all made it worse. A category of drugs called serotonin-2 receptor antagonists/reuptake inhibtors (SARIs) had more beneficial effects with low doses of trazodone and nefazodone being found to be good treatments for insomnia. The effects of bupropion were unclear. Mirtazapine was found to improve sleep but was associated with day-time sleepiness and weight gain.

Holshoe, Joseph M. - Antidepressants and sleep: a review Perspectives in psychiatric care 45(3), 191-197

Friday, July 24, 2009

NICE issues new guidelines for needle and syringe programmes

In the U.K. the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has issued new guidelines for needle and syringe programmes aimed at injecting drug users.

You can find out more about the guidance at

Young men who live with mum and dad more violent

Far from being wimpy mummy's boys young men who live at home with their parents are more likely to be violent than those who live independently. Living with one's parents has become more common in the past forty years, both in the U.K. and in the U.S. Researchers at Queen Mary, University of London surveyed 8,000 men and women who answered questions about violent behaviour over the past five years and mental-health problems. Although young men living at home make up only 4% of the U.K.'s male population they were responsible for 16% of all violent injuries in the last five years. The study found that the young men had fewer responsibilities and more money to spend on alcohol and were no longer influenced by their parents to conform to standards of behaviour expected of previous generations.

Air pollution and IQ

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are pollutants released into the air from the burning of coal, diesel, oil and gas. Researchers from the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York looked into the effect of PAHs on the IQs of children who had been exposed to them in the womb. They studied 249 children born to Black and Dominican-American women aged between 18 and 35. The women wore personal air monitors to measure their exposure to PAHs during their pregnancy and the children's IQs were measured when they were five. The study found that children exposed to high levels of PAHs while they were in the womb had IQs around 4.5 points lower than those who had been less exposed to the chemicals.

Sharing, selling and the things-in-common touch

People are more likely to buy things from a salesman if they feel they have something in common with him. In one study researchers from the University of British Columbia and the INSEAD business school in Singapore found that people were more likely to enjoy a fitness programme and buy personal-training sessions from a personal trainer if they shared a birthday with him. In another study people who found that they were born in the same place as their dentist were happier with their care and more likely to book another appointment with the same clinic. Sociable people were more likely to be influenced by this effect than less-sociable ones.

HIV, alcohol and memory

More than half of people infected with the HIV virus say that they also drink heavily. Researchers from Stanford University School of Medicine looked into the effects of these factors on people's memory and fount that HIV and heavy drinking combined had a greater negative effect than either did separately. They studied 164 people; 40 of them had HIV, 38 had chronic alcoholism, 47 had HIV and chronic alcoholism and 39 were neither alcoholic nor HIV positive. Those participant who were both alcoholic and HIV positive had more trouble in learning new information and although their working memory was fine their episodic (autobiographical) memory was impaired. Episodic memory is linked to a part of the brain called the medial temporal lobe which is affected by both HIV and alcohol abuse.

You can read more about this research at

Survey highlights Alzheimer's ignorance

An online survey of 690 adults by researchers at the University of Connecticut has revealed surprising ignorance about the links between unhealthy lifestyles and Alzheimer's disease. 64% of the sample said that there was no link between obesity and high blood pressure and Alzheimer's, 66% did not know that high levels of stress are a risk factor and 34% did not know that physical exercise could protect against developing Alzheimer's.

You can find out more about this research at

New Horizons

The U.K. Government has launched its New Horizons consultation paper on the way forward for mental-health services in the U.K. over the next 10 years. The strategy's aims and objectives are that, in ten years time

  • Most adults will understand the importance of good mental health and the steps they can take to look after themselves
  • Children will be taught about mental well-being in school
  • Lifestyle services and psychological treatments will be widely available
  • Innovative technologies will be used to promote independence and effective treatment
  • People with mental health problems will receive individual care packages and will be able to make decisions about their treatment and recovery plan, as well as monitoring their own condition
  • Public services will recognise the importance of services and amenities that maximise the independence of older people
  • Inequalities for black and minority ethnic groups, in terms of access to and experience of mental health care, will have disappeared
  • The stigma associated with mental health will have declined.
  • People will know more about mental health problems and understand that they can happen to anyone
  • Everyone will have access to high quality care
  • People with mental illness will no longer be at greater risk of health problems such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes
  • The association between poverty and mental/physical health will be better understood and addressed.

You can download a copy of the New Horizons report at

Improving attention in stroke victims

People who have had strokes often have difficulty concentrating. More than half of all stroke victims have this problem which can lead to falls and injuries. Researchers from the University of Auckland in New Zealand wanted to see if a training programme already used in people with traumatic brain injuries could help. The programme called Attention Process Training involves a psychologist guiding patients through a mental workout in which they practice sustaining their attention and focusing on more than one thing at a time. The researchers studied 78 stroke patients, half of whom got regular rehab and half of whom received 14 hours of Attention Process Training. Those who received the training did better on tests of attention and the training was found to have a "highly positive effect."

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Genes, violence and learning disabilities

Between fifteen and twenty per cent of people with learning disabilities have behaviour problems. Researchers from Vanderbilt University in Tennesee have been looking at how genetics might play a part in this. They looked at a gene linked to a substance called monoamine oxidize A (MAOA) which in turn regulates the neurotransmitters serotonin (linked to appetite and mood) and norepinephrine (linked to the 'fight-or-flight' response). Previous studies have linked a variation in this gene to violent behaviour. The researchers studied 105 men between the ages of 18 and 50. Some had learning disabilities and a history of violent behaviour, others had learning disabilities but no history of violent behaviour while the remainder formed a control group of men with no learning disabilities and no history of violence. The researchers found that 43% of those with learning disabilities and a violent past had the gene variation compared to only 20% of the other two groups.

You can find out more about this research at

Closeness, caring and cognition

People with Alzheimer's who have a close relationship with their caregivers - particularly if they are married to them - may decline less quickly than people whose relationship with their caregiver is not so close. There has been a lot of research on how looking after someone with Alzheimer's can affect caregivers but less research on how relationships with caregivers can affect the progression of the disease. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University and Utah State University studied 167 pairs of caregivers and Alzheimer's sufferers in Utah. They measured the physical, cognitive, functional and behavioural health of the Alzheimer's patients and interviewed their caregivers to assess the closeness of the relationship. At the start of the study all the patients scored similarly on the cognitive and functional tests. However, as time went on the participants whose caregivers remained particularly close to them retained more of their cognitive function - an effect that was particularly marked where the caregiver was a spouse and which was as marked as the effect of certain anti-Alzheimer's drugs. However, Constantine Lyketsos who worked on the study said that it might be the case that those people with milder symptoms stayed closer to their caregivers, rather than that the closeness of the relationship affected people's symptoms. The next step is to do more long-term research to see which of these alternatives is true.

You can find out more about this research at

Autism and bowel problems

Some research has linked autism to bowel problems. Researchers at the Centre for Child and Adolescent Health in Bristol studied 78 children with autism and compared them to 12,906 unaffected children. Over the first 3.5 years of life there were no major differences between the groups in stool colour and consistency, diaorrhea and constipation, and stomach pain. Some of the autistic children had more stools per day at 30 months but the researchers thought that this "may be a secondary phenomenon related to differences in diet." The researchers also noted that some of the older children with autism did have bowel problems. Dr Alan Emonds who led the research said "it is not clear whether these symptoms are due to dietary changes or abnormalities in intestinal function associated with autism."

You can find out more about this research at

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Lifestyle and Alzheimer's : latest research from the Alzheimer's Association conference

Four studies from the Alzheimer's Association conference in Vienna shed more light on the links between diet and exercise, and Alzheimer's disease. The first looked at the effects of a diet designed to help people with high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for Alzheimer's. The study, carried out by researchers at Utah State University, looked into the links between how closely people followed the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet and their risk of cognitive decline and dementia. Over the course of an 11-year study of 3,831 people they found that those who stuck most closely to the DASH diet had better cognition. Four types of food - vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and nuts/legumes - were particularly associated with higher scores for cognition over the course of the study

A second study by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco looked at the links between physical activity and cognition in 3,075 people aged between 70-79. It found that those participants who were more physically active had better cognition and that people who were sedentary at the start of the 7-year study but who then took more exercise showed an improvement in cognitive function.

A third study looked into the links between activity levels and cognition in women who had just been through the menopause. Researchers from the University of Toronto studied 90 women between the ages of 50 and 63. After adjusting for factors such as age, education, cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption they found that while moderate exercise was associated with improved cognitive function long-term strenuous exercise was associated with a decline in cognitive function. This could be because strenuous exercise reduces levels of ovarian hormones; something associated with a decreased risk of breast cancer but an increased risk of cognitive impairment.

Finally researchers at Howard University in Washington, D.C. looked at how genes affect the links between exercise and cognition. They studied 1,799 people over 60. They found that after adjusting for age, ethnicity, chronic illness, body fat and education exercise still had a significant association with improved cognitive function. However, among people with the APOE-E4 gene - which increases the risk of Alzheimer's - there was no statistically-significant association between exercise and Alzheimer's risk.

Anti-epilepsy drugs and children's IQs

Sodium valproate is an anti-epilepsy drug taken by people to control their seizures. Around 5,000 women with epilepsy become pregnant every year in the UK and antiepilepsy drugs have been linked to an increased risk of birth defects such as heart malformations, dysmorphic features and minor limb deformities. Researchers from Liverpool University, Emory University in the U.S. and Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust tested more than 300 3-year-olds whose mothers had taken anti-epilepsy drugs. They found that those women who took sodium valproate while they were pregnant had children with IQs six to nine points lower than those women taking other anti-epilepsy drugs. The researchers stressed that although anti-epilepsy drugs carry a slightly-increased risk of birth defects the risk is still very small and less than the risks to mothers and children from uncontrolled seizures. They advised women concerned about their anti-epilepsy medication to contact their GP before stopping taking the drugs.

MT+ and 3D vision

Researchers at the University of Texas, in Austin, have been looking into the way the brain deals with 3D motion. They studied people watching 3D visualizations while lying motionless for 1-2 hours in an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanner. They found that the images were processed in parts of the brain just behind the left and right ears called MT+. The area had been thought to be only responsible for 2D motion (up and down, left and right). Because the view from one's left and right eyes is different the brain can use the disparity in these images over time to calculate movement; processing which comes together in the MT+ region.

You can find out more about this research at

Spinal tap and diagnosing Alzheimer's

Researchers devote a lot of time to finding ways of diagnosing Alzheimer's disease early; something that allows for prompt treatment to slow down the effects of the disease. Researchers from the University of Gothenburg have been looking at the levels of three proteins, associated with Alzheimer's disease, in the cerebrospinal fluid. They studied 750 people with mild cognitive impairment, 529 with Alzheimer's and 304 healthy people. The people with cognitive impairment were monitored for two years to see whether they went on to develop Alzheimer's. The scientists found that the three proteins (or levels thereof) accurately identified 62% of those who would go on to develop Alzheimer's and were 88% accurate at ruling it out; an accuracy level insufficient for use as a diagnostic tool.

You can find out more about this research at

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Social support, terrorism and depression

Teenagers who live in areas affected by terrorism can often become depressed. Researchers from Ben-Gurion University in Israel studied teenagers who had been indirectly affected by a suicide bombing. None of them had directly witnessed the bombing but some had heard it, others knew people who had suffered physical or emotional damage, or had seen media reports of the attack. Before the bombing the teenagers had already completed a questionnaire as part of another study and the researchers were able to use this data to see which factors existing before the bombing helped to prevent depression after it. The researchers found that the more socially happy the adolescents were before the bombing the less depressed they became afterwards.

You can find out more about this research at

Immunotherapy and Alzheimer's

Immunotherapy is the addition of good antibodies into the bloodstream with the intention of boosting the body's defences. It is used as a treatment for immune deficiencies, leukaemia and other types of cancer, anaemia and other diseases. The therapy is thought to have an indirect effect on Alzheimer's disease by targeting beta-amyloid, a protein which forms plaques in the brains of people with Alzheimer's. Researchers from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York looked at the medical records of 847 people given at least one treatment of IVIg (intravenous immunoglobulin) and of 84,700 people not given the treatment over a four-year period. They found that those participants who had received IVIg had a 42% lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease than those who had not received IVIg. Only 2.8% of those who had had IVIg developed Alzheimer's compared to 4.8% of those not treated.

You can find out more about this research at

13th biennial Mental Health Act Commission report

In the U.K. the Mental Health Act Commission's 13th biennial report has now been published. The report claims that staff looking after people detained under the Mental Health Act are putting them at risk because they lack proper training in restraint methods. The report calls for an accredited training programme on restraint, something first recommended in 1998 after the death - following restraint - of service user David 'Rocky' Bennett. The report also says that staff need further training in observing patients at risk of sucide and self-harm; nearly 40% of suicides on wards between 2001-2008 occured while patients were under continuous or frequent observation. The report found that 80 under 18s were admitted to adult mental-health units between October 2008 and February 2009, four of whom were under 15. The report also looked at community treatment orders. It found that they were placing a strain on mental health services and that ethnic minorities were over-represented among people subject to the orders.

You can download the full report at

Abused women more likely to spank their own children

Mothers who suffered physical abuse or other violent experiences in childhood are much more likely to spank their own children than mothers who did not suffer these experiences. Researchers from Jefferson Pediatrics and the duPont Children's Health Program in Philadelphia studied 1,265 mostly black, single, low-income mothers of children up to 11 months old. They found that 19% said they valued corporal punishment as a means of discipline and 14% reported spanking their children. Even among mothers who were not physically abused in childhood 1 in 10 reported spanking their children. Spanking can lead to an increased risk of behaviour problems, low self-esteem, depression and drug abuse.

You can find out more about this research at

Monday, July 20, 2009

Receptors, transmitters and Alzheimer's

Neurotransmitters are chemicals involved in signalling in the brain and are 'picked up' by receptors on brain cells. Scientists at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona have found a new receptor in the brain and believe it may play a part in the development of Alzheimer's disease. The receptor is in a part of the brain called the basal forebrain that plays a critical role in memory and learning and is one of the first parts of the brain to degenerate when people get Alzheimer's. The receptors - called nicotinic receptors - 'pick up' a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine and are much more sensitive than other receptors to being blocked by a protein called beta-amyloid peptide (AB) which is closely linked to Alzheimer's disease. The researchers now plan to start searching for drugs that can keep these receptors active even when there is AB around or block the effects of AB on the receptors.

You can find out more about this research at

Alzheimer's gene takes effect early

A variation in a gene called ApoE4 raises the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease by more than 50%. People with the gene can show age-related memory decline before they reach 60, even if they have no clinical symptoms of dementia. Researchers from the Mayo Clinic in Arizona studied 815 healthy people aged 21-97 and found that people with the ApoE4 gene variation showed signs of memory trouble at an earlier age than people without it. The declines in people's memories were worse in people who inherited the variation from both parents.

You can find out more about this research at

Friday, July 17, 2009

Mortality, heart disease and mental illness

People with severe mental-health problems have a particularly high death rate from heart disease. The reasons put forward to explain this include the side effects of drugs, unhealthy diets, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, high rates of smoking and the stigma of having a mental-health problem. Researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark studied 4.6 million people between 1994 and 2007 looking into people's contacts with the health service with cardiovascular problems, their death's from heart disease and any operations they might have had for heart problems. They found that people with severe mental illness (defined in the study as people with schizophrenia, bipolar affective disorder, and schizoaffective disorder) only had a slightly-higher rate of heart disease - 11% higher - than other people. However, they were nearly three times more likely to die of heart disease. Five years after people's first contact with the medical profession with heart disease 8.26% of people with a serious mental illness had died compared to only 2.86% of people without a mental illness. Only 7.04% of people with a severe mental illness had a heart operation 5 years after being diagnosed compared to 12.27% of the rest of the population. The researchers concluded that the treatment offered to people with a severe mental illness for their heart disease was neither sufficiently efficient nor sufficiently intensive and that "this undertreatment may explain part of their excess mortality."

Laursen, Thomas Munk ... [et al] - Somatic hospital contacts, invasive cardiac procedures, and mortality from heart disease in patients with severe mental disorder Archives of General Psychiatry July 2009, 66(7), 713-720

Internet CBT for insomnia

One third of people report symptoms of insomnia and around one in ten actually meet the clinical criteria for the condition. Cognitive behaviour therapy is one of the most effective treatments for the condition but its availability is limited by a shortage of clinicians, poor geographical distribution of knowledgeable professionals, expense and inaccessability to treatment and clinicians. One way round this could be by using Internet CBT. Researchers at the University of Virginia in the U.S. and the University of Laval in Quebec studied 45 people with sleep problems comparing 22 people using an Internet CBT programme with 23 on a waiting list who formed a control group. The Internet programme was based on face-to-face CBT approaches and used the techniques of sleep restriction, stimulus control, sleep hygiene, cognitive restructuring and relapse prevention. The participants who received the Internet intervention significantly improved their sleep leading the researchers to conclude that Internet CBT has 'considerable potential in delivering a structured behavioural programme for insomnia'

Ritterband, Lee M. ... [et al] - Efficacy of an Internet-based behavioural intervention for adults with insomnia Archives of General Psychiatry July 2009, 66(7), 692-698

Augmentation, inflammation and depression

Augmentation strategies are used when people fail to respond to conventional antidepressants. They involve the use of other drugs - which are not antidepressants - alongside people's primary medication. Over the last twenty years research has suggested that inflammation and interactions between the nervous system and the immune system could play a part in the origins of depression and anti-inflammatory drugs have been suggested as possible candidates for drugs that could be used as part of an augmentation strategy. Researchers in Tehran studied the effect of using the anti-inflammatory drug celecoxib as a supplement to the antidepressant fluoxetine. They divided 40 participants into two groups. One group took fluoxetine and celecoxib while the other group took fluoxetine and a placebo. Both groups showed an improvement over the six weeks of the study but the group taking celecoxib did significantly better. There were no differences in side effects between the two groups.

Akhondzadeh, Shahin ... [et al] - Clinical trial of adjunctive celecoxib treatment in patients with major depression: a double-blind and placebo-controlled trial Depression and Anxiety July 2009, 26(7), 607-611

Mindfulness and anxiety

A lot of so-called 'third-wave' behaviour therapy uses techniques based on the concept of mindfulness - being aware of the moment in a non-judgemental way - including mindfulness-based stress reduction, dialectical behaviour therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MCBT). A team of researchers from South Korea looked at the effectiveness of MCBT in treating panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. They studied 46 people - some with panic disorder and others with genralized anxiety disorder - and divided them into tow groups. One group received MCBT and the other group received anxiety disorder education. After eight weeks the MCBT group demonstrated significantly more improvement as far as anxiety and depression were concerned. However in terms of somatization (mental-health problems masquerading as physical ones), interpersonal sensitivity, paranoid thoughts and psychoticism there was no difference between the two groups.

Kim, Yong Woo ... [et al] - Effectiveness of mindulness-based cognitive therapy as an adjuvant to pharmacotherapy in patients with panic disorder or generalized anxiety disorder Depression and Anxiety July 2009, 26(7), 601-606

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Antipsychotics: new research deepens confusion

The drugs used to treat schizophrenia - known as antipsychotics - can have serious side effects. An older drug called clozapine can cause a condition called agranulocytosis - a decline in the body's number of white blood cells - which can be fatal. Partly because of this side effect clozapine has fallen out of fashion now and has been replaced by newer drugs such as quetiapine, resperidone and olanzapine. However, these drugs can be linked to an increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. A Finnish analysis of 10 years' worth of medical records covering 67,000 people by researchers at the University of Kuopio compared death rates in people taking different antipsychotic drugs. The study compared the drugs to an older 'first-generation' antipsychotic perphenazine. Clozapine was found to reduce mortality by 26% whereas quetiapine (41%), resperidone (34%) and olanzapine (13%) all increased deaths. There were no differences in death from heart disease between the different drugs but clozapine had a substantially lower risk of suicide whereas quetiapine increased the risk of people killing themselves. Clozapine is known to be more effective than other antipsychotic drugs and generic (i.e. cheaper) versions of it are now available leaving clinicians to weigh up the new research against the risk of agranulocytosis.

You can find out more about this research at

PTSD linked to increased risk of dementia

Older servicemen who have had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have almost twice the risk of dementia compared to soldiers without PTSD. Dr Kristine Yaffe of the University of California, San Francisco studied 181,098 veterans of whom 53,155 had PTSD. After taking into account other risk factors associated with dementia such as depression and traumatic brain injury the veterans with PTSD had double the risk of developing dementia. Over the course of the study 10% of the veterans with PTSD developed dementia compared to just over 6.6% of those without PTSD. It is not known why there should be this link but some studies have found a link between PTSD and a shrinking of part of the brain called the hippocampus which is involved in memory and in people's response to stress.

You can find out more about this research at

A pint in time ... Alcohol use and dementia

Moderate drinking could help to prevent older people developing Alzheimer's disease but hasten the decline of people who already have cognitive problems. Researchers at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina studied 3,069 adults. Among those who were cognitively normal at the start of the study moderate drinkers (those who had 1 or 2 drinks a day) appeared to be protected against dementia. However, for those people who were already suffering from mild cognitive impairment at the start of the study heavy alcohol use (more than 14 drinks a week) nearly doubled the risk of dementia compared to not drinking at all.

You can find out more about this research at

Poor sleep and postnatal depression

New mums have lots of sleepless nights but new research suggests that a lack of sleep could place them at greater risk of suffering from postnatal depression. Researchers from Stavanger University Hospital in Norway studied 2,830 women who had babies between October 2005 and September 2006. The women reported that they slept for an average of 6.5 hours per night. Even after adjusting for other risk factors for depression such as being a first time mum, bottle feeding, having a young infant or a male infant and stressful life events poor sleep was still associated with depression.

You can find out more about this research at

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Alzheimer's Association news

The Alzheimer's Association has been meeting in Vienna. They have been looking into new ways of diagnosing the disease in its early stages and into the genetics of the condition. Researchers from Trinity College, Dublin studied 345 people with mild cognitive impairment which is often - but not always - a precursor to Alzheimer's. By combining three memory tests with MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanning they were able to achieve a 95% level of accuracy. In another study Susan Landau from the University of California studied 85 people and found that poor memory recall and a PET (positron emission tomography) scan measuring low levels of glucose in the brain were linked to a fifteenfold increase in the risk of Alzheimer's. Researchers from Duke University in North Carolina also found that a gene called TOMM40 raised the risk of Alzheimer's disease.

Growing older with bipolar

Little is known about the effects of aging on the symptoms of bipolar disorder; whether episodes get more or less frequent, more or less severe and whether depression or mania tends to predominate. Researchers from the University of Iowa followed 148 people with bipolar disorder over a 20-year period. They found that those people who were under 44 at the start of the study had significantly more depressive symptoms as they aged. The earlier people's bipolar symptoms started the more problems they had with depression. The ratio between people's episodes of mania and depression remained fairly constant over the course of the study.

Coryell, W. ... [et al] - Age transitions in the course of bipolar 1 disorder Psychological Medicine August 2009, 39(8), 1247-1252

Lability and mental health

Mood lability refers to changes in mood that are notable for their size, frequency and speed so someone with labile mood is prone to sudden, frequent and major changes in mood. Researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry in London studied the levels of mood lability in 5326 young people aged 8-19. They found that mood lability occured in 5% of the sample. It was strongly associated with a wide range of mental-health problems and was linked to significant impairment even in the absence of psychiatric disorders. Mood lability was found to be a risk factor for externalizing disorders (bad behaviour) and internalizing ones such as depression and anxiety.

Stringaris, A. and Goodman, R. - Mood lability and psychopathology in youth Psychological Medicine August 2009, 39(8), 1237-1245

Monday, July 13, 2009

Do's and dont's in diagnosing dementia

An early diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease is critical for patients to plan for the future, get the best possible care and make the most of time with friends and relatives. However, current research suggests that less than 35% of people with Alzheimer's diseases or other dementias have a diagnosis of their condition in their medical records. Researchers from the University of Newcastle in Australia have been interviewing GPs (family doctors) to find out things that help and hinder them from making a diagnosis of Alzheimer's in their patients. They found helpful factors included:

  • a doctor's positive attitude to the diagnosis and treatment of dementia
  • having a trusting personal relationship with individuals who provide dementia support services
  • support from relatives and caregivers
  • a belief in the patient's right to know
  • a desire by GPs to be honest and open with their patients
Barriers to a diagnosis included:

  • differing health priorities among patients and GPs
  • GPs being dependent on patients and relatives to tell them about the symptoms of memory loss
  • GP's challenges with properly timing referral to support services
  • Fear of damaging the doctor-patient relationship
  • Caregivers with Alzheimer's downplaying their own needs

You can read more about this research at

Drinking and troubled teenagers

Teenagers who drink heavily are more likely to have behavioural problems and symptoms of anxiety and depression. Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim surveyed 8,983 13-19-year-olds. 80% of the sample said that they had tried drinking while 57% said that they had got drunk at least once. Among the children who said that they had attention problems at school 43% had been drunk more than ten times compared to only 25% of those with no concentration difficulties. 35% of the teenagers with conduct problems got drunk frequently compared to 27% of those without problems. Among girls more frequent drinking binges were linked to anxiety and depression. It was not clear from this research whether the drinking came before or after these problems.

You can find out more about this research at

Exercise and optimism

There is lots of evidence pointing to the positive effects of exercise on people's mental health and new research from Finland suggests that it may also stop people from feeling a sense of hopelessness. Researchers from Kuopio University Hospital studied 2,428 men between 42 and 60 and found that those who spent less than one hour a week taking moderate-vigorous exercise were 37% more likely to report feeling hopeless than men who did 2.5 hours or more. Vigorous physical activity was particularly effective and the link remained even after adjusting for age, socioeconomic status and other relevant factors. The men who reported the highest levels of hopelessness had "more pronounced features" of the metabolic syndrome, a cluster of features such as a large waist and high cholesterol known to boost the risk of heart disease and diabetes. They were also less active and physically fit.

You can find out more about this research at

Asthma, sleep and bad behaviour

Children whose asthma stops them from sleeping may be at significantly more risk of developing behaviour problems. Researchers from the University of Rochester School of Medicine in New York studied 194 children with asthma aged between four and ten. They found that those children with sleep-disordered breathing had significantly worse behaviour than other children. They also had worse scores for depression and anxiety, antisocial behaviour, hyperactivity and peer conflict.

You can find out more about this research at

Omega-3 boosts memory but won't cure Alzheimer's

An Omega-3 fatty acid called docosahexenoic acid, or DHA for short, can help people with mild memory problems but not those with full-blown Alzheimer's disease. Researchers from Oregon Health and Sciences University in Portland carried out two studies of DHA. The first compared it to a placebo in 402 people with mild-moderate Alzheimer's and found no change in people's symptoms. The second study, of 485 healthy older adults with mild memory problems, looked at the effectiveness of a 900mg daily dose of DHA and found that it boosted learning and memory skills to the level of someone three years younger.

You can find out more about this research at

New substance helps with Alzheimer's diagnosis

Diagnosing Alzheimer's disease early is something of a Holy Grail for scientists as it enables treatment to be provided to slow down the progress of the disease. Researchers from the Bayer pharmaceutical company in Germany have been using a substance called florbetaben. They inject it into people and it highlights the protein plaques in people's brains (which are associated with Alzheimer's disease) when they undergo a PET (positron emission tomography) scan. A study of 213 people found that it helped to detect the illness in eight out of ten cases and had a 90% accuracy rate in people free of the condition.

You can find out more about this research at

Friday, July 10, 2009

Connections, coordination and autism

People with autism often have trouble with their motor skills as well. Researchers at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine looked at patterns of movement in the way autistic and normally-developing children learnt to control and use a new tool. They found that the autistic children relied much more on their own internal sense of body position (proprioception), whereas the other children used visual information. The greater the child's impairment in social skills and motor skills the greater their reliance on proprioception. The researchers' work fits in with other findings which suggest that autistic people have strong 'short-distance' connections in their brain but weaker 'long-distance' ones. The brain regions which deal with proprioception are close to the ones that govern movement while the brain regions that deal with visual-motor processing are much further away.

Drug-using mothers and at-risk children

Experts have known for a long time that children of mothers who abuse drugs are more likely to come to harm than other children. But there have been few good-quality studies into this and the extent of the risk is unclear. Researchers from the Royal Children's Hospital in Brisbane studied 357 children. 119 of them had mothers who used opiates, amphetamines or methadone while the remainder did not use illegal drugs. Half of the children born to drug-using mothers became victims of neglect or physical, emotional, or sexual abuse and those whose mothers abused amphetamines or pilates were 13 times more likely to becomed victims of neglect or abuse. However, the children of the mothers who were compliant with their methadone treatment had only a third of the risk of those who mothers used opiates or amphetmaines. One quarter of the children of drug-abusing mothers entered foster care compared to only 2% of the children of the non-drugs users

Memory programmes work for milder problems

Older people with mild memory problems can be helped by memory-training programmes. Memory training has been found to help healthy older adults with positive effects being reported up to 5 years afterwards in some studies. Researchers at La Trobe University in Melbourne studied 54 older people with mild memory problems. Half were placed into a memory-rehabilitation group and half formed a control group. The rehabilitation group took part in five, weekly, 90-minute sessions that used problem-solving techniques to deal with memory difficulties. The participants who undertook the programme showed significant improvements in their everyday memory and in their knowledge and use of memory strategies although they didn't themselves feel that their memories were improving.

You can find out more about this research at

COPEing with bad behaviour in Sweden

COPE (Community Parent Education Program) is a parent-education programme that aims to tackle behaviour problems in children. It includes strategies for giving attention to positive behaviour, balancing time and attention among siblings, ignoring minor disruptions, planning ahead and reward systems. Parents are taught a technique known as PASTE: Picking one, soluble, problem; Analysing the advantages and disadvantages of alternative solutions; Selecting the most promising alternative; Trying it out and Evaluating the outcome. The programme differs from others on offer in being delivered in the community and in group sessions making it cheaper and easier to access for people reluctant to see a psychologist. Lisa B. Thorell of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden studied the effectiveness of the COPE programme in 219 children. The programme was found to be effective in reducing behaviour problems, hyperactivity and impulsivity, problem behaviours, parents' stress and lack of parental control but not effective at reducing inattention, improving social competence and reducing problems with the children's peers.

Thorell, Lisa B. - The Community Parent Education Programme (COPE): treatment effects in a clinical and a community-based sample Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry July 2009, 14(3), 373-387

ADHD and social problems

Social problems are common among children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) but there are still gaps in our knowledge of these problems, what causes them and how they are linked to other problems such as Pervasive Developmental Disorders (PDDs)*. Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles studied 379 children with ADHD. They found that their social functioning was characterized by social immaturity and rejection by their peers. There was a significant link between both these problems and PDDs, particularly between PDDs and social immaturity. Social immaturity was associated with a greater number of hyperactivity symptoms while peer rejection was associated with increased aggression and a lower IQ.

Carpenter, Erika ... [et al] - Social functioning difficulties in ADHD: association with PDD risk Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry July 2009, 14(3), 329-344

*see for an explanation of PDDs

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Cutting down on college drinking

For most students heavy drinking at college is just a phase but for some it can lead on to alcohol problems later in life and there is always the risk of injury - both to themselves and others - when students drink heavily. Researchers at Oxford Brookes University have been reviewing studies into ways of getting students to cut down on their drinking for the Cochrane database. They looked at data from 22 trials covering a total of 7,275 college and university students. They found that students who were given personalised feedback via the Internet or in face-to-face sessions drank less often and did less binge drinking than those in control groups. Web-based feedback also resulted in significant reductions in blood alcohol content and alcohol-related problems. The theory behind feedback is that most students have exaggerated ideas about how much their contemporaries drink. By pointing out the truth and giving information to the students about their own drinking the idea is to get students to cut down to a more realistic level.

Behavioural problems, developmental difficulties and mothers' stress

Researchers at the University of Washington's Autism Center compared stress levels in the mothers of children with autism to those in the mothers of children with developmental delay. They studied 73 mothers and their children. 51 of the children had autism and 22 had developmental delays. The mothers filled out questionnaires about their stress levels and their children's developmental progress. They found that the mothers of children with autism had higher levels of stress. Problem behaviour was associated with higher levels of stress among both sets of mothers but this relationship was stronger in the mothers of autistic children. There was no link between children's levels of daily-living skills and maternal stress suggesting that it was the children's behaviour problems not their developmental difficulties which were stressing the mothers.

You can find out more about this research at

Better writers stay sharper longer

People who have good language skills in their early 20s might stay 'with it' longer in old age even if their brains are showing the physical signs of Alzheimer's disease. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore carried out autopsies on the brains of 38 nuns. 10 of them had asymptomatic Alzheimer's with the plaques and tangles in the brain characteristic of the condition but no symptoms, five had mild cognitive impairment (MCI), 10 had Alzheimer's and 13 had no cognitive problems or changes to their brain. The researchers also analysed essays that 14 of the women had written in their teens or early twenties when they entered the convent. They looked at 'idea density' - the average number of ideas expressed for every ten words - and grammatical complexity. They found that the early writings of the women who died with no cognitive deficits were significantly denser in ideas than the essays written by the women with MCI or Alzheimer's although there was no difference between the two groups as far as grammatical complexity was concerned. The brains of the nuns with asymptomatic Alzheimer's had larger cells in many areas of the brain as well as larger cell structures such as nuclei and nucleoli - a finding consistent with earlier studies into this issue suggesting that their brains had adapted to cope with the damage caused by Alzheimer's.

You can find out more about this research at

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Boosting brains with magic magnets

Magnetic stimulation of people's brains could help them learn how to carry out complex motor tasks. Researchers from the University of British Columbia studied 30 volunteers as they attempted to track a target on a computer screen using a joystick. Sometimes the target moved randomly and sometimes it moved according to a pattern; this allowed the researchers to distinguish between the participants learning to follow the pattern and the effects of practice at using the joystick. Some of the participants were given stimulation designed to boost the activity of a part of the brain called the dorsal premotor cortex, others were given stimulation designed to inhibit this activity while others were given 'sham' stimulation. Those participants whose dorsal premotor cortex had been boosted performed significantly better in the learning part of the test.

You can read more about this research at

Review casts doubt on therapy for PTSD

Giving psychological therapy to everyone involved in a traumatic event could be a waste of time. Researchers from the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff carried out a review of 11 studies with a total of 941 participants for the prestigious Cochrane database. The study looked at the effectiveness of several sessions of therapy given to all people exposed to a traumatic event, regardless of their symptoms. The study found that the interventions had had no effect and, in some cases, had actually made things worse. The researchers pointed out that psychological therapies could still be effective for people with actual PTSD symptoms; something they intend to research next.

You can find out more about this research at

Recession could lead to more suicides

The global recession could lead to more murders, suicides and heart attacks. Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Oxford University studied death rates from over 30 causes of death between 1970 and 2007. They then compared the results to levels of unemployment and the amount Governments spent on helping the jobless. They found that a 3% rise in unemployment would lead to a 2.4% rise in suicide among people under 64, a 2.4% rise in homicide rates and a 2.7% rise in heart attacks for people between 30 and 44. The study found that spending £115 per person ($190) on "active labour market programmes" would mitigate most of these effects. The study also found that the recession would lead to a 4.2% fall in road deaths as more people walked or used public transport.

You can find out more about this research at

Family histories, deeper suffering

People with a family history of depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug dependence are not only more likely to develop these conditions themselves but are also more likely to suffer seriously and need more treatment. Researchers in New Zealand studied 981 people from when they were three until when they were 32 and collected information about their mental health and the mental health of their family. They found that people with a family history of depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug problems were more likely to have frequent recurrences of these conditions and suffered more disruption to their lives, families, friends and work. Family history was also associated with greater service use for all four problems.

You can read more about this research at

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

A Future Vision for Mental Health

In the U.K. the Future Vision Coalition has produced a report A Future Vision for Mental Health aimed at influencing Government policy in this area. The coalition is made up of representatives from the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, the Local Government Association and all the major mental-health charities. The report sets out four principles for reform including the ideas that:
  • Improving mental health is everybody’s business and requires action across government
  • Positive mental health should be promoted with early intervention when people become unwell
  • Mental health services should help people fulfil their potential
  • Service users and carers should shape their own support

It calls for a cabinet minister to champion mental-health improvements within Government and calls for a new public-service agreement specifying how Government services should boost mental-health and wellbeing. It calls for the Government's programme to improve access to psychological therapies to be extended to all client groups and throughout the country and for more mental-health training for teachers, police and social-care staff. It also says that the Government should help employers to recruit, support and retain people with experience of mental-health problems.

You can download a full copy of A Future Vision for Mental Health at

Not so Special K

Ketamine - popularly known as Special K - started out as a veterinary anaesthetic but has become increasingly popular as an illegal drug. It is popular in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia and is increasing in popularity in Western countries. However, long-term studies are now starting to reveal its negative effects including poor bladder control, liver damage and kidney problems. A study of 97 ketamine users in Hong Kong also found mental-health problems: 60% of the sample suffered from depression, 31% complained of poor concentration and 23% had memory problems.

You can find out more about the long-term effects of ketamine at

Fearing death and taking risks in teenagers

A surprisingly large number of children believe that they will die young and those that do are much more likely to engage in risky behaviour. Researchers at the University of Minnesota interviewed 20,562 children in grades 7-12 in 1995,1996 and 2001-2. In 1995 14.7% of the participants thought that they had no more than a 50:50 chance of living past 35. Of those who believed they would die young 43.7% still held that view a year later and 17.2% still thought it in 2001-2. Illegal drug use, attempted suicide, getting hurt in fights, being arrested by the police, unsafe sexual activity and a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS were all linked with a perceived likelihood of earlier death.

You can find out more about this research at

Over-the-counter drug might help hair pullers

Chronic hair-pulling or trichotillomania is estimated to affect between 0.5-3% of people. It can cause bald patches and anxiety and sufferers can even end up pulling out other people's hair. Antidepressants and other drugs have, generally, been found not to be helpful but researchers at the Minnesota School of Medicine in Minneapolis have been trying out an over-the-counter drug called N-acetylcysteine. They studied 50 people with trichotillomania over a 12-week period doubling the dose of N-acetylcysteine after six weeks if there had been no improvement. Compared to a placebo group 56% of people taking N-acetylcysteine were 'much or very much improved' compared to only 16% in the placebo group. It is thought that N-acetylcysteine boosts the supply of the neurotransmitter glutamate in the brain.

You can find out more about this research at

Monday, July 06, 2009

Montessori and acupressure for Alzheimer's

People with dementia can often become agitated and aggressive creating disruption for themselves and the people who look after them. They are often prescribed antipsychotic drugs for their disturbed behaviour but these can have serious health consequences raising the risk of stroke and cardiovascular problems. Researchers at the National Yang-Ming University in Taipei studied the effectiveness of acupressure and Montessori-based activities in reducing agitation in a sample of 133 people with dementia living in care homes. Compared to a control group daily acupressure significantly decreased agitated behaviour. Montessori-based activities carried out daily significantly improved aggressive behaviour. Care assistants found it easier to look after the participants after they had had a session of acupuncture or Montessori and the Montessori intervention was associated with a significant increase in positive affect. Neither approach decreased verbally-agitated behaviour.

You can find out more about this research at

Genes, bipolar and schizophrenia

Although newspaper stories often talk about the discovery of a gene for condition x, y or z the reality is that most diseases are caused by the combination of a large number of genes working alongside environmental factors. Three studies by a multinational group of researchers - including some from the Institute of Psychiatry in London - analyzed the DNA of 10,000 people with schizoprenia and 20,000 unaffected people. It found that there were 30,000 common gene variations linked to schizophrenia. The same genetic patterns were also linked to bipolar disorder suggesting there may be a link between the two conditions.

You can read more about the genetics of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder at

Suicide warning over anti-smoking drugs

The United States' Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a warning about the suicide risk of the anti-smoking drugs Chantix (varenicline) and Zyban (bupropion). There have been 98 suicides in people taking Chantix and 14 in people taking Zyban with nearly 5,000 'serious psychiatric events' caused by the two drugs. The drugs have also been linked to an increased risk of accidents with loss of consciousness, mental confusion, dizziness and muscle spasms.

You can read more about the FDA's ruling at

Counselling Directory web site

Counselling Directory is an online web directory listing counsellors and psychotherapists all over the UK. Each counsellor has a profile stating what areas they specialise in, a bit about their background, and their qualifications. All the counsellors registered on the site have a relevant qualification, and insurance cover, or proof of registration and the site also has a wealth of information about mental-health, as well as a blog about the latest health news. You can search the site by typing in your town or postcode. This gives you a list of all the counsellors in your area, allowing you to browse through them and select and contact one that would be exactly suited to your needs. The site is free to use and has been running for four years. It has recently been featured in an article on the Times website and has had lots of positive feedback from site users and counsellors alike.

You can visit the Counselling Directory web site at