Tuesday, December 22, 2009

I feel your pain - no really

'I feel your pain' is one of the most widespread - and some might say nauseating - cliches of the C21st. However, researchers from the University of Birmingham (U.K.) have found - that for some people at least - it may have an element of truth. The researchers showed 108 college students images of painful situations including athletes suffering sports injuries and people receiving injections. About a third of the students said that they actually felt physical pain in the same areas as the injuries or injections affected. In the second part of the study the researchers scanned the brains of 20 students, half of whom had felt physical pain on seeing the clips. Both groups were shown another series of painful images but while they both showed an increase in activity in areas of the brain to do with emotion only the group which said they felt pain on seeing the images showed activity in pain-related areas of their brains.

You can find out more about this research at


Pleasure, depression and neuroscience

Anhedonia is the inability to experience pleasure and is one of the main symptoms of depression. A brain-scan study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been looking into the neuroscience of anhedonia. The researchers studied 46 people, 27 of whom had depression. The participants were shown positive and negative images and asked to think about them for a while to accentuate the emotions they produced. The areas of the brain associated with positive emotions were just as easily activated in the people with depression but they were unable to sustain the levels of activity in these areas over time, compared to the control group.

You can find out more about this research at


Getting to grips with earworms

An earworm is a song, or fragment of a song, that gets stuck in your head and continually repeats itself. When the mountaineer Joe Simpson, for instance, was near death in the Andes all he could think about was the Boney M song 'Brown Girl in the Ring.' Very little research has been done on earworms but two British psychologists, Philip Beaman from the University of Reading and Tim Williams have surveyed just over 100 people in an attempt to find out more. They found that earworms weren't more common in people with musical expertise although they were more common in people who thought music was important. Only a third of the earworms were described as unpleasant obsessions, very few recurred in the same day and most were usually gone by the same day. However, most strategies to banish them only seemed to make things worse. There was little evidence that some tunes were more likely to become earworms than others and 'earworm potential' appeared to be determined by the amount of exposure to a tune and its relative simplicity and repetitiveness.

You can find out more about this research at


Autism on the rise in the U.S. - nearly 1% of eight-year-olds affected

A study of 300,000 eight-year-olds in the U.S. has found that 1 in 110 has autism, a 57% increase in cases since four years ago. The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and used data from the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring network made up of 11 sites across the country. The increase could be due to a broader definition of autism and an increased awareness of the condition among parents, doctors and teachers. The rate of autism among boys was 4.5x that in girls.

You can find out more about this research at


Monday, December 21, 2009

Ladies worse than ladettes for heavy drinking

'Ladies' are more at risk from their drinking than 'ladettes.' Researchers from the U.K., including Dr Fiona Measham from Lancaster University have been looking at women's drinking patterns. They found that 'ladette' drinking in pubs and clubs - often followed by broken high heels, torn dresses, tears and a trip to A&E - was on the decline but that drinking by professional career women at home was on the rise. Higher-strength wines and larger glasses meant that many women underestimated their alcohol intake and drink-related deaths in women have doubled in the last 16 years. Women who worked full time were more likely to drink heavily than those who worked part time and the more they earned the more likely women were to drink frequently. Single women were also more likely to drink heavily than those in relationships.

You can find out more about this research at


Daily cannabis use and psychosis risk

People who increase their cannabis consumption from occasional to daily use could hasten the onset of psychosis. Researchers from Emory University in Atlanta analyzed data from 109 hospitalized patients who were experiencing their first psychotic episode and found that those who had a history of cannabis use and increased to daily smoking experienced both psychotic and pre-psychotic symptoms at earlier ages. It was not whether or not they used the drug in adolescence but how quickly they moved on to daily use that was the main risk factor for developing the condition. The women who moved on to daily pot smoking had a greater increased risk for the onset of psychosis than the men.

You can find out more about this research at


Nearly one in seven women binge eat

Researchers from the Universite de Montreal and the Douglas Mental Health University Institute have been surveying problem eating in a telephone survey of over 1,500 women. None of the women had been classified as anorexic before the start of the study which found that 13.7% of them reported binge eating 1-5 days or 1-7 times a month, 2.5% of them said that they made themselves throw up, or used laxatives or diuretics to maintain their weight or shape, and 28% of them completed intensive exercise twice a month with the sole object of losing weight. Dangerous eating behaviours were more likely to occur in women who perceived themselves to be in poor health.

You can find out more about this research at


Twins, genes and cannabis and alcohol dependence

The genes that predispose people to become addicted to alcohol could also play a part in cannabis dependence. Roughly 8-12% of cannabis users are considered to be dependent and, just like alcohol, the severity of symptoms increases with heavier use. A survey of Year 12 students in 2008 found that 5.4% of them had used cannabis daily in the last month. Researchers from Washington University School of Medicine studied 6,257 people in Australia. The participants in the study were all on the Australian twin registry and were made up of 2,761 pairs of twins and 735 singletons. The findings of the study showed that many of the same genetic factors that contributed to alcohol use also contributed to marijuana use and alcohol and cannabis dependence could also be traced to some of the same genetic influences.

You can find out more about this research at


Friday, December 18, 2009

Depression, diabetes and ethnic minorities

Rates of depression in people with diabetes are double those in the general population and even higher among minority groups who have worse blood-sugar control, more diabetes complications and more severe depression. However, few studies have looked at the beneficial effects of treating depression in people from minority groups who have diabetes. Researchers from Charles Drew University in Los Angeles studied 89 diabetes patients. 45 received the antidepressant sertraline while 44 took a placebo. Blood sugar and blood pressure fell significantly more in the group taking sertraline. The researchers concluded that people with diabetes should be routinely screened for depression and that those who are depressed should consider taking medication.

You can find out more about this research at


Antidepressants and adolescents

In 2003 the U.S. Food and Drugs Administration issued a warning that some antidepressants could increase the risk of suicidal behaviour in children and adolescents. Since then the prescription of the drugs has gone down but a new study, by researchers at Ohio State University, has found that the drugs could have a beneficial effect on the whole. The study, of 318 adolescents, looked at readmission rates to psychiatric hospitals. It found that those teenagers treated with antidepressants were less likely to be re-hospitalised. However, hospitalised children who were prescribed three or more drugs, from different classes, were 2.6x more likely to be readmitted to hospital than other children and these children made up a quarter of the sample.

You can find out more about this research at


Cannabis and teenagers' mental health

A study by researchers at McGill University has been looking into the effects of smoking cannabis on teenagers. The study found that smoking cannabis on a daily basis can lead to depression and anxiety. Cannabis was found to lead to a decrease in serotonin transmission, which can lead to mood disorders, and an increase in norepinephrine transmission which leads to a greater long-term susceptibility to stress.

You can find out more about this research at

British drinkers underestimate how much they actually put away and the gap between what they think they drink and what they actually do drink could be as much as an average of a bottle of wine a week. Researchers from Liverpool John Moores University looked at what people said they drank - based on figures from the General Household Survey, carried out by the Office for National Statistics - and compared this to figures for alcohol sales. They found that people often didn't count special occasions such as weddings, birthdays and Christmas parties and, of course, the more they drank the harder it was to remember their consumption. The average Briton, they estimated, drinks around 26 units of alcohol a week compared to the Government's recommendation of 21 units for men and 14 for women. Official figures show that alcohol-related hospital admissions are approaching 1 million a year, a rise of 47% in the last five years.


The benefits of doodling

Far from being a distraction doodling could help people concentrate on mundane tasks. Jackie Andrade from the University of Plymouth asked 40 participants to listen to a dull two-and-a-half minute telephone message about a party. Half the participants were told to doodle as they did so, shading in circles and squares on their notepaper. The doodlers were later able to memorise more names on the list and 29% more details about the message than the non doodlers. One theory is that the doodling uses just enough of the brain's resources to prevent it drifting off completely without it being too much of a distraction.

You can find out more about this research at


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Self-help groups for binge eaters

Binge-eating disorder can lead to obesity, other mental-health problems and problems at work and with friends, families and partners. Several psychological treatments have been found to be helpful in treating binge eating including cognitive behaviour therapy, interpersonal therapy, dialectical behaviour therapy and behavioural weight loss. However, psychotherapy can be quite expensive and attempts have been made to channel people towards self-help which is much cheaper. Self-help group therapy is even cheaper and a team of researchers from the University of Minnesota compared the effectiveness of therapist-led, therapist-assisted and self-help group treatment in a study of 259 adults with binge-eating disorder. At the end of the treatment the therapist-led (51.7%) and therapist-assisted (33.3%) groups had higher rates of abstinence from binge-eating than the self-help one (17.7%). However, at follow-ups after six months and a year there was no difference between the groups suggesting that self-help might prove a viable alternative.

Peterson, Carol B. ... [et al] - The efficacy of self-help group treatment and therapist-lead group treatment for binge eating disorder American Journal of Psychiatry December 2009, 166(12), 1347-1354

Eating disorders and death rates

People with eating disorders are more likely to die early either from the effects of their eating disorder or because they kill themselves. There is evidence that people with eating disorders are more likely to kill themselves than people with other mental-health problems. Most of the research into raised mortality in people with eating disorders has focused on anorexia but less is known about death rates in people with bulimia or other eating disorders that don't fit into the framework of anorexia or bulimia. Researchers from the University of Minnesota Medical School studied 1,885 people turning up for treatment at an eating disorders clinic. 177 had anorexia, 906 had bulimia and 802 had other eating problems (eating disorders not otherwise specified - EDNOS). The death rates were 4% for anorexia, 3.9% for bulimia and 5.2% for EDNOS. Death rates were significantly higher than normal for bulimia and EDNOS and suicide rates were also higher for these conditions too.

Crow, Scott J. ... [et al] - Increased mortality in bulimia nervosa and other eating disorders American Journal of Psychiatry December 2009, 166(12), 1342-1346

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Why joining in is good for teenagers

Joining in is good for teenagers. Researchers at the University of Hertfordshire found that almost one in three English teenagers belonged to some kind of club such as sports teams, church groups, youth clubs and political organisations. Those that did were a fifth less likely to smoke and to ever have been drunk than other teenagers and were also a fifth more likely to eat fruit and vegetables regularly. Those teenagers who rated their lives as highly satisfactory were 51% more likely to belong to a sports club than those who were less happy. However, teenagers were two thirds more likely to smoke if they were members of a political organisation or youth club than if they were not members of any club at all.

You can find out more about this research at


Interpersonal psychotherapy for teenage obesity

Teenage obesity is a growing problem. Weight gain can be caused by binge eating so if this can be reduced or prevented weight gain could be halted or even reversed. Researchers at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences and the National Institute of Health have been looking at a treatment called Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT). The aim of the treatment is to improve interpersonal relationships by targeting the underlying social and interpersonal difficulties that lead people to binge eat. Interpersonal psychotherapy has been shown to help depressed adults and children and to reduce binge eating in adults. In the study 38 girls, some of whom were binge eaters, were either given interpersonal psychotherapy or standard health-education classes. The girls who received interpersonal psychotherapy were more likely to stabilize or reduce their BMI compared to those who received the health-education classes.

You can find out more about this research at


Leptin and Alzheimer's disease

Leptin is produced by fat cells and sends a signal to the brain telling us to stop eating when we have had enough food. As well as stopping us eating too much there is increasing evidence that leptin also helps with brain development and function and memory. Scientists from Boston University Medical Center studied 198 people looking into the links between leptin and Alzheimer's disease. They measured the participants' levels of leptin and also gave them regular brain scans to check for Alzheimer's. Over a 12-year follow-up period a quarter of the people with the lowest levels of leptin developed Alzheimer's compared to only 6% of those with the highest levels. Previous research has shown that leptin helps to reduce levels of beta-amyloid which forms the plaques that are a hallmark of Alzheimer's. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/6819844/Overeating-prevention-hormone-may-protect-against-Alzheimers.html

Culture vultures are happier and healthier

People who participate in or even just attend cultural activities such as painting, dancing or playing a musical instrument tend to feel healthier and less depressed than people who don't. The Norwegian University of Science and Technology have been carrying out a long-term study of 48,289 people and this is the latest result to emerge from the research. The study found a positive relationship between cultural participation and self-perceived health in both men and women and men (but not women) who participated in cultural activities were less likely to be depressed. The findings held true whatever people's socioeconomic status and when chronic illness, social capital, smoking and alcohol were taken into account. You can find out more about this research at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/12/091215160651.htm?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+sciencedaily+%28ScienceDaily%3A+Latest+Science+News%29&utm_content=Google+Reader

Twins in the classroom

It makes no difference to twins' education whether they are educated separately or together. A Dutch study of 839 identical and 1,164 non-identical twins who were followed between the ages of 3 and 12 found that there was no effect on children's test scores at 12 of sharing a classroom with a twin. 72% of the twins had shared a classroom, 19% were in the same school but different classes while 9% partly shared a classroom. Twins from less-wealthy families were more likely to share a class and those with problems with aggressive behaviour were more likely to be separated. You can find out more about this research at http://uk.reuters.com/article/idUKTRE5BE47K20091215?feedType=RSS&feedName=healthNews

Antidepressants and stroke risk

Middle-aged women who take antidepressants may be at an increased risk of stroke. Researchers from Harvard Medical School compared six years' worth of data on 5,500 postmenopausal women who took the drugs with 130,000 people who did not take them. Women taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) had a 45% increase in their risk of stroke and a 32% increase in risk of death from any cause and similar results were found for women taking tricyclic antidepressants. However, the overall risk of any one individual suffering a stroke remained very small - 0.3% in a year for women not taking the drugs and 0.4-0.5% for those taking them. The authors of the study advised people to take other steps to reduce their stroke risk such as losing weight, lowering their blood pressure and stopping smoking rather than running the risk of depression which itself can have adverse consequences on physical health. You can find out more about this research at http://www.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=news&id=124399&cn=5

Drug use soars in Scotland

The number of drugs being prescribed for depression and dementia has soared in Scotland over the last few years as the country grapples with an ageing population and the global recession. Official figures estimate that 9.7% of people aged 15 and over take medication for depression with the total number of prescriptions rising to more than 4 million for the first time. The proportion of the Scottish population taking antidepressants has more than quadrupled over the last 15 years. Despite this the cost of the drugs fell from £40.4 million in 2007-8 to £35.8 million in 2008-9 as drug companies reduced their prices. The use of drugs for ADHD increased by 6.2% over the same period and the number of drugs for dementia rose by 13.2%. You can find out more about this issue at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politics/scotland/6818966/Recession-sees-antidepressant-use-soar.html

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Atomoxetine and social anxiety

It is thought that 12% of people will suffer from social phobia at some point during their lives. Social anxiety disorder can be remarkably debilitating and result in serious functional impairment. The usual method of treating it is with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) which increase the amount of serotonin available in the brain. Substances called noradrenergic reuptake inhibitors which have a similar effect on a substance called noradrenalin have shown promise at treating social anxiety in a number of studies and a team of researchers from the University of California, San Diego looked at the effectiveness of the drug atomoxetine which has the same effect - although it is usually used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In a study of 27 people with social anxiety disorder - half of whom received atomoxetine and half of whom received a placebo - there was little difference in symptoms between the two group.

Ravindran, Lakshmi N. ... [et al] - A randomized controlled trial of atomoxetine in generalized social anxiety disorder Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology December 2009, 29(6), 561-564

Amisulpride and weight gain

Second-generation antipsychotics are usually seen as an important step forward in the treatment of schizophrenia but can lead to weight gain, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular problems. One solution for patients at risk of these conditions is to switch to another drug. Amisulpride has been shown to be linked to less weight gain in the past and a team of researchers from Taiwan studied the effect of switching to it in research involving 92 participants half of whom switched to the drug and half of whom stuck with their original medication. The study found that the participants who switched to amisulpride had less cholesterol and insulin resistance, decreased blood pressure and more beneficial cholesterol.

Lin, Chao-Cheng ... [et al] - Improved body weight and metabolic outcomes in overweight or obese psychiatric patients switched to amisulpride from other atypical antipsychotics Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology December 2009, 29(6), 529-536

Politicians and their stalkers

Because of their high profile celebrities are more vulnerable to stalking than other people and politicans are no exception. A team of researchers from Canada surveyed 424 politicians from both the Federal (national) and Provincial (local) assemblies and found that 29.9% had experienced harassment. 87% of those who had experienced harassment thought that the perpetrator had a mental-health problem. Both Federal and Provincial politicians had experienced harassment and overt threats and subsequent physical approach. Harassers who did not overtly threaten but who both telephoned and wrote more frequently were more likely to approach politicians.

Adams, Susan J. ... [et al] - Harassment of Members of Parliament and the Legislative Assemblies in Canada by individuals believed to be mentally disordered Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology December 2009, 20(6), 801-814

Stopping sex offenders reoffending - how successful are treatments?

There is growing confidence in the ability of health professionals to predict reoffending by sex offenders but less optimism about the effectiveness of treatment. Researchers from Oxleas NHS Trust in south-east London studied 273 sex offenders who had been in the community for an average of nine years. 128 of them had received community treatment from the Challenge Project programme in south-east London. The study found encouraging results to suggest that higher risk and more psychologically-disturbed people who took part in the cognitive-behavioural treatment on offer were likely to complete the programme with high levels of attendance and were less likely to reoffend and breach their parole orders.

Craissati, Jackie, South, Rebecca and Bierer, Klive - Exploring the effectiveness of community sex offender treatment in relation to risk and re-offending Journal of Forensic Psychiatry and Psychology December 2009, 20(6), 769-784

Depression and cognitive deficits

People with depression often have problems thinking - something psychologists call cognitive deficit. However, it is unclear whether these cognitive deficits are due to depression itself or other mental-health problems that can go alongside depression. A team of Finnish researchers looked into this issue in a study of 197 people. 69 of them had depression with no other mental-health problems, 57 had other mental-health problems as well as depression and 71 were healthy controls. The study found no differences between the participants with depression and those who had depression and another mental-health problem. The depressed participants had 'mildly compromised verbal learning' but there were no other cognitive deficits among the participants. People who had received treatment for their depression had more impaired verbal memory and decision making abilities (executive functioning) while those who had become ill at a younger age also had impaired executive functioning.

Castaneda, A.E. ... [et al] - The effect of psychiatric co-morbidity on cognitive functioning in a population-based sample of depressed young adults Psychological Medicine January 2010, 40(1), 29-39

CBT may not be a miracle cure for major mental illness

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is now the dominant form of psychotherapy and is being used in severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, major depression and bipolar disorder that have traditionally been treated primarily with drugs. A team of researchers from the U.K. and Spain - none of whom declared any connections to the drug industry - reviewed a number of studies into the effectiveness of using CBT to treat schizophrenia, major depression and bipolar disorder. They found that CBT was not effective in reducing symptoms in schizophrenia or preventing relapse. It had a small effect in treating major depression but was not effective at preventing relapse in bipolar disorder.

Lynch, D., Laws, K.R. and McKenna, P.J. - Cognitive behavioural therapy for major psychiatric disorder: does it really work? A meta-analytical review of well-controlled trials Psychological Medicine January 2010, 40(1), 9-24

Monday, December 14, 2009

U.K. top of the league - for teenage drug use

A report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction has found that the U.K. has the biggest problem of illegal drug use among teenagers. 5% of 15-16 year-olds had taken cocaine with 3% trying crack. 4% of youngsters had taken ecstasy and three out of ten had tried cannabis. There were estimated to be 860,000 cocaine users in England and Wales and 74,000 problem drug users in London.

You can find out more about this study at


CBT for depression in older people

Older people's depression problems are sometimes put down to loneliness and old age but new research suggests that they can benefit from cognitive behaviour therapy in the same way as younger people. Researchers from University College London studied 204 people over 65 who had been diagnosed with depression. Some of them carried on with their regular treatment while others received CBT. The participants answered questions about their depression at the start of the study and after four and ten months of treatment. The study found that after around seven sessions of CBT people had less depression than those in the other group.

You can find out more about this research at


Healthy bodies and healthy minds

Mens sana in corpore sano - a healthy mind in a healthy body - was one of the most popular sayings in traditional education. Researchers from the University of Gothenburg and the University of Southern California looked at the data for all 1.2 m Swedish men born between 1950 and 1976 who enlisted for mandatory military service at the age of 18. In every measure of cognitive functioning they analyzed - verbal ability, logical performance, geometric perception and mechanical skills - average test scores increased according to aerobic fitness. However, the link was only to aerobic fitness and not to muscular strength. Boys who got fitter between 15 and 18 showed significantly greater intelligence scores than those who became less healthy over the same time period and the boys who were fittest at 18 were more likely to go to college. Even among identical twins the twins who were fitter were more likely to perform better on intelligence tests.

You can find out more about this research at


Depression in USAF personnel

Timothy S. Wells of the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio has been studying more than 40,000 U.S.A.F. personnel who served between 2000 and 2006. They found that among those who experienced combat in Iraq and Afghanistan 6% of men and 16% of women developed depression. In those who were deployed to the two countries but who did not fight the figures were 4% and 8% respectively and in people who did not face combat the figures were 2% and 5%. Male 'combat specialists' had a lower risk for depression than those in health care or other supportive positions while men and women who already had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were also more likely to develop depressive symptoms. Other risk factors for depression included younger age, smoking and alcohol dependence.

You can find out more about this research at


Grumpy men and glowing women - gender and facial expressions

Researchers from the Department of Psychology at the University of Quebec have been looking into the links between gender and facial expression. They showed people a series of androgynous faces and asked them to say whether they were men's or women's. The faces with grumpy expressions - lowered eyebrows and tight lips - were more likely to be identified as male while those with more cheerful expressions were more likely to be identified as female. Another study showed people's faces with a variety of different expressions. Male faces were easier to recognise than female ones while female faces that expressed anger took the longest to identify. Male features such as a high forehead, a square jaw and thicker eyebrows have been linked to perceptions of dominance while more 'female' features such as a rounded baby face with large eyes have been linked to perceptions of people being approachable and warm.

You can find out more about this research at


Depression in new mothers

About one in ten people in the U.S. suffers from depression with women being twice as much at risk as men. Depression can affect the way people bring up their children with mothers' and children's development being affected. A team of researchers led by Robin Gaines Lanzi looked into this issue in a study of the first three years of children born to 682 mothers. 396 of the mothers were adolescent, 169 were 'lower resource' and 117 were 'higher resource.' The study found that the adolescent mothers had higher prenatal rates of depression and were more depressed six months after their baby's birth than the older mothers. As depression increased the mothers displayed less warmth and sensitivity to their children, were less responsive and spoke to them less and their children were less likely to seek out warmth from their mothers.

Lanzi, Robin Gaines ... [et al] - Depression among a sample of first-time adolescent and adult mothers Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing November 2009, 22(4), 194-202

Relational aggression and depression

Relational aggression includes things such as spreading rumours, gossip and socially isolating people. It has been linked to poor health and a team of researchers from Hampton University in Virginia looked into the links between relational aggression and depression in a sample of 241 African American college students. Depression is common in this age group and suicide is the leading cause of death among 15-24 year-olds. The study found that experiencing relational aggression correlated significantly with depression.

Gomes, Melissa M. ... [et al] - Correlation of the experience of peer relational aggression victimization and depression among African American adolescent females Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing November 2009, 22(4), 175-181

Friday, December 11, 2009

Getting to the bottom of youth violence

Researchers from Texas A&M International University have been looking into some of the risk factors that lead children to become violent. They studied 603 children between the ages of 10 and 14 and their parents. 15% of the children said that they had committed non-violent crimes while 12% said that they had taken part in violent criminal behaviour. None of the risk factors the researchers looked at had particularly strong effects but the strongest ones were depression and having delinquent peers. Other risk factors were parents who psychologically abused their partners, having an antisocial personality, negative relationships with adults and family conflict. Watching violent video games or TV programmes had no effect. Youth violence has actually been going down in the U.S. since the 1960s.

You can find out more about this research at


Reading help rewires kids' brains

Scientists from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh have shown that remedial help for children who are poor readers can actually alter their brain structure as well as helping them with their reading. The scientists studied 72 children. 47 were poor readers and 25 were reading at a normal level. Within the group of poor readers 12 did not receive any remedial help and these children formed a control group. The children who received the remedial reading help showed an increase in the quality of their white matter which improved to normal levels. The children who showed the most improvement in their reading also showed the most changes in their white matter.

You can find out more about this research at


Bullying at school and bullying at home

Researchers from the Universita' degli Studi di Firenze have been looking at the links between bullying at home and bullying at school. They studied 195 children aged between 10 and 12 all of whom had a sibling born within four years of them. The study found that children with older brothers were the most victimized group. More boys than girls bullied their siblings who were more likely to be younger than them. In the girls bullying was related more to the quality of their relationship with their sibling than to any age difference. Overall high levels of conflict and low leves of empathy were significantly related to sibling bullying and sibling victimization. Children who bullied their siblings were more likely to be bullies at school and children who were bullied by their brothers and/or sisters were also more likely to be victimized at school.

You can find out more about this research at


Tobacco smoke and behaviour problems

Exposure to tobacco smoke in the womb can lead to behaviour problems by the age of ten. Researchers from Munich studied 5,991 children and their parents. They found that children who had been exposed to tobacco smoke in the womb were 1.9x more likely to develop behaviour problems. Children exposed to tobacco smoke after birth were at 1.3x greater risk. Children who were exposed to tobacco smoke both while in the womb and later had double the risk of behaviour problems. The kind of behavioural problems the children were at an increased risk of included hyperactivity, attention-deficits and problems in their relationship with their peers.


Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Sleep problems and hyperactivity

Researchers from the Universite de Montreal have been looking into the links between lack of sleep and hyperactivity in small children. 2,057 mothers answered yearly questionnaires about how well their children slept and their hyperactivity. The study found that children who didn't sleep long were generally hyperactive boys who lived under adverse family conditions. The link between lack of sleep and hyperactivity was weaker than the link between hyperactivity and lack of sleep but the children who slept persistently for at least 11 hours had low hyperactivity scores. Boys whose mothers were less well-educated, came from a poor family, who were comforted outside the bed or who got into bed with Mum and Dad after waking up in the night were more at risk of having a bad night's sleep and becoming hyperactive.

You can find out more about this research at


Asthma/pregnancy drug may increase mental-health risks

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine have been looking into the effects of drugs called beta 2 adrenergic agonists on unborn children. The drugs are used to treat asthma and to inhibit or slow down labour but the study found that they may also increase the incidence of autism, mental-health problems, cognitive problems and poor school performance. The drugs are thought to have an adverse effect by disrupting the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems but it is important to remember that early labour and asthma in pregnancy can also have adverse effects on mothers and children. You should always see your doctor before stopping taking medicine.


Lead and mental-health problems

People with more lead in their bloodstream are more at risk of mental-health problems - even at levels currently considered safe. Researchers from the University of Montreal used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey covering 1,987 men and women between 20 and 39. They found that the more lead people had in their bloodstream the greater their risk of depression and panic disorder. People with the highest levels of lead in their blood were more than twice as likely to suffer from major depression and five times as likely to suffer from panic disorder. High levels of lead are known to interfere with neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine.

You can find out more about this research at


MAO-A and depression.

Monoamine oxidase A (MAO-A) is a chemical in the brain that breaks down other chemicals including serotonin. Serotonin is associated with good mood and high levels of MAO-A have been associated with depression. Researchers at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto used PET (positron emisssion tomography) scanning to look at the levels of MAO-A and serotonin in people's brains as they were being treated with antidepressants. The study found that the drugs raised serotonin levels but did nothing to decrease levels of MAO-A. Some early antidepressants did target MAO-A but they fell out of favour in the 1970s due to adverse reactions with certain foods. These problems have been overcome now so it could be time to look again at the effectiveness of MAO-A inhibitors.


Purple grape juice and memory loss

There is evidence that a healthy diet can reduce people's risk of Alzheimer's disease and new research suggests that drinking purple grape juice can reduce, or even reverse, memory loss. In a small-scale trial researchers from the University of Cincinnati compared people drinking purple grape juice to those drinking a placebo. The study lasted 12 weeks and both groups' memories were regularly tested. The memories of the group drinking grape juice improved over the course of the study - possibly due to the antioxidants in the grape juice. The participants in the trial were aged between 75 and 80 and already suffering from early memory loss.

You can find out more about this research at


Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Antidepressants and personality

Antidepressants could affect people's personalities as well as their moods. Researchers from Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois studied 240 volunteers. They gave 120 the antidepressant paroxetine, 60 received cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and the other 60 took a placebo. The participants' personalities and depression symptoms were assessed before and after treatment. After 12 weeks all the participants showed a marked drop in their depression symptoms but only the ones taking paroxetine became much less neurotic and much more extrovert. Neuroticism is known to increase the risk of depression whereas extroversion decreases it suggesting that the antidepressants may work by changing the way people see the world and how they relate to others as much as by dealing with the depression itself.

You can find out more about this research at


Craving, concentration and cigarette smoking

Researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara have been studying the effects of craving cigarettes on people's concentration. They studied 44 heavy smokers, none of whom had had a cigarette in the last six hours before the start of the study. Some of them were allowed to smoke during the experiment while others were not. The participants had to read pages from War and Peace and press a button marked ZO every time they felt themselves zoning out (drifting off). They were also prompted by a message on screen asking them if they were zoning out. After 30 minutes they took a reading comprehension test. The participants who had not been allowed to smoke and who were craving cigarettes were three times as likely to drift off during the study but were no more likely to admit to it.

You can find out more about this research at

In 2009 around 2 million children in the U.S. had a parent in either the active or reserve component of the military. A study of some of these children by researchers from the RAND corporation found that across all age groups children from military families reported significantly higher levels of emotional difficulties with a third reporting symptoms of anxiety. Older children had more difficulties with school and more problem behaviour such as fighting while younger children had more anxiety. Girls had fewer problems in school and with friends but also felt more anxiety. The impact of a longer deployment was more marked on girls - perhaps because they were more likely to take on extra chores - while the mental health of the parent remaining at home was also an important factor. There were no significant differences between the children in terms of which service their parents were in.

You can find out more about this research at


Bipolar disorder, antiepileptics and suicide risk

People with bipolar disorder are sometimes treated with antiepileptic drugs but there have been worries that these can increase people's suicide risk. Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago studied 47,918 people with bipolar disorder, 13,385 of whom were taking antiepileptics. They found that those taking the antiepileptic drugs had similar rates of suicide attempts as those taking lithium or those people who were taking no medication at all. In fact after people started taking the antiepileptic drugs they had a significantly lower rate of suicide attempts than before they had started taking them. Relative to taking no medication at all taking antiepileptic medication led to a fivefold decrease in risk.

You can find out more about this research at


Monday, December 07, 2009

The burden of depression and anxiety

Worldwide, mental-health problems accounted for 9.4% of the burden of illness in 2002, compared to 9.9% for cardiovascular disease and 5.1% for cancer. Within mental illness depression is thought to make up about 55% of the burden, with anxiety making up 30%. Tahany M. Gadalla, from the University of Toronto, used data from the 2005 Canadian Community Health Survey, covering 108,986 people to look at the impact of depression and anxiety in Canada. Her study found that there were higher rates of anxiety and depression among women, those between 30-69, those who were single, divorced or widowed, those born in Canada, those with a low income and those with a chronic physical illness. Having anxiety or depression was significantly associated with short-term disability, needing help with daily activities and a reduction/modification of work activitiy.

Gadalla, Tahany M. - Association between mood and anxiety disorders and self-reported disability: results from a nationally representative sample of Canadians Journal of Mental Health December 2009, 18(6), 495-503

Cannabis and suicide

Although cannabis has been linked to psychosis (see below) there is not such good evidence linking it to depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide. Researchers from Cardiff and Bristol universities and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm studied 50,087 men conscripted for military service in Sweden and compared the records from their army medicals with suicides recorded on the National Cause of Death Register over the next 33 years. There were 600 suicides among the group over the next 33 years with cannabis increasing the risk by 62%. However, the link between cannabis and suicide disappeared once the researchers took into account other factors. These included: having a low IQ, drinking heavily, having parents with mental-health problems, smoking heavily, using other drugs, having a psychiatric diagnosis when conscripted, having a 'high problematic behaviour score', 'poor psychological adjustment' and poor social relations.

Price, Ceri ... [et al] - Cannabis and suicide: longitudinal study British Journal of Psychiatry December 2009, 195(6), 492-497

Skunk and psychosis

There has been a lot of debate about the links between cannabis and psychosis and in particular the effects of high-strength 'skunk' cannabis which contains much more of the active ingredient delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol. Researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London compared 280 people turning up for treatment with their first episode of psychosis with 174 healthy people recruited from the local population. There was no difference between the two groups in terms of whether they had ever taken cannabis but people with psychosis were over six times more likely to be current daily users of cannabis and over twice as likely to have smoked cannabis for more than five years. 78% of the people with psychosis smoked skunk compared to only 37% of the control group.

Di Forti, Marta ... [et al] - High-potency cannabis and the risk of psychosis British Journal of Psychiatry December 2009, 195(6), 488-491


STEPPS (Systems Training of Emotional Predictability and Problem Solving) has been shown to be effective in adults with borderline personality disorder (BPD). Emotion Regulation Training (ERT) is a simplified variation of the STEPPS programme which can be used in group therapy work with adolescents. It focuses on helping teenagers know themselves better, manage their emotions and improve their problem-solving skills. It involves 17 weekly sessions and two booster sessions 6 and 12 weeks after the main sessions have finished. A team of Ducth researchers studied the effectiveness of ERT, comparing 23 teenagers who had been given the treatment with 20 who had received treatment as usual. Both groups showed equal reductions in BPD symptoms over the course of the study but the ERT group had a significant increase in feeling that they were in control of their lives. The ERT participants also reported more sense of control over their mood swings.

Schuppert, H. Marieke ... [et al] - Effectiveness of an emotion regulation group training for adolescents: a randomized controlled pilot study Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy November-December 2009, 16(6), 467-478

Friday, December 04, 2009

Crossing the threshold into mental illness

Depending on your point of view psychiatric diagnosis is either a logical scientific process, an art form or (not-so) inspired guesswork. People with severe mental-health problems are relatively easy to diagnose but some people can fall below the threshold of a diagnosable illness but still have a number of problems. A team of researchers from the University of Illinois-Chicago and the Oregon Research Institute carried out a 15-year study of 1,505 young adults in the community. They found that 'subthreshold' depression, anxiety, alcohol and substance abuse all escalated into their corresponding syndrome. 'Subthreshold' mental health problems also made it more likely that people would go on to develop other mental-health problems as well.

Shankman, Stewart A. ... [et al] - Subthreshold conditions as precursors for full syndrome disorders: a 15-year longitudinal study of multiple diagnostic classes Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry December 2009, 50(12), 1485-1494

Depression in teenage girls

It is thought that between 10% and 18.5% of people suffer from major depression during their adolescence. The peak age of onset is 15 with the average length of an episode of depression being about 6 months. Girls are thought to be particularly vulnerable and a team of researchers from Oregon Research Institute and the University of Texas, Austin looked into this issue by following a sample of 496 girls over 7 years, between the ages of 12 and 20. About 1 in 6 of the girls experienced major depression which lasted for an average of 5.3 months and peaked at age 16. Being white and younger were associated with greater feelings of worthlessness and wanting to kill oneself during periods of depression. 1 in 5 girls suffered from minor depression and adolescents from minority groups were more at risk from this.

Rohde, Paul ... [et al] - Major and minor depression in female adolescents: onset, course, symptom presentation and demographic associations Journal of Clinical Psychology December 2009, 65(12), 1339-1349

Depression in mothers of autistic children

It is estimated that 1 in 150 children born in the U.S. has autism. Mothers of autistic children face a number of challenges including uncertainty about their child's capabilities, difficulties in dealing with their children's behaviour and making sure services are provided to help their children. Not surprisingly, mothers of autistic children tend to suffer more from depression than other mothers. A team of researchers from the University of Massachusetts looked into this issue in a sample of 143 mothers of autistic children. The mothers were enrolled in the study when their were 18 to 33 months old and followed annually for two years. The mothers were found to have 'moderately elevated' symptoms of depression. Bad behaviour on the part of the children, delayed development, maternal anxiety, anger and hostility, low 'parenting efficacy' and lack of social support were all associated with more severe depression but only levels of anxiety and 'parenting efficacy' were linked to changes in depression symptoms over time.

Carter, Alice S., Martinez-Pedraza, Frances de L. and Gray, Sarah A.O. - Stability and individual change in depressive symptoms among mothers raising young children with ASD: maternal and child correlates Journal of Clinical Psychology December 2009, 65(12), 1270-1280

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Guiltless, fearless and lawless - disregarding rules in young children

Some children seem to break rules without experiencing either guilt or a fear of punishment. A team of researchers, led by Amelie Petitclerc from University College Dublin, looked into this issue in a sample of 1,942 children studied from when they were 5 months to when they were just over six. They found that 4.3% of the children showed a chronic disregard for rules. This was more likely if they were boys, if their mothers had had a history of antisocial behaviour or if their mother or father had experienced depression shortly after they were born. A child's difficult temperament, or the kind of parenting they experienced at 5 months did not influence how much they disregarded rules later, once other risk factors had been taken into account.

Petitclerc, Amelie ... [et al] - Disregard for rules: the early development and predictors of a specific dimension of disruptive behavior disorders Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry December 2009, 50(12), 1477-1484

Self esteem and drinking

Self-esteem is generally thought to be a good thing. However, there is evidence that it is not so helpful when it comes to health promotion. People with high self-esteem tend to have an 'it'll never happen to me' philosophy and underestimate the risks of unhealthy behaviour. A team of researchers led by Christopher A. Neumann of the Forest Institute, Springfield, Missouri tested this theory on 304 college students (all of whom drank) by giving them literature from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and then asking them about their attitudes to alcohol, intentions to cut down on their drinking and actual drinking behaviour. The study found that women, especially those with low self-esteem, were more worried about their drinking after reading the literature but men and those students with high self-esteem showed much less inclination to cut down on their drinking. High self-esteem was also associated with drinking more often and more binge drinking.

Neumann, Christopher A. ... [et al] - Self-esteem and gender influence: the response to risk information among alcohol using college students Journal of Substance Abuse December 2009, 14(6), 353-363