Thicker brain sections tied to spirituality: study

For people at high risk of depression because of a family history, spirituality may offer some protection for the brain, a new study hints.

Parts of the brain’s outer layer, the cortex, were thicker in high-risk study participants who said religion or spirituality was “important” to them versus those who cared less about religion.

“Our beliefs and our moods are reflected in our brain and with new imaging techniques we can begin to see this,” Myrna Weissman told Reuters Health. “The brain is an extraordinary organ. It not only controls, but is controlled by our moods.”

Weissman, who worked on the new study, is a professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at Columbia University and chief of the Clinical-Genetic Epidemiology department at New York State Psychiatric institute.

While the new study suggests a link between brain thickness and religiosity or spirituality, it cannot say that thicker brain regions cause people to be religious or spiritual, Weissman and her colleagues note in JAMA Psychiatry.

It might hint, however, that religiosity can enhance the brain’s resilience against depression in a very physical way, they write.

Previously, the researchers had found that people who said they were religious or spiritual were at lower risk of depression. They also found that people at higher risk for depression had thinning cortices, compared to those with lower depression risk.

The cerebral cortex is the brain’s outermost layer made of gray matter that forms the organ’s characteristic folds. Certain areas of the cortex are important hubs of neural activity for processes such as sensory perception, language and emotion.

For the new study, the researchers twice asked 103 adults between the ages of 18 and 54 how important religion or spirituality was to them and how often they attended religious services over a five-year period.

In addition to being asked about spirituality, the participants’ brains were imaged once to see how thick their cortices were.

All the participants were the children or grandchildren of people who participated in an earlier study about depression. Some had a family history of depression, so they were considered to be at high risk for the disorder. Others with no history served as a comparison group.

Overall, the researchers found that the importance of religion or spirituality to an individual – but not church attendance – was tied to having a thicker cortex. The link was strongest among those at high risk of depression.

“What we’re doing now is looking at the stability of it,” Weissman said.

Her team is taking more images of the participants’ brains to see whether the size of the cortex changes with their religiosity or spirituality.

“This is a way of replicating and validating the findings,” she said. “That work is in process now.”

Dr. Dan Blazer, the J.P. Gibbons Professor of Psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, said the study is very interesting but is still exploratory.

“I think this tells us it’s an area to look at,” Blazer, who was not involved in the new study, said. “It’s an area of interest but we have to be careful.”

For example, he said there could be other areas of the brain linked to religion and spirituality. Also, spirituality may be a marker of something else, such as socioeconomic status.

Blazer added that it’s an exciting time, because researchers are actively looking at links between the brain, religion and risk of depression.

“We’ve seen this field move from a time when there were virtually no studies done at all,” he said.

Weissman said the mind and body are intimately connected.

“What this means therapeutically is hard to say,” she added.

Source: Reuters

Study: Concussions May Lead To Alzheimer’s Plaque Buildup For Some

Concussions have already been linked to the Alzheimer’s-like degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in athletes and military members who have experienced repeated head blows and traumatic brain injuries.

Now, a new study links concussions to Alzheimer’s disease itself.

Mayo Clinic researchers gave brain scans to 141 Minnesotans who had been experiencing memory problems, and found those who had suffered a brain injury that caused them to black-out had more amyloid plaques in their brain than those who hadn’t.

Amyloid plaque is the telltale sign of Alzheimer’s disease, formed by pieces of a sticky protein that break off in the brain and clump together. Some clumps may form in brain regions involved in learning, memory and thinking, the Alzheimer’s Association explains. More plaques form as the disease progresses.

Researchers gave brain scans to 448 people without any memory or cognitive problems, and 141 people who had mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a condition characterized by declines in memory and thinking skills that aren’t caused by aging. They were also asked whether they had ever experienced a brain injury that caused them to lose consciousness. People with MCI are at a heightened risk of developing Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia, but not everyone with the condition will get worse.

The researchers found 18 percent of those with MCI had reported a prior brain injury, and on scans, they saw the patients had an average of 18 percent more amyloid plaques than those with no history of head trauma. They found no plaque differences in any of the brain scans of people without memory problems, regardless of whether they’d had a brain injury.

Source: dig triad

Theatre could help autistic youth improve social deficits

A novel autism intervention program is using theatre to teach reciprocal communication skills to improve social deficits in adolescents with the disorder, a new study has revealed.

The newly released study assessed the effectiveness of a two-week theatre camp on children with autism spectrum disorder and found significant improvements were made in social perception, social cognition and home living skills by the end of the camp.

Called SENSE Theatre, the Social Emotional Neuroscience and Endocrinology (SENSE) program evaluates the social functioning of children with autism and related neuro developmental disorders.

Camp participants ages 8 to 17 years join with typically developing peers who are specially trained to serve as models for social interaction and communication, skills that are difficult for children with autism.

The camp uses techniques such as role-play and improvisation and culminates in public performances of a play.

Lead author Blythe Corbett, Ph.D., associate professor of Psychiatry and Vanderbilt Kennedy Center investigator, said that the findings show that treatment can be delivered in an unconventional setting, and children with autism can learn from unconventional ‘interventionists’ – their typically developing peer.

Corbett said that their findings show that the SENSE Theatre program contributes to improvement in core social deficits when engaging with peers both on and off the stage.

The study has been published in the journal Autism Research


Irregular bedtimes linked to kids’ behavioral problems

A regular bedtime might guarantee more than a good night’s sleep for both kids and their parents — it turns out that a regular bedtime can make for a better-behaved child, new research suggests.

When 7-year-olds had irregular bedtimes, they were more likely to have behavior problems than their peers with a consistent time for their nightly shut-eye. And, the study also found that the longer a child had been able to go to bed at different times each night, the worse his or her behavior problems were.

“Irregular bedtimes were linked to behavioral difficulties, and these effects appeared to accumulate through early childhood,” said the study’s lead author, Yvonne Kelly, a professor of lifecourse epidemiology at University College London.

“We also found that the effects appeared to be reversible — children who changed from not having, to having, regular bedtimes showed improvements in behaviors, and vice versa,” she added.

Kelly and her colleagues reviewed data on more than 10,000 7-year-olds who were enrolled in the U.K. Millennium Cohort Study. Details on the children’s bedtimes were collected when they were 3, 5 and 7 years old.

At the same time that sleep findings were collected, researchers asked teachers and mothers to rate the children’s behaviors. The behavior survey included 25 questions.

Kids with irregular bedtimes had more behavioral problems than did children with regular bedtimes, according to both their teachers and their mothers. The children’s mothers rated the children with irregular bedtimes as having slightly more behavior problems than did the teachers.

The longer a child had an irregular bedtime, the greater the behavioral difficulties. On average, a child who had an irregular bedtime at one time-point in the study increased his or her score on the behavioral difficulties scale by about a half-point. If that child had an irregular bedtime at two time-points during the study, the score increased by about 1 point. If the child had an irregular bedtime at all three time-points during the study, the score increased by just over 2 points.

“A half-point corresponds to a ‘small’ effect. Irregular bedtimes at two ages, and all three ages, corresponded to a 1- and 2-point difference in behavior scores. These effect sizes would have ‘moderate’ clinical significance,” said Kelly when asked if these score differences would make a noticeable difference in a child’s behavior.

The good news from the study is that if you switch your child to a regular bedtime from an irregular bedtime schedule, your child’s behavior will likely improve. The reverse is also true. If a child with a regular bedtime switches to an irregular one, behavior will likely worsen, the researchers noted.

Kelly said irregular bedtimes could contribute to behavior problems in several ways. “First, switching bedtimes from night to night interferes with circadian rhythms [the body clock] and induces a state akin to jet lag. Second, disrupted sleep interferes with processes to do with brain maturation,” she explained.

Dr. Ruby Roy, a pediatrician at La Rabida Children’s Hospital in Chicago, agreed that several reasons may contribute to a connection between irregular bedtimes and behavior problems.

“When kids don’t have structure and predictability, they have anxiety,” Roy said. “Kids naturally want to push boundaries, and when they don’t have boundaries, it causes anxiety and acting out. A lack of sleep can also cause behavior problems, and some of these kids may only be going to sleep when they’re passing out from exhaustion, which means they won’t get enough sleep,” she explained.

“Kids probably sleep better with regular bedtimes and when they have established bedtime routines,” Roy added.

Kelly concluded: “Getting regular routines around bedtimes appears to be important for children’s behavioral development. But, there are lots of other influential factors, too. So we shouldn’t get too hung up about children having the same bedtime every single night.”

The study was published online Oct. 14 and in the November print issue of the journal Pediatrics.


Parents who used donor eggs struggle to tell kids

Many people who used donor eggs to become parents are grappling with the issue of whether they should tell their children how they were conceived, according to a new study. Up to 60 percent of donor-egg recipients weren’t sure if they would inform their child how they came to be for fear of facing cultural disapproval or being ostracized by their community, researchers found.

 And even parents who did plan to tell their children about their genetic history often had trouble deciding exactly how and when to have this conversation.

A second study followed up on parents who had their children via egg donation at least 10 years ago, to find out if they’d actually gone on to tell them and how it felt before and after the revelation.

The findings are scheduled for presentation Thursday at a meeting of the International Federation of Fertility Societies and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM), in Boston.

“Even though many parents through egg donation remain uncommitted to discussing it with their children, we see a trend toward greater openness which reflects our society’s increasing comfort level with [fertility treatment] and increasing recognition that there are many different ways to create a family,” Richard Reindollar, president-elect of the ASRM, said in a meeting news release.

“Counseling and resources need to be made available to parents who use egg donation, not just at the time of their [fertility treatment] cycle, but into the life of their family to assist them in the disclosure process,” he added.

Experts generally advise that children conceived with a donor egg be informed about their genetic heritage and medical history. Still, the study authors, from Reproductive Medicine Associates of New York and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, found that many parents are hesitant to have this discussion.

The researchers asked 438 patients who received donated eggs between 2008 and 2012 about their plans to reveal or withhold this information to any children they had through the process.

Over the course of the study, the percentage of donor-egg recipients willing to talk to their children about their origin fluctuated significantly. In 2008, 42 percent of recipients said they planned to inform their children. This dropped to just 21 percent by 2009, but later rebounded to 47 percent of parents in 2012.

Parents who planned to talk to their kids about their genetic history said they did not want to keep secrets and wanted their children to have important information about their medical history.

The study found that 40 percent to 60 percent of parents were undecided about whether they would tell their kids about how they were conceived. Aside from fear of disapproval from their community, these parents did not want their child to be confused about their identify or how they perceived themselves, the study found.

In a separate study, researchers from the Weill Cornell Medical College, in New York City, asked parents who used egg donors between 1992 and 2003 if they followed through on their decision to talk to their child about how they were conceived. Of the 64 families involved in the study, 43 percent had told their children about their genetic history.

These families had a combined 73 children between 2 years old and 19 years old, all conceived with the help of a donor egg. On average, the children learned about their conception at the age of 6. Parents who revealed this information by the time their child was 10 years old reported being anxiety-free and happy with their decision.

Of the 57 percent who had not yet spoken to their child about their conception, 87 percent still planned to do so at some point. Of these parents, however, 43 percent were not sure how to go about having the discussion, which was causing the delay.

Parents who had not made the revelation by the time their child became a teen felt a significant amount of anxiety about it.



Brain Size Linked To Eating Disorders

Is brain size related to eating disorders? University of Colorado researchers discovered that girls with anorexia nervosa had a larger insula, a part of the brain that is active when tasting food, in comparison to girls without the disorder. They also found evidence of a larger orbitofrontal cortex, a part of the brain that signals when to stop eating, in anorexic girls.

“The negative correlation between taste pleasantness and orbitofrontal cortex volume in individuals with anorexia nervosa could contribute to food avoidance in this disorder,” wrote the authors in their study newly published in The Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.

Peering Within

After assembling a group of 19 adolescents with anorexia nervosa and a control group of 22 healthy girls, Dr. Guido Frank, assistant professor at the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine, and his colleagues used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study gray matter and white matter volume. The researchers also employed diffusion tensor imaging, which can reveal abnormalities in white matter, to assess brain tissue integrity. Finally, they compared their results to similar studies of both adult individuals with anorexia and a group of healthy volunteers.

What the researchers discovered was, compared to the healthy control group, individuals with anorexia had greater left orbitofrontal, right insular, and bilateral temporal cortex gray matter volumes and greater temporal lobe white matter volumes. Generally, the temporal lobe is involved in processing sensory input. The right insular sorts out taste perception and also integrates body perception. Because of the abnormality seen in these areas, the researchers of this study suggest that these brain areas may contribute to the perception of being fat despite being underweight.


With regard to the orbitofrontal cortex, this is the region of the brain involved in decision making. In fact, previous studies have identified the medial orbitofrontal cortex as the area of the brain that “signals” a feeling of being sated by a certain type of food.

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The results of this study, then, suggest that the larger volume in the orbitofrontal cortex fosters the abnormal behavior of anorexics. Perhaps, the researchers noted, it is this enlarged brain area that prompts anorexics to stop eating before they’ve had enough food — sooner than a healthy individual would. Significantly, this bigger-than-normal orbitofrontal cortex is not a characteristic of anorexia alone, but can be found in a variety of eating disorders.

Complementary Work

In a previous study, a group of researchers led once again by Frank found evidence indicating the reward circuits in the brain are sensitized in anorexic women anddesensitized in obese women. In fact, their research suggested that eating behavior may be related to dopamine pathways, the same neural networks involved in addictions.


Within rodents, it had been proven that food restriction and weight loss are associated with greater dopamine-related reward responses, the researchers sought to study the same brain processes in humans. To do so, Frank and his colleagues turned to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). With this technology, they examined the brain activity of 63 women who were either anorexic or obese and then compared the results to the brain activity of women considered a “normal” weight.

How exactly did they design the experiment? The researchers relied on a familiar task associated with understanding dopamine function in the brain: They conditioned the women participants to associate certain shapes with either a sweet or a non-sweet solution and then the researchers expectedly or unexpectedly provided the taste solutions. During the experiment, an unexpected sweet-tasting solution resulted inincreased neural activation of reward systems in the anorexic patients and decreasedactivation in obese individuals.

“It is clear that in humans the brain’s reward system helps to regulate food intake,” Frank stated in a press release. Although these networks function in anorexia nervosa and obesity, the specific mechanism and reasons for this have not yet been made clear.



Brain processes ‘big’ words faster than ‘small’ ones

Human brain can quickly understand words for big things, like whale, than ‘small’ words like plum, a new study has found.

Researchers at the University of Glasgow had previously found that big concrete words – ocean, dinosaur, cathedral were read more quickly than small ones such as apple, parasite and cigarette.

Now they have discovered that abstract words which are thought of as big greed, genius, paradise are also processed faster than concepts considered to be small such as haste, polite and intimate.

“It seems that size matters, even when it’s abstract and you can’t see it,” Dr Sara Sereno, a Reader in the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology, who led the study, said.

Participants were presented with a series of real words referring to objects and concepts both big and small, as well as nonsense, made-up words, totaling nearly 500 items. The different word types were matched for length and frequency of use.

The 60 participants were asked to press one of two buttons to indicate whether each item was a real word or not.

This decision took just over 500 milliseconds or around a half second per item.

Results showed that words referring to larger objects or concepts were processed around 20 milliseconds faster than words referring to smaller objects or concepts.

“This might seem like a very short period of time, but it’s significant and the effect size is typical for this task,” said Sereno.

“It turned out that our big concrete and abstract words, like ‘shark’ and ‘panic’, tended to be more emotionally arousing than our small concrete and abstract words, like ‘acorn’ and ‘tight’. Our analysis showed that these emotional links played a greater role in the identification of abstract compared to concrete words,” Lead author Dr Bo Yao said.

“Even though abstract words don’t refer to physical objects in the real world, we found that it’s actually quite easy to think of certain concepts in terms of their size,” said co-author Professor Paddy O’Donnell.


Memory develops even beyond age 7: Study

Scientists have found that some important components of memory keep developing even after the age of 7.

While some parts of memory are nearly fully developed by 4 years of age, researchers found that episodic memory – the ability to remember not only what happened, but where and when – takes longer to develop than often assumed.

That means young children may have no problem with remembering certain simple events or facts. But in some cases, they may have difficulty placing them in the right place, time or context.

“It is often assumed that most development in memory occurs by the time children have completed preschool, but we found a lot happens in memory development after 7 years of age,” said Vladimir Sloutsky, co-author of the study and professor of psychology at The Ohio State University.

Sloutsky conducted the study with Hyungwook Yim, a doctoral student in psychology at Ohio State, and Simon Dennis of the University of Newcastle in Australia.

Dennis said children experience major difficulty remembering events that have overlapping elements.

The study included two experiments with 4- and 7-year-old children and adults.

In one experiment, participants were shown pictures of six pairs of objects that had to be remembered together when they were in a red house, such as a couch and a bicycle, and a dog and coffee cup.

Some of the participants were then shown that in a blue house, the same objects appeared with different pairings.

The researchers made sure that each child remembered the pairs that were found in each house, so that these simple memories were not an issue.

What the researchers really wanted to know was whether children could correctly keep track of the overlapping elements of the memories, such as that the dog was paired with the coffee cup in the red house, but the dog was paired with the couch in the blue house.

The results showed that children had great difficulty remembering the different pairings in the red house versus the blue house.

“Children had a problem when there was overlap in what they had to remember from one context to another. They didn’t have the ability to create the more complex memory structures they needed,” Yim said.

In the second study, the researchers had the pairs of objects associated with cartoon characters that the children would be familiar with, such as Elmo and Dora the Explorer.

This was to see if making the context more interesting and relevant to the children (compared to the houses in the first experiment) would improve their memory.

However, the results showed the children’s performance did not significantly improve with the cartoon characters, rather than the houses.

The study will be published in the journal Psychological Science.

Source: Times of India

A Video Game Makes Old Brains Act Younger

Some people as old as 80, the researchers say, begin to show neurological patterns of people in their 20s.

Brain scientists have discovered that swerving around cars while simultaneously picking out road signs in a video game can improve the short-term memory and long-term focus of older adults.

  Cognitive scientists say the findings, to be published Thursday in the scientific journal Nature, are a significant development in understanding how to strengthen older brains. That is because the improvements in brain performance did not come just within the game but were shown outside the game in other cognitive tasks.

  Further supporting the findings, the researchers were able to measure and show changes in brain wave activity, suggesting that this research could help understand what neurological mechanisms should and could be tinkered with to improve memory and attention.

  The research “shows you can take older people who aren’t functioning well and make them cognitively younger through this training,” said Earl K. Miller, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was not affiliated with the research. “It’s a very big deal.”

  The study highlights an emerging field in which researchers are trying to better define and even expand the limits of attention, which is seen as crucial to performance, memory and intelligence. Previous studies, done at the University of Rochester and focused more on young people, show that heavy use of certain off-the-shelf, intense shooting games can lead to improvements in a user’s ability to ignore distractions, and even learn.

  Daphne Bavelier, who led that research, cautioned that the field was young, and that brain training could have side effects, like changing how the brain functions for the worse.

  “We know we can rewire the brain, but the challenge is how to do it properly,” she said. “We’re in the primitive age of brain training.”

  The significance of the research seems underscored by the title on the cover of the Nature issue reporting it: “Game Changer.”

  Still, this generation of research came with other strong warnings from neuroscientists, who say it in no way proved that interacting with computers provided a surefire way to get smarter. Dr. Miller said most so-called brain games did not work as advertised, and the research shows that scientists should develop the games and objectively test their effectiveness.

  But he and others also said these developments might offer some antidote to a problem often made worse by technology: limited focus because of constant stimulation and multitasking.

  The latest research was the product of a four-year $300,000 study done at the University of California, San Francisco. Neuroscientists there, led by Dr. Adam Gazzaley, worked with developers to create NeuroRacer,  a relatively simple video game in which players drive and try to identify specific road signs that pop up on the screen, while ignoring other signs deemed irrelevant.

  One of the main early findings of the study reinforced just how challenging it is to multitask successfully, particularly as people age. People in their 20s experienced a 26 percent drop in performance when they were asked to try to drive and identify signs at the same time (rather than just identify the signs without driving). For people in their 60s to 80s, the performance drop was 64 percent.

  But after the older adults trained at the game, they became more proficient than untrained people in their 20s. The performance levels were sustained for six months, even without additional training. Also, the older adults performed better at memory and attention tests outside the game.

  “That is the most grabbing thing here,” Dr. Gazzaley said. “We transferred the benefit from inside the game to different cognitive abilities.”

  Still, Dr. Gazzaley said the findings should not be taken to suggest that any activity or video game would improve cognition or lead to brain changes.

  “There’s a big leap between what we did here and the real world,” he said. If someone tries to multitask in everyday life, his performance could remain steady or be harmed by the divided attention. The tools people use, he said, must have scientific rigor behind them in the same way that training of great athletes requires a regimen.

  The researchers created a second layer of proof by monitoring the brain waves of participants using electroencephalography. What they found was that in older participants, in their 60s to 80s, there were increases in a brain wave called theta, a low-level frequency associated with attention. When older subjects trained on the game, they showed increased bursts of theta, the very types of bursts seen regularly in people in their 20s.


How Biofeedback Train Your Brain to Think Smarter

You exercise your body in the pursuit of optimal function, but what about your brain? Those looking to get an edge in—and out—of the gym are flexing their minds with neuro feedback. We’re not talking Sudoku puzzles here (though they have their benefits), but neuro feedback—the process of hooking up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) in order to “train” your brain

it sounds a bit sci-fi, but it may dial down your stress level and help you tap into your potential. “Neuro feedback [also commonly called biofeedback] is somewhat like putting the brain on an elliptical machine or a stair stepper in order to exercise certain regulatory functions. For example, the brain can get stuck in an anxious state and neuro feedback training enables it to shift into a calmer state for optimal function. Essentially, you’re aiding the brain’s ability to self-regulate,” says neuro feedback specialist Evelyn Shapero of the Brain fitness Centre in Los Angeles.

The practice has been proven effective for treating serious conditions including depression, PTSD, and ADHD, but in today’s tech-driven world many are now seeking it out to alleviate stress. “If a patient has unreasonable fatigue and insomnia, or unexplained weight gain, I test the adrenals to see if there’s a disharmonic pattern to their cortisol production,” says Eva Cwynar, MD, a Beverly Hills endocrinologist, assistant professor of clinical medicine at UCLA, and author of The Fatigue Solution. “If stress hormones like cortisol are too high or low at the wrong times of the day, or too high throughout the day, it can eventually cause the adrenals to say, ‘I quit.’ Once that happens, the only thing I’ve found to help get the body back in balance is neuro feedback.”

How It Works Even though that balance is achieved gradually, rather than as a quick fix, most people note feeling a difference after their first session. The process, while complex and highly individualized, basically works like this: Non-invasive electrodes are attached to the surface of the scalp to measure brain waves and provide feedback as a specialized software program (often a video game) helps guide the brain into a more desired state through subtle and unconscious corrections until the brain ultimately learns to perform at its best—naturally. Think of it like a high-tech fitness coach, guiding you through exercises and correcting your form until, eventually, you no longer need any assistance.

Try it, however, and you may find it hard to give up. Because neurofeedback enhances the function of both the brain and the central nervous system, it can help you tap into that elusive state of flow, one in which mind and body are seamlessly in sync (without any conscious effort), making it a natural for the sports arena where athletes must perform like finely-tuned machines. Olympic athletes have used it as a training tool and tennis great Novak Djokovic, known for his open-minded approach to diet, health, and training, utilizes it to monitor his stress levels. “If the adrenals aren’t functioning well, your neurotransmitters can be affected and the imbalance can extrapolate to every other hormone in the body, influencing testosterone, thyroid, insulin levels, and more,” says Cwynar. “By recreating balance in the body, neuro feedback helps everything run more smoothly, that is why it helps athletes, too. Your metabolism, your ATP, your mitochondria, everything just functions better.”

Source: freenewspos