Category: mental health

Music May Be an Effective Guide For Understanding Human Brain Activity

NSF grant supports research to develop new models to better understand the brain

TROY, N.Y. — When Sergio Pequito thinks about the brain, he visualizes a piano. The keys represent different parts of the brain, and the pressure applied by the pianist’s fingers represents the outside stimuli that promote brain functions. 

Just as notes and harmonies can be mapped onto sheet music, Pequito, an assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is looking to transcribe the brain’s complex dynamics into new data models that can help researchers better understand how the brain and human cognition work. This composition effort, of sorts, is being supported by a new grant from the National Science Foundation

“We have showed that, by thinking like this, there was a lot of activity in the brain that we were able to mimic and capture,” Pequito said. “We believe that we can use the math and models we have developed to capture intrinsic features that justify how the brain behaves over space and time.” 

Pequito’s team, which includes a collaborator from the University of Southern California, will use publicly available brain signal data from the National Institutes of Health to improve the models they have built. The data has been collected using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology, which tracks blood and oxygen flow as they increase in active parts of the brain. 

Pequito and his team are trying to provide insight into how a healthy brain functions, as well as how one with a neurological disease may behave. Continuing this analogy, Pequito explained that just as a pianist who hits the wrong key may create a dissonant noise, the models developed by his research team will show when something is a bit off in the brain’s activity. 

Industrial and systems engineers develop tools to analyze how complex systems interact. Pequito believes that this type of approach to humanity’s long-standing questions about the brain can provide new understanding about the relationships between functions like attention, learning, memory, decision-making, and language. These insights may prove useful in improving current technology by reverse-engineering the brain, which is one of the National Academy of Engineering’s Grand Challenges for Engineering

“We have all sorts of tools that we, as industrial engineers, can use,” Pequito said. “Now, we are working to improve them so we can provide new insights for the neuroscience and medical community.”

Brain inflammation in veterans with Gulf War illness

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In a new discovery, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) have detected widespread inflammation in the brains of veterans diagnosed with Gulf War Illness (GWI). These findings, published online in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity on February 3, could serve as a guidepost for identifying and developing new therapies for people with GWI, as well as many other chronic conditions that have recently been linked to inflamed brain tissue, or neuroinflammation.

About 30 percent of soldiers who fought in the 1991 Gulf War suffer from GWI. Veterans with GWI display a range of symptoms, including fatigue, chronic pain and cognitive problems such as memory loss. The cause of GWI is unknown, but several potential culprits are suspected. They include exposure to nerve gas, as well as medicine given to protect against this neurotoxin; exposure to pesticides; and the stress of extreme temperature changes, sleep deprivation and physical exertion during deployment

Many of the symptoms of GWI overlap with those of another condition, fibromyalgia, notes the senior author of the study, Marco Loggia, PhD, whose laboratory at MGH’s Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging focuses on understanding the brain mechanisms of pain and neuroinflammation in humans. Last year, Loggia and his colleagues showed in another study that fibromyalgia patients have extensive neuroinflammation. “So, we asked, Do veterans who have Gulf War Illness demonstrate evidence of neuroinflammation, too?”

To find out, Loggia and his team collaborated with the Gulf War Illness Consortium at Boston University, which helped them to recruit Gulf War veterans. The study included 23 veterans, of whom 15 had GWI, as well as 25 healthy civilian subjects. All study participants’ brains were scanned using positron-emission tomography (PET) imaging, which measured levels of a molecule called translocator protein that rises in the presence of neuroinflammation. The scans detected little evidence of neuroinflammation in the healthy controls and veterans who were free of GWI. By contrast, the study found extensive inflammation in the brains of veterans with GWI, “particularly in the cortical regions, which are involved in ‘higher-order’ functions, such as memory, concentration and reasoning,” says Zeynab Alshelh, PhD, one of two research fellows in Loggia’s lab who co-led the study. “The neuroinflammation looked very similar to the widespread cortical inflammation we detected in fibromyalgia patients,” says Alshelh.

What might cause neuroinflammation? The central nervous system has legions of immune cells that protect the brain by detecting bacteria, viruses, and other potentially harmful agents, then producing inflammatory molecules to destroy the invaders, explains Loggia. However, while this response can be beneficial in the short term, it may become exaggerated, says Loggia, “and when that happens, inflammation becomes pathological–it becomes the problem.”

Research by Loggia’s lab and other investigators has also implicated neuroinflammation in a number of additional conditions, including chronic pain, depression, anxiety, autism, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis (MS), Huntington’s disease and migraine. The findings of the GWI study, says Loggia, “could help motivate a more aggressive evaluation of neuroinflammation as a potential therapeutic target.”

Exercise Improve Video Game Performance?

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Time spent playing video games is often seen as time stolen from physical activities. Research has shown that exercise has many physical and cognitive benefits. But what if exercise could benefit video game performance as well? A new study led by neuroscientist Dr. Marc Roig and his research team from the School of Physical & Occupational Therapy at McGill University, found, for the first time, that it can. The results of this study challenge the preponderant view that video gaming and physical activity are antagonistic activities. The findings were published online in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

“The idea for the study actually came from two of my students in The Memory Lab , Bernat de Las Heras and Orville Li,” explains Dr. Roig, the study’s senior author. “They devoted so much time and effort investigating the impact of exercise on brain plasticity and cognition in people who have various conditions such as stroke or Parkinson’s Disease, that they were curious to also explore the relationship between exercise and video game performance, a leisure activity that some of them are very familiar with. The question was whether a single bout of exercise could improve video game performance?”

Several studies have shown that increased screen time, including video gaming is associated with low levels of physical activity and that video gamers who exceed screen-time limits are at greater risk of experiencing health issues associated to physical inactivity. The evidence also reveals that a lack of physical activity combined with increased sedentary activity puts people at a greater risk of experiencing health issues including cardiometabolic clinical conditions such as hyperlipidemia, coronary heart disease and diabetes as well as psychosocial issues. Participating in an exercise program can improve overall health, reduce the risk of developing these sedentary-related cardiometabolic health problems and is also shown to have positive effects on cognition.

Discovering the benefits of exercise to gaming

Conducting their work at The Memory Lab, the researchers showed that as little as 15 minutes of intense cardiovascular exercise, performed immediately before playing a video game, improved the performance of the popular online video game, League of Legends (LoL). To complete the study, a group of young individuals were asked to either perform intense cardiovascular exercise, or rest, immediately before playing the same customized mission in LoL. Their performance in the video game was observed and documented and found to improve after exercise in comparison with rest. The research group was excited to find these results not only because exercise can have a positive effect on video gaming performance but also because this is the first time this has been demonstrated.

This positive relationship of exercise and video gaming could have an important impact on the growing number of people who play video games worldwide. The latest statistics show that there are 2.3 billion video game players in the world and this number is expected to increase to 2.7 billion by 2021. Online video game platforms such as League of Legends or Fortnite have 67 and 78.3 million players monthly respectively. At the same time as video game use is increasing, as a society we are failing to promote physical activity in younger individuals. The findings in this study could produce a dramatic shift in the video game discussion as the results provide a strong argument to convince the rapidly growing number of video gamers in the world to become more active physically.

“It was surprising that most participants benefited from the effects of exercise regardless of their fitness level and their emotional response to exercise,” notes Dr. Roig. “It was striking to see that those participants who were not in exceptionally good shape or were not particularly crazy about exercise also improved their video game skill level after the single bout of exercise. This suggests that this intervention could be suitable for many individuals in our society. Video gamers could potentially integrate exercise into their training routines not only to enhance their video game performance but also to benefit from the well-known effects of exercise on physical and cognitive health.”

Plans to expand on this research in the future

Looking ahead, the group would be interested to see whether these findings can be extrapolated to other video games and whether other exercise modalities would show similar effects. It would also be interesting to look into potential underlying mechanisms and whether multiple exercise sessions would have summative effects on video gaming skills. Finally, but not the least important, one could ask whether the results of this study will be enough to change the habits of sedentary video gamers and their views on physical activity.

Dr. Roig says that one of the main challenges of the study was to create a video game task that was close enough to real video gaming but that also allowed the researchers to measure the performance of players reliably. That is why the research group is thinking about partnering with a company to create a video game platform for research purposes. The idea would be to create a video game that could be used to study the effects of different interventions (e.g. exercise) on different cognitive and motor skills. They would also like to explore the combined effects of exercise and video gaming as a multimodal intervention to improve cognition in non-disabled individuals but also those suffering from clinical conditions.

‘How I Fell for My Field’

Credit: San Diego State University
Alicia Kinoshita, Ph.D., San Diego State, Associate Professor, Water Resources Engineering

For Valentine’s Day, we asked faculty and staff at nine CSU campuses to tell us how their lifelong love affair with their discipline began.

As the adage goes, “Choose a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” The CSU is lucky to be replete with faculty and staff across its 23 campuses who’ve found their true calling. And for those who work with them—whether students or colleagues—that dedication to education is infectious.

Read on to hear how faculty and staff at nine CSU campuses fell head over heels for their discipline.

ALICIA KINOSHITA | Ph.D., San Diego State, Associate Professor, Water Resources Engineering

When did your love of post-fire recovery take hold? “I started working in this field as an undergraduate research assistant taking samples and measurements of water and soil. The research also took me to amazing locations such as the Sierra Nevada and Colorado. I loved being outside rather than in an office, and when I realized I could do this for a living, I was sold.”

Why did you fall in love with it? “I really loved hiking and being outside. Glimpses of wildlife still fill me with awe and remind me that sometimes systems need to be reset. I also find great satisfaction in investigating the landscape after it has been disturbed and watching the changes over time. For example, after wildfire, it is amazing to watch a charred landscape evolve, from ash to green sprouts to dense vegetation.”

BRIAN SELF | Ph.D., Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Professor, Mechanical Engineering, 2020 Wang Award Winner

When did your love of engineering take hold? “During my first year I took a survey course in biomedical engineering at Virginia Tech and really enjoyed it. As a result, I majored in a little-known department called engineering science and mechanics because it gave me the most flexibility to pursue biomedical types of courses. From there, I was able to get a job as a research engineer with the Air Force, where I investigated things like pilots pulling g’s [g-forces], ejections from aircraft and spatial disorientation.”

Why did you fall in love with it? “The human body is probably the most complex engineering system there is. As a civilian researcher, I got to use a human centrifuge to investigate human tolerances to sustained acceleration and to look at how high-altitude flight affects pilot performance. When I moved to Cal Poly, friends and I mentored senior design students as they developed devices to help people with disabilities participate in sports. I most love the amazing variety of interesting projects that I get to do, the wonderful colleagues I work with and the amazing students I get to mentor and teach.”

TED STANKOWICH | Ph.D., Cal State Long Beach, Director, The Mammal Lab

When did your love of animals take hold? “I began studying ecology and evolution early in college and then spent a summer vacation assisting with research on sharks. My junior year, I took a course in animal behavior and loved it. I then had the opportunity to work in one of the professor’s labs studying behavior in naked mole rats for my honors thesis.”

What is it about skunks? “They have this powerful noxious weapon everyone knows about, but…nobody studies their behavior. They are abundant and everyone seems to have a great skunk story to share. They are a misunderstood creature: They don’t stink themselves, aren’t aggressive, don’t ‘want’ to spray you and none of the large mammalian predators want anything to do with them!”

JOANNA PEREZ | Ph.D., CSU Dominguez Hills, Assistant Professor, Sociology

When did your love of sociology take hold? “As an undergraduate, learning about the sociological imagination—which is the connection between self and society—ignited my interest in the field. For the first time, I was able to critically analyze and contextualize my lived experiences as a first-generation student and daughter of immigrants. Today, I get to advocate for social justice through research, teaching and service.”

Why did you fall in love with it? “Sociology has allowed me to engage in efforts that alter the social conditions of marginalized communities. This includes conducting research on Latino undocumented immigrant activists, facilitating a student-centered learning environment and addressing the needs of underserved communities.”

COLIN DEWEY | Ph.D., Cal Maritime, Associate Professor, English

When did your love of English take hold? “After high school, I had no interest in higher education. Instead, I went on a road trip and visited the lighthouse at Point Arena in Northern California. The idea of becoming a lighthouse keeper led to a hitch in the U.S. Coast Guard; after my enlistment, I began sailing on commercial ships. I found an old volume of John Ruskin’s Victorian social commentary ‘Queen of the Air’ on board a freighter. In a later job, I had the opportunity to be a peer-tutor. When I went from solitary reading at sea to engaging others through tutoring, and then teaching, I recognized that sharing knowledge and helping others to reach the kinds of ‘Eureka!’ moments that I’d experienced with that Ruskin book was what I wanted to do.”

Why did you fall in love with it? “When I belatedly accepted the challenge and opportunity higher education held, I’d already spent close to 20 years working at sea. Education unlocked vast stores of knowledge unimaginable to my previous autodidact self. The recognition that I could help guide others along a path similar to the one I’d taken—regardless of their social or economic background—has become a vocation.”

BRIAN LEVIN | J.D., Cal State San Bernardino, Professor, Criminal Justice, Director, Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism, ​2020 Wang Award Winner

When did your love of the study of civic cohesion and extremism take hold? “When Judge A. Leon Higginbotham taught me that a key component of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was its partial reliance on social science data. From then on, I felt there was a place for informed research with respect to policymaking.”

Why did you fall in love with it? “When I first started in 1986, no one was collecting national data about hate crimes and there were no new anti-hate crime laws at the federal levels. Even the constitutionality of state laws was still in doubt. This created opportunities to influence public policy through participation in landmark cases, police training and legislative fact-finding. Through this, I represented civil rights groups before Congress and in various Supreme Court amici briefs. Getting involved so early gave me an up-close chance to learn from key mentors, to whom I am still indebted, while also advancing the discourse that illuminates public policy reform.”

ERIC BARTELINK | Ph.D., Chico State, Professor, Physical Anthropology​​

When did your love of anthropology take hold? “I realized this was my calling in 1995 when I was an undergraduate student in anthropology. I decided to shift my focus specifically to bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology after listening to some guest speakers.”

Why did you fall in love with it? “The idea that you can reconstruct several aspects of a person’s life from their skeleton always fascinated me, whether it was someone who died recently or hundreds or even thousands of years ago.”

LAURA LUPEI | Sonoma State, Senior Director, University Budget and Planning, 2020 Wang Award Winner

When did your love of budgeting take hold? “As soon as I started working at Somoma State 19 years ago, I knew it was a great fit. I spent every day solving problems and looking at both the details and the big picture of the university, something I hadn’t yet realized that came so naturally to me.” 

Why did you fall in love with it? “I really fell in love with budgeting when we started our strategic budgeting initiative. Budgeting is a lot more fun when an organization uses it as a tool for planning and moving forward a set of priorities rather than reacting. It has been extremely satisfying to watch our campus culture shift, and I never thought so many people would be interested in listening to my budget presentations!”

RAJEE AMARASINGHE | Ph.D., Fresno State, Professor & Chair of Mathematics, 2020 Wang Award Winner

When did your love of math take hold? “After being injured as an officer in the Sri Lankan Navy, I was forced to rethink my future. Having this time to contemplate my next move, I remembered the love I had for mathematics as a child. This realization led me to pursue graduate studies in mathematics, where I would eventually begin conducting research in mathematics education. When I realized I could transform the lives of others through mathematics, I truly began to appreciate the work I was doing as a mathematics educator.”

Why did you fall in love with it? “Oftentimes, there are students and teachers who’ve never had that opportunity to see, feel and enjoy the beauty of mathematics. It’s such a joy when someone gets that ‘A-ha’ moment where they realize mathematics is beautiful and that they had fun engaging in it. I truly fell in love with the work I am doing when I realized that I could bring this joy to people every day.”

Happy wife, Happy life

A happy partner leads to a healthier future

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Science now supports the saying, “happy wife, happy life.” Michigan State University research found that those who are optimistic contribute to the health of their partners, staving off the risk factors leading to Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and cognitive decline as they grow old together. 

“We spend a lot of time with our partners,” said William Chopik, assistant professor of psychology and co-author of the study. “They might encourage us to exercise, eat healthier or remind us to take our medicine. When your partner is optimistic and healthy, it can translate to similar outcomes in your own life. You actually do experience a rosier future by living longer and staving off cognitive illnesses. 

An optimistic partner may encourage eating a salad or work out together to develop healthier lifestyles. For example, if you quit smoking or start exercising, your partner is close to following suit within a few weeks and months. 

“We found that when you look at the risk factors for what predicts things like Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, a lot of them are things like living a healthy lifestyle,” Chopik said. “Maintaining a healthy weight and physical activity are large predictors. There are some physiological markers as well. It looks like people who are married to optimists tend to score better on all of those metrics.” 

The study

Published in the Journal of Personality and co-authored by MSU graduate student Jeewon Oh and Eric Kim, a research scientist in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, followed nearly 4,500 heterosexual couples from the Health and Retirement Study for up to eight years. The researchers found a potential link between being married to an optimistic person and preventing the onset of cognitive decline, thanks to a healthier environment at home. 

“There’s a sense where optimists lead by example, and their partners follow their lead,” Chopik said. “While there’s some research on people being jealous of their partner’s good qualities or on having bad reactions to someone trying to control you, it is balanced with other research that shows being optimistic is associated with perceiving your relationship in a positive light.” 

The research also indicated that when couples recall shared experiences together, richer details from the memories emerge. A recent example, Chopik explained, was Google’s tearjerker Super Bowl ad, “Loretta,” in which an elderly man uses his Google Assistant to help him remember details about his late wife. 

“The things he was recollecting were positive things about his partner,” Chopik said. “There is science behind the Google ad. Part of the types of memories being recalled were positive aspects of their relationship and personalities.” 

With all of its benefits, is optimism something that can be prescribed? While there is a heritable component to optimism, Chopik says there is some evidence to suggest that it’s a trainable quality. 

“There are studies that show people have the power to change their personalities, as long as they engage in things that make them change,” Chopik said. “Part of it is wanting to change. There are also intervention programs that suggest you can build up optimism.” 

Across the board, everyone benefits from a healthy dose of optimism from their partner. For the glass-is-half-empty people, a partner can still quench their thirst. For the glass-is-half-full people? Their cup runneth over. 

Michigan State University has been working to advance the common good in uncommon ways for 160 years. One of the top research universities in the world, MSU focuses its vast resources on creating solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges, while providing life-changing opportunities to a diverse and inclusive academic community through more than 200 programs of study in 17 degree-granting colleges.

Synchronization of Memory Cells Critical For Learning and Forming Memories

Credit: UNH

On the left is an enlarged image showing many hippocampal neurons, most of which are silent and only a few are active. On the right are close ups of three highly active neurons, or memory cells, which become synchronized after memory formation

The phrase “Pavlov’s dogs” has long evoked images of bells, food and salivating dogs. Even though this tried-and-true model of repetitive patterns mimics a variety of learning processes, what happens on a cellular level in the brain isn’t clear. Researchers at the University of New Hampshire took a closer look at the hippocampus, the part of the brain critical for long-term memory formation, and found that the neurons involved in so-called Pavlovian learning shift their behavior during the process and become more synchronized when a memory is being formed – a finding that helps better understand memory mechanisms and provides clues for the development of future therapies for memory-related diseases like dementia, autism and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“There are tens of millions of neurons in the hippocampus but only a small fraction of them are involved in this learning process” said Xuanmao (Mao) Chen, assistant professor of neurobiology. “Before engaging in Pavlovian conditioning, these neurons are highly active, almost chaotic, without much coordination with each other, but during memory formation they change their pattern from random to synchronized, likely forging new connecting circuits in the brain to bridge two unrelated events.

In the study, recently published in The FASEB Journal, researchers looked at Pavlovian learning patterns, or respondent conditioning, in mice. In the beginning, before any repetitive learning exercises, the mice did not know what to expect and using special imaging with an endomicroscope the researchers saw that the neural activity was disorderly. But after repeating different tasks associated with a conditional stimulus, like a tone or bell, the mice began to recognize the pattern and the highly active neurons became more synchronized. The researchers hypothesize that without forming synchronization, animals cannot form or retrieve this type of memory.

In the 1890’s, Russian psychologist, Ivan Pavlov discovered classical conditioning through repetitive patterns of bell ringing which signaled to his dogs that food was on its way and stimulated salivation. This same learned behavior is important for episodic knowledge which is the basis for such things as learning vocabulary, textbook knowledge, and memorizing account passwords. Abnormal learning processing and memory formation are associated with a number of diseases like dementia, autism, and PTSD. People who struggle with these cognitive dysfunction-related disorders may have trouble retaining memories or can even form too strong a memory, as with PTSD patients. The UNH researchers believe that understanding the fundamentals of how classical conditioning shape neural connections in the brain could speed up the development of treatments for these disorders in the future.

Contributing to these findings are Yuxin Zhou, doctoral candidate; Liyan Qiu, research scientist; both at UNH, and Haiying Wang, assistant professor at the University of Connecticut.

This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Cole Neuroscience and Behavioral Faculty Research Awards.

The University of New Hampshire inspires innovation and transforms lives in our state, nation and world. More than 16,000 students from all 50 states and 71 countries engage with an award-winning faculty in top-ranked programs in business, engineering, law, health and human services, liberal arts and the sciences across more than 200 programs of study. As one of the nation’s highest-performing research universities, UNH partners with NASA, NOAA, NSF and NIH, and receives more than $110 million in competitive external funding every year to further explore and define the frontiers of land, sea and space. 

Schizophrenia Is A Disease, Not An Extreme of Normal Variation

“Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and many other types of mental illness, are diseases of the brain and should be treated and studied as such,” say Johns Hopkins researchers.

Photo by DESIGNECOLOGIST

Does this statement seem a bit obvious and not exactly rocket science? Although it may, this isn’t how the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) — the psychiatry wing of the National Institutes of Health — currently views severe mental disorders such as schizophrenia, autism, bipolar disorder and dementia. The NIMH is the largest federal agency that provides research funding on mental disorders.

For the past decade, the NIMH has used a system called Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) to describe all mental illnesses as dimensions of psychological norms that fall along extremes of too much or too little of common personality traits. For example, everyone has minor fears of things such as spiders, heights or snakes. But, having very strong or unmanageable fears might constitute an anxiety disorder.

While this way of thinking may make sense for anxiety, Johns Hopkins physicians argue that for the most severe of mental disorders — such as autism, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder — the approach will lead clinicians and scientists in the wrong direction. These conditions aren’t the result of too much or too little of a normal human trait. Rather they represent a clear-cut shift outside the typical dimensions of human experience.

In every other field of medicine, researchers use animal models of diseases based on genes and their interactions that contribute to disease risk. However, the current NIMH approach directs psychiatric researchers to focus on normal variation. Research on animal models with genetic variations that increase the risk of diseases often doesn’t get funded, they say.

The researchers lay out their thoughts in two commentaries, both published in Molecular Neuropsychiatry, one published in 2018 and the other in the October 2019 issue.

In their first commentary, the researchers argue that the NIMH approach of thinking of mental illness in dimensional terms is like regressing back to Galen’s Humors of the second century, when all illnesses were attributed to the imbalance of one of the four humors: yellow bile, black bile, blood and phlegm. Then, they argue that a biomedical approach using the tools of genetics, neuroscience and imaging can lead to rational targets for therapies. The second commentary is a point-by-point critique of the NIMH system and its flaws. They say that the RDoC system moves away from the proven power of biomedical research, which explores the causes of diseases and their effects on human biology. They add that the RDoC system doesn’t appropriately address the natural history or progression of a disease.

“Using the RDoC system hasn’t advanced the field of psychiatry, diverts attention from achieving an understanding of underlying mechanisms and ultimately delays discovering rational treatments for these diseases,” says author Christopher A. Ross, M.D., Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, neurology, neuroscience and pharmacology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

This change in how the NIMH approaches mental illnesses occurred about a decade ago. Leadership at the NIMH initiated the RDoC system with the best motives in mind, in order to encourage neuroscience research to study how cells communicate with one another in the brain. However, this change to the RDoC system happened before modern genetic and other techniques pointed toward specific causes of major mental illnesses.

“No other NIH institute has adopted a scheme so discordant from modern biomedical research practice,” says Ross.

“The NIMH strategy makes psychiatry — and especially psychiatric research — seem like a strange and esoteric endeavor, not part of mainstream biomedicine, with the consequence of stigmatizing the entire discipline, including its patients,” says co-author Russell Margolis, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and neurology at Johns Hopkins.

Now that investigators have identified some genetic and environmental causes, and are beginning to reveal molecular mechanisms behind these disorders, the researchers say that it’s time for the NIMH to readjust their system. These changes should allow for conditions such as autism, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia to be researched and treated as diseases — and not as fringe versions of normal variation. Moving toward a system that values the biomedical approach, comparable with the other NIH institutes, they say, would guide the NIMH to support studies on mechanisms of disease, so researchers can design more targeted therapies for those with different forms of these illnesses. As psychiatric genetics is complex, so are the genetics of many common medical diseases, such as diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. Nevertheless, in other fields, scientists successfully use modern biomedical technique to address complex diseases. The authors contend that the field of psychiatry and patients with severe mental diseases deserve no less.

Ross received research support from JNJ/Janssen, Teva, Raptor/Horizon, Vaccinex, uniQure and Roche/Genentech unrelated to these publications, and has consulted for Teva, Sage, uniQure, Roche/Ionis, Azevan, Annexon and the Healthcare Services Group. Margolis received grant support from Teva unrelated to the publications discussed here.

Too Much of a Good Thing? 😜

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That Italian restaurant with the excellent linguini that you’ve indulged in so often you can no longer face a meal there.

The conference with brilliant but endless keynotes: You start the day full of enthusiasm, but by the fourth breakout you’re flagging. The action movie that has you on the edge of your seat for so long and with so little down time that your brain goes numb long before your legs do.

It’s called satiation. And once you pass the satiation point, consuming more — even of something you love — means enjoying it less. Your senses become clogged by so much of one stimulus; they become tired and don’t process your enjoyment.

Of course, feeling satiated is a temporary state. Taking a break from the restaurant or skipping a few of the keynotes will leave you ready for more in due course.

So how do you know where the satiation point will kick in? And how long does it take to rebuild your appetite for more?

Shedding rigorous scientific light on all of this is new research by Darden Professor Manel Baucells.

EVERYTHING IN MODERATION?

Together with Lin Zhao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Baucells has created a mathematical model that charts the satiation state and the time that it takes for satiation to “decay” — in other words, the optimal amount of rest from an experience or activity that is needed in order for enjoyment to resume.  

“We know from research — and common sense — that the old axiom is true: Everything is better in moderation,” says Baucells. “You tire of something if you’re overexposed to it. If you go to a concert, you’re likely to enjoy the first songs more than those that come in the middle, unless the playlist has been carefully calibrated to avoid satiation. We wanted to calculate where satiation kicks in and how it impacts enjoyment. We also wanted to understand how much time needs to elapse until satiation subsides and we start to enjoy something again.”

Understanding these dynamics, says Baucells, can help optimize the design of experiences and activities.

THE SATIATION MODEL

Baucells and Zhao’s satiation model plots three core dimensions: the consumption rate of an experience or activity or product, the satiation level, and the moment-by-moment enjoyment produced by that experience or activity or product. This third dimension is called “instant utility.”

The model is novel in that it is the first to introduce a “de-satiation motive,” charting the time it takes for satiation to decay — and enjoyment rise again.

The satiation model captures three key ideas:

  • The more frequently we consume something, the faster our satiation rate increases.
  • Enjoyment levels go down as satiation levels go up.
  • Resting between experiences decreases satiation and increases the enjoyment of the experiences that come after the break.

The paper also offers a “proof of concept” on how to measure, based on reports from individuals, specific parameters of the model such as how fast the satiation level decays during rest. Such measurements would allow us to improve the design of experiences, make better predictions on how much individuals would like a particular design, or monitor preferences from beginning to end of a time period.

THE SCIENCE IN LEAVING THE BEST FOR LAST

“Right now, a combination of intuition and experience determine how experiential services are design in many spheres of business,” says Baucells. “Intuitively we know when we go to a show or a concert that the best is generally left for last. But if you ask organizers or producers why that is, you’ll likely get a host of different reasons.”

The satiation model brings greater coherence to our understanding of the dynamics at play — a logical approach that can serve to either support or debunk gut feeling.

The model shows that satiation peaks and falls over a period of time. A high-low-high pattern works best for maximum satisfaction: Ideally, we’d still start an experience with a bang, then take things down a notch, then end with a grand finale. Having satiation peak right at the end of an experience or activity won’t penalize that activity because, simply put, nothing comes after the end. There is no further chance for satiation to increase, as the final peak is followed by an indefinite period of decay or rest. Moreover, ending on the highest note leaves one with a positive memory of the experience — an important source of consumer satisfaction.

Baucells’ model also points to how to optimize rests or breaks between activities (e.g., between songs in a concert), or to use variety to minimize satiation and optimize enjoyment.

“It’s the scientific explanation behind why we need to hear acoustic songs in a rock concert, or have our high-energy action interspersed with quieter scenes in a movie.”

So no matter how much you like kayaking or golfing, booking a six-day vacation centered around the activity will not be as fun as booking two separate three-day vacations. And mixing things up with, say, a horseback ride, will do wonders for how much more you appreciate the next golf course.

IMPLICATIONS

Decision-makers would do well to factor this understanding into business models, loyalty programs and marketing efforts, say the researchers.

Managing satiation more scientifically has benefits that span any number of sectors.

Restaurant mangers might want to think about reducing portion size in order to boost the sale of desserts. Customer loyalty efforts might be well served both by prioritising innovation and variety of offers, and by allowing greater periods of time to elapse between promotions.

There are key insights here that can even inform the debate on income inequality, Baucells says.

“The satiation model shows us that people tire of something if they do it too frequently. This can be just as easily applied to high-wealth individuals and spending habits,” says Baucells. “The model tells us that people cannot efficiently spend money on consumption indefinitely, and that has implications for inequality or philanthropy. Individuals with large wealth will eventually reach their satiation points in consumption, and their capacity to make any significant increase in enjoyment by spending more will eventually plateau. Past this point, philanthropy may make more sense.”

Autism Diagnosis Test Needs Improvement

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Study finds inconsistencies in a broadly used autism test

Rutgers researchers have found that a test widely used to diagnose whether children have autism is less reliable than previously assumed.

The study is published in the journal Neural Computation.

The standardized test, known as the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS), assesses communication skills, social interaction and play for children who may have autism or other developmental disorders.

The researchers digitized the test by attaching wearable technology, like an Apple Watch, to two clinicians and 52 children who came in four times and took two different versions of the test. 

When researchers looked at the scores of the entire cohort, they found they did not distribute normally – which could mean a chance of false positives inflating the prevalence of autism, among other implications.

The results showed that switching clinicians may change a child’s scores and consequently influences the diagnosis. The researchers found similar results when they analyzed open-access data of 1,324 people ages 5 to 65, said Elizabeth Torres, associate professor of psychology in Rutgers’ School of Arts and Sciences, and director of The New Jersey Autism Center of Excellence.

“The ADOS test informs and steers much of the science of autism, and it has done great work thus far,” said Torres, whose expertise has brought emerging computer science technology to autism. “However, social interactions are much too complex and fast to be captured by the naked eye, particularly when the grader is biased to look for specific signs and to expect specific behaviors.”

The researchers suggest combining clinical observations with data from wearable biosensors, such as smartwatches, smartphones and other off-the-shelf technology.

By doing so, they argue, researchers may make data collection less invasive, lower the rate of false positives by using empirically derived statistics rather than assumed models, shorten the time to diagnosis, and make diagnoses more reliable, and more objective for all clinicians.

Torres said autism researchers should aim for tests that capture the accelerated rate of change of neurodevelopment to help develop treatments that slow down the aging of the nervous system.

“Autism affects one out of 34 children in New Jersey,” she said. “Reliance on observational tests that do not tackle the neurological conditions of the child from an early age could be dangerous. Clinical tests score a child based on expected aspects of behaviors. These data are useful, but subtle, spontaneous aspects of natural behaviors, which are more variable and less predictable, remain hidden. These hidden aspects of behavior may hold important keys for personalized treatments, like protecting nerve cells against damage, or impairment, which could delay or altogether stop progression.”

The study was co-authored by Richa Rai, a graduate student in psychology at Rutgers University, Sejal Mistry, a former Rutgers Biomathematics student now at the University of Utah Medical School, and Brenda Gupta from Montclair State University.

Sleep-Deprived Due to the Super Bowl? 40% of U.S. Adults Usually Are

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Fun on Super Bowl Sunday can lead to a tired Monday for many. In a new survey from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), nearly 40% of U.S. adults said they are more tired than usual the Monday after the Super Bowl. With pre-game entertainment, high-profile commercials, a star-studded halftime show and high-stakes football, the event can run well into the night.

“It’s easy to stay up too late after enjoying a night of football, food and friends,” said AASM President Dr. Kelly A. Carden. “To get the sleep you need after the Super Bowl, it is recommended that you plan ahead and prioritize your bedtime on Sunday night to avoid a tired day at work on Monday.”

The AASM provides the following tips for a post-Super Bowl sleep game plan:

  • Avoid food and drinks after halftime. Eating heavy meals or foods that upset your stomach, and drinking caffeine or alcohol too close to bedtime, can negatively affect your sleep. If you’re hungry late at night, eat a light, healthy snack.
  • Shut off the TV and other electronic devices after the game. Avoid the temptation to engage in post-game commentary on social media. Instead, give yourself some time to unwind before going to bed.
  • Prioritize your bedtime. Most adults need at least seven hours of sleep to feel their best during the day. Make sure you get to bed at a reasonable hour to avoid feeling tired on Monday.