Social Cues Are Difficult for People with Schizophrenia

Social Cues Are Difficult for People with Schizophrenia New research finds that impairment in a brain area make it difficult for people with schizophrenia to understand the nonverbal actions of others. “Misunderstanding social situations and interactions are core deficits in schizophrenia,” said psychologist Dr. Sohee Park of Vanderbilt University. “Our findings may help explain the origins of some of the delusions involving perception and thoughts experienced by those with schizophrenia.” Researchers found that a particular brain area, the posterior superior temporal sulcus or STS, appears to be implicated in this deficit. “Using brain imaging together with perceptual testing, we found that a brain area in a neural network involved in perception of social stimuli responds abnormally in individuals with schizophrenia,” said co-author Randolph Blake, Ph.D. “We found this brain area fails to distinguish genuine biological motion from highly distorted versions of that motion.” “We have found… that people with schizophrenia tend to ‘see’ living things in randomness and this subjective experience is correlated with an increased activity in the (posterior) STS,” the authors wrote. “In the case of biological motion perception, these self-generated, false impressions of meaning can have negative social consequences, in that schizophrenia patients may misconstrue the actions or intentions of other people.” In their experiments, the researchers compared the performance of people with schizophrenia to that of healthy controls on two visual tasks. One task involved deciding whether or not an animated series of lights depicted the movements of an actor’s body. The second task entailed judging subtle differences in the actions depicted by two similar animations viewed side by side. On both tasks, people with schizophrenia performed less well than the healthy controls. Next, the researchers measured brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while the subjects—healthy controls and schizophrenia patients—performed a version of the side-by-side task. Once again, the individuals with schizophrenia performed worse on the task. The researchers were then able to correlate those performance deficits with the brain activity in each person. Researchers do not yet understand this specific brain area in schizophrenia patients fails to differentiate normal human activity from non-human motion. They speculate that this abnormal brain activation contributes to the patients’ difficulties reading social cues in the actions of others. Their findings are published in the journal PLoS ONE. Source: Vanderbilt University

Postural Problems a Sign of Bipolar Illness?

Postural Problems a Sign of Bipolar Illness?Although motor deficits often accompany a mood or psychiatric disorder, most researchers have not targeted motor areas as a method to improve mental health. In a new study, researchers at Indiana University suggests that postural control problems may be a core feature of bipolar disorder, not just a random symptom. The investigators believe attention to the postural problems can provide insights both into areas of the brain affected by the psychiatric disorder and new potential targets for treatment. Bipolar disorder is a severe psychiatric disorder characterized by extreme, debilitating mood swings and unusual shifts in a person’s energy and ability to function. Balance, postural control and other motor control issues are frequently experienced by people with mood and psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and neurological disorders such as Huntington’s and Parkinson’s disease. In this study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, researchers surmised that problems with postural control — maintaining balance while holding oneself upright — are a core component of bipolar disorder. As such, the researchers believe it is possible that the motor abnormalities could appear before other symptoms, signaling an increased risk for the disorder. According, researchers wanted to know if therapies that improve motor symptoms may also help mood disorders. “For a number of psychological disorders, many different psychiatric treatments and therapies have been tried, with marginal effects over the long term. Researchers are really starting to look at new targets,” said Amanda Bolbecker, Ph.D., lead author of the study. “Our study suggests that brain areas traditionally believed to be responsible for motor behavior might represent therapeutic targets for bipolar disorder.” The link between motor and mental is not as distant as some would believe. For example, try as we might, humans cannot stand perfectly still. “Instead, we make small adjustments at our hips and ankles based on what our eyes, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and semi-circular canals tells us,” said S. Lee Hong, Ph.D., a study co-author. “The better these sensory sources are integrated, the less someone sways.” Areas of the brain that are critical for motor control, mainly the cerebellum, basal ganglia and brain stem, also aid in mood regulation and are areas where abnormalities often are found in people with bipolar disorder. Postural sway — a measure of the endless adjustments people make in an attempt to stand still — is considered a sensitive gauge of motor control that likely is affected by these abnormalities. In the study, participants who had bipolar disorder displayed more postural sway, particularly when their eyes were closed, than study participants who had no psychological disorders. The troubles, which involved the study participants’ proprioception, or ability to process non-visual sensory information related to balance, were not affected by their mood or the severity of their disorder. “It appears that people with bipolar disorder process sensory information differently and this is seen in their inability to adapt their movement patterns to different conditions, such as eyes open vs. eyes closed or feet together vs. feet apart,” said Hong, whose research focuses on how humans control motion. “The different conditions will cause people to use the information their senses provide differently, in order to allow them to maintain their balance.” Additional research is called for as investigations involving motor control, mood and psychiatric disorders are complicated by the fact that the primary treatment for these disorders is medication, which can have severe side effects including motor control problems. Source: Indiana University

Brooding, Proud Guys Score High on Sex Appeal

Brooding, Proudl Guys Score High on Sex Appeal We are all familiar with media advertisements in which sullen looking men, often accompanied by a beautiful women, project an aura of sexuality and decadence. The ‘picture’ sells the product, whatever the product may be. The perceptions created by the ads may be accurate as investigators discover women find happy guys significantly less sexually attractive than swaggering or brooding men. University of British Columbia researchers say the findings may help explain the enduring allure of “bad boys” and other iconic gender types. The study — which may cause men to smile less on dates, and inspire online daters to update their profile photos — finds dramatic gender differences in how men and women rank the sexual attractiveness of non-verbal expressions of commonly displayed emotions, including happiness, pride, and shame. Authors point out that very few studies have explored the relationship between emotions and attraction, and this is the first to report a significant gender difference in the attractiveness of smiles. Another key contribution of this study is the unique inquiry into the attractiveness associated with displays of pride and shame. The study is published online in the American Psychological Association journal Emotion. “While showing a happy face is considered essential to friendly social interactions, including those involving sexual attraction – few studies have actually examined whether a smile is, in fact, attractive,” said psychologist Dr. Jessica Tracy. “This study finds that men and women respond very differently to displays of emotion, including smiles.” In a series of studies, more than 1,000 adult participants rated the sexual attractiveness of hundreds of images of the opposite sex engaged in universal displays of happiness (broad smiles), pride (raised heads, puffed-up chests) and shame (lowered heads, averted eyes). The study found that women were least attracted to smiling, happy men, preferring those who looked proud and powerful or moody and ashamed. In contrast, male participants were most sexually attracted to women who looked happy, and least attracted to women who appeared proud and confident. “It is important to remember that this study explored first impressions of sexual attraction to images of the opposite sex,” said Alec Beall, a UBC psychology graduate student and study co-author. “We were not asking participants if they thought these targets would make a good boyfriend or wife – we wanted their gut reactions on carnal, sexual attraction.” He said previous studies have found positive emotional traits and a nice personality to be highly desirable in a relationship partners. Tracy and Beall said that other studies suggest that what people find attractive has been shaped by centuries of evolutionary and cultural forces. For example, evolutionary theories suggest females are attracted to male displays of pride because they imply status, competence and an ability to provide for a partner and offspring. According to Beall, the pride expression accentuates typically masculine physical features, such as upper body size and muscularity. “Previous research has shown that these features are among the most attractive male physical characteristics, as judged by women,” he said. The researchers say more work is needed to understand the differing responses to happiness, but suggest the phenomenon can also be understood according to principles of evolutionary psychology, as well as socio-cultural gender norms. For example, past research has associated smiling with a lack of dominance, which is consistent with traditional gender norms of the “submissive and vulnerable” woman, but inconsistent with “strong, silent” man, the researchers said. “Previous research has also suggested that happiness is a particularly feminine-appearing expression,” Beall added. “Generally, the results appear to reflect some very traditional gender norms and cultural values that have emerged, developed and been reinforced through history, at least in Western cultures,” Tracy said. “These include norms and values that many would consider old-fashioned and perhaps hoped that we’ve moved beyond.” Displays of shame, Tracy said, have been associated with an awareness of social norms and appeasement behaviors, which elicits trust in others. This may explain shame’s surprising attractiveness to both genders, she said, given that both men and women prefer a partner they can trust. While this study focused on sexual attraction between heterosexual men and women in North America, the researchers say future studies will be required to explore the relationship between emotions and sexual attractiveness among homosexuals and non-Western cultures. Overall, the researchers found that men ranked women more attractive than women ranked men. Source: University of British Columbia

Housework Increases Stress for Dual Wage Earners

Housework Increases Stress for Dual Wage EarnersA new study from the University of Southern California finds that among dual wage earners, the spouse who does the most housework has elevated levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone. USC researchers looked at how male and female spouses recover from the burdens of work and how the couples balance their housework and leisure activity time. The report is found in the Journal of Family Psychology. In the study, researchers followed 30 double-income households. The couples were a median age of 41 and the families had at least one child between the ages of eight and ten. The results paint a pessimistic picture of marriage, said lead author Dr. Darby Saxbe, a postdoctoral fellow in the USC Dornsife College Psychology Department. “Your biological adaptation to stress looks healthier when your partner has to suffer the consequences – more housework for husbands, less leisure for wives,” Saxbe said. For both husbands and wives, doing more housework kept cortisol levels higher at the end of the day. In other words, doing chores seemed to limit a spouse’s ability to recover from a day of work. For wives, cortisol profiles were healthier if husbands spent more time doing housework. For husbands, in contrast, having more leisure time was linked with healthier cortisol level – but only if their wives also spent less time in leisure. “The result shows that the way couples spend time at home – not just the way you spend time, but the way your partner spends time as well – has real implications for long-term health,” Saxbe said. Cortisol levels can affect sleep, weight gain, burnout and weakened immune resistance. One of Saxbe’s earlier studies focused on marital relationships, stress and work. Her research found that more happily married women showed healthier cortisol patterns, while women who reported marital dissatisfaction had flatter cortisol profiles, which have been associated with chronic stress. Men’s marital satisfaction ratings, on the other hand, weren’t connected to their cortisol patterns. “The quality of relationships makes a big difference in a person’s health,” Saxbe said. “Dividing up your housework fairly with your partner may be as important as eating your vegetables.” Source: University of Southern California

A Lot of Gray Areas with Video Games and Kids

A Lot of Gray Areas with Video Games and KidsAn expert on the effects of video games on children has a clear opinion on the topic — the subject is too complicated to be categorized in black and white terms. Dr. Douglas Gentile, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University, argues that there’s a vast grey area when considering the multiple dimensions of video game effects on children and adolescents. Gentile writes that there are at least five dimensions on which video games can affect players simultaneously:
  • Amount of play
  • Content of play
  • Game context
  • Structure of the game
  • Mechanics of game play
“Parents tend to care about either how much time their kids play or what types of games their kids play,” Gentile said. “But when I did a study where the effects couldn’t be explained by the amount someone played or the content of the game, it made me realize there’s a lot more going on here. And in puzzling through what that more was, I realized there are at least five dimensions on which games have effects.” In his article, Gentile references some of the most cited literature documenting video game effects in the five dimensions. Many studies have found associations between the amount of game play and several negative outcomes, Gentile said. But he contends it’s likely that some of those outcomes — such as findings that kids who spend more time playing video games typically experience poorer grades — may not be due exclusively to the amount of play. “It is possible to argue that this relation might be due to the children themselves, rather than to game time,” Gentile said. “It is likely that children who perform more poorly at school are likely to spend more time playing games, where they may feel a sense of mastery that eludes them at school. Nonetheless, every hour playing games is one not spent doing homework.” While Gentile writes that there is no standard definition of “content,” most definitions focus on the “script” elements or themes of the game. And previous research has found it is clear that children learn game content, and that learning can affect future behaviors. “This is how violent, prosocial, or educational games have most of their documented effects,” Gentile said. The least researched dimension of game effects, according to Gentile, is how the game context alters or creates effects. “It could be that as you play a violent game with a group of your friends, that context increases the aggression effect because you’re getting social support from people you care about for being aggressive in the game,” he said. “Or it might be that context might have a teamwork motivation and prosocial orientation that you’re trying to help your team — which negates the aggression effect.” The way a game is structured on the screen (to provide meaningful information to the player) also changes the psychological meaning of the content Gentile writes. This is the level at which games cause improvements to visual attention skills. The skill necessary to play the games should not be discounted. Many game controllers improve fine motor skills (such as with a thumb controller), gross motor skills (swinging the Wii remote like a baseball bat), or even balancing skills (with the Wii balance board), according to Gentile. By considering all these dimensions, he concludes that the same game can have both perceived positive and negative effects on players. “There are several benefits to this approach,” Gentile said. “One is that it gets us past the dichotomous thinking that games are ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ “It also gives us testable hypotheses, and that’s good for science,” he continued. “And it also tells a game designer that if you’re looking to design a game for maximum impact, you need to focus on these five dimensions.” The research appears in the journal Child Development Perspectives. Source: Iowa State University

Dopamine Release Fuels Anxiety in Brains of Anorexics

Dopamine Release Fuels Anxiety in Brains of AnorexicsAlthough most people find pleasure in eating and even have a difficult time refraining from foods they love, individuals suffering from anorexia nervosa often say that eating makes them feel more anxious. Instead, refusing to eat — something called food refusal – is what brings more pleasure. New research, published online in the journal International Journal of Eating Disorders, helps explain why these symptoms occur in anorexia. For the study, scientists administered a one-time dose of the drug amphetamine which releases dopamine in the brain; positron emission tomography (PET) was then used to visualize the subsequent dopamine activity. In healthy subjects without an eating disorder, the amphetamine-induced release of dopamine was associated with feelings of extreme pleasure in the brain’s “reward center.” However, in people with anorexia, amphetamine made them feel anxious and activated the part of the brain that worries about consequences. “This is the first study to demonstrate a biological reason why individuals with anorexia nervosa have a paradoxical response to food,” said Walter Kaye, M.D., professor of psychiatry and director of the Eating Disorder Treatment and Research Program at the University of California-San Diego School of Medicine. “It’s possible that when people with anorexia nervosa eat, the related release of the neurotransmitter dopamine makes them anxious, rather than experiencing a normal feeling of reward. It is understandable why it is so difficult to get people with anorexia to eat and gain weight, because food generates intensely uncomfortable feelings of anxiety.” Significantly, the study included individuals who had recovered from anorexia for at least a year, suggesting that the feeling provoked was possibly due to pre-existing traits, rather than a response to being extremely underweight. Currently, there are few treatments proven to reduce core symptoms in anorexia, including eating-induced anxiety. Finding ways to help anorexic individuals eat and gain weight is necessary for treatment, even when food is still accompanied by severe anxiety. The study was supported in part by the National Institute of Mental Health and the Prince Foundation. Source:  University of California

Crossing Arms Confuses Brain, Relieves Hand Pain

Crossing Arms Confuses Brain But Relieves Hand PainIf your hand hurts, simply cross your arms; it will confuse the brain and reduce your pain intensity, according to scientists at University College London. Researchers believe this happens because of conflicting information between two of the brain’s maps: the one for your body and the one for external space. Since the left hand typically performs actions on the left side of space (and the right hand performs on the right side), these two maps work together to create powerful impulses in response to stimuli. When the arms are crossed, however, the two maps are mismatched and information processing becomes weaker — resulting in less pain. “Perhaps when we get hurt, we should not only ‘rub it better’ but also cross our arms,” said lead author Giandomenico Iannetti of the UCL department of Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience. Using a laser, scientists produced a four millisecond pin prick of “pure pain” (pain without touch) on the hands of a small group of eight volunteers.  It was then repeated with their arms crossed. The partipants’ brain responses to the pain were measured through electroencephalography (EEG); the volunteers also gave a rating on how much pain they felt during each circumstance. The results from both the EEG and the participants’ reports revealed that the perception of pain was weaker when the arms were crossed. “In everyday life you mostly use your left hand to touch things on the left side of the world, and your right hand for the right side of the world — for example when picking up a glass of water on your right side you generally use your right hand,” said Iannetti. “This means that the areas of the brain that contain the map of the right body and the map of right external space are usually activated together, leading to highly effective processing of sensory stimuli. When you cross your arms these maps are not activated together anymore, leading to less effective brain processing of sensory stimuli, including pain, being perceived as weaker.” According to the scientists, this new research could lead to novel clinical therapies to reduce pain that exploit the brain’s way of representing the body. The study is published in the journal PAIN. Source: University College London
Skip to toolbar