Riding a romantic roller coaster? Relationship anxiety may be to blame

Loves me, loves me not. Turns out that anxiety over that very question may be detrimental to the long-term success of a relationship.

In a recent study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Florida State University graduate student Ashley Cooper explores how high levels of fluctuation in how secure an individual feels in his or her relationship may actually doom its success.

“For people anxious in their attachments, they have anxiety as to whether the person is going to be there for them and whether they are worthy of others,” said Cooper, a second-year doctoral student in the College of Human Sciences. “I was interested in how attachment security impacted partners’ experiences in their relationship on a daily basis. Some couples experience instability from one day to the next in their relationship, so we sought out to explore what could increase or decrease this volatility.”

Cooper and her colleagues found that individuals who experience high levels of anxiety about their partner’s commitment were likely to experience more volatility in their feelings about the relationship from one day to the next. Furthermore, when women experienced this anxiety, their male partners experienced similar volatility in their feelings about the relationship.

Researchers interviewed 157 couples and asked them a series of questions about how the couples communicated their attachment to each other, how comfortable they were in emotionally connecting with their partners, their relationship satisfaction and the type of conflict that existed in the relationship.

Of the sample, 74 percent of the participants were dating and nearly 50 percent of participants were in relationships of two years or less.

Researchers specifically looked at the couples in which one or both partners experienced high attachment avoidance — that is, behaviors associated with the distrust of relying on other people — and attachment anxiety — behaviors associated with fears regarding consistent care and affection.

When an individual reported high attachment avoidance, both the individual and partner reported generally low levels of relationship satisfaction or quality. When individuals reported high attachment anxiety, there tended to be increased volatility in relationship quality.

Cooper said the findings will be helpful to clinicians involved in premarital or couples counseling and for individuals who experience drastic differences in their feelings about their relationships from day to day.

“For the average person, stay attuned to what your partner is saying and avoid making assumptions that can escalate conflict,” she said. “Trusting in your partner and your relationship is important to daily interactions and stability for your relationship.”

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Meditation could be a cheaper alternative to traditional pain medication, study suggests

Just ten minutes of mindfulness meditation could be used as an alternative to painkillers, according to research by Leeds Beckett University.

Results of the study suggest that a single ten-minute mindfulness meditation session administered by a novice therapist can improve pain tolerance, pain threshold and decrease anxiety towards pain.

The research was carried out by the School of Clinical and Applied Sciences at Leeds Beckett and used a group of 24 healthy university-aged students (12 men and 12 women). They were randomly split into a control group and a meditation group.

A cold-pressor task was used to cause pain to the participants; they put their hand in warm water for two minutes before removing it and placing it immediately into ice water for as long as they could manage and only removed it when the pain became too much and could no longer be tolerated. They then either sat quietly for ten minutes (control group) or meditated for ten minutes before repeating the cold-pressor task.

Five groups of data were then collected; anxiety towards pain, pain threshold, pain tolerance, pain intensity and pain unpleasantness. Pre-intervention the figures didn’t differ greatly between the control and meditation groups but following the ten-minute meditation session, the participants from the meditation group saw a significant decrease in anxiety towards pain and a significant increase in pain threshold and pain tolerance.

Speaking about the results of the study, Dr Osama Tashani, Senior Research Fellow in Pain Studies, said: “While further research is needed to explore this in a more clinical setting on chronic pain patients, these results do show that a brief mindfulness meditation intervention can be of benefit in pain relief. The ease of application and cost effectiveness of the mindfulness meditation may also make it a viable addition to the arsenal of therapies for pain management.

“The mindfulness mediation was led by a researcher who was a novice; so in theory clinicians could administer this with little training needed. It’s based on traditional Buddhist teachings which focuses attention and awareness on your breathing.”

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Low-dose THC can relieve stress; more does just the opposite

Cannabis smokers often report that they use the drug to relax or relieve stress, but few studies provide clinical evidence of these effects.

Now, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Chicago report that low levels tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana, does reduce stress, but in a highly dose-dependent manner: very low doses lessened the jitters of a public-speaking task, while slightly higher doses — enough to produce a mild “high” — actually increased anxiety.

Cannabis is a highly regulated category 1 substance, and permits to study the drug are difficult to obtain. While it is common knowledge that many people use cannabis for its stress-relieving effects, “very few published studies have looked into the effects of THC on stress, or at the effects of different levels of THC on stress,” says Emma Childs, associate professor of psychiatry in the UIC College of Medicine and corresponding author on the study, published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

“We found that THC at low doses reduced stress, while higher doses had the opposite effect, underscoring the importance of dose when it comes to THC and its effects.”

Childs and her colleagues recruited 42 healthy volunteers 18 to 40 years old who had some experience with cannabis use but who were not daily users.

Participants were randomly divided into three groups: The low-dose group received a capsule containing 7.5 milligrams of THC; the moderate-dose group received a capsule containing 12.5 milligrams of THC; and a placebo group received a capsule containing none. Neither the participants nor the researchers knew who was in each group.

“The doses used in the study produce effects that are equivalent to only a few puffs of a cannabis cigarette,” said Childs, noting that it is difficult to compare doses of smoked cannabis to doses of ingested THC. “We didn’t want to include a much larger dose, because we wanted to avoid potential adverse effects or cardiovascular effects that can result from higher doses of THC.”

Participants attended two four-hour sessions at the University of Chicago, five days apart. At each session, they took their capsule and then relaxed for two hours to allow the THC to be absorbed into the bloodstream.

During one session, participants were asked to spend 10 minutes preparing for a mock job interview. They were then subjected to a five-minute interview with lab assistants who did not offer any feedback, verbally or through body language, although video display was visible to the participant, showing their performance. Participants were then instructed to count backwards from a five-digit number by subtracting 13, for five minutes — a task that is “very reliably stress-inducing,” Childs said.

In their second visit, participants were asked to talk to lab assistants about a favorite book or movie for five minutes and then play solitaire for another five minutes.

Before, during and after each of the two activities, participants rated their stress levels and feelings about the tasks. Blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol, a key stress hormone, were measured at intervals.

The participants who received 7.5 milligrams of THC reported less stress after the psychosocial test than those given a placebo, and their stress levels dissipated faster after the test.

Participants who received 12.5 milligrams of THC before the two tasks reported greater negative mood before and throughout the task, and were more likely to rate the psychosocial task as “challenging” and “threatening” beforehand. Participants who received this dose also had more pauses during the mock interview compared to those in the placebo group.

There were no significant differences in participants’ blood pressure, heart rate or cortisol levels — before, during or after the doses or the tasks.

“Our findings provide some support for the common claim that cannabis is used to reduce stress and relieve tension and anxiety,” Childs said. “At the same time, our finding that participants in the higher THC group reported small but significant increases in anxiety and negative mood throughout the test supports the idea that THC can also produce the opposite effect.”

“Studies like these — examining the effects of cannabis and its pharmacological constituents under controlled conditions — are extremely important, considering the widespread use of cannabis for both medical and non-medical purposes,” she said. “Unfortunately, significant regulatory obstacles make it extremely difficult to conduct this type of research — with the result that cannabis is now widely available for medical purposes with minimal scientific foundation.”

Internet withdrawal increases heart rate and blood pressure

Scientists and clinicians from Swansea and Milan have found that some people who use the internet a lot experience significant physiological changes such as increased heart rate and blood pressure when they finish using the internet.

The study involved 144 participants, aged 18 to 33 years, having their heart rate and blood pressure measured before and after a brief internet session. Their anxiety and self-reported internet-addiction were also assessed. The results showed increases in physiological arousal on terminating the internet session for those with problematically-high internet usage. These increases in heart rate and blood pressure were mirrored by increased feelings of anxiety. However, there were no such changes for participants who reported no internet-usage problems.

The study, published in the international peer-reviewed journal, PLOS ONE, is the first controlled-experimental demonstration of physiological changes as a result of internet exposure.

The study lead, Professor Phil Reed, of Swansea University, said: “We have known for some time that people who are over-dependent on digital devices report feelings of anxiety when they are stopped from using them, but now we can see that these psychological effects are accompanied by actual physiological changes.”

There was an average 3-4% increase in heart rate and blood pressure, and in some cases double that figure, immediately on termination of internet use, compared to before using it, for those with digital-behaviour problems. Although this increase is not enough to be life-threatening, such changes can be associated with feelings of anxiety, and with alterations to the hormonal system that can reduce immune responses. The study also suggested that these physiological changes and accompanying increases in anxiety indicate a state like withdrawal seen for many ‘sedative’ drugs, such as alcohol, cannabis, and heroin, and this state may be responsible for some people’s need to re-engage with their digital devices to reduce these unpleasant feelings.

Dr. Lisa Osborne, a clinical researcher and co-author of the study, said: “A problem with experiencing physiological changes like increased heart rate is that they can be misinterpreted as something more physically threatening, especially by those with high levels of anxiety, which can lead to more anxiety, and more need to reduce it.”

The authors go on to speculate that internet use is driven by more than just the short-term excitement or joy of the technology, but that over-use can produce negative physiological and psychological changes that may drive people back onto the internet, even when they do not want to engage.

Professor Reed said: “The individuals in our study used the internet in a fairly typical way, so we are confident that many people who over-use the internet could be affected in the same way. However, there are groups who use the internet in other ways, like gamers, perhaps to generate arousal, and the effects of stopping use on their physiology could be different — this is yet to be established.”

Professor Roberto Truzoli of Milan University, a co-author of the study, added: “Whether problematic internet use turns out to be an addiction — involving physiological and psychological withdrawal effects — or whether compulsions are involved that do not necessitate such withdrawal effects — is yet to be seen, but these results seem to show that, for some people, it is likely to be an addiction.”

The study also found that the participants spent an average of 5 hours a day on the internet, with 20% spending over 6 hours a day using the internet. Additionally, over 40% of the sample reported some level of internet-related problem — acknowledging that they spend too much time online. There was no difference between men and women in the tendency to show internet addiction. By far the most common reasons for engaging with digital devices were digital communication media (‘social media’) and shopping.

Previous studies by this group, and many others, have shown short-term increases in self-reported anxiety when digitally-dependent people have their digital devices removed, and longer-term increases in their depression and loneliness, as well as changes to actual brain structures and capability to fight infections in some.

Professor Phil Reed said: “The growth of digital communication media is fuelling the rise of ‘internet’ use, especially for women. There is now a large amount of evidence documenting the negative effects of overuse on people’s psychology, neurology, and now, in this study, on their physiology. Given this, we have to see a more responsible attitude to the marketing of these products by firms — like we have seen for alcohol and gambling.”

Half of adults with anxiety or depression report chronic pain

In a survey of adults with anxiety or a mood disorder like depression or bipolar disorder, about half reported experiencing chronic pain, according to researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. The findings are published online in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

“The dual burden of chronic physical conditions and mood and anxiety disorders is a significant and growing problem,” said Silvia Martins, MD, PhD, associate professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health, and senior author.

The research examined survey data to analyze associations between DSM-IV-diagnosed mood and anxiety disorders and self-reported chronic physical conditions among 5,037 adults in São Paulo, Brazil. Participants were also interviewed in person.

Among individuals with a mood disorder, chronic pain was the most common, reported by 50 percent, followed by respiratory diseases at 33 percent, cardiovascular disease at 10 percent, arthritis reported by 9 percent, and diabetes by 7 percent. Anxiety disorders were also common for those with chronic pain disorder at 45 percent, and respiratory at 30 percent, as well as arthritis and cardiovascular disease, each 11 percent. Individuals with two or more chronic diseases had increased odds of a mood or anxiety disorder. Hypertension was associated with both disorders at 23 percent.

“These results shed new light on the public health impact of the dual burden of physical and mental illness,” said Dr. Martins. “Chronic disease coupled with a psychiatric disorder is a pressing issue that health providers should consider when designing preventive interventions and treatment services — especially the heavy mental health burden experienced by those with two or more chronic diseases.”

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Prenatal stress predisposes female mice to binge eating

Stress changes our eating habits, but the mechanism may not be purely psychological, research in mice suggests. A study published May 30 in Cell Metabolism found that stressed mouse mothers were more likely to give birth to pups that would go on to exhibit binge-eating-like behavior later in life. The female mouse pups from stressed mothers shared epigenetic tags on their DNA, but these epigenetic markers only made a difference when the researchers put the young offspring into a stressful situation. Furthermore, the researchers were able to prevent their binge eating by putting the young mice on a diet with “balanced” levels of nutrients such as Vitamin B12 and folate.

Previous studies have found an epidemiological link between binge eating and traumatic or stressful events during early life, but untangling the biology behind that correlation has proved difficult. “Here we established a model where we can actually show that early life stress increases the likelihood of binge eating in females,” says senior co-author Alon Chen, a neurobiologist at the Weizmann Institute in Israel and the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, Germany. “The second thing that is really interesting is that prenatal stress is causing an epigenetic signature in the embryo’s brain,” says Mariana Schroeder, the postdoctoral fellow that led this study.

To test the impact of prenatal stress, the researchers genetically engineered a line of mice, where the brain circuit responsible for releasing cortisol and other stress hormones could be manipulated. Many different systems within the brain contribute to “stress,” but the researchers wanted to be able to zero in on one specific neuroendocrine circuit — called the corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF) system — to see if it had an effect. In humans, high levels of CRF activity have been linked to increased anxiety, suppressed appetite, and inflammation, all of which can take a long-term toll.

When these mice became pregnant, the researchers activated the CRF system during their “third trimester” in order to kick the stress circuit into high gear. Their goal was to simulate chronic CRF stress in isolation, but because being handled by humans usually causes all of a mouse’s stress circuits to kick in, they developed a CRF-triggering technique with minimal intervention. “We didn’t actually handle the mice at all; we just changed the water that included the genetic trigger in the third trimester,” Chen says. Handling the mice is usually a source of stress.

They found that female pups from these stressed mice exhibited epigenetic markers in tissue from their hypothalami. However, the presence of epigenetic methyl tags alone was not enough to cause binge eating. The mouse pups’ tendency to binge only surfaced when they were placed in a stressful situation where the researchers restricted their access to food. The mice on the “limited access” diet could eat as much this very rewarding food as they wanted, but they only had access to food for 2-hour windows three times per week, prompting some mice to eat excessively large amounts of food very quickly during the meal windows.

Interestingly, all 10 of the female mice that were subjected to the restricted feeding scenario exhibited a binge-eating phenotype. The researchers used an equal number of female offspring from the stressed out mothers that were not subjected to the restricted feeding schedule as a control. If the same pathways are involved in human eating disorders, it could partly explain why women diagnosed with eating disorders outnumber their male counterparts.

The chemicals that cells use to epigenetically annotate their genes come from food sources. In this case, the epigenetic marker was a methyl tag, and the cell grabs methyl groups from vitamins such as B12 and folate for epigenetic tagging, so the researchers decided to test what would happen if they adjusted the levels of methyl-donating vitamins in the mice’s diet. The genetically predisposed mice on the methyl-balanced diet did not exhibit the binge-eating-like behavior, suggesting that non-invasive dietary interventions may be able to prevent binge eating.

However, the researchers emphasize that this is a pre-clinical study in mice. We don’t know yet what a methyl-balanced diet for humans would look like or whether it would even have an effect on human eating disorders. “We found a balance, but it might not be the relevant balance for humans. This is something that needs to be tested,” says Chen.

Chen hopes that this work will help researchers understand the neurobiology behind eating disorders. “The general public is less aware of the fact that we are dealing with a very biological mechanism that changes a person. People say, ‘Oh, it’s only in the brain.’ And yes, it’s in the brain. It involves changes in your genes, in your epigenome, and your brain circuits.”

All of this underscores the importance of avoiding stressful situations as much as possible during pregnancy. “We all know this, but people ignore it for various social or economic reasons,” says Chen. “But the price we pay later in life — whether it’s psychiatric disorders, metabolic syndromes, or heart-related illnesses — is heavily impacted by the way your brain was programmed early in life.”

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Genes in children linked to stress, bipolar disorder

Genetic alterations that can be modulated by stress have been identified in children at high risk for bipolar disorder, according to a recently published study by researchers at McGovern Medical School at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). Results appeared in Translational Psychiatry, a Nature Publishing Group journal.

“We’ve known that children of patients with bipolar disorder have a higher risk of developing the illness but the biological mechanisms are largely unknown,” said Gabriel R. Fries, Ph.D., first author and a post-doctoral research fellow in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. “By analyzing the blood of children of controls and comparing it to children of bipolar patients, we identified several genes or markers that can explain the increased risk.”

Researchers analyzed peripheral blood mononuclear cells from a total of 18 children and adolescents in three matched groups: bipolar patients, unaffected offspring of bipolar parents and children of parents with no history of psychiatric disorders.

The analysis revealed that, compared to children in the control group, bipolar patients and unaffected offspring of bipolar parents had genetic alterations that can influence the response to stress.

“All combine to modulate the response to stress in these children,” Fries said. “We know from clinical studies of behavior and the environment that when children are chronically exposed to stressors, they are at a higher risk of developing bipolar disorder. Bipolar parents may struggle because of their disease, leading to higher environmental stress. Their children, because of the genetic markers they have, could be more vulnerable to stress.”

The genetic alterations that researchers discovered were validated in blood samples of unrelated adult bipolar patients, Fries said.

New avenues of research could include the effects of reducing environmental stress, as well as whether pharmacological agents might be able to reverse the genetic alternations in vulnerable children before the disorder develops.

Blood samples for the research came from the innovative Pediatric Bipolar Registry at the UTHealth Center of Excellence on Mood Disorders. The research was supported in part by grants from the Pat Rutherford, Jr. Endowed Chair in Psychiatry and the John S. Dunn Foundation.

Senior author is Jair C. Soares, M.D., Ph.D., professor, chairman and the Pat R. Rutherford, Jr. Endowed Chair in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at McGovern Medical School.

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How technology use affects at-risk adolescents

More use of technology is linked to later increases in attention, behavior and self-regulation problems for adolescents already at risk for mental health issues, a new study from Duke University finds.

“Also, on days at-risk adolescents use technology more, they experience more conduct problems and higher ADHD symptoms compared to days they use technology less,” said Madeleine J. George, a Duke Ph.D. candidate and the lead author of the study.

However, the study also found that using technology was linked to some positive outcomes: On days when adolescents spent more time using digital technologies they were less likely to report symptoms of depression and anxiety.

The research, published May 3 in a special issue of Child Development, looks at associations between adolescents’ mental health symptoms and how much time they spent each day texting, using social media and using the Internet.

For the study, 151 young adolescents completed surveys on smartphones about their daily digital technology use. They were surveyed three times a day for a month and were assessed for mental health symptoms 18 months later. The youth participating were between 11 and 15 years old, were of a lower socioeconomic status and were at a heightened risk for mental health problems.

The adolescents spent an average of 2.3 hours a day using digital technologies. More than an hour of that time was spent texting, with the adolescents sending an average of 41 texts a day.

The researchers found that on days when adolescents used their devices more — both when they exceeded their own normal use and when they exceeded average use by their peers — they were more likely to experience conduct problems such as lying, fighting and other behavioral problems.

In addition, on days when adolescents used digital devices more, they had difficulty paying attention and exhibited attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder symptoms.

The study also found that young adolescents who spent more time online experienced increases in conduct problems and problems with self-regulation — the ability to control one’s behavior and emotions — 18 months later.

It’s unclear whether high levels of technology use were simply a marker of elevated same-day mental health symptoms or if the use of technology exacerbated existing symptoms, said Candice Odgers, the senior author of the study and a professor in Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

On the positive side, the researchers found evidence that digital technology use may be helpful to adolescents experiencing depression and anxiety. More time spent texting was associated with fewer same-day symptoms of depression and anxiety.

“This finding makes sense when you think about how kids are commonly using devices to connect with their peers and social networks,” said Odgers, a faculty fellow at the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy.

The findings suggest contemporary youth may be using digital technology to connect in positive ways versus isolating themselves, the authors said. In the past, some research found that teenagers using digital technology were socially isolated. But at that time, only a small minority of youth were frequently online.

Odgers noted that the adolescents in the study were already at an increased risk for mental health problems regardless of digital device use. It’s therefore unclear if the findings would apply to all adolescents. Because this was a correlational study, it is possible factors other than technology use could have caused the increase in mental health problems.

As rates of adolescent technology use continue to climb, more work is needed to investigate its effects, the researchers say. Odgers and George are now conducting a large study of more than 2,000 N.C. adolescents to determine how and why high digital device use predicts future problems among some adolescents. The study also looks at whether being constantly connected during adolescence could provide opportunities to improve mental health.

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Just 10 minutes of meditation helps anxious people have better focus

Just 10 minutes of daily mindful mediation can help prevent your mind from wandering and is particularly effective if you tend to have repetitive, anxious thoughts, according to a study from the University of Waterloo.

The study, which assessed the impact of meditation with 82 participants who experience anxiety, found that developing an awareness of the present moment reduced incidents of repetitive, off-task thinking, a hallmark of anxiety.

“Our results indicate that mindfulness training may have protective effects on mind wandering for anxious individuals,” said Mengran Xu, a researcher and PhD candidate at Waterloo. “We also found that meditation practice appears to help anxious people to shift their attention from their own internal worries to the present-moment external world, which enables better focus on a task at hand.”

The term mindfulness is commonly defined as paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgement.

As part of the study, participants were asked to perform a task on a computer while experiencing interruptions to gauge their ability to stay focused on the task. Researchers then put the participants into two groups at random, with the control group given an audio story to listen to and the other group asked to engage in a short meditation exercise prior to being reassessed.

“Mind wandering accounts for nearly half of any person’s daily stream of consciousness,” said Xu. “For people with anxiety, repetitive off-task thoughts can negatively affect their ability to learn, to complete tasks, or even function safely.

“It would be interesting to see what the impacts would be if mindful meditation was practiced by anxious populations more widely.”

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A little support from their online friends calms test-anxious students

Reading supportive comments, “likes” and private messages from social media friends prior to taking a test may help college students who have high levels of test-anxiety significantly reduce their nervousness and improve their scores, a new study suggests.

Undergraduate students with high levels of test anxiety who sought social support from their online friends and read the messages prior to a simulated exam reduced their anxiety levels by 21 percent, researchers at the University of Illinois found.

These students, and peers who performed a seven-minute expressive-writing exercise, were able to perform as well on a set of computer programming exercises as students who had low levels of test anxiety, said lead author Robert Deloatch, a graduate student in computer science at the university.

Up to 41 percent of students are estimated to suffer from test anxiety, which is a combination of physiological and emotional responses that occur while preparing for and taking tests.

Test anxiety is associated with lower test scores and grade-point averages, as well as poorer performance on memory and problem-solving tasks. Test anxiety can be particularly acute when students face exams involving open-ended problems, such as those commonly used on computer science exams that require students to write and run code, the researchers wrote.

When students’ test anxiety is reduced, their test scores, GPAs and task performance improve accordingly, researchers have found.

Students with high test anxiety strongly fear negative evaluation, have lower self-esteem and tend to experience increased numbers of distracting and irrelevant thoughts in testing situations, according to the study.

For the simulated exam in the current study, students had to solve two programming problems by writing and running code. Most of the participants were computer science majors or computer engineering students who passed a pretest that ensured they had basic programming knowledge.

The researchers measured participants’ levels of test anxiety using the Cognitive Test Anxiety scale, which assesses the cognitive problems associated with test-taking such as task-irrelevant thinking and attention lapses.

Participants also completed two other questionnaires that measured their levels of state anxiety — or “state-of-the-moment” unease — and their trait anxiety, which is anxiety that is considered to be a longstanding characteristic or personality trait.

The day before the experiment, students in the social support group posted messages on their personal social media pages requesting encouragement — in the form of likes, comments or private messages — about an upcoming computer programming challenge they planned to participate in.

For seven minutes immediately prior to taking the simulated test, students in the social support group read the responses associated with their online request, while students in the expressive-writing group wrote about their thoughts and feelings, and students in the control group crammed for the exam by reading information on computer programming data structures and answering questions about the text.

Prior to taking the exam, participants completed a questionnaire to assess their levels of state anxiety. Students were then given 40 minutes to solve two programming problems that had many viable solutions.

“We found that only the students who received supportive messages from their Facebook network showed a significant decrease in anxiety and an increase in their performance on our simulated exam,” Deloatch said.

While prior researchers have found expressive writing to be helpful to some students with test anxiety, Deloatch and his co-authors were surprised to find that the expressive-writing exercise increased the pretest jitters of low test-anxious students by 61 percent, instead.

“We hypothesized that might have occurred because focusing on their anxiety as they wrote caused their apprehensiveness to increase rather than decrease,” Deloatch said.

Using social support to alleviate state-of-the-moment anxiety may have implications beyond education, such as helping job applicants quell their nervousness prior to interviews with potential employers, Deloatch said.

While the students who sought social support online felt that reading the supportive messages was helpful, “all of them were uncomfortable with soliciting support from their online friends, perceiving such posts as ‘attention seeking’ and ‘out of place,'” Deloatch said. “As the majority of the participants in our study were computer science students, the competitive environment of the curriculum may have led to concerns about how others would perceive them. They may have felt that such statuses could harm their relations in group project settings.”

The study is being published in the Proceedings of CHI 2017, the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, held May 6-11 in Denver.

 

Low-fat dairy linked to lower tendency towards depression

People who consume low-fat milk and yogurt, rather than whole-fat dairy products, are less likely to have depression, according to researchers in Japan and China.

Dairy consumption has long been linked to a wide range of physical health benefits, but its effect on emotional health has remained unclear. Now, a new study published in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology reveals that people who consume low-fat dairy products may be less prone to depression

Professor Ryoichi Nagatomi of Tohoku University and colleagues in Japan and China investigated the association between whole and low-fat dairy consumption and depressive symptoms such as exhaustion, sadness, anxiety, helplessness and hopelessness. This is the first study to consider different components of dairy products (whole fat and low fat) and the occurrence of depression.

The study involved 1,159 Japanese adults between the ages of 19 and 83. There were 897 men and 262 women, of which 31.2% and 31.7% respectively, were depressed.

The researchers asked the participants in a questionnaire how often they consumed whole- or low-fat milk or yogurt. Depressive symptoms were evaluated using the self-rating depression scale, which consists of 20 questions and is a tool to distinguish people with and without depression.

The result showed that people who consumed low-fat dairy products between one and four times a week are less depressed. The correlation remained even after considering other critical factors such as age, sex, health status, nutrition status and life style.

The study found no association between whole-fat milk consumption and depressive symptoms. The researchers speculate that this is because trans-fatty acid contained in whole fat milk, which is associated with depression, cancelled out the anti-depressive effect of another milk component, tryptophan.

The researchers note that since this was a cross-sectional study that analyzed a population at a single point in time, it could not explain what actually caused such outcomes. Other dairy products, such as cheese and butter, were not included in the study. It is also unclear whether milk or yogurt had a stronger influence. Further studies are necessary to confirm and clarify the causality of the findings.

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Brain structure, anxiety and negative bias linked in healthy adults

Healthy college students who have a relatively small inferior frontal cortex — a brain region behind the temples that helps regulate thoughts and emotions — are more likely than others to suffer from anxiety, a new study finds. They also tend to view neutral or even positive events in a negative light, researchers report.

The researchers evaluated 62 students, collecting brain structural data from neuroimaging scans and using standard questionnaires to determine their level of anxiety and predilection for negative bias.

Previous studies of people diagnosed with anxiety have found similar correlations between the size of the IFC and anxiety and negative bias, said U. of I. psychology postdoctoral researcher Sanda Dolcos, who led the study with graduate student Yifan Hu. But the new findings, reported in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, are the first to see these same dynamics in healthy adults, the researchers said.

“You would expect these brain changes more in clinical populations where anxiety is very serious, but we are seeing differences even in the brains of healthy young adults,” Dolcos said.

The study also found that the relationship between the size of the IFC and a student’s negative bias was mediated by their level of anxiety.

“People who have smaller volumes have higher levels of anxiety; people who have larger IFCs tend to have lower levels of anxiety,” Dolcos said. And higher anxiety is associated with more negative bias, she said. “How we see this is that the higher volume of the IFC confers resilience.”

“We found that larger IFC volume is protecting against negative bias through lower levels of trait anxiety,” Hu said.

According to the American College Health Association, anxiety is rampant on college campuses, where nearly 60 percent of students report at least one troubling bout of anxious worry every year.

“There is a very high level of anxiety in the student population, and this is affecting their life, their academic performance, everything,” Dolcos said. “We are interested in identifying what is going on and preventing them from moving to the next level and developing clinical anxiety.”

Anxiety can interfere with many dimensions of life, causing a person to be on high alert for potential problems even under the best of circumstances, Hu said. Negative bias also can interfere with a person’s commitment to activities that might further their life goals, she said.

Understanding the interrelatedness of brain structure, function and personality traits such as anxiety and their behavioral effects such as negative bias will help scientists develop interventions to target specific brain regions in healthy populations, Hu said.

“We hope to be able to train the brain to function better,” she said. “That way, we might prevent these at-risk people from moving on to more severe anxiety.”

The Brain and Behavior Research Foundation and Health Minds Canada supported this research.

Study reverses thinking on genetic links to stress, depression

New research findings often garner great attention. But when other scientists follow up and fail to replicate the findings? Not so much.

In fact, a recent study published in PLOS One indicates that only about half of scientific discoveries will be replicated and stand the test of time. So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that new research led by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis shows that an influential 2003 study about the interaction of genes, environment and depression may have missed the mark.

Since its publication in Science, that original paper has been cited by other researchers more than 4,000 times, and some 100 other studies have been published about links between a serotonin-related gene, stressful life events and depression risk. It indicated that people with a particular variant of the serotonin transporter gene were not as well-equipped to deal with stressful life events and, when encountering significant stress, were more likely to develop depression.

Such conclusions were widely accepted, mainly because antidepressant drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) help relieve depression for a significant percentage of clinically depressed individuals, so many researchers thought it logical that differences in a gene affecting serotonin might be linked to depression risk.

But in this new study, the Washington University researchers looked again at data from the many studies that delved into the issue since the original publication in 2003, analyzing information from more than 40,000 people, and found that the previously reported connection between the serotonin gene, depression and stress wasn’t evident. The new results are published April 4 in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

“Our goal was to get everyone who had gathered data about this relationship to come together and take another look, with each research team using the same tools to analyze data the same way,” said the study’s first author, Robert C. Culverhouse, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine and of biostatistics. “We all ran exactly the same statistical analyses, and after combining all the results, we found no evidence that this gene alters the impact stress has on depression.”

Over the years, dozens of research groups had studied DNA and life experiences involving stress and depression in the more than 40,000 people revisited in this study. Some previous research indicated that those with the gene variant were more likely to develop depression when stressed, while others didn’t see a connection. So for almost two decades, scientists have debated the issue, and thousands of hours of research have been conducted. By getting all these groups to work together to reanalyze the data, this study should put the questions to rest, according to the researchers.

“The idea that differences in the serotonin gene could make people more prone to depression when stressed was a very reasonable hypothesis,” said senior investigator Laura Jean Bierut, MD, the Alumni Endowed Professor of Psychiatry at Washington University. “But when all of the groups came together and looked at the data the same way, we came to a consensus. We still know that stress is related to depression, and we know that genetics is related to depression, but we now know that this particular gene is not.”

Culverhouse noted that finally, when it comes to this gene and its connection to stress and depression, the scientific method has done its job.

“Experts have been arguing about this for years,” he said. “But ultimately the question has to be not what the experts think but what the evidence tells us. We’re convinced the evidence finally has given us an answer: This serotonin gene does not have a substantial impact on depression, either directly or by modifying the relationship between stress and depression.”

With this serotonin gene variant removed from the field of potential risk factors for depression, Culverhouse and Bierut said researchers now can focus on other gene-environment interactions that could influence the onset of depression.

Culverhouse, RC, et al. Collaborative meta-analysis finds no evidence of a strong interaction between stress and 5-HTTLPR genotype contributing to the development of depression. Molecular Psychiatry. April 4, 2017.

This work was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute of Mental Health of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), grant numbers R21 DA033827, MH089995 and R01 DA026911. Other funding provided by the Wellcome Trust and other funding agencies from countries around the world. For a complete list of funding agencies and grants, please refer to the paper.

Potential conflicts of interest involving researchers who are authors of the study also are listed at the end of the paper. Some have received consultancy/speaking fees from various pharmaceutical companies and other business interests. LJ Bierut is one of the listed inventors on US Patent 8 080 371, “Markers for Addiction,” covering the use of certain DNA SNPs in determining the diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of addiction.

Traumatic brain injuries leave women prone to mental health problems

Traumatic brain injuries affect the body’s stress axis differently in female and male mice, according to research presented at the Endocrine Society’s 99th annual meeting, ENDO 2017, in Orlando, Fla. The results could help explain why women who experience blast injuries face a greater risk of developing mental health problems than men.

About 1.5 million people are diagnosed with traumatic brain injury (TBI) each year. Blast injuries are particularly common in the military population. Between 15 percent and 30 percent of soldiers who experience a TBI are later diagnosed with neuropsychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Even though men are more likely to experience a TBI, women have an elevated risk of developing mental health disorders due to the injury.

The study examined how blast injuries disrupt the stress axis, specifically the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, a signaling pathway involved in the body’s stress response. The hormones produced by the glands in the stress axis affect parts of the brain involved in regulating fear and anxiety.

“The study suggests that mild blast traumatic brain injuries dysregulate the neuroendocrine stress axis differently in women and men,” said Ashley Russell, the first author and a Neuroscience Ph.D. candidate at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) in Bethesda, Md. “The research provides a missing link between a mild blast injury and the subsequent development of neuropsychiatric disorders such as anxiety and PTSD.”

Researchers exposed both male and female mice to a mild blast injury of 15 psi using the ORA Advanced Blast Simulator at USU. When compared to mice that did not receive blast injury, injured mice produced altered levels of corticosterone, a hormone released when the stress axis is activated. This difference in the stress response was observed both short- and long-term post blast injury. Blast-injured female mice showed greater dysregulation of corticosterone levels than male mice with TBI.

The scientists also sought to examine how a stressor may alter activation of corticotropin releasing factor (CRF) neurons in various brain regions involved in fear and anxiety regulation. In response to a stressor, female mice had heightened activation of CRF neurons in the stress integration center of the brain compared to male mice, an effect attributed to circulating estrogen levels.

Understanding precisely how TBI can interfere with the body’s stress response may open the door to developing better interventions to treat both TBI and the resulting mental health conditions, Russell said.

“Traumatic brain injury causes short- and long-term neuroendocrine dysregulation that may result in anxiety- and stress-related disorders,” she said. “Unfortunately, there are no therapeutic interventions to mitigate this response. More research is needed in this area to determine why these effects occur and how to treat them.”

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Boosting natural brain opioids may be a better way to treat anxiety, research shows

Published in Nature Communications by University of Sydney scholars, the findings suggest medications that boost the effect of natural brain opioids might be a better way to reduce anxiety than ‘receptor-binding’ opioid drugs like morphine, which have major side effects.

Fear and anxiety help defend us against harm, and are largely controlled via neural circuits of interconnected nerve cells and synaptic activity in the brain’s amygdala that allow neurons to pass electrical or chemical signals to each other.

Specialised neural circuits control these emotions, but disturbances in the circuits can cause prolonged and disabling emotional responses that are out of proportion to threatening events.

These disturbances are thought to underlie many anxiety disorders such as phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder, which affect up to a million Australians each year.

Anxiety disorders affect 14 per cent of Australians but are poorly managed by commonly prescribed medications such as benzodiazepines and 5HT-reuptake inhibitors.

“These drugs weren’t developed to treat anxiety but they’re widely used because of chance findings suggesting their clinical usefulness,” says the University of Sydney’s Associate Professor Elena Bagley, who led the research.

“Many experts agree that better anxiety treatments will come when science uncovers how the neural circuits and endogenous or naturally occurring opioids regulate fear and anxiety.

“The precise action of these natural opioids in the brain is poorly understood, but better insights are critical because these opiods control how we acquire and store fear memories and regulate our emotional responses once a threat has passed.”

Experiments in mice have shown that ‘deleting’ the natural opioid enkephalin, which is heavily expressed in the brain’s amygdala, increases their fear, anxiety and aggressiveness. By contrast, increasing enkephalin or reducing its breakdown reduces these behaviours.

While this effect of enkephalin suggests that it is anxiety-inhibiting, when it binds to different receptors in the amygdala, it exerts opposing effects, depending on which one it binds to.

For example, when it binds to the mu-opioid receptor, enkephalin promotes anxiety, but when it binds to the delta-opioid receptor, it inhibits it.

“Given this complexity, understanding the cellular actions of natural opioids at these two receptors is critical if we hope to use opioid-related medications for emotional issues,” says Dr Bagley.

“Our findings show that opioids produced and released by our own brain cells strongly regulate these critical neural circuits that are important for fear responses.

“We also show that we could boost the actions of these endogenous opioids using a novel pharmacological approach.”

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Materials provided by University of Sydney. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.