Uncorrected farsightedness linked to literacy deficits in preschoolers

January 27, 2016

Science Daily/NIH, National Eye Institute (NEI)

A study funded by the National Eye Institute (NEI), part of the National Institutes of Health, has shown that uncorrected farsightedness (hyperopia) in preschool children is associated with significantly worse performance on a test of early literacy.

Moderate hyperopia, if not treated, may affect reading ability and grade school readiness among preschoolers.

Credit: Joe Balintfy, NEI


The results of the Vision in Preschoolers-Hyperopia in Preschoolers (VIP-HIP) study, which compared 4- and 5-year-old children with uncorrected hyperopia to children with normal vision, found that children with moderate hyperopia (3 to 6 diopters) did significantly worse on the Test of Preschool Early Literacy (TOPEL) than their normal-vision peers. A diopter is the lens power needed to correct vision to normal. The higher the diopter, the worse the hyperopia.


"This study suggests that an untreated vision problem in preschool, in this case one that makes it harder for children to see things up-close, can create literacy deficits that affect grade school readiness," said Maryann Redford, D.D.S., M.P.H, a program director in Collaborative Clinical Research at NEI.


In most children with hyperopia, the condition is mild and has little impact on vision. A small number of preschool children have high hyperopia (more than 6 diopters) that is corrected with eyeglasses. It's estimated that 4-14 percent have moderate hyperopia, which often goes undiagnosed and untreated.


"Prior studies have linked uncorrected hyperopia and reading ability in school-age children," said Marjean Taylor Kulp, O.D., M.S., distinguished professor in the College of Optometry at Ohio State University and lead author of the study. "But large-scale investigations looking at reading readiness skills hadn't been conducted in preschool children. This study was necessary to determine whether or not, at this age, there was a link between the two."


The VIP-HIP study is a follow-up to the NEI-funded multi-center initiative called the Vision in Preschoolers (VIP) study, which established the most effective tests for preschool vision screening and showed that well-trained non-professionals were able to effectively screen children.


In the current analysis, researchers examined 492 children, aged 4-5 years old, and divided them into two equal-size groups: those with moderate hyperopia and those with normal vision. Participation in the study included an eye examination to determine eligibility. An educational assessor unaware of the child's visual status administered the TOPEL.


The results revealed significantly worse performance on the TOPEL among children with uncorrected moderate hyperopia, especially those who also had reduced near visual function (including clarity of binocular vision and depth perception). Performance was most affected in the print knowledge domain of the test, which assesses the ability to identify letters and written words.


"These differences are meaningful because formal learning for many children begins in the preschool years," said Dr. Kulp. "In addition, other research exploring the long-term effect of early deficits in literacy has shown them to be associated with future problems in learning to read and write. This makes early detection of these problems important."


"Preschool children with moderate hyperopia and decreased near vision may benefit from referral for assessment of early literacy skills," said Elise Ciner, O.D., professor at the Pennsylvania College of Optometry at Salus University in Philadelphia, and co-investigator of the study. "Educational interventions for children with early deficits can lead to greater educational achievement in later years."


Further research is needed to determine whether correction of moderate hyperopia with glasses can prevent the development of deficits in early literacy skills.


The study included three participating clinical centers: The Ohio State University College of Optometry in Columbus, led by Dr. Kulp; Pennsylvania College of Optometry at Salus University, led by Dr. Ciner; and New England College of Optometry in Boston, led by Bruce Moore, O.D. A Data Coordinating Center at the University of Pennsylvania was led by Maureen Maguire, Ph.D.

Texting at night affects teens' sleep, academic performance

Researcher finds that instant messaging in the dark makes a difference compared to having the lights on

January 26, 2016

Science Daily/Rutgers University

A new study is the first of its kind to link nighttime instant messaging habits of American teenagers to sleep health and school performance. Media use among children of all ages is increasing exponentially; studies have found that children ages 8 to 18 use electronic devices approximately seven-and-a-half hours daily.

Research has found that students who turned off their devices or who messaged for less than 30 minutes after lights out performed significantly better in school than those who messaged for more than 30 minutes after lights out.

Credit: © theartofphoto / Fotolia


The study, published in the Journal of Child Neurology, is the first of its kind to link nighttime instant messaging habits of American teenagers to sleep health and school performance.


"We need to be aware that teenagers are using electronic devices excessively and have a unique physiology," says study author Xue Ming, professor of neuroscience and neurology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. "They tend to go to sleep late and get up late. When we go against that natural rhythm, students become less efficient."


The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that media use among children of all ages is increasing exponentially; studies have found that children ages 8 to 18 use electronic devices approximately seven-and-a-half hours daily.


Ming's research is part of a small but growing body of evidence on the negative effects of electronics on sleep and school performance. But few studies, Ming says, have focused specifically on instant messaging.


"During the last few years I have noticed an increased use of smartphones by my patients with sleep problems," Ming says. "I wanted to isolate how messaging alone - especially after the lights are out - contributes to sleep-related problems and academic performance."


To conduct her study, Ming distributed surveys to three New Jersey high schools - a suburban and an urban public school and a private school - and evaluated the 1,537 responses contrasting grades, sexes, messaging duration and whether the texting occurred before or after lights out.


She found that students who turned off their devices or who messaged for less than 30 minutes after lights out performed significantly better in school than those who messaged for more than 30 minutes after lights out.


Students who texted longer in the dark also slept fewer hours and were sleepier during the day than those who stopped messaging when they went to bed. Texting before lights out did not affect academic performance, the study found.


Although females reported more messaging overall and more daytime sleepiness, they had better academic performance than males. "I attribute this to the fact that the girls texted primarily before turning off the light," Ming says.


The effects of "blue light" emitted from smartphones and tablets are intensified when viewed in a dark room, Ming says. This short wavelength light can have a strong impact on daytime sleepiness symptoms since it can delay melatonin release, making it more difficult to fall asleep - even when seen through closed eyelids.


"When we turn the lights off, it should be to make a gradual transition from wakefulness to sleep," Ming says. "If a person keeps getting text messages with alerts and light emission, that also can disrupt his circadian rhythm. Rapid Eye Movement sleep is the period during sleep most important to learning, memory consolidation and social adjustment in adolescents. When falling asleep is delayed but rising time is not, REM sleep will be cut short, which can affect learning and memory."


Ming notes some benefits to early-evening media use, such as facilitating collaboration for school projects, providing resources for tutoring, increasing school readiness and possibly offering emotional support systems.


She suggests that educators recognize the sleep needs of teenagers and incorporate sleep education in their curriculum. "Sleep is not a luxury; it's a biological necessity. Adolescents are not receiving the optimal amount of sleep; they should be getting 8-and-a-half hours a night," says Ming. "Sleep deprivation is a strong argument in favor of later start times for high schools - like 9 a.m."

Social media use in young adults linked to sleep disturbance

January 26, 2016

Science Daily/University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences

Young adults who spend a lot of time on social media during the day or check it frequently throughout the week are more likely to suffer sleep disturbance than their peers who use social media less, according to new research.


Published online and scheduled for the April issue of the journal Preventive Medicine, the study indicates that physicians should consider asking young adult patients about social media habits when assessing sleep issues. The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).


"This is one of the first pieces of evidence that social media use really can impact your sleep," said lead author Jessica C. Levenson, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in Pitt's Department of Psychiatry. "And it uniquely examines the association between social media use and sleep among young adults who are, arguably, the first generation to grow up with social media."


In 2014, Dr. Levenson and her colleagues sampled 1,788 U.S. adults ages 19 through 32, using questionnaires to determine social media use and an established measurement system to assess sleep disturbances.


The questionnaires asked about the 11 most popular social media platforms at the time: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and LinkedIn.


On average, the participants used social media a total of 61 minutes per day and visited various social media accounts 30 times per week. The assessment showed that nearly 30 percent of the participants had high levels of sleep disturbance.


The participants who reported most frequently checking social media throughout the week had three times the likelihood of sleep disturbances, compared with those who checked least frequently. And participants who spent the most total time on social media throughout the day had twice the risk of sleep disturbance, compared to peers who spent less time on social media.


"This may indicate that frequency of social media visits is a better predictor of sleep difficulty than overall time spent on social media," Dr. Levenson explained. "If this is the case, then interventions that counter obsessive 'checking' behavior may be most effective."


Senior author Brian A. Primack, M.D., Ph.D., assistant vice chancellor for health and society in Pitt's Schools of the Health Sciences, emphasized that more study is needed, particularly to determine whether social media use contributes to sleep disturbance, whether sleep disturbance contributes to social media use -- or both.


For example, social media may disturb sleep if it is:


·      Displacing sleep, such as when a user stays up late posting photos on Instagram.

·      Promoting emotional, cognitive or physiological arousal, such as when engaging in a contentious discussion on Facebook.

·      Disrupting circadian rhythms through the bright light emitted by the devices used to access social media accounts.

·      Alternatively, young adults who have difficulty sleeping may subsequently use social media as a pleasurable way to pass the time when they can't fall asleep or return to sleep.


"It also may be that both of these hypotheses are true," said Dr. Primack, also director of Pitt's Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health. "Difficulty sleeping may lead to increased use of social media, which may in turn lead to more problems sleeping. This cycle may be particularly problematic with social media because many forms involve interactive screen time that is stimulating and rewarding and, therefore, potentially detrimental to sleep."

Group learning makes children better decision-makers

January 19, 2016

Science Daily/University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Children who participate in group learning develop better decision-making skills than children who study the same curriculum via teacher-led discussions, suggests a new study. More than 760 fifth-grade students were involved in the study, which compared the efficacy of collaborative group work with conventional direct instruction at promoting students' ability to make reasoned decisions and apply those skills in a novel task.


More than 760 fifth-grade students were involved in the study, which compared the efficacy of collaborative group work with conventional direct instruction at promoting students' ability to make reasoned decisions and apply those skills in a novel task.


The students studied a six-week curriculum in which they explored whether a community should hire professional hunters to kill a pack of wolves that was causing many residents concern. Students examined various perspectives on the issue, including the potential impact on the ecosystem, the local economy and public policy.


The curriculum's purpose was not to lead students to a predetermined best answer but to raise their awareness about making responsible and reasoned decisions, said Xin Zhang, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Illinois and the lead author on the paper.


After completing the wolf curriculum, the students wrote two individual essays: one that explained their personal decision on what should be done about the wolf pack, and another about their decision on an unrelated moral dilemma between two friends, presented in the story "The Pinewood Derby."


In the story, a boy named Jack has an unpopular friend named Thomas who wins a pinewood derby competition but later confesses to Jack that he violated the rules by enlisting his older brother's help in building his car. After reading the story, the students were asked to write an essay about whether Jack should reveal his friend's dishonesty.


Children who had worked in collaborative groups on the wolf project were better prepared to take on the role of decision-maker about Jack's moral dilemma with his friend Thomas, the researchers found.


These children were more proficient at three key aspects of decision-making: recognizing more than one side of a dilemma, considering a range of reasons to support differing viewpoints, and weighing the costs and benefits associated with different decisions, according to the researchers.


These children appealed to a significantly greater number of moral principles and practical considerations when drawing conclusions about the action Jack should take, the researchers found.


By contrast, students who studied the wolf curriculum in teacher-led discussions were no better at making a decision on Jack's dilemma than children in the control groups who had not been exposed to the wolf project, according to the study.


"Collaborative group work positions students as active decision-makers, whereas direct instruction places them in a passive role, following the reasoning of their teacher," Zhang said. "We further theorize that the essential difference between collaborative group work and direct instruction is that students learn about the 'self as agent and others as (the) audience,''' a hypothesis explored in another paper by Zhang's co-authors, Richard C. Anderson, director of the Center for the Study of Reading, and graduate student Joshua A. Morris, both of the U. of I.


The researchers found girls were significantly better than boys at recognizing Jack's predicament and were more likely to weigh reasons when considering opposing viewpoints, but suggested that these gender differences could be related to girls' better writing ability.


Because the moral dilemma with the two boys had little in common with the wolf exercise, students' reasoning on whether Jack should tell on his friend Thomas provided strong evidence as to which children were competent decision-makers and were able to apply those skills in an unrelated situation, the researchers wrote.


The children in the study were from eight public schools that serve predominantly low-income families and were well below the national average in academic attainment, as measured by reading comprehension, according to the study.


While the Common Core standards emphasize development of reasoning and critical-thinking skills, the standards' perpetuation of a test-driven accountability system and teacher-directed learning environment compromises children's development of these higher-order skills. This can be especially detrimental in schools with large enrollments of minority and low-income populations, which may devote the majority of instructional time to arithmetic exercises and simple reading strategies, the researchers wrote.


"If children are to become thoughtful decision-makers, they need more time in the school day for collaborative group work that involves active reasoning about significant issues," Zhang said. "Promoting active reasoning is one key to cultivating disadvantaged students' development of intellective competence and academic ability."

Adolescents stress more with poor sleep

January 14, 2016

Science Daily/University of Alabama at Birmingham

A new study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham indicates that adolescents who experience sleep problems and longer sleep duration are more reactive to stress, which could contribute to academic, behavioral and health issues.


Existing studies show that nearly 70 percent of U.S. adolescents do not receive sufficient sleep. It is also known that insufficient sleep and sleep problems contribute to cognitive problems and poor physical health over time, possibly because of disruptions in a key part of the neuroendocrine system that controls reactions to stress and regulates many body processes -- the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or the HPA axis.


The relationship between sleep and the HPA axis has been studied in both children and adults; but little is known about this link during adolescence, which is a key period of time, as both sleep and the HPA axis are undergoing significant developmental changes related to puberty.


Sylvie Mrug, a psychology professor in UAB's College of Arts and Sciences, and her colleagues from UAB and Arizona State University sought to further explore the relationship between sleep and reactivity to stress, specifically as it relates to HPA-axis activity, in adolescents.


The researchers examined two dimensions of sleep -- sleep duration and sleep problems from the perspectives of adolescents and their parents, as well as cortisol levels before and after social stress. The team also looked at how the results varied based on gender.


"We chose to look at sleep patterns in urban African-American adolescents, due to information we understood from earlier research in the field," Mrug said. "This particular population is more likely to experience insufficient sleep, and their functioning is more negatively affected by lower sleep quality, so we knew that finding results for this demographic could be especially important."


Eighty-four adolescents with an average age of approximately 13 took part in the study. During their visit to the research lab, participating adolescents were given the children's version of a common stress test, called the Trier Social Stress Test, to measure their physiological responses to stress. This test involves speaking and computing mental math problems in front of an audience. Saliva samples were taken from each participant in order to test cortisol levels before and after the stress test.


Participants then reported on their bed times and wake times and any sleep problems, such as insomnia, daytime sleepiness and general sleep quality, during a regular week. Parents of the adolescents were asked to report on their children's sleep as well.


The adolescents most commonly reported the following sleep problems: the need for multiple reminders to get up in the morning, not having a good night's sleep, feeling tired or sleepy during the day, and not being satisfied with their sleep.


The researchers looked at the cortisol levels of the adolescent participants. Cortisol release during and after the stressful lab test was higher for adolescents who reported more sleep problems and longer sleep duration, and whose parents reported longer sleep duration.


"The result of higher cortisol levels in adolescents experiencing sleep problems was exactly what we expected to see," Mrug said. "We were, however, surprised that longer sleep duration predicted a stronger cortisol response, because previous studies linked shorter sleep duration with higher cortisol levels. Generally, less sleep is related to poor outcomes, not the other way around. In this case, this unexpected result could be explained by considering that longer sleep duration does not necessarily reflect higher-quality sleep, but instead may serve as another indicator of sleep problems, at least among urban adolescents."


The effects of sleep problems on greater cortisol release during stress were stronger in females than in males, suggesting that adolescent girls may be more sensitive to disrupted and poor quality sleep.


"Overall, the results of our study confirm what we originally hypothesized -- that sleep problems induce greater response to stress in adolescents," Mrug said. "It's important that we know this, because the enhanced and prolonged activation of the HPA axis in response to stress could contribute to more health problems. The urban African-American youth whom we studied may be particularly negatively affected by poor sleep because they are more likely to experience uncontrollable stress related to community and school violence. We want to do all that we can to understand ways we can help ensure better cognitive, emotional and physical health outcomes for these adolescents."

Flame retardants during pregnancy as bad as lead? Exposure linked to lower IQs in kids

May 28, 2014

Science Daily/Simon Fraser University

A new study involving Simon Fraser University researchers has found that prenatal exposure to flame retardants can be significantly linked to lower IQs and greater hyperactivity in five-year old children


Prenatal exposure to flame retardants can be significantly linked to lower IQs and greater hyperactivity in five-year old children. The researchers found that a 10-fold increase in PBDE concentrations in early pregnancy, when the fetal brain is developing, was associated with a 4.5 IQ decrement, which is comparable with the impact of environmental lead exposure. PBDEs have been widely used as flame retardants in furniture, carpet padding, car seats and other consumer products over the past three decades.


PBDEs have been widely used as flame retardants in furniture, carpet padding, car seats and other consumer products over the past three decades. While most items containing PBDEs were removed voluntarily from the market a decade ago, some are still in commerce and others persist in the environment and human bodies. Nearly all homes and offices still contain some PBDEs.


"The results from this and other observational human studies support efforts to reduce Penta-BDE exposures, especially for pregnant women and young children," says Lanphear. "Unfortunately, brominated flame retardants are persistent and North Americans are likely exposed to higher PBDE levels than people from other parts of the world. Because of this it is likely to take decades for the PBDE levels in our population to be reduced to current European or Asian levels."

Students' cognitive functioning improves when using standing desks

January 14, 2016

Science Daily/Texas A&M University

Do students think best when on their feet? New findings provide the first evidence of neurocognitive benefits of stand-height desks in classrooms. These findings provide the first evidence of neurocognitive benefits of stand-height desks in classrooms, where students are given the choice to stand or sit based on their preferences.


Findings published recently in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health provide the first evidence of neurocognitive benefits of stand-height desks in classrooms, where students are given the choice to stand or sit based on their preferences.


Ranjana Mehta, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Texas A&M School of Public Health, researched freshman high school students with who used standing desks. Testing was performed at the beginning and again at the end of their freshman year.


Through using an experimental design, Mehta explored the neurocognitive benefits using four computerized tests to assess executive functions. Executive functions are cognitive skills we all use to analyze tasks, break them into steps and keep them in mind until we get them done. These skills are directly related to the development of many academic skills that allow students to manage their time effectively, memorize facts, understand what they read, solve multi-step problems and organize their thoughts in writing. Because these functions are largely regulated in the frontal brain regions, a portable brain-imaging device (functional near infrared spectroscopy) was used to examine associated changes in the frontal brain function by placing biosensors on students' foreheads during testing.


"Test results indicated that continued use of standing desks was associated with significant improvements in executive function and working memory capabilities," Mehta said. "Changes in corresponding brain activation patterns were also observed."


In earlier studies that primarily focused on energy expenditure, teachers observed increased attention and better behavior of students using standing desks. Mehta's research study is the first study not subject to bias or interpretation that objectively exams students' cognitive responses and brain function while using standing desks.


"Interestingly, our research showed the use of standing desks improved neurocognitive function, which is consistent with results from previous studies on school-based exercise programs," Mehta said. "The next step would be to directly compare the neurocognitive benefits of standing desks to school-based exercise programs."


"There has been lots of anecdotal evidence from teachers that students focused and behaved better while using standing desks," added Mark Benden, Ph.D., CPE, co-researcher and director of the Texas A&M Ergonomics Center. "This is the first examination of students' cognitive responses to the standing desks, which to date have focused largely on sedentary time as it relates to childhood obesity."


Continued investigation of this research may have strong implications for policy makers, public health professionals and school administrators to consider simple and sustainable environmental changes in classrooms that can effectively increase energy expenditure and physical activity as well as enhance cognitive development and education outcomes.

Long-term benefits of improving your toddler's memory skills

Early intervention: New research shows that preschoolers with poor short-term recall are more at risk of dropping out of high school

January 12, 2016

Science Daily/Concordia University

Preschoolers who score lower on a memory task are likely to score higher on a dropout risk scale at the age of 12, new research shows. In a new article, the authors offer suggestions for how parents can help kids improve their kid's memory.


"Identifying students who are at risk of eventually dropping out of high school is an important step in preventing this social problem," says Caroline Fitzpatrick, first author of a study recently published in Intelligence, and a researcher at Concordia's PERFORM Centre.


She and the study's other researchers, who are affiliated with the Université Sainte-Anne and Université de Montréal, have suggestions for how parents can help kids improve their memory.


The study examines responses from 1,824 children at age two and a half, and then at three and a half. That data is then compared to the school-related attitudes and results of these children when they hit grade seven.


Results were clear: those that do better on a memory-testing imitation sorting task during toddlerhood are more likely to perform better in school later on -- and therefore more likely to stay in school. The imitation sorting task is specifically effective in measuring working memory, which can be compared to a childs mental workspace.


"Our results suggest that early individual differences in working memory may contribute to developmental risk for high school dropout, as calculated from student engagement in school, grade point average and whether or not they previously repeated a year in school," says Fitzpatrick.


"When taken together, those factors can identify which 12 year olds are likely to fail to complete high school by the age of 21."


Help at home


"Preschoolers can engage in pretend play with other children to help them practise their working memory, since this activity involves remembering their own roles and the roles of others," says Linda Pagani of the Université de Montréal, co-senior author.


"Encouraging mindfulness in children by helping them focus on their moment-to-moment experiences also has a positive effect on working memory."


Pagani also notes that breathing exercises and guided meditation can be practised with preschool and elementary school children. In older kids, vigorous aerobic activity such as soccer, basketball and jumping rope have all been shown to have beneficial effects on concentration and recall.


The researchers note that another promising strategy for improving working memory in children is to limit screen time -- video games, smartphones, tablets and television -- which can undermine cognitive control and take time away from more enriching pursuits.


"Our findings underscore the importance of early intervention," says Fitzpatick.


"Parents can help their children develop strong working memory skills at home, and this can have a positive impact on school performance later in life."

Light exposure and kids' weight: Is there a link?

World-first study revealing light exposure plays a role in the weight of preschool children

January 7, 2016

Science Daily/Queensland University of Technology

Light exposure plays a role in the weight of preschool children, a world-first study reveals. The researchers studied children aged three to five, from six childcare centers, measuring the children's sleep, activity and light exposure for a two week period, along with height and weight to calculate their BMI, then followed up 12-months later.

Around 42 million children around the globe under the age of five are classified as overweight or obese so this study is a significant breakthrough and a world-first, say the researchers.

Credit: © TuTheLens / Fotolia


PhD student Cassandra Pattinson and colleagues Simon Smith, Alicia Allan, Sally Staton and Karen Thorpe studied children aged three to five, from six Brisbane childcare centres. At time 1, they measured children's sleep, activity and light exposure for a two week period, along with height and weight to calculate their BMI, then followed up 12-months later


"At time 1, we found moderate intensity light exposure earlier in the day was associated with increased body mass index (BMI) while children who received their biggest dose of light -- outdoors and indoors -- in the afternoon were slimmer," said Ms Pattinson of the Environmental Light Exposure is Associated with Increased Body Mass in Children study.


"At follow-up, children who had more total light exposure at Time 1 had higher body mass 12 months later. Light had a significant impact on weight even after we accounted for Time 1 body weight, sleep, and activity.


"Around 42 million children around the globe under the age of five are classified as overweight or obese so this is a significant breakthrough and a world-first.


"Artificial lighting, including light given off by tablets, mobile phones, night lights, and television, means modern children are exposed to more environmental light than any previous generation. This increase in light exposure has paralleled global increases in obesity."


The research team is from QUT's Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation and the Centre for Children's Health Research


Ms Pattinson said it is known the timing, intensity and duration of exposure to both artificial and natural light have acute biological effects in mammals.


"The circadian clock -- also known as the internal body clock -- is largely driven by our exposure to light and the timing of when that happens. It impacts on sleep patterns, weight gain or loss, hormonal changes and our mood," Ms Pattinson said


"Factors that impact on obesity include calorie intake, decreased physical activity, short sleep duration, and variable sleep timing. Now light can be added to the mix."


Ms Pattinson said the next step was to figure out how the research can be used in the fight against obesity in children.


"We plan to conduct further studies with pre-schoolers and also infants," she said.


"Animal studies have shown that timing and intensity of light exposure is critical for metabolic functioning and weight status. Our findings suggest that the same applies to us.


"This research suggests that exposure to different types of light (both artificial and natural) at different times now needs to be part of the conversation about the weight of children."

How much TV you watch as a young adult may affect midlife cognitive function

December 2, 2015

Science Daily/The JAMA Network Journals

Watching a lot of TV and having a low physical activity level as a young adult were associated with worse cognitive function 25 years later in midlife, according to an article published online by JAMA Psychiatry.


Few studies have investigated the association between physical activity in early adulthood and cognitive function later in life. Coupled with the increasing prevalence of sedentary or screen-based activities, such as watching television, these trends are of concern for upcoming generations of young people.


Tina D. Hoang, M.S.P.H., of the Northern California Institute for Research and Education at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, San Francisco, Kristine Yaffe, M.D., of the University of California, San Francisco, and coauthors examined associations between 25-year patterns of television viewing and physical activity and midlife cognition.


The study of 3,247 adults (ages 18 to 30) used a questionnaire to assess television viewing and physical activity during repeated visits over 25 years. High television viewing was defined as watching TV for more than three hours per day for more than two-thirds of the visits and exercise was measured as units based on time and intensity. Cognitive function was evaluated at year 25 using three tests that assessed processing speed, executive function and verbal memory.


Participants with high television viewing during 25 years (353 of 3,247 or 10.9 percent) were more likely to have poor cognitive performance on some of the tests. Low physical activity during 25 years in 528 of 3,247 participants (16.3 percent) was associated with poor performance on one of the tests. The odds of poor cognitive performance were almost two times higher for adults with both high television viewing and low physical activity in 107 of 3,247 (3.3 percent) participants, according to the results.


The authors acknowledge a few limitations, including possible selection bias and that physical activity and TV viewing were self-reported.


"In this biracial cohort followed for 25 years, we found that low levels of physical activity and high levels of television viewing during young to mid-adulthood were associated with worse cognitive performance in midlife. In particular, these behaviors were associated with slower processing speed and worse executive function but not with verbal memory. Participants with the least active patterns of behavior (i.e., both low physical activity and high television viewing time) were the most likely to have poor cognitive function. ... Individuals with both low physical activity and high sedentary behavior may represent a critical target group," the study concludes.


Risk-takers are smarter

November 30, 2015

Science Daily/SINTEF

Do you often take chances and yet still land on your feet? Then you probably have a well-developed brain.


This surprising discovery has been made as part of a project studying the brains of young male high and low risk-takers. The tests were carried out at the University of Turku in Finland under the direction of SINTEF, using both the Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) techniques to measure activation-related and structural correlates of risky behaviour, respectively.


The aim of the project was to investigate the decision-making processes within the brains of 34 young men aged 18 or 19. Based on psychological tests, they were divided into two groups of low and high risk-takers, respectively.


"We expected to find that young men who spend time considering what they are going to do in a given risk situation would have more highly developed neural networks in their brains than those who make quick decisions and take chances," says SINTEF researcher and behavioural analyst Dagfinn Moe. "This has been well documented in a series of studies, but our project revealed the complete opposite," he says.


More superhighways among risk-seekers


In fact, images taken of the brains of young men during the study reveal major differences in what is called "white matter." White matter constitutes the neural network, about 160,000 kilometres in length, that transmits signals in the form of nerve impulses and is crucial to the regulation of internal communication between the different areas of the brain.


This network is designed to analyse and transmit information in a consistent and efficient way. This is why white matter is described as containing the brain's own "superhighways." Images from brain scans revealed that those who made quick decisions and took chances during driving simulations had significantly more white matter than those who hesitated, evaluated the situation, and opted to drive safely.


"This finding is interesting and will be important to the way we understand the brain's development and our learning potential linked to risk-willingness," says Moe. "This will be useful information for parents, schoolteachers, sports coaches and, not least, driving instructors when it comes to assessing high risk behaviour among young drivers," he says.


More active, more learning


He believes that the explanation lies in the fact that these young men are active and seek out challenges -- both out of curiosity and a hunger to experience learning and a sense of mastery over their environment. This stimulates their brains and so their actions display a fantastic combination of playfulness, seriousness and enjoyment.


"All the positive brain chemicals respond under such conditions, promoting growth factors that contribute to the development of the robust neural networks that form the basis of our physical and mental skills," says Moe. "The point here is that if you're going to take risks, you have to have the required skills. And these have to be learned. Sadly, many fail during this learning process -- with tragic consequences. So this is why we're wording our findings with a Darwinian slant -- it takes brains to take risks," he says.


Driving games


The researchers employed a driving game in which participants were awarded points according to the level of risk they were willing to take.


The 34 young men, aged 18 or 19, were recruited and selected from upper secondary schools in Turku in Finland. The test was laid out in the form of a simulated car journey through 20 sets of traffic lights.


Prior to the tests, the subjects were divided into two groups -- high risk-takers (HRT) and low risk-takers (LRT) -- on the basis of the psychological sensation-seeking scale developed by Zuckerman, and actual risk-willingness displayed by the participants during initial tests. The game behaviour was the best predictor of risk-taking.


The task assigned to the young men was, on encountering an amber light, to decide whether a) to stop, or b) to take a chance, run the light and complete the journey through all 20 traffic lights as quickly as possible. A decision to stop added three seconds to the time taken, and a collision six seconds. In other words, the best times would be achieved by those successfully running amber lights and avoiding collisions -- but you wouldn't know if you were going to encounter another car on the crossings.


All the participants tried out the game before they started the formal tests, when they were subject to an MR scan of their brains. Prior to the tests they were all assessed for and cleared of any anatomical deficiencies or mental health problems or conditions that might have influenced the cognitive functions that were going to be measured. They were all right-handed.


Two analyses


The first measurement, performed with fMRI, analysed local activation differences in the gray matter of the brain between experimental conditions. FMRI registers changes in blood oxygenation and flow occurring as a result of changes in neuronal activity. The second measurement involved a Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) analysis to estimate between-group difference in white matter integrity depending particularly on the quality of the myelin sheath enclosing the nerve fibres. Myelination of neural fibers is an indicator of brain maturation related to increasing efficiency of impulse transmission. The results thus provide a picture of local neural activity at the moments when decisions are taken by individuals in the two groups, as well as between-group structural difference in the quality of the brain's signal transmission system.


How do risk-takers think?


Measurements of the moment that decision-making actually takes place are taken when the subject chooses to press either "stop" or "go."


Results showed that high risk-seekers didn't hesitate for long before they made their decisions. Their optimism, willingness to take a chance, and belief that they would win determined their decision. Low risk-seekers, on the other hand, found themselves in a dilemma. Should they take a chance? What would happen if they crashed? This resulted in them hesitating before they made a decision to run the amber light by pressing the "go" button. Choosing the "stop" button is the safe decision that resulted in no dilemma.


White matter


Analysis of the white matter in the two groups also revealed major differences.


Local differences in white matter are evident between high and low risk-takers as illustrated by the coloured areas adjacent to the prefrontal cortex, within interhemispheric tracts, and in the rear of the brain that controls vision.


"Daring and risk-willingness activate and challenge the brain's capacity and contribute towards learning, coping strategies and development," says Moe. "They can stimulate behaviour in the direction of higher levels of risk-taking in people already predisposed to adapt to cope optimally in such situations. "We must stop regarding daring and risk-willingness simply as undesirable and uncontrolled behaviour patterns," he says.


Together with the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Turku, Moe is currently planning a new study to investigate educational approaches directed towards both high and low risk-seekers.


"This project will be incorporated within the 'Mind, Brain and Education (MBE)' concept, in which knowledge about the brain is more closely integrated into our understanding of educational methods and teaching outcomes," he says.


"We believe that this result is a very important contribution towards our understanding of how important factors such as curiosity, daring and play are for the development of the brain, as well as our physical and mental skills," he says, referring to Fridtjof Nansen's characterisation of the phenomenon: 'A spirit of daring is deeply ingrained in our nature -- in each and every one of us. But accidents will befall those who are unprepared'.

Parental absence affects brain development in children

November 30, 2015

Science Daily/Radiological Society of North America

Researchers in China have found that children who have been left without direct parental care for extended periods of time show larger gray matter volumes in the brain, according to a study being presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).


Throughout the world, due to political upheaval, economic necessity or other reasons, parents sometimes are compelled to travel away from home for months or years at a time, leaving their children behind.


In China, large numbers of workers are migrating away from their children in pursuit of better jobs. Researchers wanted to study how this migration has affected the millions of children who have been left in the care of relatives for a period of more than six months without direct parental care from their biological parents.


"We wanted to study the brain structure in these left-behind children," said study author Yuan Xiao, Ph.D. candidate at the Huaxi MR Research Center and the Department of Radiology at West China Hospital of Sichuan University in Chengdu, Sichuan, China. "Previous studies support the hypothesis that parental care can directly affect brain development in offspring. However, most prior work is with rather severe social deprivation, such as orphans. We looked at children who were left behind with relatives when the parents left to seek employment far from home."


For the study, which was led by Professor Su Lui and conducted at the Second Affiliated Hospital & Yuying Children's Hospital of Wenzhou Medical University, MRI exams from 38 left-behind girls and boys (ages 7 to 13) were compared to MRI exams from a control group of 30 girls and boys (ages 7 to 14) living with their parents. The researchers then compared the gray matter volume between the two groups and measured the intelligence quotient (IQ) of each participant to assess cognitive function.


The researchers found larger gray matter volumes in multiple brain regions, especially in emotional brain circuitry, in the left-behind children compared to children living with their parents. The mean value of IQ scores in left-behind children was not significantly different from that of controls, but the gray matter volume in a brain region associated with memory encoding and retrieval was negatively correlated with IQ score.


Since larger gray matter volume may reflect insufficient pruning and maturity of the brain, the negative correlation between the gray matter volume and IQ scores suggests that growing without parental care may delay brain development.


"Our study provides the first empirical evidence showing that the lack of direct parental care alters the trajectory of brain development in left-behind children," Xiao said. "Public health efforts are needed to provide additional intellectual and emotional support to children left behind by parents."

Researchers urge caution in prescribing commonly used drug to treat ADHD

November 25, 2015

Science Daily/Wiley

Authors of new Cochrane Review remain uncertain about effect of widely used medicine on ADHD symptoms, despite large amount of research. Some evidence of increased sleeplessness and loss of appetite leads researchers to encourage more caution in use of methylphenidate.


The Cochrane Library publishes one of the most comprehensive assessments to date on the benefits and harms of a widely prescribed drug used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).


ADHD is one of the most commonly diagnosed childhood disorders and can continue through adolescence into adulthood. Symptoms include difficulty focusing attention and remaining "on task," excessively impulsive behaviour, and extreme hyperactivity. It is estimated to affect about 5% of children, and diagnosis is based on clinical judgement rather than objective diagnostic markers.


Methylphenidate, more commonly known by its brand names -- Ritalin®, Concerta®, Medikinet®, and Equasym®, amongst others -- has been used to treat ADHD for more than 50 years. A team of Cochrane researchers has carefully evaluated and summarized the findings from all of the available randomized trials of this widely used drug.


This new Cochrane Review includes data from 185 randomized controlled trials involving more than 12,000 children or adolescents. The studies were conducted mainly in the US, Canada, and Europe, included males and females from ages 3-18, and all compared methylphenidate with either a dummy pill or no intervention.


When researchers combined data from identified trials, they found that methylphenidate led to modest improvements in ADHD symptoms, general behaviour, and quality of life. Analysis of adverse effects showed that children were more likely to experience sleep problems and loss of appetite while taking methylphenidate. However, the researchers' confidence in all results was very low: it was apparent from assessing the included trials that it would have been possible for people involved in the trials to have been aware of which treatment the children were taking. In addition, the reporting of results was not complete in many of the trials, and for some analyses there was variation among trial results.


Based upon this information, the researchers urge clinicians to be cautious in prescribing methylphenidate, and to weigh up the benefits and risks more carefully.


The team of 18 researchers was led by Professor Ole Jakob Storebø, Clinical Psychologist from the Psychiatric Research Unit in Region Zealand, Denmark. He says, "This review highlights the need for long-term, large, better-quality randomized trials so that we can determine the average effect of this drug more reliably."


Co-author Camilla Groth MD added, "This review shows very limited quality evidence for the effects of methylphenidate on children and adolescents with ADHD. Some might benefit, but we still don't know which patients will do so. Clinicians prescribing methylphenidate must take account of the poor quality of the evidence, monitor treatment carefully, and weigh up the benefits and adverse effects."


Another co-author, Dr Morris Zwi, Consultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist added, "This evidence is important for health professionals and parents of children with ADHD. Our expectations of this treatment are probably greater than they should be, and whilst our review shows some evidence of benefit, we should bear in mind that this finding was based on very low-quality evidence. What we still need are large, well-conducted trials in order to clarify the risks versus the benefits for this widely used treatment."


The researchers have also urged that clinicians and families should not rush to discontinue using methylphenidate. Dr Zwi added, "If a child or young person has experienced benefits without experiencing adverse effects, then there may be good clinical grounds to continue using it. Patients and their parents should discuss any decision to stop treatment with their health professional before doing so."

Children who take ADHD medicines have trouble sleeping

Study addresses decades of conflicting evidence of meds' effect on sleep

November 23, 2015

Science Daily/University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Children given ADHD stimulant medications take significantly longer to fall asleep, have poorer quality sleep and sleep for shorter periods, shows new research.


The study addresses decades of conflicting opinions and evidence about the medications' effect on sleep.


In what's known as a "meta-analysis," researchers from the UNL Department of Psychology combined and analyzed the results from past studies of how ADHD medications affect sleep.


In a study published online by the journal Pediatrics, the Nebraska researchers found children given the medicines take significantly longer to fall asleep, have poorer quality sleep, and sleep for shorter periods.


"We would recommend that pediatricians frequently monitor children with ADHD who are prescribed stimulants for potential adverse effects on sleep," said Katie Kidwell, a psychology doctoral student who served as the study's lead author.


About 1 in 14 children and adolescents in the U.S. are diagnosed with ADHD, a chronic condition that includes attention difficulty, hyperactivity and impulsiveness. In the most common form of ADHD treatment, about 3.5 million are prescribed stimulant medications such as Ritalin and Adderall.


Many research articles have been written in the past 30 years on whether ADHD medications harm the ability to sleep. Some researchers have found that the drugs do interfere with sleep, particularly if taken later in the day. Others maintain the medications improve patients with ADHD's ability to sleep, by relieving symptoms and reducing resistance to bedtime. Indeed, some suggest that sleep problems are caused by the medication wearing off near bedtime, creating withdrawal symptoms.


"One reason we did the study is that researchers have hypothesized different effects, and there are some conflicting findings in the literature," said Timothy Nelson, an associate professor of psychology involved in the study. "This is when a meta-analysis is most useful. By aggregating and previous research in a rigorous and statistical way, we can identify the main findings that we see across all these studies. It's essentially a study of studies."


After screening nearly 10,000 articles, Kidwell and her colleagues reviewed 167 full texts before selecting nine studies of sufficient rigor for their analysis. Tori Van Dyk and Alyssa Lundahl, also psychology doctoral students, assisted in the effort.


Studies chosen for the analysis were peer-reviewed, randomized experiments. The studies did not rely on parental reports of their children's sleeping patterns, instead requiring objective measures obtained through clinical sleep studies or wristband monitors used at home.


The researchers found that both methylphenidate medications like Ritalin and amphetamines like Adderall cause sleep problems, without identifying differences between the two. Although they were unable to determine whether varying dosage amounts changed the effect on sleep, they found that more frequent dosages made it harder for children to fall asleep.


They found that drugs tend to cause more sleep problems for boys. The problems dissipate, but never completely go away, the longer children continue to take the medication.


"Sleep impairment is related to many cognitive, emotional and behavioral consequences, such as inattention, irritability and defiance," Kidwell said. "Sleep adverse effects could undermine the benefits of stimulant medications in some cases. Pediatricians should carefully consider dosage amounts, standard versus extended release, and dosage frequencies to minimize sleep problems while effectively treating ADHD symptoms."


She also recommended considering behavioral treatments, such as parental training and changes to classroom procedures and homework assignments, to reduce ADHD's negative consequences.


"We're not saying don't use stimulant medications to treat ADHD," Nelson said. "They are well tolerated in general and there is evidence for their effectiveness. But physicians need to weigh the pros and cons in any medication decision, and considering the potential for disrupted sleep should be part of that cost-benefit analysis with stimulants."


Association between stress levels, skin problems in college students

November 23, 2015

Science Daily/Temple University Health System

College is a stressful time in the lives of students, and a new study has found that heightened levels of psychological stress are associated with skin complaints.The study aimed to assess the relationship between perceived psychological stress and the prevalence of various skin symptoms in a large, randomly selected sample of undergraduate students.


The study, published by the international, peer-reviewed journal Acta Dermato-Venereologica aimed to assess the relationship between perceived psychological stress and the prevalence of various skin symptoms in a large, randomly selected sample of undergraduate students. "Previous studies have demonstrated an association between stress and skin symptoms, but those studies relied on small patient samples, did not use standardized tools, are anecdotal in nature, or focused their analyses on a single skin disease," says Gil Yosopovitch, MD, Chair of the Department of Dermatology at LKSOM, Director of the Temple Itch Center, and corresponding author of the study.


The questionnaire-based, cross-sectional study was conducted at Temple University during the 2014 fall semester. Five thousand undergraduate students were invited to participate in a web-based survey in which they reported their perceived psychological stress and any skin complaints. Four hundred twenty-two students were included in the final sample size.


Respondents were divided into groupings labeled as low stress, moderate stress and high stress. Compared to low stress subjects, the high stress group suffered significantly more often from pruritus (itchy skin); alopecia (hair loss); oily, waxy or flaky patches on the scalp; hyperhidrosis (troublesome sweating); scaly skin; onychophagia (nail biting); itchy rash on hands; and trichotillomania (hair pulling). There was no association between perceived psychological stress levels and the presence of pimples, dry/sore rash, warts and other rashes on the face.


Despite study limitations (e.g., low response rate, absence of physical assessment of respondents), Dr. Yosipovitch says the results are important for dermatologists who treat undergraduate-aged patients. "Our findings highlight the need for health care/dermatology providers to ask these patients about their perceived levels of psychological stress. Disease flare or exacerbation while on treatment in the setting of increased stress may not necessarily reflect treatment failure." Dr. Yosipovitch adds, "These findings further suggest that non-pharmacologic therapeutic interventions should be considered for patients presenting with both skin conditions and heightened levels of psychological stress."

Lead exposure impacts children's sleep

Novel finding shows that lead exposure in early childhood increase risk for sleep problems, excessive daytime sleepiness

November 12, 2015

Science Daily/University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing

Lead exposure in early childhood are associated with increased risk for sleep problems and excessive daytime sleepiness in later childhood, new research shows. This is the first longitudinal, population-based study that investigated early lead exposure to sleep problems.


The research is based on data from a longitudinal, cohort study -- involving more than 1400 Chinese children -- that began in 2004 investigating the influence of lead exposure in relation to the development of children and adolescents' neurocognitive, behavioral and health outcomes. Lead pollution is pervasive throughout China and other developing countries, and though rates of lead exposure are decreasing due to the phase-out of leaded gasoline and increased public awareness, its persistence presents a significant health risk to children.


"Little is known about the impact of heavy metals exposure on children's sleep, but the study's findings highlight that environmental toxins -- such as lead -- are important pediatric risk factors for sleep disturbance," said the study's principal investigator Jianghong Liu, PhD, FAAN, Associate Professor at Penn Nursing and a faculty member at Penn's Perelman School of Medicine. "Lead exposure is preventable and treatable, but if left unchecked can result in irreversible neurological damage."


This is an important advancement in identifying and understanding the contribution of lead exposure to childhood insomnia and daytime sleepiness. Sleep problems are highly prevalent in children and adolescents and are associated with many adverse health outcomes including developmental disorders and intellectual and neurocognitive problems.


"This study addresses an important but often neglected area of sleep science, namely, environmental factors that disrupt sleep biology and behavior in children and other vulnerable populations," said the study's senior author David Dinges, PhD, Professor and Chief of the Division of Sleep & Chronobiology in the Department of Psychiatry at Penn Medicine.


The sleep problems reported by the adolescents in the study include excessive daytime sleepiness, insomnia, early morning awakening, trouble initiating and maintaining sleep, and having to use sleeping pills, all of which highlight poor sleep quality. Using the data from the cohort study, 665 children's blood lead levels were assessed when they were between three and five years old, and sleep was assessed six years later, when the children were between nine and eleven years old. The children and their parents answered separate questionnaires about the children's daily sleep patterns, insomnia and the use of sleeping pills.


Child-reported insomnia and use of sleeping pills were two times and three times more prevalent in children with blood lead levels (BLL) greater than or equal to 10 ug/dL than in children with BLL less than 10 ug/dL. This suggests that sleep disturbances appeared problematic enough for children to suffer from insomnia and even to use sleeping aids/pills in an attempt to ameliorate their symptoms.


"Insufficient sleep and daytime sleepiness is very prevalent in children and adolescents, and it is a pervasive problem that is linked with a significant public health burden," explained Liu. "More research needs to be done to identify contributing factors and ways to prevent or reduce their impact. Doing this can not only help alleviate sleep disturbance, but can also indirectly improve sleep-related health outcomes, including cognition, emotion, behavior, and in some cases, diabetes."


Grow kids' brains through sport

November 11, 2015

Science Daily/Université de Montréal

Organized extracurricular sport activities for children help them develop and improve cognitive skills, such as greater concentration capacity, that can in term greatly help them in the classroom, suggests a researcher.


In addition to being a professor at the university's School of Psychoeducation, Pagani is also a researcher at Montreal's CHU Sainte-Justine Children's hospital. Her work focuses on childhood development and the identification of factors that impact on kids as they grow up, with a view to helping parents, teachers and organizations to prioritize positive activities and behaviours. Some of her most recent research looks specifically at the impact of team sports. "We worked with information provided by parents and teachers to compare kindergarteners' activities with their classroom engagement as they grew up," Pagani said. "By time they reached the fourth grade, kids who played structured sports were identifiably better at following instructions and remaining focused in the classroom. There is something specific to the sporting environment -- perhaps the unique sense of belonging to a team to a special group with a common goal -- that appears to help kids understand the importance of respecting the rules and honoring responsibilities."


Mr. Mico Delianova Licastro, the Italian National Olympic Committee's US representative and organizer of the symposium, underscored that Prof. Pagani's findings support the work his organization has been undertaking for years. "Coni is keenly aware of the need for children to start at a very early age to engage in an active life style and to participate in organized sports in and out of school when of the proper age," Delianova Licastro said. "Coni is present in several countries with large populations of citizens of Italian descent, like here in the USA, to organize for the children of our communities' all-in sports competitions, ludic events and to promote a healthy diet."

Can parents' stress impact the health of future generations?

November 4, 2015

Science Daily/North Dakota State University

The long-term impacts of exposure to stressors during development have been the focus of recent research. The review looks at whether the effect of stressors on parents lingers to impact the health of their offspring.


Studies have shown that exposure to stressors accelerates the aging process. "When parents are exposed to stressors, the lifespans of their offspring and even grand offspring are often reduced. But why this happens is not well understood," said Heidinger. The researchers' paper reviews evidence that telomeres might play an important role in the process.


Telomeres are highly conserved, repetitive sections of DNA at the end of chromosomes. Together with other proteins, telomeres form protective caps at chromosome ends, which function a little bit like the plastic ends called aglets on shoelaces, to protect the laces from fraying.


During cell division and in response to stressors, telomeres get shorter while protecting the other DNA on the chromosome. Once telomeres get too short, cells stop dividing and do not function properly, which is expected to contribute to a decline in tissue function with age.


"Understanding how stress in the parental generation influences the telomere dynamics of subsequent generations will be important for predicting how early adversity impacts human health and how changing environmental conditions will influence animal populations," said Haussmann.


The review published in Biology Letters synthesizes many human and animal studies to identify current gaps in knowledge and recommend new avenues for discovery.


"There is evidence in humans, other mammals, and birds that parental stress exposure has a negative impact on the telomeres of their offspring," said Heidinger. "However, these effects can vary among developmental stages, among individuals, and among tissues within individuals and we need to know more about what causes these differences."

Stressed parent? New research shows your children may be twice as likely to have obesity

November 4, 2015

Science Daily/Obesity Society

Prior research has shown that stress is associated with obesity in adults, and now for the first time, research suggests Latino parents who feel high levels of stress are twice as likely to have children with obesity as well. Researchers examined data from the Study of Latino Youth (SOL Youth) to determine the relationship between parental stress and child weight status in the Latino population.


"Obesity and chronic stress were both prevalent among this Latino population, with more than one-quarter (28%) of children ages 8-16 with obesity, and nearly one-third (29%) of their parents reporting high levels of stress," said Dr. Isasi. "This study is among the first of its kind to show that parental stress is a risk factor for childhood obesity among Latinos, and adds to the understanding of family influences on child weight status."


In this study, Dr. Isasi and colleagues examined data on weight and stress from children and their parents from the SOL Youth study, an ancillary study to HCHC/SOL, a large community-based cohort study of Latino individuals living in the Bronx (New York City), Chicago, Miami and San Diego. The researchers followed guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to define child weight status, and assessed parental stress using the Chronic Stress Burden Scale, an eight-item measure of ongoing stressors in important life domains. Stress factors included having difficulties at work or difficulties in a relationship, among others. The researchers found that prevalence of obesity in the child increased with the number of parental stress factors, from 20% among parents who experienced no stress to 34% among parents with three or more stress factors. After adjusting the data for age, sex, place of birth and location, researchers found that parents who experienced three or more chronic stressors were twice as likely to have children with obesity than parents who experienced no stress.


"This research should encourage clinicians and healthcare practitioners to consider high stress levels as a warning sign for developing obesity not only in the adult patient, but also in the patient's entire family," said Margarita Teran-Garcia, MD, PhD, FTOS, At-Large Mexico Council member for The Obesity Society. "Although the study is cross-sectional, it suggests that special attention should be paid to adult patients who report experiencing high stress levels in this population, and providers are encouraged to consider behavioral counseling as one measure for obesity prevention and treatments."


Future research is needed to examine the causes and possible preventive strategies to address the parental stress and childhood obesity associations. Additionally, future research should explore these relationships in other populations.


To help providers integrate obesity treatment in their practices, The Obesity Society offers free tools as part of the Treat Obesity Seriously campaign, including a BMI pad, an office poster and a BMI-measurement wheel. Clinicians can sign up to receive these materials online.


Early life stress and adolescent depression linked to impaired development of reward circuits

October 29, 2015

Science Daily/Elsevier

Early life stress is a major risk factor for later episodes of depression. In fact, adults who are abused or neglected as children are almost twice as likely to experience depression. Scientific research into this link has revealed that the increased risk following such childhood adversity is associated with sensitization of the brain circuits involved with processing threat and driving the stress response. More recently, research has begun to demonstrate that in parallel to this stress sensitization, there may also be diminished processing of reward in the brain and associated reductions in a person's ability to experience positive emotions.


Scientific research into this link has revealed that the increased risk following such childhood adversity is associated with sensitization of the brain circuits involved with processing threat and driving the stress response. More recently, research has begun to demonstrate that in parallel to this stress sensitization, there may also be diminished processing of reward in the brain and associated reductions in a person's ability to experience positive emotions.


Researchers at Duke University and the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at San Antonio looked specifically at this second phenomenon in a longitudinal neuroimaging study of adolescents, in order to better understand how early life stress contributes to depression.


They recruited 106 adolescents, between the ages of 11-15, who underwent an initial magnetic resonance imaging scan, along with measurements of mood and neglect. The study participants then had a second brain scan two years later.


The researchers focused on the ventral striatum, a deep brain region that is important for processing rewarding experiences as well as generating positive emotions, both of which are deficient in depression.


"Our analyses revealed that over a two-year window during early to mid-adolescence, there was an abnormal decrease in the response of the ventral striatum to reward only in adolescents who had been exposed to emotional neglect, a relatively common form of childhood adversity where parents are persistently emotionally unresponsive and unavailable to their children," explained first author Dr. Jamie Hanson.


"Importantly, we further showed that this decrease in ventral striatum activity predicted the emergence of depressive symptoms during this key developmental period," he added. "Our work is consistent with other recent studies finding deficient reward processing in depression, and further underscores the importance of considering such developmental pathways in efforts to protect individuals exposed to childhood adversity from later depression."


This study suggests that, in some people, early life stress compromises the capacity to experience enthusiasm or pleasure. In addition, the effect of early life stress may grow over time so that people who initially appear resilient may develop problems later in life.


"This insight is important because it suggests a neural pathway through which early life stress may contribute to depression," said Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry. "This pathway might be targeted by neural stimulation treatments. Further, it suggests that survivors of early life trauma and their families may benefit from learning about the possibility of consequences that might appear later in life. This preparation could help lead to early intervention."

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