For decades many people have claimed meditation can change how we behave towards others and make us more compassionate -- but new research suggests this is not the case.
February 5, 2018
Science Daily/Coventry University
For decades many people have claimed meditation can change how we behave towards others and make us more compassionate.
But now new research has suggested meditation's role in making individuals better people is limited.
The study by scientists at Coventry University in the UK, Massey University in New Zealand, and Radboud University in the Netherlands, reviewed more than 20 studies that investigated the effect of various types of meditation, such as mindfulness and loving-kindness, on pro-social feelings and behaviours.
Initial analysis indicated that meditation did have an overall positive impact.
The researchers said meditation made people feel moderately more compassionate or empathic, compared to if they had done no other new emotionally-engaging activity.
However further analysis revealed that it played no significant role in reducing aggression or prejudice or improving how socially-connected someone was.
The most unexpected result of this study, though, was that the more positive results found for compassion had important methodological flaws -- compassion levels in some studies only increased if the meditation teacher was also an author of the published report.
Overall, these results suggest that the moderate improvements reported by psychologists in previous studies may be the result of methodological weaknesses and biases, said the researchers.
Their research -- published today in Scientific Reports -- only included randomised controlled studies, where meditators were compared to other individuals that did not meditate.
All these studies used secular meditation techniques derived from Buddhism, such as mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation, but not other related activities, like yoga or Tai-Chi.
Dr Miguel Farias, from Coventry University's Centre for Advances in Behavioural Science, said:
"The popularisation of meditation techniques, like mindfulness, despite being taught without religious beliefs, still seem to offer the hope of a better self and a better world to many. We wanted to investigate how powerful these techniques were in affecting one's feelings and behaviours towards others.
"Despite the high hopes of practitioners and past studies, our research found that methodological shortcomings greatly influenced the results we found. Most of the initial positive results disappeared when the meditation groups were compared to other groups that engaged in tasks unrelated to meditation. We also found that the beneficial effect of meditation on compassion disappeared if the meditation teacher was an author in the studies. This reveals that the researchers might have unintentionally biased their results.
"None of this, of course, invalidates Buddhism or other religions' claims about the moral value and eventually life changing potential of its beliefs and practices. But our research findings are a far cry from many popular claims made by meditators and some psychologists.
"To understand the true impact of meditation on people's feelings and behaviour further we first need to address the methodological weaknesses we uncovered -- starting with the high expectations researchers might have about the power of meditation."
Largest rate increases among those with post-traumatic stress disorder
July 15, 2016
Science Daily/American Academy of Sleep Medicine
A new study found a six-fold increase in the age-adjusted prevalence of any sleep disorder diagnosis over an 11-year period among US veterans. The largest increases were identified in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), other mental disorders, or combat experience. Results also show that the prevalence of PTSD tripled during the study period.
In a sample of more than 9.7 million U.S. veterans, the age-adjusted prevalence of sleep disorders increased from less than 1 percent in 2000 to nearly 6 percent in 2010. Sleep apnea was the most common sleep disorder diagnosis (47 percent) followed by insomnia (26 percent). Veterans with cardiovascular disease, cancer, or other chronic diseases also experienced higher rates of sleep disorder diagnoses relative to those without comorbid conditions.
Study results are published in the July issue of the journal Sleep.
"Veterans with PTSD had a very high sleep disorder prevalence of 16 percent, the highest among the various health conditions or other population characteristics that we examined," said Principal Investigator and senior author James Burch, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina. "Because of the way this study was designed, this does not prove that PTSD caused the increase in sleep disorder diagnoses," noted Burch, who also is a Health Science Specialist at the WJB Dorn Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Columbia, South Carolina. "However, we recently completed a follow-up study, soon to be submitted for publication, that examined this issue in detail. In that study, a pre-existing history of PTSD was associated with an increased odds of sleep disorder onset."
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, sleep apnea is a sleep-related breathing disorder characterized by abnormalities of respiration during sleep. The most common form of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea, which is characterized by repetitive episodes of complete or partial upper airway obstruction occurring during sleep. Insomnia involves a frequent and persistent difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep that results in general sleep dissatisfaction and daytime impairment.
The study population consisted of all U.S. veterans seeking care in the Veterans Health Administration system between FY2000 and FY2010. Of the total sample of 9,786,778 veterans, 93 percent were men, and 751,502 were diagnosed with at least one sleep disorder.
Most see symptoms moderate, but alcohol consumption can make improvement less likely
July 13, 2016
Science Daily/University at Buffalo
A new study is helping researchers better understand how post-traumatic stress disorder fluctuates in students during their first year of college.
The segment of the young adult population with PTSD is particularly at risk for problem drinking and other harmful behaviors that can potentially exacerbate symptoms, according to Jennifer Read, a professor in UB's Department of Psychology and corresponding author of the paper published in the journal Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research and Policy.
"You have a group of young people exposed to some trauma who are away from many of the things that would otherwise provide them with support," says Read. "Even those who are commuting have still entered into a new way of life."
The researchers analyzed a class of 649 freshman who had suffered some kind of trauma, using a 17-question form designed to assess PTSD symptoms in civilians. Based on their answers, the students were separated into three categories: those with severe symptoms, moderate symptoms or no symptoms.
Each participant was subsequently assessed five additional times during the year: three times during their first semester and twice during their second semester.
The findings suggest significant early variations in how people's symptoms fluctuate. Most of the change is happening when students first transition to college. That's when the symptoms are malleable.
However, as the students progressed through their freshman year, they became more fixed in their categories, a finding that points to the possible benefits of early intervention.
"This is relevant to college administrators for a few different reasons," says Read. "One is to know that there is a class of students whose symptoms are getting worse or staying bad. While students are first transitioning the symptoms are the most malleable. So early detection and intervention are important.
"If these people can be identified, then outreach could be provided," she says.
Many of the students, however, saw their symptoms moderate, a finding that informs researchers on how people recover naturally, according to Read.
"It's encouraging that people with PTSD symptoms are getting better on their own," says Read. "Resilience is common in human behavior. People can have bad things happen to them, but will most likely be okay. It doesn't mean they won't affected, or that they won't be changed in some way, but they will probably be okay."
Although resolution of PTSD symptoms was the most common pattern in the study's participants, Read cautions that there is a subset of people who arrive as college freshman with PSTD and see no change in their condition.
"Drinking affects this," says Read, who has conducted previous research on the intersection of PTSD and alcohol consumption. "If someone is drinking regularly or excessively, the likelihood is less that they'll move from a high category to a lower category."
July 1, 2016
Science Daily/Research Society on Alcoholism
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and alcohol dependence (AD) are two of the most common and debilitating disorders diagnosed among American military veterans. AD and PTSD often occur together, and this co-occurrence has a worse prognosis than either disorder alone. Alcohol craving is related to relapse, but the relationship between PTSD symptoms, craving, and relapse is not well understood. This study is the first to explore the effects of trauma-induced and stress-induced imagery on alcohol craving, affect, and cardiovascular and cortisol responses in a laboratory setting.
Researchers examined 25 veterans who had been diagnosed with AD and PTSD and were participating in a randomized treatment trial. At baseline, participants' PTSD symptoms and drinking quantity and frequency during the three-month pretreatment period were assessed. During the session, the participants were exposed to neutral, stressful, and traumatic imagery in random order. The main outcomes included craving, anxiety, mood states, salivary cortisol, and cardiovascular responses.
Both stress and trauma cues produced greater increases in craving, negative affect (anxiety, fear, anger), and cardiovascular reactivity when compared to neutral cues. Traumatic images produced significantly stronger craving for alcohol and greater cardiovascular reactivity than stressful images. Also, trauma-induced but not stress-induced craving was positively correlated with baseline levels of drinking. These findings are consistent with prior observations of a relationship between PTSD symptoms and alcohol relapse.
June 29, 2016
Science Daily/Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine
Veterans of the Gulf War are more than twice as likely to have medically unexplained symptoms known as "multisymptom illness" (MSI), compared to Iraq/Afghanistan War veterans, according to an updated research.
"Gulf War deployment continues to be strongly associated with increased MSI, affecting a considerable proportion of Gulf War veterans," write Stella M. Gwini and colleagues of Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. Multisymptom illness refers to chronic, unexplained symptoms affecting several body systems, such as fatigue, mood or cognitive (thinking) problems, and joint and muscle pain.
The researchers analyzed data from seven previous studies evaluating the prevalence of MSI among veterans of the 1990-91 Gulf War as well as the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. In addition to including some more recent, higher-quality studies, the review added an Australian study to previous data from the United States and the United Kingdom.
Although estimates varied widely, MSI prevalence was substantially higher in Gulf War veterans: 26 to 65 percent, compared with 12 to 37 percent in Iraq/Afghanistan War veterans. On pooled data analysis, the odds of MSI were 2.5 times higher in Gulf War veterans versus other military groups. The odds were slightly lower in higher-quality studies. Veterans who were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan were more likely to have MSI than nondeployed personnel -- but their risk was still not as high as in deployed Gulf War veterans.
The study provides "updated and more robust estimates" of the risk of MSI in Gulf War veterans, compared to other military personnel. Ms. Gwini and coauthors conclude that their results "highlight the continuing problem and magnitude of MSI in Gulf War veterans, calling for ongoing awareness of the need for timely health assessments and health care."
Over 47% of female veterans reported insomnia symptoms
June 10, 2016
Science Daily/American Academy of Sleep Medicine
Results demonstrate that more than 47 percent of female veterans reported symptoms of insomnia that resulted in functional impairment. Of this sample group, less than one percent had a diagnosis of a sleep disorder based on medical records.
"Results from the analysis provide a clinical decision tree identifying subgroups of women with high and low risk for insomnia symptoms," said lead author Kimberly Babson, PhD, Research Health Science Specialist at the National Center for PTSD -- Dissemination & Training Division, VA Palo Alto Health Care System. "These results can be used by primary care clinicians to identify women that fit within these subgroups for referral, assessment and intervention of insomnia symptoms in order to decrease risk for the psychological, physical, and psycho-social consequences associated with insomnia."
The research abstract was published recently in an online supplement of the journal Sleep and will be presented Sunday, June 12, 2016 and Wednesday, June 15, 2016 in Denver at SLEEP 2016, the 30th Anniversary Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies LLC (APSS).
Data for this study were drawn from a cross-sectional survey among a national, population-based stratified random sample of female veterans using Veterans Health Administration primary care facilities.
Results lay foundation for addressing impact of shift work-related fatigue on officer-public interaction
June 8, 2016
Science Daily/American Academy of Sleep Medicine
Fatigue associated with shift work influences how police officers interact day-to-day during encounters with the public, which can either build or erode trust in the police, a new study has found.
Results show that experienced police patrol officers who worked day shifts were significantly more likely to manage simulated encounters with the public in ways that resulted in full-on cooperation -- and significantly less likely to have encounters escalate into violence -- when compared with officers working the other three shifts.
"Our results indicate that officers who work biologically normal day shifts perform much better than those on other shifts," said principal investigator Bryan Vila, PhD, professor of criminal justice and criminology at Washington State University, Spokane. "This suggests that better fatigue management might improve officers' ability to deftly manage encounters with the public in ways that win cooperation and reduce the need for use of force."
The research abstract was published recently in an online supplement of the journal Sleep and will be presented June 12, in Denver at SLEEP 2016, the 30th Anniversary Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies LLC (APSS).
The study group consisted of 50 experienced police patrol officers (selected from day and night shifts). Experiments were conducted in a controlled laboratory environment during which participants responded to 12 different tactical social interaction (TSI) scenarios randomly drawn from 26 video scenarios in a deadly force judgment and decision making simulator. These scenarios had multiple branches, so each had the ability to either end peaceably or escalate to violence based on officers' actions during the encounters. Participants wore a wrist actigraph for seven days immediately preceding each experimental day to measure time awake and total sleep.
June 8, 2016
American Academy of Sleep Medicine
Spouses of military service members experience significant sleep problems, which can impact their health and psycho-social functioning, research shows. The results underscore the importance of screening for sleep disturbances, providing evidence-based interventions to service members as well as their families.
Results show that 44 percent of spouses reported sleeping 6 hours or less per night. Approximately 54 percent of the sample endorsed daytime impairment due to sleep problems, and 62 percent reported experiencing daytime fatigue at least 1-2 times per week. Spouses of currently or previously deployed service members endorsed poorer sleep quality and more fatigue than spouses of service members who had never deployed.
"These results are important because we know very little about sleep problems among military spouses. Promoting sleep health may be an important strategy for enhancing military families' adjustment in the post-deployment period," said principal investigator Wendy Troxel, PhD, senior behavioral and social scientist at the RAND Corporation. "This is particularly relevant given that the past 14 years of protracted overseas combat have exacted an unprecedented toll on U.S. service members and their families."
The research abstract was published recently in an online supplement of the journal Sleep and will be presented June 12 in Denver at SLEEP 2016, the 30th Anniversary Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies LLC (APSS).
The study group comprised 1,480 female spouses of military service members who completed self-report instruments related to sleep, physical health, marital satisfaction, and depression. Information regarding service member military characteristics (e.g., branch of service, deployment history) was also available.
May 19, 2016
Science Daily/Drexel University
In analyzing the articles the New York Times has written about post-traumatic stress disorder over the last 35 years, researchers found some troubling trends in the influential paper's coverage.
Believe it or not, both the public and policy-makers often get their ideas from the media. When those ideas are formed about something as serious and impactful as posttraumatic stress disorder, it's important for the media to tell the story in the right way.
With that in mind, Drexel researchers examined how the country's most influential paper, the New York Times, portrayed posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the year it was first added to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (1980) to present day (2015).
"Mass media shape public awareness about mental health issues and affect mental illness problem recognition, management, and treatment-seeking by providing information about risk factors, symptoms, coping strategies, and treatment options," said Jonathan Purtle, DrPH, assistant professor in Drexel's Dornsife School of Public Health and the study's principle investigator. "Mass media also influence community attitudes about mental illness and educate policymakers about whether and how to address them."
Between 1980 and 2015, 871 news articles mentioned PTSD. In their American Journal of Orthopsychiatry paper, Purtle and his co-authors, Katherine Lynn and Marshal Malik, pointed out three specific issues in the Times' coverage that could have negative consequences.
"New York Times portrayals of populations affected by PTSD do not reflect the epidemiology of the disorder."
The Drexel team found that 50.6 percent of the Times' articles focused on military cases of PTSD, including 63.5 percent of the articles published in the last 10 years.
In actuality, Purtle's past research showed that most PTSD cases are related to noncombat traumas in civilians. The number of civilians affected by PTSD is 13 times larger than the number of military personnel affected by the disorder.
Occurrences are also much more likely in those who survive non-combat traumas, which include sexual assault (30-80 percent of survivors develop PTSD), nonsexual assault (23-39 percent develop it), disasters (30-40 percent) and car crashes (25-33 percent), among other causes. Veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have just a 20 percent occurrence of PTSD.
However, coverage like that in the Times leads the general public to believe that a PTSD diagnosis requires some military component. And 91.4 percent of all legislative proposals involving PTSD between 1989 and 2009 focused only on military populations, with 81.7 percent focusing on combat as a cause (the next highest cause was sexual assault, at 5.5 percent).
"PTSD was negatively framed in many articles."
Self-stigma attached to PTSD has been identified as a strong barrier to seeking treatment.
As such, with fewer and fewer articles over the years mentioning treatment options (decreasing from 19.4 percent of all PTSD-focused articles in 1980-1995 to just 5.7 percent in 2005-2015), it is particularly harmful when articles focused on negative portrayals of those with PTSD.
Purtle and his researchers found that 16.6 percent of the articles were about court cases in which the defendant potentially had PTSD, while 11.5 percent of other articles talked about substance abuse.
"These negative themes could create misconceptions that people who have PTSD are dangerous and discourage employers from hiring prospective employees with the disorder," Purtle said.
"Most themes in the New York Times PTSD articles pertained to proximal causes and consequences of the disorder."
Most articles in the study's 35-year focus centered on the traumatic exposure that led to PTSD, as well as the symptoms that result from the disorder. They rarely told stories of survivors and prevention.
Although nearly three quarters of articles mentioned a traumatic cause of PTSD, concepts such as risk/protective factors or prevention were barely mentioned. Risk/protective factors were only mentioned in 2.6 percent of articles and prevention was only mentioned in 2.5 percent.
Almost a third of the articles reviewed discussed some kind of symptom -- nightmares (13.1 percent of the time), depression (12.3 percent) and flashbacks (11.7 percent) being most common.
"This narrow focus could inhibit awareness about PTSD resilience and recovery and constrain discourse about the social determinants of traumatic stress, which is needed to garner political support for policy interventions," the Drexel team wrote.
What Can Be Done?
Purtle, Lynn and Malik believe that broadening the discourse on PTSD can lead to better outcomes. Some ways that that can be achieved are focusing on survivor narratives that discussing resiliency and recovery, or talking about research that doesn't wholly focus on the military causes of the disorder.
Concussion research studied the prolonged difficulty in cognitive-motor integration in 50 children and adolescents with a history of concussion
May 16, 2016
Science Daily/York University
The findings indicate that those in the age group of eight and 16 are not only vulnerable to concussions, but because their brain is still developing, they are neurologically more fragile than adults for performing tasks that require cognitive motor integration following a concussion
York University concussion experts report that children and youth take longer to fully recover from a concussion than previously thought.
After a concussion, young athletes usually rejoin their teams in a few weeks if they do not have any active symptoms. However, it might take up to two years to fully recover from the injury before they can play as skillfully as their teammates with no history of concussion, according Professor Lauren Sergio in the Faculty of Health.
"Performing motor tasks, guided by what we see, is crucial in skill-based activities such as sports," says Sergio. "But the current return to sport assessment doesn't test to see if the injured person has regained this ability. Because of this often children and youth who have had a concussion end up returning to normal activities before they are fully recovered. We believe this makes them more vulnerable to another concussion."
The findings indicate that those in the age group of eight and 16 are not only vulnerable to concussions, but because their brain is still developing, they are neurologically more fragile than adults for performing tasks that require cognitive motor integration following a concussion.
The latest research at Sergio's lab studied the prolonged difficulty in cognitive-motor integration in 50 children and adolescents with a history of concussion. Their performance was compared with 49 who have never had a concussion.
Participants in both the groups were asked to perform two different tasks on a dual-touchscreen laptop. In one task target location and motor action were aligned. In the other task that tested cognitive-motor integration, the required movement was not aligned with the guiding visual target and required simultaneous thinking for successful performance.
"We noticed significant difficulty in completing the tasks among those with concussion history," says Marc Dalecki, postdoctoral candidate and lead author. "In fact, it took many of the children two years after the concussion to have a similar performance on the task as children who did not have a history of concussion."
April 27, 2016
Science Daily/American Academy of Neurology
People who have had a traumatic brain injury may still have sleep problems a year and a half after being injured, according to a study. In addition, people with TBI may also be unaware of just how much their sleep is disturbed.
Every year in the United States, 1.7 million people experience a TBI and there is evidence that the rate of TBI is rising worldwide.
"This is the longest prospective and most comprehensive study about sleep quality and TBI to date," said study author Lukas Imbach, MD, of the University Hospital Zurich in Zurich, Switzerland. "We found that the majority of those with TBI, no matter how severe, had long-term sleep disturbances, yet didn't know."
For the study, researchers followed 31 people who had experienced a first TBI for 18 months. The injuries ranged from mild to severe. People with TBI were then compared to a control group of 42 healthy people.
Study participants were asked to report their own sleep behavior and daytime sleepiness. They were also monitored for two weeks with a device worn on the wrist that measures body movement. They also spent a night in a sleep video lab, which measures brain activity, eye movements, muscle activity and heart rhythm. They also took a test for excessive daytime sleepiness, which measures how quickly people fall asleep in a quiet environment during the day.
Researchers found that 67 percent of those with TBI suffered from excessive daytime sleepiness compared to just 19 percent of healthy people. In addition, when they were asked how sleepy they were during the day, those with TBI didn't report feeling any sleepier than those without TBI.
"Excessive daytime sleepiness is associated with public safety hazards such as car accidents, so people with TBI and their doctors should be monitoring for this problem," Imbach said. "The study also shows us that people with TBI may not be able to accurately assess their own sleep problems. Since this is how the sleep quality of many people with TBI is assessed, this may be a concern."
People with mild TBI were just as likely to have sleep problems as people with severe TBI, and the researchers did not find any other health problems that could have contributed to the sleep problems.
Researchers found that those with TBI slept longer, an average of eight hours a night, compared with healthy people who slept an average of seven hours a night.
"This study makes a compelling case that sleep-wake disorders after TBI may represent a silent epidemic," said Imbach. "It raises the question as to whether people with TBI should be referred for sleep studies. But further study is needed before any new recommendations are made or any guidelines are changed."
Latest data release also includes significant updates to Allen Cell Types Database and Allen Mouse Brain Connectivity Atlas
April 26, 2016
Science Daily/Allen Institute
The Allen Institute for Brain Science has announced major updates to its online resources available at brain-map.org, including a new resource on Aging, Dementia and Traumatic Brain Injury. The resource is the first of its kind to collect and share a wide variety of data modalities on a large sample of aged brains, complete with mental health histories and clinical diagnoses.
"The power of this resource is its ability to look across such a large number of brains, as well as a large number of data types," says Ed Lein, Ph.D., Investigator at the Allen Institute for Brain Science. "The resource combines traditional neuropathology with modern 'omics' approaches to enable researchers to understand the process of aging, look for molecular signatures of disease and identify hallmarks of brain injury."
The study samples come from the Adult Changes in Thought (ACT) study, a longitudinal research effort led by Dr. Eric B. Larson and Dr. Paul K. Crane of the Group Health Research Institute and the University of Washington to collect data on thousands of aging adults, including detailed information on their health histories and cognitive abilities. UW Medicine led efforts to collect post-mortem samples from 107 brains aged 79 to 102, with tissue collected from the parietal cortex, temporal cortex, hippocampus and cortical white matter.
"This collaborative research project aims to answer one of the most perplexing problems in clinical neuroscience," says Dr. Richard G. Ellenbogen, UW Chair and Professor, Department of Neurological Surgery. "If a person suffers a traumatic brain injury during his or her lifetime, what is the risk of developing dementia? We simply don't know the answer at this time, but some of the answers might be found in this comprehensive dataset by people asking the right kind of questions. This issue is important because of the inherent risk for everyone who plays sports, exercises or in general, participates in the activities of daily life."
"This study was made possible by the amazing generosity of the ACT participants and their families, incredible collaboration among our partners, and the generosity and vision of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation," says Dr. Dirk Keene, co-principal investigator and Director, UW Neuropathology. "For the first time, scientists and clinicians from around the world will have access to this unique dataset, which will advance the study of brain aging and hopefully contribute to development of novel diagnostic and therapeutic strategies for neurodegenerative disease."
The final online resource includes quantitative image data to show the disease state of each sample, protein data related to those disease states, gene expression data and de-identified clinical data for each case. Because the data is so complex, the online resource also includes a series of animated "snapshots," giving users a dynamic sampling of the ways they can interrogate the data.
"There are many fascinating conclusions to be drawn by diving into these data," says Jane Roskams, Ph.D., Executive Director, Strategy and Alliances at the Allen Institute. "This is the first resource of its kind to combine a variety of data types and a large sample size, making it a remarkably holistic view of the aged brain in all its complexity."
Researchers focused on examining the impact of mild to moderate TBI on the aged brain, comparing samples from patients with self-reported loss of consciousness incidents against meticulously matched controls. "Interestingly, while we see many other trends in these data, we did not uncover a distinctive genetic signature or pathologic biomarker in patients with TBI and loss of consciousness in this population study," says Lein.
"This new resource is an exciting addition to our suite of open science resources," says Christof Koch, Ph.D., President and Chief Scientific Officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science.
"Researchers around the globe will be able to mine the data and explore many facets of the aged brain, which we hope will accelerate discoveries about health and disease in aging."
Research to create this resource was funded with a $2.37 million grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to the University of Washington.
Two other resources have received significant updates in the latest data release. The Allen Cell Types Database now includes gene expression data on individual cells, in addition to shape, electrical activity and location in the brain. The number of cells in the database has also increased, and, in collaboration with the Blue Brain Project, a subset of cells are accompanied by a new robust biophysical model.
The Allen Mouse Brain Connectivity Atlas now includes its first public release of layer-specific connectivity in the visual cortex, including more specific targeting of cells using newly developed tracing methods.
April 25, 2016
Science Daily/Office of Naval Research
Could bacteria in your gut be used to cure or prevent neurological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety or even depression? Two researchers think that's a strong possibility.
Dr. John Bienenstock and Dr. Paul Forsythe--who work in The Brain-Body Institute at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada--are investigating intestinal bacteria and their effect on the human brain and mood.
"This is extremely important work for U.S. warfighters because it suggests that gut microbes play a strong role in the body's response to stressful situations, as well as in who might be susceptible to conditions like PTSD," said Dr. Linda Chrisey, a program officer in ONR's Warfighter Performance Department, which sponsors the research.
The trillions of microbes in the intestinal tract, collectively known as the gut microbiome, profoundly impact human biology--digesting food, regulating the immune system and even transmitting signals to the brain that alter mood and behavior. ONR is supporting research that's anticipated to increase warfighters' mental and physical resilience in situations involving dietary changes, sleep loss or disrupted circadian rhythms from shifting time zones or living in submarines.
Through research on laboratory mice, Bienenstock and Forsythe have shown that gut bacteria seriously affect mood and demeanor. They also were able to control the moods of anxious mice by feeding them healthy microbes from fecal material collected from calm mice.
Bienenstock and Forsythe used a "social defeat" scenario in which smaller mice were exposed to larger, more aggressive ones for a couple of minutes daily for 10 consecutive days. The smaller mice showed signs of heightened anxiety and stress--nervous shaking, diminished appetite and less social interaction with other mice. The researchers then collected fecal samples from the stressed mice and compared them to those from calm mice.
"What we found was an imbalance in the gut microbiota of the stressed mice," said Forsythe. "There was less diversity in the types of bacteria present. The gut and bowels are a very complex ecology. The less diversity, the greater disruption to the body."
Bienenstock and Forsythe then fed the stressed mice the same probiotics (live bacteria) found in the calm mice and examined the new fecal samples. Through magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS), a non-invasive analytical technique using powerful MRI technology, they also studied changes in brain chemistry.
"Not only did the behavior of the mice improve dramatically with the probiotic treatment," said Bienenstock, "but it continued to get better for several weeks afterward. Also, the MRS technology enabled us to see certain chemical biomarkers in the brain when the mice were stressed and when they were taking the probiotics."
Both researchers said stress biomarkers could potentially indicate if someone is suffering from PTSD or risks developing it, allowing for treatment or prevention with probiotics and antibiotics.
Later this year, Bienenstock and Forsythe will perform experiments involving fecal transplants from calm mice to stressed mice. They also hope to secure funding to conduct clinical trials to administer probiotics to human volunteers and use MRS to monitor brain reactions to different stress levels.
Gut microbiology is part of ONR's program in warfighter performance. ONR also is looking at the use of synthetic biology to enhance the gut microbiome. Synthetic biology creates or re-engineers microbes or other organisms to perform specific tasks like improving health and physical performance. The field was identified as a top ONR priority because of its potential far-ranging impact on warfighter performance and fleet capabilities.
April 12, 2016
Science Daily/NYU Langone Medical Center
The majority of people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) recover after early treatment -- but a substantial number still suffer for years after a traumatic event even with early clinical interventions, according to a study.
Over a 12-week period, researchers looked at several groups of non-military individuals suffering from PTSD (a total study cohort of 232 individuals) after a single traumatic event. All participants received either prolonged exposure therapy; cognitive therapy; treatment with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs); or a placebo pill one month after the traumatic event. They also followed individuals who declined treatment. All were reassessed at five months and at 36 months.
While the groups receiving prolonged exposure and cognitive therapy showed a significant reduction of symptoms by five months (61% better than the other groups), and their symptoms remained low for three years, the other groups, including those who declined treatment, reached the same level of low symptoms by three years. In that sense, early-prolonged exposure and cognitive therapy significantly shortened the time to recovery, but did not reduce a three-year prevalence of PTSD.
"We assume that people living in an otherwise stable environment would have better conditions for long-term recovery than individuals who experience lengthy wars or live in a constant state of violence," says Arieh Y. Shalev, MD, the Barbara Wilson Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center, and a co-director of NYU Langone's Steven and Alexandra Cohen Veterans Center. "This might explain part of their spontaneous recovery without initial treatment. However, what this study tells us at its core is that there is a significant public health challenge ahead. Individuals continually expressing initial PTSD symptoms, and who are resistant to early treatment, should be the focus of future research," Dr. Shalev adds. "They are the ones who remain chronically distressed and disabled, and require care long after their traumatic incident. We need to find ways to identify these subjects, increase the early favorable responses to existing treatment, and find new ways to reduce the long-term burden of PTSD."
This study continues the work of Dr. Shalev and colleagues who developed a computational tool that can identify individuals at high-risk for PTSD. In a study published last year in BMC Psychiatry, those at high-risk for PTSD could be identified in less than two weeks after they are first seen in an emergency room following a traumatic event.
Approximately eight million Americans (civilian and military populations) will experience PTSD in a given year, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' National Center for PTSD. Trauma is also very common in women; five out of ten women will experience a traumatic event at some point during their lifetime.
April 5, 2016
Science Daily/Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB)
In a series of studies conducted in rats, researchers have found that eating blueberries could help to reduce the genetic and biochemical drivers behind depression and suicidal tendencies associated with PTSD.
"We need to conduct a clinical trial in people to be certain that this works, but based on our studies in animal models, there is evidence that blueberries may help to mitigate some of the problems associated with PTSD," said Joseph Francis, Ph.D., the Everett D. Besch Professor of Veterinary Medicine at Louisiana State University's School of Veterinary Medicine and the study's senior author. "And in the meantime, it seems safe to say that eating blueberries can't hurt -- and may help -- in people with PTSD."
Philip Ebenezer, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in Francis's laboratory at Louisiana State University, will present this research at the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics Annual Meeting during Experimental Biology 2016.
PTSD, an anxiety disorder that can develop after someone experiences a traumatic event, affects an estimated 6.8 percent of Americans at some point in their lifetimes. PTSD diagnoses have risen sharply in recent years and the disorder is particularly common among combat veterans. It is associated with a wide range of psychological, behavioral and social problems such as depression, substance abuse, relationship problems and an increased risk of suicide.
To investigate the biological factors that might contribute to PTSD and its effects, the research team developed a process that induces effects analogous to PTSD in rats, such as exhibiting fear instead of curiosity when presented with an unfamiliar object. They then assessed how eating a diet rich in blueberries affects those factors.
In the new study, the team focused on the role of a gene called SKA2, a gene that other researchers have found is expressed at abnormally low levels in people who have committed suicide. Although it is impossible to know whether a rat is experiencing suicidal thoughts, Francis and Ebenezer found that rats with PTSD-like effects express SKA2 at low levels compared with normal laboratory rats, bolstering the evidence for the role of SKA2 in psychological problems and suggesting the team's PTSD-like rats can be a useful model for studying the biochemistry behind suicidal tendencies.
The researchers then fed some of the PTSD-like rats a diet rich in blueberries -- the equivalent of about two cups per day for a person -- and found that SKA2 levels increased compared with rats fed a normal diet, suggesting the blueberries had a beneficial effect.
"In the PTSD animals, there was a decrease in the SKA2 levels in the blood, as well as in the brain's prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, compared to non-PTSD rats," said Francis. "Since these levels increased when we fed them blueberries, the findings suggest that a nonpharmacological agent like blueberries can have an effect on the expression of this important gene."
The work builds on a study released last year, in which Francis and Ebenezer found that rats with the PTSD-like experience fed a blueberry-enriched diet showed increased levels of the signaling chemical serotonin in the brain. Since serotonin is associated with feelings of happiness and well-being, that study suggested blueberries might help to alleviate depression in patients with PTSD.
The team is now pursuing research into the links between SKA2 and serotonin levels to find out whether blueberries may simultaneously help relieve feelings of depression and reduce suicidal tendencies through a single biological pathway.
There are a number of medications that increase serotonin levels and are used to treat depression. However, these agents, called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, have shown limited success in treating patients with PTSD, and have even been linked with increased suicidal tendencies in some patients, particularly children and adolescents. Francis said the team's research aims to fill the treatment gap for PTSD sufferers who do not benefit from existing medications.
"There is an urgent need to identify novel targets for treating PTSD. Based on our findings, blueberries can not only increase serotonin, but also increase SKA2 levels, thereby potentially protecting against untoward behavior," said Francis.
April 4, 2016
Science Daily/Endocrine Society
A study in military veterans finds that explosive blast-related concussions frequently result in hormone changes leading to problems such as sleep disturbances, fatigue, depression and poor quality of life. The research evaluated hormone levels in 41 male veterans who had been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.
"Some of these hormone deficiencies, which mimic some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, may be treated successfully with hormone replacement if correctly diagnosed," said the study's leader, Charles Wilkinson, PhD, a researcher with the Veterans Affairs (VA) Puget Sound Health Care System, Seattle.
Wilkinson wants to raise awareness of this hormonal problem in light of the high frequency of head injuries from improvised explosive devices in modern warfare. Concussion, also called mild traumatic brain injury (TBI), represents 80 percent of TBI diagnoses among U.S. military service members, according to government estimates in 2010.
"Although studies in civilians indicate a 25 to 50 percent prevalence of hormonal deficiencies resulting from brain injuries, surprisingly there are limited data on their prevalence and symptoms in military veterans," Wilkinson said.
In this Department of Veterans Affairs-funded study, the researchers took blood samples from 27 veterans with one or more blast concussions sustained at least one year earlier and from 14 previously deployed veterans with no history of blast exposure. They measured 11 hormones in the blood related to the pituitary systems. The pituitary gland, located at the base of the brain, is called the master gland because it affects almost all parts of the body.
They found that 12, or 44 percent, of blast-concussed veterans had irregular hormone levels indicating an underactive pituitary gland -- also known as hypopituitarism. In contrast, only one (7 percent) of the 14 study participants without blast injuries had abnormal hormone levels, he said.
To try to relate specific hormone problems with particular symptoms, the researchers administered questionnaires and tests about sleep, fatigue, depression, social isolation, memory, PTSD and quality of life.
Wilkinson said he was surprised that on every test, participants who had mild TBI and hypopituitarism had more problems than did participants with mild TBI but no hypopituitarism and those with no blast exposure. Veterans with mild TBI with hormonal abnormalities had significantly poorer overall sleep quality, more depressive symptoms and were more easily fatigued than were veterans with mild TBI and normal hormone levels, he noted.
"The value of screening for hormonal abnormalities after concussions, particularly in the presence of chronic symptoms, is currently a matter of debate," Wilkinson said. "Yet, if the possibility of hormone deficiencies in our veterans is not considered, appropriate treatment may not occur."
Surprising findings suggest promise of mind-body techniques; more study needed
April 1, 2016
Science Daily/University of Michigan Health System
Like an endlessly repeating video loop, horrible memories plague people with post-traumatic stress disorder. But a new study in veterans shows the promise of mindfulness training for enhancing the ability to manage those thoughts if they come up, and not get 'stuck'. It also shows the veterans' brains changed in ways that may help them find their own off switch for that endless loop.
But a new study in veterans with PTSD shows the promise of mindfulness training for enhancing the ability to manage those thoughts if they come up, and not get "stuck." Even more surprising, it actually shows the veterans' brains changed -- in ways that may help them find their own off switch for that endless loop.
The findings, published in Depression and Anxiety by a team from the University of Michigan Medical School and VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, come from a study of 23 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. All of them got some form of group therapy. After four months of weekly sessions, many reported that their PTSD symptoms eased up.
But only in those who got mindfulness training -- a mind-body technique that focuses on in-the-moment attention and awareness -- did the researchers see the brain changes that surprised even them.
Shifting brain connections
The changes showed up on functional MRI, or fMRI, brain scans that can visualize brain activity as different areas of the brain "talk" to one another through networks of connections between brain cells.
Before the mindfulness training, when the veterans were resting quietly, their brains had extra activity in regions involved in responding to threats or other outside problems. This is a sign of that endless loop of hypervigilance often seen in PTSD.
But after learning mindfulness, they developed stronger connections between two other brain networks: the one involved in our inner, sometimes meandering, thoughts, and the one involved in shifting and directing attention.
"The brain findings suggest that mindfulness training may have helped the veterans develop more capacity to shift their attention and get themselves out of being "stuck" in painful cycles of thoughts," says Anthony King, Ph.D., a U-M Department of Psychiatry researcher who led the new study in collaboration with VA psychologists.
"We're hopeful that this brain signature shows the potential of mindfulness to be helpful for managing PTSD for people who might initially decline therapy involving trauma processing," he adds. "We hope it may provide emotional regulation skills to help bring them to a place where they feel better able to process their traumas."
King, who has experience providing individual and group therapy for veterans from many conflicts, worked with a team of brain-imaging experts and PTSD specialists including senior author Israel Liberzon, M.D. They used an fMRI scanner at the VA Ann Arbor that's dedicated to research.
In all, 14 of the veterans finished the mindfulness sessions and completed follow-up fMRI scans, and 9 finished the comparison sessions and had scans. The small size of the group means the new results are only the start of an exploration of this issue, King says.
A palatable option
Before they launched the study, the researchers weren't sure that they could find enough veterans to try mindfulness-based training. After all, it has a reputation as an "alternative" approach and has a relationship to traditionally East and South Asian practices like meditation and yoga.
But in fact, more of the initial group of veterans stuck with mindfulness-based therapy sessions -- held each week for two hours with a trained mindfulness teacher and psychotherapist -- than made it all the way through the comparison psychotherapy group that didn't get mindfulness training.
"Once we explained the rationale behind mindfulness, which aims to ground and calm a person while also addressing mental phenomena, they were very interested and engaged -- more than we expected," says King. "The approach we took included standard elements of exposure therapy as well as mindfulness, to help lead veterans to be able to process the trauma itself."
The comparison group received a VA-developed intervention that was designed for "control group" use. It included problem-solving and group support but not mindfulness or exposure therapy.
The mindfulness group saw improvement in PTSD symptoms, in the form of decreased scores on a standard scale of PTSD severity, that was statistically significant and considered clinically meaningful, whereas the control group did not. However, the between-group effects in this small study were not considered statistically significant, and therefore King wants to explore the trend further in larger groups, and in civilians.
He emphasizes that people with PTSD should not see mindfulness alone as a potential solution for their symptoms, and that they should seek out providers trained specifically in PTSD care.
That's because mindfulness sessions can sometimes actually trigger symptoms such as intrusive thoughts to flare up. So, it is very important for people with PTSD to have help from a trained counselor to use mindfulness as part of their therapy for PTSD.
"Mindfulness can help people cope with and manage their trauma memories, explore their patterns of avoidance when confronting reminders of their trauma, and better understand their reactions to their symptoms," says King. "It helps them feel more grounded, and to notice that even very painful memories have a beginning, a middle and an end -- that they can become manageable and feel safer. It's hard work, but it can pay off."
At the start of the study, and in previous U-M/VA work, the fMRI scans of veterans with PTSD showed unusual activity. Even when they were asked to rest quietly and let their minds wander freely, they had high levels of activity in brain networks that govern reactions to salient, or meaningful, external signals such as threats or dangers. Meanwhile, the default mode network, involved in inwardly focused thinking and when the mind is wandering, was not as active in them.
But at the end of the mindfulness course, the default mode area was more active -- and showed increased connections to areas of the brain known as the executive network. This area gets involved in what scientists call volitional attentional shifting -- purposefully moving your attention to think about or act upon something.
Those with the greatest easing of symptoms had the largest increases in connections.
"We were surprised by the findings, because there is thinking that segregation between the default mode network and the salience network is good," says King. "But now we are hopeful that this brain signature of increased connection to areas associated with volitional attention shifting at rest may be helpful for managing PTSD, and may help patients have more capacity to help themselves get out of being stuck in painful ruts of trauma memories and rumination."
March 30, 2016
Science Daily/Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU)
Mild traumatic brain injuries (TBI) could be linked to eye movement impairment, even beyond the acute stage of injury, according to researchers. These findings indicate a potentially more effective way to identify long-term chronic effects on those with mild TBI.
In this USU-funded study, researchers, led by Mark Ettenhofer, Ph.D., assistant professor in USU's Department of Medical and Clinical Psychology, examined saccadic (rapid eye movement) impairments among 27 participants with remote mild TBI and 54 healthy controls. A newly-developed computerized tool assessed visual attention and neuromotor performance, using saccadic and manual (button-press) responses to target stimuli. Those who had a history of multiple mild TBIs, or high levels of neurobehavioral symptoms, were most likely to have saccadic eye movement impairment.
Researchers compared this 15-minute eye movement test with a two-hour battery of conventional neuropsychological measures. Their findings suggest saccadic impairment could help reveal chronic effects of mild TBI that traditional methods are unable to detect. This study is among the first to demonstrate eye movement measures may detect impairment among mild TBI patients who appear unimpaired using conventional assessment tools. Follow-on research is currently underway to evaluate this technology within a larger group of TBI patients and controls.
"The tests that are typically used to assess brain injury can be impacted by non-neurological factors, such as test-taking effort, mood, or pre-injury ability," said Ettenhofer. "Most of these tests rely on our hands or our vocal systems, to press a button, write an answer, or speak a response. However, our eyes offer a much more direct pathway to the brain. By using eye movements, we may be able to cut through a lot of this 'noise' and separate those who fully recover after injury from those who experience more chronic problems."
March 23, 2016
Science Daily/Society for Neuroscience
Enhancing sleep after a head injury may help prevent some damage to brain cells, according to a study. Researchers found that enhancing the slow-wave cycle of sleep after head trauma minimized damage to axons -- the thin extensions that nerve cells use to send signals to other cells -- and helped preserve normal brain function.
Traumatic brain injury is a major cause of death and disability worldwide. While brain cells at the site of impact are damaged immediately, many more cells can perish in the hours and days after the trauma as damaged axons succumb to injury. Studies suggest that widespread axonal injury contributes to many of the long-lasting problems with learning, memory, and movement commonly associated with head injuries. Molecular waste products also build up in the brain after head injury. Recent studies indicate the brain clears out this molecular buildup during the slow-wave stage of sleep where brain activity synchronizes into high-amplitude waves.
The researchers led by Daniela Noain and Christian Baumann investigated whether enhancing slow-wave sleep after a head injury could mitigate axonal injury in rats. Twenty-five rats received a blow to the prefrontal cortex, a brain area associated with decision-making and self-control. One-third of the injured rats were sleep-deprived for short periods of time as previous studies indicate, for a brief period of time afterward, sleep deprivation enhances slow-wave sleep. Another group was treated with sodium oxybate, a drug used to induce a slow-wave sleep-like state in narcolepsy patients. A third group received placebo.
One day after injury and continuing for the next five, researchers modulated the animals' sleep. Employing electroencephalography (EEG) recordings during treatment, they confirmed that the animals experienced slow-wave sleep enhancement as a result of treatment. Afterward, the rats took a memory test, and the team examined their brains for axonal damage, focusing on areas involved in learning and memory, including the hippocampus.
They found that rats receiving treatments to enhance slow-wave sleep were better able to recognize familiar objects than the untreated rats. In addition, the researchers found that levels of a biomarker for diffuse axonal injury were reduced nearly 80 percent in animals that had experienced enhanced sleep compared to untreated rats.
While further study is needed, the work suggests slow-wave sleep administered immediately after a brain injury helps block axon damage and preserve normal brain function, Baumann says.
"Despite the high prevalence of traumatic brain injury worldwide, very few effective treatments exist to mitigate the persistent impairment in memory and cognitive function," says Miranda Lim, a neurologist at Oregon Health & Science University who was not involved in the study. "This study provides important evidence that manipulating sleep may be a promising avenue to enhance recovery after TBI."