Category Archives: Mind & Brain

Lead exposure from gasoline has affected the IQ of 1 in 2 Americans since the 1940s

In the 1920s, researchers realized that you can add lead to gasoline to help keep car engines healthy for longer. But while leaded gasoline was good for cars, it was bad for humans.

Leaded gasoline is highly toxic and in addition to causing a number of health problems, it can also cross the blood-brain barrier and accumulate in some parts of the brain, where it can cause a number of problems, including reducing intelligence. According to a new study, exposure to car exhaust from leaded gasoline affected the IQs of over 170 million Americans alive today, costing the country a collective 824 million IQ points.

Image credits: Joe Mabel.

The findings come from a new study published by Aaron Reuben, a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at Duke University, and Michael McFarland and Mathew Hauer, both professors of sociology at Florida State University. The researchers started from publicly available data on US childhood blood-lead levels and leaded-gasoline use. They then determined the likely lifelong burden of lead exposure of every American alive in 2015. From this, they calculated how much of an intelligence burden this exposure to lead proved to be. While IQ isn’t a perfect proxy to intelligence, it’s still a good population-level indicator.

Previous studies have suggested an association between lead exposure in childhood and a drop in IQ. But when the results came in, even the researchers were surprised.

“I frankly was shocked,” McFarland said. “And when I look at the numbers, I’m still shocked even though I’m prepared for it.”

The results show that over half of all Americans (170 million out of an entire population of 330 million) had clinically significant levels of lead in their blood, resulting in lower IQ levels as adults, as well as a number of potential health problems (such as reduced brain size, greater likelihood of mental illness, and increased cardiovascular disease). The people affected by lead exposure would have each lost, on average, 3 IQ points.

“Lead is able to reach the bloodstream once it’s inhaled as dust, or ingested, or consumed in water,” Reuben said. “In the bloodstream, it’s able to pass into the brain through the blood-brain barrier, which is quite good at keeping a lot of toxicants and pathogens out of the brain, but not all of them.”

Three IQ points may not seem like much, but keep in mind that this is an average for a whopping 170 million people. At its worst, people born in the mid-late 1960s may have lost 6 IQ points on average. At a population level, this is a considerable margin — and even though leaded gasoline was banned in the US in 1996, the effects of the problem are still visible today.

“Millions of us are walking around with a history of lead exposure,” Reuben said. “It’s not like you got into a car accident and had a rotator cuff tear that heals and then you’re fine. It appears to be an insult carried in the body in different ways that we’re still trying to understand but that can have implications for life.”

Thankfully, the era of leaded gasoline is finally over. Most countries banned it two decades ago, but only last year, in 2021, the era of leaded gasoline was finally over as the last stocks were used in Algeria (which had continued to produce leaded gasoline until July 2021).

Leaded gasoline is a good example of an exciting technology that turns out to be very bad for the environment and for human health. But while leaded gasoline has been phased out, there are plenty of other sources of pollution still affecting our brains, lungs, and hearts.

Journal Reference:  “Half of US Population Exposed to Adverse Lead Levels in Early Childhood,” Michael J. McFarland, Matt E. Hauer, Aaron Reuben. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, March 7, 2022. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2118631119

Scientists find neurons in the human brain that only respond to singing

Credit: Pixabay.

Music and the human brain seem to be deeply intertwined, a bond that may have first appeared when the first australopithecine ancestor got up on her hind legs 4.4 million years ago and walked. This bipedal rhythm may have made our lineage particularly sensitive to musicality, so much so that we now know that the human brain has dedicated neural circuitry for processing and interpreting musical information.

In 2015, neuroscientists at MIT identified a population of neurons in the auditory cortex that responds specifically to music. In a new study that appeared today in the journal Current Biology, the same team of researchers led by Sam Norman-Haignere have identified specific neurons in the brain that light up only when we hear singing, but not other types of music.

“The work provides evidence for relatively fine-grained segregation of function within the auditory cortex, in a way that aligns with an intuitive distinction within music,” said Norman-Haignere, a former MIT postdoc who is now an assistant professor of neuroscience at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

The singing brain

For their original 2015 work, the scientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of participants as they listened to a collection of 165 sounds. These included everyday sounds like a dog barking or traffic in a busy city, as well as different types of speech and music.

After analyzing the brain patterns using a novel interpretation technique for fMRI data, the researchers identified a neural population that responded differently to both music and speech.

However, fMRI –which detects the changes in blood oxygenation and flow that occur in response to neural activity while a person lies down inside a machine equipped with very powerful magnets — has its limitations. A much more precise method for recording electrical activity in the brain is electrocorticography (ECoG), which directly measures patterns of activity using electrodes implanted inside the skull. The obvious drawback is that this is highly invasive. Let’s just say there aren’t too many keen volunteers that would gladly have their skulls drilled for science — unless you already don’t have much to lose.

Electrocorticography is becoming relatively widely used to monitor patients with epilepsy who are about to undergo surgery to treat their seizures. This allows doctors to pinpoint the exact location in the brain where a patient’s seizures are originating, which can be different from person to person.

Some of these patients agreed to participate, and MIT researchers were able to gather data from them over several years. Many of the 15 participants involved in the study didn’t have electrodes fitted in their auditory cortex, but some did — and the insight they provided proved valuable. Using a novel statistical approach, the researchers were able to identify neural populations that were responsible for the electrical activity recorded by each electrode.

“When we applied this method to this data set, this neural response pattern popped out that only responded to singing,” Norman-Haignere says. “This was a finding we really didn’t expect, so it very much justifies the whole point of the approach, which is to reveal potentially novel things you might not think to look for.”

“There’s one population of neurons that responds to singing, and then very nearby is another population of neurons that responds broadly to lots of music. At the scale of fMRI, they’re so close that you can’t disentangle them, but with intracranial recordings, we get additional resolution, and that’s what we believe allowed us to pick them apart,” he added.

When ECoG data was combined with fMRI, the researchers were able to determine even more precisely the locations of the neural populations that responded specifically to signing, but not other kinds of music.

“The intracranial recordings in this study replicated our prior findings with fMRI and revealed a novel component of the auditory response that responded nearly exclusively to song,” Norman-Haignere told ZME Science.

These song-specific hotspots were found at the top of the temporal lobe, near regions that are selective for language and music. This suggests that song-specific populations of neurons likely respond to perceived pitch, so they might tell the difference between spoken words and musical vocalization, before sending this information to other parts of the brain for further processing.

These findings enrich our understanding of how the human brain responds to music. For instance, previous research showed music impacts brain function and human behavior, including reducing stress, pain and symptoms of depression, as well as improving cognitive and motor skills, spatial-temporal learning, and neurogenesis, which is the brain’s ability to produce neurons. 

But many mysteries still remain, which is why the MIT researchers plan to study infants’ neural response to music, in hopes of learning more about how brain regions tuned to music develop. 

“At present, we know very little about song-selective neural populations, in part because we just discovered them and in part because this type of data takes a long time to collect. Those are great questions that future research will hopefully shed some light on,” Norman-Haignere told ZME Science.

Playing Mahjong could boost mental health at old age

Mahjong, a game of skill and luck played by four people using domino-like engraved tiles, is often referred to as China’s “national pastime”. Unlike many other popular leisure games, mahjong requires cooperation and strategy between players, which fosters the ideal forum for interaction between people. And according to a new study conducted at the University of Georgia, this engaging social interaction may boost mental health among Chinese elderly people, who are some of the most vulnerable people to depression in the world.

Credit: Pixabay.

The history of mahjong is somewhat contested, but the current consensus seems to be that it first appeared around Shanghai in the mid- to late-1800s. It quickly became popular in Shanghai and Beijing, then the entire country, and eventually among American expatriates that brought the game back to the United States, where it spread like wildfire in the 1920s.

It’s common for fans of the game to play mahjong with the same group of people for a long time, routinely meeting for game sessions. Some older Chinese people have had the same mahjong partners for decades. Even during the pandemic, the most dedicated players kept in touch by playing mahjong online.

The benefits of engaging in social activities for mental health have been widely reported, but such research has been mainly done in developed nations, such as the U.S. and Japan. To fill the gap, researchers led by Adam Chen, an associate professor of health policy and management at the University of Georgia, wanted to investigate the mental health impact of playing mahjong among elderly Chinese people.

The researchers analyzed survey data from nearly 11,000 Chinese people aged 40 years and older from the nationally representative China Health and Retirement Longitudinal Study. Depression symptoms were assessed for each participant and compared to the type and frequency of social participation, including visiting with friends, playing mahjong, participating in a sport or social club, and volunteering in the community.

As a whole, engaging in frequent social activities was associated with better mental health outcomes, playing mahjong was particularly associated with a positive effect. That’s not surprising. Studies looking at brain connectivity during social interaction have found that our brains react strongly to social cues, suggesting that our social networks and interactions also help shape the brain. Besides, talking to people can make you feel better, whereas loneliness can increase the level of cortisol and the level of stress, which can hamper brain activity.

Another 2019 study in England found cultural engagement — i.e. going to plays, movies, concerts, and museum exhibits — lowers the risk of developing depression. Studies also suggest that playing brain games can help in sharpening certain cognitive abilities such as planning, processing speed, and decision making.

“What is more surprising is that mahjong playing does not associate with better mental health among rural elderly respondents,” Chen said in a statement. “One hypothesis is that mahjong playing tends to be more competitive and at times become a means of gambling in rural China.”

Poor mental health is a huge burden on China, accounting for 17% of the global disease burden of mental disorders. These findings may offer a guide for policymakers looking to design interventions to improve mental health among older Chinese, which could also translate to Asian American communities.

“Social participation manifests itself in different formats within different cultural contexts,” said Chen.

“Older Asian Americans have a much higher proportion of suicidal thoughts than whites and African Americans,” he said. “Improving social participation among older Asian Americans may help to address this burden to the U.S. population health that has not received due attention.”

The findings appeared in the journal Social Science & Medicine.

Left, right, or ambidextrous: What determines handedness?

Credit: YouTube capture.

Although on the outside our bodies look symmetrical, our body movements are anything but. If you’re like most people, you write, use a phone, eat, and perform just about any task that requires tactile dexterity with your right hand. A small fraction of the population, comprising around 10% of the population, is left-handed. Rarer still are those who can use either hand with equal ease for various, though not necessarily all, tasks. These people are known as ambidextrous, with fewer than 1% of the population capable of this feat.

It isn’t generally understood why some people are ambidextrous, but the limited research conducted thus far suggests it all starts in the brain. Ambidexterity isn’t as great as it sounds either, as studies have associated ambivalent handedness with poor cognitive and mental health outcomes.

What determines hand preference?

The brain is divided into the left and right hemispheres by a deep longitudinal fissure of nerves called the corpus callosum. You probably know about these hemispheres and you may have also heard that the left hemisphere handles language, learning and other analytical processes while the right hemisphere processes images and emotions, among other things. This has inevitably led to the erroneous notion that some people who are “more logical” are left-brained while those who are “more creative” are right-brained.

Despite this enduring belief, there’s no such thing as being “right-brained” or “left-brained.” We’re actually “whole-brained” since we use both hemispheres when speaking, solving math, or playing an instrument. But that’s not to say that the brain’s two regions aren’t specialized — and the actual science of how the two halves of the brain work together may be stranger than fiction.

Credit: ResearchGate.

Without going into lengthy details about how the brain performs its division of labor across all areas, we can simply observe our motor functions to see brain lateralization in action. In all vertebrates, the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body via the spinal cord and vice versa. The jury’s still out on why that is, but some scientists believe that this basic organizational feature of the vertebrate nervous system evolved even before the appearance of vertebrates.

Over 90% of humans are naturally right-handed, a proclivity that may start as early as the womb. This suggests that handedness — the tendency to be more skilled and comfortable using one hand instead of the other for tasks such as writing and throwing a ball — is genetic in nature. However, like most aspects of human behavior, it’s like a complex trait that is influenced by numerous other factors, including the environment and chance.

Until not too long ago, it was thought that a single gene determined handedness, but more recently scientists have identified up to 40 that may contribute to this trait. Each gene has a weak effect in isolation, but together their sum is greater than their parts, playing an important role in establishing hand preference.

These genes are associated with some of these brain asymmetries, especially of language-related regions. This suggests links between handedness and language during human development and evolution. For instance, one implicated gene is NME7, which is known to affect the placement of the visceral organs (heart, liver, etc.) on the left to right body axis—a possible connection between brain and body asymmetries in embryonic development.

However, handedness is not a simple matter of inheritance — not in the way eye color or skin tone is, at least. While children born to left-handed patterns are more likely to be left-handed themselves compared to children of right-handed parents, the overall chance of being left-handed is relatively low in the first place. Consequently, most children born out of left-handed parents are right-handed. Even among identical twins, many have opposite hand preferences.

According to a 2009 study, genetics contribute around 25% toward handedness, the rest being accounted for by environmental factors such as upbringing and cultural influences.

In the majority of right-handed people, language dominance is on the left side of the brain. However, that doesn’t mean that the sides are completely switched in left-handed individuals — only a quarter of them show language dominance on the right side of the brain. In other words, hand preference is just one type of lateralized brain function and need not represent a whole collection of other functions.

Since writing activates language and speech centers in the brain, it makes sense that most people use their right hand. However, most individuals do not show as strong a hand preference on other tasks, using the left hand for some, the right hand for others, with the notable exception of tasks involving tools. For instance, even people who have a strong preference for using their right hand tend to be better at grabbing a moving ball with their left hand; that’s consistent with the right hemisphere’s specialization for processing spatial tasks and controlling rapid responses.

Ambidexterity may hijack brain asymmetry — and that may actually be a bug, not a feature

This brings us to mixed-handedness, in which some people have a preference for a particular hand for certain tasks. A step above are ambidextrous people, who are thought to be exceptionally rare and can perform tasks equally well with both hands.

But if the picture of what makes people left or right handed is murky, ambidexterity is even more nebulous. We simply don’t know why a very small minority of people, fewer than 1%, is truly ambidextrous. And from the little we know, it doesn’t sound like such a good deal either.

Studies have linked ambidexterity with poor academic performance and mental health. Ambidextrous people perform more poorly than both left- and right-handers on various cognitive tasks, particularly those that involve arithmetic, memory retrieval, and logical reasoning. Being ambidextrous is also associated with language difficulties and ADHD-like symptoms, as well as greater age-related decline in brain volume. The findings suggest that the brain is more likely to encounter faulty neuronal connections when the information it’s processing has to shuttle back and forth between hemispheres.

Again, no one is sure why this is the case, nor are any of these studies particularly robust since ambidextrous people comprise such a small fraction of the general population and any study involving them will naturally involve a small sample size that invites caution when interpreting results in a statistically meaningful way. All scientists can say for now is that naturally ambidextrous people have an atypical brain lateralization, meaning they simply have brain circuitry and function that is likely different from the normal pattern we see in right-handed and left-handed people.

Of course, it’s not all bad news for the handedness-ambivalent. Being able to use both hands with (almost) equal ease certainly has its perks, which can really pay off, especially in sports, arts, and music.

Can you train yourself to be ambidextrous?

Left-handers have always been stigmatized, often being punished in school and forced to use their non-dominant right hand. However, starting with the late 19th-century, people have not only become more tolerant of left-handedness but some have actually gone as far as to praise the merits of ambidexterity and worked to actively promote it by teaching others how to use both their hands well.

For instance, in 1903, John Jackson, a headteacher of a grammar school in Belfast, founded the Ambidextral Culture Society. Jackson believed that the brain’s hemispheres are distinct and independent. Being either right or left hand dominant effectively meant that half of your brainpower potential was being wasted. To harness this potential, Jackson devised ambidexterity training that, he claimed, would eventually allow each hand “to be absolutely independent of the other in the production of any kind of work whatever… if required, one hand shall be writing an original letter, and the other shall be playing the piano, with no diminution of the power of concentration.”

Although these claims have been proven to be bogus, to this day you can find shady online programs that claim to teach you to become ambidextrous. Training involves all sorts of routines such as using your non-dominant hand for writing, brushing your teeth, and all sorts of daily activities that require the fine manipulation of a tool. Doing so would allow you to strengthen neural connections in the brain and activate both hemispheres, which may help you think more creatively — or so they claim. But that’s never been shown by any study I could find. On the contrary, if anything, ambidextrous training may actually hamper cognition and mental health, judging from studies on natural ambidextrous people.

“These effects are slight, but the risks of training to become ambidextrous may cause similar difficulties. The two hemispheres of the brain are not interchangeable. The left hemisphere, for example, is typically responsible for language processing, whereas the right hemisphere often handles nonverbal activities. These asymmetries probably evolved to allow the two sides of the brain to specialize. To attempt to undo or tamper with this efficient setup may invite psychological problems,” Michael Corballis, professor of cognitive neuroscience and psychology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, wrote in an article for Scientific American.

“It is possible to train your nondominant hand to become more proficient. A concert pianist demonstrates superb skill with both hands, but this mastery is complementary rather than competitive. The visual arts may enhance right-brain function, though not at the expense of verbal specialization in the left hemisphere. A cooperative brain seems to work better than one in which the two sides compete.”

Handedness is a surprisingly complex trait that isn’t easily explained by inheritance. Whether you’re left or right handed, this doesn’t make you necessarily smarter or better than the other. Brain lateralization exists for a reason, and that should be celebrated. 

Nursing home violence among dementia patients is a problem of neglect, not mental illness

Conflict in nursing homes is a surprisingly common occurrence among patients, especially those suffering from dementia. Resident-to-resident incidents are typically defined as negative, aggressive, and intrusive verbal, physical, material, and sexual interactions between patients, which can lead to psychological distress and physical harm. In some extreme and unfortunate cases, they can end in tragedy.

Such was the case of Frank Piccolo, a retired high school chemistry professor from Canada who in his later years developed dementia and was moved to a Toronto nursing home by his family. One evening in 2012, Frank was attacked by another resident, a woman who also had dementia. The woman hit Frank on the head and face with a wooden activity board, badly injuring him. Frank died three months later.

Although such extreme cases are rare, even minor conflicts between residents can have a significant psychological and physical toll on patients. But despite the serious nature of these incidents, they remain understudied and largely unaddressed across the more than 15,000 nursing homes found in the United States.

Until now, both government reports and media coverage have been content to chalk these incidents up to inevitable conflicts owed to interactions between mentally ill people. Residents involved in violent incidents are often called “perpetrators” or “aggressors”.

However, gerontologist and dementia behavior specialist Eilon Capsi strongly thinks otherwise. In a recent article, Capsi argues that home care violence among dementia patients is typically the result of unmet human needs, paired with their cognitive limitations. As such, the real problem is inadequate care and neglect. The real problem is the nursing homes themselves.

“Growing body of evidence suggests the true cause of these injuries and deaths is inadequate care and neglect on the part of care homes. Specifically, there is a lack of the specialized care that people with dementia require,” Capsi argued.

Some of the research supporting these assertions includes a 2004 study by the Harvard School of Public Health, which found the rate of violent incidents between residents was nearly three times higher in dementia care homes than in other long-term care homes. Meanwhile, another study supports this observation, finding higher rates of injurious or even fatal interactions between residents in dementia care homes than in other care homes.

These findings may startle many family members currently considering a care home for relatives showing signs of dementia. However, there are good care homes where conflict is minimal thanks to proper staffing with trained professionals and adequate care.

Violent conflict occurs mostly when the patients’ emotional, medical, and other needs are not properly met. All that pinned up frustration is let out during a breaking point, which may result in a patient pushing or hitting another resident.

In 2018, Capsi undertook a study in which he used publicly available information (primarily newspaper articles and death review reports) to identify patterns pertaining to the circumstances surrounding the death of 105 elders as a result of these incidents. The researcher found that nearly half of fatal incidents were associated with frustrating psychological triggers. And these triggers are much more common in dementia care homes since those with advanced dementia are more likely to inadvertently say or do things that may anger other residents, another study from the U.S. found.

The strongest triggers included those pertaining to violations of personal space and possessions. These include taking or touching a resident’s belongings or food, or unwanted entries into their bedroom. Crowded spaces may also lead to two residents claiming the same space, such as a dining room seat.

A stale and uneventful care home can also trigger violent outbursts among dementia residents just as well as crowded and busy institutions. Research shows that lack of meaningful activity and generally feeling bored can raise the pressure among residents, contributing to harmful interactions. Evenings and weekends are particularly dangerous.

“In most of these situations, the person with dementia does not intend to injure or kill another resident. Individuals with dementia live with a serious cognitive disability. And they often must do it while being forced to share small living spaces with many other residents,” Capsi said.

The researcher calls for raising the standards of dementia care homes in order to stave off the number of these preventable incidents that can lead to tragedies like Frank’s story. This includes increasing staff and improving training such that patients receive the care and attention they rightly deserve and need to live a dignified life.

“Understanding the role of dementia is important. But seeing a resident’s brain disease as the main cause of incidents is inaccurate and unhelpful. That view ignores external factors that can lead to these incidents but are outside of the residents’ control,” he concluded.

Solving crosswords and number puzzles may make your brain sharper at old age

Regular use of word and number puzzles may help keep our brains working better for longer. According to a pair of studies, adults aged 50 and over who are in the habit of solving crosswords and Sudoku scored much higher on cognitive tests, such as those that assess problem-solving and memory, than those who didn’t. In some instances, the differences were quite dramatic: people who regularly do puzzles had the cognitive abilities of those eight years younger, on average, compared to those who didn’t.

Credit: Pixabay.

Researchers led by Dr. Anne Corbett of the University of Exeter Medical School surveyed participants in the PROTECT study, a large online cohort of over 22,000 older adults between the ages of 50 and 96, about how frequently they engage in word and number puzzles. The participants then had to undertake a battery of cognitive tests whose results are supposed to measure age-related changes in brain function. These include tasks that assess attention, reasoning, and memory. The results were striking.

Those who engage in crosswords had a brain function equivalent to ten years younger than their biological age on tests assessing grammatical reasoning and eight years younger than their age on tests measuring short-term memory.

“The improvements are particularly clear in the speed and accuracy of their performance. In some areas the improvement was quite dramatic — on measures of problem-solving, people who regularly do these puzzles performed equivalent to an average of eight years younger compared to those who don’t. We can’t say that playing these puzzles necessarily reduces the risk of dementia in later life but this research supports previous findings that indicate regular use of word and number puzzles helps keep our brains working better for longer,” Corbett said in a statement.

PROTECT is designed as a 25-year study and participants are followed-up yearly to assess how their brain ages and what lifestyle choices might influence the risk of dementia later in life. Despite tremendous progress, we still know little about how the brain ages or what causes debilitating neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. PROTECT may offer exciting research opportunities in the year to come.

The two studies published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry don’t necessarily conclude that solving puzzles will necessarily reduce the risk of dementia and keep your brain sharper. The findings are observational and it could just be that people who have a natural ability to preserve their brain function with age also have a tendency to use word and numbers puzzles. In other words, the study established a correlation but did not define causation.

However, the findings are consistent with previous studies. A 2011 experiment with participants from the Bronx Aging Study found regularly solving crosswords is associated with a delay in the onset of cognitive decline. Other studies came to totally different conclusions. When Scottish researchers tested nearly 500 participants, all born in 1936, and found a tricky crossword or a challenging puzzle will not fend off age-related mental decline. However, they did note that although brain games like jigsaw puzzles may not prevent dementia, regularly challenging yourself mentally seems to improve the brain’s ability to cope with neurodegenerative disease.

“We know that what is good for the heart is good for the head, and there are other ways we can reduce our risk of developing dementia,” James Pickett, head of research at the UK’s Alzheimer’s Society, told CNN, “by taking steps towards a healthy lifestyle, eating a balanced diet, avoiding smoking and heavy drinking, and exercising regularly.”

If you want to keep your brain healthy, paying attention to your diet is clearly shown to help, but the occasional puzzle can’t hurt either.

Need another reason to quit smoking? It even makes you dumber

In recent years, the total number of smokers around the world has increased to over 1.3 billion, with the vast majority of smokers living in developing or underdeveloped countries. Smoking is associated with a legion of health problems, including but not limited to cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung diseases, diabetes, and chronic lung diseases. Smoking is bad for you, it really is — and we’re still discovering new ways it’s bad for you.

In a new study presented at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference 2022, a team of researchers announced that smoking also seems to affect your cognitive abilities.

“A person who smokes cigarettes regularly yet is otherwise healthy, without Type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure, is still at risk for poor brain health,” said Neal S. Parikh, M.D., M.S., senior author of the study and an assistant professor of neurology and neuroscience in the clinical and translational neuroscience unit at the Feil Family Brain and Mind Research Institute and the department of neurology at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City.

Essentially, the researchers wanted to see whether smoking impairs brain function by itself — and it does. Parikh told ZME Science:

“Cognitive impairment and dementia pose substantial public health burdens. Identifying modifiable risk factors – things we can intervene upon using existing interventions, is critical. This specific study was designed to ask: do people who smoke who also have other risk factors for poor brain health, specifically hypertension and diabetes, experience a compounded effect of smoking?”

“Serum cotinine, a blood marker of cigarette smoking and exposure, was associated with worse cognitive performance on select tests. This means that people with higher blood levels of a nicotine derivative had worse brain health. This was not impacted by whether the person has hypertension or diabetes. This was a significant finding.”

Parikh and colleagues looked at data collected by the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) — a program of research surveys conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) to assess the health and nutritional status of Americans. The program has been ongoing since the early 1960s.

The researchers examined data from 3,244 participants (average age 69). Out of them, 23% smoke. The participants took four tests to measure various cognitive abilities, including tasks that involved word recall, fluency, working memory, and processing.

While higher cotinine levels were not associated with significant differences in scores that measured memory and language fluency, they were associated with significantly worse scores on the Digit Symbol Substitution Test (DSST), a test that reflects multiple aspects of cognition, such as processing speed, attention, and working memory. The difference persisted even after researchers corrected for other conditions that could affect cognitive abilities.

“We were surprised to find that smoking does not act synergistically with high blood pressure or Type 2 diabetes to impact cognitive performance. To us, these results suggest that smoking has a strong enough influence on brain health independent of other health conditions. This means that smoking is bad for brain health even in people who don’t have other health conditions typically linked with poor brain health,” Parikh said.

Researchers say this is yet another argument to stop smoking, regardless of age. Smoking is a known modifiable risk for a number of conditions, but it’s not clear how people’s cognitive abilities would be affected after people stop smoking.

Researchers also emphasize that this is a correlational study and it didn’t establish a cause-effect relationship, although there are plausible mechanisms through which smoking could affect cognitive ability.

“We did not analyze causal pathways, but it is reasonable to speculate that vascular disease, such as stroke and other forms of silent brain vascular disease like silent strokes, may connect smoking to poor brain health.”

Next up, researchers want to focus on how to best target smoking in people at risk of dementia.

The study was presented at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference 2022.

People are surprisingly good at making fast, accurate, high-stakes decisions

Humans are remarkably resourceful. According to a new study, when people choose between two high-value items, not only do their decisions tend to be fast — they’re also accurate.

Researchers have long suspected that people are more sensitive to changes in value at low stakes, and less sensitive at higher stakes. For instance, you’re much more likely to tell the difference between a $5,000 car and a $10,000 car than between a $50,000 car and a $55,000 car. Similarly, if you’re trying to estimate whether someone weighs 45 kilos or 50 seems easier than between 105 and 110 — at least this was the theory.

Findings from a new study suggest the exact opposite. Not only do people tend to make high-stakes decisions quicker, but they also tend to be more accurate, Ian Krajbich, co-author of the study and professor of psychology and economics at The Ohio State University, tells ZME Science.

“Theories would both predict slower and less accurate/consistent decisions at high values. Instead, we saw the opposite. There is also work coming from researchers who have argued that high-value decisions may be fast because decision-makers are satisfied. In other words, when decision-makers think that the options are both good enough, they choose more quickly to save time and effort. If this theory was right we would expect high-value choices to be less accurate/consistent. Again, we saw the opposite.”

Previous research suggested that high-value decisions were generally faster than low-value ones, and this was indeed observed in the study. In three separate experiments, Krajbich and colleagues measured how long it took people to make decisions, and how accurate these decisions are. In the first one, they asked participants to rate their desire to eat 144 snack foods on a scale of 0 to 10. Then, at the end of this experiment, they offered the participants two food items and asked which one of them they would prefer. Sometimes, the participants were shown high-rated foods (say, an 8 and a 9), while other times, they would be shown comparable low-value options (say a 2 and a 3). The idea was to if and how people would stay true to their original ratings.

Remarkably, participants were slightly more likely to choose the higher-rated food accurately and quickly when it came to two highly-rated foods. The same pattern was noticed in the second experiment, where participants were asked to rate abstract artwork from 0 to 10.

Meanwhile, in the third experiment, participants didn’t rate anything. Instead, they were shown multi-color blocks with colors ranging from blue to pink. The blocks were then assigned values based on their color, ranging from lowest on one side of the spectrum and highest on the other (from $0.20 to $2.5). Yet again, participants were quicker and more accurate when it came to choosing between the high-value blocks.

However, there was a twist to these experiments. In half of the decisions in each experiment, the researchers alerted participants what kind of decision they would make (a choice between two high-value or two low-value items).

“The idea was that if people knew they were going to choose between two high-value options, they might be happy with either one, so they wouldn’t need to spend as much time or effort on the decision. With the low-value decisions, it might matter more that they choose the right one,” Krajbich said.

Researchers aren’t sure exactly why this happens, but it could be that something about being aware of the higher stakes is making people concentrate more.

“One possibility is that the presence of high-value options leads to increased arousal, which we know generally improves performance (up to a point). Another possibility is that people implicitly assume that high-value decisions are also more important to get right, which mirrors how things usually work in real life, and as a result they pay more attention to those decisions,” Krajbich told ZME Science.

“It may be that there is a factor we didn’t know about before, which is unique to value, that leads people to act differently,” Krajbich adds.

The researchers also have some advice for making day-to-day decisions. Krajbich concludes:

“Don’t discount the importance of making small decisions correctly. Your choice of which goods to purchase at the grocery store or where to go for lunch might seem small and unimportant, but those costs can add up to a lot over time!”

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI10.1073/pnas.2101508119

Teenagers’ mental health is deteriorating — and social media might have something to do with it

Credit: Pixabay.

Concerns are growing over teenagers’ mental health, particularly regarding social media’s potentially negative impact. In academia and in the media, increased attention is being paid to the issue.

Mental health, across ages and generations, should be understood as a public health issue; public health is about promoting healthy lifestyles as much as it is about preventing and responding to diseases. Because mental health issues affect people’s physical and emotional well-being, managing mental health issues is central to public health goals. 

Untreated or unrecognized mental health problems may affect all aspects of an individual’s health, not least their emotional well-being and social development. Teenagers, in particular,  may be left feeling socially isolated and unable to make vocational, social, or interpersonal contributions to society; in short, it’s a public health threat.

In recent news, the correlation between social media and mental health issues has gradually garnered more attention. In fact, a recent study by ExpressVPN found that 86% of teens reported changes to their happiness due to social media. This could be interpreted in a number of ways, but one question we need to ask ourselves, is how much of a role does social media play in mental health, and what are the most occuring issues?

The most common teen mental health issues

According to established research, around 70 percent of mental health disorders were present in individuals before they reached 25, meaning that the adolescent years are a critical period for promoting mental wellness. It should be noted that teenagers, during this time, can be affected by mental health disorders of all kinds, including those more commonly associated with adulthood. However, several distinct aspects of mental health may be more affected during adolescence, and several conditions are more prevalent across adolescence:

Emotional disorders 

Emotional disorders are psychological disorders that are predominantly characterized by  “maladjustive emotional reactions that are inappropriate or disproportionate to their cause”, according to the APA Dictionary of Psychology. These emotional disorders are common in teenagers. For instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) notes that 3.6 percent of 10 to 14 year-olds and 4.6 percent of 15 to 19 year-olds experience anxiety disorders.

Eating disorders

Societal pressures may make teenagers, who are particularly prone to be influenced by dominant ideals, more likely to develop eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia. Eating disorders occur across the gender spectrum and are characterized by abnormal eating behaviors and a preoccupation with food; most often, this is linked to concerns about body size and weight. 

Behavioral disorders

More likely to be diagnosed in younger adolescents than in older adolescents, behavioral disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and conduct disorder (CD), are among the most common teen mental health issues. Behavioral disorders are characterized by a pattern of disruptive and destructive behaviors that last for six or more months.

According to the WHO, an estimated one in seven 10 to 19 year-olds (14 percent) “experience mental health conditions, yet these remain largely unrecognized and untreated.”

How social media may exacerbate teen mental health issues

It’s no secret that teenagers and social media go hand-in-hand. A plethora of information and research shows that while social media platforms may help adolescents form the peer relationships that are crucial to the formative brain and personality, there are a number of troubling downsides. 

For one, social media has been shown to be addictive; likes and other interactions activate certain areas of the brain, the same reward areas that are activated when we see people we love or win prizes. Dopamine release proves to be a powerful motivator and is likely a factor in social media addiction. 

The study on Gen Z’s social media habits show that 61 percent are concerned about social media addiction. Respondents to the international survey also noted that other aspects of their emotional well-being were impacted by social media, including their levels of anxiety and self-esteem.

Teens who are predisposed to eating disorders may find that social media provides ample influence. 

Solving these challenges is a matter of greater awareness followed by public health measures and messaging that aim to remove some of the power social media has over teenagers and young adults. There is no straightforward solution to these issues, but as the body of evidence grows showing the impact on teenage mental health, it’s becoming more pressing.

Rocket scientists and brain surgeons aren’t actually smarter than the general population

Credit: Picryl.

The phrases “It’s not rocket science” and “It’s not brain surgery” are commonly used to denote simple tasks that don’t require all that much thinking. The implication is that people who actually work in these fields are particularly intellectually gifted. Not so fast though, notes a new study that found aerospace engineers and neurosurgeons score on par with the general population on intelligence tests.

“We found, using a validated intelligence test that there was actually not much difference between the intelligence scores in rocket scientists, brain surgeons and the general population. This suggests that these phrases may put neurosurgeons and rocket scientists on an unnecessary pedestal,” Chari Aswin, an academic neurosurgical trainee at the University College London and the research lead for the neurosurgical charity Brainbook, told ZME Science.

In order to settle the debate of which of the two phrases is the most deserving for denoting trivial tasks, the researchers decided to assess and compare the intelligence of 329 aerospace engineers and 72 neurosurgeons with 18,257 members of the general public.

The testing was conducted on multiple cognitive domains, including emotional discrimination, working memory, spatial intelligence, and motor control. As such, these were no ordinary IQ tests but rather a battery of tests part of the Great British Intelligence Tests (GBIT) that are designed to measure and differentiate aspects of cognitive abilities more finely.

The GBIT has been completed online by more than 250,000 British people thanks to a successful public outreach campaign spearheaded by BBC Two’s Horizon program. Previously, data from unprecedented mass intelligence testing revealed some fascinating and counterintuitive insights. For instance, scientists found that people who take part in brain training gain very little advantage in their intelligence. However, those who regularly play video games seem to have an obvious edge when it comes to spatial intelligence and attention.

Since the GBIT had been completed by so many people, it provided an excellent opportunity for reliably comparing various cognitive characteristics between people of varying backgrounds, which in this case was their profession. Potentially influential factors such as years of experience (in aerospace or neurosurgery) and gender were taken into account in the analysis and adjusted accordingly.

“Classical IQ tests suggest that they measure one single measure of intelligence. However, the developers of GBIT (who were part of our study) think that intelligence is much more complex and cannot be reported as just one score. The individual domains we have measured are all distinct from each other and, in the GBIT, they found that most people have a range of abilities, being better at some tests and worse at others – this is different from some people being great at all tests and others being bad at all the test,” Aswin said, explaining why didn’t opt for typical IQ tests in this particular instance.

Long story short, aerospace engineers and neurosurgeons were found to be equally matched across most cognitive domains, with two notable exceptions: rocket scientists had slightly better mental manipulation and attention abilities while neurosurgeons showed better semantic problem-solving abilities.

But the most important finding was that both neurosurgeons and aerospace engineers had scores within the range of those in the general population, leading the authors of the new study to conclude that the two professions are unrightfully put on a pedestal. A phrase such as “It’s a walk in the park” might be more appropriate to refer to tasks or concepts that are easy, they added.

“I think that professionals become good at their job through specific training in specific skills that are relevant. For example, neurosurgeons may require microsurgical skills, communication skills and a certain amount of determination but the results of our study show that, in general, the range of cognitive skills is no different to the general population,” Aswin.

The findings are more important than meets the eye. From an early age, school children’s desire to pursue a certain career is heavily influenced by stereotypes and various subjective perceptions. STEM fields like neurosurgery and aerospace engineering are facing enormous challenges recruiting and maintaining candidates for their workforce, and it is no coincidence that these fields are often seen as “masculine” and “too brainy”.

While there are certainly very gifted individuals working in both fields, whose talents coupled with a strong work ethic catapulted them to excellence, the same argument can be made that just as much talent is squandered perhaps simply because some people didn’t have enough confidence to pursue a STEM career.

“We want to help break down the barriers that might make people think some professions are out of their grasp – particularly in under-represented groups. Of course, highly-skilled people like surgeons and engineers are intelligent but those professions also require a lot of hard work and training which are just as important, and anyone with an interest in those careers should feel able to pursue them, regardless of stereotypes,” Aswin concluded.

The findings appeared in The British Medical Journal.

Novel ‘megastudy’ approach finds the best incentive to keep people in the gym

Getting people to stick to a workout routine is a worthy goal — but it’s also a nebulous one. Despite great interest from policymakers to promote exercise as a way to boost public health, there is still relatively little reliable data regarding what makes people stick to their routines.

Image credits Steve Buissinne.

A new megastudy aims to address that lack of data through the use of a massive number of participants to rigorously test and compare the efficacy of multiple incentives for keeping people committed to their workouts. The study tested 54 different behavioral interventions on a large number of participants in order to determine and compare the efficacy of each.

Keep gyming

“We found that rewarding participants with a bonus of [US$0.09] for returning to the gym after a missed workout produced an estimated 0.40 more weekly gym visits per participant (a 27% increase in exercise) compared with the placebo control,” the study reports, on the most efficient incentive recorded during the trials. “Second, offering participants larger incentives, [US$1.75] produced an estimated 0.37 more weekly gym visits per participant (a 25% increase in exercise) compared with the placebo control.”

The team worked with over 61,000 gym members, all of whom were subscribed to an American fitness chain. Over a four-week period, the various encouragement programs the authors experimented with boosted gym attendance between 9% and 27%.

Due to the scale of the study, 30 scientists from 15 different US universities participated. They worked in small, independent teams, and designed a total of 54 different intervention strategies to try and boost the participants’ rates of gym attendance. Each of these was meant to last a total of four weeks and ranged from digital experiences, text reminders, weekly emails, to rewards.

Just under half of these interventions (45%) had a significant effect on increasing the weekly gym visit numbers of participants. The single most effective intervention involved offering participants a cash reward for returning to the gym after missing a workout.

That being said, however, it was surprisingly hard to change the long-term habits of the participants; only 8% of the interventions trialed in the study led to participants maintaining a measurable change in their behavior after the four-week intervention period.

Beyond helping policymakers and other figures of authority better motivate people to stick to a workout routine, the work also helps showcase the potential of megastudies in furthering our understanding of particular topics. The authors themselves note that examining multiple interventions side-by-side gave them much better context than working with each strategy individually. Even those that did not lead to a noticeable increase in user gym attendance can yield valuable data when placed in the wider setting of the study, they explain.

“The megastudy paradigm ensures that all results, including null results, are published and that insights can still be gleaned from comparing treatments across studies, as illustrated both by this megastudy and a follow-up megastudy testing the best strategies for nudging vaccination,” they write.

Such a research framework also helps address one of the main limitations of behavioral science: the need to test interventions both in the field (in real-life settings), to account for the multitude of factors shaping each of our lives, and in a controlled research setting. When examining individual methods in distinct groups, the authors explain, it becomes difficult to compare results directly with other trials; due to this, it’s not possible to test whether the differences in results come down to the interventions themselves, or to the differences among the participants.

Beyond the immediate results, the team hopes their work will help improve the accuracy of behavioral research in the future, and give us new tools to reliably study human behavior.

The paper “Megastudies improve the impact of applied behavioural science” has been published in the journal Nature.

Scientists find Viagra may treat Alzheimer’s disease

Credit: Pixabay.

Sildenafil, a drug most typically used to address erectile dysfunction, may surprisingly work wonders in staving off Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia across the world. At the moment there is no proper treatment for Alzheimer’s, an incurable disease that is highly debilitating and whose burden of society is increasing every year with an aging population.

Two pathways, a single drug

After a certain age, the human brain starts to shrink considerably but surprisingly, not too many neurons die in the process. In the Alzheimer’s diseased brain, however, many neurons stop functioning, lose connections with other neurons, and eventually die.  This sort of degeneration leads to memory loss and disorientation associated with the condition — though it has to be noted that Alzheimer’s starts damaging brain cells well before the first symptoms kick in.

Alzheimer’s disease is widely believed to be caused by the accumulation of beta-amyloid proteins which clump together to form plaques between neurons and disrupt cell function. Another physical characteristic of the Alzheimer’s diseased brain is the buildup of tau proteins, which tangle inside neurons, blocking their transport system.

“Many drug discovery projects focused on anti-amyloid pathways failed in the past two decades. In our project, we test a novel hypothesis of dual targeting both amyloid and Tau pathways at the same time compared to the traditional drug discovery approach targeting amyloid and Tau pathways alone. As Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a complex disease caused by many factors, multi-target drugs or combination therapy that target multiple disease pathways may offer better clinical benefits for complex diseases, like AD,” Dr. Feixiong Cheng of Cleveland Clinic’s Genomic Medicine Institute and lead author of the new study told ZME Science.

Cheng and colleagues set out to find new or existing drugs whose biological pathways may intersect with Alzheimer’s. This was a challenging task that resulted in a lot of dead ends as more than 99% of proposed drugs for Alzheimer’s disease have turned out to be hugely disappointing failures in clinical trials.

So the researchers decided to get back to the drawing board and try something different: target both amyloid and Tau pathways at the same time. They went to work and designed a computational model that mapped out a large network of over 350,000 human protein-protein interactions. This huge gene-mapping network allowed the researchers to single out over 1,600 FDA-approved drugs that could target both amyloid and tau, and thus potentially treat Alzheimer’s disease.

The best drug candidate was sildenafil, a drug famous for treating erectile dysfunction under the brand name Viagra and pulmonary hypertension under the brand name Revatio. Previously, sildenafil has been associated with improvements in cognition and memory in preclinical models.

In order to see what kind of effect sildenafil might have on Alzheimer’s, the researchers closely looked at insurance claims data from over seven million Americans. This analysis revealed that sildenafil prescriptions were associated with a 69% reduction in the risk of AD diagnosis after 6 years of follow-up. 

Of particular note is that sildenafil was most likely to reduce the incidence of Alzheimer’s in individuals with coronary artery disease, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes, all of which are comorbidities significantly associated with the neurodegenerative disease.

Back in the lab, the researchers used stem cells to grow  Alzheimer’s patient-derived brain cells. When sildenafil was introduced in the tissue, the brain cells’ rate of growth increased while the hyperphosphorylation of tau proteins (a hallmark that leads to neurofibrillary tangles) decreased.

All of these findings in combination point towards sildenafil as a worthy drug candidate for Alzheimer’s, which is why the researchers are now planning a phase II randomized clinical trial to confirm the drug’s clinical benefits for patients with the disease. And despite sildenafil’s notorious reputation, embarrassing moments are highly unlikely.

“We don’t think daily erections are a major side effect of sildenafil as we will use sildenafil in elderly individuals and we can control this issue by adjusting dosage and other factors. We are planning a phase II trial to test the clinical benefits of sildenafil in early of AD patients in the next step. We will answer dosage issues in our future RCT (clinical trial),” Cheng said.

“AD is a complex disease and we have to use personalized treatment (precision medicine) and drug combination therapy strategies to prevent and treat AD in the future. In our project, we found that dual-targeting both Tau and amyloid pathways may offer better clinical benefits compared to the traditional approach targeting Tau and amyloid pathways alone. There are other types of endophenotypes, such as inflammatory pathways as well, and we are working on combination therapy design by combining Tau and amyloid endophenotype with anti-inflammatory therapies in the next step as well,” he added.

The findings were reported in the journal Nature Aging

This new procedure could be a game-changer for epilepsy

PING could change the lives of those living with epilepsy. (Image: Pixabay)

Epilepsy is an odd beast. It can affect people of all ages and ethnicities. It can be caused by a variety of underlying issues, such as head trauma, or sometimes the person can just be a victim of hereditary happenstance. Sometimes, there is no apparent reason for it whatsoever. It’s just there.

Adding to that, there are many types of treatments from pharmaceuticals to electronic implants to brain surgery. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t — again, in a fashion that’s hard to predict. As a result, we now have a menagerie of treatments and drugs used to combat the illness, but none of them is perfect.

To add even more to this, people suffering from epilepsy are still stigmatized because of how bizarrely the disease sometimes manifests. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of 2015 3.4 million people in the United States (1.2% of the population) had epilepsy. Expand your search to the entire globe and the number jumps to 50 million. But a new, revolutionary procedure could bring big changes.

Deep inside the brain

While brain surgery was always considered a last resort, a treatment left in a doctor’s back pocket to use only when absolutely necessary, research out of the University of Virginia School of Medicine and Stanford University may have found a way to make the operation less intrusive and more effective.

A procedure called PING, currently in pre-clinical research, has been created to treat neurological diseases without the invasiveness of regular surgery. If successfully translated to the operating room, it could revolutionize the treatment of some of the most challenging and complex neurological diseases.

The approach uses low-intensity focused ultrasound waves combined with microbubbles to briefly penetrate the brain’s natural defenses and allow the targeted delivery of a neurotoxin. This neurotoxin kills the culprit brain cells while sparing other healthy cells and preserving the surrounding brain architecture.

“This novel surgical strategy has the potential to supplant existing neurosurgical procedures used for the treatment of neurological disorders that don’t respond to medication,” said researcher Kevin S. Lee, PhD, of UVA’s Departments of Neuroscience and Neurosurgery and the Center for Brain Immunology and Glia (BIG) in a statement. “This unique approach eliminates the diseased brain cells, spares adjacent healthy cells and achieves these outcomes without even having to cut into the scalp.”

Now, if a patient which does not respond to medications is at the end of the pharmaceutical rope (which happens in up to a third of those with epilepsy), the new procedure could provide a critical treatment without the angst and recovery time of normal brain surgery. In an email to ZMEScience, Lee explained that PING has recently been shown to reduce or eliminate seizures in two research models of temporal lobe epilepsy.

A key advantage of the approach is its incredible precision. PING utilizes the power of magnetic-resonance imaging (MRI) to let scientists peer inside the skull so that they can precisely guide sound waves to open the body’s natural blood-brain barrier exactly where needed. This barrier is designed to keep harmful cells and molecules out of the brain, but it also prevents the delivery of potentially beneficial treatments. Lee said that importantly, PING spares other non-target cells, such as glia, blood vessels and axons of passage, which are damaged with currently-available neurosurgical procedures.

“The hope for PING is that it will also be effective in reducing seizures, while reducing side effects that attend currently-available procedures,” Lee told ZME Science. “The operation requires a focused ultrasound (FUS) system that is combined with an MRI (which) allows accurate targeting of FUS to a brain area of interest. In current clinical practice, high-intensity FUS can be used to produce thermal lesions to treat essential tremor and Parkinson’s Disease. PING differs from that procedure because it uses low-intensity FUS to focally open the blood brain barrier to deliver a systemically-administered drug to destroy culprit neurons in a targeted area.”

Another huge advantage of PING is that it can be used on irregularly shaped targets in areas of the brain that would be almost impossible to reach through regular brain surgery. “If this strategy translates to the clinic,” the researchers write in their paper, which was published in the Journal of Neurosurgery, “the noninvasive nature and specificity of the procedure could positively influence both physician referrals for and patient confidence in surgery for medically intractable neurological disorders.”

The results could change the lives of millions of people around the world if its safety and efficiency are confirmed in larger trials.

Each one of us falls into one of three information-seeking ‘personalities’

Knowing what people want to know, and why, can go a long way towards designing public information campaigns. However, it’s easier said than done. New research comes to shed some light on the topic, reporting on the criteria people rely on when deciding to get informed on a topic, or not.

Image via Pixabay.

According to the findings, at least in matters regarding to their health, finances, and personal traits, people, in general, rely on one of three criteria: the emotional reaction they assume they will have when presented with that information, how useful they consider said information will be to them, and whether or not it pertains to something that they think about often. The team says each person falls into one of these three “information-seeking types”, and that they don’t tend to change them over time.

Knowing, why?

“Vast amounts of information are now available to individuals. This includes everything from information about your genetic make-up to information about social issues and the economy. We wanted to find out: how do people decide what they want to know?” says Professor Tali Sharot from the University College London (UCL) Psychology & Language Sciences, co-lead author of the study. “And why do some people actively seek out information, for example about COVID vaccines, financial inequality and climate change, and others don’t?”

“The information people decide to expose themselves to has important consequences for their health, finance and relationships. By better understanding why people choose to get informed, we could develop ways to convince people to educate themselves.”

The study pools together data the researchers obtained over the course of five experiments with 543 research participants.

In one of the experiments, participants were asked to rate how much they would like to know about a certain topic related to their health — for example, whether they had a gene that put them at risk of developing Alzheimer’s, or one that strengthened their immune system. Another experiment followed the same pattern but substituted financial information (for example, what income percentile they fall into) in lieu of personal health. A third asked them to rate how much they would like to know where their family and friends rated them on personal traits such as intelligence or laziness.

Later on, they were asked how useful they thought the information would be, how they expected to feel upon receiving the info, and how often they thought about the subject matter of each experiment.

Based on their responses during these five experiments, the team explains that people tend to seek out information based predominantly on one of the three factors — expected utility, emotional impact, and relevance to their interests. They add that the three-factor model they establish could be used to more accurately predict a participant’s choices to seek or refuse information compared to a range of other models they tested.

Some of the participants also repeated this series of experiments several times, at intervals of a few months. Based on their responses over time, the team explains that people tend to routinely prioritize one of the three motives over the others, and they tend to stick to that one motive over time and across topics. This, they argue, suggests that our motivators in this regard are ‘trait-like’.

These traits do have a direct impact on our lives; the first, obviously, is that they drive us towards and away from certain topics and pieces of data. But they also have a bearing on our wellbeing. In two of the five experiments, participants were also asked to fill in a questionnaire that estimated their general mental health. The team explains that participants who wanted to know more about traits they often thought about showed more signs of positive mental health when seeking out information about their own traits.

“By understanding people’s motivations to seek information, policy makers may be able to increase the likelihood that people will engage with and benefit from vital information. For example, if policy makers highlight the potential usefulness of their message and the positive feelings that it may elicit, they may improve the effectiveness of their message,” says PhD student Christopher Kelly from UCL Psychology & Language Sciences a, co-lead author of the study.

“The research can also help policy makers decide whether information, for instance on food labels, needs to be disclosed, by describing how to fully assess the impact of information on welfare. At the moment policy-makers overlook the impact of information on people’s emotions or ability to understand the world around them, and focus only on whether information can guide decisions.”

The paper “Individual differences in information-seeking” has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

The Call of the Void: why you sometimes feel like jumping from high places

This article contains several mentions of suicide. If you have been grappling with distressing thoughts, don’t despair! There’s nothing wrong with asking for help, and here is a list of suicide help lines. We want to see you around.


If you’ve ever been to the top of a tall building or a cliff and looked down, the odds are you felt terrified — but you may have also felt something else. A weird, inexplicable draw to… jump. This happens more often than you think, it even has a spooky name: the call of the void (or l’appel du vide in French). There’s no actual reason for feeling like you want to jump and you don’t technically want to do it, but the call is somehow inexplicably there.

Rest assured: this doesn’t imply there’s something dark or suicidal deep inside of you. Instead, scientists believe this phenomenon is an intrusive thought that seems to often appear in people with no link to suicide ideation. However, the science is not entirely clear.

Intrusive thoughts

If you’ve ever had a random, disturbing, and fleeting thought or urge, there’s a good chance it was an intrusive thought — an unwelcome, involuntary thought. Involuntary thoughts can become an obsession or can be very distressing (in which case they are often linked to mental conditions), but they can also be entirely unrelated to anything you’ve previously thought.

It doesn’t even have to be linked with high buildings. Common examples of the call of the void include standing on a train or subway platform and thinking about jumping, thinking about jerking the steering wheel into a cliff or jumping into deep water from a boat or a bridge. Of course, most people don’t talk about this; it’s not something you can just bring up into a discussion, and the sheer idea of saying “hey I had a random thought of jumping off a bridge today” is terrifying.

However, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that this is actually fairly common. Although it’s not scientific evidence (as we’ll see in a moment, scientific evidence on this phenomenon is actually very scarce), the internet abounds with stories of people experiencing the call of the void from time to time. Just take Reddit, for instance — where dozens and dozens of posts have been published about the call of the void, sometimes with thousands of comments on them. Here are some comments from Reddit users from one such thread:

“This makes me feel a lot better for having these feelings; it’s a scary thought to have for seemingly no reason.”

“I have them every once in a while. My mind starts playing scenarios of ‘what would happen if I __‘. There is no way of stopping them, only accepting that they’re a part of your life.”

“I’m glad there’s a name for it. I moved into an apartment with a balcony on the 25th floor about 6 months ago. For the first few weeks, I’d often get the urge to jump off the railing and “fly over the city.” My rational brain knows that the flight would be short and end messily, but the urge would still pop up every so often.”

Again, this is not scientific information, but it seems that every time you browse this type of thread, people are always surprised that this phenomenon is so common and not connected to suicide ideation (repeated ideas or ruminations about the possibility of ending one’s life). So then, why do these thoughts appear?

The science of the call of the void

Well, unfortunately, there’s no definitive answer as to why this happens. April Smith, an associate professor of psychology at Miami University in Ohio, is the author of the only study on the call of the void we could find. While there are a few studies on intrusive thoughts, this particular phenomenon seems far less studied. From the very title of Smith’s study, it’s apparent that the call of the void is not the same as suicide ideation: “An urge to jump affirms the urge to live, an empirical examination of the high place phenomenon.”

The study was carried out on 431 undergraduate college students and only focused on one call of the void experience — the high place phenomenon, or HPP (the jumping from a high place thought). The students were asked to complete questionnaires regarding feeling this type of intrusive thought, suicidal ideation, anxiety sensitivity, depressive symptoms, and history of mood episodes.

The study found that over half of those who reported never having suicidal thoughts experienced some version of HPP. People more inclined towards anxiety symptoms (but less inclined towards suicidal thoughts) seemed more likely to experience HPP, but the results weren’t clear cut. What was clear-cut (at least based on the findings of this study) is that HPP seems to not be connected to suicide at all — but rather, the researchers speculatively link it with a will to live.

“The HPP is commonly experienced among suicide ideators and non-ideators alike. Thus, individuals who report experiencing the phenomenon are not necessarily suicidal; rather, the experience of HPP may reflect their sensitivity to internal cues and actually affirm their will to live,” the study concludes.

The study had significant limitations. It was a relatively small sample size, participants were undergrads (and may therefore not be representative of the entire population), and the link to anxiety or suicidal thoughts was only superficially explored. However, there is a simple mechanism that makes sense in this interpretation.

Think about it this way. Not jumping from cliffs or in front of a train is deeply embedded into you. It’s a threat to your survival so it’s something your body wants to avoid at all cost. So it presumably tries to suppress the very idea that this could happen. But if you’ve ever tried to suppress a thought, you know that it can easily backfire.

Basically, your attempt to avoid thinking about something can lead you to do the exact opposite and think about it. All it takes is a single thought that can cascade into a chain reaction leading to intrusive thoughts like the call of the void. It could also be your brain trying to send a signal to be careful and *not* do that thing.

“Instead of the high place phenomenon defending the view that everyone has a “death wish” or that “suicide is impulsive,” we propose that at its core, the experience of the high place phenomenon stems from the misinterpretation of a safety or survival signal (e.g., “back up, you might fall”),” the above mentioned study notes.

However, much of this happens below the radar of the conscious mind, so this is all pretty much speculation at this point. There are no clear studies documenting this phenomenon, and since it’s so difficult to design studies to dive below the conscious level, it’s unlikely that this phenomenon will be fully understood in the near future.

So do these thoughts mean anything?

Many people hear the call of the void from time to time, and if it happens to you, well, you’re in good company. It’s one of those bizarre and not-yet–fully-understood things our brain does sometimes.

Based on what we know so far, the call of the void doesn’t seem to be a cause for concern, unless it happens very often and becomes obsessive. However, the difference between this type of thought and suicide ideation may not be all that clear, so it can be useful to carry out a mental check or consult a therapist if these thoughts start recurring. It may also be useful to keep an eye out for any anxiety symptoms. As Smith’s study concludes:

“Although at first blush, the experience – and even the description – of the high place phenomenon calls to mind suicidal desires, clearly the experience is commonly felt by many non-suicidal individuals.”

Paradoxes are contradictory.

The appeal of the paradox — mankind’s fascination with self-contradicting ideas

Just like true love, a paradox cannot be explained with logic alone. Simply put, a paradox is a self-contradicting statement. Any idea, situation, puzzle, statement, or question that challenges your ability to reason, and leads you to an unexpected and seemingly illogical conclusion, can be considered a paradox.

The classic paradox example is the so-called Grandfather Paradox. Imagine a psychotic time traveler who goes back in time and kills his grandfather before his father is conceived. This means that the traveler wouldn’t have been conceived, and if he wasn’t conceived, then who went back to kill his grandfather?

The answer to this theoretical time travel mystery is still unclear, as is the case with many other interesting paradoxes. In this information age, logic helps us understand what is known to us but a paradox serves as a reminder of what else we need to know. Let’s dive in.

Image credits: cottonbro/pexels

How do you define a paradox?

A paradox is a thought that can sound reasonable and illogical at the same time. The Cambridge dictionary defines paradox as a situation that could be true but is impossible to comprehend due to its contrary characteristics. In the Greek language, ‘para’ translates to ‘abnormal’, ‘distinct, or ‘contrary’’ and ‘dox’ means ‘idea’ or ‘opinion’. Therefore, according to some Greek philosophers, a paradox is an abnormal or self-contrary belief or idea that ultimately leads to an unsolvable contradiction.  

You don’t need time travel to create a crazy paradox. For instance, in the famous crocodile paradox (of which there are many variations), a magical crocodile steals a child and promises to return it only if the father can guess correctly what the crocodile will do. If the father says “The child will not be returned” — what can the crocodile do? If he doesn’t return the child, that means the father’s guess was true so he should have returned the child. If he does return it, then the father’s guess was false, so he shouldn’t have. It’s a paradox, nothing the crocodile does can satisfy the situation.

The face a crocodile makes when faced with an unsolvable paradox. Image credits: Pixabay/pexels.

This paradox is believed to have originated centuries ago in ancient Greece, but there are hundreds of different paradoxes that are found in literature, mathematics, philosophy, science, and various other domains as well. Though a true paradox can seem both true and false at the same time, logic tends to suggest most of the paradoxes as invalid statements. 

There are four main types of paradoxes:

  1. Falsidical paradox: A paradox that leads to a false conclusion resulting from a misconception or false belief. For example, Zeno’s Achilles and tortoise.
  1. Veridical paradox: When a situation or statement tells us about a result that sounds absurd but is actually valid by logic. Shrodinger’s cat is a famous example of a veridical paradox.
  1. Antinomy paradox: A question, puzzle, or statement that does not lead to a solution or conclusion is called an antimony paradox (also known as self-referential paradox). One of its examples is the Barber’s paradox (discussed below).
  1. Dialetheia: When the opposite of a situation and the original situation co-exist together, such a paradox is called dialetheia. No concrete examples are known but some real-life situations can be considered dialetehia (for example when you are standing at the kitchen door, and one of your family members ask you if you are in the kitchen? You are right whether you answer yes or no.    

Why paradoxes matter

Paradoxes are important because they make us think. They force us to reassess what we thought we knew and ponder things from unusual perspectives. A paradox mindset, in which we embrace contradicting (or seemingly contradicting ideas) is a key to success, some studies have shown. Leading thinkers were found to spend considerable time developing ideas and counter-ideas simultaneously, something called the Janusian process.

Studying paradoxes is also important, especially for mathematicians. Mathematicians love to break everything into small pieces and define things carefully, and they do that with paradoxes. For instance, let’s take a simple paradox called the Temperature paradox, which states:

“If the temperature is 90 and the temperature is rising, that would seem to entail that 90 is rising.”

Obviously, 90 is not rising, it’s a fixed number, it can’t be rising. We know that intuitively, but how do we prove it? American mathematician and philosopher Richard Montague dealt with this paradox (and many others), and explained that the paradox emerges from linguistic vagueness, which can be addressed through mathematical clarity. The linguistic formalization of the paradox would go something like this:

  1. The temperature is rising.
  2. The temperature is ninety.
  3. Therefore, ninety is rising. (invalid conclusion)

But the mathematical formalization implies that point 1. marks how the temperature changes over time, while point 2. makes an assertion about the temperature at a particular point in time. Therefore, we cannot draw conclusions based on this single point in time.

This type of paradox, which emerges from language issues and ambiguity is not often important, but other paradoxes, especially those that can’t be resolved through normal means, hold importance because they help us find better definitions of objects and relationships. A good example of this is Curry’s paradox.

Now that we know the types of paradoxes and why they matter, let’s look at of the most popular and insane paradoxes of all time:

Paradox examples

“This sentence is false”

This so-called liar’s paradox is the canonical example of a self-referential paradox. Other classic examples are “Is the answer to this question ‘no’?”, and “I’m lying.”

Mathematicians have tried to dissect and analyze this paradox in great detail because it can hold some importance to defining inherent limitations of mathematical axioms.  The liar’s paradox was used in 1931 by a mathematician named Kurt Gödel to define mathematical axioms, but the paradox itself dates back to at least 600 BC, when the semi-mythical seer Epimenides, a Cretan, reportedly stated that “All Cretans are liars.”

The Barber paradox

The scene of a Bucharest-based barbershop in 1842. Image credits: Charles Doussault/Wikimedia Commons

Proposed by British mathematician Bertrand Russell, this paradox states that if a barber is defined as the person who only shaves individuals who do not shave on their own, then who shaves the barber? In this case, the barber would shave himself — but then, according to the definition, he is no longer the barber as he cannot shave a person who would shave on their own. 

Now, if he is not shaving on his own, then he is among those who are supposed to be shaved by the barber. In this case, also, the barber has to shave himself. Therefore, the barber paradox suggests that no such barber can ever exist who is called a barber because he only shaves people who do not do their own shave. Well, then what the heck even is a barber?

Sorites’ paradox

If there is a heap of sand that has one million grains, and one by one, grains are being removed from the heap such that at the end of the process only one grain remains, would it still be seen as a heap? If not then when does the heap of sand become a non-heap? Sounds crazy, right? But that is the Sorites paradox given by Eubuildus of Miletus around the fourth century BCE, and till this day, no math genius has been able to give a logical solution to this problem.

Another similar type of puzzle is the so-called ship of Theseus. The mythological hero Theseus sails on to his adventures, and at some point, one of the ship parts needs replacing. It’s still the same ship, right? Just one part was replaced. But part after part, every component on the ship is replaced. Is it still the same ship? If not, when did it stop being the same ship?

Zeno’s Achilles and the tortoise

Achilles and the tortoise.

In this paradox developed by the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno, there is a race between the great Greek warrior Achilles and a tortoise. The tortoise is given a head start of 100 meters. Achilles runs faster than the tortoise so it will catch up to it. But here’s how Zeno looked at things:

  • Step #1: Achilles runs to the tortoise’s starting point while the tortoise walks forward.
  • Step #2: Achilles runs to where the tortoise was at the end of Step #1, while the tortoise goes a bit further.
  • Step #3: Achilles runs to where the tortoise was at the end of Step #2 while the tortoise goes yet further.
  • … and so on.

The gaps get smaller and smaller every time, but there is an infinity of these steps, so how can Achilles overcome an infinite number of gaps and catch up to the turtle? How does anything catch up to anything, for that matter? Obviously, things do catch up to other things, so what’s going on here?

The ancient Greeks lacked the mathematical tools to address this paradox, but nowadays, we know better. There may be an infinite number of steps, but they are also infinitely small. It’s a bit like how 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16 +… to infinite adds up to 1. It’s an infinite number of steps, but the steps become infinitely small, and in the end, they add up to something tangible.

Animalia Paradoxa – The classification of magical creatures

This is actually not a paradox but a biological classification of the beasts and magical creatures that are also mentioned in ancient storybooks. In the versions of Systema Naturae that arrived before its sixth edition, author Carl Linnaeus (father of modern taxonomy) has listed creatures like Hydra (snake with seven faces), Draco (a dragon with bat-like wings and ability to spit fire), Unicorn (beautiful single-horned horse), Lamia (half-human half-animal), etc.

From a scientific point of view, these creatures don’t exist so then why did a genius like Carl Linnaeus mention such creatures in his greatest scientific work? It seems paradoxical that the man who defined our classification of biological creatures would introduce unreal creatures; one might say it’s a bit paradoxical.

A painting of Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra by Gustave Moreau. Image credits: The Yorck Project/Wikimedia Commons

Paradoxes have a unique draw because they appeal to human curiosity and mystery. They seem to ignite the curiosity of the human mind for thousands of years and will likely continue to do so for many years to come. 

Dissociative identity disorder.

Being multiple people: Diving into Dissociative Identity Disorder

If I could choose two personalities for myself, I’d go with Elon Musk and your friendly neighborhood SpiderMan but unfortunately, that’s not at all how Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) works.

Individuals who experience multiple personalities as a result of DID don’t have control over the kind of personalities they have to contend with. However, researchers have also noticed that some DID patients can use their different personalities as a mental shield against the traumatic memories of their past. 

A woman in makeup with two different facial expressions. Image credits: Elīna Arāja/pexels

DID stands as one of the most controversial psychological disorders, with some researchers even arguing that DID is a hoax without any scientific basis. However, a Harvard study busted this idea, along with other speculations on the legitimacy of DID as a mental illness. Although there is still a lot of debate about DID, researchers mostly don’t doubt its validity as a mental illness.

Apart from the cases documented scientifically (which are surprisingly scarce), numerous cases have been reported in different parts of the world, suggesting that the occurrence of multiple identities may be more common than once believed, and may be associated with mental health conditions. Which begs the question: what exactly is this condition?

What is dissociative identity disorder? 

When a person develops two or more identities of his own that often results in disconnected behavior involving memory gaps, he or she is said to be suffering from DID, which is also referred to as split personality or multiple-personality disorder (MPD). Unfortunately, 70% of patients who suffer from DID are prone to suicidal thoughts and self-harm. According to a relatively small study from the US, DID affects about 1.5% of the world population — which still makes it a relatively rare condition, but is much more common than some of the other syndromes reported in psychiatric literature.

Generally, each identity of a DID patient has a name, habits, liking, dislikings, age, and thought process. It is also possible that two identities of the same person may hate each other. The shift from one identity to another is called switching, and some DID patients can undergo switching multiple times in a single day. These changes may be associated with memory loss and confusion. PTSD is also not uncommon in patients.  

A DID patient has at least two distinct and relatively enduring personality states but can have multiple ones. These various personalities control the person’s behavior at different times and can be associated with memory loss, depression, or delusions.

Why do people have dissociative identity disorder? 

Sometimes, a person is unable to process any more mental stress so their brain may see dissociation as the only way of coping with all the trauma that they are experiencing. As a result of this, they create different personalities (as a psychological response), in order to dissociate the original identity from the traumatic experience. The occurrence of these multiple personalities eventually leads to DID.

People who go through painful life-threatening experiences, physical violence, emotional breakdown, or sexual abuse during their childhood (according to a shocking report, about 90% of DID patients have been victims of sexual abuse when they were kids), and those who suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) are more likely to have Dissociative Identity Disorder.

Image credits: Charly Pn/Unsplash

Common symptoms of DID include episodes of disorientation and memory loss, depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, delusions, hallucinations, emotional detachment, substance abuse, etc. It has been observed that increased levels of stress and substance abuse can make the condition of DID patients worse.

Unfortunately, there’s no cure per se for DID, but its symptoms can be limited to some extent using different treatments (such as psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, and adjunctive therapy) but in most cases, the patient has no option but to learn to adapt and live with the multiple personalities that he or she experiences. The effectiveness of DID treatment also depends on a patient’s mindset, family environment, early diagnosis, and awareness. Therapy is also important for this type of treatment, and with the right treatment and therapy, many people with DID can learn to cope and live normal lives.

If a patient receives treatment soon after the traumatic experience that’s causing him to show DID symptoms, then the probability of him being able to control the disorder increases. Ironically, there is no particular test to diagnose DID and often its symptoms are either confused with other mental disorders or remain unnoticed until the patient becomes an adult. 

The behavior of parents, friends, and other people around a DID patient also affects the dissociative behavior. A good emotional support system can make the patient live happily and comfortably even with different identities, whereas a stressful environment can escalate the condition and even provoke a patient to cause self-harm. 

Some famous DID cases

Dissociative identity disorder is a rare but very unique psychological condition, and this is why many cases of DID in the past have grabbed a lot of media attention. Recently, in an interview with Economic Times, American actress AnnaLynne McCord also revealed that she has been diagnosed with DID. Here are some of the most high-profile cases of DID:

  • In his book Breaking Free: My Life with Dissociative Identity Disorder, American footballer Herschel Walker admits to having an alter ego named “Warrior” whom he believes is the reason behind his great sportsmanship abilities. He also talks about his other personality “Hero”, according to Walker, Hero has helped him manage his public image. The footballer won 1982’s Heisman Trophy but he claims that due to DID, he has no memory of winning the trophy.
  • A DID patient Kim Noble is believed to have over 100 personalities. She also appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. However, according to Kim, it wasn’t her but mostly Patricia (her most dominant personality), who talked to Oprah during the show. In an interview with The Guardian, her alter identity Patricia also revealed that Kim goes through three to four switches every day.  
  • Psychiatrist Richard Baer claims that he has helped his patient Karen Overhill in overcoming the episodes from her 17 different identities. In his book, Switching Time: A Doctor’s Harrowing Story of Treating a Woman With 17 Personalities, Dr. Baer reveals that Karen had come to her as a patient of depression but during her treatment, he came across her different identities that resulted as a mental response to being herself abused by both her dad and grandfather during her childhood. The treatment process that involved hypnosis and various other psychological techniques ran for more than 20 years.

The bottom line

Ultimately, there is much we still don’t know about this condition. It appears to be more common than you’d expect and is often linked to trauma or other mental conditions. For some patients, DID can also be a defense mechanism through which their brain protects them from the overwhelming traumas and horrors that they had to face as a kid.   

Hopefully, as more research is coming, we can better understand and enable people suffering from it to live a normal, healthy life. At least two such trials are currently underway, and several others have been recently finished.

Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy: could recreational drugs treat depression & PTSD?

Despite their ill reputation, psychedelics such as Psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA (commonly known as Ecstasy) may be the missing puzzle piece to treating several mental disorders. Results from contemporary clinical trials testify for the drugs’ capacity in inducing positive, long-term alterations in mental health and well-being in both patients and healthy individuals, when taken under regulation and as a complement to psychotherapy.

The question is, as more states and cities in the United States legalize it, will the public accept the new role of these recreational drugs? Let us look at what we know so far.

History

The belief in the therapeutic potential of psychedelics has been around for decades. But now more than ever, scientists are carrying out intensive investigations to allow for their use alongside psychotherapy, and results are promising. Their use in psychiatry can be attributed to a group of pioneering psychiatrists in the 1950s that demonstrated the powerful effects of LSD as an adjunct to therapy, in treating a gamut of conditions such as alcoholism, depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, personality disorders, and even sexual dysfunctions.

Towards the 1970s, research on the use of hallucinogens in psychiatry has yielded over 1,000 scientific papers that contained findings from 40,000 subjects and 6 international conferences. Many of these studies weren’t reliable as the methodology conducted was flawed relative to contemporary guidelines.

Nonetheless, the preliminary findings were intriguing enough to warrant further research into the matter. Unfortunately, that would become impossible as the use of psychedelics became a point of contention when LSD hit the streets in 1963, and psychedelics became notorious as drugs of abuse that are linked to the counterculture. Eventually, research using psychedelics was halted in the late 1960s due to political and societal pressures leaving many questions unexplored.

The current situation

Nowadays, scientists are once again proving the efficacy of psychedelics in treating mental illnesses. Recently, MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for individuals with severe PTSD was proven to be far more effective than present first-line pharmacological and behavioral therapies. These unprecedented results from the Phase 3 study led by Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, may be the cause for their FDA approval which is expected to come by 2023.

At Imperial College London, Centre for Psychedelic Research, researchers are conducting the most meticulous study to date on the healing effect of Psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, on depression. Their published results revealed that psilocybin reduces depressive symptoms rapidly and in greater magnitude in comparison to the FDA-approved antidepressant, Escitalopram. However, researchers did acknowledge the need for a larger and longer trial to establish their potency.

Additionally, the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland, released fascinating results in November 2020. Their study demonstrated that 71% of the patients suffering from major depressive disorder who underwent psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy showed a greater than 50% reduction in symptoms and more than half of the participants were in remission within 4 weeks.

How psychedelics work

Like the primary class of antidepressants, Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), psychedelics act on serotonin receptors and enhance the brain’s neuroplasticity. Nonetheless, psychedelics have an additional effect best described by Franz Vollenweider, a psychiatrist and neurochemist at the University Hospital of Psychiatry in Zurich, Switzerland, he states that psychedelics “activate a therapeutic, dreamlike state, intensifying sensory perception, and memories pop up like little films.”. Therefore, the drug creates a receptive mental state and allows patients to be open to fresh ideas about how to view the past and the future, and this is where psychotherapy has a big role in breaking down false thought patterns that drive mental illnesses like depression and enforces positive ones.

Public acceptance

As these long-stigmatized drugs emerge as alternatives for treating mental illnesses, and numerous states and cities in the U.S. continue their process of decriminalizing psychedelics for therapeutic purposes, it is very important to note that scientists are aware of how powerful these substances are. This is why intensive research is conducted to fully understand every facet of psychedelics to confront any side effects. Secondly, while the initial findings are promising, individuals are discouraged from self-medicating. These strong drugs are expected to be administered under the observation of trained psychotherapists and regulators. Therefore, psychedelics will be used solely for treatment purposes in a safe and well-regulated environment. If taken without supervision and dose regulation, these drugs could induce a lasting psychotic reaction.

Lastly, it is crucial for the public to comprehend the importance of these findings and their grave impact on the millions affected by these disorders. Depression is the cardinal contributor to a disability affecting more than 264 million individuals globally. Latest epidemiological studies demonstrate that the leading cause of death by suicide is clinical depression, which claims around 800,000 lives per year. And despite the rise in awareness of the detrimental effect, it has on its victims, depression largely remains an enigma. This is reflected in the unavailability of potent drugs for treating depression; even experts argue that the efficacy of antidepressants has been empirically exaggerated. As for PTSD, about 8 million people develop the disorder per year in the U.S. alone.

Similarly, PTSD has no cure and the only option available is psychotherapy for management or the use of antidepressants in an attempt to relieve the depressive symptoms. And as declared by the statistics, current antidepressants approved by the FDA are largely ineffective, in 40-60% of patients. Hence, there is no doubt that we are in dire need of a novel approach. Therefore, as scientists do their best to translate their research into reality to
help overcome these detrimental disorders, it is our duty to educate ourselves on the matter in order to view psychedelics for their new potential role, to overcome the stigma around them, and raise awareness in hopes that when the treatment is available, those needing help will seek it.

Our daily commute has a direct impact on our productivity and job satisfaction

Our daily commute can tell a lot about our productivity at work, according to new research.

Image via Pixabay.

New research at Dartmouth College showcases the importance our commute can have on our workday. The findings show how certain behavior and psychological patterns we exhibit during commuting can be used to accurately predict job performance and employee satisfaction levels throughout the day.

The results are based on a year-long monitoring period of commuting workers prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Start of the day

“Your commute predicts your day,” said Andrew Campbell, the Albert Bradley 1915 Third Century Professor of computer science at Dartmouth, lead researcher and co-author of the study. “This research demonstrates that mobile sensing is capable of identifying how travel to and from the office affects individual workers.”

Data for the study was recorded through the smartphones and fitness trackers of 275 workers over a one-year monitoring period. The participants’ states were also recorded for 30 minutes before and after commuting. Most of these individuals (around 95%) drove to and from work, the team reports. Participants were provided with Garmin vivoSmart 3 activity tracker and a smartphone-based sensing app.

These devices were used to record a range of factors including the levels of physical activity, phone usage, heart rates, and stress levels. This body of data could be used to accurately predict workers’ productivity and satisfaction, the authors explain. The research could also help us to raise workers’ quality of life and help them be more productive.

“We were able to build machine learning models to accurately predict job performance,” said Subigya Nepal a PhD student at Dartmouth and lead author of the paper. “The key was being able to objectively assess commuting stress along with the physiological reaction to the commuting experience.”

Each worker’s day was assessed using ‘counterproductive work behavior’ and ‘organizational citizenship behavior’, two recognized criteria of job performance. The first is behavior that harms an organization’s overall efficiency, while the latter is beneficial. The baselines for each of these behaviors were set through regular, self-reported questionnaires sent in by participants.

“Compared to low performers, high performers display greater consistency in the time they arrive and leave work,” said Pino Audia, a professor of Management and Organizations at the Tuck School of Business, a senior scientist on the study team, and a co-author of the study. “This dramatically reduces the negative impacts of commuting variability and suggests that the secret to high performance may lie in sticking to better routines.”

Apart from this, high-performers tended to show more psychological markers of physical fitness and stress resilience. Low-performers showed higher levels of stress before, during, and after the commutes, and tended to use their phone more during commutes.

This aligns well with previous research on the topic, the team explains. Such research found that stress, anxiety, and frustration felt by individuals during their commute can reduce their efficiency at work, increase levels of counterproductive work behavior, and lower their engagement with organizational citizenship behavior. However, the current study is the first to link commuting data directly with workplace performance.

“The insights from this proof-of-concept study demonstrate that this is an important area of research for future of work,” said Campbell, co-director of Dartmouth’s DartNets Lab.

The small percentage of participants who engaged in active commuting — such as walking to work — showcased that such forms of commuting are typically associated with increased productivity during the day. Additionally, the study also found that people tended to spend more time commuting back home than they do going to work in the morning.

In the future, the team hopes that their findings can be used as a basis for new technology aimed at detecting and lowering commuter stress. Such interventions could include an app that offers suggestions for short stops, music, or podcasts aimed at improving a commuter’s emotional state.

The paper “Predicting Job Performance Using Mobile Sensing” has been published in the journal IEEE Pervasive Computing.

Physical exercise is a reliable and accessible way to manage anxiety disorders

Moderate and intense physical exercise can significantly dampen anxiety, even in cases where it is caused by a chronic disorder, according to new research.

Image via Pixabay.

Exercise has been receiving a lot of attention from researchers interested in mental health. The positive effect physical exercise can have on those grappling with depression is well-known. However, the way it links with anxiety disorders is far less understood.

New research from the University of Gothenburg comes to improve our understanding of the interplay between these two factors. According to the findings, moderate and demanding physical exercise can alleviate the symptoms of anxiety even in the case of chronic disorders. These results give cause for hope for patients struggling with anxiety disorders around the world, offering an accessible (and healthy) option for them to self-manage what can quickly become a debilitating burden. It also reminds those who are not struggling with such disorders of the importance of keeping physically active not just for our bodies, but our minds as well.

Mens sana in corpore sano

“There was a significant intensity trend for improvement — that is, the more intensely [the participants] exercised, the more their anxiety symptoms improved,” states Malin Henriksson, doctoral student at Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg and the study’s first author.

The team worked with 286 persons with anxiety syndrome who were recruited from primary care services in Gothenburg and Halland County, Sweden. Their average age was 39, and 70% were women. Half of these participants had been diagnosed with anxiety syndrome for at least 10 years.

They were randomly assigned to group exercise sessions for 12 weeks, consisting of either moderate or strenuous activity. A control group was also used, and its members received advice on physical activity adhering to public health recommendations but were not placed in any of the exercise programs.

Exercise regimes consisted of one-hour training sessions three times per week with supervision from a physical therapist. They included both cardio and strength training. Each session included a warmup followed by a 45-minute training interval and a cooldown period. Intense training was defined as the participants reaching 75% of maximum heart rate during the sessions. Light and moderate exercise was defined as the participants reaching 60% of their maximum heart rate. These were confirmed using heart rate monitors.

Following the 12 week period, their anxiety symptoms were re-assessed. This revealed that their symptoms were lessened across the board, even in cases of chronic anxiety conditions. Most of the participants in the exercise groups went down from a baseline level of “high anxiety” to a “low anxiety” level following the study. Those who followed relatively low-intensity exercise regimes were 3.6 times more likely to see an improvement in their symptoms compared to controls. Those who exercised at a higher intensity were almost 5 times more likely to see improvements compared to controls.

The findings are important as this is one of the largest studies on the topic to date. They provide reliable evidence that physical exercise can be used alongside today’s standard treatments for anxiety — cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and psychotropic drugs — to help patients manage their symptoms. Some of the key advantages of this approach include it being accessible to the vast majority of patients and the lack of side effects, which are common with psychotropic drugs.

“Doctors in primary care need treatments that are individualized, have few side effects, and are easy to prescribe. The model involving 12 weeks of physical training, regardless of intensity, represents an effective treatment that should be made available in primary health care more often for people with anxiety issues,” says Maria Åberg, associate professor at the University of Gothenburg’s Sahlgrenska Academy and corresponding author of the study.

The paper “Effects of exercise on symptoms of anxiety in primary care patients: A randomized controlled trial” has been published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.