Tag Archives: Mental

Growing CO2 emissions could alter human cognition

From fossil fuel production to extensive agriculture, human activities are increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to levels unprecedented in history. The global average amount of carbon dioxide hit a new record high in 2019, with 414 parts per million (ppm).

Credit Wikipedia Commons

This is causing a wide array of consequences, including alterations to our basic decision-making ability and complex strategic thinking, according to a new study, which warned people could be exposed to indoor CO2 levels up to 1400 parts per million by the end of the century.

“It’s amazing how high CO2 levels get in enclosed spaces,” said in a statement Kris Karnauskas, lead-author. “It affects everybody — from little kids packed into classrooms to scientists, business people and decision makers to regular folks in their houses and apartments.”

When we breathe air with high CO2 levels, the CO2 levels in our blood rise, reducing the amount of oxygen that reaches our brains. This can increase sleepiness, anxiety, and impair cognitive function, previous studies showed. Building ventilation can help but not always if there are too many people.

In general, CO2 concentrations are higher indoors than outdoors, the authors wrote. And outdoor CO2 in urban areas is higher than in pristine locations. The CO2 concentrations in buildings are a result of both the gas that is otherwise in equilibrium with outdoor conditions, as well as the CO2 generated by building occupants as they exhale.

In the ongoing scenario — in which people on Earth do not reduce greenhouse gas emissions — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts outdoor CO2 levels could rise to 930 ppm by 2100. Urban areas typically have around 100 ppm higher CO2 levels than this background value.

The researchers created an approach that considers predicted future outdoor CO2 concentrations and the impact of localized urban emission. They found that if the outdoor CO2 concentrations do rise to 930 ppm, that would nudge the indoor concentrations to a harmful level of 1400 ppm.

“At this level, some studies have demonstrated compelling evidence for significant cognitive impairment,” said Anna Schapiro, coauthor. “Though the literature contains some conflicting findings, it appears that high level cognitive domains like decision-making and planning are especially susceptible to increasing CO2 concentrations.”

The study found that CO2 concentrations may cut our basic decision-making ability by 25% and complex strategic thinking by around 50% in a 1400 ppm scenario. The cognitive impacts of rising CO2 levels represent what scientists call a “direct” effect of the gas’ concentration, much like ocean acidification.

There may be ways to adapt to higher indoor CO2 levels, the researchers argued. Nevertheless, the best way to prevent levels from reaching harmful levels is to reduce fossil fuel emissions. This would require further climate action, as stipulated in the Paris Agreement.

The study was published in the journal Advancing Earth and Space Science.

Your hairs hide secrets — some subsets of schizophrenia can be detected by biomarkers in our hair

A certain subtype of schizophrenia could be diagnosed based on biomarkers in a patient’s hair, a new study found.

Image credits Ryan McGuire.

The team at the RIKEN Center for Brain Science (CBS) in Japan reports that a certain subtype of schizophrenia is related to very high levels of hydrogen sulfide in the brain. This mutation, caused by a DNA-modifying reaction during development, can also be detected by analyzing biomarkers in a patient’s hair.

A headful of markers

“Nobody has ever thought about a causal link between hydrogen sulfide and schizophrenia,” says team leader Takeo Yoshikawa, the paper’s corresponding author.

“Once we discovered this, we had to figure out how it happens and if these findings in mice would hold true for people with schizophrenia.”

The best way to diagnose a condition is to have a reliable, objective marker you can look for or compare a patient against. For schizophrenia, the most reliable such marker in use is an abnormal startle response test (the link between schizophrenia and abnormal startle responses has been documented since around 30 years ago).

Humans aren’t normally startled by a random burst of noise if it’s preceded by a smaller one — this latter one is called a prepulse. The whole phenomenon is known as prepulse inhibition (PPI); in people with schizophrenia, PPI is lowered, meaning such patients don’t experience a dampened startle response after the prepulse (or experience much lower dampening than normal). Because it’s pretty reliable and consistent, the PPI test is a strong tool used in diagnosing schizophrenia, even if it doesn’t tell us very much about the biology behind the condition.

The RIKEN CBS team set out to look for differences in protein expression between strains of mice that had either very low or very high PPI. They found that one protein (Mpst) was expressed much more in the brains of mice with low PPI than in those with high PPI. Knowing that this enzyme is involved in the synthesis of hydrogen sulfide, the team measured the concentration of this compound in the hairs of low-PPI mice — they found elevated levels.

To validate the findings so far, the team engineered some of the low-PPI mice in order to reduce the expression of the MPST gene (which governs the Mpst protein) — this helped make the mice behave more closely like their healthy kin. Next, the team established that MPST gene expression was higher (postmortem) in the brains of people with schizophrenia compared to healthy controls. The level of MPST protein seen in the brains also correlated well with the severity of the symptoms each patient experienced, they add.

After establishing that MPST expression can be used as a biomarker for schizophrenia, the team examined hair follicles from over 150 schizophrenia patients. The findings so far held firm: all of them had much higher expression of MPST mRNA than people without the condition. The results weren’t perfect, the team explains — which indicates that sulfide stress does not account for all cases of schizophrenia — but they did show that MPST levels in hair are a reliable biomarker for the disease, and can be tested before other symptoms become apparent.

Testing on postmortem mice’s brains showed that the high MPST levels were associated with changes in DNA that lead to permanently altered gene expression. The team hypothesized that inflammatory stress during early development might be the root cause (hydrogen sulfide can protect against inflammatory stress).

“We found that anti-oxidative markers—including the production of hydrogen sulfide—that compensate against oxidative stress and neuroinflammation during brain development were correlated with MPST levels in the brains of people with schizophrenia,” says Yoshikawa.

“Currently, about 30 percent of patients with schizophrenia are resistant to dopamine D2-receptor antagonist therapy. Our results provide a new principle or paradigm for designing drugs, and we are currently testing whether inhibiting the synthesis of hydrogen sulfide can alleviate symptoms in mouse models of schizophrenia.”

The paper “Excess hydrogen sulfide and polysulfides production underlies a schizophrenia pathophysiology” has been published in the journal EMBO Molecular Medicine.


New app could bring cognitive therapy to your pocket

Researchers at the McLean Hospital are working to make it so that individuals with anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions receive on-demand cognitive bias modification for interpretation (CBM-I) through a simple app. It is a way to change mental habits without visiting a therapist.


Image credits Jan Vašek.

CBM-I is a class of interventions that are used to shift an individual’s perception of certain situations. In effect, it plays on our own perception biases, which are linked to several different types of mental disorders. The team behind this study analyzed the viability of combining CBM-I with cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) for the treatment of psychiatric disorders and whether or not this approach can be used outside a hospital setting.

We have an app for that

“CBM-I tries to address […] a mental habit that is implicated in many mental disorders,” says Courtney Beard, Ph.D., director of McLean’s Cognition and Affect Research and Education (CARE) Laboratory and lead author of the paper. It is comprised of “a class of interventions designed to shift people’s interpretations of ambiguous situations in either a more positive or more negative way.”

One of the approaches involved in CBM-I treatments is presenting patients with a series of word association questions regarding everyday scenarios. For example, a patient could be presented with a conversation in which one person was yawning, then asked if that individual was “tired” or “bored”. If they pick “tired”, they are told they are correct; if they say “bored,” they are told they’re incorrect. Through repetition, this type of CBM-I therapy helps the person reframe or reassess these daily ambiguous situations.

“People face countless interactions like this every day in their lives,” Beard said. “If you have a tendency to jump to a threatening or negative conclusion, it can have a huge impact on how you’re feeling and on what you do and how you react. You can get stuck in a cycle that can maintain anxiety or depression.”

For their study, Beard and her colleagues implemented and mixed the two treatment types together in a partial hospital setting. They presented patients with word-sentence associations that encouraged patients to endorse positive interpretations and reject negative interpretations. The results showed that CBM-I was well received by acute psychiatric patients and that it improved their response to treatment. Many of the patients, the team explains, stated that CBM-I helped bolster their primary (CBT-based) care. The word association exercises also helped the patients reframe (and thus better manage) negative situations.

Based on these results, Beard and her team are moving forward with a National Institute of Mental Health-backed study to develop a smartphone version of the treatment.

“With the smartphone app, we can offer CBM-I to many more people at one time,” Beard said. “They can practice new skills, create healthy mental habits, and stop automatically jumping to negative conclusions. And they can do it on demand.”

This app could be particularly helpful for people who have just been discharged from a treatment program, she adds.

“They can use it during the month transition period after they leave the hospital, which is a risky and challenging time for them,” she said. “It quickly shows people what their brain is doing. The patient sees hundreds of situations in a short amount of time.”

“So, they see how often they jumped to a negative conclusion, and that can be very powerful. It’s kind of like cognitive therapy in your pocket — but a little different and a lot faster,” she concludes.

The paper “Translating CBM-I Into Real-World Settings: Augmenting a CBT-Based Psychiatric Hospital Program” has been published in the journal Behavior Therapy.

Central Park.

Go to the park, it’s good for you — and makes you happier

New research shows that a 20-minute long visit to the park can make you happier, whether you exercise or not.

Central Park.

Image via Pixabay.

A team of researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Occupational Therapy says that urban parks are great for our emotional and mental wellbeing. Visiting an urban park for as little as 20 minutes will make you feel happier, they say, no matter what you do during that time.

Parking space for your stress

“Overall, we found park visitors reported an improvement in emotional well-being after the park visit,” says main author Hon K. Yuen. “However, we did not find levels of physical activity are related to improved emotional well-being. Instead, we found time spent in the park is related to improved emotional well-being.”

The study points to urban parks as key neighborhood elements, providing residents with the opportunity to enjoy nature and engage in physical activity. Contact with nature and health-promoting and/or social and recreational activities in parks let people reap benefits such as stress reduction and recovery from mental fatigue.

Data for the study was recorded in three urban parks — Overton, Jemison, and Cahaba River Walk Parks — in Mountain Brook, Alabama. These three parks were selected as they were the main three public parks in the town and saw a large volume of visitors each day. The team collected feedback from 98 park visitors, although four reported twice during the study and their second responses were excluded — thus, the team worked with data from 94 participant testimonies.

The findings suggest that everybody can benefit from some park-time. You don’t need to be physically active during your time there, so individuals can gain the health benefits of spending time in an urban park regardless of any disability or limitation they may be struggling with.

Yuen says that the study definitely has its limitations — these include the lack of objective data (as it was self-reported) pertaining to the visit’s effect on health and emotional well-being, and the study’s limited scope, both in number of participants and geographic spread. Still, the findings are exciting, he says, and point to the need for more urban parks and better conservation work on those already in place.

“There is increasing pressure on green space within urban settings,” said Jenkins. “Planners and developers look to replace green space with residential and commercial property. The challenge facing cities is that there is an increasing evidence about the value of city parks but we continue to see the demise of theses spaces.”

The paper “Factors associated with changes in subjective well-being immediately after urban park visit” has been published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research.


Engaging in cultural activities can stave off depression in old age

Hit the movies when you’re feeling down, or go to the theater. It’ll help.


Image via Pixabay.

Regularly attending cultural events can help fight depression as we age, a new study reports. The researchers showed that older people can cut their risk of developing depression by 32% simply by attending cultural activities once every few months. The more you do it, the better it works, too: people attending at least one such event per month lowered their risk of developing depression by 48%.

Culturally fit

The results come from a decade-long study that looked at the relationship between cultural engagement — plays, movies, concerts, and museum exhibits — and the risk of developing depression. That study, the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), followed roughly 2,000 men and women, all from England and over the age of 50, for 10 years.

The ELSA used interviews and surveys to gauge both depression incidence and the frequency with which study participants attended the theater, concerts, the opera, movies, art galleries and/or museums.

The present study’s lead author, Daisy Fancourt of University College London, suggested that there are probably many positive “side effects” generated by cultural participation, all of which seem to tone down the risk of developing depression.

“For example, going to concerts or the theater gets people out of the house,” she said, “which reduces sedentary behaviors and encourages gentle physical activity, which is protective against depression,” Fancourt explains.

“It also provides social engagement, reducing social isolation and loneliness. Engaging with the arts is stress-reducing, associated with lower stress hormones such as cortisol, and also lower inflammation, which is itself associated with depression.”

These activities are mentally-stimulating, which makes them useful for reducing the risk of depression, but also help prevent cognitive decline as we age. By stimulating the mind, evoking positive feelings, and creating opportunities for social interaction, such activities help enhance overall mental health. Fancourt adds that cultural engagement can also help trigger the release of dopamine — often called the “feel good” neurotransmitter

On the whole, the end result is likely not only a lower risk for depression but also lower risk for dementia, chronic pain, and even premature death, she concludes.

“So in the same way we have a ‘five-a-day’ [recommendation] for fruit and vegetable consumption, regular engagement in arts and cultural activities could be planned into our lives to support healthy aging,” she advised.

It has to be noted that the paper spotted an association, not a robust cause-and-effect relationship. Still, the results held true for all participants, regardless of age, gender, health, income, educational background, relationships with family and friends, participation in non-arts related social groups, or their exercise habits (or lack of). The results even held apparently for those with a predisposition to depression.

So why not book a ticket to a nearby play? It will help gently set you back into motion after the holidays (and all the food) and might just stave off depression in your later years. Win-win.

The paper “Cultural engagement and incident depression in older adults: evidence from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing” has been published in The British Journal of Psychiatry.

Mason statue.

Millennials demand perfection from themselves and each other, hurting their mental health

Perfectionism is on the rise, but that isn’t good news. College students today are significantly more driven to achieve perfection in all they do compared to those in previous generations, according to a new paper, which could end up eating away at their physical and mental health.

Mason statue.

Image credits Henryk Niestrój.

If I had a dollar for every time someone cited “because I’m such a perfectionist” as the thing holding them back from a certain passion or goal, I’d be rich enough to live the perfect life I so crave. According to a new paper lead-authored by Thomas Curran, PhD at the University of Bath and co-authored by Andrew Hill, PhD at the York St John University, there’s a simple explanation for this — younger generations are simply more demanding of themselves than those before.

But don’t bring out the “#1” banners just yet, because this isn’t good news. The team defined perfectionism as “an irrational desire to achieve along with being overly critical of oneself and others”. The strain of these high (and often unrealistic) expectations we yoke ourselves with might have very damaging consequences for our health and well-being in the long term.

Perfectly imperfect

According to the team, this is the first effort to look into “group generational differences in perfectionism”. The team worked with 164 samples supplemented with data from 41,641 American, Canadian, and British students who took the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale test between the late 1980s and 2016. The researchers looked for three types of perfectionism: self-oriented (an irrational desire to be perfect), socially-prescribed (perceiving excessive expectations from others), and other-oriented (placing unrealistic standards on others).

Overall, the researcher duo found that more recent generations of college students reported significantly higher levels than previous generations on each and every form of perfectionism. Between 1989 and 2016, the team reports self-oriented perfectionism rose by 10%, socially-prescribed by 33%, and other-oriented by 16%.

“These findings suggest that recent generations of college students have higher expectations of themselves and others than previous generations,” said Curran. “Today’s young people are competing with each other in order to meet societal pressures to succeed and they feel that perfectionism is necessary in order to feel safe, socially connected and of worth.”

Curran believes it’s not a single factor that powered this rise, rather several acting at once. Among these, he cites the use of social media. It’s not conclusive, he says, but raw data suggests social media puts young adults in a state of permanent comparison to their peers — which ultimately makes them dissatisfied with themselves, their bodies, lifestyle, anything really, since people fake it a lot on social media. Ultimately, this inability to rise up to the (unrealistic) standards we see pushes people deeper into social isolation (since they perceive themselves as failures). Again, that’s a hypothesis and more research will be needed to confirm or infirm it.

Another example Curran cites is college students’ drive to perfect their grade point averages and compare them with peers. The drive to earn money, pressure to get a good education, and setting lofty career goals, are other areas in which today’s young generation exhibit perfectionism.

m&m sorting.

That and an overpowering urge to sort M&M’s.
Image via RebelCircus.

Curran believes these examples showcase a rise in meritocracy among millennials, especially powered by universities which encourage competition among their students to move up the social and economic ladder. Approximately half of high school seniors expected to earn a college degree in 1976, but by 2008 that number had risen to over 80%. However, the percentage of those actually earning a degree hasn’t kept pace — the gap between high school seniors expecting to earn a degree and those with a degree doubled between 1976 and 2000 and has continued to rise since, the authors note.

“Meritocracy places a strong need for young people to strive, perform and achieve in modern life,” said Curran.

“Young people are responding by reporting increasingly unrealistic educational and professional expectations for themselves. As a result, perfectionism is rising among millennials.”

According to Hill, this increase in perfectionism may be negatively impacting the psychological health of students, noting the higher levels of depression, anxiety, and suicidal in students compared to a decade ago. The authors recommend that schools and policymakers stop fostering competition among younger generations in an effort to preserve their good mental health.

The paper “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016” has been published in the journal Psychological Bulletin.