TAG: "Psychology"

Psychologists report new insights on human brain, consciousness


UCLA research is a step toward developing scientific definition of consciousness.

Martin Monti, UCLA

Martin Monti, UCLA

UCLA psychologists have used brain-imaging techniques to study what happens to the human brain when it slips into unconsciousness. Their research, published today (Oct. 17) in the online journal PLOS Computational Biology, is an initial step toward developing a scientific definition of consciousness.

“In terms of brain function, the difference between being conscious and unconscious is a bit like the difference between driving from Los Angeles to New York in a straight line versus having to cover the same route hopping on and off several buses that force you to take a ‘zig-zag’ route and stop in several places,” said lead study author Martin Monti, an assistant professor of psychology and neurosurgery at UCLA.

Monti and his colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study how the flow of information in the brains of 12 healthy volunteers changed as they lost consciousness under anesthesia with propofol. The participants ranged in age from 18 to 31 and were evenly divided between men and women.

Read more

CATEGORY: NewsComments Off

Lack of parental warmth, childhood abuse linked to health risks in adulthood


Study finds biological link for how negative early-life experiences affect physical health.

Teresa Seeman, UCLA

Teresa Seeman, UCLA

The effects of childhood abuse and a lack of parental affection can last a lifetime, taking a toll both emotionally and physically.

Many reports have assessed the psychological damage resulting from childhood abuse; the effects of such abuse on physical health have also been well documented. The “toxic” stress resulting from abuse has been linked to elevated cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome and other physical conditions that pose a significant health risk. But research into the physical effects of abuse has so far focused on separate, individual systems rather than on the body as a whole.

Now, a UCLA-led study examines for the first time the effects that abuse and a lack of parental affection have across the body’s entire regulatory system and finds a strong biological link for how these negative early-life experiences affect physical health. But the researchers also found that parental warmth can mitigate some the health impact of early abuse.

The study is published online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

“Our findings suggest that there may be a way to reduce the impact abuse has, at least in terms of physical health,” said Judith E. Carroll, a research scientist at the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA and lead author of the study. “If the child has love from parental figures, they may be more protected from the impact of the abuse on adult biological risk for health problems than those who don’t have that loving adult in their life.”

The researchers studied 756 adults who had participated in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study They measured 18 biological markers of health risk, including blood pressure, heart rate, stress hormones, cholesterol, waist circumference, inflammation and blood-sugar regulation. They added up participants’ risks across these markers to create a summary index called “allostatic load.” Values at the upper range across these markers indicated they were at higher biological risk for disease.

Previous research has shown that higher levels of allostatic load are associated with an increased likelihood of a negative health event, such as a heart attack or stroke, and with declines in physical or cognitive functioning.

To determine the study subjects’ childhood stress, the researchers used a well-validated self-report scale called the Risky Families Questionnaire.

They found a significant link between reports of childhood abuse and multisystem health risks. But those who suffered abuse and reported higher amounts of parental warmth and affection in childhood had lower multi-system health risks than abused individuals who didn’t experience such warmth and affection. Conversely, individuals reporting low levels of love and affection and high levels of abuse in childhood had the highest multi-system risk in adulthood.

The researchers suggest that toxic childhood stress alters neural responses to stress, boosting individuals’ emotional and physical arousal to threats and making it more difficult for that reaction to be shut off.

“Our findings highlight the extent to which these early childhood experiences are associated with evidence of increased biological risks across nearly all of the body’s major regulatory systems,” said the paper’s senior author, Teresa Seeman, a professor of medicine in the division of geriatrics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a professor of epidemiology at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health. “If we only look at individual biological parameters such as blood pressure or cholesterol, we would miss the fact that the early childhood experiences are related to a much broader set of biological risk indicators — suggesting the range of health risks that may result from such adverse childhood exposures.”

Read more

CATEGORY: NewsComments Off

Sleep deprivation linked to junk food cravings


UC Berkeley study sheds new light on the link between poor sleep and obesity.

Stack of cheeseburgersA sleepless night makes us more likely to reach for doughnuts or pizza than for whole grains and leafy green vegetables, suggests a new study from UC Berkeley that examines the brain regions that control food choices. The findings shed new light on the link between poor sleep and obesity.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), UC Berkeley researchers scanned the brains of 23 healthy young adults, first after a normal night’s sleep and next, after a sleepless night. They found impaired activity in the sleep-deprived brain’s frontal lobe, which governs complex decision-making, but increased activity in deeper brain centers that respond to rewards. Moreover, the participants favored unhealthy snack and junk foods when they were sleep deprived.

“What we have discovered is that high-level brain regions required for complex judgments and decisions become blunted by a lack of sleep, while more primal brain structures that control motivation and desire are amplified,” said Matthew Walker, a UC Berkeley professor of psychology and neuroscience and senior author of the study published today (Aug. 6) in the journal Nature Communications.

Moreover, he added, “high-calorie foods also became significantly more desirable when participants were sleep-deprived. This combination of altered brain activity and decision-making may help explain why people who sleep less also tend to be overweight or obese.”

Read more

CATEGORY: NewsComments Off

Your genes may thank you for being happy


But different types of happiness have different effects, UCLA study shows.

Steven Cole, UCLA

Steven Cole, UCLA

A good state of mind — that is, your happiness — affects your genes, scientists say. In the first study of its kind, researchers from UCLA’s Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology and the University of North Carolina examined how positive psychology impacts human gene expression.

What they found is that different types of happiness have surprisingly different effects on the human genome.

People who have high levels of what is known as eudaimonic well-being — the kind of happiness that comes from having a deep sense of purpose and meaning in life (think Mother Teresa) — showed very favorable gene-expression profiles in their immune cells. They had low levels of inflammatory gene expression and strong expression of antiviral and antibody genes.

However, people who had relatively high levels of hedonic well-being — the type of happiness that comes from consummatory self-gratification (think most celebrities) — actually showed just the opposite. They had an adverse expression profile involving high inflammation and low antiviral and antibody gene expression.

The report appears in the current online edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For the last 10 years, Steven Cole, a UCLA professor of medicine and a member of the UCLA Cousins Center, and his colleagues, including first author Barbara L. Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina, have been examining how the human genome responds to stress, misery, fear and all kinds of negative psychology.

In this study, though, the researchers asked how the human genome might respond to positive psychology. Is it just the opposite of stress and misery, or does positive well-being activate a different kind of gene expression program?

Read more

CATEGORY: NewsComments Off

Sleepless nights can turn lovers into fighters


UC Berkeley study finds bad sleep compromises couples’ ability to avoid, manage conflict.

Couple fightingRelationship problems can keep us awake at night. But new research from UC Berkeley suggests that sleepless nights also can worsen lovers’ fights.

UC Berkeley psychologists Amie Gordon and Serena Chen have found that people are much more likely to lash out at their romantic partners over relationship conflicts after a bad night’s sleep.

“Couples who fight more are less happy and less healthy,” said Gordon, a doctoral student in psychology and lead author of the study published online in the journal, Social Psychological and Personality Science.

“Our research helps illuminate one factor that leads couples to engage in unnecessary and harmful conflict by showing that couples experience more frequent and severe conflicts after sleepless nights,” she added.

While previous studies indicate that poor sleep has a negative impact on romantic relationships, these new findings shed more light on how bad sleep compromises couples’ ability to avoid and manage conflict, researchers said.

“For the first time, to our knowledge, we can see the process of how the nature, degree, and resolution of conflict are negatively impacted by poor sleep,” said Chen, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley.

Read more

CATEGORY: NewsComments Off

Scientists pinpoint how we see 95 mph baseball


Discovery advances understanding of how humans predict trajectory of moving objects.

If the brain didn’t compensate for our visual processing delay, we would get hit by balls and other moving objects.

How does San Francisco Giants slugger Pablo Sandoval swat a 95 mph fastball, or tennis icon Venus Williams see the oncoming ball, let alone return her sister Serena’s 120 mph serves? For the first time, vision scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have pinpointed how the brain tracks fast-moving objects.

The discovery advances our understanding of how humans predict the trajectory of moving objects when it can take one-tenth of a second for the brain to process what the eye sees.

That 100-millisecond holdup means that in real time, a tennis ball moving at 120 mph would have already advanced 15 feet before the brain registers the ball’s location. If our brains couldn’t make up for this visual processing delay, we’d be constantly hit by balls, cars and more.

Thankfully, the brain “pushes” forward moving objects so we perceive them as further along in their trajectory than the eye can see, researchers said.

“For the first time, we can see this sophisticated prediction mechanism at work in the human brain,” said Gerrit Maus, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at UC Berkeley and lead author of the paper published today in the journal, Neuron.

A clearer understanding of how the brain processes visual input – in this case life in motion – can eventually help in diagnosing and treating myriad disorders, including those that impair motion perception. People who cannot perceive motion cannot predict locations of objects and therefore cannot perform tasks as simple as pouring a cup of coffee or crossing a road, researchers said.

This study is also likely to have a major impact on other studies of the brain.  Its findings come just as the Obama Administration initiates its push to create a Brain Activity Map Initiative, which will further pave the way for scientists to create a roadmap of human brain circuits, as was done for the Human Genome Project.

Read more

CATEGORY: NewsComments Off

Daily stress takes a toll on long-term mental health


UC Irvine-led study explores cumulative effects of everyday negative emotional responses.

Susan Charles, UC Irvine

Susan Charles, UC Irvine

Our emotional responses to the stresses of daily life may predict our long-term mental health, according to a new study led by a UC Irvine psychologist. The research, which appears online in the journal Psychological Science, suggests that maintaining emotional balance is crucial to avoiding severe mental health problems down the road.

Susan Charles, UC Irvine professor of psychology & social behavior, and her colleagues conducted the study in order to answer a long-standing question: Do everyday irritations add up to make the straw that breaks the camel’s back, or do they make us stronger and “inoculate” us against later tribulations?

Using data from two national, longitudinal surveys, the researchers found that participants’ negative emotional responses to daily stressors – such as arguments with a spouse or partner, conflicts at work, standing in long lines or sitting in traffic – predicted psychological distress and self-reported anxiety/mood disorders 10 years later.

“How we manage daily emotions matters to our overall mental health,” Charles said. “We’re so focused on long-term goals that we don’t see the importance of regulating our emotions. Changing how you respond to stress and how you think about stressful situations is as important as maintaining a healthy diet and exercise routine.”

Read more

CATEGORY: NewsComments (1)

Meditation associated with lower stress hormone


Mindfulness helps control cortisol levels, finds Shamatha Project research.

Woman meditating next to pondFocusing on the present rather than letting the mind drift may help to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, suggests new research from the Shamatha Project at the University of California, Davis.

The ability to focus mental resources on immediate experience is an aspect of mindfulness, which can be improved by meditation training.

“This is the first study to show a direct relation between resting cortisol and scores on any type of mindfulness scale,” said Tonya Jacobs, a postdoctoral researcher at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain and first author of a paper describing the work, published this week in the journal Health Psychology.

High levels of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland, are associated with physical or emotional stress. Prolonged release of the hormone contributes to wide-ranging, adverse effects on a number of physiological systems.

The new findings are the latest to come from the Shamatha Project, a comprehensive long-term, control-group study of the effects of meditation training on mind and body.

Read more

CATEGORY: NewsComments Off

Computer as couples therapist?


Online program aimed at strengthening relationships.

Couple smiling and looking a laptop computerIf you communicate with friends online, pay bills online, listen to music online and post photos online, why not strengthen your marriage or relationship online too?

Andrew Christensen, a UCLA psychology professor who has worked with hundreds of couples over more than 30 years, and a colleague have designed a website called OurRelationship.com that allows you and your partner to do just that — for free and from the comfort of your own home.

“I’m very confident that couples with mild to moderate problems will benefit from it,” he said. “They may not live in bliss, but I’m very confident that our online program can strengthen marriages and reduce psychological problems in a very efficient, convenient and cost-effective way.”

“There will always be a need for one-to-one therapy, just as there will always be a need for bypass surgery and heart transplants — but there is also a need to help people, with diet and exercise, reduce the likelihood that they will need heart transplants and bypass surgery. That analogy applies here too, but we’re not trying to over-sell it; this won’t solve every problem.”

While face-to-face therapy can be lengthy and expensive, the new website-based couples program is designed to take only six hours for each person, said Christensen, who in addition to his own therapeutic work has trained and supervised many other psychologists in conducting couples therapy.

“Our goal is to keep OurRelationship.com free so we can help as many people as possible,” he said. “We want to make couple interventions much more broadly available and not so time-consuming. I would like for couples not to have to go to a therapist’s office once a week.”

Read more

CATEGORY: NewsComments Off

Emotional-health connection not limited to industrialized nations


UC Irvine study finds phenomenon more marked in developing countries.

Sarah Pressman, UC Irvine

Positive emotions are known to play a role in physical well-being, and stress is strongly linked to poor health, but is this strictly a “First World” phenomenon? In developing nations, is the fulfillment of basic needs more critical to health than how one feels? A UC Irvine researcher has found that emotions do affect health around the world and may, in fact, be more important to wellness in low-income countries.

The study, which appears online in Psychological Science, is the first to examine the emotion-health connection in a representative sample of 150,000 people in 142 countries. Previous research on the topic has been limited to industrialized nations.

“We wondered whether the fact that emotions make a difference in our health is simply because we have the luxury of letting them,” said Sarah Pressman, assistant professor of psychology & social behavior and the study’s lead author. “We wanted to assess the impact of emotions on health in places where people face famine, homelessness and serious safety concerns that might be more critical correlates of wellness.”

Against expectations, researchers found that the link between positive emotions (enjoyment, love, happiness) and health is stronger in countries with a weaker gross domestic product. In fact, the association increased as GDP decreased, according to Pressman.

People in Malawi, which has a per capita GDP of $900, show a more robust connection between positive emotions and health than residents of the U.S., which has a per capita GDP of $49,800.

“A hostile American with hypertension can take blood pressure-lowering medication. A Malawian cannot,” Pressman said. “Medical interventions might lower the impact of emotions on health.”

Using data from the Gallup World Poll, researchers noted whether participants had reported experiencing enjoyment, love, happiness, worry, sadness, stress, boredom, depression or anger during the previous day. They also measured physical health and the degree to which subjects’ basic needs were met. Security was assessed by asking if participants felt safe walking alone at night or whether they had been robbed, assaulted or mugged.

“We hope that by showing that this phenomenon is prevalent and stronger than some factors considered critical to wellness, more attention will be drawn to the importance of studying both positive and negative emotions,” Pressman said.

She co-authored the study with Shane Lopez of the Gallup Organization and Matthew Gallagher of Boston University.

View original article

CATEGORY: NewsComments Off

Psychological sciences grad group provides diverse research opportunities


Fast-growing Ph.D. program is one of the largest at UC Merced.

Kristynn Sullivan, UC Merced

Graduate students Kristynn Sullivan and Chris Fradkin took distinctly different routes to UC Merced.

Sullivan left northern Virginia for the University of California’s newest campus after completing a bachelor’s degree in psychology at University of Mary Washington. Fradkin built a successful career in Southern California before relocating to UC Merced.

Today, both are pursuing doctorates in the Psychological Sciences Graduate Group at the university. With 26 students and three specialty areas, the fast-growing Ph.D. program or graduate group is one of the largest on campus. Sullivan is pursuing quantitative psychology while Fradkin is studying health psychology.

Jan Wallander, professor of psychological sciences and chair of the graduate group, said the high-level program prepares students to become independent researchers and scientists. Students are matched with faculty mentors and also often work with each other.

Both Sullivan and Fradkin say they appreciate the faculty, research opportunities and atmosphere at UC Merced.

“I really liked the idea of coming to a small school that was in its growth state,” said Sullivan, who is working toward a Ph.D in quantitative psychology. “The individualized attention has been great.”

Sullivan considered universities across the country before choosing UC Merced. She liked the faculty and program — and the stark contrast between a new, cutting-edge campus and the more than 100-year-old university she attended in Virginia.

Quantitative psychology deals with finding the best research methodology or statistics to apply to a question or issue. Sullivan concentrates on statistical analyses for evidence-based practice and also is working on a model allowing for analysis of nonlinear trends and data.

Outside the program, Sullivan serves as president of the Graduate Student Association. Officers serve on campus committees and focus on the academic experience and other issues important to graduate students.

Sullivan aims to finish her doctorate in 2014 and perhaps pursue a research career, or combine teaching and research on a university campus.

Chris Fradkin, UC Merced

Fradkin’s research centers on obesity risk in early adolescents and the factors — such as race and socioeconomic status —that might influence that risk.

Some findings may challenge the presumption that children in better-educated and higher-income families are at lower risk for obesity. The notion of the “social gradient” as applied to weight applies to some racial/ethnic groups, but not to all, Fradkin said.

He is working with data from Houston, Los Angeles and Birmingham, Ala., but hopes his findings will generalize to the larger population. In addition to socioeconomic status, there are a number of other contributing factors that need more study, he said.

Fradkin has been published in several peer-review journals and has given many presentations. For the second time, he’ll speak this summer in London at a conference on child and adolescent psychopathology.

After completing a doctorate in health psychology — by the end of 2013, he hopes — Fradkin plans to continue to perform research and teach.

UC Merced is the latest chapter the colorful life of Fradkin, a songwriter now in his 50s. Artists such as Fergie, the Plimsouls (“A Million Miles Away”) and British blues legend Alexis Korner have performed and recorded his songs.

He also won an Emmy for sound effects editing on television’s “The X Files.”

Fradkin returned to college in 2006, first enrolling in a Spanish class and then deciding to pursue an undergraduate degree. He started at Los Angeles Valley College before transferring to California State University, Northridge, where he earned a bachelor’s in psychology.

A doctorate was his next goal — along with a change of scenery. He applied to several graduate programs, and stopped in 2008 to check out Merced while driving to his daughter’s graduation in Reno.

He liked what he saw, including a used bookstore and a restaurant with a good lunch special. The warm nature of his new hometown is an ongoing bonus.

“That’s the norm here,” Fradkin said.

View original article

CATEGORY: NewsComments Off

Drug could aid treatment of anxiety disorders


UCLA researchers explore new use for scopolamine.

Michael Fanselow, UCLA

The drug scopolamine has been used to treat a variety of conditions, including nausea and motion sickness. A new study by UCLA life scientists suggests that it may also be useful in treating anxiety disorders.

Researchers found that the drug can help boost the effectiveness of a common treatment for anxiety disorders known as exposure therapy. In exposure therapy, a subject with a phobia or anxiety is repeatedly exposed to the object or situation they fear, in a non-threatening setting. The goal of this treatment is to ultimately lessen and eliminate the fear — in essence, make it “extinct.”

However, fear-extinction memories formed during this type of therapy tend to be weak because they are tied to the non-dangerous context. Subjects have a tendency to relapse when they again encounter the source of their anxiety in a different environment.

“Extinction has one Achilles heel that at present has not quite been pierced — namely, extinction learning is highly dependent on the environment or context in which it occurs,” said Michael Fanselow, a UCLA professor of psychology and the senior author of the study. “This makes memories formed during extinction highly fragile and susceptible to fear-recovery or relapse in any non-extinction environment.”

Read more

CATEGORY: NewsComments Off