Research Roundup

Tracing pathways to aggression

What if a simple reprimand—say from a teacher for talking out of turn—triggered not mild embarrassment but the fight-or-flight response typically reserved for truly threatening situations? That may be what happens in the brains of some aggressive boys, according to data from a study led by San Diego State University senior undergraduate psychology student Lacy Olson.

She started working on the project during her sophomore year when psychiatrist Guido K.W. Frank, MD, then at the University of California, San Diego, invited her to help him examine brain activation in aggressive boys using fMRI. The study focuses on boys who exhibit reactive-affective-defensive-impulsive behavior (RADI), which leads them to frequently misinterpret their surroundings, feel threatened and, in reaction, act inappropriately aggressive, says Olson.

So far, Olson has completed scans on five RADI boys between 13 and 17 and a control group of nine boys. Her findings show that the aggressive boys are more impulsive and process potentially threatening cues differently than the other boys. In particular, the aggressive boys showed over-activation in the amygdala—the area of the brain known to regulate emotional responses—when viewing angry and threatening faces compared with when they viewed neutral faces. In addition, during a task that tested impulsivity, the aggressive boys showed less activation than the healthy boys in brain areas responsible for decision-making and behavior control.

"We think that when an aggressive individual encounters something that would normally not be threatening, like a teacher reprimanding him, he perceives it as a threat," says Olson. "That message is then sent to the amygdala, which triggers a fight reaction, and he reacts aggressively."

Olson hopes to bolster these findings by recruiting enough participants to have at least 12 in each group before she graduates in May. Meanwhile, Frank plans to scan aggressive boys before and after behavioral treatment to see if there's any change at the physiological level.

Natural views for healthy hearts

Viewing nature by proxy—on your computer or television—may be a poor substitute for the real thing, finds research by University of Washington psychology graduate student Rachel Severson.

In collaboration with psychologist Peter Kahn, PhD, Severson had 90 participants sit in an office and complete several tasks, such as proofreading and creating clever names for ambiguous drawings. During the tasks, 30 participants viewed, through the office window, a nature scene that included a public fountain surrounded by trees and grass; another 30 participants saw the same scene displayed in real-time on a plasma screen, and the last 30 looked at a blank wall.

Each time the researchers gave instructions for the various tasks, the participants' heart rates increased slightly. However, heart rates returned to normal most quickly in people looking out the window. In fact, people looking at the real-time digital image of the nature scene recovered no faster than people looking at the blank wall.

"This study shows that viewing nature can have physiological benefits, and there are limitations to technological representations of nature," says Severson.

Another reason to put down the phone

Want to get some serious work done? Forward your calls to voicemail, according to fifth-year Rutgers University psychology graduate student Jason Glushakow, whose research finds that phone calls, more than instant messages or in-person interruptions, hinder workers' performance on complex tasks.

For his master's thesis, Glushakow gave 73 undergraduates a typical human resources payroll task. They had 10 minutes to calculate hours and pay from a stack of time cards. In the middle of the task, someone working with Glushakow interrupted half of the study participants with a benefits question either in person, on the phone or through an instant message. Study participants had to address the question before continuing their work. The other half completed the task without interruption and then received the same question in person, by phone or by instant message.

Glushakow judged performance on the payroll task based on how many mistakes people made and how many payroll forms they got through in the allotted time, subtracting the time used to handle any interruption. In general, interrupted participants were slower and less accurate than those who worked interruption-free, says Glushakow. However, those who received a phone call fared worst of all.

It's not what Glushakow or his colleagues expected. Because face-to-face interactions are so much richer than either of the other two—involving all the senses—they assumed it would prove most distracting.

"It may be that there's something so unique about hearing a person, but not seeing him or her, that it's more distracting," he says.

Saving children from sexual exploitation

In certain parts of Oakland, Calif., pimps sit outside foster-care group homes and recruit children as young as 10 and 11 to work as prostitutes, says third-year Pacific Graduate School of Psychology student Siobhan Budwey. These same children often wind up in the criminal justice system, where they're treated more like criminals than the sexually exploited youth they are, she says.

Budwey hopes to change that treatment with a series of studies—conducted with the help of her adviser, Allison M. P. Briscoe-Smith, PhD—that aim to find out more about the challenges these children and adolescents face. The first of these studies found that sexually exploited foster youth have a far higher rate of mental illness than nonexploited foster children.

For the study, Budwey and her colleagues analyzed information obtained from the files of 1,278 children involved in a foster care mental health program in California between 2005 and 2006. Of the 5.9 percent of those youth who engaged in prostitution—all in this sample were girls—almost half had been diagnosed with a psychological disorder, compared with only 22 percent of foster children who had not been prostituted. In addition, 36 percent of the sexually exploited girls showed signs of a mood disorder, while only 12 percent of the other foster children did.

"We're finding that these sexually exploited youth are separate from other foster youth," says Budwey. "They may have more severe mental health needs because of the prostitution, which means we need to change the way we look at these girls."

In particular, Budwey hopes that her research will help police see these kids more as victims than criminals, and will give advocacy groups fodder to fight for more funding.

To that end, Budwey is analyzing data from a service agency that includes the age at which foster youth started prostituting, the reasons why, whether they've ever been hospitalized, and whether they're using illegal substances.

Sexually exploited foster youth may have an elevated risk for mental illness, Budwey notes.

By Beth Azar

Beth Azar is a writer in Portland, Ore.