Food for thought
McDonald's may be encouraging children to be active by putting Ronald McDonald on a skateboard in its ads, but Yale University's Kelly Brownell, PhD, questions whether that's really a step toward healthier children.
"McDonald's is held out as encouraging children to be active, but perhaps it helps give McDonald's a healthy image so parents take their children more," says Brownell, a leader in the fight against obesity and a plenary speaker at APA's Annual Convention. "These companies have a major stake in recruiting and maintaining children as customers."
And since there's inadequate science on best ways to promote nutrition, it's hard to evaluate such efforts, says Brownell, director of Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
As behavior experts, psychologists can help combat obesity by beefing up research in such areas as food's addictive powers, marketing to children and how economics affects food choice, says Brownell, who will discuss these and other factors he believes are driving obesity and poor nutrition.
"The fundamental economics of food are the reverse of what they should be--healthy food costs more than unhealthy food," says Brownell. "How can that be reversed? Psychology can make a difference in this."
Mindfulness may sound quick and easy or like a new fad. However, researcher and author Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, a speaker at APA's 2008 Annual Convention, wants psychologists to know that mindfulness, rooted in centuries of Buddhist practice, is a discipline that can have profound effects on the mind and body, having positive effects on conditions as diverse as depression, anxiety, psoriasis and prostate cancer.
The process of integrating mindfulness into modern health care and psychology began with Kabat-Zinn, colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and pain patients. The team trained patients to cultivate the practice through daily meditation. They found that with these lessons in mindfulness, a nonjudgmental awareness of the mind, body and environment, patients could modulate their reactions to stress and better cope with chronic pain.
At his session, Kabat-Zinn will discuss the practice and how researchers continue to find applications. He hopes to convey a sense of its transformative nature.
"Mindfulness is not just one more thing to throw into your therapy bag, but an entirely different way of seeing human beings."
Throughout the last decade, geneticists have made enormous advances in sequencing and identifying genes, but they will need psychologists' help to make sense of that information, says University of Minnesota psychology professor Irving Gottesman, PhD, a behavioral genetics pioneer who will bring his message to APA's 2008 Annual Convention.
The biotech industry has come up with chips that can actually measure 1 million DNA variations that occur at the level of a single nucleotide at a time, says Gottesman. "That leaves them proud of themselves, but they are also drowning in data."
Psychologists can help cross-disciplinary teams by finding what Gottesman has termed "endophenotypes," middle steps between genetic mutations and full-blown mental illness. For example, research by Gottesman and others has found that deficits in working memory are common among people with schizophrenia as well as their healthy family members. These deficits may be caused by specific genetic mutations and, in combination with other factors, could make people more vulnerable to schizophrenia. Such research will be crucial to future advances in understanding and treating mental disorders, says Gottesman. "Genetics is a friend ... to further progress in understanding human behavior," he says.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have placed nearly 2 million American service members at risk for developing psychological injuries, and treating these veterans will influence the trauma field for generations, says Boston University psychologist Terence M. Keane, PhD, who will discuss new cognitive behavioral treatment models for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at APA's 2008 Annual Convention.
Keane, director of the behavioral science division of the Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD, developed one of the first proven treatments for PTSD--prolonged-exposure therapy--in the 1980s. In the same way that psychologists' experiences with Vietnam War veterans led the way for the treatment of psychological trauma among victims of sexual assault, disasters and automobile accidents, Keane hopes that continuing research on PTSD and the lessons learned from current conflicts will ultimately improve the health of patients exposed to traumatic events of all kinds.
"Our work today will yield benefits that will go far beyond [this] cohort of veterans," Keane says. "It will influence care worldwide for people with exposure to trauma events."
Four experts will report on the latest research in predicting the risk of violence on campuses, how to prevent it and how to help victims in its aftermath at a two-hour plenary session during APA's Annual Convention.
Dorothy Espelage, PhD, of the University of Illinois, who will discuss the different pathways that can lead to violent behavior in a variety of contexts, such as violence witnessed in the home or community.
Michael J. Furlong, PhD, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, who will describe some of the more effective school programs that teach children to nonviolently resolve conflicts and change beliefs about the acceptability of violence.
Christopher Flynn, PhD, and Russell Jones, PhD, of Virginia Tech, who provided leadership to their campus community in the wake of the April 2007 shootings that killed 32 people.
Session chair Elizabeth Vera, PhD, of Loyola University in Chicago, says the session will include a discussion between audience members and panelists about real-life situations psychologists and counselors face.
"Certainly, if there are psychologists dealing with what can be done about specific situations, we'd like to have our experts respond to those questions," Vera says.
When a client isn't improving, psychologists come to Boston University's Michael Otto, PhD, who develops treatments for people with particularly intractable mental health problems.
Otto's specialty is developing practices that enhance existing treatments. He focuses on elementary aspects of therapy, such as making sure a therapist's sessions are sensitive to the context of a client's problems, as well as basic pharmacological phenomena.
"I work with elements of treatment that are broad enough to apply to a range of disorders," says Otto, whose plenary talk at APA's Annual Convention centers on making treatments as efficient as possible.
Right now, he's excited about a treatment that combines pharmacotherapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy and could help prevent extinction learning--the gradual decrease in response to treatment. It turns out an antibiotic, d-cycloserine, can block out extinction learning. In some cases, it helps clients who've never responded to treatment at all.
"At first I thought, 'No way, it can't be this good,'" recalls Otto, who directs BU's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders. "I had to do some of the research myself."
After a trial with people with anxiety disorders, and with two more trials under way for people with post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse disorders, the results look promising.
"If this [effect] is confirmed, it has some very exciting possibilities for practitioners," he says.
--By Monitor Staff