In Brief

  • Beating childhood cancer is hardly the end of the battle for children, according to research by Leah Ellenberg, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles, in the November Neuropsychology (Vol. 23, No. 6). She found that childhood brain cancer survivors are more likely than their siblings or older cancer survivors to experience cognitive dysfunction in areas such as memory, organization and emotion regulation later in life. The most serious problems were found in children who had motor or sensory problems immediately after treatment, those whose brains were treated with radiation and those whose tumors were located in the brain cortex. She also found that surviving childhood cancer is associated with poorer adaptation to adult life, lower educational achievement, less full-time employment and lower income. That underscores the need to investigate strategies that could prepare childhood cancer survivors for adult life, she says.

  • Are you quick to understand people's emotional state and also quick to react to stress? There's a gene for that. Psychologists at the University of Oregon published a study in the Nov. 24 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Vol. 106, No. 47) pointing to a naturally occurring genetic variation in the oxytocin receptor that seems to make people more empathetic and reactive to stress. The authors noted that their findings suggest a biological basis for people who might be more or less drawn to social connectivity.

  • Depression is just as deadly as smoking, say researchers from the University of Bergen in Norway and King's College London, but an ounce of anxiety might help lower those risks. The researchers pored over survey findings from 60,000 people and found that people with depression have a mortality rate on par with people who smoke cigarettes. Interestingly, that mortality rate significantly dropped for people with both depression and anxiety, they report in The British Journal of Psychiatry (Vol. 195, No. 2). Researchers think that anxiety might prompt people to seek help when they need it. Also, physicians may be more likely to investigate symptoms in people with anxiety as opposed to depression by itself because physicians might chalk up the symptoms to depression. “A little anxiety may be good for you,” says psychiatrist and co-author Robert Stewart, PhD, of King's College London.

  • Providing youngsters with a holistic sports experience is better than win-at-all-costs coaching at keeping kids happy and involved in sports, says Ronald Smith, PhD, a sports psychologist at the University of Washington. In a paper published in the December Motivation and Emotion (Vol. 33, No. 4), Smith and colleagues examined young basketball players' satisfaction with their 12-week season. Some of their coaches had been trained to create a “mastery motivational climate,” which emphasizes positive communication, teamwork and doing one's best. The athletes playing under these coaches reported greater enjoyment of the game and were less ego-oriented than athletes who played under traditional coaches.

  • New research by psychologists found infants can match human vocalizations to human faces and monkey coos to monkey faces. In an article in the Nov. 3 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Vol. 106, No. 44), the researchers report that 5-month-old babies attended longer to images of human faces paired with unfamiliar Japanese words than when the face was paired with rhesus monkey vocalizations, and vice versa. Surprisingly, children weren't able to correctly match human non-speech sounds, like laughing.

  • Good news for insomniacs: Researchers have identified a molecular pathway in the brain that may be responsible for the cognitive impairments that come with sleep loss. Ted Abel, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania, and his team reported in the Oct. 22 Nature (Vol. 461, No. 7,267) that they'd discovered that mice deprived of sleep showed increased levels of the enzyme PDE4 and reduced levels of a molecule, cAMP, which is important in building new synaptic connections and forming memories. When the researchers gave sleep-deprived mice an inhibitor to block the formation of PDE4, it reversed the deficit in cAMP and preserved some of their memory formation and learning abilities.

  • And now some good news for arachnophobes: What you don't know could help you get over your fear. Psychologists showed spider-phobic students a series of highly occluded, unrecognizable images of either spiders or trees. As the students left the lab area, they were given the chance to approach a live, caged tarantula. Arachnophobic students who'd seen the occluded images of the spiders were more likely than those who'd seen the trees to approach the creepy-crawly. That could suggest a novel method of exposure therapy, the authors report in the December Consciousness and Cognition (Vol. 18, No. 4).

  • College students may believe they're indestructible, but when it comes to predicting drinking problems later in life, that unrealistic optimism is a big problem, researchers report in November's Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Vol. 35, No. 11). Over the course of two years, the researchers interviewed 800 college students about whether their drinking led them to trouble with the police, memory loss or hangovers. The students also estimated how likely they were to encounter such problems in the future as compared with other students. Those who initially showed a high degree of optimism about not developing drinking problems turned out to be the ones who later reported the most negative events associated with alcohol.

  • Researchers from the University of Kansas School of Medicine have uncovered a novel neuroimaging method that might be used to assess healthy people's risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, according to a study in the November Journal of Alzheimer's Disease (Vol. 18, No. 3). They found that healthy people who carry a genetic variation to a fat-binding protein, known as ApoE4, had decreased hippocampal and amygdal volume — regions important for memory processing — as well damaged white matter in their limbic regions. These brain variations match with those of people with Alzheimer's, potentially identifying risk for the disease in those not yet affected by it. The researchers say theirs isn't the first study to find neuroimaging profiles that line up with genetic risks, but theirs is particularly well-supported by multiple lines of analysis.

  • Parents are understandably cautious about their children chatting online with strangers, but for social outcasts, such chats could offer an important support structure, according to a paper in the November Developmental Psychology (Vol. 45, No. 6). Elisheva Gross, PhD, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, tested adolescents around age 12 and young adults around age 18 on the effects of chatting with an unknown peer online following a social exclusion experiment. Gross found that both groups' self-esteem improved after chatting, and the younger groups reported feeling less upset, depressed and embarrassed.

—M. Price