In Brief

  • Chimpanzees mourn the loss of loved ones, finds research in-press in Current Biology. Scientists observed chimps at the Blair Drummond Safari Park in Scotland gather around a dying, elderly female of the group. Moments after she died, the other chimps tried to jostle her awake and continued testing for signs of life for a few minutes. They then cleaned her body. Her daughter slept next to the body all night. For several days after the death, the chimps avoided that particular spot. These behaviors in many ways recall humans’ response to death, the researchers say.

  • More than half of people who experience a traumatic brain injury could face a bout of major depression within a year of their injury, say researchers from the University of Washington School of Medicine and School of Public Health. The researchers report in the May 19 Journal of the American Medical Association that of the 559 patients with traumatic brain injury studied, 53.1 percent met diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder at least once within one year. Those with major depression also reported a lower quality of life than those who weren’t depressed. The researchers encourage clinicians to be mindful of this connection and to integrate depression screening into their usual care.

  • Higher-than-average levels of a particular brain protein have been linked to the postpartum sadness many new mothers experience. Researchers from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health at the University of Toronto report in May’s Archives of General Psychiatry (Vol. 67, No. 5) that levels of the protein monoamine oxidase A were 43 percent higher in healthy women in the four to six days after they gave birth than women who were not recently pregnant. The researchers suspect the protein reduces the activity of neurotransmitters that are needed to maintain a good mood, such as serotonin. Dietary supplements could boost serotonin and other neurotransmitters during that critical period following birth, the researchers believe.

  • “Near misses” in gambling are almost as good as winning to the brains of problem gamblers, say researchers from the University of Cambridge in England. According to an article published in the May 5 Journal of Neuroscience (Vol. 30, No. 18), brain scans of 20 volunteers playing computer slot machines revealed that coming close to a jackpot activated the same neural pathways as actually winning. Activity was highest in the midbrain, where neurons release dopamine as a reward, which is associated with addiction. This reaction was strongest in volunteers who had symptoms associated with problem gambling.

  • Young obese people have strong neuronal and endocrinal reactions to pictures of high-calorie food, according to research published online in February in Obesity. Researchers from Austria scanned the brains and recorded insulin levels of 12 obese and 12 normal-weight adolescents as they looked at pictures of high-calorie and low-calorie food. They found that after the obese participants looked at the high-calorie images, they had significantly greater activation in the right hippocampus, which is involved in eating control, as well as higher insulin levels compared with the normal-weight participants. The researchers suggest that the increased insulin levels make the hippocampus more permissive in its control over eating behavior.

  • Just thinking that you have excellent vision could improve your ability to see, finds new research in May’s Psychological Science (Vol. 21, No. 5). Harvard University’s Ellen Langer, PhD, and colleagues told participants that pilots have excellent vision, then had the participants practice flying a plane in a fight simulator. The participants’ ability to read the smaller letters on an eye chart improved compared with those who had no such practice. The same held true for participants who were told they could exercise their eyes to improve their vision. In another line of testing, the researchers reversed the eye chart so participants started by trying to read small letters at the top. Because of the reversed expectations, researchers say, participants were able to read more small letters when they’re located at the top rather than at the bottom of the chart.

  • Verbal contact with a loved one eases stress almost as well as a hug, say researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. In an in-press article in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the researchers report that they stressed 61 young girls by having them give speeches to a crowd and work out math problems in front of judges. Afterward, the girls hugged their moms, talked to their moms on the phone or received no contact at all. The researchers then measured their levels of the “love hormone” oxytocin and the “stress hormone” cortisol. The huggers experienced a rise in oxytocin and a drop in cortisol. The girls who only talked to their mothers on the phone also showed the same pattern, albeit slightly more weakly.

  • Consuming caffeine could help shift and night workers make fewer mistakes on the job, according to research in the May Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (Vol.1, No. 5). Researchers from the London School of Tropical Medicine in England reviewed 13 trials looking into the effects of caffeine — in the form of coffee, pills, energy drinks and caffeinated food — on shift workers in simulated work conditions. They found that caffeine improved performance on driving skills tests, as well as cognitive tests that assessed memory, attention, perception and reasoning.

  • A woman’s touch could make people more likely to take financial risks, finds research published online in April in Psychological Science. Columbia University’s Jonathan Levav, PhD, recruited men and women to play an investing game. When they showed up, they were greeted by a man or woman who then either shook their hand, patted them on the back or made no contact at all. Participants who received the back pats from the woman were willing to risk more in the game and also reported feeling more secure and confident afterward. Those who received a handshake from her risked a little more than average, but those who were greeted by the man experienced no change, no matter how he greeted them.

  • Want to get the most out of a classical music concert? Don’t read the program notes, according to research published in-press in Psychology of Music. Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, PhD, at the University of Arkansas, asked 16 people without formal training in music to listen to excerpts from Beethoven’s string quartets, prefaced by reading either a dramatic description, a structural description of the composition or no description. Those who read either description reported enjoying the music significantly less than those who didn’t. Margulis says that trying to link music conceptually to linguistic terms might interfere with its enjoyment.

  • Chronic users of ecstasy have a major serotonin deficit and memory problems, according to research online in May in Brain. The University of Toronto’s Stephen Kish, PhD, and colleagues performed brain scans on 49 people who abuse ecstasy — most taking the drug fewer than four times a month — and 50 control participants. They found less serotonin binding in the ecstasy users, especially in the hippocampus and cerebellar cortex, the areas involved in memory formation and learning. That deficit correlated with ecstasy users’ lower scores on memory and executive function tests. Previously, this link had only been confirmed in animals.

—M. Price