In Brief

  • Having both depression and heart disease is more lethal than having either condition alone, according to researchers from Paul-Brousse Hospital in Paris. They tracked the mental and physical health of about 6,000 middle-aged adults for an average of 5.5 years. People who were both depressed and had heart disease were five times as likely to die during that period than people who had only one of those diseases. The combination effectively tripled their likelihood to die of any cause and quadrupled the likelihood of dying from a heart attack or stroke. (In press, Heart.)

  • All mental abilities decline with age, but not as sharply as some previous research suggested, according to University of Virginia researchers. They discovered this good-news/bad-news scenario when they looked at longitudinal data on cognitive abilities collected by the Virginia Cognitive Aging Project. They found that factoring in the “practice effect,” whereby people’s scores improve simply because they’re familiar with the test, older adults’ reasoning, spatial visualization, episodic memory, perceptual speed and vocabulary all decline — but not as sharply as other research has found because that same practice effect tends to inflate younger people’s scores. (Neuropsychology, Vol. 24, No. 5.)

  • People who are more introspective in their behaviors tend to have more gray matter in their anterior prefrontal cortex, according to a study by psychologists at University College London. The researchers asked participants hooked up to an MRI machine to decide which of six colored patterns was the brightest, then asked the participants to rate how confident they were in their answers. Based on previous research suggesting that people who are more introspective will be confident in their correct answers and wary about their incorrect ones, the researchers pulled out participants with that pattern and compared their MRI readings with their less introspective peers. It’s unclear whether the difference reflects innate anatomical differences or whether learning influences gray matter volume in that area, the researchers say. (Sept. 17 edition of Science, Vol. 329, No. 5,998.)

  • Children exposed to high levels of manganese in drinking water perform more poorly on intelligence tests, according to a team of researchers from the University of Quebec at Montreal and Sainte-Justine University Hospital in Montreal. The researchers looked at 362 Quebecois children, ages 6 to 13, living in homes that received their water from groundwater sources. After accounting for income and maternal education, the researchers discovered that children who drank higher concentrations of the naturally occurring metal performed more poorly on tests of cognition and motor skills than did children who drank manganese in lower concentrations — though researchers aren’t sure yet why manganese might cause adverse effects to the brain. (In press, Environmental Health Perspectives.)

  • Very young children and those with autism don’t contagiously yawn, possibly indicating a lack of empathy, say University of Connecticut psychologists. The researchers tested 120 typically developing 1- to 6-year-olds and 30 6- to 15-year-olds with autism spectrum disorders to see whether they would yawn in response to seeing other people yawn — a trait observed in about half of adults. In the study, only typically developing children age 4 and older reliably yawned when they watched other people yawn. Across all ages, the children with autism were less likely to yawn responsively than their same-age peers. Researchers say that contagious yawning might reflect empathetic feelings and that very young children and children with autism experience these feelings less than older or typically developing children. (September/October Child Development, Vol. 81, No. 5.)

  • Dealing with disaster is particularly difficult for people with physical disabilities and mental disorders, according to a series of studies in the latest issue of Rehabilitation Psychology. Researchers in one study looking at Hurricane Katrina survivors with disabilities found that they were much less likely to return to owning homes or be employed than survivors who had no disabilities. Another study looked at the tasks performed by workers at a psychiatry clinic in a shelter following the hurricane. Researchers found the most common tasks were rapidly diagnosing disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, resuming people’s psychotropic medication regimens, and providing care for existing disorders. (August special section of Rehabilitation Psychology, Vol. 55, No. 3.)

  • Older adults with certain symptoms of Type-2 diabetes are more likely than other people with diabetes to have memory and other cognitive problems, according to a team of researchers led by Roger Dixon, PhD, at the University of Alberta. The team looked at 41 people with Type 2 diabetes and found that those with high blood pressure, poor balance and who walk especially slowly are more likely to have slower mental reaction and perception times and impaired memory recall. Awareness of this link is important to motivate people to manage this disease, Dixon says. (September Neuropsychology, Vol. 24, No. 5.)

  • Men who want to improve their dancing should focus more on their neck and upper body moves, and less on their arm and leg action, says Nick Neave, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Northumbria in England. He and colleagues asked 19 men ages 18 to 35 to dance in front of a camera while wearing infrared reflectors on their joints and limbs. Computer software transposed their dances onto identical-looking avatars, which were then judged by a panel of 37 heterosexual women. Researchers discovered that the key features of good dancing, according to the judges, were head, neck and upper-body movement. (In press, Biology Letters.)

  • Wearing red is also a way for men to be more attractive to women, according to a research team at the University of Rochester and the University of Munich. The researchers asked heterosexual women and men to rate the attractiveness of a man in a black-and-white photo framed with either a red or white matte. When women, but not men, saw the red-framed photo, they rated him as more attractive than those who saw him framed in white. Further experiments asked participants to rate the attractiveness of men in a variety of shirt colors. Again, red shirts gave the men wearing them a boost among female participants, but not males. The researchers mention that in non-human primates, red indicates increased facial blood flow and is a symbol of power often noticed by female primates. (August Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (Vol. 139, No. 3.)

  • Personality type is a better predictor of scholastic cheating than is fear of failing, finds a team of University of British Columbia researchers. The team surveyed 249 college students about their personality traits, including questions that tease out psychopathy, Machiavellianism and narcissism, and whether they had cheated on tests or plagiarized in high school. Psychopathy was the most common predictor for those behaviors. A second study looked at term papers from students who had also taken personality tests. Students whose term papers were flagged for plagiarism also scored high on psychopathy measures. (Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, Vol. 16, No. 3.)

  • People who play action video games are better at making quick and accurate perceptual decisions than non-gamers, according to University of Rochester researchers. The psychologists looked at participants’ ability to identify the direction of motion of dots on a screen, as well as identify the ear in which they heard a noise. People who regularly played action video games — typically “shooter”-type games — did better than people who played only puzzle or adventure games, or who didn’t regularly play video games at all. Lead researcher Daphne Bavelier, PhD, suggests that action video games hone people’s ability to quickly analyze the physical environment and react to it. (Sept. 14 Current Biology, Vol. 20, No. 17.)

—M. Price