- Exercise appears to reorganize the brain to be more resilient under stress, according to a study conducted at Princeton University. The researchers exposed two groups of mice — one that exercised regularly and another that was sedentary — to cold water to simulate a stressor. Exercise served to prevent stress-induced protein expression in particular neurons in the ventral hippocampus, a brain region known to regulate anxiety. In the same region, exercise also enhanced inhibitory mechanisms, which may calm excitatory circuits that lead to anxiety (Journal of Neuroscience, May 1).
- People with schizophrenia and those with bipolar disorder both have a specific brain disruption, finds research led by scientists at the Yale School of Medicine. Investigators used fMRI to examine the interactions between the thalamus and other areas of the brain and found that communication was significantly altered between the thalamus and prefrontal cortical areas in people with either disorder, adding to evidence that distinct mental illnesses may have biological similarities (Cerebral Cortex, online July 3).
- Women are perceived as better leaders than men, suggests a study led by a Spring Arbor University psychology professor. The researchers used a 360-degree feedback evaluation tool to examine how 1,546 male and 721 female leaders from 204 for-profit, nonprofit, large and small organizations perceived themselves and were perceived by colleagues, including supervisors, employees and peers. Participants were rated on 10 relational behaviors, including communication, trust, coaching and participation, and 10 task-oriented behaviors, such as goal setting, planning, strategy and decisiveness. Female leaders were rated significantly higher than males on most of the skills (Performance Improvement Quarterly, April/May/June).
- Newlywed women who believe their marriages will improve over time show the steepest declines in marital satisfaction, suggests a study by psychologists at the University of California, Los Angeles. The researchers asked 502 newlyweds to predict how their feelings about their relationships would change over the ensuing four years, and then followed the couples for that period. Nearly all couples predicted that their marital satisfaction would remain stable or improve, yet researchers found that it declined among nearly all couples. The researchers also found that wives with the most optimistic forecasts showed the steepest declines in marital satisfaction (Journal of Family Psychology, online June 24).
- U.S. intelligence agents may be more prone to biased decision-making than college students and post-college adults, according to a study conducted by a Cornell University psychologist. In the study, researchers tested 36 agents from an unnamed federal agency, as well as a group of college students and post-college adults on a series of framing problems to assess their tendency to make risky choices. For example, the researcher asked them if, in a hypothetical scenario of a population facing a disease outbreak, they would rather try to save everyone — but risk killing everyone in the process — or save some of the population for sure. The researcher then asked the same question reframed in terms of loss, such as killing some to save others, rather than gain. The researchers found that the agents were more willing than college students and post-college adults to take risks when outcomes were framed as losses (Psychological Science, in press).
- Age appears to affect how married couples handle conflict, finds a study led by a psychologist at San Francisco State University. Researchers followed 127 middle-aged and older long-term married couples for 13 years, checking in to see how they communicated about housework, finances and other issues that often arouse conflict. They also videotaped the couples discussing contentious topics for 15 minutes, noting how often each partner blamed or pressured the other for a change, tried to avoid a discussion or passively withdrew. As the years passed, both spouses were more likely to change the subject or divert attention from the conflict. The findings are in line with other studies that have shown that people seek less conflict in later life stages (Journal of Marriage and Family, August).
- Being corrected may be one of the best ways to learn, confirms a study by researchers at University College London. In four experiments, study participants learned definitions of unfamiliar words, or translations of foreign vocabulary words, by generating guesses and having someone correct their mistakes, by reading the word and its definition or translation, or by selecting from a choice of definitions or translations followed by feedback. In a final test of all words, learning from a mistake that the participant generated led to significantly better memory for the correct definition or translation than either reading or making incorrect choices (Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, online July 1).
- Divorce early in childhood often leads to more insecure parent-child relationships later in life, finds research by psychologists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The scientists analyzed data from 7,735 people who participated in a survey about personality and close relationships. The researchers found that people from divorced families were less likely to view their current relationships with their parents as secure, and those who experienced parental divorce between birth and age 5 were more insecure in their current relationships with their parents compared to those whose parents divorced later in childhood (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, online June 28).
- Sensory-motor interventions may improve behavior in boys with autism, finds a study led by scientists at the University of California, Irvine. Researchers assigned 28 autistic boys ages 3 to 12 to either standard behavioral therapy for autism or standard behavioral therapy supplemented with daily environmental enrichment exercises involving different combinations of sensory stimuli for touch, temperature, smell, sight and movement. After six months, 42 percent of the children in the enrichment group significantly improved in behaviors such as relating to people and responding to sights and sounds, compared with 7 percent of the standard care group (Behavioral Neuroscience, online May 20).
- People who believe stress is negatively affecting their health have double the risk of experiencing a heart attack, suggests a study conducted by a team of researchers from France, Finland and the United Kingdom. The scientists asked the study's 7,268 middle-aged men and women how much stress or pressure from their lives had affected their health, as well as about their perceived levels of stress and what lifestyle factors might influence their health, such as smoking, alcohol consumption, diet and levels of physical activity. They then followed the participants for an average of 18 years, and found that those who reported at the beginning of the study that their health had been affected "a lot" or "extremely" by stress had more than double the risk of having a heart attack or dying from it compared with those who reported no effect of stress on their health (European Heart Journal, online June 26).
- Minority children are less likely than their white counterparts to be diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, according to a study led by Pennsylvania State University scientists. The scientists surveyed more than 15,000 children nationwide and tracked them from kindergarten through eighth grade, checking in at kindergarten and first, third, fifth and eighth grades for a formal ADHD diagnosis. They found that black children were 69 percent less likely to be diagnosed than white children, while Hispanic children were 45 percent less likely to have an ADHD diagnosis than their white peers (Pediatrics, online June 24).
- Women who experienced severe physical or sexual abuse during childhood appear to be twice as likely to experience addiction-like overeating as adults, compared with women without a history of childhood abuse, according to research out of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School. The scientists examined physical and sexual abuse history and eating behavior data from 57,321 adults and found that women who had experienced both physical and sexual abuse in childhood were even more likely to show symptoms of food addiction than those with histories of one or the other (Obesity, online May 2).
- When stressed, people revert to old habits — even the good ones, suggests a study led by University of Southern California psychologists. For a semester, researchers collected data on a group of undergraduates' eating, exercise and other behaviors. They found that during testing periods, when students were stressed and sleep-deprived, they were more likely to stick to old habits. For example, students who ate unhealthy breakfasts during the semester — such as pastries or doughnuts — ate even more of the junk food during exams. But those in the habit of eating a healthy breakfast ate especially well in the morning when under pressure. Similarly, students who were regular gym-goers were even more likely to work out when stressed (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, June).
- Adults can be trained to be more compassionate, suggests research conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In the study, investigators randomly assigned young adults to be trained in either compassionate meditation — an ancient Buddhist technique to increase caring feelings for people who are suffering — or cognitive reappraisal, where people learn to reframe their thoughts to feel less negative. They found that people trained in compassion were more likely to spend their own money altruistically to help someone who was treated unfairly than those in the cognitive reappraisal group. Compassion training also increased activity in the brain's inferior parietal cortex, a region involved in empathy and understanding others, as measured by fMRI before and after the training (Psychological Science, online May 21).
- People appear to be more likely to lash out at their romantic partners over relationship conflicts after a bad night's sleep, according to research by psychologists at the University of California, Berkeley. In one experiment, 78 young adults in romantic relationships provided daily reports over a two-week period about their sleep quality and relationship stresses. The investigators found that participants reported more discord with their partners on the days following a bad night's sleep. The effects were not explained by stress, anxiety, depression, lack of relationship satisfaction or by partners being the source of poor sleep, the authors note (Social Psychological and Personality Science, online May 14).
- Children who are exposed to secondhand smoke in early childhood may be more likely to be physically aggressive and antisocial by the time they reach fourth grade, finds a study conducted at the University of Montreal. The investigators examined longitudinal data on 2,055 children from birth until age 10, including parent reports about secondhand smoke exposure, and teacher and child reports about aggressive and anti-social classroom behavior. The findings held true even for children who had been exposed to secondhand smoke transiently (Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, online May 21).
- A new Head Start intervention may increase children's attention and improve families' quality of life, finds a study led by University of Oregon neuroscientists. In the eight-week intervention, 141 preschoolers took part in learning exercises focused on improving attention while their parents learned how to build strong relationships and about the value of providing guided choices for children, establishing expectations and praising good behaviors. The researchers used EEG to measure the children's selective attention abilities before and after the intervention, and evaluated cognitive ability with standardized non-verbal IQ and language assessments. Compared with a control group of children and parents in traditional Head Start programs and a second experimental group in which only children received the intervention, the children in families where both child and caregiver received the intervention were more likely to perform similarly to children from high socioeconomic backgrounds. Caregivers in families where both received the interventions reported significant reductions of stress in the home, particularly in dealing with their children. The researchers also found an increase in attention span and language skills among children whose parents received the training (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, online July 1).
— Amy Novotney
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