In Brief

  • Green space in towns and cities may improve residents' mental health, finds research conducted at the University of Exeter.Green space in towns and cities may improve residents' mental health, finds research conducted at the University of Exeter. Scientists followed more than 1,000 subjects over five years. Half of the group moved to urban areas with more parks and gardens, while the other half relocated to less green urban areas. After adjusting for income, employment, education and personality, the study showed that, on average, people who moved to greener areas experienced an immediate improvement in mental health that was sustained for at least three years. People who moved to areas with fewer parks and gardens suffered a drop in mental health (Environmental Science & Technology, online Dec. 9).
  • Racism may accelerate aging in black men, according to a study led by University of Maryland researchers. Investigators asked 92 black men age 30 to 50 about their experiences of discrimination in different domains, including work and housing, as well as in getting service at stores and restaurants, from the police and in other public settings. They also measured internalized racial bias using a test that gauges unconscious attitudes and beliefs about racial groups. Even after adjusting for participants' age, socioeconomic factors and health-related characteristics, the researchers found that the combination of experiences of high racial discrimination and internalized anti-black bias was associated with the shortest life expectancy, based on the length of the participants' telomeres — the repetitive sequences of DNA capping the ends of chromosomes, which shorten progressively over time (American Journal of Preventive Medicine, February).
  • The original data behind most published papers may be inaccessible 20 years post-publication, finds a study led by a University of British Columbia researcher. Scientists requested data sets from 516 randomly selected studies published from two to 22 years ago. They found that the odds of a data set being available fell by 17 percent per year, and that by 20 years post-publication, 80 percent of data obtained through publicly funded research is inaccessible due to such problems as old email addresses and obsolete storage devices. The authors say these results demonstrate the urgent need for policies mandating data sharing via public archives (Current Biology, Dec. 19).
  • Reading a novel appears to have lasting effects on the brain, finds a study by researchers at Emory University. Scientists asked 21 college students to read the same novel, giving them a new 30-page section to read each day over nine days. Each morning, and then for five additional mornings after the students had completed the novel, the scientists used fMRI to scan participants' brains. On the mornings after the reading assignments, the researchers found heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex (associated with language receptivity) and in the central sulcus of the brain (the primary sensorimotor region). These neural changes persisted for the five days after the participants completed the novel, indicating the novel may have had a biological effect on the brain (Brain Connectivity, Dec. 9).
  • A fear of being too skinny may put some teenage boys at risk for depression, according to a study conducted at Harvard University. A fear of being too skinny may put some teenage boys at risk for depression, according to a study conducted at Harvard University. The research was based on a nationally representative sample of 2,139 16-year-old boys who were followed for 13 years. Researchers followed up with the boys three different times to assess depressive symptoms, body image perceptions and the participants' body mass index. Boys who perceived themselves as very underweight, but actually were average weight or higher, reported the highest level of depressive symptoms. These findings remained constant across the span of the study, which ended when the participants were close to 30 years old (Psychology of Men & Masculinity, online Dec. 23).
  • Children believe the world is far more segregated by gender than it actually is, suggests a study conducted at Michigan State University. The researchers examined classroom friendships among 426 second- through fourth-graders at five U.S. elementary schools. They found that children were nine times more likely to be friends if they were the same gender. However, when asked about their friends' friends, a child was 50 times more likely to believe two classmates were friends when they were the same gender (Child Development, online Dec. 9). 
  • Culturally appropriate interventions may improve the mental health of resettled refugees and other marginalized and traumatized populations, finds research led by scientists at the University of New Mexico. Thirty-six refugees from African countries who had resettled in the United States within the previous two years took part in a six-month community-based intervention focused on increasing participants' enculturation, English proficiency and access to resources. The researchers found significant decreases in participants' psychological distress and increases in quality of life during, immediately after and three months after the intervention compared with before the intervention, based on interviews with participants. The research also found an increase in social support and social networks with other refugees and with Americans (Psychological Services, online Dec. 23).
  • Prescribing a stimulant and an antipsychotic drug to children with physical aggression and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may reduce aggressive and serious behavioral problems, according to a study led by Ohio State University researchers. Scientists divided the study's 168 children, ages 6 to 12, who had been diagnosed with ADHD and displayed significant physical aggression, into two groups. All participants received a psychostimulant drug (OROS methylphenidate) and all parents received behavioral parent training for nine weeks. A subset of the participants also received the antipsychotic drug risperidone. The group that received both medications showed a greater reduction in aggression and other disruptive behaviors (Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, January).
  • Thirty minutes of daily meditation may provide as much relief from anxiety and depression symptoms as antidepressants, according to a Johns Hopkins University study.Thirty minutes of daily meditation may provide as much relief from anxiety and depression symptoms as antidepressants, according to a Johns Hopkins University study. Researchers analyzed 47 clinical trials with 3,515 participants that evaluated the effects of an eight-week mindfulness meditation training on depression, anxiety, stress, pain and other issues. Even with controls for placebo effects, the meditation training improved symptoms of anxiety and depression — providing as much relief as what previous research has found from antidepressants (JAMA Internal Medicine, online Jan. 6).
  • People with mental illness appear to be nearly twice as likely to smoke as those without it, according to a study led by a Harvard Medical School researcher. Using data gathered from more than 165,000 Americans, scientists identified a 20 percent decline in smoking rates from 2004 to 2011 for people without mental illness, from 19 percent to 16 percent of the group. Smoking rates among people with mental illness remained steady at around 25 percent. This significant difference persisted even after accounting for differences in income, education and employment. The researchers also found that people who received mental health treatment were less likely to smoke than those with mental illness who did not receive treatment, and were more likely to quit (JAMA, Jan. 8).
  • One-time, cross sectional population surveys that assess mental or physical disorders may underestimate the prevalence of mental disorders among middle-aged and older adults, according to a study led by Johns Hopkins University researchers. Scientists followed more than 1,000 people of various ages in Baltimore over 25 years, interviewing them four times between 1981 and 2005. Using the information from all of the interviews, they found that estimates of the lifetime prevalence of six mental disorders — major depressive disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, social phobia, alcohol abuse and drug abuse — were two to 12 times lower when they looked at people's responses from just the last interview, compared with when they looked at reports from preceding interviews (JAMA Psychiatry, online Jan. 8).
  • Feeding mice an immunity-boosting probiotic appears to ease autism-like symptoms, finds a study led by researchers at the California Institute of Technology. Scientists used a technique called maternal immune activation in pregnant mice to induce autism-like behavior and neurological patterns in their offspring. They found that the gut microbial community of the offspring differed markedly from that of a control group of mice. When the mice with the autism-like symptoms were fed Bacteriodes fragilis, a microbe known to bolster the immune system, their abnormal behaviors subsided (Cell, Dec. 19).
  • Anxiety appears linked to a higher long-term risk of stroke, according to a study by University of Pittsburgh scientists. Over a 22-year period, researchers asked more than 6,000 people age 25 to 74 to take part in interviews, undergo medical examinations and complete psychological questionnaires to gauge their anxiety and depression levels. They found that people who had the highest third of anxiety symptoms had a 33 percent higher stroke risk than those with the lowest levels. People with high anxiety levels were also more likely to smoke and be physically inactive, which may partially explain the link between anxiety and stroke, the authors suggest (Stroke, online Dec. 19).
  • Psychology researchers and practitioners still don't see eye to eye on repressed memory, according to a study led by University of California, Irvine, researchers. Investigators recruited clinicians and psychotherapists, research psychologists and alternative therapists to complete an online survey on repressed memory. The researchers found that roughly 70 percent of clinicians, psychoanalysts and therapists surveyed agreed to some extent that traumatic memories are often repressed and can be retrieved in therapy, while less than 30 percent of research-oriented psychologists believed that to be true. In a separate part of the study, researchers found that the general public still largely believes that memories can be repressed (Psychological Science, online Dec. 13).
  • Rediscovering feelings of self-worth can boost performance among the poor, according to research led by a University of Washington scientist. Researchers asked nearly 150 people at a New Jersey soup kitchen to privately record a personal story with a tape recorder before completing a variety of problem-solving tests. Compared with a control group, the participants who were randomly assigned to "self-affirm" by recounting a proud moment or past achievement performed dramatically better on the tests, equivalent to a 10-point increase in IQ. They were also more likely to seek out information on aid services from the local government (Psychological Science, online Dec. 19).
  • People who tell themselves to get excited rather than relax seem to do better at public speaking and other anxiety-inducing activities, finds a study performed at Harvard University. People who tell themselves to get excited rather than relax seem to do better at public speaking and other anxiety-inducing activities, finds a study performed at Harvard University. In one experiment, researchers asked 140 participants to prepare a persuasive speech on why they would be good work partners. To increase anxiety, a researcher videotaped the speeches and said they would be judged by a committee. Before delivering the speech, participants were instructed to say, "I am excited" or "I am calm." Those who said they were excited gave longer speeches and were more persuasive, competent and relaxed than those who said they were calm, according to ratings by independent evaluators (Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, online Dec. 23).
  • The recession made people feel physically ill, according to a study by San Diego State University scientists. The researchers counted Google searches for stress-related health problems such as abdominal pain, chest pain and migraines and then tracked how the numbers of searches for those terms changed during the recession — December 2008 through December 2011 — from levels before the recession began. The researchers compared changes in the counts with changes in all Google searches over the period. They found that queries about stomach ulcer symptoms were up 228 percent during the recession, and questions about headache symptoms were up 193 percent. Hernia and chest pain were also among the top 10 health concern searches during the recession (American Journal of Preventive Medicine, February).
  • Consistent routines improve your sleep, according to a study led by psychologists at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. Researchers asked 50 younger and 50 older adults to record their daily activities for 14 days, including when they went outside, started work and ate dinner every day, as well as several sleep measures, including how long they slept at night, sleep quality and how many times they woke up at night. They found that keeping a consistent daily schedule — in which you eat, start working and go outside around the same time each day — was associated with better sleep quality and fewer night-time awakenings (The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, online Dec. 10).

— Amy Novotney