Wednesday, 5 November 2014

How neuroscience can teach children about mental health

At a recent talk I gave as a Sheffield NeuroGirl, a group of three female PhD students who aim to bring interesting and exciting research on the brain to the public, I carried out a little experiment. I asked everyone to get to their feet and then for everyone who either had, or knew someone with a mental illness to sit back down again. Amazingly, only two people were left standing.
This is by no means an unusual state of affairs. One in four people will experience some kind of mental health problem, including 10% of all children. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15 to 29-year-olds across the globe, with depression a major risk factor. And a breakdown in a healthy brain is indiscriminate in who it targets: rich, poor, all races and both sexes.
Yet negative attitudes from the stigma of mental health problems are still very prevalent, and the perception of those that seek help for mental ill health is that they are “crazy”, “weak”, “flawed” or “dangerous”.
A 2007 study found that anticipated negative attitudes – from peers, family members and even school staff – were crucial to whether they sought help for mental health problems. So why is there still so little education on the brain and how it works in schools? Lessons could teach children what our brains do and why they might go wrong. If mental health will likely touch us all at some point throughout our lives, can we not begin to understand it earlier?
If a child breaks their arm, everyone talks about it; from how it was broken, why it hurts, how it will mend, potential complications. No-one bats an eyelid about seeing a cast. However, if a child becomes depressed, there is usually no frank discussion about what might be wrong with their brain and why they could be feeling down. Although there are treatments available, there may be a big gap in explaining the processes happening in the brain.
Neuroscience, which investigates how the central nervous system and the brain functions in health and in disease, can inform education and reduce stigma. Those of us who study or work in neuroscience are aware of the many problems the brain can face throughout its lifetime.
We know for, example, that you can’t just “snap out” of deep depression, because many brain imaging studies have shown there are abnormalities in the way that the depressed brain works. A study by Andrew Leuchter and colleagues at UCLA used EEG to measure brain signals and found that the limbic region, an area involved in processing emotion, and cortical brain regions such as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which is involved in the regulation of thinking and action, sent many more messages back and forth in participants suffering from major depressive disorder compared to those with healthy brains.
Neuroscience can also convey to a child the underlying issue beneath their problem. For example, the role of an area buried deep in the brain called the caudate putamen, which helps to control voluntary movement but is also believed to play a role in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). In people with OCD, problems with the caudate putamen can mean an inability to stop worrying or stop having anxious thoughts.
Although environment and life circumstances play their part in depression, it is also a physical manifestation. And understanding this can help move a narrative from blaming the sufferer for being crazy, or weak, to acknowledging that part of the brain is no longer healthy. Just as you can become sick with a cold, your brain can also become sick. This is an important message that we could teach much more.
Ignorance about mental health can lead to bullying, prejudice, fear and heartache. It can lead to resistance in those suffering to seek the help and support for those around them, unnecessary fear and worry. For children especially, not understanding mental illness could potentially also lead to guilt that they have somehow caused it.
A simple programme of education in schools could help to bring about a real change in society. It could help to provide a long-term solution to the problem of ignorance about mental health and bring more discussion about mental illness into the open. While some of this work could be done by people going into schools, a better solution would be to add the brain itself into the national curriculum.
Originally published on The Conversation

Brain scans show who’s likely to trust strangers – something conmen can only dream about

How do you decide if you can trust someone? Is it based on their handshake, the way they look you in the eye, or perhaps their body language?
We know that what someone wears has an effect on our trust in them. If you happen to be a doctor, 76% of us will favour you if you wear the white coat, compared to only 10% if you happen to just pop out in your surgical scrubs. Labels matter too. In one test, four times as many people were willing to stop and answer a survey on one day compared to another. The difference? Whether or not the interviewer had a designer label on their sweatshirt. But what if you had to decide whether or not to trust someone without knowing the gear they were togged up in? Without knowing anything about them at all?
When people fall victim to fraud, often it is because they have decided to trust a stranger. In mass-marketing fraud (known widely as the 419 scam or advance fee fraud, an unsolicited e-mail contact offers false promises or information designed to con you out of money. You may have already received an e-mail from, for example, a Nigerian prince who desperately needs your bank details in order to move some money out of the country fast. Phishing fraud, where links in carefully crafted, apparently legitimate emails redirect users to a different server, into which they are persuaded to enter usernames, passwords or bank account details, cost the UK £405.8m in 2012, according to RSA Security.
But what makes some people laugh and delete immediately, while others are curious enough to find out more?

Playing games

recent study led by Tim Hahn from Goethe University in Frankfurt examined people’s initial levels of trust when co-operating with an unknown partner.
Sixty participants were asked to play the trust game, an extension of an experimental economics game called the dictator game for which the participants were put into pairs. Player one was given an initial amount of hypothetical “money” that they could choose whether or not to gamble with. The gamble was this: they could give their money to the stranger they were paired with, player two, and anything they gave would be tripled. Player two could then choose to give some of this money back to Player one, and again, anything they returned would be tripled – or player two could choose to keep it all.
In theory then, the more generous you are in the beginning, the richer you could become by the end. To make it more exciting, the players were told that at the end of the trust game, this notional money would be converted into real hard cash.
As player one, how much would you give away to a complete stranger? Well if you happen to have an electroencephalograph (EEG) handy, you can find out without ever needing to play. An EEG records your brain activity by measuring the electrical pulses generated by the brain’s cells through a series of electrodes placed on your scalp. In this study, the researchers found that they could predict the amount of money the initial player would trust to the stranger purely based on the activity recorded by the EEG.

A state of trust

But what makes this finding even more interesting is that the EEG recording was taken several minutes before the trust game began. At this point, the staff running the experiment had not asked the participants to think about the game of trust. What the EEG recorded was the resting state of the participants' brains when not involved in tasks – relatively calm – rather than the heightened activity associated with performing mental or physical tasks.
Resting state brain activity is thought to be relatively stable over time. So the fact that the experimenters were able to predict the investment that player one would make to the stranger, player two, was purely based on this resting state activity. And it shows that initial levels of trust may be determined by an underlying pattern of brain activity.
So, returning to those who have unfortunately answered our Nigerian prince, or foreign businessman, or even opened the door to a man “from the electricity board”, what this study perhaps indicates is that, regardless of the contents of the email or how convincing the con is, we are already subject to an unconscious bias as to whether or not we will trust that stranger.
Not only are some of us physically more inclined to trust strangers than others, but that susceptibility can be determined by any unscrupulous character who happens to have an EEG scanner to hand.

Originally published on The Conversation

Why losing weight is hard – but not impossible

Seeing pictures of preened celebrities, or even slimmer friends, makes many wish that their arms were that little bit thinner or abs more tightly toned. Most of us have an existing desire to be a normal healthy weight, but not everyone seems able to achieve this goal.
A government report on obesity, recently published by the Department of Health, states that in England most people can be classified as being overweight or obese – 61.9% of adults and 28% of children currently have an unhealthy body mass index (BMI). The government is calling these increasing national obesity levels an “epidemic”, issuing policy changes at an individual, group and societal level. But just how is it that the nation is getting so much rounder?

Addicted to calories

Take a trip to your local supermarket and you will instantly be overwhelmed with the abundance of highly-processed junk food which lines the shelves. This widespread availability of unhealthy treats means there is a constant temptation to overindulge.
This contemporary taste for junk food is not exactly a modern phenomenon, and can be traced back two million years. Our ancestors, the first in the Homo genus, developed a taste for high-calorie foods in order to satisfy the energy demands of their burgeoning brains. The 21st-century person has retained these fatty-food cravings, as well as the highly developed large brain. While resisting these high-calorie temptations may fall to the individual, some people may show more addictive behaviours than others.

Too tempting to not have it all. ChameleonsEye

The brain’s limbic system is responsible for falling to these temptations. The limbic system is made up of a collection of brain structures, including the amygdalahippocampus and nucleus accumbens. It rewards us for performing behaviours which aid our survival, like eating or exercising, through the release of the chemical dopamine.
Dopamine makes you feel happy and positive, meaning we are much more likely to repeat the behaviour which led to its release. Engaging with recreational drugs can initially cause the brain to release much higher levels of dopamine than normal. In those with a well-developed substance-dependency, the brain lowers the levels of naturally produced dopamine in an attempt to regain some chemical balance. This leads to a vicious cycle of addiction in which the addict needs more of the substance just to achieve normal levels of dopamine.
Scientists have begun to apply what they know about the brain and addiction to study the relationship between overweight individuals and overeating. Research done by the Harvard Medical School found that processed food with a high glycemic index led to increased activations in the nucleus accumbens of overweight participants.
As part of the limbic reward system, the nucleus accumbens has been linked with chronic drug use and addiction. These findings provide some support for the possibility of real physical addiction to food and overeating. Eating sugary, fatty foods which you enjoy may lead to the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, motivating you to repeat these particular eating patterns.

Negative attitudes to weight gain

It is the hope that such research may aid the government and the individual in their mission to tackle that pesky inflated BMI. Perhaps if we understand more about influencing factors on chronic overeating, we can better target effective treatment avenues.
That, though, hasn’t stopped people with negative attitudes. Recently, a former Apprentice contestant Katie Hopkins came under fire for “fat-shaming”. She is working on a documentary for American TV in which, having gained about 25kg earlier this year, she is hoping to show how easy it is to lose weight.
Hopkins and many others place the blame of obesity on idleness, a negative attitude which can be damaging and counterproductive. Shaming people is never a useful way to bring about change. In fact, these sorts of attitudes can prove more detrimental in the quest for weight loss.

It’s not just about fat

In some cases these negative beliefs about oneself can lead to a lowered self-esteem, a lack of confidence and even depressive episodes. As with most addictions, depression and depressive thoughts are much more common among the overweight population. The label of “depression” however can attract more unwanted stigma and criticism, despite the fact that one in four people a year will experience some kind of mental health problem.
Mental health issues are physical problems which a person cannot just ignore or snap out of. Mental illness cause physiological changes to the brain. The “feel-good” chemical serotonin is diminished in the depressed brain, leading to intense sadness and a low mood.
Drug treatments for depression aim to increase the levels of serotonin in the brain. However, it is a more complex picture than a simple chemical imbalance. If we look at the brain of a depressed person, there are certain structures which are smaller than average and have fewer neural connections. The hippocampus in particular is affected, the area associated with controlling memory. There is also increased activity in certain regions of the brain, for instance the amygdala, which has been linked with the experience of emotions.

BruceBlausCC BY

The hippocampus has a critical role in the processing of long-term memory and memory recollection. Increased exposure to the stress hormone cortisol during episodes of depression can impair the growth of nerve cells in this region of the brain, leading to a significantly smaller hippocampus.
The amygdala is another part of the limbic system, and is comprised of a group of structures in the brain which are associated with emotions such as anger, pleasure and fear. Activity in the amygdala is higher when a person is sad or clinically depressed. This increased activity means that a depressed person may feel the emotion of sadness more strongly and consistently.

Tailoring treatments

In light of the physiological changes which can occur in the brain of the overweight individual, it seems some acknowledgement is in order. Losing weight is not easy. It isn’t as simple as “eat less” or “stop being lazy”. What is required is some sensitivity, some patience and better treatment options. Most people know from experience that eating less or more healthily is hard. If you decided to lose weight, you must first motivate yourself to overcome negative mood or lowered self-esteem, and then overcome the addiction to the food.
It is not all doom and gloom. While losing weight is difficult, it isn’t impossible. It may be possible to train your brain to prefer healthier food. In a recent study, a group of overweight individuals were enrolled on a weight-loss programme designed by researchers, in which they were given portion-controlled menus and recipe plans. Brain scans were taken of the individuals enrolled in the programme and compared to overweight people in a group that didn’t participate in the programme.
When presented with images of low-calorie food, those in the weight-loss condition showed significantly more activity in the reward centres of the brain. The programme was successfully able to reverse the addictive power of unhealthy foods.
Addiction can also be targeted through behavioural treatments. In more difficult cases cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) may be useful to help patients recognise, avoid and cope with situations in which they are most likely to over-indulge. However, an excellent, fun and successful alternative to CBT could be to join a local weight loss group. Weight loss groups provide social support, proven to be an effective and economical tool in tackling obesity. Group support and discussion provides the opportunity to share diet and exercise tips, receive encouragement and set realistic weight-loss goals.
Education about the plight of weight loss is essential. Words of judgement may be better replaced with words of encouragement. There are obstacles which stand in the way of weight loss, but by learning about these obstacles we are better equipped to tackle them.

Originally published on The Conversation

How your brain decides who to make friends with when you start university

Every year there are many nervous people across the country ready to embark upon a new chapter in life: university. For many young people going to university means moving away from home for the first time. Relinquishing the comfort blanket of the friendship group you’ve formed throughout your school years and heading out into the big bad world on your own.
I remember my first day moving into student halls of residence. I had a fleeting moment as the door closed behind my parents in which I felt timid and alone. This quickly passed when I heard a rapping on my bedroom door and four friendly faces greeted me. With a matter of minutes to collect my thoughts, I was introduced to the people who would be my friends for the next three years and beyond.
Human beings are intensely social creatures. This social cohesion lies at the heart of our success as a species. We have evolved, much like primates, to find acceptance and belonging in social groups so we may pass on our genetic material to future generations. Humans have been seeking inter-group acceptance for millions of years and this emphasis on social alliances throughout our evolutionary history has helped to shape our brains.

First impressions matter

A 2009 study sought to investigate the brain mechanisms behind first impressions. They found activity in the brain involving ancient neural circuits – the amygdala and posterior cingulate cortex – which have evolved to help us make snap decisions about people. The amygdala has been linked with emotional regulation, and the posterior cingulate cortex is active when assigning value to situations.
With the help of these two brain regions, we really do form our first impressions well within 30 seconds of meeting. You’ll make your conclusions about the person you sit next to on the first day of lectures almost immediately.

Who to make friends with

So your brain is designed to help you quickly target desirable friendships, but how exactly do we form social groups?
Humans have an innate drive to gravitate towards others. This desire is so strong in fact, that social groups can be formed for arbitrary reasons. Experiments conducted at Bristol University in the 1970s split strangers into two groups based on which one of two paintings they preferred. The participants didn’t meet each other, but were asked to distribute virtual money to members of both groups.
Despite no contact, the participants favoured members of their own group. Why did this happen when they had nothing to gain through favouritism? In short, people form their own identities based on which groups they belong to socially. By favouring their own, this meant their group had a higher status.
The simple fact is this: group membership is important to us as human beings. Our brains have actually developed to drive us to seek social interaction, and we can gain real physiological pleasure from the formation of social groups.

Search for social acceptance

An area of the brain called the ventral tegmental area has been implicated in facilitating such social interactions. Karl Deisseroth’s team at Stanford University has recently shown that by increasing activity in this area of the brain, subjects are more inclined to engage in social behaviours and to approach newcomers.
Specifically, they used a technique called optogenetics, in which light was used to stimulate neuronal populations in this brain circuit in mice. Stimulating the ventral tegmental area led to an increase in social interactions, whereas inhibiting activity led to a decrease in social interactions.
The ventral tegmental area is a part of our brain’s reward system. It communicates with other brain regions through the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is responsible for feelings of pleasure. This pleasurable feeling we enjoy when conversing with people at the student union bar isn’t just attributable to that second pint of cider and black, but is motivation from your brain to pursue social acceptance.

It’s not just the cider talking. Subcity RadioCC BY-NC-ND

So we know that it is a profound aspect of human nature to seek group membership and approval. Moving to university will provide you with ample opportunity to form new social circles. Perhaps it’ll be your neighbours, your course mates, or even a fellow society member. But are there certain circumstances in which we’ll favour joining one group over another?

The closer, the better

One study sought to examine the choice of friends among university students living in the same apartment block. This research showed that the formation of social ties was predicted by the physical and functional proximity between where the students lived. Put simply, people befriended their direct neighbours.
This effect was stronger than friendships forming between two people with similar beliefs or interests. It seems convenience is best when making friends. So those who have rooms near yours or who you see every day in lectures will likely be the people you bond with.
While moving to university for the first time can be a daunting prospect, remember the human brain has been dealing with social pressures for many years. University is a time when you will meet lots of friendly faces from a variety of backgrounds. Trust in your brain, and you’ll navigate these daunting social scenarios like a pro.

Originally published on The Conversation.

Scared out your mind: Halloween, fear and the brain

Children and adults alike are digging out those spooky costumes ready for a celebration. We’ve reached that time of year again: Halloween. October 31 is dedicated to remembering the dead.
We’ve all experienced fear, but Halloween is the particular time of year when we look for that rush that usually accompanies feeling scared. Are you in need of a “scare-specialist” for this year’s Halloween celebrations? Then you need not look further than your very own brain.
Perhaps you’ll be spending Halloween watching A Nightmare on Elm Street with your hands over your eyes? Or maybe you’d rather wander around a haunted house waiting for ghouls and critters to pop out of unseen annexes? Whatever your tastes may be, when faced with such spine-tingling situations your brain enters into fight-or-flight mode. This mode is a primitive survival mechanism in which your body undergoes a stress response to a perceived threat in your surrounding environment.
Mental threat
While this reaction originally developed to help our ancestors circumvent predators in a world filled with danger, it is more common today for us to experience such feelings in response to mental threats. Mental threats are threats which are unlikely to harm us physically, but those which are more likely to cause some psychological distress.
The fight-or-flight response is handled by your amygdala – the part of your brain involved in the experience of emotion. This ancient brain system is an integral part of fear processing, but it is unable to distinguish between a physical or a mental threat. So while sweaty palms and anxiety may make more sense in the presence of a hungry bear, they also manifest in undesirable scenarios such as during job interviews or scary films.
There is plenty of evidence to support the involvement of the amygdala with fear processing. Impressively, when this brain region was completely removed in rats they no longer displayed fearful or avoidance behaviours towards their sworn mortal enemy – the cat.
So when that creepy atmospheric music in your horror movie starts to get louder and louder, and the sudden appearance of the masked murderer makes you jump, this will act as a stimulus which will trigger a signal in your amygdala. In response to a perceived threat, it releases a brain chemical called glutamate, which acts on two other regions of your brain. The first signal is sent deep into the base of the brain, into an area called the mid-brain, which we have little control over. This makes us freeze or involuntarily jump, which isn’t great if you’ve got a box of popcorn in your lap.
The second signal is sent to the hypothalamus, a section of the brain responsible for producing hormones. The hypothalamus triggers our autonomic nervous system – which is how our fight or flight instinct starts to kick in. The heart rate and blood pressure go up, and adrenaline and dopamine (the brain’s “reward hormone”) are pumped throughout the body. This helps our bodies to prepare for deadly combat or for the run of our lives, and it is why you feel such a rush whenever you’re scared.
Why some people like it
Some people actually enjoy these experiences of fear and the accompanying rush more than others. Perhaps you’re one of those individuals who watches terrifying films throughout the year or seeks out extreme sports or risky activities.
There is emerging evidence that our underlying brain chemistry may also be responsible for individual differences in the enjoyment of being afraid. David Zald and colleagues from Vanderbilt University showed that people differed in their chemical responses to thrilling situations.
We know that dopamine is released in response to scary and thrilling situations, but in those who reported enjoying such terrifying situations, their brain lacks a “brake” on the dopamine release and re-uptake in the brain. This means that they experience more pleasure and reward in spooky or risky situations from even higher levels of dopamine in the brain. While some of you may cower at the mere mention of Freddy Krueger, others will feel the bubbles of excitement beginning to brew.
So if you get your kicks from ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night, this is probably why.
Kira Shaw is one of the Sheffield NeuroGirls @Shef_NeuroGirls
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.