In Brief

  • The baby blues aren’t just for women who give birth — they can affect parents who adopt, as well, concludes research in April’s Western Journal of Nursing Research (Vol. 32, No. 3). Lead study author Karen J. Foli, PhD, RN, of Purdue University’s School of Nursing, interviewed 21 parents of children who were adopted from infancy to age 12. She found that those parents’ depression symptoms — such as deflated mood, extreme weight changes, and sleeping too much or too little — matched postpartum depression in parents who’d had children through birth. Foli says that adoptive parents’ unrealistic expectations about support from family members or bonding with their children appears to contribute to postpartum depression.

  • Losing your ability to smell doesn’t result in a related loss of taste, contrary to some previous research, say Richard L. Doty, PhD, of the University of Pennsylvania, and his colleagues in April’s Behavioral Neuroscience (Vol. 124, No. 2). The researchers recruited 581 students to take taste tests in which they sampled solutions that represented sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Then they were asked to identify those solutions blindly. Another 451 participants were hooked up to a machine that electrically excited their taste nerves to varying intensities. All of the participants took a test to measure their smelling abilities. The researchers found that people with impaired olfactory abilities did just as well on both tests as those whose smelling was intact, suggesting that the loss of smell had no adverse impact on taste, although the overall sensation of flavor could still be affected.

  • Self-esteem peaks in men and women at age 60 but drops off precipitously after that, finds Ulrich Orth, PhD, at the University of Basel in Switzerland. Orth and colleagues surveyed 3,617 adults at four times from 1986 to 2002 on self-esteem measures and life circumstances. The researchers, who published their findings in April’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 98, No. 4), suggest that the relative stability of career and family life in middle age contributes to high self-esteem but that retirement, declining health and an “empty nest” can all detract from it.

  • Training with an aggressive team member ruins it for everybody, suggests an article in press in Personality and Individual Differences. Researchers, headed by East Carolina University’s Mark Bowler, PhD, paired 142 undergraduates into teams that then played a flight-simulator video game that could be played either as a team or as individuals. Of the 142 students in the experiment, 18 were identified as aggressive by the Conditional Reasoning Test of Aggression. Students who were paired with the aggressive teammates performed more poorly, both as a team and as individuals, than teams made up of two nonaggressive students. Interestingly, nonaggressive teammates worked together better when they had similar ideas about teamwork. That didn’t hold true for teams of aggressive and nonaggressive students.

  • Children of parents who commit suicide are three times more likely to commit suicide themselves than children whose parents are living, finds an article in May’s Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (Vol. 49, No. 5). Lead author Holly Wilcox, PhD, of Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, and colleagues looked at records of 500,000 young people in Sweden who lost their parents to suicide and compared those suicide rates against a population of 4 million young people with living parents. The study suggests that developmental, environmental and genetic factors all influence suicide risk, and that children whose parents do commit suicide need quick intervention.

  • People with Williams syndrome don’t seem to form racial stereotypes, finds research in April’s Current Biology (Vol. 20, No. 7). People with the disorder, which is characterized in part by mild to moderate mental retardation, difficulty understanding spatial relationships and extremely gregarious behavior, are socially fearless, say researchers from the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, and the Mediterranean Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in Marseille, France. The researchers suggest that the unusually enthusiastic friendliness of people with Williams syndrome, even toward strangers, prevents racial biases from forming in the first place. However, gender biases do appear, leading researchers to believe that social fear plays a part in racial but not gender stereotyping.

  • Impaired theory-of-mind processes might be behind the difficulty people have with social tasks when they have damage to their right brain hemispheres, finds Ethan Weed, PhD, of the University of Aarhus in Denmark. As reported in May’s Brain and Language (Vol. 113, No. 2), Weed and colleagues showed a control group and 11 participants with right hemisphere damage two sets of videos: one that presented geometric shapes as characters that interact with other shapes and another in which shapes moved around but there was no guiding story. The people with damaged right hemispheres had more difficultly distinguishing between the two sets than the control group and were less likely to identify the shapes as intentional agents, indicating an impaired theory of mind. The researchers suggest that either temporal-parietal damage to the right hemisphere could impair their ability to process motion or damage to the frontal lobe could interfere with “task switching,” which lets brains know when to switch from observing motion to considering intentions and emotional states.

  • Stress makes you forget names, birthdays and other socially relevant memories, says Christian Merz, PhD, at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany. In a study reported in April’s Behavioral Neuroscience (Vol. 124, No. 2), Merz and his colleagues asked participants to recall biographical memories twice — once in a calm setting and once after giving a stressful impromptu public speech. The participants did far worse after giving a speech. Participants’ saliva samples indicate that their cortisol levels spiked while giving the talk, which supports the idea that stress hormones interfere with the hippocampus’s ability to recall memories.

  • Older adults make better health-care decisions when they are given information that recognizes their emotional states, rather than just straight information, according to an article in March’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied (Vol. 16, No. 1). A research team led by Joseph Mikels, PhD, at Stanford University, asked 60 people ages 18 to 30 and 60 people ages 65 to 85 about their health-care preferences and needs, then had them read about hypothetical health-care options, such as whether they can obtain care outside their network and whether dental care is covered. These options were skewed to focus either on emotions or on blunt information. The participants then made choices based on this information. Young people made better choices (in line with their preferences) when they were given lots of facts, but the older adults did better when the language appealed to their emotions.

  • It’s almost impossible to ignore an emotional face, conclude Elizabeth Blagrove, PhD, and Derrick Watson, PhD, at the University of Warwick in England. In their research, in April’s Emotion (Vol. 10, No. 2), the two asked participants to hunt for the unique facial expression in a picture made up of many identical facial expressions. For example, participants would try to find the smiling face among a sea of frowning faces. Participants consistently took longer to find the happy face in the crowd of sad faces than the other way around. This suggests, say the researchers, that the brain spends more time processing negative facial expressions so as to accurately decide the best way to respond.

  • People with acute PTSD experience similar memory and executive system impairments as those with chronic PTSD, finds an article in press in Psychiatry Research. McGill University’s Alain Brunet, PhD, and colleagues administered tests to examine memory and executive functioning skills, such as inhibition, attention and cognitive flexibility to three groups: 21 people with acute PTSD, 16 who were exposed to trauma but not diagnosed with PTSD, and a control group that had not been exposed to trauma. The acute PTSD group performed worse on the tests than both the undiagnosed group and the control group, both of which performed similarly. That similarity indicates that exposure to trauma alone isn’t enough to trigger these deficits, the researchers say.

  • Your brain’s mirror-neuron system activates when you see people similar to you but not when you’re watching people in “out” groups, finds an article in press in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Researchers from the University of Toronto showed 30 participants videos of people from both their ethnic in-group and out-group performing a simple action. EEG recordings of the participants showed that their motor cortices — home of the mirror-neuron system, which is thought to help sync people’s emotional and cognitive states — were highly active while watching in-group members but relatively dormant when watching the out-group. If the results extrapolate to the general population, the researchers say, it could mean we may unintentionally ignore or misinterpret out-group members’ feelings and intentions.

—M. Price