In Brief

  • DepressedBipolar women who experience premenstrual mood changes could have more frequent and severe depressive symptoms, too, according to a study by Rodrigo Dias, MD, at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and colleagues. The researchers examined data from approximately 300 women diagnosed with bipolar disorder and found that those who reported mood disturbances before menstruation also reported more depressive episodes and more severe symptoms in the following year than other women with bipolar disorder. Because estrogen and other reproductive hormones affect mood, the researchers say, it could be especially important to monitor the mental health of women with bipolar disorder following childbirth or during menopause. (In press in The American Journal of Psychiatry.)
  • Insurance coverage for people seeking substance abuse treatment won’t lead to an uptick in people seeking treatment and won’t raise insurance costs, according to findings by researchers at Harvard Medical School and RAND Corporation. The researchers looked at data from federal workers, who have had mental health insurance parity since 2001. Researchers compared treatment usage and insurance costs from the two years before mental health parity took effect and the two years after. They found that beneficiaries didn’t use the treatment more often once it was covered by insurance. Also, while out-of-pocket costs dropped for those who sought treatment, the amount the government paid per user did not significantly increase. (Psychiatric Services, Vol. 62, No. 2.)
  • Changing your lifestyle to include a better diet and more exercise, time outdoors or helping others could offer relief from such mental health disorders as depression and anxiety, says psychiatrist Robert Walsh, MD, PhD, of the University of California, Irvine, College of Medicine. In a meta-analysis of current research into what Walsh calls “therapeutic lifestyle changes,” he found that regular exercise reduces feelings of depression and anxiety and boosts cognitive performance; vegetable-, fruit- and fish-heavy diets reduce symptoms of affective and schizophrenic disorders; spending time in nature promotes general well-being; and participating in community service enhances feelings of love, joy and generosity. (In press in American Psychologist.)
  • A hormone known as insulin-like growth factor 2 has been shown to prevent forgetting in rats, finds new research led by neuroscientist Cristina Alberini, PhD, at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. The researchers put rats in an environment in which every time they stepped on a dark spot, they received a mild shock. Previous research has shown that during such fear learning, the brain naturally produces IGF-II, so the researchers directly injected synthetic IGF-II into rats’ hippocampi shortly after their initial exposure to the environment. Rats that received this injection remembered to avoid the shock spots for several weeks, whereas rats that hadn’t forgot much more quickly. The researchers theorize that IGF-II works by strengthening existing connections between neurons. (Nature, Vol. 469, No. 7,331.)
  • Having an abortion does not increase a woman’s risk for developing a mental disorder, according to a study by researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark. Though other studies have found this as well, critics have pointed to such faults as small sample sizes and selection biases. To overcome those objections, the researchers looked at health records collected between 1995 and 2007 on 84,620 women in Denmark who had first-trimester abortions. They found that women who had an abortion were no more likely to report mental health problem to their health providers before their abortion than up to a year after it. (New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 364, No. 4.)
  • FirefighterHands-on training is the best way to prevent job-related injuries when it comes to hazardous work, but it’s not essential for those with less dangerous jobs, according to research led by psychologist Michael J. Burke, PhD, at Tulane University. The researchers performed a meta-analysis of 113 safety training studies conducted since 1971 containing data on 24,700 workers in 16 countries. They used the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Injury and Illness Classification System to sort out which jobs were more hazardous than others. For the most dangerous jobs — which included miners and firefighters — the researchers found that hands-on training and simulation prevented significantly more injuries and deaths than training that only involved films, lectures and other more passive types of learning. However, at less dangerous jobs, the type of safety training made no difference. (Journal of Applied Psychology, Vol. 96, No. 1.)
  • A controlled diet could help alleviate symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in children, according to a new study. Researchers at Radboud University in The Netherlands enrolled 100 children diagnosed with ADHD in the study. They assigned half to a control group and with the other half, they restricted the children’s diet to foods such as rice, white meat and fruits and vegetables, and excluded potentially allergenic foods, such as tomatoes, dairy, wheat and eggs. More than half of the children in the diet group showed improvement in their symptoms. Among these children, the researchers gradually and selectively added back into their diets excluded foods and watched to see if the improvements persisted or disappeared. Different children’s symptoms reacted to different foods, the researchers found, indicating that selectively investigating and controlling the diets of children with ADHD could help manage the disorder’s symptoms. (The Lancet, Vol. 377, No. 9,764.)
  • WalkingPhysical exercise could help improve memory in seniors, according to psychologist Kirk Erickson, PhD, at the University of Pittsburgh. He tested the effects of aerobic exercise on 120 adults with an average age of about 60. After a year, those who participated in exercise — walking around a track or doing yoga or resistance training — performed better on spatial memory tests after exercising. Walking provided the greatest benefit. Brain scans also revealed that the brains of those in the walking group had increased in volume by 2 percent on average. The other exercisers’ brains decreased in volume by about 1.4 percent, which is normal for that age period, the researchers say. The findings indicate that while any exercise is good for memory, walking seems to provide the best protection against aging-related brain shrinkage. (In press in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.)
  • Men’s ogling could hinder women’s math performance, finds a new study by psychologists Sarah J. Gervais, PhD, and Jill Allen, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and Theresa K. Vescio, PhD, at Pennsylvania State University. The researchers recruited 150 undergraduate students, both men and women, and measured their math performance, body shame, body dissatisfaction and willingness to have future interactions with someone who gazed leeringly at them. The researchers found that being the object of such a gaze didn’t increase people’s body shame or dissatisfaction, and women reported being motivated to have future interactions with the gazer. The researchers also found that women’s but not men’s math performance declined after being gazed at. The researchers theorize that an objectifying gaze reinforces women’s beliefs that their looks are more important than their abilities, which causes them to underperform. (In press in Psychology of Women Quarterly.)
  • Different types of love derive from different patterns of neural activation, according to researchers from Syracuse University, West Virginia University and Geneva University Psychiatric Center in Switzerland. Lead researcher and neuropsychologist Stephanie Ortigue, PhD, and colleagues performed a meta-analysis of fMRI studies looking at passionate love’s effects on the brain compared to other types of love, such as maternal and platonic. The researchers found that while all types of love involve activation of the subcortical reward systems, including both dopamine and oxytocin responses, different kinds of love trigger different brain and nervous system networks. Unconditional love between a parent and a child, for example, triggers activation in the midbrain; passionate love activates about a dozen different brain areas including the thalamus, hippocampus and occipital-temporal cortex. The researchers also found that it takes about 200 milliseconds for the brain to switch from “meh” to “wow!” when looking at pictures of people whom they did or did not find attractive. (Journal of Sexual Medicine, Vol. 7, No. 11.)
  • Two separate neural circuits contribute to anxiety, find researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and Cambridge University in England. The researchers used fMRI to monitor the brain activity of 23 participants who repeatedly watched a figure put his hands over his ears and scream. Sometimes the scream was loud and jolting, while other times it was completely silent, creating a sense of anxiety in the participants. Brain scans showed that those with hyperactive amygdalas developed a greater fear of the loud scream than those with regular activity, but the scans also showed that the more fearful group had lower activation of the ventral prefrontal cortex. Together these findings suggest that depending on which neural circuit is most responsible for anxiety in an individual, different cognitive therapies or drug treatments might be more effective. (In press in Neuron.)
  • TestingIncorrectly guessing on a test doesn’t affect a student’s ability to recall the right answer later on, according to a new study. Building on research that has shown that testing improves knowledge retention, researchers led by Sean H. K. Kang, PhD, and Harold Pashler, PhD, of the University of California, San Diego, tested 65 undergraduate students to discover whether incorrectly guessing the answer would influence them to make that same mistake on a later test. In three different experiments, the students were given obscure questions and occasionally forced to hazard a guess. In one experiment, students received the correct answer immediately after guessing; in another, they received the correct answers at the end of the test; and in the third, they provided a plausible answer to a question such as “Why do ice cubes pop in your drink while melting?” before receiving the correct answer. The next day, the students retook their tests and the researchers found that previous guessing had no effect on their scores. (In press in the Journal of Educational Psychology.)

—M. Price