Monday, March 19, 2018

Your Stress is Hurting My Brain

Image result for stress contagion effect

It has been known for some time that stress and emotions can be contagious, especially when they occur in people we are particularly close to and care about.  When someone is stressed out, those around them can feel the stress and come to experience it themselves. Similarly with emotions. When we are constantly around people experiencing negative emotions we begin to feel the same way.  One of the most researched area looking at these types of associations has shown that living with someone who is depressed or anxious can lead us to become depressed or anxious. The effects of stress has been shown to not just be emotional in nature.  Stress has been shown to permanently alter our brains in terms of brain chemistry, structure and function.

Now, a new study suggest that we should be more concerned about second hand
stress.  The study, conducted by a team at the Cumming School of Medicine's
Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI), at the University of Calgary suggests that stress in
one person can alter the brain of another person the same way that real stress does.  
Using a mouse model, the study also indicated that the effects of stress on the brain
were reversed in female mice after a social interaction. However, this was not the case
for the male mice.

Using pairs of mice, one mouse from the pair was exposed to a stressor then returned
to its partner who had not been exposed.  They responses of CRH neurons which
control the brain’s reaction to stress were then examined in both mice. It was found
that the brains of both mice were affected in exactly the same way.

This study was found to be particularly important because brain changes associated
with stress are thought to underlie  many mental disorders including PTSD, depression
and anxiety disorders. It is not known at this time whether stress experienced through
contagion has lasting or permanent effects on the brain.  
Jaideep Bains, the lead researcher for the study said,  "We readily communicate our stress to others, sometimes without even knowing it. There is even evidence that some symptoms of stress can persist in family and loved ones of individuals who suffer from PTSD. On the flip side, the ability to sense another's emotional state is a key part of creating and building social bonds."
This study demonstrates that stress and social interactions are closely connected. The
outcomes of these relationships can be long-lasting.  They may alter our emotions,
physiology, neurology and behaviors over a lengthy period or the effects may resurface
at a later time. The degree to which the changes may be irreversible is unclear and the
question needs further study. 
Toni-Lee Sterley, Dinara Baimoukhametova, Tamás Füzesi, Agnieszka A. Zurek,
Nuria Daviu, Neilen P. Rasiah, David Rosenegger, Jaideep S. Bains (2018). Social
transmission and buffering of synaptic changes after stress. Nature Neuroscience.
DOI: 10.1038/s41593-017-0044-6

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Study Shows That Holding Hand Can Decrease Pain

A new study suggests that holding hands with someone we love leads not only to a
sense of connection but that it can cause our breathing, brain waves and heart rates
to sync  and can even decrease physical pain.  Couples who had been together for
at least a year were put in different situations involving being in the room together or
not in the same room and touching or not touching.  Woman were exposed to mild
heat related pain. When both were in the same room, regardless of whether or not
they were touching, synchronicity of brain waves occurred, especially for wavelengths
associated with sustained attention.

The synchronization was strongest when when the pair was holding hands and the
woman was in pain.  It was concluded that touch is an important part of easing pain,
just being together isn’t enough.  It was further concluded that pain interrupts the
interpersonal synchronization that is experienced normally by couples and that touch
re-establishes it.  

Results also showed that when the woman’s male partner felt empathetic toward
her, brain wave synchronization increased and pain decreased even more.  It was
hypothesized that when we sense that someone else feels our pain it helps us to
better manage it.  This study expands upon the first one published from this
research which showed touch led to a similar decrease in pain and an increase in
synchronization in heart rate and breathing rate between partners.  The two studies
showed that the intensity of pain averaged a 34% reduction for individuals  when
holding hands.   It’s important to note, however, that this research did not explore
the effect in homosexual couples or non-romantic partners.


Goldstein, P., Weissman-Fogel, I., & Shamay-Tsoory, S. G. (2017). The role of touch
in regulating inter-partner physiological coupling during empathy for pain. Scientific
Reports, 7(1), 3252.

Peled-Avron, L., Goldstein, P., Yellinek, S., Weissman-Fogel, I., & Shamay-Tsoory, S. G. (2017). Empathy during consoling touch is modulated by mu-rhythm: An EEG study. Neuropsychologia.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Anxiety Can Help You Remember

A new study conducted at the University of Waterloo has determined that manageable levels of anxiety can actually help your ability to remember details of events. It was also found that when anxiety levels increase to an unmanageable level or when anxiety turns into fear, it could lead to people remembering primarily what is associated with the negative mood state.  Also, they are likely to interpret neutral aspects of their experiences as being associated with the anxiety or fear as well as with thoughts, beliefs and interpretations related to their high anxiety level.
The study showed that participants who were high in anxiety displayed a heightened sensitivity to the effects of emotional context on their memory. Neutral details were interpreted according to the emotion experienced while encoding the information. This means that thinking about highly emotional events or negative events could cause you to develop a negative mindset that alters the way you perceive your environment.  
It is important for us to be aware of how our mood states might be affecting how we view and interact with the world.  This may not be possible to do when in the actual mood state.  Instead, trying to think about this relationship when not in the fearful or anxious state of mind might better enable us to see how our views were changed when experiencing the negative mood and better understand the connection.  The more we are aware of this relationship the better we will be at perceiving it during negative mood states as well.
The ability to manage your anxiety however, can lead to positive outcomes.  When we perceive our anxiety as controllable we do not experience it as severely as when we believe it to be out of our control. When it is manageable it doesn’t become the primary focus of our lives because we know we can always do something about it should it become necessary.  
Unmanageable or uncontrollable anxiety, on the other hand, leads to distress and a constant focus on the mood state since we feel overwhelmed by the anxiety and constantly worry it will get worse.  This attention to the anxiety makes it the center of our world and thus, everything becomes colored by it.  The moral of this study is that it is important to work on learning as many coping strategies for managing anxiety as possible. While we can’t get rid of all the anxiety and stress in our world, by learning how to control it and decrease it, we will be more likely to experience the positive effects of anxiety on our memory.
It is also important for educator to be aware that there could be anxiety related factors that influence student ability to remember the material they are being taught. Lightening the mood while teaching could be beneficial for students, especially those who experience high levels of school and performance related anxiety.  
Lee, C., & Fernandes, M., (2017).. Emotional Encoding Context Leads to Memory Bias in Individuals with High Anxiety. Brain Sciences, 8 (2): 6 DOI: 10.3390/brainsci8010006

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Curcumin May Improve Memory and Mood According to New Study

Now there’s even more reason to love Indian food. The substance that gives curry its bright yellow color is curcumin. New research has shown that certain forms of curcumin can help improve memory and mood individuals with age related memory loss.  Curcumin, found in turmeric, has long been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It also has been hypothesized that curcumin as a dietary supplement could contribute to the low prevalence rate of Alzheimer's disease and better cognitive performance in India.
The research, published online Jan. 19 2018 in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, examined the effects of an curcumin supplement on memory performance in individuals without dementia.  Also studied, was the possible impact of curcumin’s on the plaques and tangles which are hallmark brain symptoms of those with the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease.  Results of the study indicated that those who took curcumin demonstrated significant improvements in their memory and attention, while the subjects who received placebo did not improve in either area. Those taking curcumin showed improvements of 28 percent on memory tests over 18 months and showed improvements in mood.  
"Exactly how curcumin exerts its effects is not certain, but it may be due to its ability to reduce brain inflammation, which has been linked to both Alzheimer's disease and major depression," said Dr. Gary Small, director of geriatric psychiatry at UCLA's Longevity Center and of the geriatric psychiatry division at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, and the study's first author." “These results suggest that taking this relatively safe form of curcumin could provide meaningful cognitive benefits over the years.”, UCLA's Parlow-Solomon Professor on Aging.


Gary W. Small, Prabha Siddarth, Zhaoping Li, Karen J. Miller, Linda Ercoli, Natacha D. Emerson, Jacqueline Martinez, Koon-Pong Wong, Jie Liu, David A. Merrill, Stephen T. Chen, Susanne M. Henning, Nagichettiar Satyamurthy, Sung-Cheng Huang, David Heber, Jorge R. Barrio. Memory and Brain Amyloid and Tau Effects of a Bioavailable Form of Curcumin in Non-Demented Adults: A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled 18-Month Trial. The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 2017; DOI: 10.1016/j.jagp.2017.10.010

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Health Care Provider Fined Millions for Failure to Protect Health Records

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has settled a lawsuit with 21st Century Oncology, Inc. (21CO) involving their failure to protect health care records of millions of people.  The settlement includes a has $2.3 million fine which has been agreed to instead of possible civil money penalties which could have amounted to much more.  21CO has also agreed to put into place a complete corrective action plan to remediate current problems and prevent future violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy and Security Rules.
The case was initiated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) who informed 21CO that they had determined that patient information had been illegally accessed by an unauthorized third party. They provided 21CO with patient files that an FBI informant had illegally bought. 21CO conducted an internal investigation, through an outside forensic auditing firm.  It was determined that the attacker accessed health care records through a Remote Desktop Protocol from an Server housed within 21CO’s internal network. The company learned that more than 2.2 million people had their medical information illegally accessed.  Information obtained by the attacker included patient names, social security numbers, physicians’ names, diagnoses, treatment and insurance information.

The HHS subsequent investigation determined that 21CO engaged in the following illegal activities:
  • Unauthorized disclosure of Personal Health Information (PHI)
  • Failure to thoroughly evaluate possible risks to confidentiality of PHI
  • Failure to impose security measure that were effective in reducing the risk to PHI and to comply with HHS requirements
  • Failure to hold regular review of system information activity including audit logs, access reports, and security incident tracking reports
  • Disclosed information to individuals and entities it allowed to act as business associates without written business associate agreements

21CO provides cancer care and oncological radiation services. While their headquarters is located in Fort Myers, Florida, the company has 179 treatment centers which operate in 17 states and seven countries in Latin America.  Filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May 2017, 21CO received permission from the bankruptcy court to agree to the settlement agreement.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

New Study Suggests Diabetes Drug May Help Reverse Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease

A new study carried out at Lancaster University in England indicates that a drug used to treat diabetes significantly reverses memory loss and brain degeneration in mice.  This research utilized mice who had been bred to express genes indicated in Alzheimer’s disease in humans effectively creating a rodent version of the disease.
The diabetes drug, called a triple receptor, combines three molecules known as growth factors.  The drug was used to treat mice who had been allowed to age which gave the disease time to develop fully and damage the animal’s brain. After administering the drug, the mice underwent a maze test which measured memory.
Results showed that the drug was associated with improved learning and memory skills in the mice. There were also physiological change including a reduced amounts of plaque buildup in the brain, which is a primary characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.  The mice who were given the drug also were found to have reduced levels of chronic inflammation in their brains, slower rates of brain nerve cell loss, and increased brain nerve cell protection. Additionally, the diabetes drug appeared to prevent and even reversed the brain growth impairment that leads to nerve cells losing function ultimately results in some of the classic symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. 
The growth factors in this drug specifically affected growth in the animals' brains.  This is important as the brains of Alzheimer’s patients are shown to display growth impairment. This impairment has been associated with the cognitive decline that occurs in those with the condition.
It is hoped that the same results will be found when human testing occurs leading to an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease and other memory-related illnesses.  According to the lead study researcher Christian Holscher of Lancaster University, the results of this study suggest that the drug in question, "has a clear promise of being developed into a new treatment for chronic neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease."  These findings and the associated indications for the development of future treatment options is particularly exciting, as it has been 15 years since a new Alzheimer’s drug has become available. 
Tai, J., Liu, W., Li, Y., Li, L., & Hölscher, C. (2018). Neuroprotective effects of a triple GLP-1/GIP/glucagon receptor agonist in the APP/PS1 transgenic mouse model of Alzheimer's disease. Brain research, 1678, 64-74.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

New Study Suggests Non-Invasive Treatment for Autism

Following the report of the results of a new research study, scientists are looking at the possibility of treating children with autism with neuromodulation to help correct social deficits.

Research has long established that there are specific areas of the brain responsible for problem behaviors in people with autism.  There has been a great deal of controversy over what implications this information might have for treatment.  Electrical stimulation has been proposed but this has been resisted because treatment should be conducted as early as possible, meaning many of the individuals you would be treating would be children.  Other opposition to such treatment comes from the fact that the primary areas that would be targeted lie deep within the brain and cannot be reliably reached. 

New research from the O'Donnell Brain Institute has demonstrated that a specific part of the cerebellum that has been believed to contribute coordinating movement is actually important for social behaviors in people with autism. This groundbreaking research not only establishes a more accessible target for brain stimulation but it also can help correct social impairments, one of the major areas of difficulties for those with autism.  

While some say this treatment would only be effective with those treated at the very earliest ages, the researchers don’t agree. Using a mouse model, they conducted additional research which seemed to indicate that neuromodulation restored social behaviors even in adult mice. This result suggests individuals with autism still might benefit from brain stimulation intervention  even if treatment is not provided until later in life.

Dr. Peter Tsai, the director of the research study, said, "This is potentially quite a powerful finding,  From a therapeutic standpoint, this part of the cerebellum is an enticing target. And although neuromodulation would not cure the underlying genetic cause of a person's autism, improving social deficits in children with autism could make a huge impact on their quality of life."


Stoodley, C. J., D’Mello, A. M., Ellegood, J., Jakkamsetti, V., Liu, P., Nebel, M. B., Gibson,J. M., Kelly, E., Meng, F.. Cano, C. A., Pascual, J. M., Mostofsky, S. H.. Lerch, J. P. & Tsai, P. T., (2017).  Altered cerebellar connectivity in autism and cerebellar-mediated rescue of autism-related behaviors in mice. Nature Neuroscience, 20 (12): 1744.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Unsynchronized Brain Waves During Sleep Make Us Forget

Likened to a tennis serve where the ball toss and the racket swing must coordinate
perfectly to score an ace, overnight brain waves must sync properly for remembering
to occur, a new study finds.  As with everything, it’s all about timing.  While slow
and fast brain waves are integrated and balanced in younger adults, when we age
slow waves that occur during non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep fail to fully
coordinate with quick electrical bursts known as spindles.

Using tennis terminology, the slow waves are like the toss of the ball, while the fast
waves are like the swing of the racket. If either of these two components are off in
terms of rhythm, the serve will either travel short or long in terms of distance, or go
out of bounds or the racket might even fail to make contact with the ball completely.
In sleep, this mistiming prevents older adults from being able to save new memories.  
These findings explain way older adults often seem able to better remember things
that occurred in the past rather than those that recently occurred.  The study also
suggests that this problem is the result of atrophy of the medial frontal cortex, an
area in the brain responsible for deep sleep which is restorative.  

The good news from this study is that there is now hope for a potential treatment
that could help with memory loss in aging adults.  New studies are being undertaken
to examine the effects of applying electrical stimulation to the frontal lobe of the
brain in an effort to synchronize slow waves with spindles   According to the studies
senior author Matthew Walker, “By electrically boosting these nighttime brainwaves,
we hope to restore some degree of healthy deep sleep in the elderly and those with
dementia, and in doing so, salvage aspects of their learning and memory,"


Helfrich, R. F., Mander, B. A., Jagust, W. J., Knight, R. T. & Walker, M. P. (2017). Old Brains Come Uncoupled in Sleep:  Slow Wave - Spindle Synchrony, Brain Atrophy and Forgetting.. Neuron.  

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Mental Health Myth: Aging Leads to Depression

Myth: Everyone gets depressed as they grow older. It’s just a natural part of the aging process.

Fact: Depression is not a normal part of the aging process. According to the CDC, most seniors are not depressed. Estimates suggest that only about 1 to 5 percent of those living in the community are suffering from depression. However, these figures rise to 13.5 percent for those requiring home healthcare and 11.5 percent of seniors in the hospital. This is still a far cry from equaling the majority of older adults.

It is important to understand that due to changes in roles, decreases in social networks, loss of a spouse, relatives and friends, lack of transportation, loneliness, and change to living environment among other factors, seniors can have an increased risk of depression. However, it is not a biological certainty that older individuals will become depressed.

The belief that depression is a normal part of aging makes it more likely that people will minimize it when it does occur.  This may include the individual themselves and friends and family members all of whom may think treatment isn’t needed if it normal or there is no treatment that will be effective.   Today, increased knowledge and better technology have provided strategies that effectively address and control depression in seniors. There are treatment options specifically developed for older individuals that can help

If an older adult does experiences depression, they need the same support as anyone else. If you are concerned about someone you care about who is older and appears to be suffering from depression, talk to them about getting help.  Offer to accompany them to see a healthcare provider and choose one that specializes in geriatrics.  With the right care, those seniors who do suffer from depression can be cured and can continue to live happy, fulfilling lives.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Five Facts About Senior Loneliness and Isolation that will Shock You

According to the 2016 U.S. Census, almost 30% of those age 65 and older in the U.S live alone. As people get older, the chances they will live alone increases. In addition to this difficulty, according to the AARP, a greater number of older adults do not have children. This translates into fewer relatives to visit and help care for seniors. Living alone does not automatically result in social isolation. However, it is the most significant predisposing factor. The following five facts about senior loneliness and isolation will help you stay informed about this major problem.
  1. Social isolation and feelings of loneliness negatively affect both long term physical and mental health.  Loneliness has been tied to chronic high blood pressure, lung disease, heart disease, arthritis, impaired mobility, depression and anxiety.  Awareness and self-monitoring of physical health and mood can be an important step in getting the help needed.

  2. LGBT seniors are two times more likely to be single, childless, estranged from their biological families and socially isolated than other seniors.  Stigma and discrimination serve as major barriers to support and community involvement.  However, there are increasing numbers of community groups and online resources for aiding these seniors in avoiding social isolation and loneliness.

  3. Social isolation and feelings of loneliness contribute to decreases in mental capacity and increases in the risk of dementia. Since we are social beings, failure to meet our social needs is associated with poorer mental performance and faster cognitive decline.

  4. Social isolation makes seniors more vulnerable to elder abuse.The National Center on Elder Abuse reports that research shows a link between loneliness and social isolation and elder abuse.  It is unclear as to the exact manner in which this occurs.  It is possible that those who are isolated and lonely are more likely to fall victim due to the desire for companionship.  It is also possible that abusers isolate potential victims to prevent discovery.

  5. Loneliness in seniors can actually lead to others purposely isolating them.  This seems like a contradiction.  We would like to believe that when we have a friend or relative who is suffering from loneliness we would try to find some way to help, such as visiting with the person.  Yet research has shown that loneliness breeds loneliness.  When we spend time around someone who is lonely and depressed, we may find we begin to  feel the same way.  Unfortunately, the tendency in such a situation is to further isolate the individual in order to prevent threats to our social cohesion in the form of social exclusion, belonging and marginalization.   

Have you or a friend or family member suffered from loneliness or social isolation during the aging process? What, in your opinion, is the most helpful strategy for reducing this sense of loneliness and  isolation? Join the discussion in the comments section below.