Best and Worst of Psychology and Psychiatry — May 2015

We have been seeing some groundbreaking developments in understanding psychological disorders and how best to treat them this year. It seems that May was the cream on the cake, with game changing advances in autism, schizophrenia and depression research — quite fitting for International Mental Health Awareness Month.

There were two main themes that emerged from the best and worst research: Insights that can help improve how we interact with one another, and insights regarding how chemicals interact with and affect us.

Here’s to International Mental Health Awareness Month and the fantastic researchers that are taking us one step closer to a happier, healthier and wealthier life for us all!


Autism brain may be hyper-functional, not anti-social

Autism is generally considered a form of mental retardation, a brain disease that impairs the ability to learn, feel emotions and empathize. However, new research suggests that initially, early in development, the brains of children that are later diagnosed with autism have supercharged brain circuits that require environmental stability to further develop symptom free.

The study demonstrates that in a rat model of autism, unpredictable environmental stimulation and an impoverished environment drives autistic symptoms. Conversely, predictable stimulation and a pleasant environment can prevent these symptoms. Autistic rats that lived in calm, safe, socially and sensory-rich environments that are highly predictable with little surprise do not develop symptoms of emotional over-reactivity such as fear and anxiety, nor social withdrawal or sensory abnormalities.

The authors suggest that having hyperfunctional brain circuits with advanced processing of the environment leaves autistic children more sensitive to environmental surprises, promoting symptom development. This means that if brain hyper-functionality can be diagnosed soon after birth, we can prevent autism symptom development using highly specialized environmental stimulation that is safe, consistent, controlled, announced and only changed very gradually at the pace determined by each child.

Specific stress-related causes for chemical imbalances in schizophrenia

This revolutionary study published in Neuron is in line with decades of research, finally bringing it all together to paint a more cohesive and less fragmented understanding of schizophrenia. The researchers created the largest ever expansive genetic data set of gene copy number variations (CNVs) that combined three separate studies amounting to 11,355 schizophrenia cases and 16,416 controls. The authors found changes in the number of copies of specific genes and genes with schizophrenia-linked mutations that encode molecules that form complexes central to the induction and maintenance of synaptic plasticity, and provide strong novel evidence for the involvement of stress sensitive changes in GABA inhibition of communication between neurons.

Interestingly, one needs only a subset of genetic changes to disturb these interlinked processes and generate a schizophrenic phenotype. This fits perfectly with why there is so much disease-related genetic variation between schizophrenic individuals.

Pathogenicity in schizophrenia therefore depends upon the total burden of disease relevant genes influenced by copy number variations, with different genes implicated in different individuals depending upon their genetic and environmental context. The authors’ analysis also suggests that there are many more locations in the human genome where CNVs influence the development of schizophrenia that are waiting to be discovered.

Stress-responsive common genetic variants predict risk of psychiatric disease

Work from the MaxPlank Institute of Psychiatry has unwrapped the genetic basis of why some people are more prone to major depression and psychiatric disorders than others when experiencing stressful life events.

The experiments suggest that when cortisol is released during stressful life events, certain genetic mutations result in differences in the transcription of stress-sensitive proteins in the brain and blood, which makes some people more at risk for stress-induced depression and other psychiatric disorders than others. Interestingly, these changes are associated with inappropriate over-reactivity of the amygdala.

By taking a closer look at these genetic variants in future experiments we will take one step closer to the effective prevention and treatment of stress-related psychiatric disorders and mental health problems and promotion of general mental health well-being through stress-response targeted interventions. Watch the video here.

Kid’s altruism linked to improved health despite low income

New research indicates that children’s altruistic behaviors, family wealth and physiological health are closely intertwined. 74 pre-schoolers averaging 4 years old had physiological data, including information about heart rate and vagal tone, recorded while earning tokens that they could trade for prizes at the end of their visit. To test their altruistic behavior the children were given the chance to donate some or all of their prize tokens to imaginary sick children who weren’t able to come to the lab.

The children who sacrificed tokens to help sick kids showed greater vagal flexibility during the task. Vagal tone is a measure of tension in the vagus nerve, which connects the brain and the body on a largely subconscious level, where high tension is an indicator of good general health and the body’s ability to regulate physiological stress responses. The act of donating itself was associated with higher vagal tone by the end of the task, indicating that fostering altruistic behaviors in children is good strategy for promoting good health.

Additionally children from more wealthy families in the study shared fewer tokens than the children from less wealthy families. The authors suggest that a boost in vagal tone from being altruistic might help to offset some of the physiological disadvantages a child may experience that are associated with growing up in a lower-income household.

People prefer fragrances that spark personal memories

We don’t have to be perfumers to experience the power of certain smells sparking memories from our past. The links between our nose and our memories are strong, this is well-known. However, new research indicates that we don’t necessarily place value to and enjoy a fragrance because of how nice it smells, but rather we enjoy smells more when they elicit the recall of fond memories.

These findings are likely to influence how we develop fragrances: understanding where and how we culturally experience various scents may help develop products with scents which are most likely to elicit odor-related memories.


BPA may adversely affect parenting behavior

Previous research indicates that maternal care of children can be negatively affected when females are exposed to widely prevalent endocrine-disrupting chemicals including bisphenol-A (BPA) and ethinyl estradiol (EE).

Now, a study on monogamous and co-parenting California mouse species proves that offspring born to mothers and fathers that were both exposed to BPA receive decreased parental care by both the mother and father. Females exposed to EE or BPA spent less time nursing, grooming and being associated with their pups than controls. Care of pups by males was less affected by exposure to the chemicals, but control, non-exposed females appeared able to “sense” a male partner previously exposed to either compound and, as a consequence, reduced their own parental investment in offspring from such pairings.

As hormones and regions of the brain that regulate biparental behaviors have been found to be similar across species, these studies on the California mouse may have considerable relevance to humans. Watch the video here.

Lack of perspective and forward thinking drives unethical behaviour

Have you ever stolen office supplies, called into work sick when you were A-ok, or intentionally worked slowly to avoid additional tasks? Don’t feel you are alone, for example, faking “a sickie” is so common that one study in Australia calculated that a whopping 43% of 20-24 year old workers in their survey had pulled a sickie in the last year.

In a series of experiments that involved commonly experienced ethical dilemmas, like faking a sickie, the researchers found that two factors promote ethical and honest behavior: The identification of a potential ethical dilemma as connected to other similar incidents, and anticipating that there may be the temptation to act unethically in the near future.

These findings will likely inspire the development of strategies to encourage people to behave ethically. For example, we are all aware of the commonality of politicians claiming outrageous expenses for a work trip despite the act being considered unethical. An email reminder that warns against the temptation to inflate expenses before political work trips, and that also reminds politicians that this is a temptation they will experience frequently, could effectively encourage ethical decision-making.

Alcohol misuse disorder in US is more widespread than previously thought

Alcohol use disorders (AUDs) are among the most prevalent mental health disorders worldwide, with recent changes to the diagnostic criteria in the DSM-5 prompting updating our understanding of the prevalence, correlates, psychiatric comorbidity, associated disability, and treatment of AUD diagnosis.

Twelve-month and lifetime prevalences of AUD in the US were 13.9% and 29.1%, respectively. Prevalence was generally highest for men, caucasians and Native Americans and younger, previously married or never married adults with low income levels. Significant disability increased with the severity of AUD. Moreover, strong associations were founds between AUD and other substance abuse disorders and mental health problems. Shockingly, only 19.8% of respondents with lifetime AUD had ever been treated.

The authors prompt an urgent need to educate the public and policy makers about AUD and its treatment alternatives, to destigmatize the disorder and to encourage those who cannot reduce their alcohol consumption on their own, despite substantial harm to themselves and others, to seek treatment.

No improvement in cognition with post-menopausal hormones

There has been much confusion as to whether menopausal hormone therapy (MHT) might protect against cognitive aging, such as difficulty recalling words or numbers, forgetting events and actions and difficulty concentrating. By conducting a randomized placebo-controlled clinical trial including 693 recently postmenopausal women living in the US the researchers concluded that MHT given to recently postmenopausal women in the US for up to four years does not improve cognition.

Interestingly however, depression-related mood symptoms were significantly improved for women treated with oral estrogen pills and progesterone, but not those treated with transdermal estradiol patches and progesterone. Although this initial study has its limitations, the findings can be used to help women make more informed decisions about whether to use MHT to manage their menopausal symptoms and direct future investigations.

Interpersonal conflict is the strongest predictor of community crime and misconduct

Neighborhoods with more private, interpersonal conflict like domestic violence and landlord/tenant disputes, see more serious crime according to a new research, highlighting the important role individuals in promoting community safety. In fact, private conflict was a better predictor of the future deterioration of a neighbourhood than public disorder, such as vandalism.

The researchers suggest that people facing stressful conflicts with others may respond violently to problems within the community, neglect private property and be less inclined to take a stand against neighborhood decline. Therefore, incentives that promote interpersonal cohesion and conflict resolution in neighborhoods may prove highly effective in preventing neighborhood crime and violence.


Arloth, J., Bogdan, R., Weber, P., Frishman, G., Menke, A., Wagner, K., Balsevich, G., Schmidt, M., Karbalai, N., Czamara, D., Altmann, A., Trümbach, D., Wurst, W., Mehta, D., Uhr, M., Klengel, T., Erhardt, A., Carey, C., Conley, E., Ruepp, A., Müller-Myhsok, B., Hariri, A., & Binder, E. (2015). Genetic Differences in the Immediate Transcriptome Response to Stress Predict Risk-Related Brain Function and Psychiatric Disorders Neuron, 86 (5), 1189-1202 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2015.05.034

Favre, M., La Mendola, D., Meystre, J., Christodoulou, D., Cochrane, M., Markram, H., & Markram, K. (2015). Predictable enriched environment prevents development of hyper-emotionality in the VPA rat model of autism Frontiers in Neuroscience, 9 DOI: 10.3389/fnins.2015.00127

Gleason, C., Dowling, N., Wharton, W., Manson, J., Miller, V., Atwood, C., Brinton, E., Cedars, M., Lobo, R., Merriam, G., Neal-Perry, G., Santoro, N., Taylor, H., Black, D., Budoff, M., Hodis, H., Naftolin, F., Harman, S., & Asthana, S. (2015). Effects of Hormone Therapy on Cognition and Mood in Recently Postmenopausal Women: Findings from the Randomized, Controlled KEEPS–Cognitive and Affective Study PLOS Medicine, 12 (6) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1001833

Grant, B., Goldstein, R., Saha, T., Chou, S., Jung, J., Zhang, H., Pickering, R., Ruan, W., Smith, S., Huang, B., & Hasin, D. (2015). Epidemiology of Alcohol Use DisorderJAMA Psychiatry DOI: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.0584

Miller, J., Kahle, S., & Hastings, P. (2015). Roots and Benefits of Costly Giving: Children Who Are More Altruistic Have Greater Autonomic Flexibility and Less Family Wealth Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797615578476

O’Brien, D., & Sampson, R. (2015). Public and Private Spheres of Neighborhood Disorder: Assessing Pathways to Violence Using Large-scale Digital Records Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 52 (4), 486-510 DOI: 10.1177/0022427815577835

Sheldon OJ, & Fishbach A (2015). Anticipating and Resisting the Temptation to Behave Unethically. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 41 (7), 962-75 PMID: 26001580

Sugiyama, H., Oshida, A., Thueneman, P., Littell, S., Katayama, A., Kashiwagi, M., Hikichi, S., & Herz, R. (2015). Proustian Products are Preferred: The Relationship Between Odor-Evoked Memory and Product Evaluation Chemosensory Perception DOI: 10.1007/s12078-015-9182-y

Image via lightpoet / Shutterstock.

Carla Clark, PhD

Carla Clark, PhD, is BrainBlogger's Lead Editor and Psychology and Psychiatry Section Editor. A scientific consultant, writer, and researcher in a variety of fields including psychology and neuropsychology, as well as biotechnology, molecular biology, and biophysical chemistry, you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @GeekReports
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