Archive for June, 2011

Psychiatrists Take Note

Depression Drugs — SSRIs — May Reorganize Brain Plasticity, New Research Suggests

ScienceDaily (Mar. 18, 2011) — Selective
serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) such as Prozac are regularly used to treat
severe anxiety and depression. They work by immediately increasing the amount of
serotonin in the brain and by causing long term changes in brain function.
However it can take weeks of treatment before a patient feels any effect and
both beneficial effects and side effects can persist after treatment is

New research published by BioMed Central’s open access journal Molecular
investigates physiological changes within the brain that may be
caused by SSRI treatment.

The hippocampus is an area of the brain involved in long term memory and
spatial awareness, and is involved in symptoms afflicting people with
Alzheimer’s disease, such as loss of memory and disorientation. Neuronal cells
in the hippocampus can change their activity and strength of connections
throughout life, a process known as plasticity, which thought to be one of the
ways new memories are formed. Altered plasticity is often associated with
depression and stress.

Researchers from the Department of Pharmacology, Nippon Medical School,
showed that chronic treatment of adult mice with fluoxetine (Prozac) caused
changes to granule cells, one of the main types of neuronal cells inside the
hippocampus, and to their connections with other neuronal cells. The granule
cells appeared to undergo serotonin-dependent ‘dematuration’, which increased
their activity and reversed adult-type plasticity into an immature state. These
changes to the cell’s plasticity were associated with increased anxiety and in
alternating between periods of hyper or hypo activity.

Katsunori Kobayashi explained, “Some of the side effects associated with
Prozac in humans, such as anxiety and behavioral switching patterns, may be due
to excessive dematuration of granule cells in the hippocampus.”

BioMed Central (2011, March 18). Depression drugs — SSRIs — may reorganize
brain plasticity, new research suggests. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June
6, 2011, from­/releases/2011/03/110316084425.htm



Excessive Internet Use is Linked to Depression

People who spend a lot of time browsing the net are more likely to show depressive symptoms, according to the first large-scale study of its kind in the West by University of Leeds psychologists.

Researchers found striking evidence that some users have developed a compulsive internet habit, whereby they replace real-life social interaction with online chat rooms and social networking sites. The results suggest that this type of addictive surfing can have a serious impact on mental health.

Lead author Dr Catriona Morrison, from the University of Leeds, said: “The internet now plays a huge part in modern life, but its benefits are accompanied by a darker side.

“While many of us use the internet to pay bills, shop and send emails, there is a small subset of the population who find it hard to control how much time they spend online, to the point where it interferes with their daily activities.”

These ‘internet addicts’ spent proportionately more time browsing sexually gratifying websites, online gaming sites and online communities. They also had a higher incidence of moderate to severe depression than non-addicted users.

“Our research indicates that excessive internet use is associated with depression, but what we don’t know is which comes first – are depressed people drawn to the internet or does the internet cause depression?

“What is clear, is that for a small subset of people, excessive use of the internet could be a warning signal for depressive tendencies.”

Incidents such as the spate of suicides among teenagers in the Welsh town of Bridgend in 2008 led many to question the extent to which social networking sites can contribute to depressive thoughts in vulnerable teenagers. In the Leeds study, young people were more likely to be internet addicted than middle-aged users, with the average age of the addicted group standing at 21 years.

“This study reinforces the public speculation that over-engaging in websites that serve to replace normal social function might be linked to psychological disorders like depression and addiction,” added Dr Morrison. “We now need to consider the wider societal implications of this relationship and establish clearly the effects of excessive internet use on mental health.”

This was the first large-scale study of Western young people to consider the relationship between internet addiction and depression. The internet use and depression levels of 1,319 people aged 16-51 were evaluated for the study, and of these, 1.2% were classed as being internet addicted. While small, this figure is larger than the incidence of gambling in the UK, which stands at 0.6%. The research will be published in the journal Psychopathology on 10th February.

The paper entitled, ‘The relationship between excessive internet use and depression: a questionnaire-based study of 1,319 young people and adults.’

Contact: Hannah Isom, University of Leeds Press Office, Tel: 0113 34031, Email:

Source: University of Leeds

#8 — Dopamine Makes You Addicted To Seeking Information

Dopamine Makes You Addicted To Seeking Information

Do you ever feel like you are addicted to email or twitter or texting? Do you
find it impossible to ignore your email if you see that there are messages in
your inbox? Have you ever gone to Google to look up some information and 30
minutes later you realize that you’ve been reading and linking, and searching
around for a long time, and you are now searching for something totally
different than before? These are all examples of your dopamine system at work.

Enter dopamine – Neuro scientists have been studying
what they call the dopamine system for a while. Dopamine was “discovered” in
1958 by Arvid Carlsson and Nils-Ake Hillarp at the National Heart Institute of
Sweden. Dopamine is created in various parts of the brain and is critical in all
sorts of brain functions, including thinking, moving, sleeping, mood, attention,
and motivation, seeking and reward.

The myth — You may have heard that dopamine controls
the “pleasure” systems of the brain: that dopamine makes you feel enjoyment,
pleasure, and therefore motivates you to seek out certain behaviors, such as
food, sex, and drugs.

It’s all about seeking — The latest research, though
is changing this view. Instead of dopamine causing us to experience pleasure,
the latest research shows that dopamine causes seeking behavior. Dopamine causes
us to want, desire, seek out, and search. It increases our general level of
arousal and our goal-directed behavior. (From an evolutionary stand-point this
is critical. The dopamine seeking system keeps us motivated to move through our
world, learn, and survive). It’s not just about physical needs such as food, or
sex, but also about abstract concepts. Dopamine makes us curious about ideas and
fuels our searching for information. The latest research shows that it is the
opoid system (separate from dopamine) that makes us feel pleasure.

Wanting vs. liking – According to Kent Berridge,
these two systems, the “wanting” (dopamine) and the “liking” (opoid) are
complementary. The wanting system propels us to action and the liking system
makes us feel satisfied and therefore pause our seeking. If our seeking isn’t
turned off at least for a little while, then we start to run in an endless loop.
The latest research shows that the dopamine system is stronger than the opoid
system. We seek more than we are satisfied (back to evolution… seeking is more
likely to keep us alive than sitting around in a satisfied stupor).

A dopamine induced loop – With the internet, twitter,
and texting we now have almost instant gratification of our desire to seek. Want
to talk to someone right away? Send a text and they respond in a few seconds.
Want to look up some information? Just type it into google. What to see what
your friends are up to? Go to twitter or facebook. We get into a dopamine
induced loop… dopamine starts us seeking, then we get rewarded for the seeking
which makes us seek more. It becomes harder and harder to stop looking at email,
stop texting, stop checking our cell phones to see if we have a message or a new

Anticipation is better than getting — Brain scan
research shows that our brains show more stimulation and activity when we
ANTICIPATE a reward than when we get one. Research on rats shows that if you
destroy dopamine neurons, rats can walk, chew, and swallow, but will starve to
death even when food is right next to them. They have lost the desire to go get
the food.

More, more, more – Although wanting and liking are
related, research also shows that the dopamine system doesn’t have satiety built
in. It is possible for the dopamine system to keep saying “more more more”,
seeking even when we have found the information. During that google exploration
we know that we have the answer to the question we originally asked, and yet we
find ourselves looking for more information and more and more.

Unpredictable is the key — Dopamine is also
stimulated by unpredictability. When something happens that is not exactly
predictable, that stimulates the dopamine system. Think about these electronic
gadgets and devices. Our emails and twitters and texts show up, but we don’t
know exactly when they will or who they will be from. It’s unpredictable. This
is exactly what stimulates the dopamine system. It’s the same system at work for
gambling and slot machines. (For those of you reading this who are “old school”
psychologists, you may remember “variable reinforcement schedules”. Dopamine is
involved in variable reinforcement schedules. This is why these are so

When you hear the “ding” that you have a text – The
dopamine system is especially sensitive to “cues” that a reward is coming. If
there is a small, specific cue that signifies that something is going to happen,
that sets off our dopamine system. So when there is a sound when a text message
or email arrives, or a visual cue, that enhances the addictive effect (for the
psychologists out there: remember Pavlov).

140 characters is even more addictive – And the
dopamine system is most powerfully stimulated when the information coming in is
small so that it doesn’t full satisfy. A short text or twitter (can only be 140
characters!) is ideally suited to send our dopamine system raging.

Not without costs — This constant stimulation of the
dopamine system can be exhausting. We are getting caught in an endless dopamine

Write a comment and share whether you get caught in
these dopamine loops and whether you think we should use what we know about
these systems to create devices and websites that stimulate them.

And for those of you who like

Kent C. Berridge and Terry E. Robinson,
What is the role of dopamine in reward: hedonic impact, reward
learning, or
incentive salience?: Brain Research Reviews 28 1998. 309–369.

Originally published on

Read more:

People With Depression Get Stuck on Bad Thoughts,
Unable to Turn Their Attention Away, Study Suggests

ScienceDaily (June 3, 2011) — We all have
our ups and downs — a fight with a friend, a divorce, the loss of a parent. But
most of us get over it. Only some go on to develop major depression. Now, a new
study, which will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological
, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggests
part of the reason may be that people with depression get stuck on bad thoughts
because they’re unable to turn their attention away.

People who don’t recover from negative events seem to keep going over their
troubles. “They basically get stuck in a mindset where they relive what happened
to them over and over again,” says Jutta Joormann, of the University of Miami.
She co wrote the new study with Sara Levens and Ian H. Gotlib of Stanford
University. “Even though they think, oh, it’s not helpful, I should stop
thinking about this, I should get on with my life — they can’t stop doing it,”
she says. She and her colleagues thought people with depression might have a
problem with working memory. Working memory isn’t just about remembering a
shopping list or doing multiplication in your head; it’s about what thoughts you
keep active in your mind. So, Joormann thought, maybe people who get stuck on
negative thoughts have problems turning their mind to a new topic.

Joormann and her colleagues recruited 26 people with depression and 27 people
who had never had depression. Each person sat in front of a computer and was
shown three words, one at a time for a second each. Then, they were told to
remember the words either in the order they were presented or in backward order.
The computer then presented one of the three words and they were supposed to
respond as quickly as they could whether that word was first, second, or third
in the list. The faster they were able to give a correct answer, the better they
were at thinking flexibly.

People with depression had trouble re-ordering the words in their head; if
they were asked to remember the words in reverse order, they took longer to give
the correct answer. They had a particularly hard time if the three words had
negative meanings, like “death” or “sadness.”

“The order of the words sort of gets stuck in their working memory,
especially when the words are negative,” Joormann says. She also found that
people who had more trouble with this are also more likely to ruminate on their
troubles. She hopes that these findings point towards a way to help people with
depression, by training them to turn their minds away from negative

Association for Psychological Science (2011, June 3). People with depression get
stuck on bad thoughts, unable to turn their attention away, study suggests.
ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 4, 2011, from­ /releases/2011/06/110602162828.htm

Politics and Eye Movement: Liberals Focus Their Attention on ‘Gaze Cues’ Much
Differently Than Conservatives Do

ScienceDaily (Dec. 9, 2010) — It goes
without saying that conservatives and liberals don’t see the world in the same
way. Now, research from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln suggests that is
exactly, and quite literally, the case.

In a new study, UNL researchers measured both liberals’ and conservatives’
reaction to “gaze cues” — a person’s tendency to shift attention in a direction
consistent with another person’s eye movements, even if it’s irrelevant to their
current task — and found big differences between the two groups.

Liberals responded strongly to the prompts, consistently moving their
attention in the direction suggested to them by a face on a computer screen.
Conservatives, on the other hand, did not.

Why? Researchers suggested that conservatives’ value on personal autonomy
might make them less likely to be influenced by others, and therefore less
responsive to the visual prompts.

“We thought that political temperament may moderate the magnitude of
gaze-cuing effects, but we did not expect conservatives to be completely immune
to these cues,” said Michael Dodd, a UNL assistant professor of psychology and
the lead author of the study.

Liberals may have followed the “gaze cues,” meanwhile, because they tend to
be more responsive to others, the study suggests.

“This study basically provides one more piece of evidence that liberals and
conservatives perceive the world, and process information taken in from that
world, in different ways,” said Kevin Smith, UNL professor of political science
and one of the study’s authors.

“Understanding exactly why people have such different political perspectives
and where those differences come from may help us better understand the roots of
a lot of political conflict.”

The study involved 72 people who sat in front of a white computer screen and
were told to fixate on a small black cross in its center. The cross then
disappeared and was replaced by a drawing of a face, but with eyes missing their
pupils. Then, pupils appeared in the eyes, looking either left or right.
Finally, a small, round target would appear either on the left or right side of
the face drawing.

Dodd said the participants were told that the gaze cues in the study did not
predict where the target would appear, so there was no reason for participants
to attend to them. “But the nature of social interaction tends to make it very
difficult to ignore the cues, even when they’re meaningless,” he said.

As soon as they saw the target, participants would tap the space bar on their
keyboard, giving researchers information on their susceptibility to the “gaze
cues.” Each sequence, which lasted a few hundred milliseconds, was repeated
hundreds of times.

Afterward, participants were surveyed on their beliefs on a range of
political issues to establish their political ideology.

In addition to shedding light on the differences between the two political
camps, researchers said the results add to growing indications that suggest
biology plays a role determining one’s political direction. Previous UNL
research has delved into the physiology of political orientation, showing that
those highly responsive to threatening images are likely to support defense
spending, capital punishment, patriotism and the Iraq War.

Traditionally, political scientists have accounted for political differences
purely in terms of environmental forces, but this study shows the potential role
of cognitive biases — wherever they may come from — as a relevant area of
future research.

“Getting things done in politics typically depends on competing viewpoints
finding common ground,” Smith said. “Our research is suggesting that’s a lot
tougher than it sounds, because the same piece of ground can look very different
depending on which ideological hill you view it from.”

The study, funded in part by the National Science Foundation, is in a
forthcoming edition of the journal Attention, Perception &
and is authored by UNL’s Dodd, Smith and John R. Hibbing.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln (2010, December 9). Politics and eye movement:
Liberals focus their attention on ‘gaze cues’ much differently than
conservatives do. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 2, 2011, from­/releases/2010/12/101209074403.htm


Published on May 5, 2011 at 7:26 AM @

Social deficits are common in several psychiatric disorders, including autism spectrum disorders and schizophrenia. Individuals with severe social dysfunction can experience significant difficulties with everyday functioning.

Oxytocin and vasopressin are hormones that play key roles in emotional and social behaviors and bonding. Oxytocin has been suggested as a treatment to improve social behavior in individuals with autism, and initial studies in humans appear promising.

Now, scientists have further characterized a mouse model that provides some insights into biological factors related to social deficits, by comparing mice that had their oxytocin receptor gene made inactive, using a specialized technique called genetic knockout, with unaltered mice.

The knockout mice (OTR-/-) displayed impaired social behavior, increased aggression and reduced cognitive flexibility leading to resistance to change. These behaviors returned to normal when the OTR-/-mice were given oxytocin or vasopressin treatment.

“These findings confirm and highlight the importance of oxytocin for social behaviors. This animal model also may be useful  in  evaluating the effectiveness of drugs, including vasopressin agonists, that may help improve social behavior in autism, schizophrenia, and other disorders” said Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry, the journal publishing these results.

“While no animal model can be expected to replicate the full complexity of the human behavioral autistic phenotype, the OTR-/- mouse may really help to understand the co-occurrence of these symptoms as a syndrome,” explained Dr. Bice Chini, author and senior researcher of CNR – Institute of Neuroscience, Milano.

One important goal now is to fully characterize the neurodevelopmental processes modulated by oxytocin and vasopressin in order to fully understand their ability to reverse autistic symptoms.

Source: Biological Psychiatry

Sex on the brain: Orgasms unlock altered consciousness By Kayt Sukel

Our intrepid reporter performs an intimate act in an fMRI scanner to explore the pathways of pleasure and pain

WITH a click and a whirr, I am pulled into the scanner. My head is strapped down and I have been draped with a blanket so that I may touch my nether regions – my clitoris in particular – with a certain degree of modesty. I am here neither for a medical procedure nor an adult movie. Rather, I am about to stimulate myself to orgasm while an fMRI scanner tracks the blood flow in my brain.

My actions are helping Barry Komisaruk at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, and colleagues to tease apart the mechanisms underlying sexual arousal. In doing so, not only have they discovered that there is more than one route to orgasm, but they may also have revealed a novel type of consciousness – an understanding of which could lead to new treatments for pain (see Top-down pain relief).

Despite orgasm being a near-universal human phenomenon, we still don’t know all that much about it. “The amount of speculation versus actual data on both the function and value of orgasm is remarkable,” says Julia Heiman, director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction in Bloomington, Indiana.

It is estimated that one in four women in the US has had difficulty achieving orgasm in the past year, while between 5 and 10 per cent of women are anorgasmic – unable to achieve orgasm at all. But without precise data to explain what happens during this experience, there are few treatment options available for women who might want help.

Komisaruk is interested in the time course of orgasm, and particularly when an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex (PFC) becomes active. The PFC is situated at the front of the brain and is involved in aspects of consciousness, such as self-evaluation and considering something from another person’s perspective.

Komisaruk’s team recently found heightened activation in the PFC during female climax – something not seen in previous studies of the orgasm. Surprisingly, this was also the case in individuals who can achieve orgasm by thought alone. With fantasy and self-referential imagery often reported as being part of the sexual experience, Komisaruk and colleagues wondered if the PFC might be playing a key role in creating a physiological response from imagination alone. That is why I am here.

Komisaruk instructs me to tap my thumb with my finger for 3 minutes, then to simply imagine my finger tapping my thumb for the next 3 minutes as fMRI tracks where blood is flowing in my brain. Immediately after, I follow the same cycle with Kegel exercises – brief squeezes of the pelvic floor muscles – and then clitoral touches. I’m then asked to self-stimulate to orgasm, raising my free hand to indicate climax. Despite the unique situation, I am able to do so without too much trouble.

Over 30 areas of my brain are activated as I move from start to finish, including those involved in touch, memory, reward and even pain (see “Orgasm snapshot”). As Komisaruk expected, the imagined clitoral touches and Kegel exercises activated the same brain areas as real ones, albeit with somewhat less blood flow. The PFC, however, showed more activation when touches and pelvic squeezes were imagined compared with those that were real. He suggests this heightened activation may reflect imagination or fantasy, or perhaps some cognitive process that helps manage so called “top-down” control – the direct regulation by the brain of physiological functions – of our own pleasure. The team presented their results at the Society for Neuroscience annual conference in San Diego in November 2010.

However, when Janniko Georgiadis at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, and colleagues, performed similar experiments they found that the same brain region “switched off” during orgasm. Specifically, they saw significant deactivation in an area of the PFC called the left orbitofrontal cortex (OFC).

Altered state

Georgiadis argues that the OFC may be the basis of sexual control – and perhaps only by letting go, so to speak, can orgasm be achieved. He suggests this deactivation may be the most telling example of an “altered state of consciousness” and one not seen, as yet, during any other type of activity.

“I don’t think orgasm turns off consciousness but it changes it,” he says. “When you ask people how they perceive their orgasm, they describe a feeling of a loss of control.” Georgiadis suggests that perhaps orgasm offsets systems that usually dominate attention and behaviour. “I’m not sure if this altered state is necessary to achieve more pleasure or is just some side effect,” he says. It is possible that the inability to let go and reach this altered state may be what prohibits individuals with anorgasmia from reaching climax.

There may be a simple explanation for the discrepancies between Georgiadis’s and Komisaruk’s work – they may represent two different paths to orgasm, activated by different methods of induction. While participants in Komisaruk’s studies masturbated themselves to orgasm, those in Georgiadis’s were stimulated by their partners. “It is possible there is a difference between someone trying to mentalise sexual stimulation as opposed to receiving it from a partner,” says Georgiadis. Perhaps having a partner makes it easier to let go of that control and achieve orgasm. Alternatively, having a partner may make top-down control of sensation and pleasure less necessary to climax.

“This kind of research is incredibly useful,” says Heiman. “Orgasm is tied into the brain’s reward system and likely other important systems as well. There is much we can learn about the brain, about sensation, about how pleasure works and probably much more from this one physical response.”

Komisaruk agrees. He hopes to one day use neurofeedback to allow women with anorgasmia to view their brain activity in real time during genital stimulation. The hope is that this feedback may help them to manipulate their brain activity to bring it closer to that of an orgasmic pattern of activity. He also believes that further study of the orgasm – and the PFC’s role – will offer much needed insight into how we might use thought alone to control other physical sensations, such as pain. “There’s a lot of mystery in this one intense human experience that is just waiting to be figured out,” he says.

Newscientist: 11 May, 2011. Issue #: 2812

Liberals and Atheists Smarter? Intelligent People Have Values Novel in Human Evolutionary History, Study Finds

ScienceDaily (Feb. 24, 2010) — More intelligent people are statistically significantly more likely to exhibit social values and religious and political preferences that are novel to the human species in evolutionary history.  Specifically, liberalism and atheism, and for men (but not women), preference for sexual exclusivity correlate with higher intelligence, a new study finds.

The study, published in the March 2010 issue of the peer-reviewed scientific journal Social Psychology Quarterly, advances a new theory to explain why people form particular preferences and values.  The theory suggests that more intelligent people are more likely than less intelligent people to adopt evolutionarily novel preferences and values, but intelligence does not correlate with preferences and values that are old enough to have been shaped by evolution over millions of years.”

“Evolutionarily novel” preferences and values are those that humans are not biologically designed to have and our ancestors probably did not possess.  In contrast, those that our ancestors had for millions of years are “evolutionarily familiar.”

“General intelligence, the ability to think and reason, endowed our ancestors with advantages in solving evolutionarily novel problems for which they did not have innate solutions,” says Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics and Political Science.  “As a result, more intelligent people are more likely to recognize and understand such novel entities and situations than less intelligent people, and some of these entities and situations are preferences, values, and lifestyles.”

An earlier study by Kanazawa found that more intelligent individuals were more nocturnal, waking up and staying up later than less intelligent individuals.  Because our ancestors lacked artificial light, they tended to wake up shortly before dawn and go to sleep shortly after dusk.  Being nocturnal is evolutionarily novel.

In the current study, Kanazawa argues that humans are evolutionarily designed to be conservative, caring mostly about their family and friends, and being liberal, caring about an indefinite number of genetically unrelated strangers they never meet or interact with, is evolutionarily novel.  So more intelligent children may be more likely to grow up to be liberals.

Data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) support Kanazawa’s hypothesis.  Young adults who subjectively identify themselves as “very liberal” have an average IQ of 106 during adolescence while those who identify themselves as “very conservative” have an average IQ of 95 during adolescence.

Similarly, religion is a byproduct of humans’ tendency to perceive agency and intention as causes of events, to see “the hands of God” at work behind otherwise natural phenomena.  “Humans are evolutionarily designed to be paranoid, and they believe in God because they are paranoid,” says Kanazawa.  This innate bias toward paranoia served humans well when self-preservation and protection of their families and clans depended on extreme vigilance to all potential dangers.  “So, more intelligent children are more likely to grow up to go against their natural evolutionary tendency to believe in God, and they become atheists.”

Young adults who identify themselves as “not at all religious” have an average IQ of 103 during adolescence, while those who identify themselves as “very religious” have an average IQ of 97 during adolescence.

In addition, humans have always been mildly polygynous in evolutionary history.  Men in polygynous marriages were not expected to be sexually exclusive to one mate, whereas men in monogamous marriages were.  In sharp contrast, whether they are in a monogamous or polygynous marriage, women were always expected to be sexually exclusive to one mate.  So being sexually exclusive is evolutionarily novel for men, but not for women.  And the theory predicts that more intelligent men are more likely to value sexual exclusivity than less intelligent men, but general intelligence makes no difference for women’s value on sexual exclusivity.  Kanazawa’s analysis of Add Health data supports these sex-specific predictions as well.

One intriguing but theoretically predicted finding of the study is that more intelligent people are no more or no less likely to value such evolutionarily familiar entities as marriage, family, children, and friends.