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    How anxiety can kill your social status

    Summary: Neuroscientists have identified a brain region that links anxious temperament to low social status. The researchers were able to tweak social hierarchy in animals using a regular vitamin.

    A magnified transmission electron microscopy view of the rat nucleus accumbens neurons containing mitochondria in different cellular compartments.

    Credit: Graham Knott (EPFL)

    Neuroscientists at EPFL identify a brain region that links anxious temperament to low social status. The researchers were able to tweak social hierarchy in animals using a regular vitamin.

    There are important differences in how individuals approach life. While some people are relaxed and calm, others often see situations as threatening, making them worried and tense. This kind of 'trait' anxiety has significant consequences on a person's social life, undermining their confidence to compete for social standing. In our competitive world, high-anxious individuals have a disadvantage and can feel overlooked and rejected; as a result this can lead to what psychologists call 'social subordination'. Publishing in PNAS, neuroscientists at EPFL have pinpointed an area of the brain related to motivation and depression that could link trait anxiety to social subordination.

    Trait anxiety and low social status: chicken and egg

    Both animals and humans establish social ranks through competition, which in turn determines the hierarchy of a social group. The ability to compete depends on different features including size, age, and previous social experience. Some research shows that social competition is also influenced by personality traits, but this has not been explored in depth.

    There is a growing suspicion among social scientists and psychologists that when individuals present high anxiety as a personality characteristic, it might actually predispose a person to perform poorly in social competition, trapping them in a vicious cycle of trait anxiety and low social status. However, we know very little about the neuroscience behind this cycle, which could be the key to breaking it.

    Rat revelations

    The lab of Carmen Sandi at EPFL now brings biological evidence to bear upon the field. The researchers performed a series of experiments to identify the brain areas involved in trait anxiety and social competition. The experiments involved categorizing rats on a spectrum of trait anxiety, from low-anxious to high-anxious rats, which model trait anxiety.

    The animals underwent several behavioral tests that required high-anxious rats to compete socially with their low-anxious counterparts, and their performance was quantified and analyzed statistically. In addition, the researchers examined the brains of the rats to identify changes in biological function.

    The experiments highlighted an area of the brain known as the 'nucleus accumbens', which has been long-associated with motivation, reward and depression -- in humans too. When competing socially, most of the high-anxious rats took on a lower social status -- technically described as becoming 'socially subordinate'.

    The nucleus accumbens of these particular rats showed a reduced energy metabolism. This involves the mitochondria, which are the cell's organelles that are in charge of breathing and energy production. The researchers found that the high-anxious rats showed lower mitochondrial function than more relaxed ones.

    Reversing social status with drugs?

    The scientists confirmed their findings with pharmacological manipulation: they gave the nucleus accumbens of rats compounds that either block or enhance mitochondria; these included vitamin B3. When rats received blocking agents, their social competitiveness dropped, taking their social status with it.

    On the other hand, when high-anxious rats were given enhancers, rats performed significantly better socially, thereby achieving higher social status. But the effects were not permanent: when the drugs wore off, the rats generally returned to their original rung of the social ladder.

    The study confirms that trait anxiety can actually predispose an individual to a lower social status. This could mean that pharmacological manipulation of mitochondria in the nucleus accumbens could potentially influence the social rank of a person. The study is also the first to show that the brain's energy metabolism influences the establishment of social hierarchies.

    Carmen Sandi remains cautious, since the study involved rats rather than humans; after all, brain function is just one of the many elements that influence social dynamics. "Social interactions are immensely complex," says Sandi. "They involve so many factors that it is difficult to examine the impact of each in isolation. However, this is an exciting finding; it shows a brain mechanism whereby anxious personality affects social competitiveness of individuals, and it points to very promising directions in this field."

    The above post is reprinted from materials provided by  Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.



    Depression is more than a mental disorder: it affects the whole organism

    Summary:   Scientists have shown for the first time, that depression is more than a mental disorder: it causes important alterations of the oxidative stress, so it should be considered a systemic disease, since it affects the whole organism. The results of this work could explain the significant association that depression has with cardiovascular diseases and cancer, and why people suffering from depression die younger. At the same time, this research may help finding new therapeutic targets for the prevention and treatment of depression. 

    An international team of researchers lead by the University of Granada (UGR) has demonstrated, for the first time, that depression is more than a mental disorder: it causes important alterations of the oxidative stress, so it should be considered a systemic disease, since it affects the whole organism.

    The results of this work could explain the significant association that depression has with cardiovascular diseases and cancer, and why people suffering from depression die younger. At the same time, this research may help finding new therapeutic targets for the prevention and treatment of depression.

    The lead author of this work is Sara Jiménez Fernández, PhD student at the UGR and psychiatrist at the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Unit at Jaén Medical Center (Jaén, Spain). The co-authors are the UGR Psychiatry professors Manuel Gurpegui Fernández de Legaria and Francisco Díaz Atienza, in collaboration, among others, with Christoph Correll from the Zucker Hillside Hospital (New York, USA).

    A study with 3961 people

    This research is a meta analysis of 29 previous studies which comprise 3961 people, and it's the first detailed work of its kind about what happens in the organism of people suffering from depression. It studies the imbalance between the individual increase of various oxidative stress parameters (especially malondialdehyde, a biomarker to measure the oxidative deterioration of the cell membrane) and the decrease in antioxidant substances (such as uric acid, zinc, and the superoxide dismutase enzyme).

    The researchers have demonstrated that, after receiving the usual treatment against depression, the patients' malondialdehyde levels are significantly reduced, to the point that they are indistinguishable from healthy individuals. At the same time, zinc and uric acid levels increase until reaching normal levels (something that does not occur in the case of the superoxide dismutase enzyme).

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    The above post is reprinted from materials provided by University of Granada . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.  

    Nutrient supplements can give antidepressants a boost

    An international evidence review has found that certain nutritional supplements can increase the effectiveness of antidepressants for people with clinical depression.

    Omega 3 fish oils, S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe), methylfolate (bioactive form of folate) and Vitamin D, were all found to boost the effects of medication.

    University of Melbourne and Harvard researchers examined 40 clinical trials worldwide, alongside a systematic review of the evidence for using nutrient supplements (known as nutraceuticals) to treat clinical depression in tandem with antidepressants such as SSRIs, SNRIs^ and tricyclics^^.

    Head of the ARCADIA Mental Health Research Group at the University of Melbourne, Dr Jerome Sarris, led the meta-analysis, published in theAmerican Journal of Psychiatry.

    "The strongest finding from our review was that Omega 3 fish oil -- in combination with antidepressants -- had a statistically significant effect over a placebo," Dr Sarris said.

    "Many studies have shown Omega 3s are very good for general brain health and improving mood, but this is the first analysis of studies that looks at using them in combination with antidepressant medication.

    "The difference for patients taking both antidepressants and Omega 3, compared to a placebo, was highly significant. This is an exciting finding because here we have a safe, evidence-based approach that could be considered a mainstream treatment."

    The University of Melbourne research team also found good evidence for methylfolate, Vitamin D, and SAMe as a mood enhancing therapy when taken with antidepressants. They reported mixed results for zinc, vitamin C and tryptophan (an amino acid). Folic acid didn't work particularly well, nor did inositol.

    "A large proportion of people who have depression do not reach remission after one or two courses of antidepressant medication," Dr Sarris said.

    "Millions of people in Australia and hundreds of millions worldwide currently take antidepressants. There's real potential here to improve the mental health of people who have an inadequate response to them."

    Dr Sarris said medical professionals may be hesitant to prescribe nutraceuticals alongside pharmaceuticals, simply because there has been a lack of scientific evidence around their efficacy.

    "Medical practitioners are aware of the benefits of omega 3 fatty acids, but are probably unaware that one can combine them with antidepressant medication for a potentially better outcome," he said.

    The researchers found no major safety concerns in combining the two therapies, but stressed that people on antidepressants should always consult with their health professional before taking nutraceuticals and should be aware these supplements can differ in quality.

    "We're not telling people to rush out and buy buckets of supplements. Always speak to your medical professional before changing or initiating a treatment," Dr Sarris said.

    The researchers are currently conducting a National Health and Medical Research Council study using a combination of these nutraceuticals for depression.

    Source:University of Melbourne

    What do my cravings say about my health?

    After a stressful day, it's almost second nature to laze on the couch and drown our sorrows in a bowl of ice-cream or potato chips. Soon, we glance down and realize we've managed to consume the entire pint or bag. So, what makes these foods so irresistible -- causing us to mindlessly indulge? According to a Texas A&M Health Science Center registered dietitian, there's a difference in what you think your body craves and what it actually needs.

    "Eating a recommended, balanced diet will cover most of your cravings," said Taylor Newhouse, registered dietitian, with the Texas A&M School of Public Health. However, as a society, we tend to avoid the green things on our plate and we miss out on key nutrients our body needs."

    The insatiable sweet tooth

    Fluctuating blood sugar levels may be to blame if you immediately reach for sweet snacks. "As blood glucose (blood sugar) levels change throughout the day, the body tries to keep these levels stable," Newhouse said. "Still, this is counterproductive; consuming sugary foods will only feed this addiction and result in more cravings."

    In fact, sugar releases endorphins within the body that make you feel happy or comfortable. Newhouse said this 'sugar high' can also lead to the overconsumption of simple carbohydrates and result in binging -- now considered an official eating disorder. "We tend to overconsume carbohydrates because they're easily digestible and give us the same boost as sugar," she said. "It's imperative we learn to replace that 'high' with a healthy activity we enjoy, like exercising."

    However, it might not be smart to exercise too hard if you're trying to kick a craving. Intense exercise can also tell the body when carbohydrate stores have been depleted. If you're working out, and suddenly decide you need a burger on the way home, this is your body's way of saying it needs nutrients to recover.

    "Incorporating more sweet fruits like berries or apples into your diet, along with dark leafy greens like broccoli or kale -- which are high in calcium -- will help to reduce the need to hit the company vending machine during the day," Newhouse said.

    Hungry? Don't eat a chocolate bar…

    Chocolate, like coffee, is almost an addiction. Scarfing down a chocolatey confection when we're stressed is almost an involuntary act, since stress can produce chocolate cravings. Unsurprisingly, chocolate is also known to raise brain serotonin levels which generate feelings of happiness or pleasure. This may be why we can feel 'addicted' to chocolate or sugar.

    Another reason we may crave chocolate is due to a magnesium deficiency (chocolate contains high levels of magnesium). Women may also pine for chocolate due to hormonal changes, or, snacking frequently on chocolate could mean the body has a vitamin B shortage.

    "It's okay to have a little chocolate to subdue cravings," Newhouse said. "But, you should also supplement with healthier options like mixed nuts, a banana, or, sauté greens like spinach with lemon, olive oil, garlic and rosemary for a sweeter flavor."

    I'll have fries with that

    We're all guilty of stress-eating and binging on certain foods when we're bored or overwhelmed. Newhouse noted during periods of stress our body will naturally crave fast food or fattier foods.

    "This could mean you're deficient in essential fatty acids like omega-3s," she said. "Our bodies do not naturally make omega-3s, but you can supplement them or cook with oils like canola oil, extra virgin olive oil or hemp oil to up your intake."

    Indulging shamelessly in a large order of fries could also mean our body is actually craving fat, however, not all fats are created equal. The next time you feel the need to order anything fried try supplementing with healthier options like avocados and raw nuts -- which are high in 'good' fats.

    How to pass on the salt

    If you suddenly develop an intense desire for chips or pretzels, your may be iron-deficient. "When we crave salty things, it's a signal to consume foods with more iron," Newhouse said. "Eating foods high in calcium, potassium and iron can combat these cravings."

    Drinking a glass of milk, eating yogurt or making a salad with dark, leafy greens will all aid in keeping our sodium habit at bay while increasing calcium and iron levels. To up potassium intake, Newhouse recommends snacking on a banana, sweet potatoes, avocados or citrus fruits.

    Important to know: During intense exercise or a difficult workout, your body will actually lose sodium and seek to replace it. "If you're outside working or working out, your body will lose salt through the process of sweating," Newhouse said. "This can increase your cravings for salty foods."

    Are you just dehydrated?

    Most hunger pangs and cravings usually have a simple solution: Drink more water. "We often misinterpret the signals our body is giving us," Newhouse said. "As a society, we are chronically dehydrated (Just so you know: thirst is actually the last resort signal for dehydration). The next time you reach for something sweet or salty try quelling the craving with a tall glass of water. You may be surprised at the result."

    A hankering for kale? It's a thing

    Yes, sometimes we do crave fresh food and vegetables like kale or broccoli. Many times this desire for fresh ingredients appears when your body needs more Vitamin C, calcium, iron or magnesium. "If you begin to crave fruits and vegetables, then indulge away!" Newhouse said. "However, if you're trying to limit your carbohydrate intake, you should still pay attention to the amount you eat."

    It's all about balance

    A healthy diet and lifestyle hinge on one thing: Balance. Newhouse said it's perfectly normal to satisfy cravings in moderation, but, you should also assess your diet during these instances. "Think about the last time you consumed foods in every single color. If you can't remember the last time you ate a tomato or berries, try snacking on those," she advised.

    The above post is reprinted from materials provided by Texas A&M University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

    Omega-3 lowers childhood aggression in short term

    Incorporating omega-3, vitamins and mineral supplements into the diets of children with extreme aggression can reduce this problem behavior in the short term, especially its more impulsive, emotional form, according to University of Pennsylvania researchers who published their findings in theJournal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

    Adrian Raine, the Richard Perry University Professor of Criminology, Psychology and Psychiatry, has spent his career looking at how the brain's biological functioning affects antisocial behavior. He focuses specifically on understanding these actions and learning how to modify them, whether with something benign like a child acting out or with something extreme, in the case of a homicidal killer.

    "How do you change the brain to make people better?" he asked. "How can we improve brain functioning to improve behavior?"

    These questions formed the foundation for work Raine had previously done with adolescents on the African island of Mauritius. In a randomized control trial, one group received omega-3 supplements for six months, the other didn't. Those taking the fish oil saw a reduction in aggressive and antisocial behavior.

    "That was my starting point," he said. "I was really excited about the results we published there."

    Mauritius, however, is a tropical climate and a different culture from the United States, so Raine, a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor, decided to test a new version of the study in Philadelphia, to aim for more broadly applicable outcomes. He partnered with Therese Richmond, the Andrea B. Laporte Professor of Nursing and associate dean for research and innovation, and several other Penn faculty, including Rose Cheney of the Perelman School of Medicine and Jill Portnoy of the Criminology Department in the School of Arts & Sciences.

    The Philadelphia randomized control study placed 290 11- and 12-year-olds with a history of violence into four groups: The first received omega-3 in the form of juice, as well as multivitamins and calcium for three months. For that same duration, a second group participated in cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, which included meeting weekly for an hour, with time split between the child, the parent and with both together.

    "Sessions focused on the links between thoughts, feelings and behaviors and also practicing alternative actions the children could take to deal with difficult situations rather than to emotionally react to something," said Richmond, who supervised the clinical trial. "It's helping the child build a toolbox of ways to interact with others. For example, if I'm angry, how might I cope with anger other than physically striking out?"All participants got homework, too.

    A third group in the study took the supplements and participated in CBT, and a fourth received resources and information targeted at reducing aggressive behavior. Blood samples at the experiment's start and conclusion measured omega-3 levels in each child.

    "Immediately after three months of the nutritional intervention rich in omega-3s, we found a decrease in the children's reporting of their aggressive behavior," Richmond said. The team also followed up three and six months later.

    At the first check-in, participants getting the combination of CBT and omega-3s reported less aggression than the control group and the therapy-only group. By the final check-in, however, any positive effects had dissipated. What remains unknown is whether continued use of omega-3s would lead to a long-term reduction in antisocial behavior.

    There were other minor limitations to the research. For one, self-reporting completed by parents and children didn't line up. The 11- and 12-year-olds in the omega-3 and CBT-supplement groups noted fewer aggressive behaviors; their parents said such tendencies hadn't changed. Also, some participants dropped out before the study had finished.

    Despite these challenges, Raine, Richmond and their colleagues said the findings provide some important insight.

    "No matter what program you use, could adding omega-3s to your treatment help?" Raine asked. "This suggests it could."

    And though the work answers some questions, it also creates new ones, which returns to a larger point regarding the mind-action connection: It's complicated.

    "We can't oversimplify the complexity of antisocial behavior. There are many causes," Raine said. "It's not just the brain. Is it a piece of the jigsaw puzzle? I think it is." 

    Funding for the research came from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the Clinical & Translational Research Center at the Perelman School of Medicine and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

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    The above post is reprinted from materials provided by University of Pennsylvania. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.



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