An international team of researchers has used machine learning to produce a novel blood test that can predict a young person’s risk of developing a psychotic disorder, such as schizophrenia, years before the condition develops.
Only around a quarter of young people who display mild, transitory psychotic symptoms at an early age ultimately go on to develop a serious psychotic disorder. Schizophrenia, for example, is generally not clinically diagnosed until a person reaches their twenties. However, the condition is known to present a number of signs and symptoms than can precede the full-blown psychotic episodes often needed for clinical diagnosis.
This early pre-clinical phase of a psychotic disorder is often referred to as the prodromal stage. In the case of schizophrenia, prodromal symptoms appear in nearly three quarters of patients up to five years before the first episode of psychosis occurs.
David Cotter, a molecular psychiatrist from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and senior author on the new study, suggests early detection of those most at risk of developing psychotic disorders is vital for administering preventative treatments.
“Ideally, we would like to prevent psychotic disorders, but that requires being able to accurately identify who is most at risk,” says Cotter.
The new study first looked at blood samples from a number of 12-year-olds classified as at a clinically high-risk of psychosis. Over recent years several tools have been developed to identify adolescent subjects at the highest risk of developing psychosis.
The 12-year-old subjects were followed until around the age of 18, so the researchers were able to differentiate blood samples between those who went on to suffer a psychotic episode and those who didn’t. Using machine learning, the researchers homed in on a unique pattern of proteins that distinguished those who ultimately went on to develop a psychotic disorder.
Ten particular proteins were identified as most predictive, and the test was subsequently validated in a separate dataset. Using the most accurate protein pattern, the researchers were able to correctly determine which high-risk subjects would go on to develop a psychotic disorder by the age of 18 with a 93-percent accuracy.
The test was less accurate in predicting those high-risk 12-year-olds that did not go on to develop a psychosis by the age of 18. However, considering only between 16 and 35 percent of young people considered at clinical high risk ultimately transition to a full psychotic disorder, even this low level of accuracy could be useful in stratifying those younger patients more likely to develop psychosis.
“Our research has shown that, with help from machine learning, analysis of protein levels in blood samples can predict who is at truly at risk and could possibly benefit from preventive treatments,” says Cotter. “We now need to study these markers in other people at high risk of psychosis to confirm these findings.”
Another compelling insight offered by this new study is the finding that many of these protein markers predicting psychosis are linked with inflammatory processes. There is a small, but burgeoning, body of study finding links between psychosis and autoimmune conditions, suggesting systemic inflammation can influence a number of psychiatric illnesses.
The new research was published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.
The unprecedented explosion of video calling in response to the pandemic has launched an unofficial social experiment.
BY JULIA SKLAR
JODI EICHLER-LEVINE FINISHED teaching a class over Zoom on April 15, and she immediately fell asleep in the guest bedroom doubling as her office. The religion studies professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania says that while teaching is always exhausting, she has never “conked out” like that before.
Until recently, Eichler-Levine was leading live classes full of people whose emotions she could easily gauge, even as they navigated difficult topics—such as slavery and the Holocaust—that demand a high level of conversational nuance and empathy. Now, like countless people around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust her life into a virtual space. In addition to teaching remotely, she’s been attending a weekly department happy hour, an arts-and-crafts night with friends, and a Passover seder—all over the videoconferencing app Zoom. The experience is taking a toll.
“It’s almost like you’re emoting more because you’re just a little box on a screen,” Eichler-Levine says. “I’m just so tired.”
So many people are reporting similar experiences that it’s earned its own slang term, Zoom fatigue, though this exhaustion also applies if you’re using Google Hangouts, Skype, FaceTime, or any other video-calling interface. The unprecedented explosion of their use in response to the pandemic has launched an unofficial social experiment, showing at a population scale what’s always been true: virtual interactions can be extremely hard on the brain.
“There’s a lot of research that shows we actually really struggle with this,” says Andrew Franklin, an assistant professor of cyberpsychology at Virginia’s Norfolk State University. He thinks people may be surprised at how difficult they’re finding video calls given that the medium seems neatly confined to a small screen and presents few obvious distractions.
Humans communicate even when they’re quiet. During an in-person conversation, the brain focuses partly on the words being spoken, but it also derives additional meaning from dozens of non-verbal cues, such as whether someone is facing you or slightly turned away, if they’re fidgeting while you talk, or if they inhale quickly in preparation to interrupt.
These cues help paint a holistic picture of what is being conveyed and what’s expected in response from the listener. Since humans evolved as social animals, perceiving these cues comes naturally to most of us, takes little conscious effort to parse, and can lay the groundwork for emotional intimacy.
However, a typical video call impairs these ingrained abilities, and requires sustained and intense attention to words instead. If a person is framed only from the shoulders up, the possibility of viewing hand gestures or other body language is eliminated. If the video quality is poor, any hope of gleaning something from minute facial expressions is dashed.
“For somebody who’s really dependent on those non-verbal cues, it can be a big drain not to have them,” Franklin says. Prolonged eye contact has become the strongest facial cue readily available, and it can feel threatening or overly intimate if held too long.
Multi-person screens magnify this exhausting problem. Gallery view—where all meeting participants appear Brady Bunch-style—challenges the brain’s central vision, forcing it to decode so many people at once that no one comes through meaningfully, not even the speaker.
“We’re engaged in numerous activities, but never fully devoting ourselves to focus on anything in particular,” says Franklin. Psychologists call this continuous partial attention, and it applies as much to virtual environments as it does to real ones. Think of how hard it would be to cook and read at the same time. That’s the kind of multi-tasking your brain is trying, and often failing, to navigate in a group video chat.
This leads to problems in which group video chats become less collaborative and more like siloed panels, in which only two people at a time talk while the rest listen. Because each participant is using one audio stream and is aware of all the other voices, parallel conversations are impossible. If you view a single speaker at a time, you can’t recognize how non-active participants are behaving—something you would normally pick up with peripheral vision.
For some people, the prolonged split in attention creates a perplexing sense of being drained while having accomplished nothing. The brain becomes overwhelmed by unfamiliar excess stimuli while being hyper-focused on searching for non-verbal cues that it can’t find.
That’s why a traditional phone call may be less taxing on the brain, Franklin says, because it delivers on a small promise: to convey only a voice.
By contrast, the sudden shift to video calls has been a boon for people who have neurological difficulty with in-person exchanges, such as those with autism who can become overwhelmed by multiple people talking.
John Upton, an editor at the New Jersey-based news outlet Climate Central, recently found out he is autistic. Late last year, he was struggling with the mental load of attending packed conferences, engaging during in-person meetings, and navigating the small-talk that’s common in work places. He says these experiences caused “an ambiguous tension, a form of anxiety.”
As a result, he suffered a bout of autistic burnout and struggled to process complicated information—which he says is normally his strength—leading to feelings of helplessness and futility. To combat the issue, he began transitioning to working mostly from home and stacking all in-person meetings on Thursdays, to get them out of the way.
Now that the pandemic has pushed his coworkers to be remote as well, he has observed their video calls lead to fewer people talking and less filler conversation at the beginning and end of each meeting. Upton says his sense of tension and anxiety has been reduced to the point of being negligible.
This outcome is supported by research, says the University of Québec Outaouais’s Claude Normand, who studies how people with developmental and intellectual disabilities socialize online. People with autism tend to have difficulty understanding when it’s their turn to speak in live conversations, she notes. That’s why the frequent lag between speakers on video calls may actually help some autistic people. “When you’re Zooming online, it’s clear whose turn it is to talk,” Normand says.
However, other people on the autism spectrum may still struggle with video chatting, as it can exacerbate sensory triggers such as loud noise and bright lights, she adds.
On the whole, video chatting has allowed human connections to flourish in ways that would have been impossible just a few years ago. These tools enable us to maintain long-distance relationships, connect workrooms remotely, and even now, in spite of the mental exhaustion they can generate, foster some sense of togetherness during a pandemic.
It’s even possible Zoom fatigue will abate once people learn to navigate the mental tangle video chatting can cause. If you’re feeling self-conscious or overstimulated, Normand recommends you turn off your camera. Save your energy for when you absolutely want to perceive the few non-verbal cues that do come through, such as during the taxing chats with people you don’t know very well, or for when you want the warm fuzzies you get from seeing someone you love. Or if it’s a work meeting that can be done by phone, try walking at the same time.
“Walking meetings are known to improve creativity, and probably reduce stress as well,” Normand says.
Nature soothes our stressed-out souls. We instinctively know nature is the best prescription, but research is revealing how little time we need to set aside to reap the benefits.
In one study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, researchers tried to identify the most effective “dose” of nature within the context of normal daily life. As more doctors prescribe nature experiences for stress relief and other health benefits — sometimes referred to as a “nature pill” — the study’s authors hoped to clarify the details of these treatments. More biophilia is generally better for us, but since not everyone can spend all day in deep wilderness, the study looked for a sweet spot.
“We know that spending time in nature reduces stress, but until now it was unclear how much is enough, how often to do it, or even what kind of nature experience will benefit us,” says lead author MaryCarol Hunter, an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, in a statement. “Our study shows that for the greatest payoff, in terms of efficiently lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol, you should spend 20 to 30 minutes sitting or walking in a place that provides you with a sense of nature.”
A nature pill can be a low-cost, low-risk way to curb the negative health effects of urbanization and indoor lifestyles. To find the most efficient dosage, Hunter and her co-authors asked 36 city dwellers to have nature experiences of at least 10 minutes three times per week over eight weeks. (A nature experience was defined as “anywhere outside that, in the opinion of the participant, made them feel like they’ve interacted with nature,” Hunter explains.) Every two weeks, the researchers collected saliva samples to measure levels of the stress hormone cortisol, both before and after the participants took their nature pill.
The data showed that just a 20-minute nature experience was enough to significantly reduce cortisol levels. The effect was most efficient between 20 to 30 minutes, after which benefits continued to accrue but at a slower rate. Researchers in the United Kingdom who analyzed the routines of roughly 20,000 people came up with a similar prescription: 2 hours a week total spent in a park or woodland setting will improve your health.
Nature time doesn’t have to mean exercise, either
Those results dovetail with the findings of other studies, one of which found that spending 20 minutes in an urban park can make you happier, regardless of whether you use that time to exercise. That study was published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research,
“Overall, we found park visitors reported an improvement in emotional well-being after the park visit,” lead author and University of Alabama at Birmingham professor Hon K. Yuen said in a statement. “However, we did not find levels of physical activity are related to improved emotional well-being. Instead, we found time spent in the park is related to improved emotional well-being.”
For this study, 94 adults visited three urban parks in Mountain Brook, Alabama, completing a questionnaire about their subjective well-being before and after their visit. An accelerometer tracked their physical activity. A visit lasting between 20 and 25 minutes demonstrated the best results, with a roughly 64 percent increase in the participants’ self-reported well-being, even if they didn’t move a great deal in the park. That last point is particularly positive, since it means most anyone can benefit from visiting a nearby park, regardless of age or physical ability.
The study’s co-author and another UAB professor, Gavin Jenkins, acknowledges the study pool was small, but its findings illustrate the importance of urban parks.
“There is increasing pressure on green space within urban settings,” Jenkins said in the statement. “Planners and developers look to replace green space with residential and commercial property. The challenge facing cities is that there is an increasing evidence about the value of city parks but we continue to see the demise of theses spaces.”
In another review published in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers at Cornell University examined the results of 14 studies that focused on the impact of nature on college students. They found that you might not even need the full 20 minutes to reap the benefits of some outdoor time. The studies showed that as little as 10–20 minutes of sitting or walking in nature can help college students feel happier and less stressed.
“It doesn’t take much time for the positive benefits to kick in,” said lead author Gen Meredith, associate director of the Master of Public Health Program and lecturer at the College of Veterinary Medicine, in a statement. “We firmly believe that every student, no matter what subject or how high their workload, has that much discretionary time each day, or at least a few times per week.”
An AI can predict from people’s brainwaves whether an antidepressant is likely to help them. The technique may offer a new approach to prescribing medicines for mental illnesses.
Antidepressants don’t always work, and we aren’t sure why. “We have a central problem in psychiatry because we characterise diseases by their end point, such as what behaviours they cause,” says Amit Etkin at Stanford University in California. “You tell me you’re depressed, and I don’t know any more than that. I don’t really know what’s going on in the brain and we prescribe medication on very little information.”
Etkin wanted to find out if a machine-learning algorithm could predict from the brain scans of people diagnosed with depression who was most likely to respond to treatment with the antidepressant sertraline. The drug is typically effective in only a third of the people who take it.
He and his team gathered electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings showing the brainwaves of 228 people aged between 18 and 65 with depression. These individuals had previously tried antidepressants, but weren’t on such drugs at the start of the study.
Roughly half the participants were given sertraline, while the rest got a placebo. The researchers then monitored the participants’ mood over eight weeks, measuring any changes using a depression rating scale.
Brain activity patterns
By comparing the EEG recordings of those who responded well to the drug with those who didn’t, the machine-learning algorithm was able to identify a specific pattern of brain activity linked with a higher likelihood of finding sertraline helpful.
The team then tested the algorithm on a different group of 279 people. Although only 41 per cent of overall participants responded well to sertraline, 76 per cent of those the algorithm predicted would benefit did so.
Etkin has founded a company called Alto Neuroscience to develop the technology. He hopes it results in more efficient sertraline prescription by giving doctors “the tools to make decisions about their patients using objective tests, decisions that they’re currently making by chance”, says Etkin.
This AI “could have potential future relevance to patients with depression”, says Christian Gluud at the Copenhagen Trial Unit in Denmark. But the results need to be replicated by other researchers “before any transfer to clinical practice can be considered”, he says.
Jane Timmons-Mitchell, senior research associate at the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at the university’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences
Screenshot of the virtual training taken by more than 33,000 middle-school educators across the nation.
Aside from car crashes, suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among young people in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Ohio alone, suicide is the leading cause of death for 10- to 14-year-olds, according to new data from the state’s health department.
Experts agree that among the most effective ways to prevent suicide among youth is getting adults to pay attention to the warning signs.
Toward that goal, new research from Case Western Reserve University examined the impact of virtual training on the mental-health and suicide-prevention skills of more than 33,000 middle-school educators. The researchers found, overwhelmingly, that those who completed the training had “higher levels of preparedness” in identifying suicide warning signs than participants at the pre-test evaluation.
“Middle-school educators can play a big role in suicide prevention,” said Jane Timmons-Mitchell, a senior research associate at the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at the university’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences. “These educators are the gatekeepers. It’s not just teachers—this is everyone in the educational system, from lunch ladies to bus drivers.”
The idea behind the research was to get more educators trained—and to bring more awareness to the importance of the training—in suicide prevention.
“Bus drivers, for example have a great baseline for what a student is usually like, and they’re on the frontlines and are able to watch out for behavior that’s out of the ordinary,” Timmons-Mitchell said.
The virtual training, Kognito At-Risk simulation, is essentially an online role-playing video game that replicates interactions with at-risk youth. The program also covers topics such as bullying, she said.
Timmons-Mitchell, lead evaluator on the research, said that of the 33,703 educators nationally who participated, more than 90% had never received any kind of mental-health training.
“The training by itself, while helpful, is just a part of the system,” she said. “The training helps teach them about the next steps, which includes getting the information to trained professionals such as guidance counselors.”
More than half the states nationally—and a few other countries—already require this type of training, Timmons-Mitchell said.
“There’s a consensus that more people than teachers need to be prepared,” she said. “This is a very straightforward concept. It’s commonly discussed in academia, but there is a real result here in the classrooms, lunchrooms and school buses around the country.”
The research was done with financial support from the Garrett Lee Smith Youth Suicide Prevention and Early Intervention grant program, administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Timmons-Mitchell was joined in the research by Glenn Albright, from Baruch College at City University of New York; Jeremiah McMillan, a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia; Kristen Shockley, associate professor at the University of Georgia; and Seungjong Cho, a doctoral candidate at the Mandel School at Case Western Reserve.
For more information, contact Colin McEwen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The FDA is helping to speed up the process of researching and approving psilocybin, a hallucinogenic substance in magic mushrooms, to treat major depressive disorder (MDD).
For the second time in a year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has designated psilocybin therapy — currently being tested in clinical trials — as “breakthrough therapy,” an action that is meant to accelerate the typically sluggish process of drug development and review. It is typically requested by a drug company and granted only when preliminary evidence suggests the drug may be an enormous improvement over already available therapy, according to the FDA.
Last year, the FDA granted “breakthrough therapy” status to psilocybin therapy in the still-ongoing clinical trials run by the company Compass Pathways, which are looking into psilocybin’s potential to treat severe treatment-resistant depression, or depression in patients who have not improved after undergoing two different antidepressant treatments, according to New Atlas.
Now, the FDA has granted another “breakthrough therapy” status to the psychedelic treatment, this time for a U.S.-based clinical trial conducted by the nonprofit Usona Institute, according to a statement from the company. This clinical trial, which includes 80 participants at seven different sites across the U.S., focuses on the efficacy of treating patients with MDD with a single dose of psilocybin.
There are more than 17 million people in the U.S. who have major depressive disorder, or severe depression that lasts more than two weeks, according to the statement. Psilocybin, with a single dose, could profoundly impact the brain and have long-lasting impacts after wiping away depressive symptoms, according to the statement.
The phase 2 trial is expected to be completed by early 2021, and with the help of this status, Usona expects it to quickly move into a larger phase 3 trial, according to New Atlas. Around one in three treatments previously given a Breakthrough Therapy status have moved on to get market approval, New Atlas wrote.
“What is truly groundbreaking is FDA’s rightful acknowledgement that MDD, not just the much smaller treatment-resistant depression population, represents an unmet medical need and that the available data suggest that psilocybin may offer a substantial clinical improvement over existing therapies,” Dr. Charles Raison, the director of clinical and translational research at Usona, said in the statement.
This isn’t the first time that a psychedelic has been researched for its potential in treating depression. In March, the FDA approved a nasal spray depression treatment for treatment-resistant patients based on Esketamine, a substance related to ketamine — an anesthetic that’s also been used as an illicit party drug. But much is still unknown even of this approved drug. Though fast-acting, it’s unclear how Esketamine changes the brain and thus what its long-term effects will be, according to a previous Live Science report.
Our thinking skills in childhood could offer a glimpse into how our minds might work at the age of 70, according to a study spanning decades.
The research started in 1946, when 502 8-year-olds, who were born in the U.K. in the same week, took tests to measure their thinking and memory skills. The participants took cognitive tests again between the ages of 69 and 71.
The participants also had scans, including a positron emission tomography (PET) scan that detects amyloid-beta plaques in the brain. These sticky collections of protein are linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
The study, published in the journal Neurology, shows those with the highest test scores in childhood were more likely to have high scores later in life. Kids in the top 25 percent had a greater chance of being in that same quartile at 70.
Educational attainment and socioeconomic status also appeared to make a difference. Those who were college-educated scored around 16 percent better in tests than those who left school before they hit 16. Participants who had a white-collar job were able to remember, on average, 12 details from a short story, versus 11 if they had a manual job. Overall, women did better than men when their memory and thinking speed were tested.
Participants who were found to have amyloid-beta plaques in their brains, meanwhile, scored lower on cognitive tests. In one assessment where participants had to find the missing pieces in five geometric shapes, those with the plaque got 23 out of 32 problems correct, versus 25 for those without the plaques.
Dr. Jonathan M. Schott of University College London commented: “Finding these predictors is important because if we can understand what influences an individual’s cognitive performance in later life, we can determine which aspects might be modifiable by education or lifestyle changes like exercise, diet or sleep, which may, in turn, slow the development of cognitive decline.
“Our study found that small differences in thinking and memory associated with amyloid plaques in the brain are detectable in older adults even at an age when those who are destined to develop dementia are still likely to be many years away from having symptoms.”
Earlier this year, Schott and his team published a separate study in the journal The Lancet Neurology that showed having high blood pressure in a person’s mid-30s was linked to higher levels of blood vessel damage in the brain, as well as shrinkage of the organ.
Professor Tara Spires-Jones from the UK Dementia Research Institute at the University of Edinburgh, who did not work on the new study, told Newsweek the findings add to other studies that suggest our genetics, as well as environmental factors, play a role in how we maintain our thinking skills as we age.
“However, this does not mean that all of your brain power during aging is determined during childhood,” she said. “There is good scientific evidence from this study and many others that keeping your brain and body active are likely to reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, even as adults.”
Learning, socializing and exercise can all help, she said.
“One way this works is by building new connections between brain cells, called synapses. Synapses are the building blocks of memory, so building up a robust network of synapses, sometimes called ‘brain reserve’ is thought to be the biology behind the finding that more education is associated with a lower risk of dementia and age-related cognitive decline,” explained Spires-Jones.
Spires-Jones suggested amyloid-beta plaques might be linked with lower tests scores in the study because they build up and damage the connections between brain cells, called synapses, impairing brain function.
“Amyloid plaques are also widely thought to initiate a toxic cascade that leads to dementia in Alzheimer’s disease, including the build-up and spread of another pathology called ‘tangles,'” she said.
She said the study was “very strong” but limited because observational studies can’t explain the links that emerge, and the participants were all white so the results might not relate to other populations.
“It will be important in future work to try and understand the biological underpinnings for the associations between childhood intelligence and better cognitive ability during aging,” she said.
The 60 souls that signed on for Dr. Alain Brunet’s memory manipulation study were united by something they would rather not remember. The trauma of betrayal.
For some, it was infidelity and for others, a brutal, unanticipated abandonment. “It was like, ‘I’m leaving you. Goodbye,” the McGill University associate professor of psychiatry says.
In cold, clinical terms, his patients were suffering from an “adjustment disorder” due to the termination (not of their choosing) of a romantic relationship. The goal of Brunet and other researchers is to help people like this — the scorned, the betrayed, the traumatized — lose their total recall. To deliberately forget.
Over four to six sessions, volunteers read aloud from a typed script they had composed themselves — a first-person account of their breakup, with as many emotional details as possible — while under the influence of propranolol, a common and inexpensive blood pressure pill. The idea was to purposely reactivate the memory and bring the experience and the stinging emotions it aroused to life again. “How did you feel about that?” they were asked. How do you feel right now? And, most importantly: Has your memory changed since last week?
The investigators had hypothesized that four to six sessions of memory reactivation under propranolol would be sufficient to dramatically blunt the memories associated with their “attachment injury.” Decrease the strength of the memory, Brunet says, and you decrease the strength of the pain.
The study is now complete, and Brunet is hesitant to discuss the results, which have been submitted to a journal for peer review and publication. However, the participants “just couldn’t believe that we could do so much in such a small amount of time,” he confides.
“They were able to turn the page. That’s what they would tell us — ‘I feel like I’ve turned the page. I’m no longer obsessed by this person, or this relationship.’”
Brunet insists he isn’t interested in deleting or scrubbing painful memories out entirely. The idea of memory erasure, of finding the cellular imprint of a specific, discreet memory in the brain, of isolating and inactivating the brain cells behind that memory, unnerves him. ‘It’s not going to come from my lab,” he says, although others are certainly working on it. Memories are part of who we are, what forms our identity, what makes us authentic, “and as long as only one choice exists right now, and it’s toning down a memory, we feel on very solid and comfortable ground,” ethically speaking, Brunet says.
“However, if one day you had two options — I can tone down your memory, or I can remove it altogether, from your head, from your mind — what would you choose?”
The choice might soon be yours.
“If you could erase the memory of the worst day of your life, would you,” Elizabeth Phelps and Stefan Hofmann write in the journal, Nature. “How about your memory of a person who has caused you pain?”
What was once purely science fiction is moving ever closer to clinical reality. Researchers are working on techniques and drugs that might enable us to edit our memories or at least seriously dull their impact — to make the intolerable bearable — by, say, swallowing a pill to block the synaptic changes needed for a memory to solidify. A pill that could be taken hours, even months or years after the event.
Much of the work is based on the theory of memory reconsolidation – the belief that the mere conscious act of recalling or conjuring a memory makes it vulnerable to tinkering or meddling. When a memory is evoked, a reconsolidation window opens for a brief period of time (two to five hours, according to Brunet), during which time the memory returns to a state of “lability.” It becomes pliable, like Play-Doh. It also becomes susceptible to modification, before “reconsolidating” or re-storage. The thought is that propranolol interferes with proteins in the brain needed to lock down the memory again.
A similar line of thinking holds that a memory isn’t an exact impression of the original event, an Iphone video of the past, says Boston University neuroscientist Steve Ramirez. Rather it’s more like Plato’s wax tablet. Press a signet ring into the wax and it leaves an imprint, but the wax can melt when we recall the memory, form again and then melt all over again. “Memory is dynamic,” Ramirez says. It isn’t static. Memories can also be updated with new information when they’re recalled, like hitting “save as” every time you go into a Word file.
But the idea that memories can be edited, softened or dialled down, is more than a little discomfiting to some, and not just for what it means for eyewitness testimony. “We’re not reliable narrators when it comes to some details, and sometimes even entire scenarios,” Ramirez says. More profoundly, without good and bad memories it’s hard to imagine how we would know how to behave, says Dr. Judy Illes, professor of neurology and Canada Research Chair in neuroethics at the University of British Columbia.
Learning doesn’t occur without memory. How do we learn from a bad relationship, if we can’t remember it? “And so now, if we pre-select what memories stick and don’t stick, it almost starts to be like the eugenics of memory,” Illes says. “We ought to think carefully about that.”
She has absolutely no qualms about using memory manipulation for people suffering desperately from post-traumatic stress disorder, people whose burden of suffering from horrifying experiences exceeds any moral argument against using it.
“To me, a PTSD that is profound and debilitating is like a disease of any other and, to the extent that we can have an intervention that treats it, we should vigorously pursue it.”
Even the heartbroken recruited for Brunet’s study were experiencing symptoms congruent with PTSD. We’re geared to form attachments, he says, and not so much to detach.
But memory manipulation has a slippery slope. Would it bleed into not-so-disabling disorders? If someone misbehaves at a cocktail party and would really sooner forget what happened, is that an appropriate use? Isn’t it good to be embarrassed by your past behaviour, to keep you from doing it again? What about war fighters, asks Illes. “If we had a drug that can mitigate a bad memory, could we possibly use it in advance of an act to actually prevent a memory from forming, and therefore enable people to fight less fearfully, and more fiercely, because there’s no consolidation of the acts of crime, or acts of war?”
The pull of moral responsibility — “one’s future ‘oughtness’” — is grounded in our life story, writes bioethicist Dr. Peter DePergola in the Journal of Cognition and Neuroethics. Using blood pressure pills or some other intervention like, say, transcranial direct current stimulation, to deaden or blast away memories of trauma “ultimately undermines one’s ability to seek, identify and act on the good,” DePergola argues.
And how do you manipulate a bad memory, without risking happy, shiny, positive ones? What does a memory even look like in the brain? Can we visualize it? Can we see what happens when positive and negative memories form? And where would all the bad memories go? Saved in glass bottles in the Ministry of Magic?
We can’t go into the brain and erase memories in an Eternal-Sunshine-of-the-Spotless-Mind kind of way, Ramirez says, at least not yet. We can’t touch or poke a memory. However, scientists are starting to get unprecedented glimpses into the physical structure of memory in the brain. The goal is to identify the brain cells a particular memory gloms onto, and artificially manipulate those cells.
The challenge is that human memories aren’t localized to one specific location in the brain. There’s no spot X you can point to, and say, Aha! There it is. Rather, they’re scattered throughout the organ. The sights and sounds and smells and emotions of a memory are going to recruit different corners of the brain that are involved in processing the sights and sounds and smells and emotions, Ramirez says.
“Right now, there are a lot of memories that are asleep in your brain. If I asked you, ‘what did you do last night?’, that memory just woke up. How did that happen? You just did that effortlessly in, like, 500 milliseconds. And yet we don’t know how that process works.”
However, we know that it does happen, and scientists have some pretty good indications of what happens physiologically when we recall a memory, and what it means for that memory to become awake again.
American-Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield was one of the first to hint at where to look. When Penfield stimulated cells in the hippocampus of people who were undergoing surgery for epilepsy in the 1940s with mild jolts of electricity, specific episodic memories — memories of actual experiences — suddenly popped into their minds. “It was like, ‘I have no idea why, but I’m randomly remembering my 16th birthday and I was walking my cat,’’” Ramirez said on a National Geographic podcast earlier this year.
In experiments that helped open the floodgates, Ramirez and other scientists at MIT reported that they could identify — in mice — the cells that make up part of an engram, the coding for a specific memory, and reactive those same cells using a technology called optogenetics.
Briefly, here’s what they did: Viruses were inserted into the brain cells of genetically modified mice that made the cells glow green in response to light. Next, the researchers isolated cells in the hippocampus of a mouse as the rodents were forming a specific memory — in this case, the memory of receiving a mild electric foot shock while exploring a box.
A day later, the mouse was placed in a different box — different smells, different floor, meaning there should be no reason for them to be fearful. But when those memory cells were activated with a laser, the mouse froze in fear.
More recently, in a paper published earlier this year, Ramirez and co-author Briana Chen mapped out which cells in the hippocampus were being activated when male mice made new memories of positive (meeting a female mouse) and negative (those mild electric foot zaps again) experiences. They were able to trigger the memories again later, using laser light to activate the memory cells. When memory cells in the bottom part of the hippocampus were stimulated, it seemed to dial up the negative memories. But stimulating memory cells in the top part of the hippocampus seemed to dial them down.
The goal, says Ramirez, is to artificially activate positive memories to overwrite the bad ones — in a sense, using the brain as a drug. “In depression, there is a bias toward negative thinking,” Ramirez says. We’ve been using drugs like Xanax and Prozac for decades, but we haven’t really advanced all that much since the 1970s, Ramirez says. “Maybe we need to tackle these kinds of disorders from all angles.”
Ten years ago, Sheena Josselyn’s lab was the first to offer fairly convincing evidence that we can erase a specific fear memory in mice, without erasing every one of the rodent’s fears. The University of Toronto neuroscientist used a toxin to destroy a handful of neurons housing the memory “It wasn’t like a huge legion. If you take out the entire brain, the mouse doesn’t remember a darn thing.”
That’s obviously not technically, or ethically ideal in humans. No one is talking about ablating neurons in people, or injecting viruses into human brain cells to make them glow green. “But it does tell us that in order to manipulate a memory in people we don’t have to give an entire, systemic thing,” Josselyn says. Rather, we could go in and just hit the target neurons using some kind of smart bomb.
Mice aren’t humans, and efforts to translate the results from animal experiments to healthy humans have been mixed, Phelps and Hoffman note in their Nature article. Still, whether it’s beta-blockers like propranolol, or ecstasy or ketamine or other drugs being tested that might block the synthesis of proteins required to lock down a memory after it’s been retrieved, Ramirez and others believe we could tackle the emotional “oomph,” the psychological sting, of a traumatic memory, while leaving the autobiographic experience — the actual, conscious recollection of the event — intact. No, you may not be able to erase the memory of the “venomous, evil snake that is my ex,” as one Redditor asked Ramirez. There isn’t a memory anti-venom. With memory manipulation, people would still remember the breakup, and the person, but the toxic, gut-twisting emotions associated with it would melt, like ice cream in the sun. And, just as doctors shouldn’t hand out anti-depressants to the entire population of Boston, Ramirez says memory manipulation should be reserved for those suffering crippling anxiety, depression or other symptoms.
Betrayal and abandonment themselves are “no small stuff,” adds Brunet. “This is the material Greek tragedies are made of.” People can become hyper vigilant, he says. They have intrusive thoughts. Everything around them reminds them of the former relationship. “It affects negatively your world views, your self esteem and the trust you can place in other people,” Brunet says.
However, a memory buster is challenging, Illes, of UBC says, because it interferes with our experience as humans.
Our brains are hardwired to remember emotionally charged events. “Do you remember where you were on 9/11? Do you remember five supermarkets ago?” Illes asks.
Our memories are so closely interrelated and interconnected, she adds, that you can’t just pull one brick out without the integrity of the entire wall being affected.
“Go back to your dating question,” Illes says as a thought experiment. “We have a bad relationship. Unless two people are on an isolated island and don’t interact with other humans, your bad relationship has other people in there. And, so, how do you remove all the memories associated with all the complexities that we have on a daily basis?”
Memories give us a sense of consciousness, she says, of who we are and what we know to be right and wrong and moral and immoral.
A prescient 2003 report from the U.S. President’s Council on Bioethics asked whether the then-emerging field of memory-alteration would mean abandoning our own truthful identities.
“Armed with new powers to ease the suffering of bad memories, we might come to see all psychic pain as unnecessary and in the process come to pursue a happiness that is less than human,” the authors wrote, “an unmindful happiness, unchanged by time and events, unmoved by life’s vicissitudes.”
Steve Ramirez was running in the Boston marathon in 2013 when two crude pressure cooker bombs detonated 12 seconds apart near the finish line, killing three and injuring several hundred more. The sights, the sounds, the smells — “they helped carve a very deep corner into my personality,” he says.
“It exposed a darker aspect of humanity, but I wouldn’t really find any personal gain in not knowing that corner, either.”
· Children who were bullied by siblings and peers are more likely to develop clinical depression, self-harm and think about suicide in their early twenties
· Children bullied at home and school had no safe place to escape bullying
· Education of parents and mental health professionals is needed to reduce sibling bullying, as in turn it could reduce peer bullying and lead to a decrease in issues later on in life
Depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation are more prominent in adults in their early twenties if they were bullied at home and at school, a study by researchers at the University of Warwick have found. Researchers stress that intervention is needed to educate people in bullying to reduce it.
Previous studies have identified that sibling bullying has an effect on mental health in adolescence, however researchers Professor Dieter Wolke and Dr. Slava Dantchev have now found children who were bullied by siblings and friends are more likely to harm themselves.
In the paper ‘The Independent and Cumulative Effects of Sibling and Peer Bullying in Childhood on Depression, Anxiety, Suicidal Ideation, and Self-Harm in Adulthood’ published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, researchers show there is a long shadow thrown by sibling bullying on self-harm, suicide attempts and depression at 24 years of age.
Using the Children of the 90s study, they were able to show that children who were bullied by siblings had more mental health issues in adulthood. If they were also bullied by peers this risk increased further.
The participants were asked to self-report bullying when they were 12 years old, whilst depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and self-harm were assessed at 24 years old.
Of 3,881 youths studied it was found that 31.2% experienced bullying by a sibling. Of those who both became victims and bullied siblings 15.1% were diagnosed with clinical depression, 35.7% experienced suicidal ideation and 16.1% self-harmed with a further 4.9% with the intent of suicide.
Those who experienced sibling bullying and peer bullying had double the odds of developing clinical depression and consider suicide.
Dr Slava Dantchev of the University of Warwick and the University of Vienna said: “This is the first study to show that being bullied by siblings has adverse effects on mental health into adulthood, when the siblings are not living together anymore. Those bullied at home are also more likely to be bullied by peers and have no save space at school or at home. This further increased their torment and affected their mental health”
Professor Dieter Wolke of the Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick comments: “As sibling bullying often starts when children are young it will be important to educate and help parents to deal and reduce bullying between siblings in early childhood. This is an area which has been completely overlooked in mental health provision and parent support”
he most commonly prescribed antidepressant barely relieves symptoms of modern depression, a major study reveals.
The largest independent investigation ever undertaken found patients taking sertraline experienced negligible improvements in mood.
Published in the Lancet Psychiatry, the study comes amid mounting controversy over increased use of antidepressants by GPs in recent decades, with roughly 7.3 million people in England issued a prescription each year.
Its authors said they were “shocked and surprised” by the results, and called for the development of new classes of medication.
However, in the absence of better drugs, they do not want current prescribing practice to be changed because the trial also showed sertraline is effective in reducing anxiety, which often accompanies depression.
The new trial is by far the largest to be conducted without the involvement of the pharmaceutical industry.
It is also the most in-depth examination of sertraline – a type of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) – in patients with a range of depression severities, rather than just in severely depressed patients in specialist mental health units.
The study included 654 people aged 18 to 74 who were given either the antidepressant for 12 weeks or a placebo.
The results showed depressive symptoms were five per cent lower after six weeks in the sertraline group, which was “no convincing evidence” of an effect.
After 12 weeks, there was a 13 per cent reduction, a finding the experts described as “weak”.
But the drug did offer clear benefits in reducing anxiety, with a 21 per cent reduction in symptoms at six weeks and 23 per cent at 12 weeks.
This is likely to explain why patients taking sertraline were twice as likely to say they felt generally better compared to the placebo group, even once questioned on specific symptoms of depression the benefit was far weaker.
Symptoms of depression include poor concentration, low mood, trouble with sleep, lack of enjoyment, whereas anxiety is presents as worry, nervousness, irritability and restlessness.
Professor Glyn Lewis, who led the research at University College London, said: “We were shocked and surprised when we did our analysis.
“There is absolutely no doubt this is an unexpected result.’
“Our primary hypothesis was that it would affect those depressive symptoms at six weeks and we didn’t find that.
“We definitely need better treatments for depression, and we need more research in this area.”
He suggested that new, more effective classes of antidepressants could be based on ketamine, psilocybin, the psychedelic in magic mushrooms, and anti-inflammatories.
It is thought that roughly four million people in England are long-term users of antidepressants.
Prescribing data shows that SSRI’s such as sertraline make up 54 per cent of antidepressant prescriptions.
Scientists have responded to the new study by pointing out that some of the patients had very mild symptoms of depression to start with, making it less likely that sertraline would cause an improvement.
However, others have pointed out that this is exactly the basis upon which GPs tend to hand out the drugs in practice.
Dr Gemma Lewis, who co-authored the new research, said: “I think it’s really important to understand that anxiety symptoms are very, very common among people with depression.”
She added: “It appears that people taking the drug are feeling less anxious, so they feel better overall, even if their depressive symptoms were less affected.
“We hope that we have cast new light on how antidepressants work, as they may be primarily affecting anxiety symptoms such as nervousness, worry and tension, and taking longer to affect depressive symptoms.”
Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “It is well-established that it often takes a while for patients to feel the full benefits of modern antidepressants and that they work best when taken for significant periods of time, which is one reason why doctors will often review patients after several weeks of use and then prescribe a fairly long course of the drugs, if they appear to be beneficial.”