Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

by Rachel Metz

There are about 45 million people in the US alone with a mental illness, and those illnesses and their courses of treatment can vary tremendously. But there is something most of those people have in common: a smartphone.

A startup founded in Palo Alto, California, by a trio of doctors, including the former director of the US National Institute of Mental Health, is trying to prove that our obsession with the technology in our pockets can help treat some of today’s most intractable medical problems: depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse.

Mindstrong Health is using a smartphone app to collect measures of people’s cognition and emotional health as indicated by how they use their phones. Once a patient installs Mindstrong’s app, it monitors things like the way the person types, taps, and scrolls while using other apps. This data is encrypted and analyzed remotely using machine learning, and the results are shared with the patient and the patient’s medical provider.

The seemingly mundane minutiae of how you interact with your phone offers surprisingly important clues to your mental health, according to Mindstrong’s research—revealing, for example, a relapse of depression. With details gleaned from the app, Mindstrong says, a patient’s doctor or other care manager gets an alert when something may be amiss and can then check in with the patient by sending a message through the app (patients, too, can use it to message their care provider).

For years now, countless companies have offered everything from app-based therapy to games that help with mood and anxiety to efforts to track smartphone activities or voice and speech for signs of depression. But Mindstrong is different, because it’s considering how users’ physical interactions with the phones—not what they do, but how they do it—can point to signs of mental illness. That may lead to far more accurate ways to track these problems over time. If Mindstrong’s method works, it could be the first that manages to turn the technology in your pocket into the key to helping patients with a wide range of chronic brain disorders—and may even lead to ways to diagnose them before they start.

Digital fingerprints
Before starting Mindstrong, Paul Dagum, its founder and CEO, paid for two Bay Area–based studies to figure out whether there might be a systemic measure of cognitive ability—or disability—hidden in how we use our phones. One hundred and fifty research subjects came into a clinic and underwent a standardized neurocognitive assessment that tested things like episodic memory (how you remember events) and executive function (mental skills that include the ability to control impulses, manage time, and focus on a task)—the kinds of high-order brain functions that are weakened in people with mental illnesses.

The assessment included neuropsychological tests that have been used for decades, like a so-called timed trail-­tracing test, where you have to connect scattered letters and numbers in the proper order—a way to measure how well people can shift between tasks. People who have a brain disorder that weakens their attention may have a harder time with this.

Subjects went home with an app that measured the ways they touched their phone’s display (swipes, taps, and keyboard typing), which Dagum hoped would be an unobtrusive way to log these same kinds of behavior on a smartphone. For the next year, it ran in the background, gathering data and sending it to a remote server. Then the subjects came back for another round of neurocognitive tests.

As it turns out, the behaviors the researchers measured can tell you a lot. “There were signals in there that were measuring, correlating—predicting, in fact, not just correlating with—the neurocognitive function measures that the neuropsychologist had taken,” Dagum says.

For instance, memory problems, which are common hallmarks of brain disorders, can be spotted by looking at things including how rapidly you type and what errors you make (such as how frequently you delete characters), as well as by how fast you scroll down a list of contacts. (Mindstrong can first determine your baseline by looking at how you use your handset and combining those characteristics with general measures.) Even when you’re just using the smartphone’s keyboard, Dagum says, you’re switching your attention from one task to another all the time—for example, when you’re inserting punctuation into a sentence.

He became convinced the connections presented a new way to investigate human cognition and behavior over time, in a way that simply isn’t possible with typical treatment like regularly visiting a therapist or getting a new medication, taking it for a month, and then checking back in with a doctor. Brain-disorder treatment has stalled in part because doctors simply don’t know that someone’s having trouble until it’s well advanced; Dagum believes Mindstrong can figure it out much sooner and keep an eye on it 24 hours a day.

In 2016, Dagum visited Verily, Alphabet’s life sciences company, where he pitched his work to a group including Tom Insel, a psychiatrist who had spent 13 years as director of the National Institute of Mental Health before he joined Verily in 2015.

Verily was trying to figure out how to use phones to learn about depression or other mental health conditions. But Insel says that at first, what Dagum presented—more a concept than a show of actual data—didn’t seem like a big deal. “The bells didn’t go off about what he had done,” he says.

Over several meetings, however, Insel realized that Dagum could do something he believed nobody in the field of mental health had yet been able to accomplish. He had figured out smartphone signals that correlated strongly with a person’s cognitive performance—the kind of thing usually possible only through those lengthy lab tests. What’s more, he was collecting these signals for days, weeks, and months on end, making it possible, in essence, to look at a person’s brain function continuously and objectively. “It’s like having a continuous glucose monitor in the world of diabetes,” Insel says.

Why should anyone believe that what Mindstrong is doing can actually work? Dagum says that thousands of people are using the app, and the company now has five years of clinical study data to confirm its science and technology. It is continuing to perform numerous studies, and this past March it began working with patients and doctors in clinics.

In its current form, the Mindstrong app that patients see is fairly sparse. There’s a graph that updates daily with five different signals collected from your smartphone swipes and taps. Four of these signals are measures of cognition that are tightly tied to mood disorders (such as the ability to make goal-based decisions), and the other measures emotions. There’s also an option to chat with a clinician.

For now, Insel says, the company is working mainly with seriously ill people who are at risk of relapse for problems like depression, schizophrenia, and substance abuse. “This is meant for the most severely disabled people, who are really needing some innovation,” he says. “There are people who are high utilizers of health care and they’re not getting the benefits, so we’ve got to figure out some way to get them something that works better.” Actually predicting that a patient is headed toward a downward spiral is a harder task, but Dagum believes that having more people using the app over time will help cement patterns in the data.

There are thorny issues to consider, of course. Privacy, for one: while Mindstrong says it protects users’ data, collecting such data at all could be a scary prospect for many of the people it aims to help. Companies may be interested in, say, including it as part of an employee wellness plan, but most of us wouldn’t want our employers anywhere near our mental health data, no matter how well protected it may be.

Spotting problems before they start
A study in the works at the University of Michigan is looking at whether Mindstrong may be beneficial for people who do not have a mental illness but do have a high risk for depression and suicide. Led by Srijan Sen, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience, the study tracks the moods of first-year doctors across the country—a group that is known to experience intense stress, frequent sleep deprivation, and very high rates of depression.

Participants log their mood each day and wear a Fitbit activity tracker to log sleep, activity, and heart-rate data. About 1,500 of the 2,000 participants also let a Mindstrong keyboard app run on their smartphones to collect data about the ways they type and figure out how their cognition changes throughout the year.

Sen hypothesizes that people’s memory patterns and thinking speed change in subtle ways before they realize they’re depressed. But he says he doesn’t know how long that lag will be, or what cognitive patterns will be predictive of depression.

Insel also believes Mindstrong may lead to more precise diagnoses than today’s often broadly defined mental health disorders. Right now, for instance, two people with a diagnosis of major depressive disorder might share just one of numerous symptoms: they could both feel depressed, but one might feel like sleeping all the time, while the other is hardly sleeping at all. We don’t know how many different illnesses are in the category of depression, Insel says. But over time Mindstrong may be able to use patient data to find out. The company is exploring how learning more about these distinctions might make it possible to tailor drug prescriptions for more effective treatment.

Insel says it’s not yet known if there are specific digital markers of, say, auditory hallucinations that someone with schizophrenia might experience, and the company is still working on how to predict future problems like post-traumatic stress disorder. But he is confident that the phone will be the key to figuring it out discreetly. “We want to be able to do this in a way that just fits into somebody’s regular life,” he says.

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/612266/the-smartphone-app-that-can-tell-youre-depressed-before-you-know-it-yourself/

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Researchers led by Northwestern Engineering’s Luis Amaral sifted through data from more than 1.5 million questionnaire respondents to find at least four distinct clusters of personality types exist — average, reserved, self-centered, and role model — challenging existing paradigms in psychology.

“People have tried to classify personality types since Hippocrates’s time, but previous scientific literature has found that to be nonsense,”said co-author William Revelle, professor of psychology at Northwestern University’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

“Now, these data show there are higher densities of certain personality types,” said Revelle, who specializes in personality measurement, theory, and research.

The new study appears in Nature Human Behaviour. The findings potentially could be of interest to hiring managers and mental healthcare providers.

Initially, Revelle was skeptical of the study’s premise. The concept of personality types remains controversial in psychology, with hard scientific proof difficult to find. Previous attempts based on small research groups created results that often were not replicable.

“Personality types only existed in self-help literature and did not have a place in scientific journals,” said Amaral, Erastus Otis Haven Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering. “Now, we think this will change because of this study.”

The new research combined an alternative computational approach with data from four questionnaires, attracting more than 1.5 million respondents from around the world. The questionnaires, developed by the research community over the decades, have between 44 and 300 questions. People voluntarily take the online quizzes, attracted by the opportunity to receive feedback about their own personality.

These data are now being made available to other researchers for independent analyses.

“A study with a dataset this large would not have been possible before the web,” Amaral said. “Previously, researchers would recruit undergrads on campus and maybe get a few hundred people. Now, we have all these online resources available, and data is being shared.”

Average

Average people are high in neuroticism and extraversion, while low in openness. “I would expect that the typical person would be in this cluster,” said Martin Gerlach, a postdoctoral fellow in Amaral’s lab and the paper’s first author. Females are more likely than males to fall into the Average type.

Reserved

The Reserved type is emotionally stable, but not open or neurotic. They are not particularly extraverted but are somewhat agreeable and conscientious.

Role Models

Role Models score low in neuroticism and high in all the other traits. The likelihood that someone is a role model increases dramatically with age. “These are people who are dependable and open to new ideas,” Amaral said. “These are good people to be in charge of things. In fact, life is easier if you have more dealings with role models.” More women than men are likely to be role models.

Self-Centered

Self-Centered people score very high in extraversion and below average in openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness. “These are people you don’t want to hang out with,” Revelle said. There is a very dramatic decrease in the number of self-centered types as people age, both with women and men.

The group’s first attempt to sort the data used traditional clustering algorithms, but that yielded inaccurate results, Amaral said.

“At first, they came to me with 16 personality types, and there’s enough literature that I’m aware of that says that’s ridiculous,” Revelle said. “I believed there were no types at all.”

He challenged Amaral and Gerlach to refine their data.

“Machine learning and data science are promising but can be seen as a little bit of a religion,” Amaral said. “You still need to test your results. We developed a new method to guide people to solve the clustering problem to test the findings.”

Their algorithm first searched for many clusters using traditional clustering methods, but then winnowed them down by imposing additional constraints. This procedure revealed the four groups they reported.

“The data came back, and they kept coming up with the same four clusters of higher density and at higher densities than you’d expect by chance, and you can show by replication that this is statistically unlikely,” Revelle said.

“I like data, and I believe these results,” he added. “The methodology is the main part of the paper’s contribution to science.”

To be sure the new clusters of types were accurate, the researchers used a notoriously self-centered group—teenaged boys—to validate their information.

“We know teen boys behave in self-centered ways,” Amaral said. “If the data were correct and sifted for demographics, they would they turn out to be the biggest cluster of people.”

Indeed, young males are overrepresented in the Self-Centered group, while females over 15 years old are vastly underrepresented.

Along with serving as a tool that can help mental health service providers assess for personality types with extreme traits, Amaral said the study’s results could be helpful for hiring managers looking to insure a potential candidate is a good fit or for people who are dating and looking for an appropriate partner.

And good news for parents of teenagers everywhere: As people mature, their personality types often shift. For instance, older people tend to be less neurotic yet more conscientious and agreeable than those under 20 years old.

“When we look at large groups of people, it’s clear there are trends, that some people may be changing some of these characteristics over time,” Amaral said. “This could be a subject of future research.”

This article has been republished from materials provided by Northwestern University. Note: material may have been edited for length and content. For further information, please contact the cited source.

Reference:

Martin Gerlach, Beatrice Farb, William Revelle, Luís A. Nunes Amaral. A robust data-driven approach identifies four personality types across four large data sets. Nature Human Behaviour, 2018; DOI: 10.1038/s41562-018-0419-z

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A new study from the University of Chicago found that people who report feeling lonely also say they sit or stand physically farther away from close friends and family. Their “personal space” for intimate partners is larger than those who report less loneliness, even when adjusted for marital status and other factors such as gender, anxiety and depression.

In two experiments, published Sept. 6 in PLOS ONE, the researchers surveyed nearly 600 U.S.-based men and women on how far they preferred to sit or stand near different groups of people, including friends and family, romantic partners and acquaintances. On average, loneliness doubles the odds of someone staying farther away from those in their closest circle of intimacy. (It had no effect on how far they preferred to stand from acquaintances or strangers).

“To our knowledge, this is the first direct evidence for a link between interpersonal distance preferences and loneliness,” said Elliot Layden, a UChicago graduate student and first author on the paper. “This finding may be important to consider in the context of loneliness interventions—such as client-therapist interactions and community programs seeking to combat loneliness.”

The effect persists even when scientists adjusted for how much social interaction the person experiences; for example, those who felt lonely despite high levels of social interaction still kept their distances.

“You can feel alone even in a crowd or in a marriage—loneliness is really a discrepancy between what you want and what you have,” said Stephanie Cacioppo, director of the Brain Dynamics Laboratory, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience, and senior author on the paper.

The authors say this fits with the evolutionary model of loneliness, pioneered by Stephanie Cacioppo and her late husband, John Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago and a co-author on the paper, who passed away earlier this year. The Cacioppos’ transformative work in this field connected feelings of loneliness to physical health outcomes, including sleep disturbances, inflammation and earlier death.

The evolutionary model suggests that even though loneliness might be expected to prompt people to move closer to others, it also increases an individual’s short-term self-preservation instincts, triggering an instinct to stay farther away. Previous Cacioppo studies using neuroimaging techniques have found evidence that lonelier individuals also exhibit heightened vigilance for social threats—such as social rejection or interpersonal hostility.

“This ‘survival mode’ means that even though a lonely person wants more social interaction, they may still unconsciously keep their distance,” Stephanie Cacioppo said. “The hope is that by bringing this to conscious attention, we can reduce the incidence of divorce as a byproduct of loneliness and increase meaningful connections among people.”

Cacioppo and her team are working to incorporate the finding into a program to reduce loneliness with the National Institutes of Health, she said. In further studies, she wants to explore gender differences in personal space; men are consistently found to prefer larger personal spaces than women.

https://medicalxpress.com/news/2018-09-lonely-people.html

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Walter Mischel in 2004. “If we have the skills to allow us to make discriminations about when we do or don’t do something,” Dr. Mischel said, “we are no longer victims of our desires.” (David Dini/Columbia University)

By Emily Langer

The experiment was “simplicity itself,” its creator, psychologist Walter Mischel, would later recall. The principal ingredient was a cookie or a pretzel stick or — most intriguingly to the popular imagination — a marshmallow.

In what became known as “the marshmallow test,” a child was placed in a room with a treat and presented with a choice. She could eat the treat right away. Or she could wait unaccompanied in the room, for up to 20 minutes, and then receive two treats in reward for her forbearance.

Conducting their work at a nursery school on the campus of Stanford University in the 1960s, Dr. Mischel and his colleagues observed responses that were as enlightening as they are enduringly adorable. Some children distracted themselves by putting their fingers in their ears or nose. At least one child caressed the marshmallow as he hungered for it. Only about 30 percent of the children managed to wait for the double reward.

Dr. Mischel, who continued his career at Columbia University and died Sept. 12 at 88, followed a cohort of the children for decades and presented his findings to mainstream readers in his 2014 book “The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control is the Engine of Success.”

His observations, widely noted and hotly debated, were striking: Children who had found ways to delay gratification, he found, had greater success in school, made more money and were less prone to obesity and drug addiction.

“What emerged from those studies is a different view of self-control, one that sees it as a matter of skill” and not a matter of “gritting your teeth,” said Yuichi Shoda, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington who worked with Dr. Mischel as a graduate student.

As worried parents conducted marshmallow tests at home, policymakers, educators and motivational speakers found a compelling catchphrase: “Don’t eat the marshmallow!” Even the ravenous Cookie Monster, a mainstay of the children’s TV show “Sesame Street,” was coaxed to resist a cookie.

Meanwhile, some psychologists challenged Dr. Mischel’s findings, arguing that a study group drawn from the privileged environs of Stanford could hardly yield reliable results. Skeptics noted that while affluent families might teach their children to delay gratification, in an effort to encourage financial and other forms of responsibility, children from disadvantaged homes learn that waiting to eat might mean not eating at all.

Dr. Mischel defended his research, emphasizing that in no way did he wish to suggest a laboratory performance — particularly by a preschooler — was destiny. The question, he said, is “how can you regulate yourself and control yourself in ways that make your life better?”

Walter Mischel was born Feb. 22, 1930, to a Jewish family in Vienna. His home was not far from that of Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis. “Even as a young child I was aware of his presence,” Dr. Mischel once told the British Psychological Society, “and I suspect at some level I became quite interested in what makes people tick.”

Dr. Mischel’s family enjoyed a comfortable life until the rise of Nazism. His father, a businessman who had suffered from polio, was made to limp through the streets without his cane. Dr. Mischel recalled being humiliated by members of the Hitler Youth who tread on his new shoes. The experience, he told the Guardian, planted in him a desire to understand “the enabling conditions that allow people to go from being victims to being victors.”

After the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938, the family fled the country and settled eventually in New York City, where they ran a five-and-dime store. Dr. Mischel, who became a U.S. citizen in the 1950s, helped support the family by working in an umbrella factory and as an elevator operator.

He was a 1951 psychology graduate of New York University and received a master’s degree from the City College of New York in 1953 and a PhD from Ohio State University in 1956, both in clinical psychology. He taught at Harvard University before settling at Stanford.

He said he became fascinated by the development of self-control in children by watching his daughters emerge from infancy into toddler-hood and girlhood.

“I began with a truly burning question,” he told the Guardian. “I wanted to know how my three young daughters developed, in a remarkably short period of time, from being howling, screaming, often impossible kids to people who were actually able to sit and do something that required them to concentrate. I wanted to understand this miraculous transformation.”

The subjects of the Stanford nursery-school tests were his daughters’ classmates. As the children grew up and he noticed correlations between their childhood self-control and future success, he decided to pursue the question more rigorously, through longitudinal study.

He conceded the limitations of his study group at Stanford. “It was an unbelievably elitist subset of the human race, which was one of the concerns that motivated me to study children in the South Bronx — kids in high-stress, poverty conditions,” he told the Atlantic in 2014, “and yet we saw many of the same phenomena as the marshmallow studies were revealing.”

Dr. Mischel proposed strategies for delaying gratification, such as putting the object at physical distance, by removing it from view, or at symbolic distance by imagining it to be something else. A marshmallow is not a sugary treat, for example, but rather a cotton ball.

In his own life, he reported success at resisting chocolate mousse by imagining the dessert to be covered in roaches. A self-described “three-packs-a-day smoker, supplemented by a pipe . . . supplemented by a cigar,” he said he conquered his addiction by recalling the image of a lung-cancer patient he had seen at Stanford, branded with X’s where he would be treated by radiation.

In addition to “The Marshmallow Test,” Dr. Mischel wrote and co-authored numerous texts on personality, child development and other fields of psychological research. He retired last year after more than three decades at Columbia.

His marriages to Frances Henry and Harriet Nerlove ended in divorce. Survivors include his partner of nearly two decades, Michele Myers of New York; three daughters from his second marriage, Judy Mischel of Chicago, Rebecca Mischel of Portland, Ore., and Linda Mischel Eisner of New York City; and six grandchildren.

Linda Mischel Eisner confirmed the death and said her father died at his home of pancreatic cancer.

Dr. Mischel professed to have found hope in his life’s work. “If we have the skills to allow us to make discriminations about when we do or don’t do something,” he told the New Yorker magazine, “we are no longer victims of our desires.”

“It’s not,” he said, “just about marshmallows.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/walter-mischel-psychologist-who-created-marshmallow-test-dies-at-88/2018/09/14/dcf24008-b782-11e8-94eb-3bd52dfe917b_story.html?utm_term=.bc74b74cf416

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by DAVID NIELD

Why is it sometimes so hard to convince someone that the world is indeed a globe, or that climate change is actually caused by human activity, despite the overwhelming evidence?

Scientists think they might have the answer, and it’s less to do with lack of understanding, and more to do with the feedback they’re getting.

Getting positive or negative reactions to something you do or say is a greater influence on your thinking than logic and reasoning, the new research suggests – so if you’re in a group of like-minded people, that’s going to reinforce your thinking.

Receiving good feedback also encourages us to think we know more than we actually do.

In other words, the more sure we become that our current position is right, the less likely we are to take into account other opinions or even cold, hard scientific data.

“If you think you know a lot about something, even though you don’t, you’re less likely to be curious enough to explore the topic further, and will fail to learn how little you know,” says one of the team members behind the new study, Louis Marti from the University of California, Berkeley.

For the research, more than 500 participants were recruited and shown a series of colored shapes. As each shape appeared, the participants got asked if it was a “Daxxy” – a word made up for these experiments.

The test takers had no clues as to what a Daxxy was or wasn’t, but they did get feedback after guessing one way or the other – the system would tell them if the shape they were looking at qualified as a Daxxy or not. At the same time they were also asked how sure they were about what a Daxxy actually was.

In this way the researchers were able to measure certainty in relation to feedback. Results showed the confidence of the participants was largely based on the results of their last four or five guesses, not their performance overall.

You can see the researchers explain the experiment in the video below:

The team behind the tests says this plays into something we already know about learning – that for it to happen, learners need to recognise that there is a gap between what they currently know and what they could know. If they don’t think that gap is there, they won’t take on board new information.

“What we found interesting is that they could get the first 19 guesses in a row wrong, but if they got the last five right, they felt very confident,” says Marti. “It’s not that they weren’t paying attention, they were learning what a Daxxy was, but they weren’t using most of what they learned to inform their certainty.”

This recent feedback is having more of an effect than hard evidence, the experiments showed, and that might apply in a broader sense too. It could apply to learning something new or trying to differentiate between right and wrong.

And while in this case the study participants were trying to identify a made-up shape, the same cognitive processes could be at work when it comes to echo chambers on social media or on news channels – where views are constantly reinforced.

“If you use a crazy theory to make a correct prediction a couple of times, you can get stuck in that belief and may not be as interested in gathering more information,” says one of the team, psychologist Celeste Kidd from UC Berkeley.

So if you think vaccinations are harmful, for example, the new study suggests you might be basing that on the most recent feedback you’ve had on your views, rather than the overall evidence one way or the other.

Ideally, the researchers say, learning should be based on more considered observations over time – even if that’s not quite how the brain works sometimes.

“If your goal is to arrive at the truth, the strategy of using your most recent feedback, rather than all of the data you’ve accumulated, is not a great tactic,” says Marti.

The research has been published in Open Mind.

https://www.sciencealert.com/feedback-study-explains-why-false-beliefs-stick

cientific studies on the cleaning power of spit, a lone fruit fly’s ability to spoil wine, and cannibals’ caloric intake garnered top honors at the 28th Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. The seriously silly citations, which “honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then think,” were awarded on Sept. 13 at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre. Entertaining emcee Marc Abrahams and the savvy satirists of the Annals of Improbable Research produced the ceremony.

The coveted Chemistry Prize went to Portuguese researchers who quantified the cleaning power of human saliva. Nearly 30 years ago, conservators Paula Romão and Adília Alarcão teamed up with late University of Lisbon chemist César Viana to find out why conservators preferred their own saliva to any other solvent for cleaning certain objects—with the goal of finding a more hygienic substitute. Compared with popular solvents, saliva was the superior cleaning agent, particularly for gilded surfaces. The researchers attributed the polishing power to the enzyme α-amylase and suggested solutions of this hydrolase might achieve a spit shine similar to spit (Stud. Conserv. 1990, DOI: 10.1179/sic.1990.35.3.153).

A fruit fly in a glass of wine is always an unwelcome guest. But it turns out that as little as 1 ng of Drosophila melanogaster’s pheromone (Z)-4-undecenal can spoil a glass of pinot blanc. That discovery, from researchers led by Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences’ Peter Witzgall, received the Ig Nobel’s Biology Prize. Only female fruit flies carry the pheromone, so males can swim in spirits without delivering the offending flavor, but the Newscripts gang still prefers to drink wine without flies (J. Chem. Ecol. 2018, DOI: 10.1007/s10886-018-0950-4).

Putting the paleo diet in a new perspective, University of Brighton archaeologist James Cole took home the Nutrition Prize for calculating that Paleolithic people consumed fewer calories from a human-cannibalism diet than from a traditional meat diet. Thus, Cole concludes, Paleolithic cannibals may have dined on their companions for reasons unrelated to their nutritional needs (Sci. Rep. 2017, DOI: 10.1038/srep44707).

A team led by Wilfrid Laurier University psychologist Lindie H. Liang won the Economics Prize “for investigating whether it is effective for employees to use voodoo dolls to retaliate against abusive bosses.” Push in some pins: The findings indicate voodoo doll retaliations make employees feel better (Leadership Q. 2018, DOI: 10.1016/j.leaqua.2018.01.004).

The Newscripts gang previously reported about this year’s winners of the Ig Nobel for medicine, physicians Marc Mitchell and David Wartinger, who found that riding roller coasters can help people pass kidney stones (J. Am. Osteopath. Assoc.2016, DOI: 10.7556/jaoa.2016.128).

The Reproductive Medicine Prize went to urologists John Barry, Bruce Blank, and Michel Boileau, who, in 1980, used postage stamps t
o test nocturnal erections, described in their study “Nocturnal Penile Tumescence Monitoring with Stamps” (Urol. 1980, DOI: 10.1016/0090-4295(80)90414-8).

The Ig Nobel committee also gave out a Medical Education Prize this year, to gastroenterologist Akira Horiuchi for the report “Colonoscopy in the Sitting Position: Lessons Learned from Self-Colonoscopy” (Gastrointest. Endoscopy 2006, DOI: 10.1016/j.gie.2005.10.014).

Lund University cognitive scientists Gabriela-Alina Sauciuc and coworkers claimed the Anthropology Prize “for collecting evidence, in a zoo, that chimpanzees imitate humans about as often, and about as well, as humans imitate chimpanzees” (Primates 2017, DOI: 10.1007/s10329-017-0624-9).

For a landmark paper documenting that most people don’t read the instruction manual when using complicated products, a Queensland University of Technology team led by Alethea L. Blackler garnered the Literature Prize (Interact. Comp. 2014, DOI: 10.1093/iwc/iwu023).

And finally, the Ig Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to a team from the University of Valencia’s University Research Institute on Traffic & Road Safety “for measuring the frequency, motivation, and effects of shouting and cursing while driving an automobile” (J. Sociol. Anthropol. 2016, DOI: 10.12691/jsa-1-1-1).

The Ig Nobel ceremony can be viewed in its entirety at youtube.com/improbableresearch, and National Public Radio’s “Science Friday” will air an edited recording of the ceremony on the day after U.S. Thanksgiving.

https://cen.acs.org/people/awards/2018-Ig-Nobel-Prizes/96/i37

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Someday doctors may prescribe sugar pills for certain chronic pain patients based on their brain anatomy and psychology. And the pills will reduce their pain as effectively as any powerful drug on the market, according to new research.

Northwestern Medicine scientists have shown they can reliably predict which chronic pain patients will respond to a sugar placebo pill based on the patients’ brain anatomy and psychological characteristics.

“Their brain is already tuned to respond,” said senior study author A. Vania Apkarian, professor of physiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “They have the appropriate psychology and biology that puts them in a cognitive state that as soon as you say, ‘this may make your pain better,’ their pain gets better.”

There’s no need to fool the patient, Apkarian said.

“You can tell them, ‘I’m giving you a drug that has no physiological effect but your brain will respond to it,'” he said. “You don’t need to hide it. There is a biology behind the placebo response.”

The study was published Sept. 12 in Nature Communications.

The findings have three potential benefits:

Prescribing non-active drugs rather than active drugs. “It’s much better to give someone a non-active drug rather than an active drug and get the same result,” Apkarian said. “Most pharmacological treatments have long-term adverse effects or addictive properties. Placebo becomes as good an option for treatment as any drug we have on the market.”

Eliminating the placebo effect from drug trials. “Drug trials would need to recruit fewer people, and identifying the physiological effects would be much easier,” Apkarian said. “You’ve taken away a big component of noise in the study.”

Reduced health care costs. A sugar pill prescription for chronic pain patients would result in vast cost savings for patients and the health care system, Apkarian said.

How the study worked

About 60 chronic back pain patients were randomized into two arms of the study. In one arm, subjects didn’t know if they got the drug or the placebo. Researchers didn’t study the people who got the real drug. The other study arm included people who came to the clinic but didn’t get a placebo or drug. They were the control group.

The individuals whose pain decreased as a result of the sugar pill had a similar brain anatomy and psychological traits. The right side of their emotional brain was larger than the left, and they had a larger cortical sensory area than people who were not responsive to the placebo. The chronic pain placebo responders also were emotionally self-aware, sensitive to painful situations and mindful of their environment.

“Clinicians who are treating chronic pain patients should seriously consider that some will get as good a response to a sugar pill as any other drug,” Apkarian said. “They should use it and see the outcome. This opens up a whole new field.”

https://news.northwestern.edu/stories/2018/september/sugar-pills-relieve-pain-for-chronic-pain-patients/