Most teens do have, and use, behavioral brakes

Children who struggle with weak cognitive control at an early age are at most risk for trouble in adulthood following their engagement in risk-taking activities in adolescence, according to new research.

The study, published online last month in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, found that only a subset of children who engage in excessive levels of impulsiveness, such as acting without thinking during their teen years, later struggle with addictions or other problem behaviors as young adults.

“People have heard so much about the teenage brain being all gas and no brakes, stemming from an imbalance between the reward and control regions of the brain,” said lead author Atika Khurana of the University of Oregon. “This study shows that this is not true. There is an imbalance for some youth, but it is not universal.”

The findings challenge the traditional thinking that adolescence is a time of universal imbalance, with kids lacking cognitive control and taking risks to reap instant rewards, said Khurana, associate professor and director of prevention science graduate programs and member of the UO’s Prevention Science Institute.

“Previous studies modeling changes in impulsivity and sensation seeking during adolescence drew conclusions based on age differences without looking at the same adolescents over time as they developed,” she said. “This study looked at individual trajectories and captured distinct patterns of change that were not otherwise observable when looking at youth at different ages.”

Khurana and colleagues analyzed six waves of data collected from 387 adolescents, ages 11 to 18, in the Philadelphia area. They looked at changes in sensation-seeking and impulsivity during in their teen years in relation to working memory, a measure of cognitive control, and as predictors of substance use disorders in late adolescence.

Cognitive control is the ability to exert top-down control over behavior, thoughts and emotions. This ability, tied to executive functions, rests in the brain’s prefrontal cortex.

Only adolescents identified at the beginning of the study with weaknesses in cognitive control were at risk for impulsive action that put them at higher risk for substance abuse, the researchers concluded. While sensation-seeking rose in adolescence, it was not associated with weakness in cognitive control or later substance abuse.

The study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, supported predictions of the Lifespan Wisdom Model developed by study co-author Daniel Romer of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.

It also continued to support a series of published findings that have emerged from Khurana’s work with the same data, which began while she was a postdoctoral fellow at the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

In 2012, her group reported a positive association of working memory with sensation-seeking and a negative association with impulsivity. While children with sensation seeking engaged in exploratory forms of risk-taking, they were not getting stuck in unhealthy patterns of risk-taking.

Subsequently, the group has shown that weak working memory in combination with impulsivity can be used to predict trajectories of early alcohol use and risky sexual behavior in adolescents, and that adolescents with strong working memory are better equipped to escape early progression in drug use and avoid substance abuse issues.

“Our research focuses on preventing maladaptive outcomes,” Khurana said. “We are finding that those who have early weakness in cognitive control will have increasing problems in behavioral regulation as sensation-seeking peaks during adolescence. Those without this weakness will still seek out thrilling and rewarding behaviors during the adolescent years, associated with the rise in dopamine, but they are less likely to engage in maladaptive behaviors.”

The research speaks to the need for greater emphasis on early interventions that can strengthen cognitive control, she said.

“Executive functions develop rapidly between the ages of 2-5, but there is a second window of opportunity to intervene during adolescence, when there is rapid brain development,” she said.

Adolescents need to engage in exploratory behavior, she added. That is how they learn and how the brain prunes synapses that are not needed, and strengthens the connections that are relevant, she said.

I Used to Be a Wellness Influencer. Now I’m an Alternative Medicine Skeptic

Before I explain how I became an alternative health skeptic, let me explain how I became an alternative medicine evangelist in the first place.

I was a holistic nutritionist for several years, and a proponent of alternative health for many years before that. Holistic nutrition probably means different things to different people, but broadly speaking it’s a lifestyle approach that promotes a diet based on natural, organic, and unprocessed foods, and eschews things like additives and GMOs in favor of “superfoods” and the benefits of all-natural dietary supplements. It was exactly what I needed to believe in as I became more and more skeptical of mainstream healthcare.

That’s because the thing that lead me to become a holistic nutritionist in the first place was a trait that I’ve always been proud of: My noble affinity for doubting and questioning absolutely everything around me.

See, holistic nutritionists help clients on their quest for personal health by addressing the “whole person”—mind, body, and spirit. I was drawn to holistic nutrition because I felt that mainstream western medicine by and large dismissed or just didn’t really take into account aspects of health I felt were important—diet, psychological wellbeing, and spiritual health. I was critical of what I felt was the industry’s failure to treat the whole person. I thought that alternative medicine—specifically holistic nutrition—was the answer. I became a vocal and fervent evangelist for my new lifestyle, all while walking barefoot, preaching organic only, and swearing by non-toxic and detoxifying cure-alls. My lifestyle was a sword that I brandished in the face of all those who would listen.

Turns out, the blade of scrutiny I was wielding was actually a balloon sword. Squeaky, brightly colored, and pretty much imaginary. Over time, that beloved balloon sword started to deflate until all I had left was a sad little pile of crumpled latex. I had gone to holistic nutrition school. I was running my own nutrition consulting business. And suddenly I didn’t believe in any of it anymore. How did this flip flop come to pass? It’s a bit of a convoluted story that I am still trying to dissect myself. I can’t say I came to my senses as the result of a single event, but rather as a result of a series of events that caused one domino to fall, then another, then another, until I was standing in a pile of toppled beliefs, left to figure out what I really, actually believed wellness is all about.

It began when I was living in Italy in 2008. I’d started following a vegan diet, and I was pretty dogmatic about it. I was sure that going plant-based was an all-purpose health solution for everything from the skin issues I’d had since late adolescence to the weight I wanted to lose. And I made sure everyone knew it. Until a few years later, that is, when my health started to fall apart. My digestive system was a complete wreck and I had a rash on my face I couldn’t get rid of. I’m not saying that my eating habits caused these problems, but it certainly didn’t seem to be helping them. I went to a naturopath and starting taking supplements and eating fewer refined foods. When my symptoms started to clear up, I figured it was the supplements and dietary changes. (Granted, the skin problems came back a couple years later, at which point I went to an allopathic doctor who prescribed a topical cream that started working overnight.)

Convinced of the healing powers of dietary change, for the next eight years I tried all kinds of different diets—gluten-free, paleo, keto, etc.

In the midst of all my experimenting to find the one I hoped would be the key that unlocked the mysteries of health and happiness, I enrolled in a natural nutrition program in Canada, one that would prep me for a career as a dedicated holistic nutritionist. I started an Instagram account about holistic nutrition that gained popularity and before long, I had graduated (more on that in a bit) and was running my own online business, doing nutritional consultations for clients all over the world.

As a holistic nutritionist, I was an active participant in what I now consider alternative medicine tomfoolery, specifically pushing supplements on a clientele of the “worried well” who often mistook wellness enthusiasts like me for medical experts. I want to be clear that I wasn’t knowingly deceiving anyone—I really did believe in the solutions I was offering my clients. The world of supplements is one, generally speaking, where the lack of evidence for the “solutions” being peddled is obscured by the fact that these products are part of a multi-billion dollar market, and, thanks in large part to the 1994 Dietary Supplement and Education Act, essentially in an unregulated—or more pointedly, a self-regulated—industry in the United States (according to the FDA’s website, “the law does not require the manufacturer or seller prove to FDA’s satisfaction that the claim is accurate or truthful before it appears on the product.”). In other words: Proof of product efficacy or safety is not required in advance of being sold to the public. To holistic nutrition enthusiasts and people who believe in a certain kind of alt wellness, these “natural” and “holistic” products seem more trustworthy than what mainstream medicine offers. The truth is, they often lack sufficient, peer-reviewed, reliable scientific evidence of their supposed effectiveness.

Did I have rock-solid evidence that these products would do what their labels promised they would do? Not really. Sure, I read studies here and there that found specific health benefits for some of the products. But I rarely mentioned the fine print (if I knew it at all)—that the sample sizes of many of these studies often were so small that the results couldn’t be generalized to a larger population, that the studies’ authors sometimes noted that more research was needed to support any findings on the effects they found, or that systematic reviews later found that many studies were poorly constructed or at risk for bias, making their findings even less compelling than they seemed initially. And in some cases, study authors themselves note that their findings are merely jumping off points, and that more long-term studies are needed in order to draw more solid conclusions. Here are a few examples of the types of studies I cited that “proved” (or so I thought) the efficacy of home remedies, along with their limits:

  • Seven small clinical trials on whether black and/or green tea can reduce cardiovascular disease risk did find small beneficial effects. But, a review of these seven trials (plus four others) concluded that the studies were at risk of potential bias and that their results should be treated with caution.

  • In 2012 a systematic review of studies on antioxidants found “no evidence to support antioxidant supplements for primary or secondary prevention” despite the fact that, as the review notes, previous research had suggested that antioxidant supplements have beneficial health effects.

  • This 2015 study found that ingesting vinegar before a meal could improve insulin resistance. But alas, the study had only eight subjects. And what about this study, also from 2015, which supposedly showed that vinegar had a positive effect on post-meal carbohydrate metabolism for the study’s subjects? It only looked at 11 participants, all of whom had type 2 diabetes.

Was I relying on strong, valid evidence? Nah, not really. But at the time, I thought what I had was better than strong evidence: Faith in a lifestyle and a dogmatic belief that all things traditional and mainstream were unhealthy or harmful, and therefore, that all things unconventional and alternative were curative and would bring about “wellness.”

In an effort to expand my product knowledge I researched a lot of the different supplements available. I was using all the best bias-confirming websites where other homeopathic medicine enthusiasts evangelized their favorite remedies, their enthusiasm and insistence, and anecdotal evidence standing in for what typically shows us that a product is safe and effective—clinical trials and FDA approval.

But eventually I found myself watching talks from popular internet skeptics and pseudoscience debunkers.

When their arguments and reasoning started to sink in, I realized that my faith in the healing powers of supplements may have been overzealous at best, unfounded at worst. My world crumbled like a piece of raw gluten-free paleo cheesecake. It started to sink in: Where there was a morsel of convincing medical information blended with enough compelling nonsense and communicated with enough conviction, I believed it, hook, line, and sinker.

When I started to notice the holes in the fabric of holistic nutrition, the fabric looked, well, pretty threadbare. I subsequently disconnected from social media and distanced myself from the entire culture. I took a good look at how I was personally and publicly communicating my relationships with food and wellness. After spending my twenties experimenting with all kinds of specialty diets, I was left feeling exhausted, anxious, underweight, overweight, and fed-up.

I was also mixed up: I had come to associate various trends and fads with true wellness, despite the fact that I didn’t have any real evidence to back all that up.

And so that last domino fell when I took away the thing that was propping it up for me: social media. Instagram is a playground for wellness influencers, including, at the time, me. My Instagram account was the best way to advertise my nutrition consulting business, so maintaining a certain persona there felt completely crucial to my success, and eventually, my identity. It was a world full of beautifully curated accounts of thin yogis gathering wild herbs in nature or making raw desserts with ingredients that cost more than my entire monthly food budget. I started to feel like the alternative wellness community I was part of—myself included—was an echo chamber, where we stockpiled likes and positive comments to build a wall that would keep out ideas that challenged our status quo. In fact, the more reassurance I received from my online community, the harder I believed in our gospel.

As I was disentangling my beliefs from everything I was learning by looking at the actual evidence, I realized that my education to become a holistic nutritionist hadn’t prepared me to understand health and wellness as completely and comprehensively as I’d once thought. Sure, I’d spent a some time studying the pathology of disease, and a little longer learning about how each bodily system works to get your human suit from point A to point B, but I am only slightly closer to being a medical professional than I am to becoming a professional cricket player. First of all, in total, my entire formal education as a holistic nutritionist was 10 months long. Second of all, that education was intended to complement—not replace—traditional medical treatment. But as soon as I finished the program, I could immediately start taking on clients. And lots of potential clients out there are just like the way I used to be—wishing they looked or felt different and in search of the panacea, willing (if not eager) to defer to an expert.

There may have been many people willing to look to me as an expert, but here’s the thing: in my school, there were no residency or clinical hours required to prepare us for the real world or to take on clients—unlike dietitians here in Canada, who must obtain a bachelor’s degree in Nutritional and Food Sciences, qualify to complete a rigorous post-degree internship program and register with a provincial dietetics organization, or get a master’s degree. We received a certificate, and that was that. It was a credential that wholeheartedly fell short of resembling anything close to making me an authority on the subject of health as it relates to food and diet. But most people in the general public can’t be expected to understand the ins and outs of how experts are credentialed and licensed—many of us assume that someone calling themselves something that we associate with authority is, in fact, an authority we can trust.

And look, I did learn valuable information, such as the the cardinal rules for nurturing a healthy human: ample sleep, a variety of whole foods, stress management, and regular exercise.

The brief education that I received to become a holistic nutritionist did provide me with valuable stepping stones and a general understanding of how the body works. My program discouraged students from saying “treat,” “heal,” “prevent,” or “cure.” Generally speaking holistic nutrition programs don’t provide the training and medical education that registered dietitians receive, which enables them to give sound, ethical medical nutrition advice, nor are they required by law, the way dietitian programs are, to provide it. In fact, in 2015 graduates of the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition were barred from identifying as Registered Holistic Nutritionists, and since then must use the title “Holistic Nutritional Consultant.”

In the U.S., the laws around this vary. For example, in some states practitioners who are not registered dietitians are not legally allowed to perform nutrition counseling. In others, anyone can perform nutrition counseling but only registered dietitians are accredited by the government as providers whose services are eligible for insurance reimbursement.

With what I do have from my classroom education, I can analyze a lifestyle that needs some fine-tuning and provide guidance on how to structure a solid meal plan. That’s about it. After years of self-diagnosis and hashtagging all my fad-diet escapades (for this, I greatly apologize to all those I have alienated with my profuse self-righteousness), I can at least say I have a deep appreciation for those who are actually on the front lines in the fight against unproven medical remedies and the potential damage it may do to those who use it to the exclusion of traditional medicine.

The influence of these remedies is not harmless, and I have seen firsthand in many different examples and situations how it can lure people away from real, evidence-based help in their times of need. I am fortunate enough that within my practice I had enough foresight to turn away individuals who required more guidance than I was capable of giving. But along the way I made many embarrassing and conjectural recommendations. Like I said, I was far from knowingly deceiving anyone. I firmly held the belief that alternative medicine, no matter the cost, was an investment in a healthful future. My own medicine cabinet, an arsenal full of supplements, tincture, and powders, was a personal testament to how deeply I was devoted to holistic nutrition.

This essay is a firm farewell from a world I disconnected from long ago. The person that over years I let myself become through naiveté, not doing my own research, and a misguided desire to be different. So here I am now, officially having left the church of woo, bidding the world of alternative health adieu.

Check out Denby Royal’s website here.

Neuroscientists get at the roots of pessimism

Many patients with neuropsychiatric disorders such as anxiety or depression experience negative moods that lead them to focus on the possible downside of a given situation more than the potential benefit.

MIT neuroscientists have now pinpointed a brain region that can generate this type of pessimistic mood. In tests in animals, they showed that stimulating this region, known as the caudate nucleus, induced animals to make more negative decisions: They gave far more weight to the anticipated drawback of a situation than its benefit, compared to when the region was not stimulated. This pessimistic decision-making could continue through the day after the original stimulation.

The findings could help scientists better understand how some of the crippling effects of depression and anxiety arise, and guide them in developing new treatments.

“We feel we were seeing a proxy for anxiety, or depression, or some mix of the two,” says Ann Graybiel, an MIT Institute Professor, a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the senior author of the study, which appears in the Aug. 9 issue of Neuron. “These psychiatric problems are still so very difficult to treat for many individuals suffering from them.”

The paper’s lead authors are McGovern Institute research affiliates Ken-ichi Amemori and Satoko Amemori, who perfected the tasks and have been studying emotion and how it is controlled by the brain. McGovern Institute researcher Daniel Gibson, an expert in data analysis, is also an author of the paper.

Emotional decisions

Graybiel’s laboratory has previously identified a neural circuit that underlies a specific kind of decision-making known as approach-avoidance conflict. These types of decisions, which require weighing options with both positive and negative elements, tend to provoke a great deal of anxiety. Her lab has also shown that chronic stress dramatically affects this kind of decision-making: More stress usually leads animals to choose high-risk, high-payoff options.

In the new study, the researchers wanted to see if they could reproduce an effect that is often seen in people with depression, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. These patients tend to engage in ritualistic behaviors designed to combat negative thoughts, and to place more weight on the potential negative outcome of a given situation. This kind of negative thinking, the researchers suspected, could influence approach-avoidance decision-making.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers stimulated the caudate nucleus, a brain region linked to emotional decision-making, with a small electrical current as animals were offered a reward (juice) paired with an unpleasant stimulus (a puff of air to the face). In each trial, the ratio of reward to aversive stimuli was different, and the animals could choose whether to accept or not.

This kind of decision-making requires cost-benefit analysis. If the reward is high enough to balance out the puff of air, the animals will choose to accept it, but when that ratio is too low, they reject it. When the researchers stimulated the caudate nucleus, the cost-benefit calculation became skewed, and the animals began to avoid combinations that they previously would have accepted. This continued even after the stimulation ended, and could also be seen the following day, after which point it gradually disappeared.

This result suggests that the animals began to devalue the reward that they previously wanted, and focused more on the cost of the aversive stimulus. “This state we’ve mimicked has an overestimation of cost relative to benefit,” Graybiel says.

A delicate balance

The researchers also found that brainwave activity in the caudate nucleus was altered when decision-making patterns changed. This change, discovered by Amemori, is in the beta frequency and might serve as a biomarker to monitor whether animals or patients respond to drug treatment, Graybiel says.

Graybiel is now working with psychiatrists at McLean Hospital to study patients who suffer from depression and anxiety, to see if their brains show abnormal activity in the neocortex and caudate nucleus during approach-avoidance decision-making. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies have shown abnormal activity in two regions of the medial prefrontal cortex that connect with the caudate nucleus.

The caudate nucleus has within it regions that are connected with the limbic system, which regulates mood, and it sends input to motor areas of the brain as well as dopamine-producing regions. Graybiel and Amemori believe that the abnormal activity seen in the caudate nucleus in this study could be somehow disrupting dopamine activity.

“There must be many circuits involved,” she says. “But apparently we are so delicately balanced that just throwing the system off a little bit can rapidly change behavior.”

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the CHDI Foundation, the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the U.S. Army Research Office, MEXT KAKENHI, the Simons Center for the Social Brain, the Naito Foundation, the Uehara Memorial Foundation, Robert Buxton, Amy Sommer, and Judy Goldberg.

Roles of emotional support animals examined

Airlines are not the only organizations grappling with the complexities surrounding emotional support animals. Colleges and courts are also questioning the need for these animals and the effects they may have on students and juries, respectively, according to research presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association.

The recent, rapid rise of emotional support animals has left colleges and universities struggling to understand the laws and how they can be applied to best support their communities, said Phyllis Erdman, PhD, professor at Washington State University, who chaired a symposium on emotional support animals and service dogs.

College and university counseling centers are seeing an uptick in the number of students seeking mental health services, as students report anxiety, depression and stress about relationships and academic performance, she said.

“It’s not surprising that many schools are confronted with the growing phenomenon of emotional support animals. For many, the topic is a contentious one centered on whether students are taking advantage of the laws,” said Erdman. “This is further compounded by the fact that laws pertaining to emotional support animals are different from those governing disability service animals and therefore schools may need to develop new policies.”

A service animal falls under the Americans with Disabilities Act and is usually a dog that is trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a physical, sensory, psychiatric or intellectual disability, Emotional support animals are not trained in specific tasks and are not recognized under the ADA. Although emotional support animals are allowed in campus housing, they may not necessarily be allowed in classrooms or elsewhere on campus, according to the study Erdman presented.

Erdman and her colleagues wanted to understand the state of emotional support animal requests on campuses and how colleges and universities are responding. They surveyed 248 university counseling centers about student requests for letters to allow them to have emotional support animals. The survey questions included how often the counseling centers received requests from students, how the schools handled those requests and how they handled requests to diagnose a disability in order to obtain an emotional support animal. It also asked counseling centers if they had emotional support animal policies in place.

Fifty-seven percent of the centers reported almost never receiving such requests. Thirty-one percent did several times a year and only 2 percent got requests more than once a week, according to the study.

Despite the lack of an overwhelming demand, a majority of university counseling centers reported concern about having policies in place to handle such requests, according to Erdman.

“Even a limited number of requests for emotional support animals can cause stress for student affairs offices, housing offices, counseling centers and disability offices,” she said. “Most schools wanted guidance and support for developing guidelines and navigating requests that come through.”

Erdman suggested that schools establish general definitions of the terms disability, service animal and emotional support animal when crafting a policy. The definition of a disability should adhere to ADA guidelines, she said. Any policy development must follow federal and state laws and should include the perspectives of various campus constituencies, including counseling centers, accessibility services, general counsel’s offices, campus safety departments and students themselves, according to Erdman.

“College students today are facing a great deal of stress and emotional support animals may help some students,” said Erdman. “We hope our study can serve as a guide for colleges and universities to develop policies that help students thrive.”

Uncertainty about emotional support animals is also occurring in courts, according to Dawn McQuiston, PhD, of Wofford College, who presented her research at the symposium. While objects such as dolls or teddy bears have been used for decades to calm vulnerable witnesses, courts began to include dogs in the mid-1990s to provide emotional support to alleged victims of child abuse. At least 144 courthouse facility dogs are now included in about three dozen states, she said. These dogs are provided by the court at the request of prosecutors to assist victims with the anxiety of testifying and reliving traumatic events.

Supporters say the dogs have made a huge difference in helping children and vulnerable adult witnesses open up on the stand, but some defense attorneys say having a friendly, sweet-looking canine in the witness box can prejudice a jury against a defendant by making the witness appear more believable and sympathetic, according to McQuiston.

“The concern is that the presence of a courthouse dog emphasizes that the witness is a victim, thereby playing to jurors’ sympathies. As a result, witnesses may be viewed as even more vulnerable or likeable, thus conflicting with a defendant’s right to a fair trial,” said McQuiston.

She cited two notable appeals cases involving courtroom dogs. In both cases, the victims had a support dog during testimony, the defendants were convicted and the convictions were subsequently appealed on the grounds that the presence of the dog led to undue sympathy for the victim and violated the defendant’s right to a fair trial. In both cases, the courts found no sign of prejudice due to the dogs’ presence.

McQuiston and her colleagues investigated whether courthouse dogs, compared to inanimate comfort items, resulted in more prejudice against defendants involved in two hypothetical crimes: a child sexual abuse case and a robbery of a child. They set up mock trials in which participants, in the role of jurors, read transcripts of the testimony and were shown several pictures depicting the child witness with a dog, with a teddy bear or with nothing.

They found that the presence of the dog had no significant effect on the juries’ outcomes, which McQuiston called surprising because the researchers had expected the dog to prejudice the jury against the defendant. Interestingly, their findings showed some biasing effects when the child clutched a teddy bear.

“Across two studies utilizing mock jury paradigms we found that, contrary to popular beliefs and our own predictions, courthouse dogs did not exert undue influence on juror decision-making regardless of the severity of the crimes tested, and did not differentially impact perceptions of child witnesses,” she said.

Session 1034: “Emotional Support Animals and Service Dogs: Prevalence and Impact in Universities” and “Dogs in the Courthouse: Current Research and Implications,” Symposium, Thursday, Aug. 9, 8 a.m. PDT, Room 157, Upper Mezzanine-South Building, Moscone Center, 747 Howard Street, San Francisco, Calif.

Nordic nations, North Americans and Antipodeans rank top in navigation skills

People in Nordic countries, North America, Australia, and New Zealand have the best spatial navigational abilities, according to a new study led by UCL and the University of East Anglia.

Researchers assessed data from over half a million people in 57 countries who played a specially-designed mobile game, which has been developed to aid understanding into spatial navigation, a key indicator in Alzheimer’s disease.

With so many people taking part the team were able to reveal that spatial navigation ability across all countries declines steadily across adulthood. However, a country’s GDP also had a significant bearing with Nordic countries among the highest performing along with those in North America, Australia, and New Zealand.

And men performed better than women, but the gender gap narrowed in countries with greater gender equality, according to the study published today in Current Biology.

The paper is the first publication of findings from a collaborative project led by Deutsche Telekom, using the mobile game ‘Sea Hero Quest’, which is seeking to establish benchmarks in navigation abilities in order to help dementia research.

“We’ve found that the environment you live in has an impact on your spatial navigation abilities,” said the study’s lead author, Professor Hugo Spiers. “We’re continuing to analyse the data and hope to gain a better understanding of why people in some countries perform better than others.”

The research team has so far collected data from over four million people who have played Sea Hero Quest. In the mobile game, people play as a sea explorer completing a series of wayfinding tasks.

For the current study, the researchers restricted the data to those who had provided their age, gender and nationality, and were from countries with at least 500 participants.

As part of their analysis, the research team corrected for video game ability by comparing participants’ main results to their performance in tutorial levels which assessed aptitude with video games.

While age most strongly correlated with navigational performance, researchers also found that country wealth, as measured by GDP (gross domestic product), correlated with performance. The researchers say this relationship may be due to associations with education standards, health and ability to travel. They focused on GDP for this analysis as it was a standard metric available for every country, but as part of the ongoing research project they will follow up with further comparisons of other factors.

The researchers also speculate about more specific factors. Top performing countries including Finland, Denmark, and Norway all share a national interest in orienteering, a sport relying on navigation, while the other top performing countries — New Zealand, Canada, the United States, and Australia — all have high rates of driving, which may also boost navigation ability.

Comparing the country-level results to the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, the researchers found a correlation between country-wide gender inequality and a larger male advantage in spatial navigation ability. The gender gap in game performance was also smaller in countries with greater economic wealth. “Our findings suggest that sex differences in cognitive abilities are not fixed, but instead are influenced by cultural environments, such as the role of women in society,” said study co-author Dr Antoine Coutrot, who completed the research at UCL before moving to the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). Gender equality has previously been found to eliminate differences in maths performance in school. The current study is the first to connect gender inequality to a more specific cognitive measure.

The researchers say that, in the future, an adapted version of the game, first launched by Deutsche Telekom in 2016, may be used as a screening tool for an early warning sign of dementia, as well as a means to monitor disease progress and as an outcome measure for clinical trials.

“Standard current tests for dementia don’t effectively tap into the primary initial symptom of being disoriented in space, so we are trying to find an easy way of measuring that, efficiently validated by crowd-sourcing our data,” said Professor Spiers.

“It’s promising to see that the effect of nationality is relatively small, as it suggests that the game could be used as a relatively universal test for spatial navigation abilities,” said co-lead author Professor Michael Hornberger (The University of East Anglia).

The study was conducted by researchers at UCL, the University of East Anglia, McGill University, Bournemouth University, ETH Zurich and Northumbria University. The data collected by Sea Hero Quest is stored in a secure T-Systems server in Germany and all analysis by the UCL and UEA-led team is conducted on entirely anonymous data. From September 2018, Deutsche Telekom will be providing access to this unprecedented data set in order to aid future discoveries, not only in dementia but across the wider field of neuroscience research. Access will be granted via a bespoke, secure web portal, allowing cloud based analysis of the data. It is facilitated by T-Systems.

“We are excited to announce that we will be making this unique data set accessible to researchers across the world to continue to support studies of this kind,” said Deutsche Telekom Chief Brand Officer, Hans-Christian Schwingen. “Sea Hero Quest demonstrates the power of mobile technology in helping to collect important data at scale, advancing research into some of the most pressing healthcare issues of our time.”

“The data from Sea Hero Quest is providing an unparalleled benchmark for how human navigation varies and changes across age, location and other factors. The ambition is to use these data insights to inform the development of more sensitive diagnostic tools for diseases like Alzheimer’s, where navigational abilities can be compromised early on. With such a huge number of people participating in Sea Hero Quest, this really is only the beginning of what we might learn about navigation from this powerful analysis,” said Tim Parry, Director at Alzheimer’s Research UK, which funded the analysis.

Are pet owners abusing animals to get opioids?

Veterinarians in Colorado are concerned that some of their clients may have intentionally hurt their pets in the hopes of receiving prescription painkillers, according to a recent survey conducted by the Center for Health, Work & Environment at the Colorado School of Public Health at CU Anschutz and a local veterinary association.

Although veterinarians can prescribe powerful drugs, their role in curbing the opioid epidemic has been largely overlooked. Researchers are calling for improved surveillance, more research, and better training in an editorial published in the American Journal of Public Health.

“The role veterinarians play in helping reduce opioid abuse hasn’t been thoroughly examined,” said Lili Tenney, one of the lead investigators of the survey and the deputy director of the Center for Health, Work & Environment. “Our results indicate that we should be paying more attention to how opioid abusers are seeking their drugs — including through veterinary clinics. We want to see health people and healthy pets.”

Opioid diversion and misuse is a problem affecting everyone in the veterinary clinic — from staff to pet owners to pets themselves. Of the 189 veterinarians surveyed, 13% reported that they had seen a client who they believed had purposefully injured a pet, made them ill, or made them appear to be unwell. Close to 45% of those surveyed knew of a pet owner or member of their team who was abusing opioids; 12% acknowledged that were aware of a staff member diverting opioids or abusing them.

The Center for Health, Work & Environment team and the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention are working to address opioid misuse and animal abuse by educating veterinarians and their staff. Together, they designed an online training that focuses on opioid prescription guidelines and best practices for veterinarians.

Story Source:

Materials provided by University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Original written by David Kelly. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Dietary carbohydrates could lead to osteoarthritis, new study finds

Do your knees ache? According to new findings from the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, your diet could be a culprit.

In a study led by OMRF scientist Tim Griffin, Ph.D., researchers found that the carbohydrate composition of diets increased the risk of osteoarthritis in laboratory mice — even when the animals didn’t differ in weight.

“We know increased body fat elevates risk, but we haven’t appreciated as much how diet itself affects the disease risk,” said Griffin. “These findings give us new clues that there can be significant dietary effects linked to increased OA risk even in the absence of obesity.”

Osteoarthritis, or OA, is the most common form of arthritis and the most widespread form of disability in the country, affecting nearly 27 million people in the U.S. It occurs when the cartilage that cushions bones in the joints breaks down and wears away, causing the bones to rub against one another.

Several factors can increase risk, including high-impact physical jobs, previous joint injuries, age and genetics, but carrying extra body weight is among the most proven contributors.

“Obesity is the one of the most significant factors for developing disease in the knee joint,” said Griffin. “However, therapeutic strategies to prevent or treat obesity-associated OA are limited because of the uncertainly about the root cause of the disease.”

To study how, exactly, obesity contributes to osteoarthritis, Griffin and his lab placed groups of mice on different high-fat diets. However, over time, they observed that the carbohydrate makeup of the rodents’ low-fat control diet was alone sufficient to alter their chances of developing OA.

The primary culprits: fiber and sugar.

In particular, Griffin’s team found that changing the amount of sucrose — table sugar — and fiber in the diet altered OA pathology in the rodents. The high-sucrose diet increased signs of joint inflammation, while the high-fiber diet caused changes in cartilage genes and cellular stress-response pathways.

While the study involved mice, Griffin said the findings could ultimately have human implications.

“It’s important to understand how our diet affects the health of our joints,” he said. “We were surprised to see so many OA-related differences between the two high-carb diets even though body weight and body fat were the same.”

Griffin next plans to investigate how different types of dietary fiber and other components of our diets can contribute to OA, and also look at the role the body’s microbiome and gut bacteria play in the disease.

The new findings were published in the journal Disease Models & Mechanisms. OMRF researchers Erika Barboza Prado Lopes, Ph.D., Albert Batushansky, Ph.D., Mike Kinter, Ph.D., and former OMRF scientist Elise Donovan, Ph.D., contributed to the research.

The work was supported by National Institutes of Health grants P20RR018758, P20GM103441, P30GM114731, P30AG050911 and R01AG049058. Griffin also received additional funding support through the Arthritis Foundation.

16 ’90s-Inspired Athleisure Pieces You’ll Want to Instagram This Week

I’m just going to come right out and say it—I’m an official ’90s stan. Even though I was technically born during the late ’80s, I grew up enjoying all of the classic ’90s staple pieces: From midriff-bearing crop tops to mini backpacks. Since the fashion industry has a tendency to recycle older trends, it’s no surprise that many of the type of looks I enjoyed wearing back in the day have resurfaced—this time with a sportier edge.

While the athleisure trend has been building steam for quite sometime, it’s recently developed a throwback twist (which I honestly couldn’t be more excited about). Active brands like Nike are producing new takes on some of their most classic pieces (currently making room in my closet for a pair of Air Max 97s), and breathing new life into the idea of taking style from the studio to the street.

Read on for all of the ’90s-inspired athleisure pieces I plan to wear over and over (and over) again.

London calling! Travelers seek ‘trust’ in holiday destinations

Tourists considering overseas travel ‘trust’ a destination like London would provide a positive experience, says new research from QUT researchers.

Consumer behaviour experts from QUT Business School investigated the effectiveness of the official tourism website, Visit London, for tourists choosing the city as a destination to explore.

Their findings, published in the Journal of Strategic Marketing, have implications for the global travel industry amid an emerging trend to ‘personify’ places to build long-term bonds with tourists.

Professor Brett Martin said the research investigated psychology in tourism and the same principles could be applied other tourism-related websites.

“The key is to generate trust,” Professor Martin said. “People who are looking online at holiday information need to trust the information.

“If they do, then they have a more positive attitude towards the destination.

“This is more important than making people feel happy.”

Professor Brett Martin said study participants were told to imagine London as a person and rate what human characteristics they thought would represent the UK capital.

The survey of 515 ready-to-travel Australians rated London as a destination based on its vibrancy, contemporary, competence, sophistication and sincerity.

Professor Martin said the results showed London as a brand destination that was trusted, and as a result more desirable for tourists to invest their holiday dollars.

He said trust was created when a destination showed aspects of competence such as success, leadership, confidence, independent and intelligent.

“It turns out that when people regard a destination as competent they see the tourist organisation as more trustworthy,” he said.

“This is more important than showing images that are unique and glamorous,” he said.

Professor Martin said holiday destinations which conveyed an individual brand personality could create a set of particular associations in the tourist’s mind and influence their choice to visit or not.

“The takeaway for managers is to think about a destination as a person and ask what sort of personality should be conveyed, then promote competence and communicate trustworthiness,” he said.

“A glossy picture or a logo doesn’t carry as much weight for tourists making a decision whether to visit a destination or not,” Professor Martin said.

It’s estimated 20 million international visitors flock to London every year.

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Materials provided by Queensland University of Technology. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

A diverse diet may not be the healthiest one

Encouraging people to eat a wide variety of foods to ensure they meet all their dietary needs may backfire, according to a new scientific statement from the American Heart Association that provides an overview of recent scientific studies.

“Eating a more diverse diet might be associated with eating a greater variety of both healthy and unhealthy foods” said Marcia C. de Oliveira Otto, Ph.D., lead author of the statement published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation. “Combined, such an eating pattern may lead to increased food consumption and obesity.

“Eating a variety of foods” has been a public health recommendation in the United States and worldwide for decades. While some dietary guidelines highlight greater diversity of recommended foods, there is little consensus about what so-called dietary diversity is, how it is measured and whether it is a healthy dietary goal. The statement authors conducted a thorough scientific literature review of articles published between January 2000 and December 2017. They concluded:

  • There is no evidence that greater overall dietary diversity promotes healthy weight or optimal eating.
  • There is some evidence that a wider variety of food options in a meal may delay people’s feeling of satiation (fullness), increasing the amount of food they eat.
  • Limited evidence suggests that greater dietary diversity is associated with eating more calories, poor eating patterns and weight gain in adults.

Instead of telling people to eat a variety of foods, the statement authors conclude that dietary recommendations should emphasize adequate consumption of plant foods, such as fruit, vegetables, beans and whole grains, low-fat dairy products, non-tropical vegetable oils, nuts, poultry and fish, and limit consumption of red meat, sweets and sugary drinks. The American Heart Association Dietary Recommendations and the DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) are both examples of healthy eating patterns.

“Selecting a range of healthy foods, which fits one’s budget or taste, and sticking with them, is potentially better at helping people maintain a healthy weight than choosing a greater range of foods that may include less healthy items such as donuts, chips, fries and cheeseburgers, even in moderation,” said Otto, who is also assistant professor of epidemiology, human genetics and environmental science at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, Texas.

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Materials provided by American Heart Association. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.