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Mental Health News

Following are the latest news and information resources for the various mental health topics that we cover. We hope you will find the news educational and the links in the resources section useful in helping you to get even more in-depth data.

Measurement In Part Of Brain May Indicate Depression Risk

While comparing the brains of people at high and low risk for depression based on their family history, researchers at Columbia University Medical Center found a physical difference in their brains that may function as a biomarker for the disorder.

A network of brain regions called the default mode network, or DMN, was found in a study to have stronger connections in people with high risk of depression as compared to those with lower risk.

The DMN system is more active when people are thinking deeply about something, and shown to have increased connections in people with major depressive disorder, or MDD. By studying the brain regions in people at varying levels of risk for depression, researchers said they could see what potential patients’ brains look like before they have MDD.

Using MRI scans, the researchers indexed the brains of 111 people at varying risk for depression who were part of a three-generation study of depression in families. They found a greater number of connections in the DMN for participants at higher risk for MDD based on previous generations of family in the study.

"These findings suggest that looking at activity in the DMN may offer an objective method of identifying people who are at risk of developing major depression," said Dr. Myrna Weissman, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Medical Center, in a press release. "This may represent another way toward advancing prevention and early intervention for this major public health issue."

The researchers said that, in addition to the finding possibly making it easier to identify depression before it manifests in patients, it may also guide more effective treatment for the condition.

"If this insight proves correct," said Dr. Jonathan Posner, an associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, "behavioral interventions that improve the functioning of the DMN, such as meditation and mindfulness, could be used to address a brain-based problem (increased DMN connections), before it leads to a depressive illness."

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Anxiety Raises Risk For Dementia

People who experienced high anxiety any time in their lives had a 48 percent higher risk of developing dementia compared to those who had not, according to a new study led by USC researchers.

The findings were based on an examination of 28 years of data from the Swedish Adoption Twin Study of Aging, overseen by the Karolinska Institutet of Sweden. The study sample involved 1,082 participants — twins, fraternal and identical — who completed in-person tests every three years, answered several questionnaires and were screened for dementia throughout the study.

Many other studies have explored the link between dementia and psychological variables such as depression and neuroticism. However, this study established that the anxiety-dementia link was independent of the role of depression as a risk factor.

“Anxiety, especially in older adults, has been relatively understudied compared to depression,” said Andrew Petkus, the study’s lead author and postdoctoral research associate of psychology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “Depression seems more evident in adulthood, but it’s usually episodic. Anxiety, though, tends to be a chronic lifelong problem, and that’s why people tend to write off anxiety as part of someone’s personality.”

A final draft of the study was made available online last week in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.

The researchers noted that the subjects had self-reported various levels of anxiety, which may or may not meet the clinical diagnostic threshold of a psychiatric anxiety disorder. Even so, the twin who developed dementia had a history of higher levels of anxiety compared to the twin who did not develop dementia.

How anxious?

The subjects with anxiety who later developed dementia “are people that experience more than usual symptoms of anxiety,” said study co-author Margaret Gatz, a professor of psychology at USC Dornsife, who holds joint appointments at the USC Davis School of Gerontology and the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

“They are people who you would say operate at a ‘high level of anxiety,’” said Gatz, also a foreign adjunct professor for the Karolinska Insitutet. She said they are fidgety. “They are frantic, frazzled people.”

To determine whether anxiety levels correlated to dementia risk, researchers compared those who reported high anxiety with those who reported lower anxiety levels.

“Those in the high anxiety group were about 1.5 times more likely to develop dementia,” Petkus said.

Possible explanation

Petkus said people who have high levels of anxiety tend to have higher levels of stress hormones, including cortisol. Evidence shows that chronically high levels of cortisol damage parts of the brain such as the hippocampus, which stores memory, and the frontal cortex, which is responsible for high-level thinking.

The researchers also found that the anxiety-dementia relationship was stronger among fraternal twins, who had only one develop dementia, than among identical twins. The researchers said this finding indicates that there may be genetic factors shared by anxiety and dementia that account for the anxiety-dementia risk.

The USC team also hopes to determine whether individuals who have been treated for anxiety earlier in their lives show lower risk of dementia compared with those whose anxiety was not treated.

Other study co-authors were Chandra Reynolds of the University of California, Riverside; Julie Loebach Wetherell of the VA San Diego Healthcare System and the University of California, San Diego; William Kremen of UC San Diego and and the VA Center of Excellence for Stress and Mental Health; and Nancy Pedersen of the Karolinska Institutet and an adjunct professor of psychology at USC Dornsife.

The Swedish Twin Registry overseen by the Karolinska Institutet is one of the largest databases in the world and has been the basis for more than 30 research projects and hundreds of publications related to aging and disease. The Swedish Adoption Twin Study of Aging is funded by grants by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Aging, the Swedish Council for Working Life and Social Research and the Swedish Research Council.

Petkus received support from the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Service Award fellowship from the National Institute on Aging.

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Fighting Depression During The Holiday Season

For many people, the holiday season is a joyous time. But for those suffering from depression, the holidays can be yet another uphill battle. Although the popular belief is that depression and suicide rates increase during the holidays, this is not true according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which says that depression and suicide rates are at a low during the month of December.

This finding, however, does not mean that mental health challenges don't exist this time of year. Many people deal with increased stress, and seasonal affect disorder is at an all-time high. Here are some tips on how to stay positive and combat depression during the holidays.

1. SOCIAL SUPPORT

Studies show that having a support system is one of the most powerful ways that individuals can battle depression. Merily Keller, suicide prevention coordinator for Mental Health America of Texas and founding board member of the Texas Suicide Prevention Council, promotes the importance of surrounding yourself with loved ones. “Because of all the connections we have with family and friends during the holidays, depression and suicide is actually much lower," Keller said. "This is why social connections are so important. For those with depression, it’s important to keep connections during the holidays and all year round."

2. VOLUNTEER

For those who may be away from family and friends this holiday season, volunteering is a fantastic alternative benefiting both yourself and others. When we focus on helping people in need we take the attention away from ourselves and our own problems. Volunteering at your local food bank, homeless shelter, or hospital not only broadens your point of view on everything you have to be thankful for, it also strengthens your bond to the community. “It gets you out. It gets you moving. It gets you in contact with new people, all of which are important for people with depression.” Keller said.

3. SET REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS

Struggling to create the perfect Christmas? Spoiler alert! It doesn’t exist! No one's Christmas is perfect, despite what you may see in holiday movies or advertisements. Lower any outlandish expectations you may have for a perfect holiday so that you can enjoy a stress-free one instead. Allow room for mistakes. Also, it’s important to understand that you don’t have to be filled with “holiday cheer” every second of every day. Don’t punish yourself if you are not feeling particularly festive. Not everyone can be Buddy the Elf. (Imagine how insufferable it would be.)

4. EXERCISE

Get a head start on your New Year’s resolutions by getting active this holiday season! Exercise is seen to have a positive effect on people with depression. Being physically active can help better your mood by releasing endorphins into your body. Furthermore, exercising outdoors can increase the happy feelings while supplying your daily dose of vitamin D. A great way to motivate yourself is by signing up for a holiday run. This gives you something to train for and spurs on a greater commitment to exercise consistently.

5. GET HELP

If you’re feeling more than the typical “holiday stress” and are having suicidal thoughts, it is important to seek help immediately. Make an appointment to talk with a licensed therapist or counselor. Or you can talk to a trained professional on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 who can also connect you to local resources.

Depression is a serious illness. These methods, however, can help alleviate the weight of some of your symptoms. During the holidays, it’s important to be part of a community — whether it is your family or making new friends through volunteering. Be sure to get out and be active. And don’t fret if your holiday isn’t perfect. Rather, enjoy the season the best way you can.

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Possible Mechanism For Specific Symptoms In Bipolar Disorder Discovered

Researchers at Karolinska Institutet, and the Sahlgrenska Academy at Gothenburg University in Sweden have identified a gene variant linked to psychotic symptoms and cognitive impairment in people with bipolar disorder. The study, which is published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, describes a possible mechanism for how the gene variant produces clinical symptoms by affecting levels of specific proteins in the brain.

"We've identified a gene variant linked to specific psychotic symptoms and cognitive impairment in people with bipolar disorder," says Mikael Landén, researcher at Karolinska Institutet's Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics and the Sahlgrenska Academy's Department of Neuroscience and Physiology. "The link to cognitive symptoms is particularly interesting, since there are no treatments currently available to improve problems with attention, memory and concentration, which impact heavily on functional outcome and recoverability."

Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia can largely be attributed to inherited factors. In recent years, scientists have identified specific gene variants that increase the risk of these diseases, but these risk variants only go some way to explaining why some people are afflicted by the disease and others are not. We currently do not know how these genetic risk factors affect the chemistry of the brain and cause specific symptoms, so it is not yet possible for scientists to design drugs to relieve symptoms shown by people with a particular genetic variant. To link, at a molecular level, a gene variant with biochemical changes and clinical symptoms related to a heritable psychiatric disorder, as in this present study, is therefore something of a breakthrough.

The study involved people with bipolar disorder from the St. Göran project being run in Stockholm and Gothenburg. Besides carefully mapping the participants' specific symptoms, the scientists also tested their cognitive abilities and measured levels of different proteins in their blood and CSF, a fluid that surrounds the brain and that thus gives a good indication of its chemistry. On performing a genome-wide association study (GWAS), they found that a genetic variant of the SNX7 gene was associated with both the levels of a protein in the CSF, known as kynurenic acid, and the disease symptoms.

"We then conducted a series of supplementary experiments to identify a probable signal pathway, from the occurrence of the genetic risk variant to clinical symptoms in the form of psychosis and cognitive impairment," says Professor Landén. "The pathway mainly involves signalling via the brains' immune cells, and thus differs from how today's drugs operate. What we're hoping, therefore, is that the new mechanisms we've discovered will help in the development of more targeted drugs, where existing immune-modulating drugs can also be of interest."

Although the study participants all suffer from bipolar disorder, the researchers behind the study think that the mechanisms also apply to other psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia.

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Humans Evolved To Get Better Sleep In Less Time

Insomniacs take heart: Humans get by on significantly less sleep than our closest animal relatives. The secret, according to a new study, is that our sleep is more efficient.

Researchers from Duke University scoured the scientific literature and compiled a database of slumber patterns across hundreds of mammals including 21 species of primates -- from baboons and lemurs to orangutans, chimpanzees and people. They then used statistical techniques to account for each species’ position in the primate family tree.

They found that humans are exceptionally short sleepers -- getting by on an average of seven hours of sleep a night, whereas other primate species, such as southern pig-tailed macaques and gray mouse lemurs, need as many as 14 to 17 hours.

What’s more, our sleep tends to be more efficient, meaning we spend a smaller proportion of time in light stages of sleep, and more of our sleep time in deeper stages of sleep. A dream state called rapid eye movement sleep, or REM, for example, makes up nearly 25 percent of our overall sleep. But in primates such as mouse lemurs, mongoose lemurs and African green monkeys, REM sleep barely climbs above five percent.

“Humans are unique in having shorter, higher quality sleep,” said anthropologist and study co-author David Samson of Duke, who logged nearly 2,000 hours watching orangutans in REM and non-REM sleep as part of his dissertation research prior to coming to Duke.

The human sleep gap isn’t merely the result of round-the-clock access to artificial light from streetlamps and computer screens, the researchers say. A separate study of the sleep habits of people living in three hunter-gatherer societies without electricity in Tanzania, Namibia and Bolivia found they get slightly less shut-eye than those of us with electronic gadgets.

If artificial light and other aspects of modern life were solely responsible for shortening our sleep, we’d expect hunter-gatherer societies without access to electricity to sleep more, Samson said.

Rather, the study by Samson and Duke Anthropologist Charlie Nunn suggests that humans replaced sleep quantity with sleep quality long before the glare of smartphones came to be.

The researchers attribute the shift towards shorter, more efficient sleep in part to the transition from sleeping in “beds” in the trees, as our early human ancestors probably did, to sleeping on the ground as we do today.

Once on the ground, Samson said, early humans likely started sleeping near fire and in larger groups in order to keep warm and ward off predators such as leopards and hyenas -- habits which could have enabled our ancestors to get the most out of their sleep in the shortest time possible.

Shorter sleep also freed up time that could be devoted to other things, like learning new skills and forging social bonds, while deeper sleep helped to cement those skills, sharpen memory and boost brainpower, Samson said.

The findings appear in the journal Evolutionary Anthropology. This research was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation (BCS-1355902) and Duke University.

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Possible One-Session Treatment For Phobia

A new study published in the latest issue of Biological Psychiatry reports the successful and instant reduction of fear in spider-fearful participants following a 2-minute exposure combined with a single dose of a regular pharmacological treatment.

Typical behavioral therapies for phobia take many sessions to produce the desired effect. If recovery could be accelerated, it would reduce distress and save time and money.

Drs. Marieke Soeter and Merel Kindt, Department of Clinical Psychology, University of Amsterdam, sought to build on the notion of “reconsolidation”, identified 15 years ago by Dr. Joseph LeDoux. He and his team discovered that when memories are activated, they may be modified in fundamental ways to strengthen or weaken them.

This neuroscience breakthrough resulted from their findings that administration of a drug upon activation of a fearful memory induced amnesia for that learned fear. However, pharmacologically induced amnesia has only been convincingly demonstrated for fears created in the laboratory in animals and in healthy participants.

In this study, Soeter and Kindt recruited 45 volunteers with spider fear. The participants were randomized to receive a single dose of either propranolol, a beta blocker used to treat high blood pressure and heart conditions, or placebo following brief exposure to a tarantula.

Those who received propranolol displayed drastically reduced avoidance behavior and increased approach behavior, an effect that persisted for one year.

“Here we show for the first time that an amnesic drug given in conjunction with memory reactivation transformed avoidance behavior to approach behavior in people with a real-life spider fear. The new treatment is more like surgery than therapy,” said Kindt.

“Currently patients with anxiety disorders and PTSD receive multiple sessions of cognitive behavioral treatment or daily drug intake with a gradual (and often temporary) decline of symptoms,” added Kindt. “The proposed revolutionary intervention involves one single, brief intervention that leads to a sudden, substantial and lasting loss of fear.”

More research is necessary, to extend these findings to patient populations and more severe phobias, in addition to testing the outcome with other variables. However, as Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry, commented, “This elegant study may suggest a strategy for accelerating the recovery from anxiety disorders.”

Indeed, these promising findings may ultimately lead to a new treatment strategy that erases the emotional impact of intensely fearful memories, which would signify a true paradigm shift in the practice of psychotherapy.

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Intelligent People Have More Anxiety

Those of us who suffer from anxiety will know that it's never fun: your mind is constantly racing, you feel like the worrying never stops and there seem to be absolutely no benefits whatsoever - until now.

According to a new video created by The Science Of Us, the fact that you're constantly plagued by worry and doubt can have its benefits: by making you more intelligent.

It quotes studies in 2012 and 2014, which show respectively that there is a strong correlation between anxiety and verbal intellgience, and that those with anxiety disorder tend to have higher IQs.

The reasons for this are threefold. The video explains that one reason is because intelligent people have a strong memory for detail, and end up obsessing not only over their past mistakes, but also worrying about future calamities.

There's also the rather scientific-sounding explanation of white matter. People who suffer from anxiety tend to have more white matter, with the result being faster mental processes.

And let's not forget the evolutionary theory: according to some scientific thought, anxious people are more likely to form plans for the future, helping them and their future kids survive. 

The message is clear: you don't have to worry too much about the fact you worry too much. While dealing with anxiety is never an enjoyable part of anyone's day, at least it means you're smart, huh?

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Mayo Clinic IDs 6 Bipolar Disorder Biomarkers

Mayo Clinic researchers have discovered a half-dozen biomarkers that may soon be used to identify people with bipolar disorder — a serious mental health condition that is notoriously difficult to diagnose.

The findings, published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, could be a game-changer in the diagnosis and treatment of the mood disorder, which raises the risk for suicide.

"The potential of having a biological test to help accurately diagnose bipolar disorder would make a huge difference to medical practice," said researcher Dr. Mark Frye, head of psychiatry and psychology at Mayo Clinic. "It would then help clinicians to choose the most appropriate treatment for hard-to-diagnose individuals."

Dr. Fryer’s team examined nearly 300 proteins in the blood samples of in 288 patients — nearly half of whom had been diagnosed with various forms of depression and bipolar disorder. In comparing the samples of individuals with and without the mental-health disorders, the researchers 73 proteins that differed among the patients. The results also showed a significant difference for six proteins in individuals with bipolar depression, compared to those without the condition.

Currently, psychiatrists diagnose the condition largely on the basis of subjective analysis of patient symptoms and interviews.

Having a more scientific diagnostic method could take some of the guesswork out of the process and move patients more quickly into treatment.

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Employers Should Offer Free Screenings For Depression

America’s workforce is in crisis as a silent epidemic eats away at the U.S. economy through lost productivity and underperformance. More importantly, if this health crisis is left unchecked, it will cost lives.

It’s not AIDS, cancer, or diabetes. It’s clinical depression, and it continues to cost America’s workforce even though it doesn’t have to.

Among adults who have been employed in the last 12 months, more than 1 in 10 have missed work days because they were too anxious (14%) or too depressed (16%) to go to work, according to a September 2015 Harris Poll for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Depression affects 9.5% of the adult population and translates to 200 million lost workdays each year. That’s 4 million lost days a week. The WHO estimates that by 2020, depression will be the second leading cause of disability throughout the world.

The economic hit to employers and the U.S. economy is staggering. Each year, it’s estimated that depression costs companies between $17 billion and $44 billion.

The real toll, however, is much more costly and distressing. People are suffering; and some will die. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America.

What makes this especially unsettling is that depression, once diagnosed, is treatable. Similar to physical illnesses, the earlier treatment can begin, the more effective it is. According to the National Institute of Health, up to 80% of those treated for depression show an improvement in their symptoms generally within four to six weeks of beginning medication, psychotherapy, attending support groups or a combination of these treatments.

Employers can look out for both their employees’ short and long-term mental health by encouraging participation in free and anonymous online screenings like this one. By encouraging employees to take free, anonymous screenings, managers will also be sending an important signal that there’s no stigma to depression. While the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers from firing people with mental health conditions, a bias in the workplace remains. As a society, America shuns mental health issues as affecting only an unfortunate few. That’s far from the case – depression alone affects 350 million people globally each year, according to the WHO. But as a result of the stigma, people with depression and other ailments have a legitimate fear of repercussions. If employers encourage mental health screenings, that could change.

Employers already readily promote workplace initiatives involving physical health, such as monetary incentives to join a health club or annual, on-site flu shots. The underlying motivator here is employee wellbeing — though there are also significant business benefits to a healthier, physically fit workforce. Just as businesses have embraced the notion of get-fit challenges in the workplace, they can increase their productivity (and profits) by encouraging mental health screenings throughout the year.

Through their HR department or employee assistance program (EAP), employers can educate employees about mental health by providing information on mental health and screenings through established communications channels and integrating mental health programming into current wellness programs. Reinforcing the anonymous nature of the screening helps increase participation. Employers cannot identify any individual that has taken a screening and all reporting is provided in aggregate. Ideally, employers want the screenings to engage employees to become active participants in their wellbeing and link them back to company or EAP resources.

Tomorrow, 548,000 Americans will call in sick or be impaired on the job because of depression. It doesn’t have to be this way.

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Nearly A Third Of New Doctors At High Risk For Depression

Nearly one-third of doctors in the early stages of their careers screened positive for depression or had symptoms during their medical training, according to a comprehensive international review released Tuesday.

Researchers said the prevalence of depression was much higher among medical residents than the general population. They focused on the years of internship and residency, which come right after medical school and are marked by long hours, intense on-the-job training, high levels of responsibility for patient care but low rank within a medical team.

The findings, published in JAMA, are based on an investigation of a half-century of peer-reviewed studies from around the world that looked for depression symptoms in more than 17,500 medical residents.

In their analysis, researchers found that the percentage of residents with possible depression ranged from 20 percent to 43 percent. On average, when all data were equalized and tallied, they concluded that 29 percent of physicians-in-training had depression or depressive symptoms. They found no statistically significant difference among the prevalence estimates in U.S. studies vs. elsewhere, or between medical specialties, or between men and women.

But as one point of comparison, the National Institute of Mental Health has said that in 2013, about 6.7 percent of all U.S. adults had at least one major depressive episode during the previous year.

The review team was led by Douglas Mata, a resident doctor in pathology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and Srijan Sen, a University of Michigan Medical School psychiatrist who specializes in physician mental health.

In an interview, Mata said many of the doctors covered by the studies fell short of meeting all criteria for a diagnosis of major depressive disorder. But the distinction between symptoms and disease are not that important.

"You can have significant symptoms that are just as debilitating even if you don't meet all the criteria," he said.

The implications for patients also are important. Depression among residents has been linked to poor-quality care and increased medical errors.

There was a small but statistically significant increase in the rate of depression over the five decades covered by the review.

"The increase in depression is surprising and important, especially in light of reforms that have been implemented over the years with the intent of improving the mental health of residents and the health of patients," said Sen, who is also a member of University of Michigan's Depression Center.

Several factors appear to be at work.

The practice of medicine today is radically different from that of 20 to 30 years ago. Shorter hospital stays require protocol-driven procedural care "with little opportunity for thinking and learning," according to a JAMA editorial accompanying the review. Added pressure comes from online ratings of doctor performance, and direct-to-consumer advertising causes "patients to demand medications for conditions they sometimes do not even have," the editorial said.

There is also a huge disconnect between what happens in medical school and what actually happens in the first years of residency, Mata said.

New doctors are "spending 40 to 50 percent of their time on the computer” doing secretarial work, he said. Very little time is spent by the bedside. “It’s not rewarding."

University of Nevada medical school dean Thomas Schwenk, who penned the editorial, said the findings were alarming and showed a deep-rooted problem that requires a fundamental overhaul of the current training environment.

"The personal and professional dysfunction, not to mention the suicide rate that may derive from this symptom burden, should be disturbing to the profession," Schwenk wrote. "These findings could be easily construed as describing a depression endemic among residents and fellows."

Although the medical profession says it recognizes the importance of health and wellness, the value system of the current training environment makes clear to residents that it's unacceptable to stay home when sick or to ask someone to cover for them when a child or parent is in need, or simply to "express vulnerability in the face of overwhelming emotional and physical demands," Schwenk wrote.

Residents are afraid that any record of mental health care could compromise future training, medical staff membership and licensing, he noted.

Solutions fall into three categories, he suggested: Provide more and better mental health care to depressed physicians and those in training. Limit the trainee's exposure to the training environment. Consider fundamental change to the medical training system.

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Did You Know?

Anxiety – the most common of all mental disorders – currently affects about one in 13 people (7.3 per cent). 

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