Tag: mental health

Big Autism Study Reveals New Genetic Clues, but Also Baffling Complexity

By Joseph Calamia | June 9, 2010 5:41 pm

DNAResearchers have published the largest-existing study on the genetic causes of autism, comparing 996 autistic individuals to 1,287 people without the condition. Their results, which appear today in Nature, may provide unexplored avenues for treatment research, but also show in new detail the disorder’s sheer genetic complexity. For example, they have found “private mutations” not shared between people with autism and not inherited from their parents.

According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 110 children in the United States has autism spectrum disorder, and that the prevalence of autism among eight-year-olds has increased 57 percent from 2002 to 2006. There is no known cure, although intensive behavioral therapy helps some kids.

Hilary Coon, Ph.D., a lead author on the study and research professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah School of Medicine, said while research shows scientists are making progress in understanding the causes of autism, it is increasingly clear that autism is a multifaceted disorder with both genetic and environmental causes. “We are whittling away at it,” Coon said. “But a brain-related disorder, such as autism, is amazingly complex. It’s not really one entity.” [University of Utah press release]

For this study, researchers at the international Autism Genome Project wanted a closer, more detailed picture of the over 100 genes commonly linked to autism. They looked for rare variants–small deletions or additions to the DNA sequences that make up these genes. They found that people with autism had a higher number of these variants than those without the disorder, and that some of these DNA differences were not inherited. That means these DNA changes occurred either in the egg cell, sperm, or in the developing embryo.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain

"See You in 520 Days!" Pretend-Astronauts Begin Simulated Trip to Mars

By Joseph Calamia | June 3, 2010 9:30 am

hatchAll aboard for fake Mars!

Earlier today, a six-man crew battened down the hatches on an 1,800-square-foot module for 520 days of isolation as they pretend to go to Mars and back again. The Mars-500 project, run by the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP) and funded in part by the European Space Agency, hopes to test the psychological mettle required for such a journey.

“See you in 520 days!” shouted Russia’s Sukhrob Kamolov as he was sealed inside the simulator at around 1000 GMT. [Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty]

The trip will have three stages, including the trip to and from Mars and a simulated landing and planet exploration.

Psychologists said the simulation can be even more demanding that a real flight because the crew won’t experience any of the euphoria or dangers of actual space travel. They have also warned that months of space travel would push the team to the limits of endurance as they grow increasingly tired of each other. [AP]

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain, Space

Obsessive-Compulsive Mice Cured via Bone Marrow Transplant

By Joseph Calamia | May 28, 2010 2:21 pm

mouseObsessive-compulsive mice, which were once pulling their hair out from too much grooming, are now sitting pretty. Their cure? A bone marrow transplant. In a study published today in Cell, scientists show an unsuspected link between a psychological disorder and the immune system.

Here’s how they did it:

Step 1 — Finding the Problem

Since excessive cleaning is a behavior, scientists first thought to look for defects in the mouse brain. They noticed that mice with a mutant version of the gene Hoxb8 were the ones cleaning themselves bald. Hoxb8 is important for creating microglia–nervous system repair cells that search for damage in the brain.

Although some microglia start out in the brain, others are born in the bone marrow and move in. Overall, adult mice with faulty Hoxb8 harbored about 15% fewer microglia in the brain than normal. [ScienceNow]

Since many microglia move from bone marrow to brain, the scientists decided to give the compulsive mice, with the mutant Hoxb8 gene, a marrow transplant.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain

Six "Astronauts" Prepare for 17 Months in Isolation to Simulate Mars Mission

By Andrew Moseman | May 20, 2010 10:36 am

mars500These boys are all dressed up with no place to go.

Two weeks from today, a team—made of three Russians, two Europeans, and one Chinese (with a Russian as an alternate)—will begin the longest trip to nowhere any of them has ever taken. These men will be locked in isolation for 520 days to simulate what astronauts would endure on a trip to Mars, part of a project called Mars500. It follows a 105-day test that the Russian Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP) ran last year.

“The biggest risk of such an isolation is psychological,” said researcher Alexander Suvorov who is leading the experiment at the IBMP. “Of course relations between the crew will not always be harmonious, some will get on with others, others will not. But the priority is to be able to carry out tasks in spite of this” [AFP].

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Space

Scientist Smackdown: Is a Virus Really the Cause of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?

By Andrew Moseman | January 6, 2010 5:18 pm

chronic-fatigue-virusAn estimated three in 1,000 people suffers from the mysterious affliction chronic fatigue syndrome. Those people were probably enthusiastic in October when a team of U.S. medical researchers released a study arguing that not only is the syndrome real (some doctors dismissed it as purely psychological “yuppie flu”), but also that they’d connected it to a specific virus. DISCOVER covered the hubbub after the paper came out in the journal Science.

But now, in a study in PLoS One, a British research team has cast doubt on the American team’s findings, saying there’s no conclusive link between the virus and chronic fatigue syndrome, which is also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis.

The U.S. team’s findings sounded robust when they came out. They found the murine leukaemia virus-related virus (XMRV) in blood samples of 68 of 101 patients diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. Just eight out of 101 healthy “controls” drawn at random from the same parts of the US also tested positive, suggesting that XMRV played a key role in triggering the condition [The Independent]. When the scientists from Imperial and Kings colleges in London attempted to replicate these findings, however, they found nothing of the sort. Of the 186 people with the syndrome that this team tested, not one showed signs of XMRV, or of any related virus.

Study coauthor Myra McClure of the Imperial College also criticized the U.S. team and the journal Science for rushing the findings into print in October. “When you’ve got such a stunning result you want to be absolutely clear that you are 1,000 per cent right and there are things in that [previous study] I would not have done. I would have waited. I would have stalled a little” [The Independent], she said.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

Murderer With "Violent Genes" Gets Lighter Sentence in Italian Court

By Eliza Strickland | November 3, 2009 3:17 pm

DNA-genetic-testIn an Italian court, a murderer has just had his sentence reduced because the judge agreed that the man’s genes predisposed him to violent behavior.

Abdelmalek Bayout, an Algerian immigrant to Italy, admitted to stabbing and killing Walter Felipe Novoa Perez, a Colombian, when the two men got in a fight over the kohl eye make-up that Bayout was wearing. At trial, the defense team argued that Bayout was mentally ill at the time of the murder; the judge agreed that his psychiatric condition was a mitigating factor, and gave him a reduced sentence of 9 years. But at an appeal hearing, Bayout’s lawyers argued that his sentence should be shortened further based not just on psychiatric evaluations, but also brain scans and genetic testing.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Feature, Health & Medicine

Would A Mission to Mars Drive Astronauts Insane? Six Earth-Bound Volunteers Aim to Find Out.

By Brett Israel | October 24, 2009 9:16 am

mars-global-image-webThe European Space Agency is looking for six brave volunteers to sit in locked chamber for 520 days to simulate the isolation of a space flight to Mars, a trip that in real life would take around 900 days. The ‘mission’ is part of the Mars500 programme being conducted by ESA and Russia’s Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBMP) to study human psychological, medical and physical capabilities and limitations in space [Physorg.com]. But what will scientists actually learn from locking these folks up for a year and a half on Earth, especially when the real mission is close to twice as long?

Although the volunteers will simulate a Mars mission as best they can, the most dangerous aspects of space travel won’t be replicated–like, for example, the radiation from cosmic rays. Volunteers will also be able to walk out at any time if they feel unsafe, which isn’t an option on a real space mission. At least one researcher argues that scientists could learn more by studying the historical diaries of long distance explorers to learn how people cope with stress while traveling through the unknown. Other scientists say studying people in Antarctic research stations, nuclear submarines, or astronauts aboard space stations orbiting Earth would be better strategies. Still, there are many things the Mars500 experiment will reveal that historical records cannot. Volunteers will undergo an array of tests that will monitor stress and hormone levels, immune response and sleep patterns, as well as group dynamics [New Scientist].

Space mission simulations have been conducted in the past—a similar 105-day study just ended in July—and they often have interesting results. In one event that made the news on a space mission simulation in 2000, a man twice tried to kiss a woman against her will. As a result, locks were installed between different crew compartments [New Scientist]. These simulations sound like a scientific version of the T.V. show Big Brother.

Better hurry if you want to sign up, the deadline is November 5th!

Related Content:
80beats: After Three Months in a Tin Can, Six Men End Simulated Mars Mission
80beats: Presidential Panel: Space Travel Plans Are Broken
80beats: The Real Problem With a Human Trip to Mars: Radiation
80beats: Buzz Aldrin Speaks Out: Forget the Moon, Let’s Head to Mars

Image: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space

Is Playing College Football Enough to Damage a Brain for Life?

By Eliza Strickland | October 22, 2009 3:03 pm

football-2Scientists who have been investigating the link between professional football and severe brain damage have a troubling new piece of evidence: The brain of a deceased man who stopped playing football after college also showed the distinctive signs of damage. The man, the former Western Illinois wide receiver Mike Borich, died at 42 of a drug overdose in February after a downward spiral of depression and substance abuse that is generally associated with the type of tissue damage found in his brain [The New York Times].

The findings suggest that the damage isn’t only associated with professional football players who have played at the highest level of competition for years, but might be a fundamental byproduct of the sport itself. The cumulative effect of the many blows to the head that many football players experience may simply be too much for the brain to handle, researchers say.

Several neuroscientists have been investigating football players with a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.). Scientific progress is slow because the condition can only be diagnosed after death, when the brains donated by players can be sliced, stained, and examined for protein deposits and fibrous tangles. So far, researchers have identified C.T.E. in eight NFL players who died between the ages of 36 and 52–many of whom had extreme emotional problems in their last years. It has been found in every player of those ages examined by the two groups doing such research [The New York Times].

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Power + Incompetence = a Bullying Boss

By Eliza Strickland | October 15, 2009 4:02 pm

bullying-bossHere’s some gratifying news for any employees out there who are feeling bullied by a tyrannical boss: That aggressive behavior may have little to do with you, and a lot to do with your boss’s feelings of incompetence. A new study in Psychological Science found that when managers are made to feel insecure about their job performance, their aggressiveness skyrockets. “Power holders feel they need to be superior and competent. When they don’t feel they can show that legitimately, they’ll show it by taking people down a notch or two” [New Scientist], says study coauthor Nathanael Fast.

The researchers got 410 volunteers from various workplaces to fill out questionnaires about their position in the workplace hierarchy, how they felt about their job performance, and their aggressive tendencies. They also conducted a series experiments on the volunteers. In one, they manipulated the subjects’ sense of power and self-worth by asking them to write about occasions when they felt either empowered or impotent and then either competent or incompetent. Previous research has suggested that such essays cause a short-term bump or drop in feelings of power and capability [New Scientist]. Next they asked the volunteers to set the level of punishment for (imaginary) university students who got wrong answers on a test. Those people who felt more powerful and more incompetent picked the harshest punishments, the study found.

So what’s to be done with a bullying boss? Coauthor Serena Chen says a little ego stroking may make life easier for everyone. “Make them feel good about themselves in some way,” Chen said, suggesting this might mean complimenting a hobby or nonwork activity provided it is “something plausible that doesn’t sound like you’re sucking up” [San Francisco Chronicle].

Related Content:
80beats: Teenage Bullies are Rewarded With Pleasure, Brain Scans Show
DISCOVER: So, You Want to Be the Boss?

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain
MORE ABOUT: emotions, mental health

"Yuppie Flu" Isn't Just in the Head: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Linked to Virus

By Eliza Strickland | October 9, 2009 1:31 pm

chronic-fatigue-virusSufferers of the baffling ailment known as chronic fatigue syndrome, take hope: For the first time, there’s good evidence that the symptoms aren’t just in your head, and experimental treatments may be coming soon.

Over the past few decades, the syndrome has been a source of intense frustration both to patients diagnosed with it and doctors who try to treat it. The diffuse collection of symptoms can include incapacitating fatigue, muscle aches, headaches, problems with concentration. Doctors, meanwhile, have been mystified by the cause of the symptoms, and some have suggested that it’s a psychiatric problem, leading to the coining of the dismissive label “yuppie flu.”

Now, researchers report that 68 of 101 patients with the syndrome, or 67 percent, were infected with an infectious virus, xenotropic murine leukemia virus-related virus, or XMRV. By contrast, only 3.7 percent of 218 healthy people were infected. Continuing work after the paper was published has found the virus in nearly 98 percent of about 300 patients with the syndrome, said Dr. Judy A. Mikovits, the lead author of the paper [The New York Times]. While it hasn’t been proven that the virus causes the syndrome, the link opens new avenues of research and treatment.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Feature, Health & Medicine
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