Tag: mental health

Can Virtual Reality Help Astronauts Keep Their Cool?

By Shannon Stirone | August 4, 2016 1:58 pm

Scientists at Dartmouth College are experimenting with virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift to see if simulated environments can break the monotony of space travel. (Credit: Courtesy Jay Buckey)

While astronaut Scott Kelly spent his year on the International Space Station, he expressed frustration with the ho-hum accommodations inside the ISS — it’s dullsville.

The temperature remains exactly the same day in and day out. The décor is a sterile mix of machines and wires. Astronauts are isolated, confined to small spaces and under a considerable amount of stress. While the vistas outside their window are no doubt spectacular, humans need a hint of nature’s greens and blues to stay happy.


The interior of the Columbus laboratory on the International Space Station. You get a sense of the sterile surroundings. (Credit: NASA)

The monotony of space can fray the nerves of even the most seasoned astronaut, and psychological stress is a serious side effect of living in a habitat of connected tubes orbiting Earth. So scientists at Dartmouth College are experimenting with virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift to see if simulated environments can break the monotony of space travel, and reduce psychological stress that astronauts experience on long duration missions.

“Things can go badly if the psychosocial elements aren’t managed properly. When you talk about longer and longer missions with a small crew it becomes really critical to have that social aspect right,” he says.

Floating in a Virtual World

Jay Buckey — a former space shuttle astronaut — is now a professor of space medicine and physiology at Dartmouth. Each space shuttle mission runs around three weeks, so Buckey’s not experienced the same monotony as Scott Kelly. Despite his pleasant trip to space, he still felt called to help. Buckey and his colleagues are using calming imagery to see if virtual scenes reduce stress levels.

“I wanted to focus on many of the issues that would serve as a barrier to long duration spaceflight,” says Buckey. “The psychosocial adaptation element is crucial to a good mission.”

His theory is that exposure to bucolic landscapes — even virtual ones — can reduce stress. To do this, Buckey and his team created two types of “escapes” for the subjects to try. The test subjects were either given a trip to the lush green hills of Ireland, or a serene beach landscape in Australia. As a control, test subjects sat in a classroom and researchers measured their heart rate and skin conductance.

“We are assuming that natural scenes will be preferred,” explains Buckey. “But, people in an isolated and confined environment might want an urban scene.”

To quantify the stress relief, Buckey’s team will measure the electrodermal activity in the skin of their test subjects to track fluctuations of psychological arousal and stress, providing insights into who is responding best to a given scene.

Buckey is also adding another twist to his experiments: shining a heat lamp on subjects viewing a beach scene to enhance their virtual experience.

“VR is an immersive world and we would like to optimize the scenes to find out what it is about these that people find the most compelling. As the tech improves and you get higher definition video you can really immerse somebody in a nature scene,” says Buckey. “Would people rather have a vista, or animals, and what other kinds of sensations would people like?”

Currently astronauts on the International Space Station use a tool called the Virtual Space Station — essentially a virtual therapy session. This VR software doesn’t provide stress reduction in the way that Buckey is exploring, but it has tools for conflict resolution, and training on how to handle interpersonal disagreements if and when they arise.

Back to Nature

Buckey’s experiments are still ongoing, so his results aren’t finalized. However, the notion that nature is good for our brain is nothing new — dozens of scientific studies back this up. In a more recent study, researchers from South Korea used fMRI to measure subjects’ brain activity when they looked at nature scenes versus urban scenes. Urban scenes activated the amygdala, which is linked to heightened anxiety and increased stress. On the other hand, nature scenes caused more blood to flow to regions in the brain associated with empathy and altruistic behavior.

VR lounge chair lamp

A study subject enjoys a scene augmented with a heat lamp. (Credit: Courtesy Jay Buckey)

At the University of Verona in Italy, researchers showed that “being in” a natural setting improved cognitive functioning, and participants completed tasks more efficiently with less mental fatigue. Nature can also lower our blood pressure and heighten our mood.

The data from the Dartmouth lab won’t be published for several more months, but the team hopes its experiment will move one step closer to helping future astronauts, and other people who work in isolation, cope with stress.

If it turns out that the data from Buckey’s experiments show a reduction in stress, future astronauts could perhaps work a regimen of VR medicine into their weekly routine. So far, Buckey thinks the preliminary results are encouraging, but “these are highly individualized responses, and is very subjective.”

“It depends on the outcome of what we have. We haven’t really proven that it works that well yet so I think its important for us to show that there’s a tangible benefit to having this.”

Lessons from the Past

In 1980 a group of scientists ventured off into the cold and isolated region of Antarctica as part of the International Biomedical Expedition. The IBEA was designed to understand how the human body would acclimate to extremely cold environments, isolation and the psychological responses to this type of stress. It dramatically highlighted the need for stress reduction for team members.

As the expedition continued, crewmembers grew homesick, isolation wore them down and they grew more and more irritable. Several scientists on the team simply walked out of the experiment before it was completed, due to these stressors.

In the 1980s, psychological stress drove a rift between cosmonaut Valentin Lebedev and his commander Anatoly Berezovoy while they were living aboard the Russian Space Station Salyut 7.

Lebedev wrote a book called Diary of a Cosmonaut where he shared stories of conflicts so severe that they sometimes went weeks without speaking to each other. In space, and especially on a longer mission to Mars, communication is key. Conflicts of this scale aren’t an option. In other words, keeping stress levels low is key to planning a successful mission.

Mental Health Alerts via Facebook?

By Dani-Elle Dube | May 23, 2016 1:26 pm

(Credit: Gil C/Shutterstock)

Every day, 730,000 comments and 420 billion statuses are posted on Facebook, 500 billion 140-character tweets are posted and 430,000 hours of new video is uploaded to YouTube.

The Internet is a goldmine of data just waiting to be analyzed.

Ever since social media crept deeper and deeper into our daily lives, governments and advertisers have been utilizing this data for myriad purposes. Now, a team of researchers at the University of Ottawa, University of Alberta and the Université de Montpellier in France is examining ways to use social media data to detect and monitor people who are potentially at risk of mental health issues. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: mental health

Mindfulness in the Military

By Ella Xiong | April 14, 2016 3:17 pm

(Credit: S-F/Shutterstock)

Sprinkling “Omm” mantras between “Ooh Rah!” battle cries can pay dividends for members of the Marine Corps and other branches of the military. According to a growing body of research, regular meditation improves the wellbeing of military members — both active duty and those who have previously served.

Meditation is rooted in spirituality, which affects personal wellness in its own way, but the neurological underpinnings of meditation’s other health benefits are being widely assessed by researchers, and they’re building a scientific case for its benefits. Read More

Is Seasonal Affective Disorder a Myth?

By Hugh Middleton, University of Nottingham | February 9, 2016 6:01 pm

(Credit: Stephen Harlan/Flickr)

A flurry of newspaper headlines have called into question the existence of SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder. Scientists, they reported, appear to have debunked a widespread conviction, that feeling low in winter time is a genuine illness caused by disturbed levels of brain chemicals and that demands treatment.

A visit to any number of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) websites leads to online questionnaires offering “diagnosis”, treatment recommendations, and advertisements for light boxes – gadgets that simulate daylight and compensate for poor exposure to the real thing. SAD is identified as a form of depression caused by disturbances of hormonal rhythms sensitive to daylight, primarily melatonin. Unusually, intense exposure to artificial light often is advocated as a treatment. There is even a device that can be worn on the head, allowing the patient to use a light box on the move. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts

Nerve Stimulation Offers Hope for PTSD Sufferers

By Ben Thomas | February 3, 2016 11:02 am

Ron Ramirez, a retired Army sergeant is participating in the second phase study investigating the effectiveness of external trigeminal nerve stimulation for veterans with PTSD. Andrew Leuchter is conducting the research as at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. (Credit: Reed Hutchinson/CalFoto/UCLA)

Millions of people are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) right now. Among military personnel who’ve been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, an estimated 31 percent are PTSD sufferers. An estimated 52 percent of people with PTSD also suffer from major depressive disorder (MDD).

The cost of treating these disorders is estimated to run as high as $40 billion per year. The social consequences are harder to quantify, but many PTSD and MDD sufferers report marital problems, difficulties bonding with family and friends, and chronic suicidal thoughts.

But a team of researchers led by Andrew Leuchter, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA, believes it has found a new treatment for PTSD and MDD. It’s not a new drug or a new form of psychotherapy. It’s a form of electronic nerve stimulation. Read More

MORE ABOUT: mental health

Floating Away: The Science of Sensory Deprivation Therapy

By Shelly Fan | April 4, 2014 8:30 am

float tank

I tried not to panic. I was floating effortlessly in a pitch-black tank filled with salty, skin-temperature water, wearing earplugs and nothing else. Within minutes I could no longer feel the sponge in my ears or smell the musty scent of water. There was no light, no smell, no touch and – save for the gasping of my breath and drumming of my heart – no sound.

I was trying out North America’s avant garde drug: sensory deprivation. Across the continent “float houses” are increasing in popularity, offering eager psychonauts a chance to explore this unique state of mind. Those running the business are quick to list the health benefits of frequent “floats”, which range from the believable – relaxation, heightened senses, pain management – to the seemingly nonsensical (“deautomatization”, whatever that means). Are these proclaimed benefits backed up by science or are they simply new-age hogwash?

A Sordid (and Sensationalized) History

Why would anyone willingly subject him or herself to sensory deprivation? You’ve probably heard the horror stories: the Chinese using restricted stimulation to “brainwash” prisoners of war during the Korean War; prisons employing solitary confinement as psychological torture. Initial research studies into the psychophysical effects of sensory deprivation, carried out in the 1950s at McGill University, further damaged its reputation, reporting slower cognitive processing, hallucinations, mood swings and anxiety attacks among the participants. Some researchers even considered sensory deprivation an experimental model of psychosis.

However, despite popular belief, sensory deprivation is not inherently unpleasant. According to Dr. Peter Suedfeld, a pioneering psychologist in the field, these stories are rubbish. “(The prisoners) were bombarded with overstimulation – loud group harangues, beatings and other physical tortures,” he explained. Similarly, the original studies at McGill University used constant noise and white light – that is, sensory overload ­ – rather than deprivation.

In fact, an analysis in 1997 of well over 1,000 descriptions of sensory deprivation indicated that more than 90% of subjects found it deeply relaxing. To escape the provocative name of “sensory deprivation” and its negative connotations, in the late 1970s Suedfeld’s protégé, Dr. Roderick Borrie, redubbed the experience with a friendlier name: REST, or Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy.

Today, the two most frequently used REST methods are chamber REST, which involves the participant lying on a bed in a dark, soundproof room, and flotation REST, which involves floating in buoyant liquid in a light- and sound-proof tank. The latter, first developed by John Lilly in the 1970s and now widely commercialized, is what I decided to experience myself.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Treating Mental Illness in the Digital Age

By Guest Blogger | February 13, 2013 12:07 pm

By Pete Etchells The Internet is a wonderful, terrifying thing. On the one hand, it gives us instant access to literally all of humanity’s collected knowledge, and connects us to those that we know and love. On the other, it all too often exposes an awful side to people who shroud themselves in anonymity in order to hurt others. When it comes to mental health, this darker reflection of the Internet can cause lots of serious problems. Thankfully though, an increasing number of people are exploiting the positive potential of the web, using digital tools in innovative ways to help both patients and professionals.

One such person is Kathy Griffiths. In the treatment of depression, “historically, peer-to-peer support has not been taken very seriously by professionals,” Griffiths says. She set out to change that in a recent study published in PLOS ONE, in which she and colleagues at the Australian National University in Canberra conducted a randomized controlled trial looking at the use of online support groups for treating depression.

Depressed individuals were assigned to one of four groups: an Internet Support Group, an online self-help program, both, or neither. The researchers found that the virtual support group on its own, and in combination with the web-based training tool, significantly reduced depression symptoms in participants up to a year after they’d taken part.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts

Psychiatry’s Identity Crisis, and How to Start Fixing It

By Guest Blogger | August 6, 2012 9:30 am

Andres Barkil-Oteo is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine, with research interests in systems thinking, global mental health, and experiential learning in medical education. Find him on Google+ here


Last spring, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) sent out a press release [pdf] noting that the number of U.S. medical students choosing to go into psychiatry has been declining for the past six years, even as the nation faces a notable dearth of psychiatrists. The Lancet, a leading medical journal, wrote that the field had an “identity crisis” related to the fact that it doesn’t seem “scientific enough” to physicians who deal with more tangible problems that afflict the rest of the body. Psychiatry has recently attempted to cope with its identity problem mainly by assuming an evidence-based approach favored throughout medicine. Evidence-based, however, became largely synonymous with medication, with relative disregard for other evidence-based treatments, like some forms of psychotherapy. In the push to become more medically respected, psychiatrists may be forsaking some of the important parts of their unique role in maintaining people’s health.

Over the last 15 years, use of psychotropic medication has increased in all kinds of ways, including off-label use and prescription of multiple drugs in combination. While overall rates of psychotherapy use remained constant during the 1990s, the proportion of the U.S. population using a psychotropic drug increased from 3.4 percent in 1987 to 8.1 percent by 2001. Antidepressants are now the second-most prescribed class of medication in the U.S., preceded only by lipid regulators, a class of heart drugs that includes statins like Lipitor. Several factors have contributed to this increase: direct-to-consumer advertising; development of effective drugs with fewer side effects (e.g., SSRIs); expansion in health coverage for mental illness made possible through the Mental Health Parity Act; and an increase in prescriptions from non-psychiatric physicians.

Unfortunately, not all of these psychiatric drugs are going to good use. Antidepressive drugs are widely used to treat people with mild or even sub-clinical depression, even though drugs tend to be less cost-effective for those people. It may sound paradoxical, but to get more benefit of antidepressants, we need to use them less, and only when needed, for moderate to severe clinically depressed patients. Patients with milder forms should be encouraged to try time-limited, evidence-based psychotherapies; several APA-endorsed clinical guidelines center on psychotherapies (e.g., cognitive behavioral therapy or behavior activation) as a first-line treatment for moderate depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, and as a secondary treatment to go with medication for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

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Is Autism an “Epidemic” or Are We Just Noticing More People Who Have It?

By Guest Blogger | July 11, 2012 4:37 pm

Emily Willingham (Twitter, Google+, blog) is a science writer and compulsive biologist whose work has appeared at Slate, Grist, Scientific American Guest Blog, and Double X Science, among others. She is science editor at the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to College Biology.


In March the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the newly measured autism prevalences for 8-year-olds in the United States, and headlines roared about a “1 in 88 autism epidemic.” The fear-mongering has led some enterprising folk to latch onto our nation’s growing chemophobia and link the rise in autism to “toxins” or other alleged insults, and some to sell their research, books, and “cures.” On the other hand, some researchers say that what we’re really seeing is likely the upshot of more awareness about autism and ever-shifting diagnostic categories and criteria.

Even though autism is now widely discussed in the media and society at large, the public and some experts alike are still stymied be a couple of the big, basic questions about the disorder: What is autism, and how do we identify—and count—it? A close look shows that the unknowns involved in both of these questions suffice to explain the reported autism boom. The disorder hasn’t actually become much more common—we’ve just developed better and more accurate ways of looking for it.

Leo Kanner first described autism almost 70 years ago, in 1944. Before that, autism didn’t exist as far as clinicians were concerned, and its official prevalence was, therefore, zero. There were, obviously, people with autism, but they were simply considered insane. Kanner himself noted in a 1965 paper that after he identified this entity, “almost overnight, the country seemed to be populated by a multitude of autistic children,” a trend that became noticeable in other countries, too, he said.

In 1951, Kanner wrote, the “great question” became whether or not to continue to roll autism into schizophrenia diagnoses, where it had been previously tucked away, or to consider it as a separate entity. But by 1953, one autism expert was warning about the “abuse of the diagnosis of autism” because it “threatens to become a fashion.” Sixty years later, plenty of people are still asserting that autism is just a popular diagnosis du jour (along with ADHD), that parents and doctors use to explain plain-old bad behavior.

Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism sometimes known as “little professor syndrome,” is in the same we-didn’t-see-it-before-and-now-we-do situation. In 1981, noted autism researcher Lorna Wing translated and revivified Hans Asperger’s 1944 paper describing this syndrome as separate from Kanner’s autistic disorder, although Wing herself argued that the two were part of a borderless continuum. Thus, prior to 1981, Asperger’s wasn’t a diagnosis, in spite of having been identified almost 40 years earlier. Again, the official prevalence was zero before its adoption by the medical community.

And so, here we are today, with two diagnoses that didn’t exist 70 years ago (plus a third, even newer one: PDD-NOS) even though the people with the conditions did. The CDC’s new data say that in the United States, 1 in 88 eight-year-olds fits the criteria for one of these three, up from 1 in 110 for its 2006 estimate. Is that change the result of an increase in some dastardly environmental “toxin,” as some argue? Or is it because of diagnostic changes and reassignments, as happened when autism left the schizophrenia umbrella?

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Don’t Call a 9-Year-Old a “Psychopath”

By Guest Blogger | June 20, 2012 10:51 am

Emily Willingham (TwitterGoogle+, blog) is a science writer and compulsive biologist whose work has appeared at Slate, Grist, Scientific American Guest Blog, and Double X Science, among others. She is science editor at the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to College Biology.


In May, the New York Times Magazine published a piece by Jennifer Kahn entitled, “Can you call a 9-year-old a psychopath?” The online version generated a great deal of discussion, including 631 comments and a column from Amanda Marcotte at Slate comparing psychopathy and autism. Marcotte’s point seemed to be that if we accept autism as another variant of human neurology rather than as a moral failing, should we not also apply that perspective to the neurobiological condition we call “psychopathy”? Some autistic people to umbrage at the association with psychopathy, a touchy comparison in the autism community in particular. Who would want to be compared to a psychopath, especially if you’ve been the target of one?

In her Times piece, Kahn noted that although no tests exist to diagnose psychopathy in children, many in the mental health professions “believe that psychopathy, like autism, is a distinct neurological condition (that) can be identified in children as young as 5.” Marcotte likely saw this juxtaposition with autism and based her Slate commentary on the comparison. But a better way to make this point (and to avoid a minefield), I’d argue, is to stop mentioning autism at all and to say that any person’s neurological make-up isn’t a matter of morality but of biology. If we argue for acceptance of you and your brain, regardless how it works, we should argue for acceptance of people who are psychopaths. They are no more to blame for how they developed than people with other disabilities.

If being compared with a psychopath elicits a whiplash-inducing mental recoil, then you probably have a good understanding of why the autism community responded to Marcotte’s piece (and accompanying tweets) so defensively, even though her point was a good one. At its core, the argument is a logical, even humanistic one. When it comes to psychopathy, our cultural tendencies are to graft moral judgment onto people who exhibit symptoms of psychopathy, a condition once designated as “moral insanity.” We tend collectively to view the psychopath as a cold-hearted, amoral entity walking around in a human’s body, a literal embodiment of evil.

But those grown people whom we think of as being psychopaths were once children. What were our most infamous psychopaths like when they were very young? Was there ever a time when human intervention could have deflected the trajectory they took, turned the path away from the horror, devastation, and tragedy they caused, one that not all psychopaths ultimately follow? Can we look to childhood as a place to identify the traits of psychopathy and, once known, apply early intervention?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts

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