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Autism, Behavioral Science, Medical Apps, Nutrition, Stanford News, Technology

Stanford grad students design new tools for learning about nutrition, feelings

Stanford grad students design new tools for learning about nutrition, feelings

2789442655_1f5c33ac51_zMushrooms and tomatoes, veggies that are often reviled by preschoolers, star in a new app designed by a Stanford graduate student that aims to involve children in preparing, and eating, healthy meals.

“Children are more likely to try food that they’ve helped cook,” explained Ashley Moulton, a graduate student in the School of Education’s Learning, Design and Technology Program, in a recent Stanford News story.

Moulton’s iPad app, Nomster Chef, is one of several student projects featured in the article and accompanying video:

Before cooking, children receive an educational video about a food they’ll be working with – for example, a video on how mushrooms grow. The app also incorporates food information in the recipe steps, like the fact that tomatoes are actually a fruit.

After user-testing the app prototype, “I heard from parents that they noticed differences in how their kids are eating,” Moulton said. The app also kept kids engaged throughout the cooking process.

For her project, fellow student Karen Wang developed an iPad app called FeelingTalk that helps children with autism interpret facial expressions:

…[I]n the first level of FeelingTalk, kids choose the one face that’s different (a sad face) from the three happy faces on the screen. The app will then label the different face “sad.”

“My app will be utilizing learning mechanics that directly work with the autistic brain to help them work on something that they’re having difficulty with,” Wang said. “By leveraging something they’re good at, we’re going to teach them to get comfortable looking at people’s faces, examining the key features, and eventually understanding emotions.”

Moulton, Wang and other students will present their work this afternoon at the LDT Expo at the Stanford Graduate School of Education.

Previously: A look at the MyHeart Counts app and the potential of mobile technologies to improve human health and No bribery necessary: Children eat more vegetables when they understand how food affects their bodies
Photo by Peter Weemeeuw

Behavioral Science, In the News, Infectious Disease, Research, Stanford News

Irrational fear of contagion fuels xenophobia, Stanford study shows

Irrational fear of contagion fuels xenophobia, Stanford study shows

face-mask-98640_1280I have a very distinct memory of my grandfather dying from leukemia in an Iowa hospital. I peered in through a glass window, too scared to don the white mask and gown to visit him myself, even though the protections were for him, not me. Granted, I was eight. But fear of disease, and fear of those who have disease, makes perfect sense to me, even now.

But, that realization is tempered by knowledge of the harmful effects of irrational fear, the topic of a recent study by a team of Stanford researchers. As described in a recent Graduate School of Business story:

Throughout history, minority or “out” groups have been blamed for the spread of infectious disease. In medieval Europe, for instance, Jews and gypsies were among those accused of spreading the deadly bubonic plague. In 1793, during the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, local officials singled out actors, vaudevillians, and artists for transmitting the disease. But what is it about the fear of contagion that makes otherwise rational people buy into rumors about those they consider to be outsiders?

Organizational behavior researchers Hayagreeva Rao, PhD, and recent graduate Sunasir Dutta, PhD, developed an online pilot study where one group was told a new strain of flu had emerged, then asked about their views on immigration. The control group was simply asked about immigration.

Not surprisingly, the group told about the flu was less likely to support immigrant legalization. Dutta said he is convinced the results would be even more striking in the real world:

Practically speaking, the implications are clear: “Don’t do immigration reform during flu season,” says Rao.

The study also demonstrates the power of rumors to spur fear, even ethnic violence, Dutta said. And it illustrates the need for proactive, responsive communications, particularly in the beginning stage of epidemics when irrational fears can germinate.

Previously: Fear factor: Using virtual reality to overcome phobias, Fear of recurrence an issue for some cancer survivors and Looks of fear and disgust help us to see threats, study shows
Image by Openicons

Behavioral Science, Medicine and Society, Men's Health, Mental Health, Research, Women's Health

Living with a partner boosts your health

lonely-273629_1280Partners help. They help with daily activities like dishwashing and dog-walking, but they also provide the all-valuable emotional support needed to cope with everything from a rough commute to the death of a family member.

And those without a partner, perhaps due to divorce, are more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety, according to a new study (in Spanish) in the Spanish Journal of Sociological Research. Women have it the hardest, says lead author Carlos Simó-Noguera from the University of Valencia, who is quoted in a recent Medical News Today article.

Women who have lost their partner “show poorer health than men with the same marital and cohabiting status, and are more likely to suffer from chronic anxiety and chronic depression,” Simó-Noguera said.

Men are also affected, however. Separated or divorced men “have higher risk for chronic depression than the rest of men,” he said.

The team gathered data from the European Health Survey on people between ages 25 and 64.

“The key is not marital status per se, but is found in the interaction between marital status and cohabitation status. Therefore, living with a new partner after the dissolution of marriage preserves the health of the people involved,”Simó-Noguera said.

Previously: Practicing forgiveness to sustain healthy relationships, “Love hormone” may mediate wider range of relationships than previously thought and Study offers clue as to why parents of daughters are more likely to divorce
Photo by cocoparisienne

Autism, Behavioral Science, Neuroscience, Pediatrics, Research, Stanford News

A new insight into the brain chemistry of autism

A new insight into the brain chemistry of autism

TrueHugFor several years now, scientists have been testing the hypothesis that one particular hormone, oxytocin, plays a role in autism. It seems logical: After all, this molecule nicknamed the “love hormone” promotes bonding between romantic partners and is one of the main signals involved in childbirth, breastfeeding and helping new mothers form strong bonds with their babies. And social-interaction difficulties are a known characteristic of autism, a developmental disorder that affects one in every 68 kids.

But in the flurry of interest around oxytocin, a related signaling molecule has been largely overlooked. Called vasopressin, it’s structurally very similar to oxytocin. Both are small proteins made of nine amino acids each, and the amino-acid sequence is identical at seven of the nine spots in the two hormones. Vasopressin is best known for its role in regulating blood pressure, but it also has social roles, which have mostly been studied in rodents.

Noting the dearth of autism-vasopressin research, a Stanford team decided to study vasopressin levels and social behavior in children diagnosed with autism and controls who had not been diagnosed with autism. Our press release about their study, which was published today in PLOS ONE, explains:

The research team found a correlation between low levels of vasopressin, a hormone involved in social behavior, and the inability of autistic children to understand that other people’s thoughts and motivations can differ from their own. …

“Autistic children who had the lowest vasopressin levels in their blood also had the greatest social impairment,” said the study’s senior author, Karen Parker, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

Parker and her colleagues examined “theory of mind,” the ability to deduce that others have a mind of their own – and that they may perceive the world differently than you do. It’s an important underpinning to forming empathetic relationships with other people. In kids with autism, the lower their vasopressin levels, the worse their scores on a test of theory of mind, the study found. Children without autism did not show this link; they all had pretty good theory of mind scores, whether their vasopressin levels were low or high.

It’s worth adding that low vasopressin level did not diagnose whether a child had autism; the hormone’s levels ranged from low to high in both groups of children. So autism is not simply a state of vasopressin deficiency. However, the researchers are interested in whether giving vasopressin might help relieve autism symptoms and are now carrying out a clinical trial to test its effects.

The work also provides an interesting complement to oxytocin findings published by the same team last year. In the oxytocin study, the scientists found that children with autism could have low, medium or high oxytocin levels, just like other children. However, oxytocin levels were linked to social ability in all children, not just those with autism.

Based on the new findings, it’s possible, Parker told me, that vasopressin is uniquely important for children with autism. She’s eager to expand her work in this overlooked corner of brain-chemistry research.

Previously: Stanford research clarifies biology of oxytocin in autism, “Love hormone” may mediate wider range of relationships than previously thought and Volunteers sought for autism drug study
Artwork by Dimka

Addiction, Behavioral Science, Genetics, Research

Alcohol-use disorder can be inherited: But why?

Alcohol-use disorder can be inherited: But why?

man-69287_1280Drop into any support group meeting, and you’ll likely find that many of the addicts there had a parent who was also an addict. It’s estimated that alcoholism (now sometimes called alcohol-use disorder) is 50 percent heritable, although researchers have struggled to identify genes specifically associated with the condition.

The hunt continues for alcohol-use disorder related genes, and a new frontier in the field is the study of the epigenome, a term that refers to inherited changes that affect gene expression, rather than the genes themselves. A new review by a team based at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in the journal Alcohol compiles all that is known about the effects of the epigenome on alcohol inheritance.

“Only recently, with improvements in technology to identify epigenetic modifications in germ cells, has it been possible to identify mechanisms by which paternal ethanol (alcohol) exposure alters offspring behavior,” the researchers wrote.

The basic mechanism is that traits can be passed on through modification of the proteins associated with DNA; these proteins control how genes are expressed. Several studies have examined the role of a father’s alcohol use in the time period surrounding conception, finding their children more likely to suffer from some psychiatric disorders; in research on mice, some effects of paternal alcohol use include low birth weight and decreased grooming. These effects are likely attributed to the alteration of the development of sperm, the researchers write.

Many mysteries remain, leaving plenty of opportunities for additional research. Now, the team is starting to examine how paternal exposure affects offspring’s alcohol consumption.

Previously: Alcoholism: Not just a man’s problem, Could better alcohol screening during doctor visits reduce underage drinking? and Are some teens’ brains pre-wired for drug and alcohol experimentation?
Image by geralt

Behavioral Science, Men's Health, Patient Care, Public Health, Stanford News

How can we get men to take better care of themselves?

How can we get men to take better care of themselves?

7206160814_dca6203a04_zFirst, I tried asking. Sprinkling little reminders, jokingly throughout the day. Then I started lecturing. Now, more than a month into my get-my-husband-to-the-dentist campaign, I’ve moved on to heckling, grilling, guilt-tripping and bargaining. I’m not too proud to beg.

I’ll bet my efforts sound familiar to men’s health expert Donnovan Somera Yisrael, MA. He’s a wellness educator at Stanford’s Vaden Health Center and he manages sexual and emotional health programs, often focusing on preventing or curbing risky behavior. And not going to the dentist, when you have an obvious tooth problem, counts as risky in my book.

Yisrael recently sat down for a Q&A with BeWell@Stanford to discuss his work with men. And his first sentence solidly supports my case: “I believe that the phenomenon of men neglecting their health generally as compared with women has been solidly established.” Uh, huh! And he has a few ideas about why that is:

Over the years, as I’ve dug deeper into “why people do risky things,” it has become evident that culture (broadly defined) is a huge factor in these risky behaviors, and in turn gender roles/stereotypes play powerful roles in the culture that influences our behavior.  Whether we are talking about wearing sunscreen, body image/eating disorders, alcohol/drug abuse or sexual/relationship violence, gender “rules” play a major role.

I’m up against a tough foe and eager for tips. The BeWell interviewer read my mind by asking how we can encourage the men in our lives to take better care of themselves. Yisrael’s response:

Men need to be persuaded and educated that in order to best maintain health, they must find a healthy way of asking for help. They must pursue health maintenance and self-care without concern that doing so means they are weak or not “real men.”

We must work to challenge what it means to be a guy, boy, man, father, etc. in 2015 and beyond. This issue is dealt with so brilliantly in the film The Mask You Live In by Jennifer Siebel Newsom. I recommend it to everyone.

And, in the case of the dentist, I’ll keep cajoling and perhaps add a bit of gender messaging to my arsenal: Manly men visit the dentist regularly.

Previously: To live longer, men need to embrace their femininity, new research suggests, Sex matters: Why we shouldn’t conduct basic research without taking it into account and Examining how fathers’ postpartum depression affects toddlers 
Image by Christoph Weigel via Marcel Douwe Dekker

 

Behavioral Science, Nutrition, Research, Women's Health

Adventurous eaters more likely to be healthy, new study shows

Adventurous eaters more likely to be healthy, new study shows

9044506418_142bb67dcc_zAre you willing to sample chocolate-covered silkworm pupae? What about blood sausage or, for the vegetarians among us, some shoo-fly pie (one of my personal favorites)?

If any or all of those sound tasty, or at least worth trying, then you’re probably a food neophile, aka an adventurous eater. And for you, I’m the bearer of good news: Adventurous eaters have lower body-mass indexes and are generally more conscious about healthy eating than their less adventurous diners, according to a study published recently in Obesity.

Researchers from Cornell University and the University of Vermont recruited about 500 women and had them complete a survey on their eating habits and willingness to try new things and foods. The answers shed insight into the connections between healthy habits and adventurousness:

…Adventurous eaters were less concerned that a food was easy to prepare and about its price, but more interested in cooking as a way to connect with their heritage and more likely to have friends over for dinner. Given that cooking at home is associated with lower BMI and increased consumption of healthy foods, if adventurous eaters are comfortable with foods that were harder to prepare, and often have friends over for dinner, it may be that they prepare their own food more often than non-adventurous eaters. Furthermore, eating with others versus eating alone has been associated with decreased intake in some studies. The lower concern about price of foods exhibited by more adventurous eaters is in line with characteristics of foodies, who are much more concerned with food quality than food price. Because healthy foods are often more expensive than junk foods and require preparation, adventurous eaters may be more likely to procure and prepare these types of foods than non-adventurous eaters.

The authors go on to write that the findings “have exciting practical implications” and suggest “several strategies [that] practitioners could use to help increase adventurousness.” But they acknowledge the research has several limitations, including its lack of men and definition of “adventurousness.”

Previously:  Where is the love? A discussion of nutrition, health and repairing our relationship with food, “They might be healthier, but they’ll still be junk foods”: Expert comments on trans-fat ban and Examining how food texture impacts perceived calorie content
Photo by Smabs Sputzer

Behavioral Science, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

A not so fearful symmetry: Applying neuroscience findings to teaching math

A not so fearful symmetry: Applying neuroscience findings to teaching math

15415-symmetry_newsMany people grow up thinking of themselves as “not very good at math” after having struggled to learn abstract math concepts. Sometimes people hit their “math wall”— the point where math classes feel so complex that the subject becomes impossible to understand — in college, high school, or even earlier.

A team at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, led by Daniel Schwartz, PhD, might help young students avoid the math wall altogether. The researchers are using recent findings from neuroscience to explore how people learn core concepts in math and science. They recently published a study in the scientific journal Cognition and Instruction looking at how fourth-grade students learn about negative numbers and building on previous findings about our ability to process visual symmetry.

One of the new tools used in the study is described in a Stanford News article:

Students worked with a magnetic plastic strip that was numbered. To solve the problem 3 + -2, students attached three magnetized blocks to the right of zero and two blocks to the left of zero. The manipulative further included a hinge at zero, the point of integer symmetry. Students folded the two sides together, and the number of extra blocks on either side gave the answer, in this case +1. The hinge at zero helped students recruit their native abilities with symmetry, and the numbers on the little platform helped them coordinate the sense of symmetry with the symbolic digits.

The students taught with these new techniques were able to solve math problems involving negative numbers better than students taught using conventional teaching approaches; they built on the strategies they learned using the hands-on device. And:

As it turned out, students who learned to rely on symmetry didn’t simply do better than other students on the material they had just been taught. They also did better on topics that they hadn’t yet studied, such as making sense of negative fractions and solving pre-algebraic problems.

“The big difference was that the symmetry instruction enabled students to solve novel problems and to continue learning without explicit instruction,” said Schwartz.

Previously: Math and the brain: Memorization is overrated, says education expert, Building a bridge between education and neuroscience, Abstract gestures help children absorb math lessons, study finds, Peering into the brain to predict kids’ responses to math tutoring and New research tracks “math anxiety” in the brain
Photo courtesy of AAALab@Stanford

Behavioral Science, In the News, Medicine and Society, Pregnancy, Public Health

Walking on sunshine: How to celebrate summer safely

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Normally, I spend the Fourth of July on the shores of a Wisconsin lake, getting eaten alive by mosquitos, burning to a bright shade of pink, lighting sparklers and eating potato salad that has sat in the sun for hours. Heaps of fun, but also plenty of opportunities to fall ill.

This year, I’ve been barred from that fun trip by my oh-so-practical doc, who thinks unnecessary travel isn’t the smartest option for someone who is eight-months pregnant. Instead, I’ll have to be satisfied with reading a Washington Post article, published earlier this week, about all the summer health hazards I’m avoiding by celebrating the holiday in my coastal California home.

First is athlete’s foot, a fungus that “lingers on warm, wet surfaces such as poolside pavement and the floors of locker rooms and public showers” that produces an oozing pus. Or its relative, a toenail fungus that leads to yellow, thickened nails. And I thought a big belly was a bit of bother.

There’s also coxsackie virus, known for causing hand, foot and mouth disease, which thrives in kids’ wading pools courtesy of the occasional leaky diaper. The virus usually causes blisters; in rare cases it can lead to heart failure, says Stanford pediatrics professor Bonnie Maldonado, MD. Note to self: Keep baby out of unchlorinated kiddie pools.

We’re just getting warmed up here. There’s the summertime regulars of food poisoning, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. So yeah, that potato salad, while still yummy, probably isn’t a good idea, nor is the all-afternoon exposure to 95-plus degrees.

Don’t forget swimmer’s ear, an infection of the ear canal that, according to otolaryngologist Richard Rosenfeld, MD, from New York can “really, really, really hurt and ruin a vacation.” And a walk in the woods can quickly yield a ravaging rash from poison ivy or oak.

Throw in insect-borne plagues like West Nile and Lyme disease and gee, I guess my front porch isn’t looking so bad after all.

Previously: As summer heats up, take steps to protect your skin, This summer’s Stanford Medicine magazine shows some skin and Stanford nutrition expert offers tips for a healthy and happy Fourth of July
Photo by Jordan Richmond

Behavioral Science, Health and Fitness, Mental Health, Public Health, Research, Stanford News

Exposure to nature helps quash depression – so enjoy the great outdoors!

Exposure to nature helps quash depression - so enjoy the great outdoors!


hiking_news-1

Walking is good for your health. But walking somewhere natural is even better, according to a new Stanford-led study.

Study participants who walked in a natural area for 90 minutes showed less activity in a brain region associated with depression than those who walked through a city or other urban area, a Stanford News story states. From the piece:

“These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world,” said co-author Gretchen Daily, the Bing Professor in Environmental Science and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. “Our findings can help inform the growing movement worldwide to make cities more livable, and to make nature more accessible to all who live in them.”

Even further, the research supports — but does not prove — a link between urbanization and growing rates of mental illness, said co-author James Gross, PhD, a professor of psychology.

The researchers had one group of participants walk in a grassland with oak trees and shrubs. The other group walked along a traffic-clogged four-lane road. They then measured heart and respiration rates, performed brain scans and had the participants answer a series of questions. The results showed that:

Neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a brain region active during rumination – repetitive thought focused on negative emotions – decreased among participants who walked in nature versus those who walked in an urban environment.

Evidence that supports the knowledge you’ve had since grade school: The outdoors really can make you feel better.

Previously: To get your creative juices flowing, start movingA look at the effects of city living on mental health and Out-of-office autoreply: Reaping the benefits of nature
Photo by Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

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