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Behavioral Science, In the News, Patient Care, Research, Sleep, Stanford News

Watson, the narcoleptic Chihuahua, demonstrates symptoms on-air

Watson, the narcoleptic Chihuahua, demonstrates symptoms on-air

Watson - 560

What’s black and white (with just a few splotches of brown), understands French, and falls asleep at feeding times? A narcoleptic Chihuahua named Watson.

Watson’s becoming accustomed to the spotlight — he made his debut here at Scope, then went on to star in a KQED blog post. But today, Watson made it on air for The California Report. The segment begins – endearingly — with Emmanuel Mignot, MD, PhD, cooing to Watson in French. Mignot is Watson’s human and a sleep researcher known for the discovery of the gene that causes narcolepsy in dogs. (He also directs the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine).

Although Watson isn’t officially a Stanford dog — he’s Mignot’s pet — Mignot is hoping to use the slightly shy pup to help some of his patients, particularly children, who suffer from narcolepsy.

One of the symptoms of narcolepsy is cataplexy, a sudden loss of muscle control and Watson often suffers these attacks when he’s excited or spots tasty food.

“He looks at you with these eye half-closed and its almost like he’s just telling you, “Oh, I love you,” but in fact its because he’s having a sleep attack,” Mignot said.

Previously: Narcoleptic Chihuahua joins Stanford sleep researcher’s family, Stumbling upon circadian rhythms and Does influenza trigger narcolepsy?
Photo by Emmanuel Mignot

Behavioral Science, Mental Health, Research, Stanford News

Cells from patients diagnosed with schizophrenia may provide clues about the disease

Cells from patients diagnosed with schizophrenia may provide clues about the disease

neural-pathways-221718_1280As a medical student, Sergiu Pasca was frustrated when he learned about the treatments available for mental disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.

“We can cover up the symptoms, but these are lifelong, chronic disorders,” Pasca, MD, said. “That was incredibly disappointing to me.”

Now, as a neuroscientist, Pasca is planning to do something about that. To understand more about the mechanisms driving these disorders, his team has developed a technique to take cells from patients with schizophrenia and culture them in a dish to make functional 3-D neural models. Using this approach, his team is trying to uncover the roots of schizophrenia.

What is going wrong during neural development that leads to these disorders? Are the neurons themselves misformed? What is the role of glial cells, the under-appreciated support cells in the brain?

The technique offers opportunities not available by examining post-mortem human brains or living mice, whose neurons are quite different than humans’, Pasca said.

The mental-health community is excited about this new technique too; Pasca was recently named one of four MQ Fellows, an honor bestowed by a London-based NGO that works to improve the quality of life for people with mental-health disorders. The fellowship provides more than $350,000 over three years as well, enough to support Pasca’s relatively new Stanford lab.

Previously: New thinking on schizophrenia, it’s the mind, body and social experience, Researchers induce social deficits associated with autism, schizophrenia in mice and Imagining voices: A look at an alternative approach to treating auditory hallucinations
Photo by geralt

Behavioral Science, Complementary Medicine, Neuroscience, Videos

This is your brain on meditation

This is your brain on meditation

For years, friends have been telling me I should try meditation. I’m embarrassed to admit it’s mostly because of (how can I put this delicately?) a temper that flares when I’m anxious or stressed out. But, as it is for many people, it’s one of those things I haven’t gotten around to. This video by AsapSCIENCE, though, describing the things scientists have discovered about meditators has me thinking about it again.

Meditation is linked to a decreased anxiety and depression, and increased pain tolerance. Your brain tunes out the outer world during meditation, and on brain scans of meditators, scientists can see increased activity in default mode network – which is associated with better memory, goal setting, and self-awareness. The part of the brain that controls empathy has also been shown to be more pronounced in monks who are long-time meditators. From the video:

“[Meditation] also literally changes your brain waves, and we can measure these frequencies. Medidators have higher levels of alpha waves, which have been shown to reduce feelings of negative mood, tension, sadness and anger.”

Much like hitting the gym can grow your muscles and increase your overall health, it seems that meditation may be a way of working out your brain—with extra health benefits.”

Other demonstrated benefits include better heart rate variability and immune system function. I’m glossing over a lot of the information that’s packed into this entertaining little video, but if you’re curious, check out this less-than-three-minute video yourself.

Previously: Study shows benefits of breathing meditation among veterans with PTSDResearch brings meditation’s health benefits into focusUsing meditation to train the brainCan exercise and meditation prevent cold and flu? and How meditation can influence gene activity
Video by AsapSCIENCE

Behavioral Science, Complementary Medicine, Mental Health, Parenting, Pediatrics, Research

Mindfulness and the fourth- and fifth-grade brain

Mindfulness and the fourth- and fifth-grade brain

Maths Homework

As a parent, this Time headline immediately grabbed my attention: “Mindfulness Exercises Improve Kids Math Scores.” But as I read the article, I learned that math scores were just one facet examined by the researchers and that mindfulness training was also shown to help children be less stressed and more caring.

The study, which was published in this month’s issue of Developmental Psychology, looked at a group of 99 fourth and fifth graders in British Columbia. For four months, half of the students were taught a pre-existing “personal responsibility” curriculum, while the rest learned about mindfulness through a program called MindUP that focuses on breathing exercises, mindful smelling and eating, and gratitude. The researchers then looked at cortisol levels, behavioral assessments, self-reports, along with those math scores. The article describes the results in more detail:

The results were dramatic. “I really did not anticipate that we would have so many positive findings across all the multiple levels we looked at,” says study co-author Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl, a developmental psychologist at the University of British Columbia. “I was very surprised,” she says—especially considering that the intervention took place at the end of the year, notoriously the worst time for students’ self-control.

Compared to the kids in the social responsibility program, children with the mindful intervention had 15% better math scores, showed 24% more social behaviors, were 24% less aggressive and perceived themselves as 20% more prosocial. They outperformed their peers in cognitive control, stress levels, emotional control, optimism, empathy, mindfulness and aggression.

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Behavioral Science, Health and Fitness, Medical Apps, Public Health, Technology

What needs to happen for wearable devices to improve people’s health?

What needs to happen for wearable devices to improve people's health?

15353072639_f3a79557df_z“Wearable devices” are pieces of technology that are worn in clothes or accessories, and they often have biometric functionality – they can measure and record heart rates, steps taken, temperature, or sleep habits. Numerous tech companies have begun manufacturing and marketing such devices, which are part of a larger movement often referred to as the “quantified self” – where data about one’s life is meticulously gathered and recorded. Only 1% to 2% of Americans have used a wearable device, but annual sales are projected to increase to more than $50 billion by 2018.

Health and fitness apps are also proliferating, from software that maps where you run or provides a digital workout community, to programs that count calories or suggest how to improve your sleep. But what’s the real impact for people’s health?

Earlier this month, a report from the Journal of the American Medical Association called into question the idea that wearable devices will effect population-scale changes in health. There is a big gap, the authors claim, between recording health information and changing health behavior, and little evidence suggests that this gap is being bridged. Wearable devices might be seen as facilitating change, but not driving it. Mitesh Patel, MD, MBA, from University of Pennsylvania, and colleagues wrote:

Ultimately, it is the engagement strategies—the combinations of individual encouragement, social competition and collaboration, and effective feedback loops—that connect with human behavior.

The difficulty of population health is that changes have to be sustained to have meaningful effects, and that is quite difficult. The authors identify four steps that must be taken to bridge this gap towards sustained change.

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Behavioral Science, Research, Science

Hormone similarity helps bird couples stay together

Hormone similarity helps bird couples stay together

GreatTit002My husband and I — total opposites. He’s neat, I’m messy. He’s early, I’m late. He dislikes socializing, I love to go out with friends. He digs meat and potatoes, I’m a veggie. And I could go on.

So if we were a type of European songbird called the great tit, I’m afraid we wouldn’t be together. Great tits choose mates quite similar to each other, with a recent study from the Netherlands Institute of Ecology showing they even have similar hormone levels. And those levels converge the longer the birds are together.

Researchers, who presented at the 2015 annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparitive Biology, measured the levels of corticosterone, a stress hormone, in breeding pairs of great tits. Pairs with similar levels of hormones were also more likely to have more healthy babies. “For at least three years, the pairs that stay together increase their similarities year after year after year,” ecologist Jenny Ouyang, PhD, said in a release.

Pairs with dissimilar levels were more likely to “divorce” or break-up, a costly move in the avian world when being without a mate reduces your chances to reproduce. Some researchers have speculated that coordinating the feeding of the babies might lead the partners to have more similar hormone levels. But the exact mechanism remains unknown.

Thankfully, my husband and I can talk, hopefully avoiding the need to compare our hormone levels, which I’d bet are quite different, and growing more so every day.

Previously: “Love hormone” may mediate wider range of relationships than previously thought, Stress hormones moonlight as immune-system traffic cops and My couple’s match: Applying for medical residency as a duo
Photo by Shirley Clarke

Behavioral Science, Mental Health, Stanford News

Resolution check-in with a Stanford psychologist, one week into the new year

Resolution check-in with a Stanford psychologist, one week into the new year

2015 image

Ever make a New Year’s resolution and, one week later, find that you’ve thrown it out the window? The experience is not uncommon. In a recent Stanford News interview, Stanford psychologist and “science-help” expert Kelly McGonigal, PhD, explains the psychology of resolution-making. Here’s a chance to take a look back over the past week, reevaluate your resolution style, and start afresh.

To work, a resolution has to be both meaningful and achievable. The trick to McGonigal’s approach is, essentially, to separate these goals. Think of a resolution that is significant, sweeping, and deeply connected with who you would like to be or how you see your ideal self; then, think of a tiny daily step that relates to that goal. McGonigal explains:

The best kind of resolution is one that has a “big why” – to create health, to reconnect with a personal passion, to strengthen an important relationship, to change your financial situation, to develop yourself in some way, or to contribute to others in some way. And then you pick a small action or change that reflects this big goal, to remind yourself of it and to help you take steps toward it.

If your “big why” is to become more healthy, for example, don’t try to quit smoking or wake up an hour earlier every day to exercise. Try to wait an extra ten minutes before smoking your first cigarette, or dance to two songs in the kitchen after finishing the dishes. Such small, doable steps have been shown to have a big impact when connected with purposeful intention.

Thinking of resolutions as existing on different scales like this can help sustain the huge psychological boost that comes from resolving to change. This boost can easily be lost when people are confronted by how difficult change actually is, after which they give up – what psychologists call “false hope syndrome.” To avoid this, it’s useful to distinguish between resolutions that are expressions of a hopeful mindset, and resolutions that are plans for action. More from McGonigal:

Research shows that when people resolve to change, they immediately feel more confident, in control and hopeful. They even feel stronger and taller, which is kind of ridiculous, but this just shows how uplifting resolving to change can be. If people want to make resolutions as a way to connect to a growth mindset – the belief that through effort and support, you can change and grow in meaningful ways – that’s fine. It’s not necessarily a tragedy if you fall short…

The worst thing to do is make a promise to yourself that you don’t really care about and don’t really plan to see through.

Whether you think of your resolution to change as more of a mindset or more as something for which you want to be accountable, both the abstract and the concrete levels are essential.

McGonigal suggests a few tools for resolution success: recruiting a buddy to you can text when you’ve done your small daily goal, taking time for pre-resolution reflection through a gratitude list, or tricking your brain into thinking you’ve already succeeded by “encoding prospective memories.” Best of luck in 2015!

Previously: How to keep New Year’s resolutions to eat healthy, Ask Stanford Med: Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal taking questions on willpower, Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal discusses how stress shapes us, and How to keep New Year’s resolutions to eat healthy
Photo by Sondem/Shutterstock

Behavioral Science, Public Health, Sleep

Six simple ways to improve your sleep for the holidays

Six simple ways to improve your sleep for the holidays

IMG_5595The holiday season is usually one of the busiest – and often most stressful – times of the year. It’s also a season that often brings poor sleep. To improve your health and your mood, consider six simple ways that you can maintain healthy sleep during the hustle and bustle of the holidays and even discover the resolve to improve your sleep in 2015.

1. Go to bed when you’re sleepy.

It seems obvious, but it isn’t always easy to do: Sleep most easily comes when we are feeling sleepy. Insomnia, characterized by difficulty falling or staying asleep, can plague us throughout the year. With the added stress of the holidays, it can be even harder to fall asleep.

Many insomniacs will start to go to bed earlier, or stay in bed long after waking, to make up for lost sleep. This desperation often thins out sleep and makes it less refreshing. Imagine showing up for a holiday feast after having snacked all day. You wouldn’t have much of an appetite. If you spend too much time in bed, or take naps, you similarly will show up for the eight-hour feast of sleep without much interest.

Prolonged wakefulness helps to build our drive for sleep and staying up a little later until you feel sleepy can ease insomnia.Preserving 30 to 60 minutes to relax before bed can also aid this transition.

2. Ease yourself into a new time zone to prevent jet lag.

If you’re flying across the world, or even across the country, you may find that your sleep suffers. This is due to our body’s natural circadian rhythm, which regulates the timing or our desire for sleep. This rhythm is based in genetics, but it is strongly influenced by environmental cues, especially morning sunlight exposure.

If you suddenly change your experience of the timing of light and darkness by hopping on a jet plane, your body will have to play catch up. As a general rule: “West is best and east is a beast.” This points out that westward travel is more tolerated because it’s nearly always easier to stay up later than it is to wake up earlier.

Another rule of thumb is that it takes one day to adjust for each time zone changed. If you travel across three time zones, from San Francisco to New York City, it will take about three days to adjust to the new time zone. This adaptation can be expedited by adopting the new time zone’s bedtime and wake time before you depart. If you’re like most people, your best intentions might not lead to pre-trip changes.

Never fear: To catch up once you arrive, delay your bedtime until you are sleepy, fix your wake time with an alarm, and get 15 minutes of morning sunlight upon awakening.

3. Put an end to the snoring.

Whether you’re staying in grandma’s spare room or sharing a hotel suite, close quarters during the holidays may call attention to previously unnoted snoring and other sleep-disordered breathing like sleep apnea.

Remember that children should never chronically snore; if they do, they should be seen by a sleep specialist. Adults don’t have to snore either. Snoring is commonly caused by the vibration of the soft tissues of the throat. If the airway completely collapses in sleep, this is called sleep apnea. This may lead to fragmented sleep with nocturnal awakenings and daytime sleepiness. It is also commonly associated with teeth grinding and getting up to urinate at night.

When sleep apnea is moderate to severe, it may increase the risk of other health problems including hypertension, diabetes, heart attack, stroke, and dementia. It’s more than a nuisance, and if you or a loved one experience it, further evaluation and treatment is warranted.

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Behavioral Science, Health and Fitness, Nutrition, Obesity, Public Health, Research

Perceptions about progress and setbacks may compromise success of New Year’s resolutions

3336185391_60148a87fa_zMy physical therapist is constantly telling me to pause during the workday and take stretch breaks to counter act the damage of being hunched over a computer for hours on end. After every visit to his office, I vow to follow his advice, but then life gets busy and before I know it I’ve forgotten to keep my promise.

So I decided that one of my New Year’s resolutions will be to set an alarm on my phone to serve as a reminder to perform simple stretches throughout the day. Keeping in mind that a mere eight percent of people who make resolutions are successful, I began looking for strategies help me accomplish my goal. My search turned up new research about how the perception of setbacks and progress influence achievement of behavior change. According to a University of Colorado, Boulder release:

New Year’s resolution-makers should beware of skewed perceptions. People tend to believe good behaviors are more beneficial in reaching goals than bad behaviors are in obstructing goals, according to a University of Colorado Boulder-led study.

A dieter, for instance, might think refraining from eating ice cream helps his weight-management goal more than eating ice cream hurts it, overestimating movement toward versus away from his target.

“Basically what our research shows is that people tend to accentuate the positive and downplay the negative when considering how they’re doing in terms of goal pursuit,” said Margaret C. Campbell, lead author of the paper — published online in the Journal of Consumer Research — and professor of marketing at CU-Boulder’s Leeds School of Business.

Given these findings, researchers suggest you develop an objective method for measuring your progress and monitor it regularly.

Previously: Resolutions for the New Year and beyond, How learning weight-maintenance skills first can help you achieve New Year’s weight-loss goals, To be healthier in the new year, resolve to be more social and Helping make New Year’s resolutions stick
Photo by Laura Taylor

Behavioral Science, Global Health, Neuroscience, Stanford News

Stanford Rhodes Scholar heading to Oxford to study ways "the brain can go awry"

Stanford Rhodes Scholar heading to Oxford to study ways "the brain can go awry"

10515175_10152524157302002_5878205180193467577_o-001Undergraduate Emily Witt is one of two Stanford students selected to receive the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to study abroad at Oxford next year; an announcement was made late last month.

Witt is a human biology major with a concentration in neuropathology, and she’s minoring in psychology. Her research experience thus far spans neuroscience, psychology, autoimmune pathology, and health in the developing world; and she says she’s interested in studying “any way that the brain or the nervous system can go awry.”

Witt, who plans to attend medical school after her scholarship tenure, works in the lab of  neurologist Lawrence Steinman, MD, PhD, which seeks to understand the pathogenesis of autoimmune diseases, particularly multiple sclerosis. She’s using the lab to conduct research for her honors thesis, which focuses on the mechanisms of vitamin D in multiple sclerosis. She’s also involved with the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research and has participated in various studies related to autism and social cognition.

After hearing about this honor, I reached out to Witt with some questions about her work and her future plans:

How did you become interested in this field?

I’m interested in MS for two reasons. On a personal level, I have seen the devastating impact of the disease first-hand as my uncle has the progressive form of MS. Watching his condition worsen, and seeing the impact it has had on his life and the life of my aunt and cousins, inspired me to research this horrible disorder.

On an intellectual level, I’m fascinated by the interaction between the immune system and the brain. I believe it’s an incredibly important area of research as the immune system is a contributing factor to numerous neurological diseases, from multiple sclerosis and autism to depression.

What makes Oxford a particularly appealing place for you to study? Who or what do you hope to work with there?

I’m interested in working with two neuroscientists who are experimental psychologists; they’re actually bridging the gap between experimental psychology and neuroscience, which are the two degrees I’m hoping to pursue while at Oxford. One is Elaine Fox, who researches cognitive biases, and the other is Catherine Harmer, [who studies the] pharmacological aspects of depression and how they affect cognitive biases, particularly with respect to depression and anxiety.

Are you interested in contextual understandings of disease or degeneration – its social roots? How does interdisciplinary work fit into your imagining of what you’re doing and would like to do?

That’s what my primary motivation going forward is: kind of connecting what I see in everyday life and how neurological [diseases] manifest and what I understand about them biologically. So what I’m really interested in is combining a fundamental understanding of psychology with clinical applications of neuroscience… Because I do think that… there’s still a wide gap between studying the brain on a molecular and cellular level, and studying it on a behavioral level.

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