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Mon, 20 Apr 2015   Listen to your heart: Why your brain may give away how well you know yourself

"Listen to your heart," sang Swedish pop group Roxette in the late Eighties. But not everyone is able to tune into their heartbeat, according to an international team of researchers -- and half of us under- or over-estimate our ability.

Mon, 20 Apr 2015   New guideline advises when to treat a first seizure

A new guideline found that administering an antiepileptic medication immediately after a first seizure reduces the risk of having another seizure within two years.

Mon, 20 Apr 2015   Drugs stimulate body’s own stem cells to replace the brain cells lost in multiple sclerosis

Scientists have identified two topical drugs (miconazole and clobetasol) capable of stimulating regeneration of damaged brain cells and reversing paralysis in animal models of MS.

Mon, 20 Apr 2015   Autism-epilepsy connection explored in four studies

Epilepsy affects nearly 30 percent of all people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a neurobehavioral condition marked by impaired social and language development. Conversely, many patients with epilepsy display ASD-like behavior. Recent studies suggest that epileptic seizures impair the neural pathways needed for socialization, but the details of this process remain unclear.

Fri, 17 Apr 2015   Study links brain anatomy, academic achievement, and family income

Many years of research have shown that for students from lower-income families, standardized test scores and other measures of academic success tend to lag behind those of wealthier students. A new study offers another dimension to this so-called "achievement gap": After imaging the brains of high- and low-income students, they found that the higher-income students had thicker brain cortex in areas associated with visual perception and knowledge accumulation. Furthermore, these differences also correlated with one measure of academic achievement -- performance on standardized tests.

BPS Research Digest Blog

   Optimism and pessimism are separate systems influenced by different genes

"... the optimist sees the rose and not its thorns; the pessimist stares at the thorns, oblivious to the rose,” Kahlil Gibran.
Optimists enjoy better health, more success, more happiness, and longer lives, than pessimists. No surprise, then, that psychologists are taking an increasing interest in our outlook on life. An unresolved issue is whether optimism and pessimism are two ends of the same spectrum, or if they're separate. If the traits are separate, then in principle, some people could be highly optimistic and pessimistic – to borrow the poet Gibran's analogy, they would be keenly aware of both the rose and its thorns.

Timothy Bates at the University of Edinburgh has turned to behavioural genetics to help settle this question. He's analysed data on optimism and pessimism gathered from hundreds of pairs of identical and non-identical twins. These were participants from a US survey and their average age was 54. The twins rated their agreement with various statements as a way to reveal their optimism and pessimism such as "In uncertain times, I usually expect the best" and "I rarely count on good things happening to me." They also completed a measure of the "Big Five" personality traits: extraversion, neuroticism etc.

The reasoning behind twin studies like this is that if optimism and pessimism are highly heritable (i.e. influenced by inherited genetic factors), then these traits should correlate more highly between pairs of identical twins, who share all their genes, than between non-identical twins, who share approximately half their genes. And if optimism was found to be more heritable than pessimism, or vice versa, this would indicate different genetic influences on optimism and pessimism.

Another insight from twin studies is to disentangle the relative influence of shared and unique environmental factors – these are the aspects of a twin's upbringing that they share with their sibling, such as parenting style, and those that are unique, such as the friends they keep.

Bates' analysis indicates that optimism and pessimism are subject to shared genetic influences (with each other, and with other personality traits), but also to independent genetic influences, thus supporting the notion that optimism and pessimism are distinct traits, not simply two sides of the same coin.

"Optimism and pessimism are at least partially biologically distinct, resulting in two distinct psychological tendencies," Bates said. He added that this dovetails with neuroscience evidence that's indicated there are separate neural systems underlying optimism and pessimism.

The new findings also suggested there is a "substantial" influence of upbringing on optimism and pessimism (i.e. increasing one and lowering the other, and/or vice versa). This raises the intriguing possibility that optimism might to be some extent a malleable trait that can be encouraged through a child's upbringing.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Bates, T. (2015). The glass is half full half empty: A population-representative twin study testing if optimism and pessimism are distinct systems The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1-10 DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2015.1015155

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.



2015-04-20   Autistic children's sensory experiences, in their own words

Children diagnosed with autism often have distinctive sensory experiences, such as being ultra sensitive to noise, or finding enjoyment in repeated, unusual sensory stimulation. However, much of what we know about these experiences comes from the testimony of parents, researchers and clinicians. Now Anne Kirby and her colleagues have published the first report of autistic children's sensory experiences, based on these children's own accounts. As the authors say, "children's voices are still rarely heard or taken seriously in the academic arena," so this is an innovative approach.

Twelve autistic children aged 4 to 13 were interviewed in their homes. The children's autism varied in severity, but they were all capable of conducting verbal interviews. The researchers used a range of techniques to facilitate the interviews, such as playing family video clips of the children to prompt discussion of specific episodes. Kirby and her team said their first important finding was to demonstrate the feasibility of interviewing young children with autism.

Careful analysis of the transcripts from the interviews revealed three key themes. The first of these – "normalising" – showed how the children considered many of their experiences to be just like other people's, as if rejecting the notion that there was something distinct or odd about their behaviour, and also showing a certain self-consciousness (contrary to existing research that suggests self-consciousness is impaired in autism).
Interviewer: What about things you don't like to touch or feel on your skin?
Child: Um, sharp stuff.
I: Sharp stuff? (smiles) Yeah, exactly.
C: Um, like most people do
I: Yeah
C: Um (pause), hot stuff.
I: Yep.
C: Like, burning hot, like pizza that just came out of the oven.
----
I: Do you have a favourite thing that you like to eat?
C: Uh, pizza.
I: Yeah? When it's not too hot, right?
C: Right. That's what most people say.
The children also expressed satisfaction at learning to cope with problematic sensory sensitivity – such as a dislike of brushing hair. "What's different about having your hair brushed now?" the interviewer asked. "That I look beautiful," the thirteen-year-old replied. The children appeared motivated to adapt to their sensitivities, so as to participate in normal daily activities. The researchers said this is contrary to past findings that suggest people with autism don't want to be "neurotypical" (perhaps such feelings can emerge later).

Another theme was the methods the children used to recount their experiences, including using anecdotes, demonstrating (e.g. by imitating the noise of the car engine, or mimicking a disgust reaction), by repeating their own inner speech from particular experiences, and, in the case of two children, by using similes. On that last point, one child likened eating spinach to eating grass, another likened loud voices to a lion's roar. "The use of simile as a storytelling method seemed to suggest a sort of perspective-taking that is not expected in children with autism" the researchers said.

The final theme concerned the way the children frequently talked about their sensory experiences in terms of their responses to various situations and stimuli. For example, the children spoke of their strategies, such as covering their ears, watching fireworks through a window, and watching sport on TV rather than in the arena. They also told the interviewers about their uncontrollable physical reactions, such as the pain of loud noises or teeth brushing. When he hears loud music, one little boy said: "it feels like my heart is beating, and um, my, uh, my whole body's shaking. Mmm and uh, and my eyes, uh, they start to blink a lot." The children's reactions were often tied to their fear of particular situations or objects, such as inflated balloons.  It feels like "the unknown is gonna come," said another child.

The study has obvious limitations, such as the small sample and lack of a comparison group, so we can't know for sure that children without autism wouldn't come up with similar answers. However, the research provides a rare insight into autistic children's own perspective on their sensory worlds. "Through exploration of how children share about their experiences, we can come to better understand those experiences," the researchers said, ultimately helping "how we study, assess, and address sensory features that impact daily functioning among children with autism."

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Kirby, A., Dickie, V., & Baranek, G. (2015). Sensory experiences of children with autism spectrum disorder: In their own words Autism, 19 (3), 316-326 DOI: 10.1177/1362361314520756

--further reading--
Autism - myth and reality (Psychologist magazine feature article)

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest



2015-04-18   Link Feast

Our pick of this week's 10 best psychology and neuroscience links:

Autistic Traits Aren’t Linked To Brain Anatomy?
Neuroskeptic (a previous Digest guest blogger) looks at a new study that failed to find correlations in healthy people between brain structure and their self-reported autistic-like traits.

Do Anger-Prone Communities Suffer More Heart Disease? A Striking Big Data Finding
David Myers reports on a new study of emotional words used by Twitter users.

The Neuroanatomy Lesson (video)
A neuroscientist goes to extreme lengths to teach us about brain anatomy.

Why It's Selfish To Avoid Giving Negative Feedback
I looked at the psychology research for 99U.com on how and why we should provide our colleagues with constructive criticism.

Can a Facelift Make You More Likeable?
A study by surgeons claimed that women who'd had cosmetic facial surgery were rated more likeable and attractive. NHS Choices takes a cold look at the evidence.

Oxytocin Makes New Mouse Mothers Focus on Cries of Lost Pups
Ed Yong provides the run down on a fascinating new study that is rare for telling us something about how the hormone oxytocin exerts its effects.

The Reading Brain
How our brains learn to process the written word (from the wonderful Frontiers for Young Minds website).

Smiling Changes How You View the World
At NY Mag's Science of Us blog, I looked at research showing how smiling changes the way our brain processes other people's facial expressions.

“Power Poses” Might Not Be So Powerful After All
Arts Technica reports on a new study that failed to replicate the previous finding that power poses raise testosterone and increase risk-taking.

The Surprising Downsides of Being Clever
Bad news for our super-intelligent readers as David Robson (a Digest guest blogger) reports for BBC Future on the disconnect between high IQ and life satisfaction.
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Post compiled by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.





Cognitive Daily

Wed, 20 Jan 2010   Cognitive Daily Closes Shop after a Fantastic Five-Year Run

Five years ago today, we made the first post that would eventually make its way onto a blog called Cognitive Daily. We thought we were keeping notes for a book, but in reality we were helping build a network that represented a new way of sharing psychology with the world. Cognitive Daily wasn’t the first…

Wed, 20 Jan 2010   Both musicians and non-musicians can perceive bitonality

Take a listen to this brief audio clip of “Unforgettable.” Aside from the fact that it’s a computer-generated MIDI performance, do you hear anything unusual? If you’re a non-musician like me, you might not have noticed anything. It sounds basically like the familiar song, even though the synthesized sax isn’t nearly as pleasing as the…

Thu, 14 Jan 2010   Synesthesia and the McGurk effect

We’ve discussed synesthesia many times before on Cognitive Daily — it’s the seemingly bizarre phenomenon when one stimulus (e.g. a sight or a sound) is experienced in multiple modalities (e.g. taste, vision, or colors). For example, a person might experience a particular smell whenever a given word or letter is seen or heard. Sometimes particular…

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