Anxiety

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Scientists discover that a drug used to treat arthritis shows promising initial results for treating COVID-19 in older adults.

An international team of scientists has found that the arthritis drug baricitinib shows promise for increasing the survival of older adults with COVID-19.

The new research, appearing in the journal Science Advances, lays the groundwork for larger, randomized controlled trials to confirm the initial findings.

Repurposed drugs

Alongside developing an effective and safe vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, scientists are also identifying potential treatments that may help increase the survival chances of people who develop COVID-19.

To do this quickly, scientists have turned to previously available drugs, looking to repurpose them as COVID-19 treatments. Since these medicines already have approval for use, many of the safety tests involved in the development of a novel drug are not required.

However, this is still no small task. There are thousands of potential drugs to search through when identifying those that may be worth testing.

To speed up the process, scientists used artificial intelligence (AI) systems that can rapidly analyze these medicines and determine if they could be effective COVID-19 treatments.

One such drug that artificial intelligence software identified in February 2020 was baricitinib, a medication for adult rheumatoid arthritis.

The software identified this drug because it had two potential mechanisms of action. The first might reduce inflammation, while the second might make it more difficult for the virus to access a person’s cells.

Since these initial findings, baricitinib has been used in clinical settings to treat COVID-19. The scientists behind the present study drew on this initial clinical data and conducted laboratory tests to determine how effective the drug may be as a treatment.

Increased survival

The scientists looked at 83 patients from the University of Pisa, Italy, and the Albacete Hospital, Spain. The participants had an average age of 81 years, with moderate to severe COVID-19, and were given baricitinib as treatment. The research team compared this group to a control group of patients from Italy and Spain, who did not take the drug.

The scientists found that the group who received baricitinib was less likely to need mechanical ventilation, while the patients were less likely to die compared with the control group.

Specifically, 34.9% of the control group either died or needed mechanical ventilation, compared with 16.9% of the patients treated with baricitinib.

Two mechanisms of action

To better understand how baricitinib may causing this beneficial effect, the scientists studied its impact on miniature human organs grown in a laboratory.

This confirmed the initial findings of the AI software: that baricitinib reduces inflammation and makes it more difficult for the virus to access a person’s cells.

A leading cause of death for people with COVID-19 has been acute respiratory distress syndrome. This occurs when a person’s inflammatory response to SARS-CoV-2 goes out of control, damaging respiratory system cells and potentially affecting many other organs in their body.

The scientists found that this inflammatory response can also make it easier for the virus to enter a person’s cells as it replicates itself within their body.

Baricitinib seems to work by reducing both of these reactions, significantly increasing the chances of survival.

According to the study’s co-lead author Prof. Volker Lauschke, associate professor in Personalized Medicine and Drug Development at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, “[t]his study confirms what AI predicted, and what we were hearing from patient case reports.”

“For instance, one case involved an 87-year-old severely unwell patient from Foggia, Italy, who showed rapid improvement after being given the drug, whereas her husband and son, who did not receive baricitinib, died.”

“This study has also shone a light on exactly how this drug may protect us at the cellular level. This helps us understand why other types of drugs are proving beneficial, or not beneficial, as we help identify other treatments which may tackle COVID-19.” – Prof. Volker Lauschke

The next step is to confirm the initial findings in larger, randomized controlled trials, which are already proceeding.

For Prof. Justin Stebbing, of the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College London, United Kingdom, and study co-lead author, “[w]e have seen the top-line results of a randomized study called the Adaptive Covid Treatment Trial-2 announced recently, showing benefits of baricitinib plus remdesivir, compared to remdesivir alone in over 1,000 patients.”

“Other very large trials occurring now include COV-BARRIER, and this will help create a fuller picture of the benefits and side effects of the oral medication (a small number of the patients in our study needed to stop the treatment due to problems with liver function).

“Further trials comparing baricitinib to other drugs in COVID-19 patients would also be helpful in improving outcomes.”

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In a small clinical trial, patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) who were given two doses of psilocybin along with psychotherapy showed a reduction in depressive symptoms. The psychedelic’s therapeutic effects persisted for up to 4 weeks with minimal side effects.

Psychedelics are known for their hallucinogenic properties, but their mind-altering effects may also benefit people with depression.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 17.3 million adults in the United States have experienced at least one depressive episode.

Currently, the gold standard for treating MDD is psychotherapy or antidepressant medication. A 2014 study in World Psychiatry found that psychotherapy combined with antidepressants was more effective than the former alone.

Replacing antidepressants with hallucinogenic mushrooms

New antidepressants are ketamine-like drugs that show a high therapeutic response. A 2014 meta-analysis in Psychopharmacology reports that roughly 0.5 milligrams per kilogram of ketamine effectively reduced depressive symptoms. These effects also lasted 2–3 days after treatment. However, there are some drawbacks.

While currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), there are some short-term side effects to consider when using ketamine, such as feeling strange or bizarre, numbness, and difficulties speaking.

Ketamine has a high liability for addiction and may have a large potential for abuse. A 2018 study in Neurobiology of Stress found that repeated low-dose ketamine treatments for treatment-resistant depression resulted in cognitive impairments and potential for abuse.

To avoid people abusing their medication, alternative treatments to support psychotherapy are needed — enter psilocybin.

There is growing evidence of psilocybin’s antidepressant properties. A study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology demonstrateda single psilocybin dose that produced an antidepressant and anxiolytic response in cancer patients, which lasted for 5 years.

Compared with ketamine, psilocybin has lower addictive properties, which would be beneficial as a potential add-on for current treatments. However, clinical research evaluating this substance in combination therapies is limited.

Recently, researchers at Johns Hopkins University published an article contributing to the research investigating the effectiveness of psilocybin-assisted therapy for depression.

“These data expand the findings of previous studies involving patients with cancer and depression, as well as patients with treatment-resistant depression, by suggesting that psilocybin may be effective in the much larger population of MDD,” write the study authors.

Their clinical trial results appear in JAMA Psychiatry.

Johns Hopkins clinical trial

From August 2017 to April 2019, the researchers of the current study recruited adults with MDD who were not taking antidepressant medications and had no history of psychotic disorder, suicide attempts, or hospitalizations. The scientists randomly assigned a total of 24 participants to an immediate or a delayed treatment group.

The psychedelic-assisted therapy lasted for 8 weeks, with 18 in-person visits and 2 days for psilocybin treatment.

Participants in the immediate treatment group began the psilocybin treatment during an 11-hour supportive psychotherapy session. The researchers allowed for a 1.6-week break between the first and second doses. In contrast, the delayed treatment group waited 8 weeks before receiving psilocybin-assisted therapy.

Reduction in severity of depression

At the time of enrollment, participants had a score of 23 in the GRID-Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (GRID-HAMD), which indicates moderate depression. After a 1-week and 1-month follow-up, participants in the immediate treatment group dropped to a score of 8, indicating mild depression.

In the entire cohort, 67% reduced the severity of their depressive symptoms 1 week after psilocybin treatment. This percentage grew to 71% when researchers followed up after 4 weeks.

After 1 week, the researchers found that 58% of the cohort were no longer classified as clinically depressed. By week 4, they found that 54% of the participants were no longer classified as depressed.

Limitations from the clinical trial design

Several limitations exist that could challenge the usefulness of the study results. The research had insufficient minority representation, as recruitment leaned towards non-Hispanic whites.

This is important because while white people typically report more cases, the American Psychiatric Association note that Black and Hispanic Americans are more likely to experience depression for more extended periods. In response, the researchers acknowledge the need for future studies to validate this proof of concept in more representative populations.

The study also fails to address the long-term effects of psilocybin treatment. Unlike the investigation on cancer patients, which had a 5-year follow up, the current research followed up after only 1 month.

There were also variables in the study design that could question psilocybin’s effectiveness as an antidepressant drug. One comes from a lack of a placebo group. Placebos are essential in determining whether a person truly benefitted from the drug and not from outside factors. For this reason, the safety of using psilocybin remains unknown.

Final thoughts

Overall, the authors find their clinical trial supports the use of psilocybin-assisted therapy for MDD.

“Although the rapid antidepressant effects of psilocybin are similar to those reported with ketamine, the therapeutic effects are different. Ketamine effects typically last for a few days to 2 weeks, whereas the current study showed that clinically significant antidepressant response to psilocybin therapy persisted for at least 4 weeks, with 71% of the participants continuing to show a clinically significant response (≥50% reduction in GRID-HAMD score) at week 4 of follow-up.”

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A study finds that social anxiety and depression lead to a greater use of dating apps and affect what people hope to gain from them.

Pew Research Center data released in February this year indicate that, in the United States, as many as 30% of adults have used a dating site or app.

According to a Statista survey, in the first quarter of 2020, Tinder, the most popular of these apps, had more than 6 million subscribers.

There are numerous reasons for using a dating app. Now, a new study from Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, looks specifically at the link between social anxietydepression, and dating apps.

According to this research, there is a link between social anxiety and depression and a more extensive use of dating apps.

“With increased symptoms of social anxiety and depression, women may be even more likely to turn to technology for social connection, especially if alternative forms of social contact are reduced due to social avoidance.” – Senior author Martin Antony, from Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada

The study appears in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.

Why do people use dating apps?

Previous research suggests there are six things people who use Tinder hope to attain. These “Tinder motives” are:

  • love
  • casual sex
  • ease of communication
  • self-worth validation
  • thrill of excitement
  • trendiness

The prevailing theory tested in the new research is the positive link between social anxiety and depression with a greater use of dating apps. In addition, the researchers predicted positive associations between social anxiety and depression and a desire for:

  • ease of communication for men, due to the anxiety associated with asking potential partners for a date, traditionally perceived as a male responsibility
  • love, equally for both genders
  • self-worth validation, equally for both genders
  • the thrill of excitement, especially for men
  • casual sex, especially for men

The study authors also predicted a negative association between social anxiety, depression, and contacting dating app matches equally for both genders.

The study’s findings

A total of 374 individuals who use dating apps were recruited for the study and responded to questions posed through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform.

There were no inclusion or exclusion criteria, and each person received $1 for taking part in the study.

The researchers asked participants to fill out the 17-question Social Phobia Inventory (SPIN), in which a person describes the anxiety they have experienced in social situations over the past week. Researchers recognize the SPIN survey for its usefulness as a psychometric measure.

In addition, individuals completed the equally well-regarded 21-question Depression Anxiety Stress Scales survey for measuring anxiety, depression symptoms, and stress.

Participants also completed the Tinder Motives Scale survey that tracked the importance of five of the six Tinder motives to the individual. The research team did not include trendiness because they considered the survey ineffective for measuring its significance.

The scientists measured individuals’ use of dating apps through the Online Dating Inventory questionnaire to assess their use and behavior.

The researchers found that social anxiety and depression are not interchangeable, and were variously linked, or not, with different motives for using dating apps.

The researchers’ general hypothesis was deemed correct: social anxiety and depression do appear to be associated with greater dating app use. Beyond that, the authors of the study drew a variety of conclusions.

They found that:

  • Social anxiety and depression are associated with the use of dating apps for ease of communication by both genders, though the effect is more pronounced for women.
  • Women with social anxiety are more likely to be interested in obtaining love through dating apps. Depression did not affect whether people were looking for this, for either men or women.
  • Dating apps are used for self-worth validation by people of both genders with social anxiety. This was also true of people with depression, with a stronger effect in women than men.
  • Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, there was a positive link between social anxiety and the thrill of excitement for women, though not for women living with depression, and not for men.
  • There was an association between social anxiety in men and women with an effort to obtain casual sex. This was also true in people living with depression, with a stronger effect in women.

The researchers also discovered a negative correlation between social anxiety and depression in men and the likelihood that they would actually contact a person who turned out to be a match. The likelihood a woman would initiate contact was not affected at all by their level of depression.

The study authors point out that they cannot know whether social anxiety and depression lead to greater dating app use or the other way around, suggesting this open question would benefit from further research.

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A preclinical study has tested a new vaccine for Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers found that the vaccine, which targets the beta-amyloid protein, was safe and effective in mice.

Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive neurological condition and the most common cause of dementia.

According to the latest estimates from the Alzheimer’s Association, 1 in 10 people over the age of 65 years in the U.S. have Alzheimer’s disease, and experts expect the number of people with the condition to increase as the population ages. By 2050, projections show that 13.8 million people aged 65 years and over will have Alzheimer’s disease in the U.S.

While groups around the world are working to find an effective treatment for the condition, an alternative approach is to develop a vaccine. Although they are more commonly associated with infectious diseases, vaccines can also prime the body to defend itself against other, noninfectious molecules.

In Alzheimer’s disease, scientists believe that two processes drive the progression of the disease: the buildup of plaques comprising beta-amyloid proteins between neurons in the brain and tangled knots of the tau protein within neurons.

Since the general understanding is that beta-amyloid initiates the disease process, scientists have tried to develop a vaccine against it. The hope is that the immune system recognizes and destroys the beta-amyloid before it can aggravate the cell damage that the tau protein causes.

Although scientists have developed several vaccines, translating the findings from murine models into humans while ensuring safety is notoriously challenging, and the authorities have not yet approved any vaccines for use.

Researchers need to overcome the fact that as people age, their immune system becomes less responsive. As a result, without help, they will have a lower response to a vaccine.

Scientists usually overcome this problem by adding adjuvants that kickstart and enhance the immune response. However, a potential problem is that the adjuvants overstimulate the immune system, leading to inflammation.

A new study that the University of South Florida Health (USF Health) led describes a novel therapeutic vaccine for Alzheimer’s disease, which uses the body’s own immune cells to target beta-amyloid. The study found that this approach avoided the overstimulation of the immune system that can occur due to chemical adjuvants.

The study showed effective antibody production and memory improvements in vaccinated mice, and the findings appear in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Harnessing dendritic cells

The new vaccine uses dendritic cells, which communicate with other immune cells, such as B cells and T cells, to guide the immune response.

“This therapeutic vaccine uses the body’s own immune cells to target the toxic [beta-amyloid] molecules that accumulate harmfully in the brain,” explains the senior author of the paper, Dr. Chuanhai Cao.

The dendritic cells are loaded with a modified version of beta-amyloid so that the body can detect and destroy the real thing.

“Because we use dendritic cells to generate antibodies, this vaccine can coordinate both innate and acquired immunity to potentially overcome age-related impairments of the immune system,” adds Dr. Cao.

In the new study, the researchers tested the vaccine in mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease. The mice were genetically modified to produce high levels of beta-amyloid and show cognitive difficulties similar to those that occur in humans with Alzheimer’s disease.

Memory improvements

The team gave some of the mice the vaccine, while others received the dendritic cells only (containing no beta-amyloid).

The mice that received the vaccine produced antibodies against beta-amyloid in their brains and blood. They also showed symptom improvements — for example, in memory tests, the vaccinated mice performed similarly to healthy mice.

The vaccinated mice also showed significantly improved working memory compared with mice that received only the dendritic cells. Working memory involves holding and manipulating information for a short time, and deficits in this form of memory are a common feature of Alzheimer’s disease.

Importantly, the vaccine did not cause an inflammatory response in the mice — a major concern when developing a vaccine and the main reason why researchers had to stop using a previous vaccine.

“Inflammation is a primary symptom of Alzheimer’s disease, so any possible treatment with neural inflammation as a side effect essentially pours gas on the fire,” explains Dr. Cao.

This study found no evidence of an inflammatory reaction. There were no significant differences in the amounts of inflammatory molecules called cytokines in the vaccinated mice compared with the nonvaccinated mice.

What next?

The strength of the new vaccine lies in its specificity, says Dr. Cao. The antigen on the vaccine stimulates a very specific response from T cells, which enables the destruction of beta-amyloid but prevents activity that could cause autoimmunity. “[…] it provides strong immunomodulatory effects without inducing an unwanted, vaccine-associated autoimmune reaction in the aging mice,” he says.

Going forward, the team hopes that the vaccine could serve to stop the progression of Alzheimer’s disease in humans, although further studies will be necessary to confirm that the vaccine can produce long lasting antibodies and is safe to use in people.

It is important to note that this study used a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease. There is a sharp fall-off in translation from animal models to human treatments from many promising preclinical studies, ranging from 0% to 100% failure.

Also, there has been some debate about the effectiveness of targeting beta-amyloid rather than either focusing on the tau protein, launching a combined attack on both proteins, or dampening the inflammation that results in cellular damage.

Beyond Alzheimer’s disease, the researchers suggest that the vaccine type could help improve the immune system of people with other age-related disorders. The vaccine may “lay the foundation for future immunotherapies for aging-related disorders,” the authors conclude.

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A study finds sleep deprivation makes unwelcome thoughts occur more frequently and makes them harder to manage.

It’s not uncommon for unwelcome thoughts to cross a person’s mind now and again.

According to psychologist Marcus Harrington of the Department of Psychology at the University of York in the United Kingdom, “For most people, thought intrusions pass quickly, but for those [who are experiencing] psychiatric conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they can be repetitive, uncontrollable, and distressing.”

Harrington is the lead author of a new study investigating the effect of sleep deprivation on unwanted thoughts.

The study finds that sleep deprivation increases the frequency of unwanted thoughts and lessens an individual’s ability to control them.

Funded by the Medical Research Council, the research appears in Clinical Psychological Science.

Unwanted thoughts

“In everyday life,” says Harrington, “mundane encounters can remind us of unpleasant experiences. For example, a car driving too fast on the motorway might cause us to retrieve unwanted memories from a car accident many years ago.”

However, for people with some psychiatric disorders, unwelcome thoughts can be a frequent, persistent, and often emotionally destructive intrusion.

“It is clear,” says Harrington, “that the ability to suppress unwanted thoughts varies dramatically between individuals, but, until now, the factors that drive this variability have been mysterious. Our study suggests sleep loss has a considerable impact on our ability to keep unwanted thoughts out of our minds.”

A lack of sleep and the resulting inability to manage unwelcome thoughts may also be self-perpetuating.

“The study also suggests that the onset of intrusive thoughts and emotional disturbances following bouts of poor sleep could create a vicious cycle, whereby upsetting intrusions and emotional distress exacerbate sleep problems, inhibiting the sleep needed to support recovery.” – Senior author Dr. Scott Cairney

The study

The researchers recruited 60 healthy individuals with an average age of 20 to participate in the study. The researchers randomly assigned them to a sleep group or a sleep-deprivation group. There were 30 participants in the sleep deprivation group and 29 in the sleep group because the researchers disqualified one participant.

The participants had to forego naps, caffeine, and alcohol on test days.

The researchers trained each person to associate face photos with either negative or neutral images from the International Affective Picture System. The participants also learned suppression techniques to help them overcome unpleasant memories. After their training, they went to sleep for the night.

The following day, participants were shown faces and asked to try and suppress the associations the faces provoked.

People who had sufficient sleep could successfully suppress unwelcome thoughts and reported that doing so became easier over time.

The participants also reported a reduction in their emotional response to negative images. Researchers supported this with observations of a reduction in their sweat response as they viewed the images.

Individuals from the sleep-deprivation group reported having a difficult time suppressing their thoughts. They also reported that experiencing and then managing intrusive thoughts remained a challenge throughout the study.

Participants who were sleep-deprived reported a 50% increase in unwanted thoughts compared with those who were well-rested.

The authors write:

“Even after sleep-deprived participants initially gained control over unwanted memories and prevented them from intruding, they were consistently more susceptible to relapses when reminders were confronted again later compared with rested individuals.”

The study mentions a caveat. Since scientists know that sleep helps solidify pre-bedtime memorization, perhaps those deprived of sleep could not utilize the memory suppression techniques they learned the night before as the sleep group could.

Says Cairney:

“This study offers an important insight into the impact of sleep on mental health. Besides post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, our findings might have implications for our understanding of other disorders linked to sleep disturbances, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia.”

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A study of 160 people in the United States finds associations between worries around COVID-19 and substance use. The authors warn that the pandemic may increase the risk of substance abuse in some people and advocate for specific interventions to protect mental health.

Beyond the physical effects of the novel coronavirus, the onset and continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic have dramatically affected people’s mental health in the United States and worldwide.

recent study highlighted how levels of depression in the U.S. have tripled during the pandemic. Symptoms of anxiety may also be on the rise, according to recent trends in Google searches.

Understandably, the pandemic generates fear in many people, as the world finds itself in an unprecedented situation filled with uncertainty.

People manage uncertainties in different ways, but there is a risk that the stress the pandemic causes may trigger an ongoing mental health problem in some people.

A recent study led by the University of Houston, TX, finds that worry about COVID-19 may be a risk factor for substance use, which could, in turn, lead to misuse in some people.

The findings, which appear in Psychiatry Research, suggest the pandemic could adversely affect mental health for years to come.

COVID concerns

This study explored worries and fears about COVID-19 among three groups of people: those who do not use substances, people who were substance users before the pandemic, and people who started to use substances during the pandemic.

The substances in question included alcohol, cigarettes, cannabis, e-cigarettes, stimulants, opioids, and other drugs. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, these are among the most commonly used substances in the U.S.

In total, 160 people took part in the online study between April and May 2020.

The survey took around 30 minutes to complete and included questions about COVID-19 exposure and diagnosis, fears and worries about the pandemic, and a series of questions about substance use, including when and how people used substances and why they did so.

Worry fuels substance use

Almost 6% of the participants said they had received a diagnosis of COVID-19, and around half reported having pre-existing medical conditions.

Many of the participants also reported changing their substance use since the start of the pandemic.

Some participants reported starting using the following substances since the beginning of the pandemic:

  • alcohol (8.8%)
  • cigarettes (6.9%)
  • stimulants (5.6%)
  • opioids (5.6%)
  • cannabis (5%)
  • e-cigarettes (4.4%).

The results also found that worrying about the pandemic had associations with using substances to cope. Substance users reported worrying about COVID-19 more than non-users, and people who started using substances during the pandemic (excluding opioids) had the highest levels of worry.

“Results generally suggest the persons using substance experience the highest levels of COVID-19-related worry and fear,” the authors explain in their paper. “Additionally, worry about COVID-19 is related to coping motives for substance use.”

COVID-19-specific interventions

The authors say that doctors could find their findings useful. They suggest that doctors assessing levels of worry about COVID-19 help identify people at greatest risk for substance use, and ultimately substance abuse.

With this knowledge, doctors might prevent such problems from developing, for example, by recommending therapy or helping the person develop healthy coping mechanisms. The authors write:

“These results provide preliminary evidence that COVID-19-related worry and fear may be putative risk factors for substance use initiation in the face of COVID-19, and these results may provide critical clinical information for helping individuals cope with this pandemic.”

The authors state the importance of developing specialist interventions for COVID-19-specific mental health problems, including addictions, as the pandemic continues to evolve.

It is crucial to roll out such initiatives early to prevent a wave of mental health problems in the future, says Prof. Michael Zvolensky, senior author of the study.

“The impact of COVID-19 on psychological symptoms and disorders, addiction, and health behavior is substantial and ongoing and will negatively impact people’s mental health and put them at greater risk for chronic illness and drug addiction. It will not equally impact all of society. Those at greater risk are those that have mental health vulnerabilities or disorders,” he closes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers advice and helplines on managing stress during the pandemic.

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A study finds that 10 minutes of massage or relaxation can activate the body’s system for overcoming stress.

The damaging effects of stress are well-known, but fortunately, our bodies have a built-in system for managing and recovering from it. This system is called the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS).

While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that taking time to relax — especially when it involves massage — can activate the PSNS, the new study by psychologists at the University of Konstanz in Germany has scientifically measured and confirmed this effect.

In their paper, the researchers conclude that short periods of relaxation may be psychologically and physiologically regenerative and that the effect is even more pronounced with massage.

The senior author of the study is Prof. Jens Pruessner of the university’s Neuropsychology lab, who is a member of the Cluster of Excellence “Centre for the Advanced Study of Collective Behaviour.” He explains the importance of the new research:

“To get a better handle on the negative effects of stress, we need to understand its opposite — relaxation. Relaxation therapies show great promise as a holistic way to treat stress, but more systematic scientific appraisal of these methods is needed.”

The study appears in the September 2020 issue of Scientific Reports.

The study

For their study, the team divided the participants into three groups.

The first group received 10-minute head-and-neck massages with a moderate pressure intended to stimulate the PSNS’s vagus nerve. This nerve contains some 75% of the PSNS nerve fibers, branching out to the many organs in the body with which the system interacts.

The second group of individuals received much softer 10-minute neck-and-shoulder massages as a means of determining the PSNS-activating effect of simple tactile contact.

A third control group simply sat at a table relaxing for 10 minutes.

The researchers used both physiological and psychological measurements to evaluate the degree to which each intervention, or lack of, had activated the participants’ PSNS.

Neuropsychology doctoral student Maria Meier led the team, who assessed the tests’ physiological effect by measuring the participants’ heart rate, as well as their heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is a measurement of variations in the time intervals between heartbeats.

For example, when the body is in fight-or-flight mode, there is very little variation because the heart beats quickly at a steady rate. This will provide a low HRV value. When the body is relaxed, a greater degree of variation occurs, resulting in a higher HRV.

All of the participants had significantly higher HRV levels afterward. However, the most dramatic increases in HRV belonged to those who had received massages. The type of massage did not matter.

Simple tactile contact proved just as effective for helping an individual relax as a massage designed specifically to activate the PSNS.

Psychologically, all participants reported feeling less stressed and more relaxed after the tests.

Overall, the experiments confirmed that simply taking a few moments to relax can help a person manage stress. Adding a relaxing massage does even more to activate the PSNS and alleviate the physical and mental effects of stress.

Stress management

Meier concludes: “We are very encouraged by the findings that short periods of disengagement are enough to relax not just the mind but also the body. You don’t need a professional treatment in order to relax. Having somebody gently stroke your shoulders, or even just resting your head on the table for 10 minutes, is an effective way to boost your body’s physiological engine of relaxation.”

Equally important as the study’s finding is the development of a system for objectively evaluating relaxation therapies. With experts often citing stress as the driver of diseases such as depression, a reliable means of validating relaxation techniques clearly has value.

Says Meier, “Massage, being such a commonly used relaxation therapy, was our first study. Our next step is to test if other short interventions, like breathing exercises and meditation, show similar psychological and physiological relaxation results.”

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A new study has found a significant rise in people searching Google for anxiety symptoms during the pandemic.

New research found that in the United States, Google searches for ‘worry,’ ‘anxiety,’ and therapeutic techniques to manage worry and anxiety have increased during the pandemic.

The research, featuring as a commentary in the journal Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, highlights the burden the COVID-19 pandemic has placed not only on people’s physical health but also their mental health.

COVID-19 and mental health

COVID-19 has had a profound effect on people. The world is approaching one million recorded deaths from the disease. And, some of those who recovered from the initial virus effects continue to suffer long-term symptoms that are yet to be fully understood.

Once the knock-on effects of the disease factor in — for example, overwhelmed critical care units prolonging treatment times for people with other serious illnesses — then it is clear that the pandemic has had a devastating effect on people’s health around the world.

However, as well as people’s physical health, it is also becoming clear that the pandemic is significantly affecting their mental health.

Early in the pandemic, there were anecdotal reports that people’s mental health was worsening, including those with pre-existing mental health issues and those whose mental health was normally well. As time has gone on, more research has started to corroborate these reports.

Google Trends

In the present study, the researchers wanted to explore an alternative way of determining the pandemic’s effects on mental health: analyzing Google search requests.

Google Trends allows anyone to see the search terms that people use for various populations, globally and locally. As Dr. Michael Hoerger, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at Tulane University Cancer Center, New Orleans, and his co-authors note:

“Although by no means a ‘window into the soul,’ people’s search terms reflect relatively uncensored desires for information and thus lack many of the biases of traditional self-report surveys.”

Previous health science research has made use of Google Trends data in studies, and the present study’s investigators wanted to see how effective it could be in the context of mental health in the current pandemic.

To do this, they accessed weekly U.S. search terms from April 21, 2019 to April 21, 2020.

Worry and anxiety searches increased

By comparing the pre- and post-pandemic search terms, the researchers were able to identify four relevant themes.

Firstly, following the announcement of the pandemic, search terms related to ‘worry’ increased significantly. These terms included ‘worry,’ ‘worry health,’ ‘panic,’ and ‘hysteria.’

Secondly, people shifted to searching for anxiety symptoms, which spiked after the initial flurry of worry-related search terms.

Thirdly, the researchers did not see a significant increase in other mental health search terms, such as depression, loneliness, suicidal ideation, or substance abuse.

Rather than interpreting this to suggest that these issues did not increase, the authors speculate that people’s searches relating to these issues may occur later, or that they may be better at utilizing self-care techniques concerning these.

Finally, the researchers noticed that not only did people understandably search for more online therapy rather than face-to-face therapy, they also searched for therapy techniques for dealing with anxiety symptoms.

Users did so with search terms such as ‘deep breathing’ and ‘body scan meditation.’

Tip of the iceberg

For Dr. Hoerger, “[o]ur analyses from shortly after the pandemic declaration are the tip of the iceberg.”

“Over time, we should begin to see a greater decline in societal mental health. This will likely include more depression, PTSD, community violence, suicide, and complex bereavement. For each person that dies of COVID, approximately nine close family members are affected, and people will carry that grief for a long time.” – Dr. Michael Hoerger

The researchers suggest that by continuing to track Google Trends data, public health bodies may be able to better identify people’s mental health needs promptly, reducing the pandemic’s psychological effects.

A new study in mice adds to the evidence suggesting that the immune system not only attacks invading pathogens but can also influence mood.

Over the past few years, scientists have discovered some intriguing links between immunity and the mind.

One of the immune signaling molecules, or cytokines, that mediates these links is called interleukin-17a (IL-17a).

IL-17a plays a role in psoriasis, which is an autoimmune skin condition, but it may also contribute to the depression that many people experience. Indeed, a study involving a mouse model of psoriasis found that IL-17a caused depression-like symptoms.

In humans, researchers have also linked the molecule to treatment resistant depression.

Research in mice has even implicated IL-17a in the development of autism.

“The brain and the body are not as separate as people think,” says Prof. Jonathan Kipnis, a neuroscientist at the Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, MO.

While working at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville, Prof. Kipnis and colleagues found that IL-17a causes anxiety-like behavior in mice.

“We are now looking into whether too much or too little of IL-17a could be linked to anxiety in people,” says Prof. Kipnis.

The scientists have published the results of their mouse study in the journal Nature Immunology. Kalil Alves de Lima, a postdoctoral researcher who is also now at the University of Washington, led the research.

Gamma-delta T cells

Immune cells called gamma-delta T cells produce IL-17a. The cells are present in the meninges, which are the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord.

To determine what effect IL-17a might have on behavior, the scientists studied mice whose gamma-delta T cells did not produce any IL-17a and mice who lacked the cells completely.

They put the mice through standard tests of memory, social behavior, foraging, and anxiety. The mice performed just as well as normal mice on all tests apart from two that measure anxiety levels.

In those tests, the mice who lacked gamma-delta T cells or did not produce any IL-17a were more likely to explore open areas. In the wild, this kind of behavior would put them at greater risk of being eaten by predators.

The researchers interpreted this as a sign of reduced anxiety in animals without IL-17a signaling in their central nervous system.

Next, the scientists investigated how the signal affects neurons in their brains. They found receptors for IL-17a on a type of stimulatory nerve cell called a glutamatergic neuron.

When they genetically manipulated the neurons to prevent them from making these receptors, the mice exhibited less anxiety-like behavior.

The gut-brain axis

Previous animal research has revealed a multitude of possible links between bacteria living in the gut and behavior, including anxiety-like behaviors.

This connection is known as the gut-brain axis, and scientists have proposed the immune system as one possible way that messages pass between them.

To investigate the role of IL-17a in the gut-brain axis, Alves de Lima and colleagues injected the mice with lipopolysaccharide. This is a toxin that bacteria produce. It provokes a strong immune reaction.

In response to the injection, gamma-delta T cells in the meninges surrounding the animals’ brains produced more IL-17a.

In another experiment, when the researchers treated the mice with antibiotics to kill the bacteria in their guts, the animals produced less IL-17a.

Together, the results of these experiments suggest that the immune system has evolved not only to fight infection but also to adjust behavior to keep animals safe while they are in a weakened state.

“Selecting special molecules to protect us immunologically and behaviorally at the same time is a smart way to protect against infection. This is a good example of how cytokines, which basically evolved to fight against pathogens, also are acting on the brain and modulating behavior.” – Kalil Alves de Lima

The team is now investigating how gamma-delta T cells in the meninges surrounding the brain can detect the presence of bacteria elsewhere in the body.

The researchers are also looking into exactly how IL-17a signaling in the brain changes behavior.

In their paper, they conclude:

“Our findings provide new insights into the neuroimmune interactions at the meningeal–brain interface and support further research into new therapies for neuropsychiatric conditions.”

Although the physiology of mice and humans is very similar, scientists need to carry out much more research to explore the possible links between the human immune system and mood.

Welcome to the latest edition of our Medical Myths series. Today, to mark World Alzheimer’s Day, we will be tackling myths relating to both Alzheimer’s disease and dementia at large.

Today, an estimated 5.8 million people aged 65 years or older in the United States have dementia.

Due to the fact that the average lifespan of people in the U.S. has increased over recent decades, some experts project that by 2050, the number of older adults with dementia could reach 13.8 million.

Figures of this stature spark justifiable fear, and, as we have found in previous Medical Myths articles, fear tends to breed misconceptions.

In this article, we aim to dispel 11 of these myths.

1. Dementia is inevitable with age

This statement is not true. Dementia is not a normal part of aging.

According to a report that the Alzheimer’s Association published, Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common form of dementia, affects 3% of people aged 65–74 years in the U.S.

As a result of the risk increasing as we age, 17% of people aged 75–84 years and 32% of people aged 85 years and older have a dementia diagnosis.

2. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are the same thing

This is not quite correct. Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia, accounting for 60–80% of all dementia cases. Other types of dementia include frontotemporal dementia (FTD), vascular dementia, mixed dementia, and Lewy body dementia.

The National Institute on Aging define dementia as “the loss of cognitive functioning — thinking, remembering, and reasoning — and behavioral abilities to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities.”

Although dementias share certain characteristics, each type has a distinct underlying pathology.

Alzheimer’s disease is associated with a buildup of so-called plaques and tangles in the brain. These structures interfere with brain cells, eventually killing them. In contrast, brain cell death in vascular dementia occurs due to a lack of oxygen, which can result from a stroke, for instance.

FTD, as another example, occurs when abnormal protein structures form in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, causing the brain cells in these regions to die.

3. A family member has dementia, so I will get it

A common myth is that dementia is purely genetic. In other words, if a person’s family member has a dementia diagnosis, they are guaranteed to develop dementia later in life. This is not true.

Although there is a genetic component to some forms of dementia, the majority of cases do not have a strong genetic link.

As we learned above, rather than genetic factors, the most significant risk factor for dementia is age. However, if a parent or grandparent developed Alzheimer’s when they were younger than 65 years, the chance of it passing on genetically is higher.

Early-onset Alzheimer’s is relatively uncommon, though. It occurs in about 5.5% of all Alzheimer’s cases.

As the majority of dementia cases are Alzheimer’s disease, this means that most dementia cases are not hereditary. FTD, which is much less common, has a stronger genetic link, but if a parent or grandparent develops the condition, it does not mean that children or grandchildren are guaranteed to develop it.

Today, FTD affects an estimated 15–22 in every 100,000 people. Of these individuals, 10–15% have a strong family history of the condition.

4. Dementia only affects older adults

Age is a risk factor for dementia, but dementia can affect younger adults in rare cases. Some scientists estimate that, in people aged 30–64 years, 38–260 people in 100,000 — equivalent to 0.038–0.26% — develop early-onset dementia.

In the 55–64 age bracket, this increases to close to 420 people in 100,000, or 0.4%.

5. Using aluminum pans causes Alzheimer’s

In the 1960s, scientists injected rabbits with high levels of aluminum. They found that the animals developed neurological lesions similar to those that form in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s.

Additionally, some studies have identified aluminum within the plaques associated with Alzheimer’s. However, aluminum also appears in the healthy brain, and researchers have not established a causal link between this element and the disease.

Following on from these studies, myths still circulate that drinking from aluminum cans or cooking with aluminum pots increases the risk of Alzheimer’s.

However, since those early experiments, scientists have not found a clear association between Alzheimer’s and using aluminum pots and pans.

Although researchers will, eventually, establish the precise relationship between aluminum and Alzheimer’s, consuming aluminum through the diet is unlikely to play a major role.

As the Alzheimer’s Society explain: “Aluminum in food and drink is in a form that is not easily absorbed into the body. Hence, the amount taken up is less than 1% of the amount present in food and drink. Most of the aluminum taken into the body is cleaned out by the kidneys.”

However, they also write that some research has found “a potential role for high dose aluminum in drinking water in progressing Alzheimer’s disease for people who already have the disease.”

6. Dementia signals the end of a meaningful life

Thankfully, this is not the case. Many people with a dementia diagnosis lead active, meaningful lives. Some people fear that if a doctor diagnoses them with dementia, they will no longer be able to go for a walk alone and will have to stop driving their vehicle immediately.

It is true that these adjustments may come in time as the condition progresses, but in mild cases of dementia, no changes may be necessary. As dementia worsens, changes to the way an individual leads their life are likely, but that does not mean that the person cannot lead a fulfilling life.

“Too many people are in the dark about dementia — many feel that a dementia diagnosis means someone is immediately incapable of living a normal life, while myths and misunderstandings continue to contribute to the stigma and isolation that many people will feel,” explains Jeremy Hughes, former Chief Executive of the Alzheimer’s Society.

“[W]e want to reassure people that life doesn’t end when dementia begins.” – Jeremy Hughes

7. Memory loss always signifies dementia

Although memory loss can be an early symptom of dementia, it does not necessarily signify the start of this condition. Human memory can be unpredictable, and we all forget things occasionally. However, if memory loss is interfering with everyday life, it is best to speak with a doctor.

Although memory issues tend to be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease, that is not the case for other forms of dementia. For instance, early signs and symptoms of FTD can include changes in mood and personality, language difficulties, and obsessive behavior.MEDICAL NEWS TODAY NEWSLETTERStay in the know. Get our free daily newsletter

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8. Dementia is always preventable

This, unfortunately, is untrue. Importantly, though, certain factors can either reduce the risk of certain types of dementia developing or delay their onset.

For instance, the Lancet Commission’s 2020 report on dementia prevention, intervention, and care lists 12 factors that increase the risk of dementia:

  • less education
  • hypertension
  • hearing impairment
  • smoking
  • obesity
  • depression
  • physical inactivity
  • diabetes
  • low levels of social contact
  • alcohol consumption
  • traumatic brain injury
  • air pollution

Some of these factors are more difficult to modify than others, but working on changing any of them might help reduce the risk of developing dementia. The authors of the report explain:

“Together, the 12 modifiable risk factors account for around 40% of worldwide dementias, which consequently could theoretically be prevented or delayed.”

However, as Dr. Nancy Sicotte, a neurologist at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles, CA, explains, “Reducing your risk requires starting these lifestyle changes from the get-go, not waiting until you’re 70.”

9. Vitamins and supplements can prevent dementia

Linked to the section above, this is also false. To date, there is no strong evidence that any vitamin or mineral supplements can reduce the risk of dementia. In 2018, the Cochrane Library conducted a review with the aim of answering this question.

Their analysis included data from more than 83,000 participants across the 28 included studies. Although the authors report “some general limitations of the evidence,” they conclude:

“We did not find evidence that any vitamin or mineral supplementation strategy for cognitively healthy adults in mid or late life has a meaningful effect on cognitive decline or dementia, although the evidence does not permit definitive conclusions.”

10. All people with dementia become aggressive

In some cases, people with dementia might find it increasingly hard to make sense of the world around them. This confusion can be frustrating, and some individuals might respond to the emotions in an angry manner. However, this is not the case for everyone.

In a study involving 215 people with dementia, 41% of the participants developed aggression during the 2-year study. When they looked at factors that increased the risk of developing aggression, the researchers identified two of the primary factors as physical pain and a low quality relationship between the person and their caregiver.

11. Dementia is never fatal

Unfortunately, dementia can be fatal. According to a recent study, which appears in JAMA Neurology, dementia may be a more common cause of death than experts have traditionally thought it to be. The authors “found that approximately 13.6% of deaths were attributable to dementia over the period 2000–2009.”

Dementia worries people, especially as they age, and this is justifiable in many ways. However, it is important to counter misinformation that might enhance concerns and stigma.

For now, researchers are working tirelessly to develop better ways to treat and prevent dementia. In the future, hopefully, science will reduce the impact of dementia and, therefore, the fear associated with the condition.