Friday, July 29, 2016

Antidepressants: A Treatment for Bad Marriages?

Newswise, July 29, 2016 — Psychiatrists nearly always responded with prescriptions for antidepressants when clients complained of bad marriages, according to a new study spanning 20 years at a Midwestern medical center.

The assumption that people struggling with their marriages or other domestic issues are suffering from depression is not supported by the way depression is defined medically, said Jonathan M. Metzl, Frederick B. Rentschler II Professor of Sociology and Medicine, Health and Society at Vanderbilt and the study’s lead author. 

The study, conducted using a Midwestern medical center’s records from 1980 to 2000, appears in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine.

Notably, Metzl said, the time period of analysis followed a 1974 decision that removed the term “homosexuality” from the Diagnostic andStatistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the standard reference book of psychiatric illnesses.

“As it became less acceptable to overtly diagnose homosexuality, it became increasingly acceptable to diagnose threats to female-male relationships as conditions that required psychiatric intervention,” Metzl said.

“Doctors increasingly responded by prescribing antidepressants when patients came to the office describing problems with heterosexual love and its discontents.”

The researchers argue that this pattern became particularly prominent after the advent of Prozac and other SSRI antidepressants and widespread pharmaceutical advertising in the 1980s and 1990s.

20 years of records

In their review of archived psychiatrist-dictated patient charts from the expansive hospital system, the researchers discovered a pattern.

“In the charts we analyzed, the pressures of attaining or maintaining heterosexual relationships functioned as common modes for describing depressive symptoms,” Metzl said.

But women and men with marriage woes “have little connection to the current DSM criteria for depression and much more to do with ways that society thinks that men and women should behave,” Metzl said.

“And yet these cultural pressures seemed to go a long way in determining whether psychiatrists diagnosed depression or prescribed antidepressants.”

“In many ways, the 1974 decision was a major step forward,” Metzl said. “But as we show, implicit gender still functioned in the exam room, and our analysis suggests that psychiatry still has work to do in that regard.”

Metzl conducted the study with Sara McClelland, assistant professor of women’s studies and psychology at the University of Michigan, and Erin Bergner, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Vanderbilt.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Testosterone Therapy Improves Sexual Interest, Function in Older Men

Testosterone Therapy Improves Sexual Interest and Function
Largest placebo-controlled study to date finds testosterone can address low libido, erectile dysfunction

Newswise, June 30, 2016Older men with low libido and low testosterone levels showed more interest in sex and engaged in more sexual activity when they underwent testosterone therapy, according to a new study published in the Endocrine Society’s Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.

The study is the largest placebo-controlled trial in older men conducted on the subject to date. The sexual function study is part of the Testosterone Trials, a series of seven studies examining the effectiveness of hormone therapy in men who are 65 or older, who have low testosterone levels and are experiencing symptoms of testosterone deficiency. The research is supported primarily by the National Institutes of Health.

Testosterone is a key male sex hormone involved in maintaining sex drive, erectile function and sperm production. The Endocrine Society’s Clinical Practice Guidelinerecommends using testosterone therapy to treat men with symptoms of androgen deficiency and low levels of testosterone. Androgen deficiency occurs when a man has consistently low levels of testosterone and resulting symptoms such as sexual dysfunction.

In the past 15 years, use of testosterone therapy has rapidly expanded among men.

Testosterone levels decline as men age, and some men develop low testosterone levels and symptoms. Since 2000, the number of men beginning testosterone therapy has almost quadrupled in the United States, according to a 2014 study published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.

“Our findings indicate low testosterone is one cause contributing to reduced libido and erectile dysfunction in older men,” said the study’s first author, Glenn R. Cunningham, MD, of Baylor College of Medicine and Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center in Houston, TX. “Men experiencing these symptoms should be evaluated for testosterone deficiency.”

The study was designed to investigate the effectiveness of testosterone therapy. It was not large enough or long enough to address issues related to cardiovascular events or clinical prostate cancer.

The placebo-controlled, double-blinded trial examined the effect of testosterone therapy on sexual function in a group of 470 men. The men were enrolled in the study through 12 academic medical centers.

The participants were at least 65 years old and had low testosterone levels, based on the average results of multiple tests. All of the men had a heterosexual partner.

During the year-long study, the men were assigned to receive either testosterone gel or a placebo applied to the skin. The participants answered questionnaires about sexual function at the outset and every three months during the 12-month study.

The men treated with testosterone therapy displayed consistent improvement in libido and in 10 of the 12 sexual activity measurements, including frequency of intercourse, masturbation and nighttime erections.

 In comparison, men who received the placebo did not change their questionnaire responses significantly over the course of the year-long study.

“For symptomatic older men with low testosterone levels, testosterone therapy led to consistent improvement in most types of sexual activity,” Cunningham said.

The research was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging, with additional support from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; the Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Centers, the Department of Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care System; and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Pharmaceutical manufacturer AbbVie, the maker of a testosterone gel called AndroGel, provided funding as well as the testosterone gel and placebo for the study.

The study, “Testosterone Treatment and Sexual Function in Older Men with Low Testosterone Levels,” will be published online at, ahead of print.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

When You Take Acetaminophen, You Don’t Feel Others’ Pain as Much

The popular painkiller reduces empathy, study finds

Newswise, May 12, 2016 – When you take acetaminophen to reduce your pain, you may also be decreasing your empathy for both the physical and social aches that other people experience, a new study suggests.

Researchers at The Ohio State University found, for example, that when participants who took acetaminophen learned about the misfortunes of others, they thought these individuals experienced less pain and suffering,when compared to those who took no painkiller.

“These findings suggest other people’s pain doesn’t seem as big of a deal to you when you’ve taken acetaminophen,” said Dominik Mischkowski, co-author of the study and a former Ph.D. student at Ohio State, now at the National Institutes of Health.
“Acetaminophen can reduce empathy as well as serve as a painkiller.”
Mischkowski conducted the study with Baldwin Way, who is an assistant professor of psychology and member of the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research; and Jennifer Crocker, Ohio Eminent Scholar in Social Psychology and professor of psychology at Ohio State. 

Their results were published online in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Acetaminophen – the main ingredient in the painkiller Tylenol – is the most common drug ingredient in the United States, found in more than 600 medicines, according to the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a trade group.

Each week about 23 percent of American adults (about 52 million people) use a medicine containing acetaminophen, the CHPA reports.

In an earlier study, Way and other colleagues found that acetaminophen also blunts positive emotions like joy.

Taken together, the two studies suggest there’s a lot we need to learn about one of the most popular over-the-counter drugs in the United States.

“We don’t know why acetaminophen is having these effects, but it is concerning,” said Way, the senior author of the study.

“Empathy is important. If you are having an argument with your spouse and you just took acetaminophen, this research suggests you might be less understanding of what you did to hurt your spouse’s feelings.”

The researchers conducted two experiments, the first involving 80 college students. At the beginning, half the students drank a liquid containing 1,000 mg of acetaminophen, while the other half drank a placebo solution that contained no drug. 

The students didn’t know which group they were in.

After waiting one hour for the drug to take effect, the participants read eight short scenarios in which someone suffered some sort of pain. 

For example, one scenario was about a person who suffered a knife cut that went down to the bone and another was about a person experiencing the death of his father.

Participants rated the pain each person in the scenarios experienced from 1 (no pain at all) to 5 (worst possible pain). They also rated how much the protagonists in the scenarios felt hurt, wounded and pained.

Overall, the participants who took acetaminophen rated the pain of the people in the scenarios to be less severe than did those who took the placebo.
A second experiment involved 114 college students. As in the first experiment, half took acetaminophen and half took the placebo.

In one part of the experiment, the participants received four two-second blasts of white noise that ranged from 75 to 105 decibels. They then rated the noise blasts on a scale of 1 (not unpleasant at all) to 10 (extremely unpleasant).
They were then asked to imagine how much pain the same noise blasts would cause in another anonymous study participant.

Results showed that, when compared to those who took the placebo, participants who took acetaminophen rated the noise blasts as less unpleasant for themselves – and also thought they would be less unpleasant for others.
“Acetaminophen reduced the pain they felt, but it also reduced their empathy for others who were experiencing the same noise blasts,” Mischkowski said.
In another part of the experiment, participants met and socialized with each other briefly. 

Each participant then watched, alone, an online game that purportedly involved three of the people they just met. (The other participants weren’t actually involved).

In the “game,” two of the people the participants had met excluded the third person from the activity.

Participants were then asked to rate how much pain and hurt feelings the students in the game felt, including the one who was excluded.
Results showed that people who took acetaminophen rated the pain and hurt feelings of the excluded student as being not as severe as did the participants who took the placebo.

“In this case, the participants had the chance to empathize with the suffering of someone who they thought was going through a socially painful experience,” Way said.

“Still, those who took acetaminophen showed a reduction in empathy. They weren’t as concerned about the rejected person’s hurt feelings.”
While these results had not been seen before, they make sense in the light of previous research, Way said.

A 2004 study scanned the brains of people as they were experiencing pain and while they were imagining other people feeling the same pain. Those results showed that the same part of the brain was activated in both cases.

“In light of those results, it is understandable why using Tylenol to reduce your pain may also reduce your ability to feel other people’s pain as well,” he said.

The researchers are continuing to study how acetaminophen may affect people’s emotions and behavior, Way said. They are also beginning to study another common pain reliever – ibuprofen – to see if it has similar results.

The study was supported in part by a grant from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The 6 Elements of an Effective Apology, According to Science

“Acknowledgment of responsibility” is most important

Newswise. April 21, 2016– There are six components to an apology – and the more of them you include when you say you’re sorry, the more effective your apology will be, according to new research.

But if you’re pressed for time or space, there are two elements that are the most critical to having your apology accepted.

“Apologies really do work, but you should make sure you hit as many of the six key components as possible,” said Roy Lewicki, lead author of the study and professor emeritus of management and human resources at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.

In two separate experiments, Lewicki and his co-authors tested how 755 people reacted to apologies containing anywhere from one to all six of these elements:

1.     Expression of regret
2. Explanation of what went wrong
3. Acknowledgment of responsibility
4. Declaration of repentance
5. Offer of repair
6. Request for forgiveness
The research is published in the May 2016 issue of the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research. Lewicki’s co-authors were Robert Lount, associate professor of management and human resources at Ohio State, and Beth Polin of Eastern Kentucky University.

While the best apologies contained all six elements, not all of these components are equal, the study found.

“Our findings showed that the most important component is an acknowledgement of responsibility. Say it is your fault, that you made a mistake,” Lewicki said.

The second most important element was an offer of repair.

“One concern about apologies is that talk is cheap. But by saying, ‘I’ll fix what is wrong,’ you’re committing to take action to undo the damage,” he said.

The next three elements were essentially tied for third in effectiveness: expression of regret, explanation of what went wrong and declaration of repentance.

The least effective element of an apology is a request for forgiveness. “That’s the one you can leave out if you have to,” Lewicki said.

The first study involved 333 adults recruited online through Amazon’s MTURK program. All the participants read a scenario in which they were the manager of an accounting department that was hiring a new employee.

At a previous job, the potential employee had filed an incorrect tax return that understated a client’s capital gains income. When confronted about the issue, the job candidate apologized.

The participants were told that the apology contained one, three or all six of the apology components. They were then asked to rate on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (very) how effective, credible and adequate the apology statement would be.

The second study included 422 undergraduate students. The students read the same scenario as in the first study, but instead of being told which components the apology contained, they read an actual apology that included anywhere from one to six statements based on the six elements.

For example, for acknowledgment of responsibility, the apology statement read “I was wrong in what I did, and I accepted responsibility for my actions.”

They again rated how effective, credible and adequate the apology statement would be.

The results of the two studies were not identical, but they were very similar, Lewicki said. For both studies, the more elements that the apology contained, the more effective it was rated.

When the elements were evaluated one at a time, there was general consistency in the importance of the components across the two studies, with slight variations. But in both studies, the request for forgiveness was seen as least important.

In both studies, half the respondents were told the job applicant’s incorrect tax return was related to competence: He was not knowledgeable in all relevant tax codes. The other half were told it was related to integrity: He knowingly filed the tax return incorrectly.

The value of each of the six components was the same whether the apology was related to failures of competence or integrity. But overall, participants were less likely to accept apologies when the job applicant showed a lack of integrity versus a lack of competence.

Lewicki noted that, in this work, participants simply read apology statements. But the emotion and voice inflection of a spoken apology may have powerful effects, as well.

“Clearly, things like eye contact and appropriate expression of sincerity are important when you give a face-to-face apology,” he said.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Thinking and Feeling'

UC Santa Barbara researchers studying empathy in relationships find that in the absence of caring, understanding alone doesn't cut it when stressful situations arise

Newswise, March 9, 2016 — So you had a terrible day at work. Or the bills are piling up and cash is in short supply. Impending visit from the in-laws, perhaps?

When stress sets in, many of us turn to a partner to help us manage by being a sounding board or shoulder to cry on. Your odds of actually feeling better are much improved if they're both those things.

New research by psychologists at UC Santa Barbara reveals that simply understanding your partner's suffering isn't sufficient to be helpful in a stressful situation; you've got to actually care that they're suffering in the first place.

The findings, published in the journal Psychological Science, provide the first evidence that cognitive and affective forms of empathy work together to facilitate responsive behavior.

"When people were empathically accurate -- when they had an accurate understanding of their partner's thoughts and feelings -- they were more responsive only when they also felt more empathic concern, more compassion and motivation to attend to their partner's needs," explained lead author Lauren Winczewski, a graduate student in UCSB's Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences.

"People might assume that accurate understanding is all it takes to be responsive, but understanding a partner's thoughts and feelings was helpful only when listeners were also feeling more compassionate and sympathetic toward their partner.

When listeners had accurate knowledge but did not feel compassionate, they tended to be less supportive and responsive."

Responsiveness has become an important line of study in social and health psychology because research evidence increasingly suggests that feeling understood, validated and cared for by other people is crucial to relationships and personal well-being. But exactly what enables one to be responsive to others?

In the study, Winczewski and fellow graduate researcher Jeff Bowen, working with UCSB psychology professor Nancy Collins, argued that responsiveness requires not only accurate understanding but also compassionate motivation.

Specifically, they hypothesized that understanding another person's thoughts and feelings -- a cognitive skill known as empathic accuracy -- would foster responsive behavior only when paired with benevolent motivation, or empathic concern.

They tested their theory by asking couples to discuss a previously identified personal or relationship stressor -- jealousy, say, or, as in one case, one partner's extreme fear of flying.

By videotaping the conversations,­ the researchers were able to gauge empathic accuracy and empathic concern, as well as responsiveness, both in real time and after the interaction had concluded.

And as it turned out, they were right. When a listener's concern for their partner was high, their accuracy bolstered responsiveness; but when compassion was scant, understanding did little to aid responsiveness.

According to Winczewski, the findings suggest that empathic accuracy facilitates responsive behavior only when one is motivated to use that insight for benevolent goals.

"You can know very well what your partner is thinking and feeling -- maybe you've heard this story 17 times, the fight with the boss and so on -- but if you don't care?" said Winczewski.

"Having accurate knowledge in the absence of compassionate feelings may even undermine responsiveness."

The researchers speculate that everyday support conversations, like the ones they observed in their lab, inform people's more enduring perceptions of their partners' responsiveness over time.

"People use these kinds of interactions as diagnostic of their partner's motivation and ability to respond to their needs," she continued.

"'If that's how you're responding to me now, is that how you'll respond to me again in the future?' Over time, you may build trust in your partner's responsiveness or you may start to wonder if your partner is even willing, let alone able, to respond to your needs."

Said Collins, who leads UCSB's Close Relationships Lab: "Having an accurate understanding of our partner's inner world, combined with compassionate feelings, enables us to provide the kind of support that is wanted and needed by our loved ones. But in the absence of compassionate feelings, cognitive empathy alone is not enough.

"In this way," Collins added, "our study shows that 'thinking and feeling' work together to help us be as supportive as possible to those we love."

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Researchers ID Risk Factors That Predict Violence in Adults With Mental Illness

Newswise, March 3, 2016 — Researchers have identified three risk factors that make adults with mental illness more likely to engage in violent behavior.

The findings give mental health professionals and others working with adults with mental illness a suite of characteristics they can use as potential warning signs, allowing them to intervene and hopefully prevent violent behavior.

“Our earlier work found that adults with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators – and that is especially relevant to this new study,” says Sarah Desmarais, an associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State University and co-author of a paper describing the work.

“One of the new findings is that people with mental illness who have been victims of violence in the past six months are more likely to engage in future violent behavior themselves.”
The researchers compiled a database of 4,480 adults with mental illnesses – including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression – who had answered questions about both committing violence and being victims of violence in the previous six months.

The database drew from five earlier studies that focused on issues ranging from antipsychotic medications to treatment approaches. Those studies had different research goals, but all asked identical questions related to violence and victimization.

The researchers assessed the data to determine which behaviors, events and characteristics were most predictive of violent behavior over a six-month period. Violent behavior, in this context, ranged from pushing and shoving to sexual assault and assault with a deadly weapon.

The researchers found three risk factors that were predictive of violent behavior: if an individual is currently using alcohol; if an individual has engaged in violent behavior over the past six months; and if an individual has been a victim of violence within the past six months.

“We found that these risk factors were predictive even when we accounted for age, sex, race, mental illness diagnosis and other clinical characteristics,” Desmarais says.

In contrast, the researchers found that current drug use was not predictive of violent behavior, when age, sex, race, mental illness diagnosis and other clinical characteristics were considered.

“This is useful information for anyone working in a clinical setting,” Desmarais says. “But it also highlights the importance of creating policies that can help protect people with mental illness from being victimized. It’s not only the right thing to do, but it makes for safer communities.”

The paper, “Proximal Risk Factors for Short-Term Community Violence Among Adults with Mental Illnesses,” is published online in the journalPsychiatric Services. Lead author of the paper is Kiersten Johnson, a Ph.D. student at NC State. Co-authors were Kevin Grimm of the University of Arizona; Stephen Tueller and Richard Van Dorn of RTI International; and Marvin Swartz of Duke University. The work was supported by the National Institute for Mental Health under grant number R01MH093426 to Van Dorn.

Psychologist Examines the Profound Power of Loneliness

Newswise, March 3, 2016 — Loneliness is as close to universal as experiences come. Almost everyone has felt isolated, even rejected.

Profound power of lonliness
But the power of loneliness — its potential for causing depression and other serious health problems as well as its surprising role in keeping humans safe from harm — may be more profound than researchers had previously presumed, says neuroscience researcher John Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology at the University of Chicago.

Cacioppo has spent nearly three decades exploring the social nature of the human brain, working to find the mechanisms behind traits such as loneliness, empathy, synchrony and emotional contagion.

Through his research, funded by the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences, and the National Institute on Aging, he’s helped turn loneliness from a curious afterthought in neuroscience to a serious area for research and explanation.

He and his collaborators have also incorporated new technology at each stage of their research, combining methods ranging from behavior studies to endocrinological testing, electrical and functional neuroimaging, and genetics. They’re using those tools to identify the neural, hormonal, cellular and genetic mechanisms underlying social structures.

Using what they’ve learned, Cacioppo’s team is evaluating therapies for loneliness, finding the most effective treatments and working to improve them.

The researchers’ collaborators include the U.S. Army, which turned to Cacioppo for help with studies that could be incorporated into training to help protect soldiers from isolation and related social problems.

During a visit to the NSF, Cacioppo took some time to talk about loneliness — what it is, where it comes from and how it affects people.

Q. How do you define loneliness, in terms of your work?
A. It's defined as perceived social isolation. People can feel like they’re on the social perimeter for a lot of different reasons. If you’re the last one chosen on a high school team, that can feel really unpleasant. It’s also clearly an evaluation of your net worth to that group. If that’s a valued group, it matters to you. If it’s not a valued group, it’s no big deal. That has effects on not just emotions but cognition. Research at Rush University has shown that older adults are more likely to develop dementia if they feel chronic loneliness.

Q. So just the perception, not whether or not someone is actually isolated, can trigger a physiological reaction?
A. Much of what goes with loneliness — behaviorally, physiologically — is so deep that we’ve got it in our genes. It’s just like if I were to provide a painful stimulus to your arm, you would withdraw and complain of being hurt. That’s not something you learn. The pain withdrawal reflex is in place due to your genetic endowment. And that mechanism is in place because it protects your body from tissue damage.

Loneliness is a mechanism that’s in place because we need, as a social species, to be able to identify when our connections with others for mutual aid and protection are being threatened or absent. If there’s no connection, there could be mortal consequences. Those are threats to our survival and reproductive success.
Q. Does that make loneliness almost like a fever — unpleasant, but there's a purpose to it?

A. That’s exactly right. You would not want to eliminate the temporary feeling of loneliness. We’ve argued there’s a benefit to that response to perceived isolation. But, like many individual variations of these kinds of states, there are pathologic extremes. I might be so sensitive to feeling connected or isolated as to be a complete wreck, or I can be so insensitive as to be a psychopath. That’s just part of the normal distribution of individual differences that, for the most part, helps to protect our social body just as pain helps to protect our physical body.

Q. How does loneliness affect our social behavior and interactions?
A. When you feel lonely, you get more defensive. You focus more on self-preservation even though this is not done intentionally. Completely unbeknownst to you, your brain is focusing more on self-preservation than the preservation of those around you. This, in turn, can make you less pleasant to be around. Over time, this can increase the likelihood of negative social interactions. Thus, the focus on self-preservation can have short-term survival benefits but — if not reversed — can have long-term costs.

Q. It seems that loneliness can serve a useful purpose but — almost like an immune system that starts attacking things that aren't actually threats — it can go out of control.
A. That’s exactly right. It’s also very much like our stress system. Our stress system emerged in a different time of human history, and now we get stressed when we’re in traffic. There’s no saber-toothed tiger attacking; there’s no person with a spear coming to get me. I'm sitting in a safe car, but there’s still that level of stress and hostility that a traffic jam can engender. Our stress response contributed to survival across human history, but in contemporary society chronic stress also contributes to morbidity and mortality.
Stress has an adaptive value, even today, although not to the extent we’re expressing it. But knowing that does not mean we can simply turn it off when we wish. It’s the same thing with loneliness. We’re trying to educate the public about this, to say that loneliness isn’t something that only certain individuals have. It’s something we all have, we can all fall into, and nearly all of us experience at some point in our lives.

Q. Does this type of research into loneliness tell us anything about humans as a species?
A. The perception of loneliness is exacerbated by the feeling that one doesn’t have anyone on whom he or she can depend or who can depend on him or her. As children, we’re dependent on adults. When we grow to be adults, we think we’re supposed to become independent — the king of the mountain. But in social mammals -- not just humans — becoming an adult means being the individual upon whom others can depend. Our Western cultural notion of human nature does not capture our actual social nature particularly well.

Q. When you were starting your research into isolation decades ago, behavioral science and brain science weren't as closely linked as they are today, correct?
A. There were a number of people trying to put them together, but we didn’t have the neuroimaging technologies we have today that have really transformed what we can ask. Today, someone can really look at the working, normal brain.
I was doing electroencephalography (EEG) 40 years ago, and we looked at very broad questions. I was doing it 20 years ago, and we looked at relatively sophisticated questions compared to 20 years prior, but not very sophisticated compared to today. I’m now asking questions about the whole brain in action rather than a single region in isolation. And genetics and genomics are also increasingly integrated into investigations of the social brain.

Q. The questions that you started asking at the very beginning of your research — have they led you on a linear path to where you are today? Or has your research taken you in unexpected directions?
A. Yes to both. The question we started with wasn’t about loneliness and continues to not be about loneliness. It’s about who we are as a species. What, fundamentally, are our brains doing? What are the factors that influence brain function? Partly, we’re showing that the brain is organized in part to deal with and to promote salutary connections to other people. The fundamental question was “what is the social nature of our brain?”

One of the things that surprised me was how important loneliness proved to be. It predicted morbidity. It predicted mortality. And that shocked me. When we experimentally manipulated loneliness, we found surprising changes in the “personalities” of people. There's a lot more power to the perception of being socially isolated than any of us had thought.— Rob Marietta, National Science Foundation

Friday, February 19, 2016

Testosterone Treatment Improves Sexual Activity, Physical Function and Mood in Men Over 65

Testosterone shots improve sexual activity in men over 65
Newswise, February 19, 2016 – As men age, their testosterone levels decrease, but prior studies of the effects of administering testosterone to older men have been inconclusive.

Now, a new study shows testosterone treatment for men age 65 and older improves sexual function, walking ability and mood, according to findings published in the New England Journal of Medicine by a team of researchers from 12 medical centers, including Cora E. Lewis, M.D., of the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

The Testosterone Trials, or TTrials, are a coordinated group of seven trials, and researchers have analyzed the results of the first three — sexual function, physical function and vitality. They found that testosterone treatment increased the blood testosterone level in the study subjects to the mid-normal range for younger men.

Testosterone treatment led to modest improvements in all aspects of sexual function, including sexual activity, sexual desire and the ability to get an erection. It also resulted in small improvements in indexes of mood and depression and some but not all measures of physical function. Treatment did not improve overall energy level.

With 51,085 men screened and 790 who qualified, the TTrials are now the largest trials to examine the efficacy of testosterone treatment in men 65 and older whose testosterone levels are low due seemingly to age alone.

Lewis, a professor in the UAB Division of Preventive Medicine and co-author on the testosterone study, says this new research fills a prominent gap in the evidence for the possible benefits of testosterone in men in this age group, a gap identified by a 2003 report from the Institute of Medicine. Additional evidence will come from the studies in other trials on cognitive function, bone health, cardiovascular disease and anemia.

“We now have some evidence on the specific symptoms that seem to respond, or don’t respond, to testosterone therapy in men 65 years old and over,” Lewis said. “However, there are still big questions about overall benefits and risks. The negative effects of testosterone treatment are still unclear.”

Across the three trials, adverse events including heart attack, stroke and prostate problems were similar in men who received testosterone and men who received placebo. So, while the TTrials did not find harmful effects, Lewis says a larger and longer clinical trial comparing testosterone therapy to placebo to definitively assess the risks is needed.

Lewis says men considering testosterone treatment should consult their doctor.

“Men should discuss their symptoms and their health history with their doctor since testosterone treatment seems to affect some symptoms and not others,” she said. “Men should have their testosterone levels checked to be sure they have low testosterone.”

She also adds that it is important to have levels checked in the morning since testosterone levels naturally change over the course of a day.

The TTrials were supported by a grant from the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health and funding from other institutes of the NIH. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Anonymous Browsing Hinders Online Dating Signals

Online Dating Signals and Social Norms in Online Dating Signals
Newswise, February 10, 2016 — Big data and the growing popularity of online dating sites may be reshaping a fundamental human activity: finding a mate, or at least a date. Yet a new study in Management Science finds that certain longstanding social norms persist, even online.

In a large-scale experiment conducted through a major North American online dating website, a team of management scholars from Canada, the U.S. and Taiwan examined the impact of a premium feature: anonymous browsing. 

Out of 100,000 randomly selected new users, 50,000 were given free access to the feature for a month, enabling them to view profiles of other users without leaving telltale digital traces.

The researchers expected the anonymity feature to lower social inhibitions -- and apparently it did. Compared to the control group, users with anonymous browsing viewed more profiles. They were also more likely to check out potential same-sex and interracial matches.

Surprisingly, however, users who browsed anonymously also wound up with fewer matches (defined as a sequence of at least three messages exchanged between users) than their non-anonymous counterparts. 

This was especially true for female users: those with anonymous browsing wound up with an average of 14% fewer matches. Why?

Women don’t like to send personal messages to initiate contact, explains Jui Ramaprasad, an assistant professor of information systems at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management. 

In other words, she says, “We still see that women don’t make the first move.” Instead, they tend to send what the researchers call a “weak signal.”

“Weak signaling is the ability to visit, or ‘check out,’ a potential mate’s profile so the potential mate knows the focal user visited,” according to the study. 

“The offline ‘flirting’ equivalents, at best, would be a suggestive look or a preening bodily gesture such as a hair toss to one side or an over-the-shoulder glance, each subject to myriad interpretations and possible misinterpretations contingent on the perceptiveness of the players involved. 

"Much less ambiguity exists in the online environment if the focal user views another user’s profile and leaves a visible train in his ‘Recent Visitors’ list.”

Men often take the cue. “Men send four times the number of messages that women do,” says co-author Akhmed Umyarov, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. “So the anonymity feature doesn’t change things so much for men.”

Implications beyond online dating

Experiments of this sort could be used in a range of online-matching platforms to help understand how to improve the consumer experience – though it’s important that the experiments be done ethically, the researchers say.

“Even though people are willing to pay to become anonymous in online dating sites, we find that the feature is detrimental to the average users,” says Professor Ravi Bapna, co-author and the Carlson Chair in Business Analytics and Information Systems at Minnesota. 

”Professional social networks, such as LinkedIn, also offer different levels of anonymity, but user behavior and the underlying psychology in these settings is very different from that of romantic social networks.”
As with many academic research projects, the idea for this experiment stemmed partly from serendipity.
“I happened to know a senior guy at an online dating site,” Ramaprasad explains. 

“Since he knew that I studied online behavior, he suggested, ‘Why don’t you study this?’” The site, referred to in the study by the fictitious name of, is one of the largest online dating websites in North America.

The study could lay the groundwork for further academic analysis of online dating sites. 

“We expect future research to examine in more depth the issue of match quality and long-term outcomes as they relate to marriage, happiness, long-term relationships, and divorce,” the researchers conclude.

“One-Way Mirrors and Weak-Signaling in Online Dating: A Randomized Field Experiment,” Ravi Bapna, Jui Ramaprasad, Galit Shmueli, Akhmed Umyarov. Management Science, published online Feb. 2, 2016.

UF/IFAS Researcher Says Some People Are Single on Valentine’s Day and Just Fine with It

 There are ways to short-circuit the “mind traps” that often accompany a day set aside for couples

Newswise, February 10, 2016--- With the most hyped romantic day of the year fast approaching, some people who are single are perfectly happy that way – and not buying into the all the ads, stuffed animals, candies or cards.

Assistant Professor Victor Harris, an Extension specialist with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, said there are ways to short-circuit the “mind traps” that often accompany a day set aside for couples.

“Many people feel like Valentine's Day is manufactured and that the need to ‘have to be involved in a romantic relationship’ is imposed upon them by the media and the holiday's specific expectations,” Harris said. 

“Exposing the hype associated with these expectations and reframing the expectations into expectations that are more realistic are two ways to make it okay to simply ignore the holiday or enjoy it with friends, or choose do something you enjoy, such as working out or reading a good book, without the associated potential for anxiety or guilt.”

Harris said people can avoid the mind traps that can keep them from enjoying Valentine's Day. Recognizing these traps is the first step to short-circuiting them. 

They include:
• All-or-nothing thinking: You see things in black-or-white. If a situation is anything less than perfect, you see it as a total failure;
• Overgeneralization: You see a single event as a never-ending pattern of defeat by using the words always or never when you think about it;
• Jumping to conclusions: You interpret things negatively when there are no facts to support your conclusions;
• Emotional reasoning: You assume that your negative emotions reflect the way things really are: “I feel guilty [because I don't have a date for Valentine's Day]. I must be a rotten person.”;
• “Should” statements: You tell yourself that things ‘should’ be the way you hoped or expected them to be.

Harris cites the popular line, “you complete me,” from the Tom Cruise movie “Jerry Maguire.”

“This expectation is unrealistic because the key to healthy relationships is to first learn how to meet your own needs so you can then help someone else learn how to meet their needs,” Harris said. “Two people getting together in a relationship, who don't know how to meet their own needs, is a sure-fire recipe for failure.”

Harris said research in the work, “Developing a healthy self-image,” identified eight categories of needs that we can work on to enjoy and value ourselves before we get involved with someone else in a relationship, including:
• Feel safe and secure;
• Develop a positive self-concept;
• Feel worthwhile (i.e., good self-esteem);
• Receive the respect of self and others;
• Develop close real-love relationships;
• Feel like we belong;
• Feel competent;
• And experience growth.

“Once you learn to take care of and nurture yourself, only then can you be in a healthy, positive relationship,” he said. “And it is perfectly fine to be by yourself on Valentine’s Day – or any day of the year.”

Thursday, January 21, 2016

In Married Couples, Death May Not Entirely Do You Part

A person's quality of life at the time of their death continues to influence his or her spouse's quality of life in the years following the person's passing, according to new research by UA psychologists

Newswise, January 21, 2016 — As married couples spend day in and day out together, they begin to experience a level of interdependence in which one spouse's quality of life is very closely tied to that of the other.

This interdependence persists even after the death of one spouse, according to new research from the University of Arizona.

A person's quality of life at the time of their death continues to influence his or her spouse's quality of life in the years following the person's passing, according to new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

What's more, the association between a deceased and surviving spouse is just as strong as the association between partners who are both living, the researchers found.
"If your partner has higher quality of life before they pass away, you're more likely to have higher quality of life even after they're gone," said Kyle Bourassa, a UA psychology doctoral student and lead author of the paper.
"If he or she has lower quality of life before they pass away, you're then more likely to have lower quality of life."

In previous work, Bourassa and his colleagues found evidence that a person’s cognitive functioning and health influence not only his or her own well-being but also the well-being of his or her partner. They wondered whether this interdependence continues when one of the partners passes away.
To find out, they turned to the multinational, representative Study of Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe, or SHARE, an ongoing research project with more than 80,000 aging adult participants across 18 European countries and Israel.

Specifically, they examined data from 546 couples in which one partner had died during the study period and data from 2,566 couples in which both partners were still living.

The researchers were surprised to find no observable difference in the strength of the interdependence in couples' quality of life when comparing widowed spouses with spouses whose partners remained alive. They replicated these findings in two independent samples from the SHARE study, while controlling for other factors that might have played a role, such as participants' health, age and number of years married.

"Even though your marriage ends in a literal sense when you lose your spouse, the effects of who the person was still seems to matter even after they're gone," Bourassa said. "I think that really says something about how important those relationships are."

While it's not entirely clear why the interdependence persists, it's likely that the thoughts and emotions a person experiences when reminiscing about a lost spouse may contribute to the ongoing connection, the researchers say.

"Relationships are something we develop over time and they are retained in our mind and memory and understanding of the world, and that continues even after physical separation," said Mary-Frances O'Connor, UA assistant professor of psychology and a co-author of the paper who specializes in grief and the grieving process.

Bourassa said the findings could have implications for end-of-life care and for helping those who have lost their spouses. "If you can boost someone's quality of life before they pass, that might affect not just their life, but the quality of life of their partner and their family."

Other authors on the paper were David Sbarra, UA associate professor of psychology, and Lindsey M. Knowles, UA psychology doctoral student.