Mind and Brain

daylight savings timeI was going to write a post about Daylight Saving Time yesterday, but I was feeling very draggy for some reason. It couldn’t have anything to do with that tiny little nudge forward of the clock’s hour hand Sunday morning, could it? One measly hour out of my life, taken from the middle of a weekend. How much damage could that possibly do?

Turns out, the damage potential is pretty impressive. “People often feel draggy the day after they have to set their clocks forward in the spring but often shrug off that feeling as trivial,” says Erik Herzog, PhD, a neuroscientist at Washington University in St. Louis who studies biological clocks. “In fact,” he says, “jamming our biological clocks into reverse, as daylight saving time does, has serious consequences.” (Aha! I knew it!)

“Daylight saving time does not seem to help conserve energy, one of its original goals. Instead, the evidence is that the one hour advance of our wall clocks each spring is associated with statistically higher rates of traffic accidents over the following three days and heart attacks over the following two days,” Herzog says.DaylightSavingsTimeSm

You’ll want to check out Herzog’s research on his Washington University website, because Daylight Saving Time is only one of the ways we knock our circadian rhythms out of kilter.

In June of 2013 Herzog published research in the journal Neuron reporting the discovery of a crucial part of the biological clock: the wiring that sets its accuracy to within a few minutes out of the 1440 minutes per day.  Two networks (VIP and GABA), they have found, ensure the clock runs as a coordinated, precise timepiece but one that can still adjust its timing to synchronize with the environment.

“We think the neurotransmitter network is there to introduce enough jitter into the system to allow the neurons to resynchronize when environmental cues change, as they do with the seasons,” Herzog said. However, he explains, “since this biological ‘reset button’ evolved long before mechanical clocks, Elderly Navajo Womanartificial lights, and high-speed travel, it doesn’t introduce enough jitter to allow us to adjust quickly to the extreme time shifts of modern life, such as flying ‘backward’ (east) through several time zones.”

Understanding this system is important for understanding the health effects of messing with the body clock: in terms of daylight saving times, shift work, school starting times, medical intern schedules, truck driver hours, and many other areas where we attempt to push the body’s clock beyond its natural limits.

And as serious as heart attacks and traffic accidents are, researchers have also found that disruptions to the body clock caused by shift work contribute to obesity, and the World Health Organization lists shift work as a potential carcinogen.

It’s beginning to look as though feeling draggy is the least of my worries. It’s almost enough to make me consider moving to Arizona. But then . . . there must be research into the health effects of extreme heat, tarantulas and scorpions. I could look it up, but I think I’d rather take a nap.

OR, What Will Autism Be Like in 100 Years?

MileyCyrusI’ll confess: I didn’t come up with either of these titles on my own. They were simply two of the choices I was given by Hubspot’s new Blog Topic Generator Tool, which was unveiled to me (and presumably to many others) in an email last Thursday.  “Give us three nouns,” promised everyone’s favorite inbound marketing platform, “and we’ll give you a week’s worth of blog post titles in a matter of seconds.” (I’m paraphrasing, somewhat.) I gave them “autism,” “personality,” and “parenting.” At the end of this post you’ll find a screenshot of the other options I could have chosen. I’m sure you’ll agree I made the right choice.

Of course, as behooves any marketing guru, Hubspot does offer a fabulous disclaimer: “Our algorithm isn’t perfect,” they write. “After you have your titles, you may want to tweak them to be more relevant to your terms and grammatically correct.” To be honest, I wasn’t all that keen about tweaking (notice I didn’t say “twerking,” although you wouldn’t want to see me do that either).  

Rather, I chose to stick to what I was assigned, finding it very personally compelling. If only I had a snowball’s chance in Florida of coming anywhere close to living up to it, given that these subjects deserve serious treatment. At least, the subject of autism does, so that’s where our attention will be focused.  Forgive me, Hannah Montana fans, but I don’t think there are any connections to be made between the following recent autism studies and Miley Cyrus, although you’re welcome to challenge me in a comment if you feel otherwise. Nevertheless, I’m sure there are many Miley Cyrus fans who would appreciate a better understanding of autism, so welcome. Let’s start with these recent research reports:

1. Study Reveals Senses of Sight and Sound Separated in Children with Autism

January 14, 2014—Like watching a foreign movie that was badly dubbed, children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have trouble integrating simultaneous information from their eyes and their ears, according to a Vanderbilt study published today in The Journal of Neuroscience.

2. Hospital-Diagnosed Maternal Infections Linked to Increased Autism Risk

December 23, 2013—Hospital-diagnosed maternal bacterial infections during pregnancy were associated with an increased risk of autism spectrum disorders in children, according to a Kaiser Permanente study published Dec. 23 in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
(Full story . . . )

3. Probiotic Therapy Alleviates Some Autism-like Behaviors in Mice

December 5, 2013—Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is diagnosed when individuals exhibit characteristic behaviors that include repetitive actions, decreased social interactions, and impaired communication. Curiously, many individuals with ASD also suffer from gastrointestinal (GI) issues, such as abdominal cramps and constipation.
(Full story . . . )

4. Video Could Transform How Schools Serve Teens with Autism

October 17, 2013—Video-based teaching helps teens with autism learn important social skills, and the method eventually could be used widely by schools with limited resources, a Michigan State University researcher says.
(Full story . . . )

5. Study Provides Clues about Imitation or “Empathy Impairments” in Autistic Children

September 30, 2013—Researchers say it’s clear that some cases of autism are hereditary, but have struggled to draw direct links between the condition and particular genes. Now a team at the Johns Hopkins University School of MedicineTel Aviv University and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology has devised a process for connecting a suspect gene to its function in autism.
(Full story . . . )

6. Researchers Discover a Potential Cause of Autism

CHAPEL HILL, NC; August 28, 2013—Key enzymes are found to have a ‘profound effect’ across dozens of genes linked to autism, the insight could help illuminate environmental factors behind autism spectrum disorder and contribute to a unified theory of how the disorder develops. This represents a significant advance in the hunt for environmental factors behind autism and lends new insights into the disorder’s genetic causes.
(Full story . . . )

7. Autistic Children Can Outgrow Difficulty Understanding Visual Cues and Sounds

BRONX, NY; August 28, 2013—Scientists at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University have shown that high-functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD) children appear to outgrow a critical social communication disability. Younger children with ASD have trouble integrating the auditory and visual cues associated with speech, but the researchers found that the problem clears up in adolescence. The study was published today in the online edition of the journal Cerebral Cortex.
(Full story with video . . . )

8. Autistic Kids Who Best Peers at Math Show Different Brain Organization

STANFORD, CA; August 16, 2013—Children with autism and average IQs consistently demonstrated superior math skills compared with nonautistic children in the same IQ range, according to a study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital.(Full story . . . )

9. Making the Brain Attend to Faces in Autism

A new study in Biological Psychiatry explores the influence of oxytocin

Philadelphia, PA; August 15, 2013Difficulty in registering and responding to the facial expressions of other people is a hallmark of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Relatedly, functional imaging studies have shown that individuals with ASD display altered brain activations when processing facial images. The hormone oxytocin plays a vital role in the social interactions of both animals and humans. In fact, multiple studies conducted with healthy volunteers have provided evidence for beneficial effects of oxytocin in terms of increased trust, improved emotion recognition, and preference for social stimuli.
(Full story . . . )

10. Elevated Gluten Antibodies Found in Children with Autism: But No Link to Celiac Disease

NEW YORK; June 20, 2013—Researchers have found elevated antibodies to gluten proteins of wheat in children with autism in comparison to those without autism. The results also indicated an association between the elevated antibodies and the presence of gastrointestinal symptoms in the affected children. They did not find any connection, however, between the elevated antibodies and celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder known to be triggered by gluten.
(Full story . . . )

And yes, here’s a screenshot to prove that I did not make this up. (PS: I’ll let you know in my next post whether Hubspot is correct in its assessment that all you have to do is mention a celebrity to get people to read your blog):


FacesOfEmotionSmBefore we get into the six dimensions of emotional style, a little background is called for. Most of us are familiar with the pop-psych approach to measuring personality, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), right? What may not be as well-known is the fact that this popular tool is based on Carl Jung‘s musings about the brain. Jung did the best he could to make guesses about the nature of personality in a pre-neuroscience world, but he was hampered by his time, mystic notions related to psychic energy, and limited research tools.

Skip forward about half a century, and you’ll find that, even though much more is known today about the brain, public practice hasn’t yet caught up. You will still find many schools and workplaces relying on a 50-year-old tool to make judgments about human potential; a tool which rests on the conventional assumption that we’re born with a specific personality and carry it with us until we die.

Looking at how little has changed in actual practice over 50 years, you would think the intervening revolution in genetics has happened silently, underground—without so much as fluttering the composure of the average human resources director or high-school counselor.

You know the revolution, I’m talking about, right? The one that overturned the idea that genetic equals unchangeable. I think most people have heard the phrase “nature plus nurture” by now, but its ramifications may not be so easy to grasp. The research is not controversial at all, and as neuroscientist Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley put it in The Emotional Life of Your Brain, it toppled the nature-versus-nurture debate “as thoroughly and dramatically as the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. Scientists made two startling, and related discoveries,” they write: “that a genetic trait will be expressed or not depending on the environment in which a child grows up, and that the actual gene—the double helix that winds through every single one of our cells—can be turned on or off depending on the experiences we have.”

To underscore what that means, they continue, “Contrary to the popular belief that if something is genetically based we’re stuck with it for life . . . even genetically based traits can be dramatically modified by how parents, teachers, and caregivers treat children and by the experiences children have.”

Yes, even traits we think of as innate parts of our personality. And even more interesting, some of the traits we’ve thought of as basic personality traits are not as basic as we once thought. Many of them are the result of a combination of more than one brain circuit related to emotion.

This is pretty big news, actually. What it means is that there is something more fundamental to who we are than what we’ve thought of as “personality.”

After studying the specific neural signatures that underlie what we’ve always thought of as “personality traits,” researchers have identified six dimensions, which Davidson refers to as Emotional Style. “Each dimension describes a continuum,” he and Begley explain. “Some people fall at one or the other extreme of that continuum, while others fall somewhere in the middle. The combination of where you fall on each dimension adds up to your overall Emotional Style fingerprint.”

The six dimensions are:

1. Resilience style: “If you have an argument with your significant other,” asks Davidson, “does it cast a pall on the remainder of your day, or are you able to recover quickly and put it behind you?” We fall between “Fast to Recover” or “Slow to Recover” on this dimension.

2. Outlook style: “Do you maintain a high level of energy and engagement even when things don’t go your way? Or do you tend toward cynicism and pessimism, struggling to see anything positive?” We fall between “Positive” and “Negative” on the Outlook dimension.

3. Social Intuition style: “Can you read people’s body language and tone of voice like a book? . . . Or are you puzzled by—even blind to—the outward indications of people’s mental and emotional states?” We are described as anywhere between “Socially Intuitive” and “Puzzled” on this dimension.

4. Self-Awareness style: “Are you aware of your own thoughts and feelings? . . . Or do you act and react without knowing why you do what you do?”  We fall between “Self-Aware” and “Self-Opaque” on this dimension.

5. Sensitivity to Context style: “Are you able to pick up the conventional rules of social interaction? . . .Or are you baffled when people tell you that your behavior is inappropriate?” On this dimension we’ll find ourselves somewhere between “Tuned In” and “Tuned Out.”

6. Attention style: “Can you screen out emotional or other distractions and stay focused? . . . Or do your thoughts flit from the task at hand to the fight you had with your spouse this morning or the anxiety you feel about an upcoming presentation for work?” We fall on this dimension between “Focused” and “Unfocused.”

Your “personality” is a cookie dough made up of differing dollops of these ingredients; with the old familiar personality traits being traced to combinations of these neural signatures . . . and we can adjust where we fall on these dimensions if we want to.

But we don’t have to. There is no ideal emotional style, says Davidson, but he also doesn’t see himself in the “I’m okay, you’re okay” camp. This, he says, is because, “some emotional styles simply make it harder to be a productive member of society, to forge meaningful relationships, and to achieve a sense of well-being.” That’s actually the test, he says. But whatever reason you may have for wanting to tweak your position on any of these dimensions, the point is that if you do want to alter your emotional style, you can. “Sorry, this is the way I was born,” is no longer a limitation.

This understanding might shed some light on why it can be so damaging to pin a “personality type” on a kid in grade school and set their life’s course accordingly. Or to skip hiring an employee based on a test that assesses his or her personality “potential” using the old “here’s who I am” paradigm.

But it may also come as a welcome realization: a gift, even. To think that we aren’t stuck with the aspects of our approach that aren’t working for us can be seen, in some respects, as an open door to a new way of life and a more effective way of relating to others.

Because at the root of it, the key to an effective emotional style is the key to the success of our relationships. And relationships are what make our lives worth living.

In future posts, we’ll go over some of the more familiar personality traits in more detail, tracing them to their underlying emotional styles. But you can catch a sneak peek at some of them in Emotions are Us, today’s featured article on Mom Psych.

PTSD6-27-13The United States Senate has designated today (June 27, 2013) as PTSD Awareness Day, while also setting aside June as “PTSD Awareness Month.” To honor this worthy intent, Mom Psych is working with the National Center for PTSD to help educate the public about the causes, symptoms and treatment of traumatic stress.

One of the most common questions people ask about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has to do with why some people “get” PTSD and others don’t.  There may not be one simple answer, but researchers are closing in on some important influences. One important consideration is our level of resilience.

What is resilience and where does it come from?  From a psychological perspective, resilience is the ability to return to a healthy emotional baseline after adversity or stress. Like most of our traits, there’s a genetic component that contributes to where we fall on the resilience scale. But that’s not all there is to it. We know that our environment plays on our genetics to help determine which genes are “expressed” or activated, and which are not. We also know that there are certain key windows for this activation.

While the brain remains malleable to a certain degree our whole lives long, there are key developmental periods for shaping its basic substrates. Whether or not we reach our full genetic potential in terms of resilience depends to a great degree on our interpersonal history, particularly during the first two years of life:

[See: Born to Connect: The Role of Secure Attachment in Resilience to Trauma]

Clearly, it’s during these early years that we’re most vulnerable to the effects of abuse. But even more so when the abuse comes from those who are supposed to protect and nurture us:

[See: Betrayed: Why All Trauma Is Not Equal]

So, even though there are complexities to the question of why some people end up with PTSD while others don’t, we are beginning to piece together a general picture:

[See: Why Some Soldiers Develop PTSD and Others Don’t

As this particular bit of research points out, pre-war vulnerability is just as important as combat-related trauma in predicting whether veterans’ symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will be long-lasting. And one of the most common problems contributing to that pre-war vulnerability is, as you might suspect by now, child abuse:

[See: Embattled Childhoods May Be the Real Trauma for Soldiers with PTSD]

All of this said, we aren’t stuck with our pre-existing resilience levels. Yes, we can work toward increasing our stores of resilience, and there are effective therapies for PTSD.

Interestingly, the most effective therapists are those who instinctively provide that interpersonal connection we need so we can use the brain of another as a scaffold to our own brain’s rebuilding process. As therapist Tom Cloyd puts it:

When you run into a rough patch and all your tools are failing, the number one fallback really is the same for child or adult: another person who is NOT a participant in your distress and is compassionate in relation to you—tolerant of your drama, understanding of the experience, interested in staying connected to you—and who follows through, etc. Because of the way feelings jump back and forth between people (it’s about mirror neurons, if you want to look up the neurology), a calm person will tend to propagate calmness to (or “infect,” if you will) a distressed person. Good parents do this all the time for children.

In addition to surrounding yourself with a good support network (including a knowledgeable therapist) there are a few practical things you can do to make the most of your own capacity for resilience.

The first key is to take care of your physical health: good nutrition, regular sleep and exercise will help give you the strength necessary to support psychological health.

But you can also apply these same concepts to your brain as you work to support neurogenesis (the birth of new neurons) and lay the groundwork for successful therapy.

  • Feed your brain with positive, health-promoting experiences such as reaching out to help others or accomplishing a task that has a clear and beneficial outcome.
  • Rest your brain through meditation or by focusing on those things that give your life meaning.
  • Exercise your brain by learning something new.  Behavioral biologist Paul Martin notes in his 2006 book Making Happy People, that learning helps us reduce unpleasant emotions like anxiety, anger and depression, as well as aches and pains (which often accompany PTSD). He suggests that this is because the knowledge and problem-solving ability we gain—and the resulting sense of mastery—liberates us from worries and concerns that would otherwise make us anxious.

It should be clear by now that there is much hope for PTSD sufferers and their loved ones. Realizing this hope begins with educating the public about this debilitating condition. And that, after all, is the point of having an “awareness day.”

For more information about causes, symptoms and therapies for PTSD, I’d like to recommend three great resources. There are more, but these are great places to begin:

ClassroomStressTeacher Appreciation Week has passed, along with “Mom Appreciation Day,” but parents and teachers continue the important work of shaping children’s brains all year long.

Unfortunately, there are challenges that can get in the way of this worthy goal, and perhaps the most fundamental of these is the widespread misunderstanding of the conditions children need for learning. Just as a child needs secure attachment with caregivers at home to lay the foundation for healthy brain development, they also need secure attachment with teachers in the classroom if they are to build on that foundation.

However, points out Pepperdine University professor Dr. Lou Cozolino in his book The Social Neuroscience of Education, schools aren’t always constructed with concern for human biology. “Most schools are based on a model of industrial production where raw materials are converted into a predetermined product,” he writes.  But students and teachers aren’t “uniform raw materials or assembly-line workers,”he says. “Relationships are our natural habitat. . . . Our ability to learn is regulated by how we are treated by our teachers, at home and in the classroom.”

This is a profound truth. The human brain is a social organ, shaped by our interactions with others. When those interactions are positive, we feel safe and connected, which allows brain chemicals to support new neural growth: the stage is set for learning. On the other hand, Cozolino points out, thinking and feeling are so intertwined that plasticity turns off when anxiety levels are high. “Stressed brains,” he underscores, “are resistant to new learning.”

Is all stress bad? Of course not. But the circuits involved in arousal, stress, and fear operate much like a muscle. They operate well under low levels of intermittent stress, when there is adequate time for repair, but high levels of chronic stress can cause these circuits to malfunction. Anyone who has done weight training can easily understand the concept: a muscle burdened with too much weight for too long will break down rather than grow. In the same way, chronic, high levels of stress flood the brain with cortisol, shutting down all systems but those required to fight or flee. Immune systems are shut down, as are systems involved in neural growth and learning.

On the other hand, when people around us make us feel safe, understood and cared for, these biological processes are reversed. When teachers are aware of the emotional needs of their students as well as tailoring tasks to their abilities, they help regulate children’s stress levels. Even children with poor attachment at home are capable, given time, of responding well to nurturing relationships in the classroom. “Brains grow best in the context of supportive relationships, low levels of stress, and through the creative use of stories,” writes Cozolino. “Secure relationships not only trigger brain growth, but also serve emotional regulation that enhances learning.”

Of course, no parent is attuned to their child at all times and teachers will also have stressors that get in the way of their ability to attune with students. But “good enough” parents supporting and supported by “good enough” teachers are the building blocks of the kind of school communities that are needed to create a fertile ground for learning.

Autism Awareness Month isn’t primarily for people on the spectrum and their families—although, of course, they benefit from the discussion too. But more importantly, all this talk about autism is meant to help the rest of us learn to communicate with those who already know about autism from the inside. It’s for you and me.

So, as we near the end of April, I’d like to ask the general, neurotypical (as far as you know) population a couple of questions: Have you learned something new about autism this month? If so, what was it, and do you think it will change the way you relate to those on the spectrum who may be in your extended family, your school, or your community? Before you decide you have nothing to say, please watch the following 10-minute video and click on just one or two of the links below. If you still feel you haven’t learned anything new, I hope you’ll respond anyway—it’s always encouraging to know I’m writing to an especially well-informed audience.

Carly’s story may not be new to you; the ABC segment originally aired in 2008. But when I showed it to my nine-year-old, she immediately thought of a classmate who often wears noise-reducing headphones for autism. I’d like to think it will help her understand his behavior just a little bit better.

Of course, it’s important to remember that there is as much individuality on the spectrum as off. Carly’s experience is her own. But her perspective does offer one window into what autism is like. And it may also raise other questions. Why do children like Carly experience the world the way they do? And what causes autism in the first place?  These questions are harder to answer, but researchers have been tackling them with gusto in very recent years. As promised, here are ten of their recent findings that add to our understanding. I’ll try to give them some context, but Carly may already have done some of that for us. Remember what she said about input overload?

Autism Linked with Excess of Neurons in Prefrontal Cortex

November 8, 2011—This study by researchers at the UC San Diego Autism Center of Excellence shows that brain overgrowth in autism involves an excess number of neurons in areas of the brain associated with social and cognitive development, as well as communication development. Not just a small overgrowth: they found 67 percent more cortical cells—a type of brain cell only made before birth—in children with autism. The findings suggest that the disorder may arise from “prenatal processes gone awry,” says lead researcher Eric Courchesne.

Of course, more brain cells may cause problems because you take in a lot of information you don’t need; but it also may confer some advantages:

People with Autism Possess Greater Ability to Process Information, Study Suggests

March 22, 2012—People with autism have a greater than normal capacity for processing information even from rapid presentations and are better able to detect information defined as ‘critical’, according to a study published today in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

Autism Severity May Stem from Fear

November 29, 2012—This BYU study finds that children with the diagnosis struggle with letting go of fear when a threat has passed. And the higher their level of fearfulness, the more severe their classic symptoms of autism, such as repeated movements and resistance to change.

This research highlights the need to help children with autism process their emotions, especially when they are fearful, but it also points to why so many studies have found similarities in the brain between children with autism and children who have been exposed to long-term childhood trauma: both show deficits in social development and some processes related to empathy. It’s important to clarify here that “deficits in the empathy centers” is NOT the same thing as “lacking in empathy.” There are two basic parts to empathy: the ability to feel what others are feeling through emotional contagion—and the ability to understand that other people’s minds are separate from yours. Children diagnosed with autism are thought to have the opposite problem to psychopaths. Psychopaths have theory of mind, but they lack what Bruce Perry calls the “emotional, caring core needed for compassion.”

Children with autism, on the other hand, have the capacity for compassion in spades but they may have significant delays in learning to separate the hurts of others from their own, which would, of course contribute to their sensory overload, and a need to dissociate. This affects their ability to develop the social skills necessary to bond with others.

Remember when autism was thought to have been caused by “refrigerator mothers”? Parents who were thought to be so “cold” that they didn’t bond with their children? Well, it’s true that severe neglect can cause symptoms that look very much like autism. But in autism, it’s the brain’s heightened sensitivity and information overload that interferes. Not a lack of loving parents. Fortunately, neuroplasticity comes to the rescue:

Early Autism Intervention Improves Brain Responses to Social Cues

October 29, 2012—An autism intervention program that emphasizes social interactions and is designed for children as young as 12 months has been found to improve cognitive skills and brain responses to faces, considered a building block for social skills.

Of course, to intervene early enough, we have to be able to detect autism earlier than we have been able to in the past.

Detecting Early Signs of Autism in the Brain

January 26, 2012—In their first year of life, babies who will go on to develop autism already show different brain responses when someone looks at or away from them. Only a first step toward earlier diagnosis, the findings suggest that direct brain measures might help predict autism in infants as young as six months.

Next steps toward earlier diagnoses would be to learn about where autism begins. When do the first changes in the brain begin to show themselves? If you clicked on the first study in this list and played Eric Courchesne’s video, you heard him say that the overgrowth of neurons occurs between the 10th and 20th week of pregnancy. And the epigenetic trigger has to come before the overgrowth, right? The following studies offer additional pieces of the puzzle.

Researchers Identify Epigenetic Signatures of Autism

November 7, 2011—We’ve known for some time that there are a number of genes associated with autism. But we also know from twin studies that having those genes doesn’t necessarily predict autism. This tells researchers that something in the environment has caused a gene to “express,” or activate.  Scientists at the University of Massachusetts Medical School are the first to map these “epigenetic” changes in neurons from the brains of individuals with autism.  The question is, can we isolate when these changes are happening? Check out the next study:

Autism and Schizophrenia Genes Only Active in Developing Brains

February 12, 2013—We saw this coming, didn’t we? Genes linked to autism [and schizophrenia], are only switched on during the early stages of brain development, say researchers at the University of Oxford. This study adds to the mounting evidence that autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder. (Which simply means it originates during early brain development.)

Gene Expression Abnormalities in Autism Identified

March 22, 2012—A study led by Eric Courchesne, Ph.D., director of the Autism Center of Excellence at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine has, for the first time, identified in young autism patients genetic mechanisms involved in abnormal early brain development and overgrowth that occurs in the disorder. The findings suggest novel genetic and molecular targets that could lead to discoveries of new prevention strategies and treatment for the disorder.

Epigenetic Changes Shed Light on Biological Mechanism of Autism

April 23-2013Scientists from King’s College London have identified specific patterns of epigenetic changes involved in autism spectrum disorder by studying genetically identical twins who differ in autism traits.  We’ve already talked about the fact that previous twin studies have shown both strong genetic as well as epigenetic components to ASD and Courchesne’s studies tell us the genes in question are involved in brain development which occurs during the second trimester of pregnancy.

There is still a lot left to learn, and it is certain that we won’t turn up any simple causes or solutions. The interplay between genetic and environmental influences is complex. But I’ll leave you with this intriguing study that hints at how huge that complexity might yet prove to be.

Women Abused as Children More Likely to Have Children with Autism

March 20, 2013—Women who experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse as children are more likely to have a child with autism than women who were not abused, according to a new study from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). Those who experienced the most serious abuse had the highest likelihood of having a child with autism—three-and-a-half times more than women who were not abused.

convicted brain

When a press release carrying the title, “Can brain scans predict future criminal behavior?” came across the Mom Psych feed recently, I knew it needed a little extra commentary. If you clicked through to the article just now, you may have had the same reaction I did. Or maybe not. Were you curious? Hopeful? Skeptical? Doubtful? Apprehensive?

Personally, I will admit to a distinct inward cringe, and not just because an image of Tom Cruise sprang unbidden to my couch—er—I mean mind. Naturally I thought of his character in Minority Report, accused of murder long before any such intention had entered his head. But I’m not paranoid enough (yet) to think we’ll ever use fMRI technology to justify “Precrime” units. Still, I couldn’t shake a sinking feeling that establishing a culture of rehabilitation in the criminal justice system may be an impossible mission.

This is not a criticism of the research. We do learn quite a bit about the human brain and behavior from fMRI studies and these investigators are very clearly thinking in terms of therapeutic interventions for likely re-offenders. But of course, that doesn’t mean politicians, attorneys, judges or juries will apply the technology in the intended spirit. As we know, history is replete with examples of science gone wrong: discoveries that initially seem to portend good for mankind all too frequently end up being used to inflict murder and mayhem, and all sorts of other injustices along the way.

My point (in case it needs to be stated outright) is that a reasonable degree of caution is warranted when applying studies like this one to real life. Not only because they may lead down a perilous road from a policy perspective, but also because “neuroprediction” in itself can be tricky business, as Russell Poldrack points out. Director of the Imaging Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, Poldrack calls this particular study an “impressive” one, although he notes that the predictive accuracy wasn’t validated on out-of-sample data. After performing the missing cross-validation on his own, however, Poldrack found a “slight benefit” to out-of-sample prediction of future rearrest, and concluded:

The take-away message from this analysis is that fMRI can indeed provide information relevant to whether an individual will be rearrested for a crime.  However, this added predictability is exceedingly small, and we don’t know whether there are other (unmeasured) demographic or behavioral measures that might provide similar predictive power.  In addition, these analyses highlight the importance of using out-of-sample prediction analyses whenever one makes a claim about the predictive ability of neuroimaging data for any outcome.  We are currently preparing a manuscript that will address the issue of “neuroprediction” in greater detail.

Well, that’s one very real problem. But statistical analysis aside, there’s another important question we need to ask ourselves: Why do we want fMRI scans to predict recidivism? If we’re profiling so that we can better target therapies for rehabilitation—okay, fine. On the other hand, if we hope to use fMRI scans to make decisions about sentencing, probation, parole, involuntary commitment or juvenile detention, we would be overstepping bounds on many fronts. Even if we could be sure there was nothing misleading about a defendant’s individual scan results seen apart from the average of many test subjects (a big “if”), we would essentially be dismissing the brain’s ability to change. But the brain is malleable—researchers have shown there are ways to help people alter activity levels throughout the brain, including in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which happens to be the area of focus in this study.

Make no mistake, there is still much to learn about the neural mechanisms underlying human behavior, despite the fact that fMRI studies add to the store of knowledge on a daily basis. But it is clear that neuroscience has moved into the legal system to stay, spawning a relatively new area of study christened neurolaw. “Neurolaw studies not only the descriptive and predictive issues of how neuroscience is and will be used in the legal system but also the normative issues of how neuroscience should and should not be used within the legal system,” explain researchers Annabelle (Mimi) Belcher and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. A neuroscientist and neuroethicist respectively, Belcher and Sinnott-Armstrong’s 2010 paper on the topic points out some of the prevailing thinking about how neuroscience may build on psychology and social science research in the courtroom.

“We are not, of course, endorsing any of the many uses of neuroscience mentioned here,” they caution. “The point is only that neuroscience can, in principle, be used in a great many ways within the legal system; some of these uses of neuroscience are coming quickly, and we had better get ready. We need to get ready both to prevent misuses and accompanying mistakes and also to encourage the best uses of any legitimate applications of neuroscience in law.”

. . . . .

CBC RADIO Interviews Annabelle (Mimi) Belcher (Along with Michio Kaku and Steve Laken): The End of Privacy

attachment fatheringAs May begins and Mother’s Day approaches, the American brain is primed to think of all things Mom and Motherhood. And so it is that the New York Times finds it opportune to ask, “Has women’s obsession with being the perfect mother destroyed feminism? In particular, has the trend of ‘attachment parenting’ been bad for working moms?”  Weighing in on the debate are experts and authors across the parenting spectrum, from attachment-parenting guru Mayim Bialik (Beyond the Sling) to Pamela Druckerman, whose discovery of wisdom in the parenting approach of the French inspired her to write Bringing up Bébé.

Rest assured, you will not often trip over ideological debates on Mom Psych.The focus here is on research rather than opinion; and debates tend to be opinion on steroids. But any excuse to bring up a good study will serve, and the NYT debate does open the door to a few interesting bits of research.

My favorite bit  has to do with how our brains work in debate mode. Psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman would tell you that your political preferences go a long way toward determining what arguments you’re willing to buy into. Not necessarily because you’ve weighed the issues, but because your brain is good at jumping to emotional conclusions about what it likes or doesn’t like— pretty much at first sight. Fortunately, if you can be persuaded to consider the evidence, it’s just possible you might override the initial emotional response. But, says Kahneman, the brain’s analytical mode (what he calls System 2) is “more of an apologist for the emotions of System 1 than a critic of those emotions—an endorser rather than an enforcer. Its search for information and arguments is mostly constrained to information that is consistent with existing beliefs.” The brain, Kahneman explains, does not really like to examine where its beliefs come from or whether that source is reliable. It only wants to preserve them at all costs.

One of our unconscious but brilliant strategies for preserving them is to argue with “straw men” instead of the real opinions of other people. We unwittingly remold our opponent’s perspective into the most extreme version possible so it will be easier to knock down without requiring too much thought. After all, it takes effort to get inside another person’s head and accurately make sense of the contents, so we do what comes naturally: We make something up. You may have a straw-man habit  if people regularly interrupt you with, “That’s not what I’m saying.” We may even make up the entire premise on which our straw argument stands. These tendencies can clearly be seen in the NYT attachment parenting debate, and if we are honest with ourselves as we read through it, we may notice them in our own reactions too.

The first thing that may bother you is the debate question itself. It seems extreme to suggest that feminism has been destroyed, and the idea that attachment parenting might be responsible reflects a misunderstanding of the parenting style. As PhD in Parenting blogger Annie Urban points out, “It’s About Parenting, Not ‘Mothering.” Urban takes on French author Elisabeth Badinter’s assertion that this form of parenting enslaves women, and notes that there are enough responsibilities associated with childcare to keep men and women equally busy if dads will man up. Badinter says that in her country, at least, they don’t. Well, wise up, French dads, there’s a whole slew of research that says if they are lucky enough to have two parents, kids need both of them. That means dads too. You can say “I’ll do the cooking and you do the laundry,” but you can’t say “I’ll do the gardening and you do the kids.” Children are full-fledged family members who need to be emotionally connected to both parents equally. And connection is only possible when there is involvement.

As the debate continues, a veritable army of straw soldiers floods the battlefield. Attachment parenting is portrayed as a rigid system requiring mothers and children to spend all their time together” leaving none of the wise, French-parenting “distance” that would enable children to build “autonomy and resilience.” Of course, there certainly may be some in the attachment parenting fringe who can be described in these terms, but practiced with balance it is not about mothers and children spending all their time together. Nor is it about rigid co-sleeping rules, ignoring tantrums, extreme dietary restrictions, or any of the other straw man erected by those who don’t understand its basis. In fact, there is so much room for individual style within the attachment parenting “movement” (if it is to be so-called) that its families are like snowflakes: no two are exactly alike. What ties them together is one fundamental aim: to create a strong emotional bond that will encourage the development of children’s autonomy and capacity for resilience.

This is where the next bit of research comes in to clarify how children develop these important characteristics. We’ll go to the original source and you may be surprised  that it won’t be pediatrician William Sears, who perhaps deserves the credit for establishing “attachment parenting” as a movement.  It’s true he did lay down a long list of recommendations for achieving attachment, but Sears was merely interpreting the research, albeit through his own useful observations as a pediatrician. Attachment research actually began with psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth and has since been taken over by neuroscientists, who have expanded on the initial theory. What the research shows is that the areas of the brain that support autonomy and resilience are sculpted and strengthened by emotional attunement with caretakers. It isn’t distance that performs this miracle. It’s connection. Sure, children need age-appropriate practice in exercising autonomy and resilience. But they need a secure base of connection to work from.

Of course, every good parent aims for this connection (which may make everyone an attachment parent to some degree). But another funny thing about the human brain is that it loves simple categorizations and it also loves the tangible chemical high it gets from being able to categorize itself as “capable” and everyone else as “incapable.” And so we classify as wackos all feminists, tiger moms, wise French parents, and attachment adherents and refuse to see ourselves in any of them. Whereas if we could see them—as well as ourselves—without polarized lenses, we just might be surprised to find that we have much more in common than we might think.

critical thinkingI’m still learning not to talk about books at cocktail parties. At this point I haven’t figured out what you are supposed to talk about at them . . . but at least it’s finally beginning to dawn on me that people don’t go to cocktail parties to have their thoughts challenged. People go to parties so they can relax and have a good time, and when people are relaxed they don’t like to think too much. There’s actually research to back that up.  (I don’t mind mentioning that here, since I don’t have a glass in my hand and I’m not standing around next to a plate of hors d’oeuvres.)

In any case, I learn best from actual mistakes, so I try to make them as often as possible, which is why I brought up Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, while at a friend’s cocktail party in January. My close friends know that the Nobel Prize-winning researcher’s 2011 book is my latest favorite—and has been for about six months now—but at this party I managed to bring it up among five or six people who hadn’t heard me mention it yet. “I found it eye-opening,” I told them enthusiastically. “I hadn’t been aware of a few of the biases he writes about, but now I’m starting to catch them in myself at all kinds of odd moments!”

“I don’t believe in biases,” the tall, elegant blonde next to me responded immediately. This had the effect of rendering me momentarily speechless. But only for the three seconds it took to frame the first question that came to mind: “But what about all the research?” I hazarded. She didn’t believe in research either. “Well, how do you form your opinions?” I asked, truly curious.

“Experience.” she said.  She explained that she didn’t trust researchers or their studies, and that experience and good common sense were enough for her. The idea that people have biases is—in her opinion—nothing but a liberal political tool, and she has enough good common sense not to believe in them because her own experience clearly shows her she doesn’t have any. (Biases, I think she meant. Not common sense).

That’s when (after opening and closing my mouth a couple of times and probably looking a bit fish-like doing so) I mumbled something about needing to refill my drink and wandered off.

Which brings me back to my latest favorite book again.

“Many people,” says Kahneman, “are overconfident, prone to place too much faith in their intuitions. They apparently find cognitive effort at least mildly unpleasant and avoid it as much as possible.”

He then obligingly points out some of the ways our thinking lets us down when we’re chugging along on intuition, or System 1, as he calls it. System 1, explains Kahneman, operates silently and automatically in the background, providing impressions, impulses, intuitions and instant conclusions about what we hear and see. When you’ve got that peaceful, easy feeling—like when you’re chatting about nothing in particular at a cocktail party—you know System 1 is at the helm. As long as you’re in a state of “cognitive ease,” your thinking will be fairly superficial because of the relaxed vigilance of System 2, which is the more effortful, analytic thinking mode.

Interestingly, just as cognitive ease increases a good mood, a good mood increases cognitive ease. In other words, says Kahneman, “A happy mood loosens the control of System 2 over performance: when in a good mood, people become more intuitive and more creative but also less vigilant and more prone to logical errors.”

This is because System 1 will jump to its conclusions on the basis of the relatively scanty information it is processing automatically and unless (or until) a sense of cognitive strain mobilizes System 2, the intuitive answers supplied by System 1 will hold sway. “Remember,” says Kahneman, “that System 2 is lazy and that mental effort is aversive.”

Of course, he could be making all of this up. But my personal experience and common sense are enough to tell me he’s probably right.

Hmmm. I wonder what Daniel Kahneman talks about at cocktail parties?

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