Archive for July 24th, 2012

Keep the TV or Computer on At Night? You’re at Greater Risk for Depression


Keep the TV or Computer on At Night? You are at Greater Risk for DepressionIf hamsters are anything like their human counterparts, keeping your TV or computer on at night while you sleep in the same room could not only disrupt your sleep — it could lead to clinical depression.

Any kind of light in your bedroom — a streetlight, a TV, likely even a nightlight — may lead to the depressive symptoms, if exposed to such light for at least a month.

While hamsters exposed to light at night for four weeks showed evidence of depressive symptoms, those symptoms essentially disappeared after about two weeks if they returned to normal lighting conditions.

Even changes in the brain that occurred after hamsters lived with chronic light at night reversed themselves after returning to a more normal light cycle.

These findings add to the growing evidence that suggest chronic exposure to artificial light at night may play some role in the rising rates of depression in humans during the past 50 years, said Tracy Bedrosian, lead author of the study and doctoral student in neuroscience at Ohio State University.

The good news is that the effects of sleep loss are readily reversed with some normal, completely-dark sleep. Use your TV’s sleep timer function to turn it off after you go to sleep. Shut down your computer before going to bed.

This study is the latest in a series out of Nelson’s lab that have linked chronic exposure to light at night to depression and obesity in animal models.

The new study found that one particular protein found in the brain of hamsters — and humans — may play a key role in how light at night leads to depression.

They found that blocking effects of that protein, called tumor necrosis factor, prevented the development of depressive-like symptoms in hamsters even when they were exposed to light at night.

The study involved two experiments using female Siberian hamsters, which had their ovaries removed to ensure that hormones produced in the ovary would not interfere with the results.

In the first experiment, half of the hamsters spent eight weeks in a standard light-dark cycle of 16 hours of light (150 lux) and 8 hours of total darkness each day. The other half spent the first four weeks with 16 hours of normal daylight (150 lux) and 8 hours of dim light — 5 lux, or the equivalent of having a television on in a darkened room.

Then, these hamsters were moved back to a standard light cycle for either one week, two weeks or four weeks before testing began.

They were then given a variety of behavior tests. Results showed that hamsters exposed to chronic dim light at night showed less total activity during their active period each day when compared to those in standard lighting conditions.

Those hamsters exposed to dim light also showed greater depressive symptoms than did the others– such as less interest in drinking sugar water that they usually enjoy.

But within two weeks of returning to a standard light cycle, hamsters exposed to dim night light showed no more depressive-like symptoms than did hamsters that always had standard lighting. In addition, they returned to normal activity levels.

After the behavioral testing, the hamsters were sacrificed and the researchers studied a part of their brains called the hippocampus, which plays a key role in depressive disorders.

Findings showed that hamsters exposed to dim light showed a variety of changes associated with depression.

Most importantly, hamsters that lived in dim light showed increased expression of the gene that produces tumor necrosis factor. TNF is one of a large family of proteins called cytokines — chemical messengers that are mobilized when the body is injured or has an infection. These cytokines cause inflammation in their effort to repair an injured or infected area of the body. However, this inflammation can be damaging when it is constant, as happens in hamsters exposed to dim light at night.

“Researchers have found a strong association in people between chronic inflammation and depression,” said Nelson, who is a member of Ohio State’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research.

“That’s why it is very significant that we found this relationship between dim light at night and increased expression of TNF.”

In addition, results showed that hamsters that lived in dim light had a significantly reduced density of dendritic spines — hairlike growths on brain cells which are used to send chemical messages from one cell to another.

Changes such as this have been linked to depression, Bedrosian said.

However, hamsters that were returned to a standard light-dark cycle after four weeks of dim light at night saw their TNF levels and even their density of dendritic spines return essentially to normal.

“Changes in dendritic spines can happen very rapidly in response to environmental factors,” Bedrosian said.

In a second experiment, the researchers tested just how important TNF might be. Results showed that hamsters exposed to dim light at night did not show any more depressive-like symptoms than standard-light hamsters if they were given XPro1595. However, the drug did not seem to prevent the reduction of dendritic spine density in hamsters exposed to dim light.

These results provide further evidence of the role TNF may play in the depressive symptoms seen in hamsters exposed to dim light. But the fact that XPro1595 did not affect dendritic spine density means that more needs to be learned about exactly how TNF works, Nelson said.

Source: Ohio State University

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Can’t Sleep? Little Research Supports Use of Herbal Sleep Aids


Can’t Sleep? Little Research Supports Use of Herbal Sleep Aids

by Rick Nauert PhD

Cant Sleep? Little Research Supports Use of Herbal Sleep Aids Experts say that approximately one in three Americans suffers from chronic sleep deprivation and another 10-15 percent of the population has chronic insomnia.

But a recent review has found little evidence that herbal sleep aids are effective.

Health practitioners know that sleep disorders can profoundly affect a person’s whole life and have been linked to a range of diseases, including obesity, depression, anxiety, and inflammatory disorders.

Often over-the-counter or herbal sleep aids are used to induce sleep, but surprisingly, very little research has been done to study their efficacy.

This topic is discussed in an article found in the journal Alternative and Complementary Therapies.

People need many hours of sound, restorative sleep every night to maintain an optimal state of physiological and psychological health. However, many factors can disrupt sleep schedules and compromise the quality of sleep.

In the review article, researchers conducted a search of the Internet and electronic databases to identify literature on herbal remedies that are commonly used to manage insomnia.

They found allopathic solutions of valerian, hops, kava-kava, chamomile, and St. John’s wort have all been suggested as sleep aids.

Unfortunately, few scientific studies had been published on the therapeutic potential and safety of these herbal remedies and, when a study has been performed, the results were either inconclusive or contradictory.

The authors concluded that, considering the benefits that a natural management strategy could offer patients with insomnia, additional research is required to assess the effectiveness and safety of herbal remedies as therapeutic agents.

Source: Mary Ann Liebert

Herbal medication photo by shutterstock.

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Mice Study Shows Overactive Immune System Contributes to Autism


Mice Study Shows Overactive Immune System Contributes to Autism  A new study suggests that changes in an overactive immune system can contribute to autism-like behaviors in mice.

The study from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) also found that, in some cases, this activation can be related to what a developing fetus experiences in the womb.

“We have long suspected that the immune system plays a role in the development of autism spectrum disorder,” said Dr. Paul Patterson, the Anne P. and Benjamin F. Biaggini Professor of Biological Sciences at Caltech, who led the work.

“In our studies of a mouse model based on an environmental risk factor for autism, we find that the immune system of the mother is a key factor in the eventual abnormal behaviors in the offspring.”

The first step was establishing a mouse model that tied the autism-related behaviors to immune changes, he said.

Several large studies — including one that involved tracking the medical history of every person born in Denmark between 1980 and 2005 — found a correlation between viral infection during the first trimester of a mother’s pregnancy and a higher risk for autism in her child. As part of the new study, researchers injected pregnant mouse mothers with a viral mimic that triggered the same type of immune response a viral infection would.

“In mice, this single insult to the mother translates into autism-related behavioral abnormalities and neuropathologies in the offspring,” said Elaine Hsiao, a graduate student in Patterson’s lab and lead author of the paper.

The team found that the offspring exhibit the core behavioral symptoms associated with autism spectrum disorder, including repetitive or stereotyped behaviors, decreased social interactions, and impaired communication.

In mice, this translates to such behaviors as compulsively burying marbles placed in their cage, excessively self-grooming, choosing to spend time alone or with a toy rather than interacting with a new mouse, or vocalizing ultrasonically less often or in an altered way compared to typical mice.

Next, the researchers studied the immune system of the offspring of mothers that had been infected and found that they displayed a number of immune changes.

Some of those changes parallel those seen in people with autism, including decreased levels of regulatory T cells, which play a role in suppressing the immune response, the researchers said.

Taken together, the observed alterations add up to an immune system in overdrive, which promotes inflammation.

“Remarkably, we saw these immune abnormalities in both young and adult offspring of immune-activated mothers,” Hsiao said. “This tells us that a prenatal challenge can result in long-term consequences for health and development.”

The researchers were then able to test whether the offspring’s immune problems contribute to their autism-related behaviors. In a test of this hypothesis, the researchers gave the affected mice a bone-marrow transplant from typical mice.

The normal stem cells in the transplanted bone marrow not only replenished the immune system of the mice, but altered their autism-like behavior, the researchers report.

The researchers note that because the work was conducted in mice, the results cannot be readily extrapolated to humans, and they do not suggest that bone-marrow transplants should be considered as a treatment for autism.

They also have yet to establish whether it was the infusion of stem cells or the bone-marrow transplant procedure itself — complete with irradiation — that corrected the behaviors.

However, the results do suggest that immune irregularities in children could be an important target for innovative immune manipulations in addressing the behaviors associated with autism, said Patterson. By correcting these immune problems, it might be possible to ameliorate some of the classic developmental delays seen in autism, he noted.

The results appear in a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Source: California Institute of Technology

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Neglect Hinders Brain Growth in Kids


Neglect Negatively Affects Brain GrowthSevere psychological and physical neglect produces measurable changes in children’s brains, according to a new study by researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital.

“Increasingly we are finding evidence that exposure to childhood adversity has a negative effect on brain development,” said Margaret Sheridan, Ph.D., of the Labs of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children’s Hospital.

“The implications are wide-ranging, not just for institutionalized children but also for children exposed to abuse, abandonment, violence during war, extreme poverty and other adversities.”

Researchers led by Sheridan and Charles Nelson, Ph.D., analyzed brain MRI scans from Romanian children in the ongoing Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP), which has transferred some children reared in orphanages into foster care homes.

The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, add to earlier studies by Nelson and his colleagues showing cognitive impairment in institutionalized children, but also showing improvements when children are placed in good foster homes.

The researchers compared three groups of 8- to 11-year-old children: 29 who had been reared in an institution; 25 who were selected at random to leave the institution for a high-quality foster care home; and 20 typically developing children who were never in an institution.

Children with histories of any institutional rearing had significantly smaller gray matter volumes in the cortex of the brain than never-institutionalized children, even if they had been placed in foster care, the researchers noted.

Children who remained in institutional care had significantly reduced white matter volume as compared with those never institutionalized. For children who had been placed in foster care, white matter volume was indistinguishable from that of children who were never institutionalized.

The researchers note that growth of the brain’s gray matter peaks during specific times in childhood, indicating periods when environment can strongly influence brain development.

White matter, which is necessary for forming connections in the brain, grows more slowly over time, possibly making it more malleable to foster care intervention, the researchers postulate.

“We found that white matter, which forms the ‘information superhighway’ of the brain, shows some evidence of ‘catch-up,’” said Sheridan. “These differences in brain structure appear to account for previously observed, but unexplained, differences in brain function.”

“Our cognitive studies suggest that there may be a sensitive period spanning the first two years of life within which the onset of foster care exerts a maximal effect on cognitive development,” Nelson added.

“The younger a child is when placed in foster care, the better the outcome.”

Source: Children’s Hospital Boston

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Animal Study Suggests New Class of Antioxidants May Be Beneficial for Parkinson’s


Animal Study Suggests New Class of Antioxidants May Be Beneficial for Parkinson’s A new powerful class of antioxidants may provide relief from Parkinson’s in the future.

The medication, called synthetic triterpenoids, blocked development of Parkinson’s disease in an animal model.

The trial is discussed in the journal Antioxidants & Redox Signaling , as authored by Dr. Bobby Thomas, a neuroscientist at the Medical College of Georgia.

Thomas and his colleagues were able to block the death of dopamine-producing brain cells that occurs in Parkinson’s by using the drugs to bolster Nrf2, a natural antioxidant and inflammation fighter.

Researchers know that stressors from a variety of sources, be it trauma, insect bites or the simple aging process increases oxidative stress causing the body to respond with inflammation — as a part of the natural healing process.

“This creates an environment in your brain that is not conducive for normal function,” Thomas said.

“You can see the signs of oxidative damage in the brain long before the neurons actually degenerate in Parkinson’s.”

Nrf2, the master regulator of oxidative stress and inflammation, is – inexplicably – significantly decreased early in Parkinson’s. In fact, Nrf2 activity declines normally with age.

“In Parkinson’s patients you can clearly see a significant overload of oxidative stress, which is why we chose this target,” Thomas said. “We used drugs to selectively activate Nrf2.”

Researchers looked at a number of antioxidants already under study for a wide range of diseases from kidney failure to heart disease and diabetes, and found triterpenoids to be the most effective on Nrf2.

Co-author Dr. Michael Sporn, Professor of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Medicine at Dartmouth Medical School, chemically modified the agents so they could permeate the protective blood-brain barrier.

Researchers found that in both human neuroblastoma and mouse brain cells they were able to document an increase in Nrf2 in response to the synthetic triterpenoids.

Their preliminary evidence indicates the synthetic triterpenoids also increase Nrf2 activity in astrocytes, a brain cell type which nourishes neurons and hauls off some of their garbage.

The drugs didn’t protect brain cells in an animal where the Nrf2 gene was deleted, more proof that that Nrf2 is the drugs’ target.

Researchers are now studying the impact of synthetic triterpenoids in an animal model genetically programmed to acquire PD slowly, as humans do.

Source: Medical College of Georgia

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Behavioral, Cognitive Challenges Define Fetal Alcohol Exposure


Behavioral and Cognitive Challenges Define Fetal Alcohol ExposureNew research suggests the only sign of fetal alcohol exposure may be signs of abnormal intellectual or behavioral development.

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health have discovered that the facial features classically attributed to fetal alcohol syndrome do not develop in a majority of children.

Rather, nervous system abnormalities in children may manifest as challenged intellect and behavioral development, including language delays, hyperactivity, attention deficits or intellectual delays. Researchers define deficits or abnormalities as functional neurologic impairments.

In the study, authors documented an abnormality in one of these areas in about 44 percent of children whose mothers drank four or more drinks per day during pregnancy.

In contrast, abnormal facial features were present in about 17 percent of alcohol exposed children.

Fetal alcohol syndrome refers to a pattern of birth defects found in children of mothers who consumed alcohol during pregnancy.

These involve a characteristic pattern of facial abnormalities, growth retardation, and brain damage.

Neurological and physical differences seen in children exposed to alcohol prenatally — but who do not have the full pattern of birth defects seen in fetal alcohol syndrome — are classified as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

“Our concern is that in the absence of the distinctive facial features, health care providers evaluating children with any of these functional neurological impairments might miss their history of fetal alcohol exposure,” said Devon Kuehn, M.D.

“As a result, children might not be referred for appropriate treatment and services.”

The study may be found online in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

The research was conducted as part of a long-term study of heavy drinking in pregnancy known as the NICHD–University of Chile Alcohol in Pregnancy Study.

The investigation began by researchers asking over 9000 women at a community health clinic in Santiago, Chile about their alcohol use during pregnancy.

They found 101 pregnant women, who had four or more drinks per day during their pregnancies and matched them with 101 women having similar characteristics but who consumed no alcohol when they were pregnant.

After these women gave birth, the researchers evaluated the infants’ health and conducted regular assessments of their physical, intellectual and emotional development through age 8.

The researchers documented that children exposed to alcohol presented an increased risk of:

  • Abnormal facial features (16 percent);
  • Delayed growth (14 percent);
  • Cognitive delays (including intellectual) (29 percent);
  • Language delays (18 percent);
  • Hyperactivity (25 percent).

Some of the women with heavy drinking habits also engaged in binge drinking (5 or more drinks at a time). Even though these women already had high levels of alcohol consumption, the researchers found that this habit increased the likelihood of poor outcomes for their children.

Source: NIH/National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

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Resting After Learning Aids Memory


Resting After Learning Aids MemoryThe adage “use it or lose it” has led many aging adults to work on crossword puzzles, participate in web activities for memory improvement and do mental exercises to challenge cognition.

A new study suggests that maybe all they really need to do to cement new learning is to sit and close their eyes for a few minutes. Psychological scientist Michaela Dewar, Ph.D.,  and her colleagues show that memory can be boosted by taking a brief wakeful rest after learning something verbally new.

“Our findings support the view that the formation of new memories is not completed within seconds,” says Dewar. “Indeed, our work demonstrates that activities that we are engaged in for the first few minutes after learning new information really affect how well we remember this information after a week.”

Investigators performed two separate experiments on 33 normally aging adults between the ages of 61 and 87. Participants were told two short stories and told to remember as many details as possible.

Immediately afterward, they were asked to describe what happened in the story. Then they were given a 10-minute delay that consisted either of wakeful resting or playing a spot-the-difference game on the computer.

During the wakeful resting portion, participants were asked to just rest quietly with their eyes closed in a darkened room for 10 minutes while the experimenter left to “prepare for the next test.”

During this period participants could daydream or think about whatever they wanted. The key aspect of this pause was to keep the eyes closed, and to not be distracted by anything else or receive any new information.

When participants played the spot-the-difference game, they were presented with picture pairs on a screen for 30 seconds each and were instructed to locate two subtle differences in each pair and point to them.

The task was chosen because it required attention but, unlike the story, it was nonverbal.

In one study, the participants were asked to recall both stories half an hour later and then a full week later.

Participants remembered much more story material when the story presentation had been followed by a period of wakeful resting.

Researchers say emerging evidence suggests that the point at which we experience new information is “just at a very early stage of memory formation and that further neural processes have to occur after this stage for us to be able to remember this information at a later point in time.”

Researchers believe the new input crowds out recently acquired information, suggesting that the current experiment shows that the process of consolidating memories takes a little time.

That is, the most important method to augment memory retention is peace and quiet.

The article is published in the journal Psychological Science.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Elderly man with eyes shut photo by shutterstock.

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