• 30 Dec
    eWellness Expert

    Antidepressive treatment during pregnancy can affect newborn brain activity

    newborn babyAccording a new study, fetal exposure to commonly used SRI drugs may affect brain activity in newborns. The researchers suggest that the effects of drugs on fetal brain function should be assessed more carefully, Indications for preventive medication should be critically evaluated, and non-pharmacological interventions should be the first-line treatment for depression and anxiety during pregnancy.

    "We found many changes in the brain activity of SRI-exposed newborns," says Professor Sampsa Vanhatalo, head of the BABA center at the Helsinki University Children's Hospital. "Since the changes did not correlate with the mother's psychiatric symptoms, we have assumed that they resulted as a side effect of maternal drug treatment."

    Depression and anxiety are commonly treated with SRI drugs that affect brain serotonin metabolism. These drugs are well tolerated and considered safe to use during pregnancy, because they are not seen to cause major malformations. It is estimated that up to 5% of all pregnant women use SRI medication.

    However, several animal studies have shown that early SRI exposure may result in microscopic changes in fetal brain structure, as well as altered neuronal signaling. The already known side effect of this on human newborns is the transient 'SRI syndrome,' including such symptoms as respiratory problems during the first days of life. In addition, a recent Finnish long-term follow-up study conducted at the Universities of Helsinki and Turku showed that fetal exposure to SRI drugs increases the risk of childhood depression.

    The present study in Helsinki is the first to examine the effects of SRI exposure directly on the brain activity of newborns. The study design aimed at distinguishing drug-related developmental effects from postnatal, environmental effects, such as potential changes in the mother-baby relationship due to maternal depression. The methodology for the detailed assessment of electrical brain function in newborns has been intensively developed at the BABA center of the Helsinki University Children's Hospital. As a result of this work, it has become possible to examine newborn brain function in detail, and better translate between research on animal models and research on human infants.

    The study, involving 22 mothers using SRI medication and 62 controls without medication, aimed at assessing how fetal SRI drug exposure or maternal psychiatric symptoms affect newborns' neurological development and their brains' electrical activity.

    Structured behavioral and neurological assessments of the newborns showed only minor effects from fetal SRI exposure; however, brain electrical activity exhibited several differences between the study groups. The most important relate to less-organized communication between brain hemispheres, as well as weaker synchronization between cortical rhythms. These findings did not correlate with the scores on maternal depression or anxiety.

    "The most interesting aspect in our observations is that comparable effects were recently found in animal experiments after fetal SRI exposure," says principal investigator Dr. Mari Videman, senior consultant in child neurology. "This suggests that the early SRI effects on brain development may be comparable in humans and other species."

    The study's psychiatric consultant, Adjunct Professor Outi Mantere from McGill University, Canada, emphasizes that pregnant mothers need treatment when they present with symptoms of depression or anxiety.

    "The current guidelines do include non-pharmacological therapies as the first-line treatment," says Mantere. "If the mother using an SRI plans a pregnancy, it would be advisable to consider a close follow-up or a therapeutic intervention without SRI medication. Recent experience with group therapy has shown promise in treating depression or anxiety during pregnancy, with effects that extend to the wellbeing of both mother and baby."

    "We hope that our study will facilitate the current international discussion and search for effective alternatives in the treatment of depression and anxiety during pregnancy," adds Professor Vanhatalo.


    The study was conducted mostly at the BABA center of the University of Helsinki Children's Hospital. The research group included experts in clinical neurophysiology, child neurology, psychiatry, and psychology from the hospital's Department of Psychiatry, as well as HUS Medical Imaging.

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  • 30 Dec
    eWellness Expert

    New Study Links Air Pollution to Mental Illness in Children

    air pollution

    A frightening new study published in the peer-reviewed journal BMJ Open has revealed a troubling link between mental illness and air pollution that seems to particularly effect children. Even at low levels, the presence of these toxic chemicals in the body seem to be associated with significant increases in psychiatric problems.

    The study measured the pollution exposure of more than 500,000 children and teens under the age of 18 in Sweden, and compared the results with their medical records, looking for medications prescribed for a wide variety of mental illnesses, ranging from sedatives to anti-psychotics. The study found that the children living in areas with the highest amounts of pollution were much more likely to have received a medication for a psychiatric issue.

    It doesn’t take much for these effects to become apparent: The study authors found that a 10 micrograms per cubic meter increase in nitrogen dioxide corresponded to a 9 percent increase in mental illness among children, and a 4 percent jump for the same increase in tiny particulate matter. Given that many cities have nitrogen dioxide levels far above the WHO recommended limit of 40 micrograms per cubic meter, this is a troubling trend.

    Worse still is the fact that Sweden actually has fairly low levels of air pollution. Even at levels of 15 micrograms per square meter, these effects on children’s mental health were still apparent. This suggests that the problem may be even more serious in countries with higher levels of pollution.

    While poor air quality is dangerous for everyone living in an affected area (one study last year linked it to premature aging of the brain in adults), researchers believe that children are particularly vulnerable. Professor Frank Kelly of King’s College London explained in an interview with the Guardian that children are more active and take in more air pollution while at play. They’re also still developing and growing, leaving their bodies more vulnerable to the effects than an adult’s body might be.

    This is the first study of its kind to establish a firm link between the two phenomena, but the results are not particularly surprising to researchers in the field. There has been a growing body of research demonstrating the effects of air pollution on mental and cognitive health in recent years, including studies linking prenatal exposure to pollution to the development of autism.

    Another series of studies conducted in the U.S. also showed that air pollution may be linked to anxiety and depression among California residents. In adults, exposure has been linked to other ailments, including heart disease, high blood pressure and strokes. In fact, public health grounds in the U.S. and New Zealand believe that air pollution could be responsible for as many as a third of strokes that occur globally.

    This problem is exacerbated in countries like Iran, where many families burn fuels like kerosene, wood, diesel, cow dung or natural gas, releasing dangerous pollutants into the home. When you consider the fact that it’s primarily racial minorities who are exposed to the worst air pollution in the U.S., it becomes clear these risks disproportionately fall on people of color both in America and abroad.

    It’s easy to be frightened by these kinds of studies, but we shouldn’t let the fear of what air pollution might do to our children paralyze us. Instead, we should take this research as a call to action and use it to push for better regulations and air quality standards in our cities, states and countries.

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  • 30 Dec
    eWellness Expert

    Brain structure that tracks negative events backfires in depression


    A region of the brain that responds to bad experiences has the opposite reaction to expectations of aversive events in people with depression compared to healthy adults, finds a new UCL study funded by the Medical Research Council.

    The study, published in Molecular Psychiatry, found that the habenula, a pea-sized region of the brain, functions abnormally in depression. The same team previously showed that the habenula was activated in healthy volunteers when they expected to receive an electric shock.

    "A prominent theory has suggested that a hyperactive habenula drives symptoms in people with depression: we set out to test that hypothesis" says senior author Professor Jonathan Roiser (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience). "Surprisingly, we saw the exact opposite of what we predicted. In people with depression, habenula activity actually decreased when they thought they would get a shock. This shows that in depressed people the habenula reacts in a fundamentally different way. Although we still don't know how or why this happens, it's clear that the theory needs a rethink."

    The researchers scanned the brains of 25 people with depression and 25 never-depressed individuals using high-resolution functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The participants were shown a sequence of abstract pictures while they lay inside the scanner. Over time they learned that different pictures were associated with a chance of different outcomes - either good or bad. Images predicting electric shocks were found to cause increased habenula activation in healthy volunteers, but decreased activation in depressed people.

    There were no differences in average habenula size between people with depression and healthy volunteers. However, people with smaller habenulae, in both groups, were found to have more symptoms of anhedonia, a loss of interest or pleasure in life.

    "The habenula's role in depression is clearly much more complex than previously thought," explains lead author Dr. Rebecca Lawson (UCL Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging). "From this experimental fMRI study we can draw conclusions about the effects of anticipated shocks on habenula activation in depressed individuals compared with healthy volunteers. We can only speculate as to how this deactivation is linked to symptoms, but it could be that this ancient part of the brain actually plays a protective role against depression. Animal experiments have shown that stimulating the habenula leads to avoidance, and it is possible that this occurs for mental as well as physical negative events. So one possible explanation is that the habenula may help us to avoid dwelling on unpleasant thoughts or memories, and when this is disrupted you get the excessive negative focus that is common in depression."

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  • 30 Dec
    eWellness Expert

    Ocean views linked to better mental health

    girl watching ocean view 

    Here’s another reason to start saving for that beach house: New research suggests that residents with a view of the water are less stressed.

    The study, co-authored by Michigan State University’s Amber L. Pearson, is the first to find a link between health and the visibility of water, which the researchers call blue space.

    “Increased views of blue space is significantly associated with lower levels of psychological distress,” said Pearson, assistant professor of health geography and a member of MSU’s Water Science Network. “However, we did not find that with green space.”

    Using various topography data, the researchers studied the visibility of blue and green spaces from residential locations in Wellington, New Zealand, an urban capital city surrounded by the Tasman Sea on the north and the Pacific Ocean on the south. Green space includes forests and grassy parks.

    To gauge psychological distress, the researchers analyzed data from the New Zealand Health Survey. The national survey used the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale, or K10, which has proven to be an accurate predictor of anxiety and mood disorders. Mental health disorders are the leading cause of disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

    Even after taking into account residents’ wealth, age, sex and other neighborhood factors, the study found that having a view of the ocean was associated with improved mental health.

    Pearson said that visibility of green space did not show the same calming effect. That could be because the study did not distinguish between types of green space.

    “It could be because the blue space was all natural, while the green space included human-made areas, such as sports fields and playgrounds, as well as natural areas such as native forests,” Pearson said. “Perhaps if we only looked at native forests we might find something different.”

    Like most wealthy countries, New Zealand is highly urbanized, meaning effective city planning is increasingly important, Pearson said. Designating a proportion of high-rise buildings or affordable homes in locations with ocean views could potentially promote mental health.

    Pearson said future research could investigate whether the findings hold true for large fresh bodies of water such as the Great Lakes.

    The study appears in the May issue of the academic journal Health & Place. Pearson’s co-authors include Daniel Nutsford, a former master’s degree student at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

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  • 30 Dec
    eWellness Expert

    Breastfeeding linked to better childhood behavior: study


    WASHINGTON:  Children breastfed exclusively for their first six months of life have an easier time behaving as primary school students, according to new research.

    Carried out in South Africa, the study assessed more than 1,500 children and found a strong link between how long they were breastfed and signs of behavioral disorders between the ages of seven and 11.


    Children fed only breast milk for their first six months -- as recommended by the World Health Organization -- were 56 percent less likely to exhibit such disorders than those breastfed for less than one month, found the study published in the PLOS medical journal.

    "The duration of exclusive breastfeeding of an infant has greater importance than previously realized in several areas of development," said Tamsen Rochat of the Human Science Research Council in Durban, a lead author of the Canadian government-financed study.

    Rochat emphasized that childhood conduct disorders are associated with social problems -- including violence and crime -- later in life, as well as poor long-term mental health and low academic achievement.

    The research also found that young children who attended daycare for at least one year were 74 percent more likely to achieve higher executive functions, enabling them to plan, concentrate and remember instructions.

    The brain needs these skills to prioritize tasks, filter out distractions and achieve goals, noted study authors.

    Young children who received stimulation only at home were just 36 percent more likely to achieve high executive functions.

    The study also analyzed a number of environmental factors that could influence child development, and found that children were two-and-a-half times more likely to develop behavioral problems if their mothers showed signs of mental health issues or severe parenting stress.

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