• 30 Dec
    eWellness Expert

    Support from family and friends important to help prevent depression in teenagers

    depressed teenager

    The importance of friendships and family support in helping prevent depression among teenagers has been highlighted in research from the University of Cambridge. The study, published in the open access journal PLOS ONE, also found that teenagers who had grown up in a difficult family environment were more likely than their peers to be bullied at school.


    Teenage years can be difficult for everyone, but we found that this is particularly the case for those teens who have had a difficult family environment

    Anne-Laura van Harmelen

    Adolescence is a key time in an individual’s development, and is a period where some teenagers begin to show signs of major depression. One of the major risk factors for depression in adolescence is childhood family adversity, such as poor parenting and lack of affection, emotional, physical or sexual abuse, family financial problems or the loss of a family member. Another major risk factor for depression is bullying by peers – and the combined experience of childhood family adversity and peer bullying is associated with increased severity of depression symptoms.

    Studies suggest that friendships and supportive family environments may help protect adolescents from depression if they have experienced peer bullying and childhood family adversity. However, no study has simultaneously examined the complex interplay of early life adversity, bullying, family support and friendships on later adolescent depression.

    Researchers at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge studied almost 800 teenagers (322 boys and 449 girls), and used mathematical modelling to examine the impact of friendships and family support at age 14 on depressive symptoms at age 17 in adolescents who had previously experienced childhood family adversity and primary school bullying.

    “Teenage years can be difficult for everyone, but we found that this is particularly the case for those teens who have had a difficult family environment,” explains Dr Anne-Laura van Harmelen, the study’s first author. “Adolescents who had experienced negative family environments are more likely to be bullied at school, and less likely to receive family support in adolescence. We also found that children who were bullied in primary school were less likely to have supportive friendships in adolescence.

    “In fact, we found a strong relationship between having a negative family environment and being bullied at primary school. This puts teens at a double disadvantage and means they are more likely to experience more severe symptoms of depression in their late teens.”

    Boys who had been bullied were less likely than girls to develop strong friendships in adolescence, which the researchers suggest may be because boys experienced more severe bullying or were more sensitive to bullying.

    Crucially, the researchers also found that supportive family or friends in early adolescence could help reduce depressive symptoms in later teenage years. It is not clear from the results how social support influences later life mental health. However, the researchers suggest several possibilities, including that supportive friends and family environments may help enhance children’s ability to cope with adverse situations by improving their self-esteem and offering stress-relief and through helping them develop effective interpersonal skills.

    “Our work really shows how important it is that children and teenagers have strong support from their family and friends, particularly if their childhood has been a difficult one,” adds Professor Ian Goodyer, senior author. “It also suggests a role for interventions such as helping parents in at-risk families develop their parenting and support skills or helping bullied teens build their confidence and social skills to help find and maintain friendships.”

    The research was funded primarily by the Wellcome Trust and the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research.

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  • 30 Dec
    eWellness Expert

    why individuals take drugs even when they are aware of the negative consequences

    ranbir addiction

    People who are addicted to cocaine are particularly prone to developing habits that render their behaviour resistant to change, regardless of the potentially devastating consequences, suggests new research from the University of Cambridge. The findings may have important implications for the treatment of cocaine addiction as they help explain why such individuals take drugs even when they are aware of the negative consequences, and why they find their behaviour so difficult to change.


    “Addiction does not happen overnight but develops from behaviour that has been repeated over and over again until individuals lose control,” said Dr Karen Ersche from the Department of Psychiatry, who led the research.

    In a study reported today in the journal Science, Dr Ersche and colleagues tested 125 participants, of whom 72 were addicted to cocaine and 53 had no history of drug addiction, on their inclination to develop habits. They found that people with cocaine addiction were much more likely than healthy participants to make responses in an automatic fashion, but only if they had previously been rewarded for responding in the same way. The addicted individuals simply continued repeating the same responses they had previously learned, regardless of whether their actions made sense or not.

    In a different context, however, where participants had to perform an action to avoid electrical shocks, people with cocaine addiction did not develop habits. In fact, they were much less inclined than the control participants to make an effort to avoid the electric shock in the first place.

    “Our experiments highlight the particular difficulties faced when it comes to changing behaviour in people with cocaine addiction: they are highly responsive if their behaviour is rewarded – for example a ‘high’ from drug use – but then quickly switch to autopilot, becoming unable to change that behaviour in light of different consequences,” said Dr Ersche. “By contrast, when cocaine users are facing adversity, they are less inclined than healthy people to do something about it.

    “These findings have significant implications for the treatment of people with cocaine addiction. Clearly punitive approaches are ineffective, as the prospect of something bad happening to them won’t make cocaine users more likely to change their behaviour. Interventions that build on their particular strength in developing habits, by training the implementation of more desirable habits to replace drug-taking habits, are likely to be more effective. Our findings also suggest that cocaine users would need to be actively protected from – rather than simply warned about – adverse consequences, because they will likely fail to avoid them if left to their own devices.”

    There is currently no medical treatment for cocaine addiction – most individuals are treated with talking or cognitive therapy. According to Dr Ersche, the results show that a different approach to treating cocaine addiction might be of enhanced benefit to cocaine users. The researchers are now aiming to better understand the brain systems underlying cocaine users’ proneness to habits and their lack of avoidance, and to use this knowledge to develop more effective treatments for cocaine addiction.

    In the first experiment conducted by Ersche and her colleagues, participants were asked to learn the relationship between pictures, and a correct response was rewarded with points. After a long training period, participants were informed that some pictures were no longer worth any points. Participants with cocaine addiction were less likely to take on board the information about the change in reward, and were also more likely to continue responding in an automatic way, regardless of whether they were rewarded or not.

    In a second experiment, the same participants were shown two different pictures on a screen, which they learned to associate with receiving an electric shock. Participants were then taught a strategy on how they could avoid the shocks by pressing a foot pedal. Those participants with cocaine addiction were less good at avoiding the electric shocks in the first place, possibly due to learning and/or motivational impairment, and subsequently did not develop avoidance habits.

    The work was funded by the Medical Research Council and was conducted at the NIHR Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre and the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute.

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  • 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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