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Professorship of Experimental Psychology

By from News. Published on Jun 20, 2016.

How to build a healthier city

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jun 13, 2016.

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford,” said Samuel Johnson in the 18th century. For Johnson, the rich tapestry of London life and the myriad cultural assets clearly outweighed any downsides of city dwelling.

For others, though, city life is a grind. Public transport is overcrowded, house prices are soaring, traffic is at gridlock and diesel fumes hang almost perceptibly in the air. Little surprise, then, that people do become tired of London, even if not of life itself.

Even if issues such as air pollution are taken out of the equation, living in a city can be bad for your health, which is not good news considering that the World Health Organization estimates that by 2017 the majority of people will be living in urban areas.

A study published in 2014 by Dr Manjinder Sandhu from the Department of Medicine suggested that increasing urbanisation of rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa might lead to an explosion of the incidence of stroke, heart disease and diabetes. Yes, moving to towns and cities provides better access to education, electricity and hospitals, but town and city dwellers become less active, their work becomes less physical and their diets worsen.

“If this pattern is repeated across the globe – which we think it will – then we could face an epidemic of obesity, diabetes and other potentially preventable diseases,” says Sandhu. “Local and national governments need to take this into consideration when planning infrastructure to try and mitigate such negative effects.”

As far as ‘healthy’ cities go, Cambridge has a lot going for it. Its population has higher than average levels of education and is physically active: Cambridge has been nicknamed ‘the cycling capital of Britain’ – the sight of bicycles leaning against walls is as iconic as that of punts passing under the Bridge of Sighs. But as the city expands and house prices rocket, more and more people are living in neighbouring villages and towns, where cycling to work along winding, congested country lanes can be less appealing than driving.

In 2011, the world’s longest guided busway opened, connecting Cambridge with nearby Huntingdon and St Ives along a former railway line. An integral part of the busway was a cycle path along its route – and this appears to have helped nudge people in the right direction. A study led by Dr David Ogilvie from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit found that, among people who commuted into Cambridge from within a 30 km radius, those who lived closer to the busway were more likely to increase the amount of ‘active’ commuting they did, particularly cycling.

“Commuting is a part of everyday life where people could include a bit more physical activity without having to think about it very much or make time for it,” says Ogilvie. “When new infrastructure integrates opportunities for walking and cycling, we see people shifting their commuting behaviour.”

Ogilvie’s research is, he says, “contributing bricks of evidence to a wall that’s slowly being assembled from across the world of the health benefits of investing into this kind of infrastructure.” While such benefits are often alluded to in business cases, until now the evidence to support them has been limited.

There are ways to integrate more pedestrian-friendly environments in existing infrastructure, he says, citing examples such as those in the Netherlands – now being introduced in some areas of London – where traffic is slowed to walking pace and the divisions between pavement and road are deliberately blurred, cuing drivers to share the space.

With more thoughtful urban planning, Ogilvie says, it should be possible to design towns and cities as environments that promote not just physical activity, but improved health and wellbeing – “in short, a place where people want to live”.

“Sprawling cities with retail parks on the fringes are not conducive to doing your shopping on foot,” he says. “People are more likely to walk and cycle around their neighbourhood if it is safe, well connected and has good local amenities. And getting people out on the streets not only gets them active, it also increases social interactions and a sense that it’s safe to be on the streets.”

Dr Jamie Anderson from the Department of Architecture is also interested in the relationship between the built environment and our broader wellbeing. As part of his PhD project with Professor Koen Steemers (Architecture) and Professor Felicia Huppert (Department of Psychology), he did a study of another Cambridge initiative, the housing development known as Accordia.

Since the first residents moved into their homes in the mid-noughties, Accordia has won numerous prizes, including the Royal Institute of British Architects Stirling Prize, for its innovative mixing of private and public spaces. Yet surprisingly, says Anderson, no one had done a detailed study of the impact on its residents.

One of the interesting approaches taken by Accordia was to focus on communal spaces rather than private gardens: only one in five homes has its own garden. Given the stereotype of the British as a very private people, how did people respond? Did people spend time chatting outdoors with their neighbours, or did they shut themselves away and draw the curtains?

The results, explains Anderson, were mixed. While one middle-aged couple missed having their own garden and were now on a long waiting list for a local allotment, one mother described the communal gardens as “crucially important”: she had suffered from postnatal depression and, with her husband away at work all day, she told Anderson that she “wouldn’t have got through her depression” without the interactions that the adjacent communal areas provided.

“In terms of behaviours that we associate with physical health and positive mental health – so people interacting with each other, children out playing, for example – we found clear positive associations with Accordia’s outdoor neighbourhood spaces,” he adds, “but when we looked at people’s subjective wellbeing, it wasn’t as clear cut.”

With Accordia, Anderson was evaluating an already established development, but he now has a chance to influence a project at the planning stage. Part of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s vision of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ will see a £110 million culture venue in Manchester named The Factory after the eponymous record company behind such iconic bands as Joy Division and Happy Mondays.

Under a fellowship from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Anderson, in collaboration with engineering firm BuroHappold, is carrying out a Health Impact Assessment (HIA) of the proposed new site, looking at factors that might influence health and wellbeing, from the lighting in office spaces, through to educational opportunities for young people from deprived communities and the restaurants within the venue.

HIAs are currently voluntary, but are set to become mandatory for significant developments across the UK in 2017, and can help architects and designers improve their submissions for planning application. How effective they’ll be is unclear, warns Anderson. “You might have some really strong evidence, but the final decision is a blend of opinion from various stakeholders, so you could end up with a watered-down version of what’s needed.”

He remains optimistic, however: “We’re moving in the right direction. By building consideration of health and wellbeing into the planning process, it should raise the bar and hopefully we will see many more cycle lanes, more inviting and better options for active transport, and maybe fewer fast-food shops.”

“I don’t know what makes me stay / The city life just ain’t the same,” sang New Order, one of Factory Record’s best known signings, in 2001. Perhaps the work of Cambridge researchers will help make cities attractive – and healthy – places to stay.

Life in towns and cities can grind you down, but putting health and wellbeing at the centre of new housing and infrastructure developments could make for happier, healthier citizens.

When new infrastructure integrates opportunities for walking and cycling, we see people shifting their commuting behaviour
David Ogilvie

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What birds' attitudes to litter tell us about their ability to adapt

By mjg209 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on May 31, 2016.

The study led by Gates Cambridge Scholar Alison Greggor and published in the journal Animal Behaviour, shows that corvids - the family of birds which includes crows, ravens and magpies - are more likely to show fear in relation to unfamiliar objects than other birds. However, if they and other bird species have previously encountered similar objects they are able to overcome some of their fear.

The researchers measured levels of fear of new objects in birds across urban and rural habitats, comparing corvids, a family known for being behaviourally flexible and innovative, with other bird species found in urban areas. The birds' hesitancy to approach food when different types of objects were nearby was compared to their behaviour when food was presented alone.

The researchers found corvids were more afraid of objects than other birds. However, birds were less fearful if the objects involved were similar to something they may have encountered before, for instance, urban birds were less hesitant in approaching litter.

Alison Greggor, who is doing a PhD in Psychology at the University of Cambridge, said: "From a broad perspective this work aims to help us understand how animals adapt to human-dominated landscapes. We found that although species differ in their overall levels of fear towards new things, populations of all species in urban areas showed lesser fear towards objects that looked like rubbish, but did not show reductions in fear towards all types of novelty. Therefore,  they may actually be learning which specific parts of urban habitats are safe and which are dangerous. In future, others might be able to use this information to predict what types of things animals need to learn to be able to survive in urban areas. Such predictions may help us understand why some species are unable to adjust to urban areas."

Reference
Greggor, AL et al. Street smart: faster approach towards litter in urban areas by highly neophobic corvids and less fearful birds. Animal Behaviour; 30 May 2016; DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2016.03.029

Urban birds are less afraid of litter than their country cousins, according to a new study, which suggests they may learn that litter in cities is not dangerous. The research could help birds to adapt to urban settings better, helping them to survive increasing human encroachment on their habitats.

[The birds] may actually be learning which specific parts of urban habitats are safe and which are dangerous
Alison Greggor
Crows in Kingston

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Ageing affects test-taking, not language, study shows

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on May 12, 2016.

Scientists from the Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience (Cam-CAN) scanned participants during testing and found that the areas of the brain responsible for language performed just as well in older adults as in younger ones.

The research, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that increased neural activation in the frontal brain regions of older adults reflects differences in the way they respond to the demands of the task compared with younger adults, rather than any difference in language processing itself.

“These findings suggest our ability to understand language is remarkably preserved well into old age, and it's not through some trick of the mind, or reorganisation of the brain,” says co-author Professor Lorraine Tyler, who leads Cam-CAN. “Instead, it's through the continued functioning of a well-used language processing machine common to all humans.”

Professor Tyler says cognitive neuroscientists attempting to explain how the mind and brain work typically approach the question with tasks designed to measure particular cognitive abilities, such as memory or language. However, it's rarely as simple as that, she says, and tasks never end up measuring only one thing.

“Scientists claim that they are studying language, when really they are studying language plus your motivation to do well, plus your understanding of the instructions, plus your ability to focus, and so on,” says lead author Dr Karen Campbell, now based at Harvard University. “These poorly defined tasks become even more problematic when it comes to studying the older brain, because older adults sometimes show increased neural activation in frontal brain regions, which is thought to reflect a change in how older brains carry out a given cognitive function. However, this extra activation may simply reflect differences in how young and older adults respond to the demands of the task.”

Campbell and her Cam-CAN colleagues tried to isolate the effect of the testing by scanning 111 participants aged 22-87 using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they either passively listened to sentences or decided if the sentences were grammatical or not.

The researchers found that simply listening to and comprehending language, as we do in everyday life, “lights up” brain networks responsible for hearing and language, whereas performing a cognitive task with the same sentences leads to the additional activation of several task-related networks.

Age had no effect on the language network itself, but it did affect this network’s ability to “talk with” other task-related networks.

The Cambridge Centre for Ageing and Neuroscience is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and is jointly based at the University of Cambridge and the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit.

Reference
Campbell, KL et al. Robust Resilience of the Frontotemporal Syntax System to Aging. Journal of Neuroscience; 11 May 2016; DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4561-15.2016

The ability to understand language could be much better preserved into old age than previously thought, according to researchers from the University of Cambridge, who found older adults struggle more with test conditions than language processing.

Scientists claim that they are studying language, when really they are studying language plus your motivation to do well, plus your understanding of the instructions, plus your ability to focus, and so on
Karen Campbell
Talking

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Professor Claire Hughes receives Commendation from the 2016 Cambridge University Students' Union Teaching Awards

By from News. Published on Apr 28, 2016.

Professor Claire Hughes receives Commendation from the 2016 Cambridge University Students' Union Teaching Awards

Opinion: There are also drawbacks to being bilingual

By Anonymous from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Apr 26, 2016.

The ability to speak more than one language certainly has its perks. It enables you to work in another country, for example, interact with people while travelling, or consume foreign media.

Bilingualism is very common – current estimates are that more than half of the world’s population is bilingual and that this prevalence is rising.

Cognitive psychologists have been interested in how bilingualism shapes the mind for almost a century. There are those who suggest that in order to speak in one language, bilinguals have to suppress the influence of the other. Research from the past three decades has argued that this unique form of language processing “trains the brain” in the use of non-verbal abilities known as “executive functions” such as ignoring irrelevant information or shifting attention.

Bilinguals of different ages and cultural backgrounds have been shown to be faster and more accurate than their monolingual peers when performing cognitive tasks demanding these abilities. Furthermore, it has been argued that bilingualism may lead to a delayed onset of symptoms associated with dementia.

But the scientific community recently has become increasingly sceptical of the bilingual advantage hypothesis. One of the main points of criticism is that differences between monolinguals and bilinguals when it comes to executive function are not always apparent. This has generated a heated debate, especially in the Bilingualism Forum of the scientific journal Cortex, about whether bilingualism is associated with cognitive advantages or not.

Fresh challenge

It appears that research on bilingualism is at a turning point. We need to pursue a new approach to understand, beyond those individual examples of executive functions, how the bilingual mind works. We have attempted to address this challenge by testing whether bilinguals and monolinguals differ in terms of how accurately they can assess their own performance.

This ability is called metacognition and is associated with, but separate from, other areas where bilinguals have been shown to have an advantage. Surprisingly, however, we found that bilinguals had less insight into their performance than their monolingual peers.

Joining the dots

In an effort to find out whether bilinguals also display advantages in other cognitive abilities (beyond executive function), we evaluated metacognitive processing in young adult monolinguals and bilinguals. Metacognition is the ability to evaluate one’s own cognitive performance or simply to have “thoughts about thoughts”.

This ability is a crucial function of everyday life, when we have to make decisions where the outcomes are not immediate. For example, when an entrepreneur reviews their company’s performance, they need to take into account a variety of factors – including, for example, revenues and expenses – in order to evaluate whether the company is doing well. Confidence in their ideas and performance can be the determining factor in whether they decide to keep investing time in their company or give up and apply for another job (the so-called “exploitation exploration trade-off”).

In our research, we presented participants with a situation in which they had to observe two circles on a screen and guess which one contained more dots. Sometimes the difference was obvious, making the decision easy, while at other times the decision was very difficult (for example, one circle contained 50 dots and the other 49). Participants were then asked to determine how confident they were in their decision on a scale from less to more confident than normal.

Illustration of the metacognition paradigm employed by Folke et al., 2016. Folkes et al, 2016, Author provided

Over the course of two experiments, we found that bilinguals and monolinguals were equally likely to choose the circle containing the highest number of dots. However, monolinguals were better able than bilinguals to discriminate between when they were right and when they were wrong. In other words, bilinguals had less insight into their performance than monolinguals. This went against our initial predictions, as we expected to find a bilingual advantage in metacognitive processing. These results indicate that bilingualism may be associated with cognitive disadvantages as well as benefits.

What’s next?

The Multilanguage & Cognition lab (MULTAC) at Anglia Ruskin University is currently undertaking a three-year project funded by the Leverhulme Trust to enhance our understanding of the bilingual mind.

The lab has already published evidence of cognitive advantages associated with bilingualism, suggesting that bilinguals are better at filtering out verbal interference as well as visual attention, specifically spotting the difference in a visuo-spatial working memory task.

This new research indicates that bilingual people may experience a disadvantage in metacognition. We hope that this new direction in bilingualism research will encourage further attention and enable us to resolve theoretical debate through the adoption of open-minded, empirically driven exploration of cognitive effects (both positive and negative) that may be associated with learning more than one language.

Julia Ouzia, PhD candidate in cognitive psychology, Anglia Ruskin University and Tomas Folke, PhD candidate, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author(s) and do not represent the views of the University of Cambridge.

Tomas Folke (Department of Psychology) and Julia Ouzia (Anglia Ruskin University) discuss the cognitive disadvantages that may be associated with learning more than one language.

Bilingual street name sign in Bangor, North Wales

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Does nature make you happy? Crowdsourcing app looks at relationship between the outdoors and wellbeing

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Apr 26, 2016.

NatureBuzz, which is available to download free on iOS and Android platforms, asks participants three times per day to answer questions about how they feel, whether they are outside or indoors, who they are with, and what they are doing. At the same time, it records their location using GPS data.

NatureBuzz also provides information about UK nature reserves and ‘protected areas’ and will provide users with feedback on how their happiness has fluctuated, where it was highest, with whom and during which activities.

“Apps provide a great way of collecting data from thousands – possibly tens of thousands – of users, a scale that is just not possible in lab experiments,” explains research associate Laurie Parma from the Department of Psychology, who coordinates the study. “We’ll use this data to answer some fascinating and potentially very important questions about our relationship with nature.”

Studies have suggested that people are happier and reinvigorated when living in more natural settings. For example, a 2011 study from the United States found that people who live in inner cities were the least happy, while those who live in rural areas are the happiest. However, it is not clear whether all green spaces promote happiness equally.

Diversity – the number and abundance of different species in particular systems – is thought to be important in increasing the resilience of some so-called ecosystem services  - such as climate regulation and pest control – that underpin human wellbeing. However, the more immediate role that biodiversity may play in affecting happiness is unclear.

“We know that people quickly become familiar with – and immune to – happiness-inducing stimuli and one potential way to combat this phenomenon is to provide new and varied stimuli,” adds Professor Andrew Balmford from the Department of Zoology. “Natural environments with greater biodiversity – different flowers, different birds, for example – present a rich variety of stimuli, so it’s possible they will keep the ‘happiness factor’ fresh for visitors.”

The researchers hope that by crowdsourcing data, they will be able to answer questions such as whether the type of green space – gardens, city parks, countryside or nature reserves, for example – have the same impact on an individual’s wellbeing, and whether someone needs to be interested in nature to benefit more from the natural environment. They believe their findings may have important consequences for how policymakers promote biodiversity and how reserve managers enable people to make the most of the happiness-improving potential of access to nature.

The app is part of a broader study of happiness and nature developed by the Departments of Psychology and Zoology, University of Cambridge, RSPB, UNEP-WCMC and Cardiff University. It is funded by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative and is part of a research programme on human happiness.

NatureBuzz is available to download from the iPhone App Store and from Google Play.

A new app will crowdsource data to help scientists understand the relationship between biodiversity and wellbeing. The app, developed at the University of Cambridge, maps happiness onto a detailed map that includes all the UK’s nature reserves and green spaces. 

Apps provide a great way of collecting data from thousands – possibly tens of thousands – of users, a scale that is just not possible in lab experiments
Laurie Parma
La felicità nella luce della sera

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Professor Brian Moore receives Audio Engineering Society Fellowship

By from News. Published on Apr 19, 2016.

Professor Brian Moore receives Audio Engineering Society Fellowship

Spending for smiles: money can buy happiness after all

By Anonymous from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Apr 07, 2016.

People who spent more money on purchases which matched their personality were happier, found the study, published in the journal Psychological Science. According to the researchers, matching spending with personality was more important for individuals’ happiness than the effect of individuals’ total income or their total spending.

The study, by researchers from the University of Cambridge, was conducted in collaboration with a UK-based multinational bank. Customers were asked whether they would complete a standard personality and happiness questionnaire, and to consent to their responses being matched anonymously for research purposes with their bank transaction data.

The final study was based on 76,863 transactions of 625 participants. The study whittled down 112 spending categories automatically grouped by the bank into 59 categories that had at least 500 transactions over a six-month period.

The study matched spending categories on the widely recognised “Big Five” personality traits – openness to experience (artistic versus traditional), conscientiousness (self-controlled vs easy-going), extraversion (outgoing vs reserved), agreeableness (compassionate vs competitive), and neuroticism (prone to stress vs stable).

For example, eating out in pubs was rated as an extroverted and low conscientiousness (impulsive) spending category, whereas charities and pets were rated as agreeable spending categories. Further examples can be found below.

The researchers then compared the participants’ actual purchases to their personalities using this scale, and found that people generally spent more money on products that match their personality. For example, a highly extroverted person spent approximately £52 more each year on pub nights than an introverted person. Similarly, a highly conscientiousness person spent £124 more annually on health and fitness than a person low in conscientiousness.

The study was authored by Sandra Matz, a PhD candidate in Cambridge’s Department of Psychology; Joe Gladstone, a Research Associate at Cambridge Judge Business School; and David Stillwell, University Lecturer in Big Data Analytics & Quantitative Social Science at Cambridge Judge Business School.

“Historically, studies had found a weak relationship between money and overall wellbeing,” said Gladstone. “Our study breaks new ground by mining actual bank transaction data and demonstrating that spending can increase our happiness when it is spent on goods and services that fit our personalities and so meet our psychological needs.”

The researchers believe the findings hold widespread implications, including for Internet businesses using search-based recommendation engines. Companies can use this information to recommend products and services that don’t just increase clicks, but will actually improve the wellbeing of their customers – allowing companies to forge better relationships with customers based on what makes them happier.

The researchers also backed up their findings by running a second experiment, where they gave people a voucher to spend either in a bookshop or at a bar. Extroverts who were forced to spend at a bar were happier than introverts forced to spend at a bar, while introverts forced to spend at a bookshop were happier than extroverts forced to spend at a bookshop. This follow-up experiment overcomes the limitations of correlational data by demonstrating that spending money on things that match a person’s personality can cause an increase in happiness.

“Our findings suggest that spending money on products that help us express who we are as individuals could turn out to be as important to our well-being as finding the right job, the right neighbourhood or even the right friends and partners,” said Matz. “By developing a more nuanced understanding of the links between spending and happiness, we hope to be able to provide more personalised advice on how to find happiness through the little consumption choices we make every day.”

Categories with the lowest and highest scores on each of the Big Five personality traits:

Big 5 Trait       Low High
Openness  Traffic fines, residential mortgages Entertainment, hair and beauty
Conscientiousness Gambling, toys and hobbies   Home insurance, health, fitness
Extraversion Home insurance, accountant fees Entertainment, travel
Agreeableness  Traffic fines, gambling Charities, pets
Neuroticism Stationery, hotels  Traffic fines, gambling

Reference:
Sandra C. Matz, Joe J. Gladstone, and David Stillwell. ‘Money Buys Happiness When Spending Fits Our Personality.’ Psychological Science (2016). DOI: 10.1177/0956797616635200

Adapted from a Cambridge Judge Business School press release.  

Money really can buy happiness when spending fits our personality, finds a study based on 77,000 UK bank transactions.

Spending can increase our happiness when it is spent on goods and services that fit our personalities and so meet our psychological needs.
Joe Gladstone
Shopping

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Simone Schnall appointed Einstein Fellow

By from News. Published on Mar 21, 2016.

Being overweight linked to poorer memory

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Feb 25, 2016.

In a preliminary study published in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers from the Department of Psychology at Cambridge found an association between high body mass index (BMI) and poorer performance on a test of episodic memory.

Although only a small study, its results support existing findings that excess bodyweight may be associated with changes to the structure and function of the brain and its ability to perform certain cognitive tasks optimally. In particular, obesity has been linked with dysfunction of the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in memory and learning, and of the frontal lobe, the part of the brain involved in decision making, problem solving and emotions, suggesting that it might also affect memory; however, evidence for memory impairment in obesity is currently limited.

Around 60% of UK adults are overweight or obese: this number is predicted to rise to approximately 70% by 2034. Obesity increases the risk of physical health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease, as well as psychological health problems, such as depression and anxiety.

“Understanding what drives our consumption and how we instinctively regulate our eating behaviour is becoming more and more important given the rise of obesity in society,” says Dr Lucy Cheke. “We know that to some extent hunger and satiety are driven by the balance of hormones in our bodies and brains, but psychological factors also play an important role – we tend to eat more when distracted by television or working, and perhaps to ‘comfort eat’ when we are sad, for example.

“Increasingly, we’re beginning to see that memory – especially episodic memory, the kind where you mentally relive a past event – is also important. How vividly we remember a recent meal, for example today’s lunch, can make a difference to how hungry we feel and how much we are likely to reach out for that tasty chocolate bar later on.”

The researchers tested 50 participants aged 18-35, with body mass indexes (BMIs) ranging from 18 through to 51 – a BMI of 18-25 is considered healthy, 25-30 overweight, and over 30 obese. The participants took part in a memory test known as the ‘Treasure-Hunt Task’, where they were asked to hide items around complex scenes (for example, a desert with palm trees) across two ‘days’. They were then asked to remember which items they had hidden, where they had hidden them, and when they were hidden. Overall, the team found an association between higher BMI and poorer performance on the tasks.

The researchers say that the results could suggest that the structural and functional changes in the brain previously found in those with higher BMI may be accompanied by a reduced ability to form and/or retrieve episodic memories. As the effect was shown in young adults, it adds to growing evidence that the cognitive impairments that accompany obesity may be present early in adult life.

This was a small, preliminary study and so the researchers caution that further research will be necessary to establish whether the results of this study can be generalised to overweight individuals in general, and to episodic memory in everyday life rather than in experimental conditions.

“We're not saying that overweight people are necessarily more forgetful," cautions Dr Cheke, “but if these results are generalizable to memory in everyday life, then it could be that overweight people are less able to vividly relive details of past events – such as their past meals. Research on the role of memory in eating suggests that this might impair their ability to use memory to help regulate consumption.

“In other words, it is possible that becoming overweight may make it harder to keep track of what and how much you have eaten, potentially making you more likely to overeat.”

Dr Cheke believes that this work is an important step in understanding the role of psychological factors in obesity. “The possibility that there may be episodic memory deficits in overweight individuals is of concern, especially given the growing evidence that episodic memory may have a considerable influence on feeding behaviour and appetite regulation,” she says.

Co-author Dr Jon Simons adds: “By recognising and addressing these psychological factors head-on, not only can we come to understand obesity better, but we may enable the creation of interventions that can make a real difference to health and wellbeing.”

The study was funded by the Medical Research Council and Girton College, University of Cambridge, and the James S McDonnell Foundation.

Reference
Cheke, LG et al. Higher BMI is Associated with Episodic Memory Deficits in Young Adults. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology; 22 Feb 2016. DOI:10.1080/17470218.2015.1099163

Overweight young adults may have poorer episodic memory – the ability to recall past events – than their peers, suggests new research from the University of Cambridge, adding to increasing evidence of a link between memory and overeating.

How vividly we remember a recent meal, for example today’s lunch, can make a difference to how hungry we feel
Lucy Cheke
Too many croissants yesterday... (cropped)

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Brain waves could help predict how we respond to general anaesthetics

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jan 14, 2016.

Currently, patients due to undergo surgery are given a dose of anaesthetic based on the so-called ‘Marsh model’, which uses factors such as an individual’s body weight to predict the amount of drug needed. As patients ‘go under’, their levels of awareness are monitored in a relatively crude way. If they are still deemed awake, they are simply given more anaesthetic. However, general anaesthetics can carry risks, particularly if an individual has an underlying health condition such as a heart disorder.

As areas of the brain communicate with each other, they give off tell-tale signals that can give an indication of how conscious an individual is. These ‘networks’ of brain activity can be measured using an EEG (electroencephalogram), which measures electric signals as brain cells talk to each other. Cambridge researchers have previously shown that these network signatures can even be seen in some people in a vegetative state and may help doctors identify patients who are aware despite being unable to communicate. These findings build upon advances in the science of networks to tackle the challenge of understanding and measuring human consciousness.

In a study published today in the open access journal PLOS Computational Biology, funded by the Wellcome Trust, the researchers studied how these signals changed in healthy volunteers as they received an infusion of propofol, a commonly used anaesthetic.

Twenty individuals (9 male, 11 female) received a steadily increasing dose of propofol – all up to the same limit – while undergoing a task that involved pressing one button if they heard a ‘ping’ and a different button if they heard a ‘pong’. At the same time, the researchers tracked their brain network activity using an EEG.

By the time the subjects had reached the maximum dose, some individuals were still awake and able to carry out the task, while others were unconscious. As the researchers analysed the EEG readings, they found clear differences between those who were responding to the anaesthetic and those who remained able to carry on with the task. This ‘brain signature’ was evident in the network of communications between brain areas carried by alpha waves (brain cell oscillations in the frequency range of 7.5–12.5 Hz), the normal range of electrical activity of the brain when conscious and relaxed.

In fact, when the researchers looked at the baseline EEG readings before any drug was given, they already saw differences between those who would later succumb to the drug and those who were less responsive to its effects. Dividing the subjects into two groups based on their EEG readings – those with lots of brain network activity at baseline and those with less – the researchers were able to predict who would be more responsive to the drug and who would be less.

The researchers also measured levels of propofol in the blood to see if this could be used as a measure of how conscious an individual was. Although they found little correlation with the alpha wave readings in general, they did find a correlation with a specific form of brain network activity known as delta-alpha coupling. This may be able to provide a useful, non-invasive measure of the level of drug in the blood.

“A very good way of predicting how an individual responds to our anaesthetic was the state of their brain network activity at the start of the procedure,” says Dr Srivas Chennu from the Department of Clinical Neurosciences, University of Cambridge. “The greater the network activity at the start, the more anaesthetic they are likely to need to put them under.”

Dr Tristan Bekinschtein, senior author from the Department of Psychology, adds: “EEG machines are commonplace in hospitals and relatively inexpensive. With some engineering and further testing, we expect they could be adapted to help doctors optimise the amount of drug an individual needs to receive to become unconscious without increasing their risk of complications.”

Srivas Chennu will be speaking at the Cambridge Science Festival on Wednesday 16 March. During the event, ‘Brain, body and mind: new directions in the neuroscience and philosophy of consciousness’, he will be examining what it means to be conscious.

Reference

Chennu, S et al. Brain connectivity dissociates responsiveness from drug exposure during propofol induced transitions of consciousness. PLOS Computational Biology; 14 Jan 2016

Image
Brain networks during the transition to unconsciousness during propofol sedation (drug infusion timeline shown in red). Participants with robust networks at baseline (left panel) remained resistant to the sedative, while others showed characteristically different, weaker networks during unconsciousness (middle). All participants regained similar networks when the sedative wore off (right).

The complex pattern of ‘chatter’ between different areas of an individual’s brain while they are awake could help doctors better track and even predict their response to general anaesthesia – and better identify the amount of anaesthetic necessary – according to new research from the University of Cambridge.

A very good way of predicting how an individual responds to our anaesthetic was the state of their brain network activity at the start of the procedure
Srivas Chennu
Brain networks during the transition to unconsciousness during propofol sedation

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Cocaine addiction: Scientists discover ‘back door’ into the brain

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jan 12, 2016.

A second study from the team suggests that a drug used to treat paracetamol overdose may be able to help individuals who want to break their addiction and stop their damaging cocaine seeking habits.

Although both studies were carried out in rats, the researchers believe the findings will be relevant to humans.

Cocaine is a stimulant drug that can lead to addiction when taken repeatedly. Quitting can be extremely difficult for some people: around four in ten individuals who relapse report having experienced a craving for the drug – however, this means that six out of ten people have relapsed for reasons other than ‘needing’ the drug.

“Most people who use cocaine do so initially in search of a hedonic ‘high’,” explains Dr David Belin from the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Cambridge. “In some individuals, though, frequent use leads to addiction, where use of the drug is no longer voluntary, but ultimately becomes a compulsion. We wanted to understand why this should be the case.”

Drug-taking causes a release in the brain of the chemical dopamine, which helps provide the ‘high’ experienced by the user. Initially the drug taking is volitional – in other words, it is the individual’s choice to take the drug – but over time, this becomes habitual, beyond their control.

Previous research by Professor Barry Everitt from the Department of Psychology at Cambridge showed that when rats were allowed to self-administer cocaine, dopamine-related activity occurred initially in an area of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens, which plays a significant role driving ‘goal-directed’ behaviour, as the rats sought out the drug. However, if the rats were given cocaine over an extended period, this activity transferred to the dorsolateral striatum, which plays an important role in habitual behaviour, suggesting that the rats were no longer in control, but rather were responding automatically, having developed a drug-taking habit.

The brain mechanisms underlying the balance between goal-directed and habitual behaviour involves the prefrontal cortex, the brain region that orchestrates our behaviour. It was previously thought that this region was overwhelmed by stimuli associated with the drugs, or with the craving experienced during withdrawal; however, this does not easily explain why the majority of individuals relapsing to drug use did not experience any craving.

Chronic exposure to drugs alters the prefrontal cortex, but it also alters an area of the brain called the basolateral amygdala, which is associated with the link between a stimulus and an emotion. The basolateral amygdala stores the pleasurable memories associated with cocaine, but the pre-frontal cortex manipulates this information, helping an individual to weigh up whether or not to take the drug: if an addicted individual takes the drug, this activates mechanisms in the dorsal striatum.

However, in a study published today in the journal Nature Communications, Dr Belin and Professor Everitt studied the brains of rats addicted to cocaine through self-administration of the drug and identified a previously unknown pathway within the brain that links impulse with habits.

The pathway links the basolateral amygdala indirectly with the dorsolateral striatum, circumventing the prefrontal cortex. This means that an addicted individual would not necessarily be aware of their desire to take the drug.

“We’ve always assumed that addiction occurs through a failure or our self-control, but now we know this is not necessarily the case,” explains Dr Belin. “We’ve found a back door directly to habitual behaviour.

“Drug addiction is mainly viewed as a psychiatric disorder, with treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy focused on restoring the ability of the prefrontal cortex to control the otherwise maladaptive drug use. But we’ve shown that the prefrontal cortex is not always aware of what is happening, suggesting these treatments may not always be effective.”

In a second study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, Dr Belin and colleagues showed that a drug used to treat paracetamol overdose may be able to help individuals addicted to cocaine overcome their addiction – provided the individual wants to quit.

The drug, N-acetylcysteine, had previously been shown in rat studies to prevent relapse. However, the drug later failed human clinical trials, though analysis suggested that while it did not lead addicted individuals to stop using cocaine, amongst those who were trying to abstain, it helped them refrain from taking the drug.

Dr Belin and colleagues used an experiment in which rats compulsively self-administered cocaine. They found that rats given N-acetylcysteine lost the motivation to self-administer cocaine more quickly than rats given a placebo. In fact, when they had stopped working for cocaine, they tended to relapse at a lower rate. N-acetylcysteine also increased the activity in the brain of a particular gene associated with plasticity – the ability of the brain to adapt and learn new skills.

“A hallmark of addiction is that the user continues to take the drug even in the face of negative consequences – such as on their health, their family and friends, their job, and so on,” says co-author Mickael Puaud from the Department of Pharmacology of the University of Cambridge. “Our study suggests that N-acetylcysteine, a drug that we know is well tolerated and safe, may help individuals who want to quit to do so.”

Reference
Murray, JE et al. Basolateral and central amygdala differentially recruit and maintain dorsolateral striatum-dependent cocaine-seeking habits. Nature Comms; 16 December 2015

Ducret, E et al. N-acetylcysteine facilitates self-imposed abstinence after escalation of cocaine intake. Biological Psychiatry; 7 Oct 2015

Individuals addicted to cocaine may have difficulty in controlling their addiction because of a previously-unknown ‘back door’ into the brain, circumventing their self-control, suggests a new study led by the University of Cambridge.

Most people who use cocaine do so initially in search of a hedonic ‘high’. In some individuals, though, frequent use leads to addiction, where use of the drug is no longer voluntary, but ultimately becomes a compulsion
David Belin
relaxing after work_MMVI (cropped)

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Unhappy families: Nine out ten adults estranged from family find Christmas difficult

By cjb250 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Dec 10, 2015.

Hidden Voices – Family Estrangement in Adulthood, a collaboration between the charity Stand Alone and the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, is the first in depth piece of UK research on family estrangement. It examines the experiences of over 800 people who self-identify as being estranged from their whole family or a key family member, such as their mother, father, siblings or children.

Becca Bland, Chief Executive of Stand Alone, says: “Family is a huge part of our individual and collective lives and an unconditionally loving, supportive group of relations is idealised in society. Yet this is not always attainable for those who are estranged from their family or a family member. I’m sure this research will be challenging to read, but I’m hopeful that as a society we have the strength to keep listening to people in this position, with the view to eventually understanding why our adult family relationships are not always as unconditionally close and supportive as we might wish and imagine them to be.”

The report provides an understanding of family estrangement and its characteristics as well as detailing the challenges participants faced when living without contact with family or a key family member. Common factors that contribute to relationship breakdown with parents, siblings and children include emotional abuse, clashes of personality and values, and mismatched expectations about family roles and relationships.

However, estrangement does not necessarily mean there is no contact between family members. A minority of respondents have minimal contact with the person they are estranged from. Similarly, estrangements are not always stable, and cycling in and out of estrangement is not uncommon. Those who wished their estranged relationships could be different wanted a relationship that was more positive, unconditionally loving, warm and emotionally close.

Most often, respondents who were estranged from an adult child reported that their daughter or son had cut contact with them. Of those who had initiated estrangement from a parent, respondents had done so at various ages, with most doing so in their late 20s and early 30s.

The report shows that the festive period is often the most challenging time for those touched by family estrangement and can be a key time of isolation and vulnerability, with 90% of respondents saying they found the Christmas period a key time of challenge. Other challenging times were reported as birthdays (85%), being around other families (81%) and the death of family members (79%).

“Almost every estranged person finds Christmas the hardest period,” explains Dr Lucy Blake from the Centre for Family Research. “There’s a strong societal expectation of what a family looks like. Social media plays a part too because it’s a highlight reel of people’s family lives, with Facebook feeds filled with pictures of families celebrating together. The reality doesn’t always look like this, but people often find it difficult to talk about that.”

Stigma around the topic of family estrangement is also an issue: two-thirds (68%) of respondents felt that there was stigma around the topic of family estrangement and described feeling judged and feeling as if they were contradicting societal expectations. One in four respondents had turned to their GP for support but reported finding them not at all helpful.

However, not all experiences of estrangement were negative. Around four out of five respondents felt there had been some positive outcomes of their experiences of estrangement, such as greater feelings of freedom and independence.

Reference
Lucy Blake, Becca Bland and Susan Golombok. Hidden Voices – Family Estrangement in Adulthood. 10 December 2015

A new report looking at the experiences of people who are estranged from family members and the challenges they face has highlighted the particular difficulties associated with Christmas.

Social media plays a part because it’s a highlight reel of people’s family lives, with Facebook feeds filled with pictures of families celebrating together
Lucy Blake
Lonely nights (cropped)

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Retirement of Professor James Russell

By from News. Published on Nov 09, 2015.

Tributes to Professor Nicholas J. Mackintosh, FRS

By from News. Published on Sep 02, 2015.