Dr Victoria Leong awarded the Robert J. Glushko Dissertation Prize
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Apr 16, 2014.
The new Adaptive Brain Group Laboratory opens
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Apr 15, 2014.
Scientists identify part of brain linked to gambling addiction
By jfp40 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Apr 08, 2014.
The research, led by Dr Luke Clark from the University of Cambridge, was published on April 7 2014 in the journal PNAS.
During gambling games, people often misperceive their chances of winning due to a number of errors of thinking called cognitive distortions. For example, ‘near-misses’ seem to encourage further play, even though they are no different from any other loss. In a random sequence like tossing a coin, a run of one event (heads) makes people think the other outcome (tails) is due next; this is known as the ‘gambler’s fallacy’.
There is increasing evidence that problem gamblers are particularly prone to these erroneous beliefs. In this study, the researchers examined the neurological basis of these beliefs in patients with injuries to different parts of the brain.
“While neuroimaging studies can tell us a great deal about the brain’s response to complex events, it’s only by studying patients with brain injury that we can see if a brain region is actually needed to perform a given task,” said Dr Clark.
For the study, the researchers gave patients with injuries to specific parts of the brain (the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, or the insula) two different gambling tasks: a slot machine game that delivered wins and ‘near-misses’ (like a cherry one position from the jackpot line), and a roulette game involving red or black predictions, to elicit the gambler’s fallacy. For the control groups, they also had patients with injuries to other parts of the brain as well as healthy participants undergo the gambling tasks.
All of the groups with the exception of the patients with insula damage reported a heightened motivation to play following near-misses in the slot machine game, and also fell prey to the gambler’s fallacy in the roulette game.
Clark added: “Based on these results, we believe that the insula could be hyperactive in problem gamblers, making them more susceptible to these errors of thinking. Future treatments for gambling addiction could seek to reduce this hyperactivity, either by drugs or by psychological techniques like mindfulness therapies.”
Gambling is a widespread activity: 73% of people in the UK report some gambling involvement in the past year* and around 50% play games other than the National Lottery. For a small proportion of players (around 1-5%), their gambling becomes excessive, resulting in features seen in addiction. Problem gambling is associated with both debt and family difficulties as well as other mental health problems like depression.
New research reveals that brain damage affecting the insula – an area with a key role in emotions – disrupts errors of thinking linked to gambling addiction.
New study reveals scale of problem gambling among homeless population
By jfp40 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Apr 02, 2014.
The study – one of the largest surveys of gambling and homelessness ever undertaken in the UK – provides new insight into a rarely studied problem and suggests homeless services should offer clients more support to identify and tackle problem gambling.
Although homelessness and problem gambling are two public health concerns, they are rarely considered together. This new study – published in the Journal of Gambling Studies – interviewed 450 people at homeless hostels and shelters in the London Borough of Westminster.
According to lead author Steve Sharman from the Department of Psychology: “Many issues face the homeless population, including drug and alcohol use. In terms of addiction research, most focus has been on drugs, alcohol and smoking, but the gambling field is relatively small in comparison. And while it is possible to spot physiological indicators of drug and alcohol addiction, problem gambling is much harder to identify.”
Finding out more about gambling addiction is important at a time when gambling opportunities are wider than ever. “Gambling has exploded in popularity over the past 20 years, partly due to changes in legislation but also because of new technology,” said Sharman.
“Where previous generations were limited to betting shops and football pools, today there’s everything from online slots to in-play betting. That means people can gamble 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the more people who gamble, the more people there will be who do so problematically.”
Together with researchers at Kings College London, the National Problem Gambling Clinic, The Connection @ St Martins and other centres in Westminster, Sharman spoke to over 450 homeless people in London.
He assessed levels of problem gambling using a standard clinical diagnostic tool called the Problem Gambling Severity Index. He then compared the results with data from the British Gambling Prevalence Survey.
Compared with the UK population as a whole, where problem gambling affects 0.7% of people, the level of problem gambling among homeless people was 11.6%. “We found that the rate of problem or pathological gambling is significantly higher in the homeless population than the general population,” he said.
In identifying the significant scale of the problem, the study could pave the way to developing new services for the homeless.
“The results are useful because some homeless services don’t ask about gambling in their initial assessments. By showing that this population is vulnerable to gambling addiction, the study should encourage homeless services to include questions about gambling in their assessments. If they can understand the full range of behavioural problems their clients face – not only substance abuse – then they will be able to provide more comprehensive services,” said Sharman.
The next stage of the project will be to unpick the direction of the link between gambling and homelessness – whether gambling is a cause or consequence of homelessness – the links between gambling and alcohol and drug use, and look at so-called negative life events.
“By giving us an indication of life events that precede homelessness and came afterwards, we will get a better understanding of the causes, and whether people start gambling after becoming homeless or became homeless as a result of gambling,” he said.
“Regardless of whether gambling is a cause or a consequence, recognising and addressing this problem will hopefully give affected individuals a better chance of getting off – and more importantly staying off – the streets.”
Homeless people are ten times more likely to be problem gamblers than the UK population as a whole, researchers at Cambridge have found.
Benedetto De Martino joins the Department
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Mar 27, 2014.
Male Eurasian jays know that their female partners’ desires can differ from their own
By jfp40 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Mar 26, 2014.
Knowing what another person wants is not a trivial issue, particularly when the other’s desires are different from our own. The ability to disengage from our own desire to cater to someone else’s wishes is thought to be a unique feature of human cognition.
New research challenges this assumption. Despite wanting something different to eat, male Eurasian jays can disengage from their own current desire in order to feed the female what she wants even when her desires are different to his. The study, which was funded by the BBSRC, is published today in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.
“We found that males could respond to the female’s desire even when their own desire was conflicting. That said, the males were also partially biased by what they wanted – a bias similar to one commonly found in human children and adults,” said Dr Ljerka Ostojić, who led the University of Cambridge study.
For the study, nine male-female pairs of Eurasian jays (a member of the Corvid family) from two colonies were tested during the breeding season – the only time when jays share food. To manipulate what food the males and the females desired, the researchers used a phenomenon termed ‘specific satiety’ – after eating a particular food item to satiety, jays prefer to eat a novel food item that they are not currently sated on.
Once a day the females and males were placed in adjacent compartments with a mesh window in between. The male was then pre-fed either wax moth larvae or mealworm beetle larvae – both favourite treats for jays - until he did not want more. At the same time, the female’s desire was manipulated by giving her the same food as the male (meaning that their desires were matching), a different food from the male (meaning that their desires were conflicting), or her usual diet (meaning that the female’s desire was neutral towards the two types of larvae).
During the pre-feeding, the male had visual access to the female and saw her eat. At the end of pre-feeding, all food was removed. The males were then given 20 choices between a single wax moth larva and a mealworm beetle larva which they could either eat, cache (hide for later) or give to the female.
Not surprisingly, when the male and female birds’ preferences were the same, the male fed the female the food desired by both. However, when the female’s desire differed from the male’s, then he took his partner’s wishes into account, often feeding her the food that she desired. This ability to ascribe to another individual an internal life like one’s own and at the same time understand that the other’s internal, psychological states might differ from one’s own is called state-attribution.
Professor Nicky Clayton, whose Comparative Cognition lab at Cambridge University’s Department of Psychology conducted the study, said: “As humans, we ‘put ourselves into someone else’s shoes’ in order to respond to what the other person wants. Although we are biased by our own current desires, we can inhibit these to put the wants and desires of another before our own. The current findings show that the jays can also do this. So what this research suggests is that a common mechanism might underlie ‘desire-state attribution’ in humans and jays.”
New research shows that male jays are able to disengage from their own current desires to feed their female partner food that she wants.
Dr Mike Aitken to receive Pilkington Prize
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Mar 24, 2014.
Out of mind, out of sight: suppressing unwanted memories reduces their unconscious influence on behaviour
By jfp40 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Mar 18, 2014.
The study, part-funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and published online in PNAS, challenges the idea that suppressed memories remain fully preserved in the brain’s unconscious, allowing them to be inadvertently expressed in someone’s behaviour. The results of the study suggest instead that the act of suppressing intrusive memories helps to disrupt traces of the memories in the parts of the brain responsible for sensory processing.
The team at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and the University of Cambridge’s Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute (BCNI) have examined how suppression affects a memory’s unconscious influences in an experiment that focused on suppression of visual memories, as intrusive unwanted memories are often visual in nature.
After a trauma, most people report intrusive memories or images, and people will often try to push these intrusions from their mind, as a way to cope. Importantly, the frequency of intrusive memories decreases over time for most people. It is critical to understand how the healthy brain reduces these intrusions and prevents unwanted images from entering consciousness, so that researchers can better understand how these mechanisms may go awry in conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Participants were asked to learn a set of word-picture pairs so that, when presented with the word as a reminder, an image of the object would spring to mind. After learning these pairs, brain activity was recorded using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while participants either thought of the object image when given its reminder word, or instead tried to stop the memory of the picture from entering their mind.
The researchers studied whether suppressing visual memories had altered people’s ability to see the content of those memories when they re-encountered it again in their visual worlds. Without asking participants to consciously remember, they simply asked people to identify very briefly displayed objects that were made difficult to see by visual distortion. In general, under these conditions, people are better at identifying objects they have seen recently, even if they do not remember seeing the object before—an unconscious influence of memory. Strikingly, they found that suppressing visual memories made it harder for people to later see the suppressed object compared to other recently seen objects.
Brain imaging showed that people’s difficulty seeing the suppressed object arose because suppressing the memory from conscious awareness in the earlier memory suppression phase had inhibited activity in visual areas of the brain, disrupting visual memories that usually help people to see better. In essence, suppressing something from the mind’s eye had made it harder to see in the world, because visual memories and seeing rely on the same brain areas: out of mind, out of sight.
Over the last decade, research has shown that suppressing unwanted memories reduces people’s ability to consciously remember the experiences. The researchers’ studies on memory suppression have been inspired, in part, by trying to understand how people adapt memory after psychological trauma. Although this may work as a coping mechanism to help people adapt to the trauma, there is the possibility that if the memory traces were able to exert an influence on unconscious behaviour, they could potentially exacerbate mental health problems. The idea that suppression leaves unconscious memories that undermine mental health has been influential for over a century, beginning with Sigmund Freud.
These findings challenge the assumption that, even when supressed, a memory remains fully intact, which can then be expressed unconsciously. Moreover, this discovery pinpoints the neurobiological mechanisms underlying how this suppression process happens, and could inform further research on uncontrolled ‘intrusive memories’, a classic characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Dr Michael Anderson, at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit said: “While there has been a lot of research looking at how suppression affects conscious memory, few studies have examined the influence this process might have on unconscious expressions of memory in behaviour and thought. Surprisingly, the effects of suppression are not limited to conscious memory. Indeed, it is now clear, that the influence of suppression extends beyond areas of the brain associated with conscious memory, affecting perceptual traces that can influence us unconsciously. This may contribute to making unwanted visual memories less intrusive over time, and perhaps less vivid and detailed.”
Dr Pierre Gagnepain, lead author at INSERM in France said: “Our memories can be slippery and hard to pin down. Out of hand and uncontrolled, their remembrance can haunt us and cause psychological troubles, as we see in PTSD. We were interested whether the brain can genuinely suppress memories in healthy participants, even at the most unconscious level, and how it might achieve this. The answer is that it can, though not all people were equally good at this. The better understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying this process arising from this study may help to better explain differences in how well people adapt to intrusive memories after a trauma”
New research shows that, contrary to what was previously assumed, suppressing unwanted memories reduces their influence on behaviour, and sheds light on how this process happens in the brain.
Psychology is a hit at the Science Festival
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Mar 18, 2014.
Gabrielle Davidson wins prize for conference paper
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Mar 11, 2014.
Professor Trevor Robbins awarded Brain Prize 2014
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Mar 11, 2014.
Professor Hines to give Science Festival talk
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Mar 10, 2014.
Professor Nicky Clayton features in a new book celebrating Cambridge women
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Mar 03, 2014.
Inside the Animal Mind YouTube clip goes viral
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Feb 24, 2014.
Professor Usha Goswami interviewed by the Naked Scientists
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Feb 19, 2014.
Research in Japan suggests that a ‘relationship-based’ police interviewing style gets the best results
By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Feb 15, 2014.
In 1995 members of a religious cult called Aum Shinirikyo carried out a Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway that killed two station staff and injured several hundred people. One of those questioned by the police as a member of the cult was Dr Hayashi Ikuo. During interviews, Ikuo made a voluntary decision to confess his involvement in the attack. He was later sentenced to indefinite imprisonment.
In an autobiography written in prison, Ikuo described his feelings about his interrogation by police before standing trial: “At that time, I felt reassured by the fact that I had someone who would understand my true intentions without prejudice. I thought I could trust Mr I and Mr F [police interrogators]. I made up my mind to tell them everything I knew.”
Prize-winning research undertaken in Japan by Dr Taeko Wachi, while a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, suggests that a ‘relationship-based’ interviewing style in which interrogators listen closely and attempt to form good relationships with suspects is more likely to elicit true confessions than other styles.
Dr Wachi’s research comprised three studies of attitudes to, and experiences of, police interviewing in Japan. The first study explored information on interrogation techniques gathered from almost 280 police officers. The analysis of questionnaires led to the identification of four interview styles: evidence-focused, confrontational, undifferentiated and relationship-focused.
The second study was a ‘crime experiment’ in which more than 230 members of the public took part. It was designed to reveal which of the interviewing techniques identified in the first study were most likely to elicit true confessions and prevent false confessions. Overall, 74 out of 114 ‘guilty’ participants confessed to their notional ‘crime’ but none of the ‘innocent’ participants made false confessions. Relationship-focused interviewing was most likely to elicit a confession.
The third study examined questionnaires from more than 290 offenders in 36 prisons. All of them had been convicted of serious crimes including murder, rape and kidnapping. This third study – which was administered by means of a questionnaire – was the first of its kind in Japan and thus broke new ground in terms of identifying which interviewing styles led offenders to confess.
Again, relationship-focused interviewing was particularly effective in eliciting confessions from suspects who had not decided, before interrogation, whether or not to confess their crimes or had decided to deny the allegations against them.
The research suggested that the relationship-based interviewing style has a positive effect on both police officers’ and suspects’ feelings after interrogation. Those offenders who confessed to crimes during a relationship-based interview did so as the result of internal pressures, such as “I confessed because I felt guilty about the crime”, rather than external pressures, such as “I confessed because of police pressure during the interview”.
In view of the lack of in-depth research into investigative interviewing techniques in Japan, Dr Wachi’s work makes a significant contribution to understanding the wide number of factors that affect this complex process. It should be noted, however, that most participants in the study were male.
As Dr Wachi points out, there are significant differences, as well as similarities, between the structure of criminal processes in Japan and those in Western Europe and the USA. In Japan the law allows for suspects to be held for 23 days before initiating prosecution: this maximum detention period contrasts with 24 hours (generally) in the UK, 48 hours in Hong Kong and just four hours in Australia.
It has thus been argued that interrogations play a much more important role in Japanese criminal investigations than in other countries. In recent years, several high-profile false confessions have drawn attention to the possible impact of interviewing techniques on suspects’ feelings and decisions about confessions and denials. Training of police officers in interviewing is being stepped up.
Interestingly, the Japanese public (in addition to crime victims and their families) exhibits a strong desire for offenders to talk about their criminal motives and explain their criminal acts. Interrogation meets this public interest by helping offenders to give accounts of their cases in detail.
Last month it was announced that Dr Wachi had won first place in the 2013 American Psychology-Law Society Dissertation Awards. As part of her prize she is invited to attend, and present a poster at, the AP-LS Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana in March, 2014. The AP-LS committee reviewers described her dissertation as “highly original… because of the breadth of interrogation factors it addresses”.
An impressive aspect of the research was Dr Wachi’s design and implementation of a crime experiment which was tested on a range of people recruited from the general public, widely varying in age and from a diversity of backgrounds. In contrast, previous crime experiments have used university students who tend to be from a narrow age range and educational level.
At Cambridge, Dr Wachi’s research was supervised by Professor Michael Lamb of the Department of Psychology. He said: “I was delighted to hear that Taeko had won this award. Her persuasive study was comprehensive and very significant, especially because we are increasingly aware of the risks that false confessions may lead to the conviction and incarceration of innocent people. Taeko’s findings add to the growing body of evidence that more humane rather than coercive interviewing practices are likely to elicit confessions from guilty individuals, a pattern evident in Western countries, too.”
Dr Wachi has been working for the National Research Institute of Police Science (attached to the National Police Agency, Japan) since 2005. She was able to study for a PhD at Cambridge thanks to a scholarship from the Japanese Government Long-Term Overseas Fellowship Program.
Her background gave her the advantage of an in-depth understanding of, and close working relationship with, the National Police Agency, Supreme Public Prosecutors’ Office and Ministry of Justice, which enabled her to conduct the studies of police officers and prisoners.
Dr Wachi is currently conducting research into interrogations of those with learning disabilities as well as on public opinions about interviewing techniques. She intends to continue her research into criminal investigation on behalf of the National Police Agency by providing scientific findings about interrogations of various types of suspects.
For more information about this story contact Alexandra Buxton, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge, email@example.com, 01223 761673
Award-winning research into police interviewing techniques in Japan reveals that a ‘relationship-based’ style may be particularly effective in eliciting true confessions. The research included the first ever study of Japanese offenders’ views about police interrogation.
Ways of Seeing: Dr Simone Schnall in Living Rooms event
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Feb 05, 2014.
The eyes have it
By jfp40 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Feb 05, 2014.
While what humans do with their eyes has been well studied, we know almost nothing about whether birds communicate with members of the same species with their eyes.
The new study, published today in Biology Letters, shows that jackdaw eyes are used as a warning signal to successfully deter competitors from coming near their nest boxes.
Gabrielle Davidson of the University of Cambridge, who led the study, said: “Jackdaw eyes are very unusual. Unlike their close relatives, the rooks and crows – which have very dark eyes – jackdaw eyes are almost white and their striking pale irises are very conspicuous against their dark feathers.”
While most birds have black or dark brown eyes, bright eyes are not unknown in the avian world, and around 10% of passerines (perching birds) have coloured irises. The question Davidson wanted to answer was do jackdaws use their bright eyes to communicate with fellow jackdaws?
Just before the spring breeding season arrived last year, Davidson installed one of four different pictures in 100 jackdaw nest boxes on the outskirts of Cambridge. The pictures were either black (the control), a pair of jackdaw eyes, a pair of jackdaw eyes in a jackdaw’s face, or a jackdaw’s face with a pair of black rook eyes. She then filmed the effect the different pictures had on the birds’ behaviour.
“Jackdaws are unique among the crow family in that they nest in cavities in trees. These hollows are natural – the birds cannot excavate their own nest cavities as some woodpeckers do – so they have to compete for a limited resource. And because jackdaws nest in close proximity to each other, they fight a lot to gain the best nesting sites,” she explained. Often what initiates these fights are jackdaws approaching nest boxes that are not their own.
After analysing 40 videos of jackdaws peeking into each other’s nest boxes, she found that compared with the other nest boxes, those that contained the picture of a jackdaw with its bright eyes was much more likely to deter the birds from landing on it, and that the birds spent less time near such a nest box.
Davidson’s study is the first to show the eyes being used as a means of communication between members of the same species outside primates.
“Before now we knew very little about why some birds have brightly coloured eyes. In jackdaws, the pale eyes may function to improve their ability to defend their nest and chicks from competitors. It also raises the question of whether this is unique to jackdaws, or if other cavity nesting birds also use their eyes in a similar way,” she added.
The field research took place at the Cambridge Jackdaw Project, which was established by Dr Alex Thornton of the University of Exeter.
To see the research in action, view video below:
Researchers in Cambridge and Exeter have discovered that jackdaws use their eyes to communicate with each other – the first time this has been shown in non-primates.
Psychology at the Science Festival
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Feb 04, 2014.
Feeling powerless increases the weight of the world… literally
By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Feb 04, 2014.
Scientists have found that people who feel powerless actually see the world differently, and find a task to be more physically challenging than those with a greater sense of personal and social power.
Eun Hee Lee - a researcher working with Dr Simone Schnall at Cambridge’s Department of Psychology - carried out a series of tests in which volunteers were surreptitiously surveyed about their own social power, then asked to lift boxes of varying weights and guess how heavy they were. Those who felt powerless consistently perceived the weight of the boxes as much heavier than those who felt more powerful.
The study is the first demonstration that power – a ‘psychosocial’ construct relating to the control of resources – changes peoples’ perception of objects; that how you feel about your social standing in a situation can influence how you see the physical environment.
The researchers say this overestimation of weight may be an adaptive strategy when faced with a lack of resources: when in a position of powerlessness, it would be ‘advantageous’ to have an overly cautious approach to the world in order to preserve your existing limited resources.
Experiencing perceptual attributes of the world – such as the weight of objects - in an “exaggerated fashion” when feeling powerless might be symptomatic of this instinctive resource conservation.
The study is published this week in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
“Although many psychological studies have been conducted on power not much was known about how power influences actual perceptual experiences in everyday life,” said lead researcher Eun Hee Lee.
“This research demonstrates that people’s social role, as indicated by a sense of social power, or a lack thereof, can change the way they see the physical environment.”
To measure a person’s sense of their own social power, Lee and Schnall conducted three separate studies – all disguised by cover stories so that participants were unaware of what was being tested.
In the first, 145 participants were asked to rank how strongly they felt a series of statements applied to them – such as “I can get people to listen to what I say” – to measure beliefs about their power in social relationships. They were then tasked with lifting a number of boxes and guessing the weight, before taking a final test to gauge their mood. Researchers found that the lower a person’s feelings of social power, the more they thought the boxes weighed.
In the second test, the researchers manipulated the sense of power by asking 41 participants to sit in either an expansive, domineering position – with one elbow on the arm of their chair and the other on the desk next to them – or a more constricting one, with hands tucked under thighs and shoulders dropped.
Prior to manipulation, most participants overestimated the weight; after manipulation, those who sat in the more powerful pose gave more accurate estimates, while those in the submissive condition continued to imagine heavier weight.
In the final test, 68 participants were asked to recall an experience in which they had felt either powerful or powerless, and then repeatedly estimate the weights of various boxes - under the guise of studying the effect of exercise on autobiographical memory. Those who focused on the powerful incident became more accurate at guessing the weight, while those recalling a powerless situation continually overestimated the heaviness of the boxes.
While previous research has shown that various physical and emotional states can influence perception of the environment – such as perceiving a hill slant to be steeper when wearing a heavy backpack, or threatening objects, such as a tarantula, appearing to be further from your face when feeling good about yourself – this is the first study to show that a sense of power can now be added to that list.
Giulio Andreotti, the former Italian Prime Minister who was nicknamed ‘Il Divo’ after the epithet for Julius Caesar, famously once said that “power tires only those who do not have it”. Lee and Schnall write that this comment is “no longer an unsubstantiated conjecture”, and that their data suggests the world of the powerless “is indeed full of heavy burdens”.
Added Lee: “Power plays a role when it is present in a given moment, but also when it comes to people’s personality. We find that personality, which determines how people interact with the social world, also shapes how people interact with the physical world.”
New research shows that the more personally and socially powerless you feel the heavier objects appear to weigh.
Dr Luke Clark to lead new gambling research centre in Canada
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Jan 30, 2014.
1st place to Taeko Wachi in the AP-LS Dissertation Awards
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Jan 28, 2014.
Study confirms a gene linked to Asperger Syndrome and empathy
By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Dec 17, 2013.
A study published this month in the journal Molecular Autism confirms previous research that people with Asperger Syndrome (AS) are more likely to carry specific variations in a particular gene. More strikingly, the study supports existing findings that the same gene is also linked to how much empathy typically shown by individuals in the general population.
The research was carried out by a team of researchers led by Professor Baron-Cohen at the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University. Asperger Syndrome is an autism spectrum condition. The researchers looked for sequence variations (called single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs) in the gene known as GABRB3 in a total of 530 adults - 118 people diagnosed with AS and 412 people without a diagnosis.
The team found that certain SNPs in GABRB3 were significantly more common in people with AS. They also discovered that additional genetic variations in the same gene were linked to scores on an empathy measure called the Empathy Quotient (EQ) in the general population.
AS is diagnosed when a person struggles with social relationships and communication, and shows unusually narrow interests and resistance to change, but has good intelligence and language skills. Most genetic studies of autistic spectrum conditions treat autism as if they are all very similar, whereas in reality there is considerable variation (e.g., in language level and intellectual ability).
Rather than studying people on the autistic condition spectrum, this new study looked only people with AS, as a well-defined subgroup of individuals within this range. The researchers examined the gene GABRB3 which regulates the functioning of a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and which contains a number of SNPs that vary across the population.
The volunteers were tested for 45 SNPs within this key gene. The team had previously found that SNPs in this gene were more common in adults with AS and also showed a relationship with empathy levels and tactile sensitivity (how sensitive people are to being touched) in the general population.
Testing a new sample of volunteers who had not taken part in previous studies, the researchers found that three of the SNPs were again more common in adults with AS, and two different SNPs in the same gene were again related to empathy levels in the general population, confirming that the gene is involved in autism spectrum conditions.
Professor Baron-Cohen said: “We are excited that this study confirms that variation in GABRB3 is linked not just to AS but to individual differences in empathy in the population. Many candidate genes do not replicate across studies and across different samples, but this genetic finding seems to be a solid result. Research now needs to focus on where this gene is expressed in the brain in autism, and how it interacts with other genetic and non-genetic factors that cause AS.”
The team was co-led by Dr Bhismadev Chakrabarti from the Department of Psychology at Reading University. He commented: “Genes play an important role in autism and Asperger Syndrome. This new study adds to evidence that GABRB3 is a key gene underlying these conditions. This gene is involved in the functioning of a neurotransmitter that regulates excitation and inhibition of nerve cell activity so the research gives us vital additional information about how the brain may develop differently in people with Asperger Syndrome.”
Varun Warrier, who carried out the study as part of his graduate research at Cambridge University, added: “The most important aspect of this research is that it points to common genetic variants in GABRB3 being involved in both AS and in empathy as a dimensional trait. Although GABRB3 is not the only gene to be involved in this condition and in empathy levels, we are confident that we have identified one of the key players. We are following this up by testing how much protein GABRB3 produces in the brain in autism, since a genetic finding of this kind becomes more explanatory when we can also measure its function.”
For more information about this story contact Alexandra Buxton, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge, firstname.lastname@example.org 01223 761673
Scientists have confirmed that variations in a particular gene play a key role in the autism spectrum condition known as Asperger Syndrome. They have also found that variations in the same gene are also linked to differences in empathy levels in the general population.
Assisted Reproduction and Family Development: The New Parents Study
By sj387 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Nov 01, 2013.
Family structure has changed markedly in the past few decades. Starting a family is now possible for a greater variety of intended parents due to the advances in assisted reproduction technologies (ARTs), allowing lesbian and gay parents to start families for example.
Despite the increasing numbers of couples and individuals helped by ARTs, these families have not been sufficiently represented in studies looking into how families develop. In order for policy and support to reflect the reality of life for these families, research needs to include all family forms. The science behind ARTs is developing rapidly and as such the science focusing on the psychological, social and emotional wellbeing of these families needs to keep up.
Of the extensive literature on family development conducted over the last century, comparatively little empirical focus has documented the wellbeing of same-sex parents and their children, in particular in families headed by gay dads. Studies including families with lesbian mothers have found children do not show signs of psychological maladjustment, do not have poorer peer relationships and do not show differences in gender identity. Indeed, children of lesbian mothers appear to be functioning well into adult life.
Even fewer studies have focused on gay fathers and their children. The few studies that have followed children of gay fathers have found these children did not show adverse effects, and were well adjusted.
Understanding the development and experiences of these families is important, as increasing numbers of gay men are becoming fathers. Not enough is known about the well-being of these fathers, and the development of their children. Therefore, more empirical evidence and less assumption is needed to understand the effect of gay parents on their families wellbeing and experiences to ensure the correct support is in place, if needed.
This need for empirical evidence to understand the wellbeing of parents and children following ARTs is what drives The New Parents Study, an ambitious study following families with babies 4 months old are visited at their homes, with a follow-up invitation to Cambridge University when the babies are 12 months old. Families included are those who have gay parents, where the child was born through surrogacy; families with lesbian mothers, where the child was born through Donor Insemination; and heterosexual couples where the child was born through IVF. One father involved with The New Parents Study recently spoke about why he was driven to participate and what it was like being part of the study:
“As a family helped by surrogacy we are a minority, we need studies like this which represent us and our families, at the same time knowing the research is anonymous is also really reassuring….
“Taking part was enjoyable and speaking about our experiences of becoming parents really gave us food for thought. Normally when you talk to people about your children there’s a ticking clock, most people don’t want to hear all about what you’ve been up to and how we felt about everything! The New Parents Study team were really interested in what we had to say and were empathetic to talk to.
“All in all the visit was really enjoyable and I’d really recommend any first time parents who have been helped by ARTs to get involved.”
The New Parents Study is an exciting project to work on as we are following couples who have recently become first time parents (with babies up to 4 months old), inclusive of gay, lesbian and straight couples. The study brings two groups based in Cambridge, the Applied Developmental Psychology Research Group, and the Centre for Family Research, together with groups based at the University of Paris in France and the University of Amsterdam in The Netherlands. All of the groups involved in the New Parents Study have yielded findings over the years that demonstrate that it is the dynamics of a family that is far more important than the family structure when we are trying to understand child wellbeing.
Another reason being involved with The New Parents Study is so exciting is that we will be able to learn more about fathers who are primary caregivers. In addition, we have the honour of seeing these families grow and develop while hearing about their family stories.
With such an ambitious project we are indebted to the on-going support and assistance we receive in reaching potential participating families, from charities, clinics, agencies and support groups.
Dr. Alice Winstanley and Dr. Kate Ellis-Davies recently attended several national and international events for ARTs, fathering and alternative families, including: the Alternative Parenting Show (London); Paternal Involvement in Pregnancy Outcomes from Preconception to First Year of Life (National Institutes of Health, Maryland, MD); New York Fertility Services (New York, NY); Surrogacy UK AGM (Warwick).
In March 2014, the Applied Developmental Psychology Research Group, alongside the Centre For Family Research, will be organising an event for National Science and Engineering Week on “What Makes A Family”, where researchers, clinicians, charities, parent groups and the general public will be able to engage in discussions on recent research into family development, and how researchers can take account of the publics interests in family development.
For further information, please contact Alice Winstanley and Kate Ellis-Davies at email@example.com
Alice Winstanley and Kate Ellis-Davies, are researchers in the Applied Developmental Psychology Research Group working on The New Parents Study, a ground-breaking international project lead by Professor Michael Lamb and Professor Susan Golombok into the experiences of parents who have used assisted reproduction technologies, and the development of their children.
Imaging study shows dopamine dysfunction is not the main cause of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
By gm349 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Oct 28, 2013.
A new Cambridge study questions previous suggestions that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is the result of fundamental abnormalities in dopamine transmission, and suggests that the main cause of the disorder may lie instead in structural differences in the grey matter in the brain. This landmark study, published in Brain, could significantly improve understanding of how ADHD is caused and help inform the development of treatments in the future.
The double-blind study, which was carried out by researchers at the University of Cambridge MRC/Wellcome Trust Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute (BCNI) and funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), found that administering methylphenidate (more commonly known as Ritalin) to healthy adult volunteers as well as those who exhibit symptoms of ADHD as adults, led to similar increases of the chemical dopamine in their brain. Both groups also had equivalent level of improvements as a result of the drug when tested on their ability to concentrate and pay attention.
Dopamine is a crucial chemical for concentration or sustained attention, working memory and motivational processes in the brain and acting as a chemical transmitter between brain cells by combining with specialised receptors on nerve cells. Ritalin works by increasing the levels of dopamine which binds to the receptors and increases the flow of communication between these cells.
By using positron emission tomography (PET) imaging techniques to measure dopamine receptors, the researchers were able to measure how Ritalin affects dopamine in patients with ADHD and people unaffected by the condition. In both groups, volunteers were given either a dose of Ritalin or a placebo pill. Researchers then analysed the results of tasks done by the volunteers which tested their ability to concentrate and pay attention over a period of time.
Patients with ADHD, who had significant loss of grey matter in the brain, as measured by magnetic resonance imaging, showed significant impairments in attentional performance compared with healthy individuals. Consistent with its therapeutic use in ADHD, Ritalin improved sustained attention performance in the patients. However, dopamine receptor levels in an area of the brain called the striatum were similar in the patients and healthy individuals. Ritalin also increased dopamine levels in the striatum to a similar degree, importantly suggesting that there was no underlying deficiency in dopamine function in the ADHD patients. Interestingly, Ritalin also improved sustained attention performance in some healthy individuals as well, and this overall ability of the drug to improve performance (with or without ADHD) was related to the increases in dopamine levels in the striatum caused by Ritalin.
Professor Barbara Sahakian who led the study at the BCNI said: “We feel these results are extremely important since they show that people who have poor concentration improve with methylphenidate (Ritalin) treatment whether they have a diagnosis of adult ADHD or not. These new findings demonstrate that poor performers, including healthy volunteers, were helped by the treatment and this improvement was related to increases in dopamine in the brain.”
Professor Trevor Robbins, co-author of the study and Director of the BCNI, said: “These findings question the previously accepted view that major abnormalities in dopamine function are the main cause of ADHD in adult patients. While the results show that Ritalin has a 'therapeutic' effect to improve performance, it does not appear to be related to fundamental underlying impairments in the dopamine system in ADHD.”
Research suggests that the main cause of the disorder may lie instead in structural differences in the grey matter in the brain.