'Plum-coloured bricks': Opening of the Cambridge Psychological Laboratory on this day in 1913
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on May 15, 2013.Professor John Mollon reports on the centenary of the official opening of the Cambridge Psychological Laboratory
Hundredth anniversary of the Department’s first Assistant in Experimental Psychology
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on May 14, 2013.Professor John Mollon looks back to a significant event in the history of the Department
How do prenatal sex hormones affect the relative lengths of index and ring fingers?
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on May 09, 2013.Research news from the Department's Vision Lab
Mood-tracking app paves way for pocket therapy
By tdk25 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on May 08, 2013.
A smartphone app that tracks people’s feelings and works out what might be triggering peaks in their mood, using the data invisibly captured by their phones, has been developed by researchers.
The free app, called “Emotion Sense” has just been launched and is available for Android. It takes advantage of the fact that smartphones are increasingly capable of collecting information about where we are, how noisy our environment is, how much we are moving around, and who we communicate with.
Unlike other, similar, research projects, Emotion Sense then combines systematically-gathered data from a wide range of sensors with the user’s own report about their mood, which is entered through a system designed by psychologists. First, the user is asked to mark how they feel using an on-screen matrix called an “emotion grid”. Based on their response, the phone then conducts a brief survey, to clarify their emotional state.
By cross-referring both sets of data, the app’s designers hope that it will accumulate a very precise record of what drives people’s emotional peaks, showing, for example, when they are likely to be at their most stressed, or when they feel most relaxed. This could prove particularly valuable for helping people who need specialist psychological support.
Emotion Sense is also a live research project. The University of Cambridge-led team behind it previously carried out lab-based investigations in which participants were asked to record their feelings in a diary. The new system allows them to gather data about both the drivers of people’s moods, and how far smartphones can record this, in a “real world” setting.
Dr Neal Lathia, a research associate in the University’s Computer Laboratory, explained: “Behind the scenes, smartphones are constantly collecting data that can turn them into a key medical and psychological tool. Any smartphone now comes with numerous sensors that can tell you about aspects of your life, like how active you are, or how sociable you have been in the past 24 hours. In the long term, we hope to be able to extract that data so that, for example, it can be used for therapeutic purposes.”
The app was created as part of a wider project, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, called “Ubiquitous and Social Computing for Positive Behaviour Change” (or “UBhave”). Its overall aim is to see how far mobile phones can be used to monitor people’s behaviour and, where appropriate, change it for the better to improve their health and well-being.
“Most people who see a therapist may only have an appointment once every fortnight,” Dr Cecilia Mascolo, a reader in mobile systems at the Cambridge Computer Lab said. “Many, however, keep their phones with them most of the time. In terms of sheer presence, mobiles can provide an ongoing link with a person.”
Researchers have long been interested in the potential of mobile phones to monitor people’s behaviour. By combining the data from the GPS, accelerometer, and microphone with a log of the user’s calling and texting patterns, a study of a person’s smartphone can offer a very useful record of their habits, activities and routines.
Previous research by the Emotion Sense team focused on the potential of the microphone, tracking users’ conversations to work out how they were feeling. The research now seeks to exploit a wider range of sensors, combined with self-reporting from the user themselves, who can input data about how they feel.
When Emotion Sense is opened for the first time, only one sensor is “unlocked”. The app spends roughly a week collecting data from this sensor and testing it against the user’s emotional state. At the end of this, the user is asked to complete a short life-satisfaction survey, which unlocks a new sensor. After about eight weeks, a full range of sensors has been tested. This systematic approach provides the researchers with valuable data for study, but it is also designed as a “journey of discovery” for the user, giving them a step-by-step insight into what might be influencing their own mood swings.
Mood itself is registered through a system designed by psychologists within the research team. At different times of the day, the app sends the user a notification, rather like receiving a text message, asking them about their mood. These can be set to pop up on the phone as little as twice a day, and assess the user’s mood using a custom-designed “emotion grid”, followed by a survey.
The grid has two axes, one stretching from “negative” to “positive” feelings, and one from “active” to “inactive”. Using their touchscreen, the user simply chooses the point on the grid that reflects how positive and active they feel. For example, a point close to the top right indicates high positivity and activity, suggesting that they feel energised or excited.
Uniquely, this general overview is then refined by a short survey, which asks the user to clarify exactly how they feel. The entire process takes about two minutes to complete.
“Most other attempts at software like this are coarse-grained in terms of their view of what a feeling is,” Dr Jason Rentfrow, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, said. “Many just look at emotion in terms of feeling happy, sad, angry or neutral. The aim here is to use a more flexible approach, to collect data that shows how moods vary between people . That is something which we think is quite unique to the system we have designed.”
The code which is used in Emotion Sense to collect sensor data from people’s phones is also being made available on an open-source basis so that other researchers can conduct their own experiments. It can be found at http://emotionsense.org/code.html. For information about the app in general, visit: http://emotionsense.org
For more information about this story, please contact: Tom Kirk, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge. Tel: 01223 332300; Mob: 07764 161923; Email: email@example.com
An Android app which keeps tabs on users’ mood swings and works out what might be causing them has been developed by researchers, with implications for psychological therapy and improving well-being.
The One Show features Professor Nicola Clayton and some very clever crows
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Apr 30, 2013.Tonight's The One Show at 7pm looks at corvid intelligence
Conversations without words
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Apr 27, 2013.Professor Nicola Clayton and fine artist Clive Wilkins use the Argentine Tango to explore communication without words
Professor Robbins lecturing in the USA this week
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Apr 25, 2013.
EPS Mid-Career Award goes to Professor Nicola Clayton
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Apr 25, 2013.The Experimental Psychology Society recognises the distinguished work of Professor Nicola Clayton with a Mid-Career Award.
New conceptions: single mothers by sperm donation
By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Apr 25, 2013.
Earlier this month, we were given the sad news that Professor Sir Robert Edwards had passed away. A Nobel Prize winner, scientist, and fellow of Churchill College, Professor Edwards has received much international acclaim for his significant contribution to the field of reproductive medicine. Here in Cambridge, with colleague Patrick Steptoe, he pioneered in vitro fertilisation, a method to facilitate family-building in the face of infertility. Yet, although the scientific implications of IVF were well thought-through by the duo, the extensive social, ethical and philosophical debates which ensued as a result of their work could not have been anticipated.
Twenty five years on, it is clear that assisted reproductive techniques have raised fundamental questions about the relationship between technology and society, and the role of science in human experience. And while IVF at the outset was explicitly used to assist traditional family-building, today technology has enabled lesbian and gay couples and single men and women worldwide to become parents, causing much deliberation, discussion and debate among professionals, politicians, and the wider public.
At the Centre for Family Research, our team, headed by Professor Susan Golombok, is committed to obtaining empirical evidence on the psychological, social and emotional well-being of parents and children in families formed through assisted reproduction. Having conducted research on hundreds of families of different shapes and sizes, we have learnt that what seems to be most important is not how families are formed or structured, but the quality of family relationships and experiences. One of our most recent research projects focuses on single women who have used a sperm donor to have a child.
In 1990, when the UK government first legislated about the use of assisted reproduction, it was stated that clinicians needed to consider a ‘child’s need for a father’ in deciding whom to offer treatment. In practice, we know that some fertility clinics were already offering, and continued to offer, treatment to lesbian couples and single women, but the ‘need for a father’ was only recently replaced by the ‘need for supportive parenting’ when the legislation was last amended – in 2008.
Many of the arguments against single women using sperm donation assume that these families are likely to face similar issues to those that might affect single-parent families by divorce, such as financial or emotional difficulties. It is often assumed that women who want to use fertility treatment on their own will fit a middle-class, career-focused, 40-something stereotype, suddenly struck by the sound of their ticking biological clock.
This group of women has been widely criticised for the pursuit of a non-traditional path to parenthood which ultimately, it is argued, deprives children of the right to know, and have a relationship with, their biological father. In fact, concerns are raised not only by politicians and the wider public, but by professionals working in fertility treatment services. Clinic staff have questioned whether single women have the adequate material and social resources, and psychological and emotional skills, required to parent effectively. It is often assumed that these women’s single status is indicative of their inability to maintain a successful romantic relationship. This being the case, it is supposed that single mothers by sperm donation will lack the qualities necessary for good parenthood.
Our latest findings at the Centre for Family Research indicate not only that the cohort of single women accessing sperm donation may be more diverse than often assumed, but that concerns about the functioning of their families may be based more upon misinformation than anything else. In our work, we have so far been welcomed into the homes of over 40 single mothers by sperm donation. We have met their children, their families, their friends and, sometimes, their pets, and have been entrusted with significant and often deeply personal information about their experiences. So who are these women, why have they chosen this path to parenthood, and what are their families like?
The women we have seen come from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, and they differ vastly in their experiences of education and employment. They have ranged in age from their early 30s to their early 50s, with some women initially accessing fertility services as 20-somethings. Only one woman we visited described her decision to use fertility treatment as a result of her career choices earlier in life. In fact, the majority of mothers discuss their decision as resulting from not having a suitable partner at the time they decided to have a child. Contrary to clinical opinion, most of the women in our study have previously been in long-term relationships, and several have cohabited with a partner. Some have had children in these relationships, and others have previously been married.
But why do these women want to become single mothers? The answer is that in many ways, they don’t. The majority of women we have visited have described how they had always assumed they would have children within a traditional two-parent family, and would have preferred this to be the case. However, they – like the majority of people in the UK today – want to have children, and they want to do so in a way they see as safe and honest, and supported by the services available to them.
When talking about having chosen their specific sperm donor, mothers have described different approaches, including choosing from a sperm donation website in the company of friends, to asking very little information of clinic staff about the donor they have been matched with on the basis of shared physical characteristics. Some mothers tell their family, friends, and their children about their use of a donor, while others do not share this information so readily, and others have opted to refrain from disclosing the information, until their children – who, in our study, are currently aged four to eight – are older.
At odds with the assumption that single women using a sperm donor intentionally deprive their children of a father, most of the mothers we have seen explicitly acknowledge the possibility that their use of a donor may have consequences for how their children feel about their families. Many reflect upon the significance of male role models for their child’s development, and several highlight how they have fostered relationships between their male family members and friends and their children for this reason.
In fact, it seems fair to say that none of the mothers parent single-handedly: they all receive practical and emotional support from family, friends, and others, in raising their children. And although they do see clear differences between their experiences of parenthood and the experiences of their married friends, these differences are not always seen in a negative light. Mothers mostly distinguish between the good and bad families they are familiar with. Their judgments are based upon whether the people in these families are happy and healthy, rather than how many people are in them.
Having now spent over a year listening to their stories, and sharing in mothers’ experiences, it seems reasonable to suggest that politicians, professionals, and the public might do well to take the lead from these mothers in assessing their families in a similar way: irrespective of family structure. Instead of relying on a single stereotype of single mothers by sperm donation, our focus should remain on research which continues to look closely at the well-being of the mothers and children within these families.
Most fundamentally, the debate ignited by Edwards and Steptoe back in 1978 must now move beyond arguments in favour of the traditional family, comprised of two married, heterosexual parents and their 2.4 children. In other words, the need for new conceptions – of family life in general, and of single motherhood specifically – is now clear.
Sophie Zadeh is an ESRC-funded PhD student at the Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge. Her research with Dr Tabitha Freeman and Professor Susan Golombok focuses on the experiences of single women who have used a sperm donor to have a child, and explores the psychological, social and emotional well-being of mothers and children in these families.
Sophie Zadeh, a PhD candidate in the Centre for Family Research, is contributing to a new study of the well-being of single mothers by sperm donation and their children. Her initial findings confound many of the assumptions about this group of women.
Cambridge Cognition listed on the London Stock Exchange
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Apr 23, 2013.
Professor Brian Moore's contribution to audiology recognised by BSA award
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Apr 19, 2013.
Ethical aspects of information sharing surrounding donor conception
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Apr 19, 2013.Professor Susan Golombok is member of Nuffield Council on Bioethics Working Party on Donor Conception that makes a number of policy recommendations in its report published this week
Professor Michael Lamb wins prestigious international award
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Apr 15, 2013.
Investigating child abuse: how interview training really matters
By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Apr 05, 2013.
A study of the outcomes of child sex abuse cases in the US state of Utah suggests that the introduction of improved techniques for interviewing young victims leads to fewer cases being dropped early in the investigative process and results in a greater percentage of prosecutions. The findings support the argument for better training of police interviewers who have the highly sensitive task of gathering information about traumatic incidents.
A paper summarising the study (‘Do Case Outcomes Change When Investigative Interviewing Practices Change?’) will appear next month (May 2013) in the journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. The research was carried out by an international team including Michael Lamb, Professor of Psychology at Cambridge University, who is an expert on children and forensic interviewing.
The study is the first to focus on the investigative interview as a predictor of outcomes – such as the filing of criminal charges, prosecution, and guilty pleas or convictions.
The research drew on data from Salt Lake County Children’s Justice Centre which in mid-1997 introduced training for all its police interviewers in techniques developed under the auspices of the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and known as NICHD Protocol. The study centred on a before-and-after comparison of outcomes of child sex abuse cases across two periods: a pre-Protocol period of 1994-1997 and Protocol period of 1997-2000.
The NICHD approach to interviewing was developed by Professor Lamb and his colleagues in response to widespread evidence that free recall memory prompts, such as open-ended questions, are most likely to elicit accurate information from children. Previous studies led by Professor Lamb, using data gathered in Israel, the USA and the UK, showed that open-ended questions were effective in interviewing children as young as four years’ old about incidents that may have involved abuse.
The NICHD Protocol – or similar approaches – is now favoured by a growing number of countries with training being given to those who carry out the highly sensitive process of gathering evidence from children who have suffered trauma. The open-ended questioning style replaces or contrasts with a more directive, option-posing or suggestive line of enquiry which research has shown to be associated with erroneous responses.
The results from the study of child abuse cases investigated by police in Utah have clear implications for the UK where the NICHD Protocol has been explicitly recommended to forensic investigators since 2011 in the Home Office’s manual, Achieving Best Evidence.
Professor Lamb and his colleagues believe that similar results would be likely in the other countries where the Protocol has been adopted because such interviews provide investigators with a much better understanding of what actually happened to the child, tend to be very compelling when the interviews are shown to jurors, and also provide interviewers with other investigative leads they can follow up in pursuit of additional evidence. Currently, English, French, Japanese, Hebrew, Finnish, Korean and Portuguese (Iberian and Brazilian) versions of the Protocol are in use around the world.
The researchers initially looked at an overall total of 760 cases of suspected abuse of children aged from three- to 13-years-old. Some of these cases were dropped and some were transferred to other jurisdictions, reducing the total to 696. Of these, 364 cases resulted in charges being filed. The comparison of outcomes across the two periods before and after introduction of the Protocol revealed a number of significant differences at two crucial points in the progress of cases through the investigative process: the filing of charges by prosecutors and the final judicial disposition, through either plea negotiation or trial.
Charges were more likely to be filed following the introduction of the Protocol with 42 per cent of cases being filed pre-Protocol and more than 52 per cent being filed once the Protocol was in use. Once charges were filed, both pre-Protocol and Protocol interviews were highly (and similarly) likely to lead to guilty pleas. This filtering-out factor means that although half the cases were prosecuted, Protocol interviews were associated with a significantly higher rate of conviction. When cases were tried, Protocol cases were almost always associated with guilty verdicts.
These findings support the view that improving the quality of pre-trial phases of investigations is extremely important. “The quality of forensic interviewing practices is of utmost importance if the rights of both child victims and innocent suspects are to be protected. When child abuse is suspected, children’s verbal allegations often constitute the only available evidence. Thus our research into best-practice approach to interviewing has important implications for policy and practice,” said Professor Lamb.
Cases involving the youngest children in the study (those aged two to four) were the least likely to yield criminal charges regardless of interviewer training. Previous research has suggested that younger children may be more reluctant than older children to disclose and talk about abuse. It has also been shown that children who were suspected victims of parental abuse provided fewer informative responses than those who were suspected victims of non-parental abusers.
“When young children are interviewed they may provide less complete accounts than older counterparts might have done, meaning that their evidence is not sufficient to convince prosecutors that a conviction could be obtained at trial. These findings point to the need for development of interviewing techniques sensitive to the needs of young children who’ve been abused. Children need protection under the law and abusers should face conviction, regardless of their victims’ ages,” said Professor Lamb.
The paper ‘Do Case Outcomes Change When Investigative Interviewing Practices Change?’ by Margaret-Ellen Pope, Yael Orbach, Michael E Lamb, Craig B Abbott and Heather Stewart will appear in the print version of Psychology, Public Policy, and Law in May. http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/law/index.aspx
For more information on this story contact: Alex Buxton, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge firstname.lastname@example.org 01223 761673.
Gathering evidence from children about alleged sex abuse is problematic. Research shows that when interviewers are trained in a protocol that favours open-ended questions more cases lead to charges and more charges lead to prosecution.
Digital records could expose intimate details and personality traits of millions
By fpjl2 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Mar 11, 2013.
New research, published today in the journal PNAS, shows that surprisingly accurate estimates of Facebook users’ race, age, IQ, sexuality, personality, substance use and political views can be inferred from automated analysis of only their Facebook Likes - information currently publicly available by default.
In the study, researchers describe Facebook Likes as a “generic class” of digital record - similar to web search queries and browsing histories - and suggest that such techniques could be used to extract sensitive information for almost anyone regularly online.
Researchers at Cambridge’s Psychometrics Centre, in collaboration with Microsoft Research Cambridge, analysed a dataset of over 58,000 US Facebook users, who volunteered their Likes, demographic profiles and psychometric testing results through the myPersonality application.
Users opted in to provide data and gave consent to have profile information recorded for analysis. Facebook Likes were fed into algorithms and corroborated with information from profiles and personality tests.
Researchers created statistical models able to predict personal details using Facebook Likes alone. Models proved 88% accurate for determining male sexuality, 95% accurate distinguishing African-American from Caucasian American and 85% accurate differentiating Republican from Democrat. Christians and Muslims were correctly classified in 82% of cases, and good prediction accuracy was achieved for relationship status and substance abuse – between 65 and 73%.
But few users clicked Likes explicitly revealing these attributes. For example, less that 5% of gay users clicked obvious Likes such as Gay Marriage. Accurate predictions relied on ‘inference’ - aggregating huge amounts of less informative but more popular Likes such as music and TV shows to produce incisive personal profiles.
Even seemingly opaque personal details such as whether users’ parents separated before the user reached the age of 21 were accurate to 60%, enough to make the information “worthwhile for advertisers”, suggest the researchers.
While they highlight the potential for personalised marketing to improve online services using predictive models, the researchers also warn of the threats posed to users’ privacy. They argue that many online consumers might feel such levels of digital exposure exceed acceptable limits - as corporations, governments, and even individuals could use predictive software to accurately infer highly sensitive information from Facebook Likes and other digital ‘traces’.
The researchers also tested for personality traits including intelligence, emotional stability, openness and extraversion. While such latent traits are far more difficult to gauge, the accuracy of the analysis was striking. Study of the openness trait – the spectrum of those who dislike change to those who welcome it – revealed that observation of Likes alone is roughly as informative as using an individual’s actual personality test score.
Some Likes had a strong but seemingly incongruous or random link with a personal attribute, such as Curly Fries with high IQ, or That Spider is More Scared Than U Are with non-smokers.
When taken as a whole, researchers believe that the varying estimations of personal attributes and personality traits gleaned from Facebook Like analysis alone can form surprisingly accurate personal portraits of potentially millions of users worldwide.
They say the results suggest a possible revolution in psychological assessment which – based on this research – could be carried out on an unprecedented scale without costly assessment centres and questionnaires.
“We believe that our results, while based on Facebook Likes, apply to a wider range of online behaviours.” said Michal Kosinski, Operations Director at the Psychometric Centre, who conducted the research with his Cambridge colleague David Stillwell and Thore Graepel from Microsoft Research.
“Similar predictions could be made from all manner of digital data, with this kind of secondary ‘inference’ made with remarkable accuracy - statistically predicting sensitive information people might not want revealed. Given the variety of digital traces people leave behind, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for individuals to control.
“I am a great fan and active user of new amazing technologies, including Facebook. I appreciate automated book recommendations, or Facebook selecting the most relevant stories for my newsfeed,” said Kosinski. “However, I can imagine situations in which the same data and technology is used to predict political views or sexual orientation, posing threats to freedom or even life.”
“Just the possibility of this happening could deter people from using digital technologies and diminish trust between individuals and institutions – hampering technological and economic progress. Users need to be provided with transparency and control over their information.”
Thore Graepel from Microsoft Research said he hoped the research would contribute to the on-going discussions about user privacy: “Consumers rightly expect strong privacy protection to be built into the products and services they use and this research may well serve as a reminder for consumers to take a careful approach to sharing information online, utilising privacy controls and never sharing content with unfamiliar parties.”
David Stillwell from Cambridge University added: “I have used Facebook since 2005, and I will continue to do so. But I might be more careful to use the privacy settings that Facebook provides.”
For more information, please contact email@example.com
Research shows that intimate personal attributes can be predicted with high levels of accuracy from ‘traces’ left by seemingly innocuous digital behaviour, in this case Facebook Likes. The study raises important questions about personalised marketing and online privacy.
Psychology at the Science Festival
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Mar 04, 2013.Saturday 16th March is psychology events day
I’ve got two dads – and they adopted me
By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Mar 04, 2013.
In-depth research into the experiences of adoptive families headed by same-sex couples suggests that children adopted by gay or lesbian couples are just as likely to thrive as those adopted by heterosexual couples. It also reveals that new families cope just as well as traditional families with the big challenges that come with taking on children who have had a poor start in life.
A report outlining key findings from the research – which was carried out by a team at Cambridge University’s Centre for Family Research – is published today by the British Association of Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) to coincide with LGBT Adoption and Fostering Week. The study is the first of its kind in the UK.
The research explored in considerable detail the experiences of 130 adoptive families, looking at important aspects of family relationships, parental wellbeing and child adjustment. The study compared three kinds of adoptive families: those headed by gay fathers (41 families), those headed by lesbian mothers (40 families), and those headed by heterosexual parents (49 families).
“We worked with more than 70 adoption agencies across the UK to recruit families. The participating families were similar in terms of ethnicity, socioeconomic status and education,” says Professor Susan Golombok, director of the Centre for Family Research and co-author of the report.
“Overall we found markedly more similarities than differences in experiences between family types. The differences that did emerge relate to levels of depressive symptoms in parents, which are especially low for gay fathers, and the contrasting pathways to adoption which was second choice for many of the heterosexual and some lesbian parents – but first choice for all but one of the gay parents.”
The study took the form of home visits to the families, written questionnaires, and recorded parent-child play sessions. All but four of the children studied were aged between four and eight years old, and all had been placed in their families for at least 12 months prior to being interviewed. All families had two parents.
Each year adoptive families are needed for some 4,000 children. Same-sex couples have had the legal right to adopt since 2005 but remain a small proportion of the total number of adopters. National statistics show that annually around 60 children are adopted by gay couples and a further 60 by lesbian couples.
The bill that brought about the change was fiercely contested and took three years to pass through parliament. Issues raised in the debate included concerns that children adopted by same-sex couples would face bullying from peers and worries that children’s own gender identity might be skewed by being raised by parents of the same sex.
Responses from the same-sex parents, adopted children themselves and the children’s teachers indicates that these issues do not appear to be a significant problem – although the researchers, and some parents themselves, acknowledge that problems of bullying could become a problem as the children become teenagers.
The majority of the children in the study appeared to be adjusting well to family life and to school. Face-to-face interviews with parents, and with those children willing and old enough to take part, showed that parents talked openly with their children about adoption and recognised the value of children maintaining contact with their birth parents.
Some interesting differences emerged in parents’ wellbeing across the three types of family. Gay fathers were significantly less likely to report having depressive symptoms than lesbian mothers and heterosexual couples, most probably reflecting the lower levels of depression shown by men than women generally. However, it should be noted that the level of depression reported by lesbian mothers and heterosexual parents was below, or in line with, the national picture for mental health.
Gay fathers appeared to have more interaction with their children and the children of gay fathers had particularly busy social lives.
Pathways to adoption also differed across the three groups. While most heterosexual couples expected to become parents as a matter of course, fewer same-sex couples expected to have children. This was particularly true of gay fathers many of whom had viewed their sexual identity as incompatible with parenthood.
Most of the heterosexual couples, and a significant number of lesbian couples, had experienced fertility problems. Many had undergone IVF treatment with no success. In contrast, only one of the gay couples had tried (but failed) to conceive with the help of a surrogate. For the remaining gay couples, adoption was the first choice.
Most parents across the family types had had positive experiences of the adoption process with many speaking warmly of the support they received. A number of same sex couples, however, reported that agencies lacked experience in working with gay and lesbian parents and that this showed itself in awkwardness. One gay parent described having the phone put down on him when he said that his partner was a man.
Being adopted makes children different to many of their peers: being adopted by same sex couples could add another dimension to that sense of being different. Interviews with parents showed that they were well aware of the extra challenges they and their children might face – and that they hoped to raise children who were secure in their own identity and valued diversity.
For more information about this story, please contact Alex.Buxton@admin.cam.ac.uk
Research into adoptive families headed by same-sex couples paints a positive picture of relationships and wellbeing in these new families. The study, which was carried out by Cambridge University, suggests that adoptive families with gay fathers might be faring particularly well.
Monogamous birds read partner's food desires
By ljm67 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Feb 15, 2013.
New research shows that male Eurasian Jays in committed relationships are able to share food with their female partner according to her current desire.
The behaviour suggests the potential for ‘state-attribution’ in these birds – the ability to recognise and understand the internal life and psychological states of others.
The research was carried out in Professor Nicola Clayton’s Comparative Cognition lab at Cambridge University’s Department of Psychology, and is published today in the journal PNAS.
Researchers tested mated jays and separated males from females. The females were fed one particular larvae, either wax moth or mealworm – a treat for the birds, like chocolates – allowing the males to observe from an adjacent compartment through a transparent window.
Once the pairs were reintroduced and the option of both larvae was presented, the males would choose to feed their partner the other type of larvae, to which she hadn’t previously had access – a change in diet welcomed by the female.
Through different tests using variations on food and visual access to the females during feeding, the researchers show that the males needed to actually see the females eating enough of and become sated by one type of larvae – called ‘specific satiety’ – to know to offer them the other type once reunited.
This demonstrates that the males’ sharing pattern was not a response to their partner’s behaviour indicating her preference but a response to the change in her internal state.
“Our results raise the possibility that these birds may be capable of ascribing desire to their mates – acknowledging an ‘internal life’ in others like that of their own,” said Ljerka Ostojic, who led the research.
“Ascribing internal states to other individuals requires the basic understanding that others are distinct from the self and others’ internal states are independent from, and differ from, one’s own.
When there was no opportunity to feed the female, males chose between the two foods according to their own desires. Only when they could share with the female did they disengage from their own desires and select food the female wanted.
The researchers believe that this ability to respond to another’s internal state in a cooperative situation might be important for species living in long-term relationships. Food-sharing is an important courtship behaviour for the Jays – so the ability to determine which food is currently desired by his partner might increase the male’s value as a mate.
“A comparison might be a man giving his wife chocolates. The giving and receiving of chocolates is an important ‘pair-bonding’ ritual – but, a man that makes sure he gives his wife the chocolates she currently really wants will improve his bond with her much more effectively – getting in the good books, and proving himself a better life partner.”
Research suggests that Eurasian Jays might be able to determine aspects of the ‘internal life’ of their mate.
2013 AS Level Essay Competition
By Malcolm Davis from News. Published on Jan 23, 2013.
Student's top grades attract BPS Award
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Jan 17, 2013.
The poetic voice of the Department
By Diane FitzMaurice from News. Published on Jan 14, 2013.
Who do you think you are?
By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Nov 23, 2012.
Jiten was 13 years old when his mother told him that he had been conceived with donor sperm. The man Jiten had always thought was his father, and had lived with Jiten and his mother until he was five, was not his genetic father. He says: “I remember running downstairs to talk to my step-dad. It was a relief as I really didn’t get on with the man I’d seen as my dad – and I’d always got on brilliantly with my step-dad.”
Families are changing, not just as a result of a breakdown of conventional family structures but also because of advances in assisted reproductive technologies. No-one knows exactly how many children born in the UK each year are conceived using donated sperm, eggs or embryos - but in 2009 the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) put the figure at 1,756.
Donation allows many thousands of people experiencing fertility problems to become parents. However, the conception of children through assisted reproductive technologies brings into play a raft of tricky ethical issues, the foremost of which is the question of disclosure.
“Should children be told that they were conceived using donated reproductive tissue? It might seem like a simple question, and the obvious answer for some may be yes, but it’s one that many parents find much harder to cope with in reality than in theory,” says John Appleby, a researcher with the Centre for Family Research, University of Cambridge, who is looking at the ethical considerations of disclosure.
“Most parents of donor conceived children face the dilemma of whether, when and how to tell their children about their genetic origins. I say most because, for example in the case of same-sex couples and single parents, the child may well seek answers to obvious questions about their conception though that doesn’t mean that disclosure is an easy task. For many parents, if and when to begin to tell a child that he or she has been conceived with the help of donated tissue is a real dilemma. Every family is different and families are not isolated units but part of wider communities.”
In his research, Appleby, who has a background in philosophy, has focused on the ethical questions that underlie the matter of disclosure, set against the legal and policy landscape in the UK, with a view to creating a framework for discussion.
Legislation took effect on April 1 2005, which allowed anyone conceived with donated tissue after that date to have, at the age of 18, the right to access information about the identity of their donor via records held by the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).
Not until 2023 will it begin to be apparent how many donor-conceived young people might seek out identifying information about their donors from the HFEA. If adoption law is any guide, then the numbers will not be insignificant. Jiten, who is 22, says that not having the right to information about his genetic father doesn’t bother him – although he’d be “curious enough to find out” if he could.
As the legislation stands, young people will not know that they have been donor conceived unless they have been told – and only those with this knowledge will have any reason seek access to the information held about their donor. This situation puts the onus firmly on the parents to make the decision about disclosure.
Existing research into the impact of disclosure (or non-disclosure) has looked at the psycho-social well-being of families, comparing families who have and have not told their child that he/she was donor conceived. Studies conducted at the Centre for Family Research have revealed no marked differences between families who had not disclosed to their children by early adolescence and those who had.
“Given these findings, you might ask: ‘What’s the point of telling children?’ But that ignores the risk of them finding out by accident, such as overhearing a conversation, and suffering some kind of harm,” says Appleby.
“As researchers we know of a few cases where children found out as teenagers that they were donor conceived and reported experiencing certain harms such as feeling lied to or deceived. On the other hand, we know of others who did not report any harm on discovering that they were donor conceived. All in all, we still need to gather more empirical evidence before any significant judgements can be made about the impact of disclosure, or non-disclosure, on the well-being of individuals later in life.”
To date, Appleby has concentrated on the ways in which disclosure impacts on the issues of trust and identity, among others. “When I looked at some of the cases in which individuals reported harm from late or accidental disclosure, one of the harms they reported was from losing trust in others,” said Appleby.
“Basically, if their parents had withheld information from them – lied, in fact – they reported experiencing a loss of trust in their parents, and sometimes in other people in their lives as well. In view of this, parents might be advised to opt for an approach which minimised the chance of losing their children’s trust. Trust is very important to young people and loss of trust in an aspect of a relationship can have a knock-on effect on other aspects.”
Television programmes such as the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? and ITV’s Long Lost Family tend to focus on the emotional impact of having to re-think identity in the light of new information about their family backgrounds. As Jiten’s experiences illustrate so vividly, every scenario and every family is different. Identity is an aspect of the human condition that can be fundamental to well-being – but each individual is likely to shape their identity using different points of reference, not all of them related directly to genetic ties.
Jiten says: “My experience is made more complex by the fact that my mum and the man I thought was my dad, as well as my genetic dad, are all Indian. My step-dad is white and I’ve been brought up in a household that blends two cultures. There are certain expectations that go along with being an Indian male and when I was able to separate myself mentally from my first dad, I felt free of these expectations. For me identity is as much to do with culture as genetics. Most importantly, when I was 18 or so, I realised that there was only one person responsible for who I am – and that’s me.”
Each year in the UK over a thousand children are conceived using donor tissue. Many parents find it hard to tell their children that they were donor conceived. Bioethicist John Appleby, from Cambridge University’s Centre for Family Research, is looking at some of the ethical questions surrounding disclosure.
Windows to the self?
By tdk25 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Oct 29, 2012.
Young children often make the mistake of thinking that you can’t see them if they can’t see you – hiding themselves by covering or closing their eyes. Using a process of elimination, a research team at the University of Cambridge has now found out why.
Testing children aged three and four, the team, led by Dr James Russell from the Department of Psychology, first asked them whether they could be seen if they were wearing a blindfold, and whether the researcher could see an adult who was wearing one. Nearly all the children felt that when they were wearing a mask they were hidden, and most thought the adult wearing a mask was hidden too.
Next, the researchers tested whether children think it is the fact that a person’s eyes are hidden from other people’s view that renders them invisible, or if they think the act of being blinded is the decisive factor.
To test this, a new group of young children were quizzed about their ability to be seen when they were wearing goggles that were completely blacked out, meaning that they could not see and their eyes were hidden. They were then asked about the same issues when wearing a second pair of goggles which were covered in mirrored film – meaning that they could see, but other people could not see their eyes.
Unfortunately, this test did not go quite according to plan. Out of the 37 children involved, only seven were able to grasp the concept that they could see out, but people couldn’t see them. Of these seven, six believed that they were invisible regardless of the goggles that they were wearing. In other words, the children's feelings of invisibility seem to come from the fact that their eyes are hidden, rather than from the fact that they can't see.
In both studies, when the children thought that they were invisible because of their eyes being covered, they nonetheless agreed that their head and body were visible. The researchers argue that this represents a distinction in the child’s mind between the concealment of the “self” and that of the body.
Coupled with the fact that hiding their eyes appeared to be the decisive factor when trying to make themselves feel hidden, the researchers wondered if their invisibility beliefs were based around the idea that there must be eye contact between two people – a meeting of gazes – for them to see their “selves”.
This idea appeared to receive some support from a further study in which more children were asked if they could be seen when a researcher looked directly at them while they averted their gaze; or, contrarily, if the researcher with gaze averted was visible while the child looked directly at them.
Many of the children felt that they were hidden so long as they didn’t meet the gaze of the researcher. They also felt that the researcher was hidden if his or her gaze was averted while the child looked on.
“It seems that children apply the principle of joint attention to the self and assume that for somebody to be perceived, experience must be shared and mutually known to be shared, as it is when two pairs of eyes meet,” Russell said.
Other explanations were ruled out with some puppet studies. For instance, the majority of a new group of children agreed it was reasonable for a puppet to hide by covering its eyes, which rules out the argument that children only hide this way because they are caught up in the heat of the moment.
The revelation that most young children think people can only see each other when their eyes meet raises some interesting questions for future research. For example, children with autism are known to engage in less sharing of attention with other people (following another person's gaze), so perhaps they will be less concerned with the role of mutual gaze in working out who is visible. Another interesting avenue could be to explore the invisibility beliefs of children born blind. The authors speculate that skin-to-skin touching may serve as a proxy for eye-contact in the congenitally blind.
Researchers have offered a convincing new theory which explains why children believe that they are invisible when they cover their eyes.
Aesop’s Fable unlocks how we think
By bjb42 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jul 26, 2012.
Lucy Cheke, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Experimental Psychology, expanded Aesop’s fable into three tasks of varying complexity and compared the performance of Eurasian Jays with local school children.
The task that set the children apart from the Jays involved a mechanism which was counter-intuitive as it was hidden under an opaque surface. Neither the birds nor the children were able to learn how the mechanism worked, but the children were able to learn how to get the reward, whereas the birds were not.
The results of the study illustrate that children learn about cause and effect in the physical world in a different way to birds. While the Jays appear to take account of the mechanism involved in the task, the children are more driven by simple cause-effect relationships.
Lucy Cheke said, ”This makes sense because it is children’s job to learn about new cause-and-effect relationships without being limited by ideas of what is or is not possible. The children were able to learn what to do to get the reward even if the chain-of-events was apparently impossible. Essentially, they were able to ignore the fact that it shouldn’t be happening to concentrate on the fact that it was happening. The birds however, found it much harder to learn what was happening because they were put off by the fact that it shouldn’t be happening.”
The tasks were a variation of Aesop’s fable that consisted of using a tube of water containing an out-of-reach prize. The subjects were required to use objects to displace the water so that the prize could be reached.
The first task involved two tubes, one filled with a prize amongst sawdust while the other tube contained a prize floating out of reach in water. The subject was presented with objects and was to choose which tube with which to drop the objects into: the sawdust or the water. Dropping objects into the tube containing sawdust obviously did not raise the level of the prize, whereas dropping the objects into the tube containing water created displacement and raised the prize within the reach of the subject.
The second task involved only one tube of water with a floating prize, but the subject was given a choice of what type of object to drop into the tube: an object that floats or another that sinks.
The final task presented the subject with an apparatus that consisted of one u-shaped tube with a wide arm and one narrow arm, and one single straight tube. These were imbedded in an opaque base so that the joining of the U-tube was hidden and the apparatus appeared to consist of two identical wide tubes with a narrow tube between them. Both the u-tube and the straight tube were filled with water such that the level was equal between them. The prize was inside the narrow arm of the u-tube, too narrow for the subject to insert an object to create displacement. Therefore, the subject was forced to pick one of the wider tubes on either side. If they picked the Wide arm of the u-tube, then the level of the prize would rise, but if they picked the single tube, it would not. Because the join of the u-tube was hidden, it appeared to the subjects as if dropping an item in one tube caused the level of water in a different tube to rise: which is impossible.
The birds were unable to complete this task, whereas the children performed at the same level as in the previous tasks, easily determining which tube raised the level of the water through trial and error.
Lucy added, “The Aesop's fable paradigm provides an incredibly useful means by which to compare cause and effect learning with understanding of underlying mechanisms, i.e. folk physics. We are planning on extending this paradigm to really try to understand what’s going on in the heads of adults, children and animals when they deal with problems in the physical world.”
Lucy continued, “We would like to thank the staff, children and parents at Godmanchester Community Primary School for taking part in the study”.
The study entitled: How do Children solve Aesop’s Fable? Is published today (July 25th) in PLoS ONE.
Cambridge scientists have used an age-old fable to help illustrate how we think differently to other animals.
The greatest gift
By ns480 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Apr 23, 2012.
Imagine the following scenario. Joelle and Lucia are two women using the same fertility clinic. They are strangers and are never likely to meet. But they have one important thing in common: both have been unable to conceive. Joelle has healthy ovaries; her partner has low quality sperm. In vitro fertilisation (IVF) offers them the best chance of pregnancy but it costs around £4,500. The clinic tells Joelle that she can “share” some of her eggs in exchange for a significant reduction of her treatment costs. Joelle undergoes hormone treatment and the 14 eggs that develop are shared equally between Joelle and Lucia, who is unable to produce her own eggs. Both women’s treatments are successful and each is delighted to be pregnant with the child they so longed for.
Now imagine a slightly different scenario. This time, Joelle’s eggs develop well and two are implanted but they do not develop into a pregnancy. She and her partner are disappointed. Lucia, however, does become pregnant using Joelle’s eggs and has a child. How does Joelle feel in the knowledge that she may well never have a child while another woman has carried her egg to term and has fulfilled her dream of becoming a mother? And how will Joelle feel in ensuing years while the child conceived as a result of her donation grows up and approaches his or her 18th birthday, at which point Joelle may or may not have a phone call from the child she has never known?
Controversy has surrounded the practice of egg donation ever since it began in 1984. Egg-sharing (sharing eggs by women within clinics), first introduced in 1998, has been particularly contentious. While egg-sharing schemes initially supplied just a small proportion of the total number of donated eggs in the UK, today these schemes supply 60 per cent of the total. However, the demand for donated eggs still considerably outstrips supplies. This shortage has become more acute as a result of legislation passed in 2005 that removes donor anonymity and gives donor-conceived children the right to discover the identity of their biological parents at the age of 18.
An article published today in the online journal BioNews sets out the findings of the first ever comprehensive research into the experiences, feelings and attitudes of women who have taken part in egg-sharing programmes, either as donors or recipients.
The research, carried out by Zeynep Gürtin and Susan Golombok at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Family Research, in collaboration with Kamal Ahuja at the London Women’s Clinic, reveals a high level of empathy and reciprocity between women seeking assistance to become parents – and shines a light on the ways in which women navigate the emotionally-fraught process of undergoing fertility treatments. Some of its findings confound expectations about women’s emotions, especially in cases with mixed or negative outcomes.
The two-year study examined the attitudes, feelings and opinions of 86 women (48 egg-donors and 38 egg-recipients) undergoing treatment at the London Women’s Clinic – a private clinic that treats 1,500 women per year. Gürtin used detailed questionnaires with a variety of both multiple-choice and open-ended questions to encourage women to describe their innermost feelings on aspects of egg-sharing – that ranged from their motivations in signing up to programmes to their retrospective reflections on their experiences.
Opponents of egg-sharing have been concerned that these programmes may have a negative and harmful impact on the long-term welfare of the women opting to donate their eggs – for example that this group of donors, known as patient donors, might be financially motivated, that their consent will be compromised if they are otherwise unable to access much-wanted treatments, or that they might suffer psychological damage, especially if their own treatment ends unsuccessfully.
Clinics operating egg-sharing schemes offer substantially lower IVF costs to those willing to donate their eggs to other women receiving treatments – and sometimes waive donors’ fees altogether. However, The Cambridge University research suggests that much of the criticism levelled at egg-sharing, including concern about financial inducements, is ill-founded. What emerged strongly from the study was that the desire to help others played a significant part in the women’s decision-making and that money was by no means the only factor.
It was clear that both donors and recipients had thought deeply about each other’s predicaments. For example, one recipient wrote: “Taking part in the egg-sharing programme made me feel most comfortable because the donor went through the whole procedure mainly for herself and not just for me. So any health risks she took mainly because she wanted to get pregnant herself.” A donor reported simply that: “It felt right to share – I give blood, I am on the organ donor list and registered on the bone marrow register.”
“The women’s motivations to share their eggs were multiple: their own desire to have a baby, the opportunity of accessing cheaper treatment and the chance to help someone else all played an important role in their decisions. Reassuringly, we also found very low levels of regret among egg-share donors. Contrary to expectations, donors whose own treatments were unsuccessful were not resentful of recipients who became pregnant. In fact, some were comforted by the thought that their efforts, though of no direct benefit to their own situation, may have benefited someone else wishing to have a child.” said Gürtin.
“Many of the feelings and opinions expressed in the questionnaire were moving to read. Donors and recipients clearly empathised strongly with one another, as fellow women experiencing fertility problems, and imagined themselves as part of a reciprocal relationship with this important stranger. It was also clear that that every woman has a different way of dealing with the experience of seeking assistance from clinics – for example, some shared information widely with family and friends, others were much more private. We’re very grateful to all the women who shared their experiences with us in order to provide some empirical evidence in a field that is by its very nature highly sensitive.”
The study enabled Gürtin to build a picture of the demographics and background of egg-sharers – both donors and recipients. “When people think about women going through fertility treatment they tend to picture heterosexual couples having problems with conceiving, however the landscape of assisted reproduction is changing. Although it’s true that the majority of our respondents fit into that category, we found that 34 per cent of the recipients in our sample were single women. Moreover, 27 per cent of donors were in lesbian relationships. These women had already embraced the idea of using donated sperm and so the notion of giving eggs made sense to them in a way that one of them described as ‘obvious’ and another as a ‘no brainer’: the concept of donation was something they believed in,” said Gürtin.
“When we compared donors and recipients we did not find any significant differences in ethnicity, religion, educational levels and occupations. The one striking difference was that recipients tended to be older than donors – on average 11 years older – a factor that is directly related to the fertility characteristics of the two groups. It was apparent that, for all the women, there was a highly nuanced balancing of the issues involved, whether practical and pragmatic or emotional and financial.”
Infertility affects growing numbers of women and is the second most common reason (after pregnancy) for women aged 20-45 to consult their GP. Treatments for infertility have seen huge advances in the past 30 years – and clinics offering IVF have proliferated. The shortage of donated eggs, the expense of treatments and long waiting lists, have led to a big rise in the numbers of British women seeking treatments overseas. It is thought that many would prefer to receive treatments in their own country.
After a lengthy review of their donation policies, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) last year announced a flat-rate compensation of £750 in order to encourage more women to donate eggs. It came in effect at the start of April. Gürtin said: “This move is clearly targeted at non-patient donors, and there was no discussion of whether or how egg-sharing within clinics should be increased. However, we think that with more information provision and more focus, egg-sharing schemes have the potential to meet an even greater proportion of the demand for donor eggs in the UK, in a way that is beneficial to both donors and recipients.”
The first comprehensive study of egg-sharing between women undergoing fertility treatment reveals striking empathy on the part of donors and recipients – and may dispel concerns about programmes that offer ‘benefits-in-kind’ in return for donated eggs.
Wiring the brain
By gm349 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Apr 12, 2012.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge have developed a simple mathematical model of the brain which provides a remarkably complete statistical account of the complex web of connections between various brain regions. Their findings have been published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
The brain shares a similar pattern of connections with other complex networks such as social networks and the world wide web. However, until now, it was not known what rules were involved in the formation of the human brain network.
The scientists, from the Behavioral and Clinical Neuroscience Institute in the Department of Psychiatry, and the National Institute of Mental Health in the US, discovered that the network can be modeled as a result of just two different competing factors: a distance penalty based on the cost of maintaining long-range connections between various brain regions and a second term modeling the preference for links between regions sharing similar input.
Professor Ed Bullmore, lead author on the paper, explains the dynamic between the parameters they identified: “There is a huge amount of evidence that the wiring of brain networks tends to minimize connection costs. Less costly, short-distance connections are much more numerous than more costly, long-distance connections. So our model realistically includes a distance penalty on long-distance connections, which will tend to keep connection costs low.
“However, we found that cost control alone was not enough to reproduce a wide range of network properties. To do that, we had to model an economical trade-off between cost control and another term which favoured new, direct connections between regions that shared similar input or were otherwise already indirectly linked.”
The model not only increases our understanding of healthy brains, but the researchers believe it could also provide unique insight into disorders such as schizophrenia.
Dr Petra Vertes, one of the authors of the paper, said: “Our model hints at possible mechanisms behind schizophrenia, which will be interesting to investigate further. We have been able to model the disease by tuning the parameters to allow a greater probability of connection between distant brain regions. This result echoes some prior neuroimaging results which suggest that brain networks in schizophrenia may be associated with an abnormal trade-off between connection costs and other topological properties of brain networks.”
To watch a video which shows the pattern of connections that make up a network in the brain, please visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3P15X_62xQ
Scientists have created a simple new model of the human brain which reproduces the statistics of its complex network organization.
Wiping memories to tackle alcoholism
By bjb42 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Mar 12, 2012.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge believe connections developed in the brain between the ‘drug high’ of alcohol and the situations in which it’s used create loaded memories that unconsciously trigger cravings - often leading to relapse in alcoholics.
New research using rodent models reveals that drug treatment administered when a memory is forcibly surfaced permanently deletes the unconscious ‘cues’ that spark yearning for alcohol. With experimental medical trials expected to start in the near future, the research could revolutionise approaches to the treatment of chronic alcoholism and addiction to other drugs of abuse.
Researchers at the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, based in the Department of Experimental Psychology, are tackling the problem of pavlovian ‘cue-drug memory’ - when memories of the people, places and drug paraphernalia around drug use become inextricably bound in the brain to an unconscious impulse to use drugs. It’s a problem that affects thousands of people suffering from alcohol-dependency, and the research work is starting to show remarkable results.
Focusing on the amygdala, the part of the brain that stores this type of emotional memory, the researchers believe that a memory can be reset, preventing drug cues from driving the embedded impulses to drink that cause devastation in the lives of alcoholics - by applying drug treatments at the moment of remembering.
“Traditionally, memory was viewed as similar to a book, which can be shelved but never changed once printed. We now think that memory is more like a word processing document - you can save it and then recall it, at which point you can adapt or even delete its contents,” says Dr Amy Milton, who is leading the research.
“In the process of recalling, a memory moves from an inactive, stable state to an active, unstable state, at which point we think it can be manipulated so that the cue-drug memory never returns to the stable state. This means that the cue becomes meaningless, and can no longer initiate alcohol craving.”
So far, the researchers have been working with rat models, and have been able to markedly reduce the effects of memory cues in the drug-seeking behaviour of the animals, for both cue-cocaine and cue-alcohol memories. Experimental medical studies with volunteer alcoholics are expected to begin in the next 1 to 2 years, with early indications that the drug propranolol, a beta-blocker already approved for human use, has the potential to yield excellent results.
In the rodent study, alcohol provision is paired with presentation of a light cue, so that the animals become conditioned to associate the light with the drug high. The animals will then work to activate the light by pressing levers. Those treated with propranolol at the point of memory reactivation, a brief reminder session when the animals are exposed to the cue, but not the drug of abuse - simply stop working to activate the light.
“The animals don’t respond to the drug cue at all,” says Milton. “We track them for weeks following a single treatment and the cue-drug memory never returns. They stop working for the light because they no longer have any association with it - the stimulus becomes effectively meaningless.”
Propranolol targets a type of receptor in the brain called the beta-adrenergic receptor, which is activated in emotional situations, and helps to create a strong emotional memory. By applying the drug at the point when the memory is reactivated and in a malleable state, the processing that leads to the emotional memory is blocked - the memory is effectively reset to an unemotional state.
Crucially, the conscious memory itself does not disappear, only the emotional association formerly attached to it. “Our research, along with trials in the US on fear memories in post-traumatic stress disorder, suggest that addicts will still remember experiences - the places, people and the problems that were associated with the memories - which is vital from a therapeutic perspective,” says Milton.
“What this treatment will do is to remove the unconscious trigger to relapse that stems from the learnt emotional cue-drug memory - freeing the patient from the years of conditioning which has built up in their memory as a consequence of alcohol addiction.”
“Alcoholism, like other addictions, is not a case of self-control, but a disease of the brain for which there is currently no neurological cure. We hope our research and its potential application can contribute in some way to a better understanding of how alcoholism can be treated to greater effect.”
Dr Milton will be giving a public talk at the Cambridge Science Festival on 17 March exploring this research, for more information visit: www.cam.ac.uk/sciencefestival
Research into the way memory works could lead to a breakthrough in the treatment of alcoholism. Memories associated with triggering relapse in alcoholics could be treated at the point of recall, deleting the unconscious stimulus that spark craving for drink.
Test your memory!
By gm349 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Jan 10, 2012.
Today, Tuesday 10 January, researchers at the University of Cambridge launch what could be the world’s biggest ever memory experiment.
Yasemin Yazar, Dr Zara Bergström and Dr Jon Simons from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Experimental Psychology, along with Dr Charles Fernyhough from Durham University, have teamed up with the Guardian to run an online experiment for members of the public to test their memory abilities and find out how they stack up against their friends.
“We’re hoping that thousands of people from all walks of life, and from all over the world, will go to the website and take part,” said Dr Simons, who is leading the research. Anybody can participate by clicking http://www.guardian.co.uk/memorystudy to go to the Guardian experiment website and test their memory abilities for free from the comfort of their own homes.
The experiment, which will take just a few minutes to complete, investigates features of long-term memory (our ability to remember events we have experienced). Participants will study words presented on the screen and different aspects of their memory for the words will be assessed. All data will be collected anonymously and participants will be able to find out how their memory scores compare to those obtained by previous participants. They will also be able, should they wish, to share their score with friends via Facebook or Twitter.
“With this experiment, we aim to understand how it is that we're typically able to remember experiences that may be quite similar to one another without getting them confused. Related events often share features but, usually, we're pretty good at distinguishing those events from each other. Our experiment is designed to study the impact of overlapping memory features on remembering, so errors on the task are entirely normal and nothing to be worried about! ” said Dr Simons.
“There’s so much we still have to learn about how we remember the things we see,” said Dr Simons. “Hopefully, taking part in the experiment will be interesting and fun for participants, but in addition, the anonymous results we obtain will contribute a large amount of useful data to our research and will, we hope, provide a real advance in our knowledge about memory.”
The experiment is part of the Guardian’s Memory Week, which culminates in a free guide, “Make the most of your memory”, available with the Guardian newspaper on Saturday 14 January, which includes articles and memory tips from Dr Simons, Dr Fernyhough and a number of other memory experts.
“Remembering is one of the most fascinating and complex functions that our minds perform,” said Dr Fernyhough. “With this study we hope to shed further light on how the brain fits together the different bits of information that go to make up a memory.”
Please note that although this test will help further our understanding in this area of research, it is not intended to be used as a diagnostic tool for memory problems.
Online test allows public to assess their recall; scientists will use data to study long-term memory.
Telling the truth
By amb206 from University of Cambridge - Department of Psychology. Published on Dec 21, 2011.
A new study shows that children as young as three or four years old can talk informatively and accurately about experiences – including incidents of abuse – if they are interviewed by specialists who understand children’s strengths and weaknesses. Its findings, published today in the journal Child Development, may prompt a review of current practice by police and social workers.
The research – carried out by psychologists at the University of Cambridge, University of Haifa, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in the USA, and the Israeli Child Investigation Unit - challenges accepted thinking. It has long been believed that young children are incapable of providing useful information about their experiences for a variety of reasons, including their limited memory and communication abilities, and their egocentric inability to recognise that listeners do not have the same knowledge of past events that they have.
“In the light of this recent research, we need to rethink the way in which we approach young witnesses,” said Michael Lamb, Professor of Psychology at Cambridge University. “All too often we under-estimate children’s abilities to remember and describe their experiences - and the consequences of this are very grave. Young children are often the only possible sources of information about abuse, and if we do not interview them, we will not be able to protect them or other possible victims.”
According to the NSPCC, as many as one in seven children in the UK are abused, emotionally, physically and sexually, although only a tiny proportion of those responsible for this abuse are ever tried in a court of law. The reasons for this are many, including beliefs in the superiority of non-punitive interventions, children’s unwillingness to testify, and failures to obtain information of sufficient quality from the young victims.
“When very young children are involved in distressing incidents of abuse, often made more complex by both delayed reporting and confusions among multiple instances of maltreatment, the interviewing process becomes even more emotionally charged. There is an understandable impulse among professionals to ‘help’ the child along with leading questions and to avoid ‘making things worse’ by going back over them in detail,” said Lamb.
Investigators and other professionals often claim that young children under the age of five or six years do not have the cognitive skills needed to answer questions competently and so should not be questioned formally about sexual or physical abuse. This results in incomplete understanding of the abuse, and typically ensures that criminal processes will not be initiated. Many perpetrators of abuse are thus never confronted, treated, or arrested and go on to abuse again. Their victims suffer untold damage.
The quality of interviewing plays a vital role in all investigations. In a recent example that came before the UK Court of Appeal, Judge Sir Nicholas Wall harshly criticised the quality of the official interview conducted by police officers investigating alleged incidents of abuse involving a child aged four and a half. He stated that the interview ignored much of the guidance available to officers and showed “(1) an inadequate establishment of rapport; (2) absolutely no free narrative recall by the child; (3) an abundance of leading questions, and (4) no closure”.
In their study of nearly 300 three- to six-year-old alleged victims of abuse, Michael Lamb and Carmit Katz of Cambridge University, Irit Hershkowitz of the University of Haifa, Yael Orbach of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in the US and Dvora Horowitz from the Israeli Child Investigation Unit analysed transcripts of interviews to see how preschoolers understand and respond to questions about their experiences.
Their findings suggest that children as young as three years old can give an accurate account of events, if interviewed in a sensitive manner by interviewers who understand the types of questions that are most likely to elicit reliable information from young children.
“Our study involved preschool children in Israel who were all suspected victims of abuse. It showed that young children were able to take part in extended interviews, answering up to 84 questions in a single interview session, if they were adequately prepared for questioning and the questions themselves were appropriately framed,” said Lamb.
The Israeli children interviewed had reported being sexually or physically abused. They were interviewed using a structured interview guide designed by Lamb and colleagues when he worked at the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) before 2004. This Protocol incorporates the findings of research on children’s abilities, and has been adopted by a number of agencies around the world because it has been shown to produce better quality interviews than any other technique to have been studied.
Interviewers in Israel have been required to follow the Protocol since 1996. Some aspects of the Protocol have been incorporated into UK guidelines for those interviewing young children but interviewers here do not routinely follow it.
Children’s testimonies are often vital to effective investigation because victims may be the only available sources of information. The study of the Israeli children showed that the children correctly addressed the topic raised by the interviewer in response to 63 per cent of the questions while they provided new information in response to 43 per cent.
“One of the factors that we looked at is free recall – when children are asked to search their own memories, rather than simply acquiesce to what interviewers thought might have happened,” said Lamb. “Interestingly, children provided remarkable amounts of free recall information in response to open prompts which did not direct them – questions such as ‘what happened?’ However, the youngest children did best when asked questions that narrowed their memory searches – such as ‘where did he touch you?’. The ability to provide on-topic responses and provide new details appeared to increase gradually with age.”
The study showed clearly that young children should not be dismissed as “egocentric” or incompetent witnesses, unable to understanding the need to provide full details to listeners who do not know what happened. Rather, they seem to have many of the cognitive, verbal, and communicative skills needed to engage in complex conversations with adults.
“Children can understand many forms of questions addressed to them, interpret the intention of interviewers correctly, remember their experiences, and share many details. Impressively, their skills are evident in a personal and unfamiliar context – such as forensic investigation - that is very demanding, cognitively and emotionally. It is up to interviewers to create the conditions in which children can perform most effectively,” said Lamb.
New research from Cambridge University and others shows that, with sensitive interviewing, young children can be reliable witnesses in cases of abuse.
Sibling rivalry and brotherly love
By bjb42 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Apr 08, 2011.
The finding is one of a host of conclusions which have emerged from a five-year research project by academics at the University of Cambridge, examining children’s cognitive and social development between the ages of two and six.
Entitled “Toddlers Up”, the project was conceived after other studies showed that even by the age of four, some children already display the conduct and behavioural problems that hinder progress at school and beyond. This suggests that the causes and symptoms of such problems may emerge even earlier, while they are still toddlers.
The need to intervene in the lives of vulnerable children at an earlier stage to address this was highlighted in a recent Government report, led by Graham Allen MP, who will publish a second set of recommendations on the subject later this year.
The findings from the Toddlers Up study appear in a new book, Social Understanding and Social Lives, by Dr Claire Hughes, from the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Family Research. The book will be launched at an event in Cambridge on Friday, 8 April.
It aims to map out the causes and influences behind children’s “social understanding” – their awareness of others thoughts and feelings – and to explain why that of some children lags behind that of their peers.
In all, 140 children were studied, starting when they were just two years old. The group focused on low-income and teen parent families, into which some of the children deemed most at risk are often born. 43% of the children surveyed had mothers who were still teenagers when their first child was born, and 25% of the families involved were living below the poverty line of £12K household income per year.
A wide range of tests were carried out over the course of the five year study. They included video observations of the children interacting with their parents, siblings, friends and strangers; interviews and questionnaires carried out with parents, teachers and the children themselves; and various assessments designed to test the children’s aptitude with language, their planning skills, working memory and inhibitory control.
One of the most striking conclusions concerns siblings, who researchers found can often have a positive effect on a child’s early development, even in cases where the relationship is less than cordial.
Although the project team warn that sustained sibling rivalry can result in behavioural problems and issues with relationship-building later in life, milder forms were shown, in the new study, to have a beneficial impact on development in childhood.
“The traditional view is that having a brother or sister leads to a lot of competition for parents’ attention and love,” Dr Hughes said. “In fact, the balance of our evidence suggests that children’s social understanding may be accelerated by their interaction with siblings in many cases.”
“One of the key reasons for this seems to be that a sibling is a natural ally. They are often on the same wavelength, and they are likely to engage in the sort of pretend play that helps children to develop an awareness of mental states.”
Transcripts taken from video recordings in which pairs of siblings were involved in pretend play show that this is an arena in which children discuss thoughts and feelings in depth. Often they provide what the researchers refer to as the “emotional scaffolding” around which children construct a story that helps them develop their ideas about, and awareness, of different mental states.
Interestingly, even where sibling rivalry was evident, for example with one child teasing or arguing with the other, the exchanges still meant the younger child was often exposed to emotionally rich language from the older one. As a result, although younger siblings showed low rates of mental state talk than their elder siblings at age three, by the age of six their social understanding had increased rapidly, and they were conversing about emotions on an almost equal footing.
A similar lesson for parents also emerges from the study, which argues that the quality, as well as the quantity of conversations adults have with their children concerning thoughts and feelings, helps children’s social understanding to grow.
The researchers found that mothers who were adept at developing a connected and constructive dialogue around their child’s thoughts or feelings again built a more effective “emotional scaffold”, which gave these children a consistently higher level of social understanding by the time they reached the age of four.
“The children who performed best on tasks designed to test their social understanding at the age of six came from families where the mother carried out conversations in which they elaborated on ideas, highlighted differences in points of view, or tuned into children’s interests,” Dr Hughes said.
“A lot of attention has been given to the beneficial impact of children being exposed to lots of family conversation. This shows we need to focus on the nature and quality of that conversation as well.”
Social Understanding and Social Lives, by Claire Hughes, is published by Psychology Press.
Siblings, and even sibling rivalry, can have a positive effect on children’s early development and their ability to form social relationships later in life, according to a new study.
Assisted reproduction and family functioning
By bjb42 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Jan 04, 2011.
An estimated one in seven couples experience infertility, and an ever increasing proportion of these couples turn to assisted reproductive technologies as a solution to their childlessness. Many new and often complex family relationships have emerged as a result. It is now possible for a child to have five parents – an egg donor, a sperm donor, a surrogate mother who hosts the pregnancy and the two social parents whom the child knows as mum and dad.
Despite the obvious advantages to parents who have waited for so long to conceive a child, several questions have been raised about potential psychological difficulties for children born as a result of these new reproductive techniques. A major concern relates to the child’s lack of a genetic and/or gestational link with one or both parents, and the impact on parent–child relationships: will parents feel or behave less positively towards a non-genetic or non-gestational child?
Another concern is that the majority of children conceived by egg or sperm donation remain unaware that the person they know as their father or mother is not, in fact, their genetic or gestational parent. Is secrecy about their origins detrimental to children, placing them at risk for psychological problems in the future?
New family forms
A team from the Centre for Family Research led by Professor Susan Golombok, comprising Polly Casey, Lucy Blake, Jennifer Readings and Dr Vasanti Jadva, has been conducting a longitudinal study of parent–child relationships and the psychological well-being of parents and children in families created by assisted reproductive technologies. Donor insemination families (where the child lacks a genetic link with the father), egg donation families (where the child lacks a genetic link with the mother) and surrogacy families (where the child lacks a gestational link with the mother and sometimes a genetic link as well) are being compared with families with a naturally conceived child.
The study, funded by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), began when the children were one year old, with the most recent phase conducted at age seven. Assessments of family relationships and child development were made alongside children’s growing understanding of the meaning of reproductive origin: genetic or gestational.
The results so far show that the assisted reproduction families appear to be functioning well: the parents have positive relationships with their children and the children themselves are well adjusted. Assisted reproduction mothers displayed a slight tendency to be more emotionally over-involved with their children than mothers of naturally conceived children. This refers to the extent to which mothers are over-concerned or inhibiting towards their children. Furthermore, mothers of egg donation and surrogacy children were found to be more sensitive to the needs and anxieties of their children, all of which may reflect a more involved parenting style.
Secrecy versus disclosure?
Family therapists and researchers in the area of adoption have argued that secrecy may damage communication between family members, creating a divide between those who know the secret (the parents) and those who do not (the child). As a result, legislation in the UK has recently changed to allow donor-conceived children to obtain identifying information about their donor on reaching age 18. However, little is known about children who are aware of their donor conception, largely because so few have been told about their genetic origins.
At the beginning of this study, approximately half of the gamete donation parents and all of the surrogacy parents intended to be open with their child about the nature of the conception. But, by the time the children were aged seven years, the majority of egg donation and donor insemination parents had not yet told their child about their donor conception.
The project enters its next phase as the children reach nine years of age, and the team hopes to continue to follow up the families for as long as possible. Longitudinal studies such as this are essential, and yet to date there are few in this research area. Over time, more parents may tell their child about the nature of their birth, allowing the impact of secrecy or disclosure to be investigated in more detail. Also, as the children get older, they will develop an increasingly more sophisticated understanding of the circumstances of their birth, and it will become ever more important to monitor parent–child relationships and the well-being of all involved.
For more information, please contact the author, Polly Casey (firstname.lastname@example.org), at the Centre for Family Research in the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences. These findings were reported at the Annual Conference of the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology in Barcelona in 2008, winning the Fertility Society of Australia Exchange prize for best presentation.
A longitudinal study is accessing the psychological well-being of children created by assisted reproductive technologies.
A boost for family research
By ns480 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Mar 25, 2009.
A report on work carried out by the Centre for Family Research (CFR) was awarded the Fertility Society of Australia (FSA) Exchange prize at the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology conference in Barcelona.
The research is being carried out by Polly Casey, Lucy Blake, Jennifer Readings and Dr Vasanti Jadva, and is led by Professor Susan Golombok. With funding from the US National Institutes for Health (NIH), the longitudinal study is looking at parent–child relationships and the psychological well-being of children in families created by surrogacy, egg donation and donor insemination. The study is also examining whether and when parents decide to tell their children about their origins.
The CFR is based in the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences. ‘To be awarded a prize for the best presentation at an international conference is a remarkable achievement for the Centre for Family Research given that the competitors were largely from the biological and biomedical sciences,’ said Professor Golombok, Director of the CFR. ‘The award enabled the researchers to travel to Brisbane to present a paper at the recent FSA conference.’
For more information, please contact Polly Casey (email@example.com).
A team studying the psychological well-being of children created by assisted reproduction has been awarded a prize for their work.
Making connections: what lies beyond the ‘terrible twos’?
By tdk25 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Sep 01, 2008.
According to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, the number of children with a diagnosed disruptive behaviour disorder is on the increase. Temper tantrums, aggression and defiance can be "horribly normal" behaviours for the "terrible twos", but problems that persist to school age are more worrying. Children with early-onset problems are especially likely to show a persistent prognosis through life, and so understanding the early origins of disruptive behaviour is important for developing intervention programmes.
A long-term series of studies at the Centre for Family Research aims to shed light on the nature and origins of early and persistent problem behaviours. The ‘Toddlers Up!’ study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), is tracking the social development of 140 children from two- to-six years of age. Dr Claire Hughes and her colleagues Dr Rosie Ensor and Dr Anji Wilson are interested in how children’s cognitive skills and social relationships interact in predicting individual differences in children’s behaviour.
One key finding to emerge from the study is that it is the two-year-olds with poor social understanding (or ‘Theory of Mind’) who are at risk of displaying problem behaviours at four years and beyond, even when initial problem behaviours and known risk factors, such as exposure to harsh parenting, are taken into account. On the other hand, a well-developed social understanding may help children to be resilient in the face of harsh parenting (commonly associated with raised levels of problem behaviour).
The study also reveals the importance of mother–child conversations. Psychologists have recognised that talking about thoughts and feelings helps children’s social understanding. The Toddlers Up! study has shown that this effect is strongest for ‘connected’ conversations that build on what a child is saying or doing. This finding highlights the potential benefits of parents’ efforts to build and sustain conversations with their children – by listening as well as by talking.
Mothers’ success in promoting good behaviour also depends on their emotional availability and well-being. Recent findings from the Toddlers Up! study show that effects of maternal education/well-being on children’s behaviour are carried by knock-on effects on children’s abilities to monitor and control their own actions (i.e. their executive functions). That is, rather than ‘naughtiness’, some problem behaviours may reflect deficits in children’s abilities to anticipate or respond flexibly to challenging situations.
The good, the bad and the socially busy
A new study aim is to consider children’s overall social profiles rather than problem behaviours in isolation. "Socially busy" children who are boisterous but also show redeeming behaviours (such as concern for others) can be quite successful with peers. Thanks to a recently awarded British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship,
Dr Ensor will be able to study these ideas further, for example by exploring whether children’s popularity (or rejection) at school reflects their social profiles. It’s hoped that this approach might prove useful for evaluating intervention programmes for children at risk of school exclusion.
The transition to school
Starting school is, for many children, their first major life-event. One of the positive messages to come out of this study is that parents can prepare their children for the demands of school life both by helping them to develop self-regulatory skills and by having connected conversations. And, by understanding the early origins of disruptive behaviour, studies such as these should reveal the strategies that might work best to help young children and their families move beyond the ‘terrible twos’.
New research shows that it's not just having conversations with children that matter, it's the quality of the content.
Tell donor-assisted children at early age, study says
By bjb42 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Jul 10, 2008.
Two reports on work carried out by the Cambridge University Centre for Family Research were presented at the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology conference in Barcelona this week. The papers, both dealt with psychological aspects of growing up in families conceived through assisted reproductive
Work presented by Polly Casey, a research assistant at the Centre, was from a study of the psychological well-being of both parents and children, and the quality of their relationships, in collaboration with Jenny Readings, Lucy Blake, Dr Vasanti Jadva and Professor Susan Golombok.
The study, which is ongoing, deals with the psychological growth of children who were conceived through assisted reproductive technologies, examining parent-child relationships in surrogacy, egg donation and donor-insemination families. Despite the difference in family type, the researchers found no difference in their relationships at age seven.
Data collected showed in addition that although overall family relationships did not differ in their quality, mothers who opted for egg donation or surrogacy were slightly more anxious about their child's needs as compared to those who conceived through donor insemination. However mothers of children conceived through egg donation and surrogacy were also found to be more sensitive to their children, which may reflect a more involved parenting style. Researchers also found slightly higher levels of emotional difficulties among children from assisted reproduction families, as reported by teachers.
Further studies based on data collected from the US Donor-sibling Registry revealed that the earlier in a child's life donor-assistance is revealed, the more easy they find it to accept the truth. This research was presented by Dr. Vasanti Jadva in collaboration with Dr Tabitha Freeman, Wendy Kramer and Professor Susan Golombok. The findings showed that people who were told about being conceived through donor assistance when they were over 18 expressed greater confusion, shock and anger, compared with those who were told between the ages of four to 11.
"It appears it is better for children to be told about their donor conception from an early age," Dr Jadva said. "This finding is in line with research on adoption, which also shows that children benefit from early disclosure about the origins of their birth."
Parents with children conceived through assisted reproduction are likely to have good family relationships, but if they are going to tell their child about their donor conception, they should do so at an early age, Cambridge researchers have revealed.
Examining the psychosocial effects of molecular genetic diagnosis
By ns480 from University of Cambridge - Centre for Family Research. Published on Sep 01, 2007.
Considering the social aspects of genetic testing and its meaning for families has been one of the enduring interests of the CFR for nearly 20 years. For Helen Statham and her colleagues, Professor Martin Richards and Maggie Ponder, a Wellcome Trust funded project has provided a unique opportunity to study the psychosocial effects for families of being part of a genetic research study.
The study has run in parallel with the Genetics of Learning Disability (GOLD) study – a joint project between the Department of Medical Genetics and The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, and headed-up by Dr Lucy Raymond. The aim of the GOLD study has been to search for new mutations on the X chromosome that result in significant learning disabilities in boys. ‘We worked alongside the GOLD study, talking to families about why they had taken part in the research, what their expectations were and, at the end of the project, how they felt either having got a genetic diagnosis or not.’
Of about 400 families taking part in the GOLD study, the CFR team interviewed 120 members of 37 family groups. Five of the 37 families have received a confirmed genetic diagnosis. ‘For these families,’ says Helen Statham, ‘their greatest concern was for their daughters, who would now be able to have carrier testing and make reproductive choices, even though these might be difficult. The other families were very disappointed not to have a confirmed diagnosis, particularly those families whose children were not as severely affected and therefore not as fully supported by statutory services, and yet whose day-to-day existence was still a challenge.‘
Studies such as these complement projects that yield advances in our genetic understanding of disability and disease. ‘As a funder, the Wellcome Trust is innovative,’ says Helen Statham, ‘because they provide opportunities to social scientists to undertake empirical research in areas that are ethically challenging.’
For more information on the Centre for Family Research, please go to http://www.ppsis.cam.ac.uk/CFR/
What does it mean to be a member of a family that is affected by a genetic disease? What is it like for a woman at risk of being a carrier of a faulty gene? These are some of the questions that concern Helen Statham, Deputy Director of the Centre for Family Research (CFR) within the Faculty of Social and Political Sciences.