Infants Sensitive to Fearful Faces Tend to Become Altruistic Toddlers

Infants who are more responsive to the emotion of fear in another person’s face tend to become more altruistic toddlers, according to a new study published in the open-access journal PLOS Biology.

Altruistic behavior, such as helping a stranger in need, is considered a key feature of cooperation in human societies. Yet our tendency to engage in compassionate, selfless behaviors varies considerably in our society, ranging from extraordinarily altruistic kidney donors to highly antisocial psychopaths.

Previous research has suggested that greater sensitivity to fearful faces is linked to heightened levels of prosocial behavior. Specifically, a person’s response to seeing others in distress (displaying fear) appears to be a key process related to altruistic tendencies, with kidney donors showing heightened sensitivity and psychopaths showing decreased sensitivity to fearful faces.

At the level of the brain, the amygdala shows diminished responses to fearful faces in psychopaths and enhanced responses in highly altruistic kidney donors.

In the new study, the researchers test the hypothesis that this link exists in the earliest stages of human development. Study leader Dr. Tobias Grossmann and colleagues tracked the eye movements of seven-month-old infants to examine whether their attention and response to seeing emotion in other people’s faces could predict altruistic behavior at 14 months of age.

The findings show that the infants’ attention to fearful faces — but not happy or angry faces — could effectively predict altruistic behavior in toddlerhood. Specifically, infants who showed heightened initial attention to (such as a prolonged first look) followed by greater disengagement from fearful faces at 7 months displayed greater prosocial behavior at 14 months of age.

Moreover, infants’ attentional bias to fearful faces and their altruistic behavior was predicted by brain responses in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex measured through functional near-infrared spectroscopy.

This suggests that, from the very earliest stages of human development, variability in altruistic helping behavior is linked to our responsiveness to seeing others in distress, as well as brain processes implicated in attentional control.

“These findings critically advance our understanding of the emergence of altruism in humans by identifying responsiveness to fear in others as an early precursor contributing to variability in prosocial behavior,” said Grossmann, of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) and the University of Virginia, and first author of the paper.

Based on these findings, it can be argued that it is in our nature to be altruists, say the researchers.

Source: PLOS


Kids Separated From Parents and Put in Institutions May Face Many Psychological Issues

As the U.S. deals with the fallout from the government’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents, the latest findings from a long-running study of children in Romanian orphanages tells a cautionary tale about the psychiatric and social risks of long-term deprivation and separation from parents.

Many of the children separated from their parents after crossing the U.S. border are in shelters where they often experience stress, neglect, and minimal social and cognitive stimulation.

The Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP) has shown that children reared in very stark institutional settings, with severe social deprivation and neglect, are at risk for cognitive problems, depression, anxiety, disruptive behavior and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

But BEIP has also shown that placing children with quality foster families can mitigate some of these effects — if it’s done early, according to researchers.

The latest BEIP study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, asked what happens to the mental health of institutionalized children as they transition to adolescence.

Outcomes at ages 8, 12, and 16 suggest diverging trajectories between children who remained in institutions versus those randomly chosen for placement with carefully vetted foster families, the study discovered.

Researchers led by Mark Wade, Ph.D., and Charles Nelson, Ph.D., of the Division of Developmental Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital, studied 220 children, including 119 who had spent at least some time in institutions. Of the 119, half had been placed in foster care.

Over the years, teachers and caregivers completed the MacArthur Health and Behavior Questionnaire, which includes subscales on depression, overly anxious, social anxiety/withdrawal, oppositional defiant behavior, conduct problems, overt aggression, relational aggression, and ADHD.

The surveys revealed that children who were placed early in quality foster care, compared with those who remained in institutions, had less psychopathology, and in particular fewer externalizing behaviors, such as rule-breaking, excessive arguing with authority figures, stealing, or assaulting peers, according to the researchers.

Differences began to emerge at 12 years and became significant at 16 years, researchers reported.

While conditions at Romanian orphanages aren’t the same as those in U.S. immigration detention centers, the researchers say the findings underscore the importance of keeping families together.

“Our results add to a growing literature on what might happen to a child’s long-term psychological development when they experience separation from a primary caregiver early in development,” said Wade.

“Although this picture is very complex, we now know that many children who experience early neglect are at risk for an array of mental health problems later on,” he said.

“The good news is that if they are placed in high-quality homes with good caregiving, this risk is reduced. Yet they still tend to have more difficulties than their peers who never experienced this form of deprivation. So what we really need is policies and social programs (that) prevent separation from primary caregivers in the first place.”

Source: Boston Children’s Hospital

Perceived Acne Stigma Can Affect Quality of Life, Especially in Women

Many individuals with acne suffer from perceived social stigma surrounding the skin condition, according to a new Irish study from the University of Limerick (UL). This can lead to a lower quality of life for those living with the condition, particularly women.

Researchers surveyed 271 people with acne and found that the participants’ own negative perceptions of how society views their appearance contributes to greater levels of mental distress and other physical symptoms such as sleep disturbances, headaches and gastrointestinal problems.

According to the findings, acne severity was strongly correlated with health-related quality of life and psychological distress. Females reported poorer quality of life and experienced more negative symptoms than males.

The aim of the study was to investigate whether the participants’ perceptions of stigmatization could significantly predict psychological and physical health outcomes; specifically, health-related quality of life, psychological distress and somatic symptoms.

“We know from previous research that many acne sufferers experience negative feelings about their condition, but we have never before been able to draw such a direct link between quality of life and perception of social stigma around acne,” said Dr. Aisling O’Donnell of the Department of Psychology and Centre for Social Issues Research at UL.

Survey respondents who perceived high levels of acne stigma also reported higher levels of psychological distress, anxiety and depression as well as somatic conditions such as respiratory illness.

“The findings of this study echo previous research showing that individuals with visible physical distinctions, which are viewed negatively by society, can experience impaired psychological and physical well-being as a result,” O’Donnell said.

According to the researchers, a lack of representation of people with acne in popular culture can increase the perceived stigma surrounding the condition.

“Like many physical attributes that are stigmatized, acne is not well-represented in popular culture, advertising or social media,” said lead author and Ph.D. student Jamie Davern.

“This can lead people with acne to feel that they are ‘not normal’ and therefore negatively viewed by others. Online campaigns like #freethepimple and the recent ‘acne-positive’ movement emerging on social media is an encouraging development for people of all ages that are affected by acne.”

Although acne is more common in adolescents, the condition affects 10.8 percent of children between the ages of 5-13 years and 12.7 percent of adults aged over 59.

“Importantly, the findings provide further support for the comparatively limited amount of studies investigating physical health problems experienced by acne sufferers,” said Davern.

“This is important information for clinicians dealing with acne conditions. It’s also useful for those who are close to acne sufferers. The wider negative impacts some acne sufferers experience are very challenging and require sensitivity and support.”

Source: University of Limerick


Absence of Daylight Linked to Postnatal Depression

New research suggests women in late pregnancy during darker months of the year may have a greater risk of developing postpartum depression once their babies are born.

The finding is similar to what is known about the relationship between exposure to natural light and depression among adults in the general population.

The study, led by Deepika Goyal of San Jose State University, concludes that clinicians should encourage at-risk women to increase their exposure to natural daylight and vitamin D.

The research appears in a special issue titled “Postpartum Health” in Springer’s Journal of Behavioral Medicine.

Researchers explain that although reduced exposure to natural light has been associated with depression among adults in the general population, there is not yet a consensus about whether light exposure or seasonality influences the development of depression during and after pregnancy.

To help close this knowledge gap, Goyal and her colleagues at the University of California San Francisco analyzed available information from 293 women who participated in one of two randomized controlled clinical trials about sleep before and after pregnancy.

The participants were all first-time mothers from California. Data included the amount of daylight during the final trimester of their pregnancy, along with information about known risk factors such as a history of depression, the woman’s age, her socioeconomic status and how much she slept.

Overall, the participants had a 30 per cent risk of depression.

The analysis suggested that the number of daylight hours a woman was exposed to during her final month of pregnancy and just after birth had a major influence on the likelihood that she developed depressive symptoms.

Investigators discovered the lowest risk for depression (26 per cent) occurred among women whose final trimester coincided with seasons with longer daylight hours.

Depression scores were highest (35 per cent) among women whose final trimester coincided with “short” days and the symptoms continued to be more severe following the birth of their babies in this group of women. In the northern hemisphere, this timeframe refers to the months of August to the first four days of November (late summer to early autumn).

“Among first-time mothers, the length of day in the third trimester, specifically day lengths that are shortening compared to day lengths that are short, long or lengthening, were associated with concurrent depressive symptom severity,” Goyal explains.

The findings suggest that using light treatment in the late third trimester when seasonal day length is shortening could minimize postpartum depressive symptoms in high-risk mothers during the first three months of their children’s lives.

Goyal says that women with a history of mental health problems and those who are already experiencing depressive symptoms in the third trimester might further benefit from being outdoors when possible, or using devices such as light boxes that provide light therapy.

“Women should be encouraged to get frequent exposure to daylight throughout their pregnancies to enhance their vitamin D levels and to suppress the hormone melatonin,” said Goyal.

Goyal also advises clinicians to tell their patients to get more exercise outdoors when weather and safety permit.

“Daily walks during daylight hours may be more effective in improving mood than walking inside a shopping mall or using a treadmill in a gym. Likewise, early morning or late evening walks may be relaxing but would be less effective in increasing vitamin D exposure or suppressing melatonin.”

Source: Springer

Childhood Poverty May Impact Cognition in Old Age

Older adults who faced social and economic hardships in childhood are more likely to score lower on tests of cognition, according to a new international study published online in the journal Neurology.

“Just like the body, the brain ages, but for some it may age faster than others,” said study author Pavla Cermáková, M.D., Ph.D., of the Czech National Institute of Mental Health in Klecany, Czech Republic.

“A growing body of evidence suggests aging of the brain may occur over a lifetime with its roots in childhood. Our study looked at a very large number of people from different backgrounds and geographic locations and found that social and economic disadvantages in childhood may indeed have a negative impact on cognitive skills.”

For the study, researchers looked at the data of 20,244 people (average age 71 at start of study) from 16 European countries who were part of a larger study called the Survey on Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe. Participants were interviewed and tested once and then again at least one more time an average of five years later.

Participants completed tests of cognition that measured verbal and memory skills, including learning new words and recalling them after a delay.

To determine socioeconomic hardship in childhood, participants were asked questions about their home life situation at age 10, using a method known as a “life history calendar,” a technique used to improve the accuracy of recalled information.

Participants were asked about the number of rooms in the home, the number of people living there as well as the number of books. Researchers calculated a ratio for the number of people in the home to the number of rooms and considered those individuals with the highest ratio and the lowest number of books as those having experienced socioeconomic hardship.

A total of 844 people, or 4 percent of the entire group, experienced socioeconomic hardship in childhood. The findings show that these participants scored lower in the cognitive tests. They were also less educated, less employed and less frequently living with a partner in the home. They also scored higher in symptoms of depression, were less physically active and in general less healthy.

At the beginning of the study, cognitive test scores for all participants ranged anywhere from -2.39 to 3.45. Negative scores represent a lower level of cognitive performance.

After adjusting for age, sex and geographic location, researchers found those who experienced socioeconomic hardship in childhood performed lower on the cognitive tests than the rest of the group by an average of .27 points.

Even after taking into account differences in social and clinical factors such as education, employment, depression, body mass index, physical activity and cardiovascular diseases, they still scored an average .15 points lower.

While researchers found a difference between the two groups in cognitive skills, they found no link between socioeconomic hardship in childhood and a decline in these skills over time.

“While our research is observational, and cause and effect cannot be determined, it is by far the largest group of people ever studied on this topic,” said Cermáková.

“Our study shows that the environment where we grew up is mirrored in the level of our cognitive skills when we are old; and this is only partly explained by education, depression or different life style factors.”

“However, the childhood socioeconomic environment no longer affects how we fight against the declining skills while we age. We believe that the focus of strategies aiming to protect cognitive health should be shifted into childhood, taking into account that children facing social and economic challenges should be provided with more resources to counter the disadvantages they face.”

A limitation of the study is that participants had to recall information from childhood and memories may not always be accurate. Also, those who face hardship in childhood also face a higher risk of death, so healthier people may have been overrepresented in this study.

Source: American Academy of Neurology